BroadSnark

Thoughts on politics, religion, violence, inequality, social control, change, and random other things from an autonomous, analytical, adopted, abolitionist, anarchist who likes the letter A
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Archive for the ‘Core’

Some Thoughts on Voting for the Newly Disillusioned

August 03, 2016 By: Mel Category: Core, Seeking

I’m seeing quite a few people in my Facebook and Twitter feeds who have just now realized that the political system is not the path to what they are looking for. They are feeling angry, cynical, and lost.

I get it. I’ve been there.

I was crushed when Bill Clinton gave us welfare “reform,” NAFTA, and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. I was one of those people everyone blames for the 2000 election because they voted for Nader. And, even though I had long before become cynical, I really hoped that Obama at least kinda meant all that stuff he said about civil liberties. Other people maybe picked Howard Dean or Ron Paul, but many of us have had at least one moment of political hope followed by inevitable disappointment.

Of course we have. We have been trained our entire lives to focus our attention on the shiny circus of Big P Politics, especially presidential elections. We are taught it was LBJ and FDR that made things better. It is as if all the people who went door to door, marched, organized strikes, wrote, exposed corruption, and took direct action did not even exist.

The good news is that now you are free. There are millions of things you can do and millions of people who also think things suck. Now that you have safely eliminated presidential politics from your arsenal of tactics that work, you can put your energies towards better things.

I’ve spent a lot of the last decade reading about social movements – from the kids involved in the civil rights movement to the anarchists in Barcelona. And I’ve spent a bit of time, though not nearly enough, participating in them. I don’t have a magic formula for you, but I do have a basic path that has started to form in my head. It goes something like this.

  1. Imagine how you want your life to be and what is standing in your way. Figure out what you want your world to look like. It doesn’t have to be precise or perfect, but you do need something to reach for.
  1. Find other people who want the same things that you do. Build communities of trust and support. (That trust and support part is crucial.)
  1. Plan direct actions. Ideally they should provide for immediate needs and disrupt the systems of oppression.
  1. Identify the obstacles that you will face and prepare for them, figure out how you will defend yourselves.
  1. Act
  1. Review the action. Figure out what went well and what didn’t. Reassess. Adjust. Make sure all your people are taken care of.
  1. Rinse and repeat.

That doesn’t mean that voting can never, ever be a part of what you are doing.

“If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” – Emma Goldman

All due respect to Emma (and I love her), her statement is kind of a case for voting. After all, it has been and still is prohibited for a whole lot of people (former felons, for instance). And it is not true that voting never matters at all. Voting for someone who is less likely to mow you down in the street is a totally reasonable defense strategy. Voting a terrible prosecutor out of office is a legitimate tactic. If two dudes are running for town sheriff and one is a sociopath, we might consider voting for the other guy.

But then we should go right back to working on ending the position of sheriff or prosecutor entirely. We should learn how to build community for ourselves rather than constituencies for people with their own agenda. We should learn how to resolve conflict ourselves, not empower violent authorities to run systems of oppression and retribution.

It is a lot harder to do those things than to stump for a candidate and vote every couple years. But we can only get out from under these people if we take responsibility and represent ourselves. I screw up every damn day in every way imaginable. But that is why it is called a struggle. And it is so much better to be struggling – to be a better person, to build alternate systems, against oppressive structures, with my community –  than to be looking for some kind of savior to come along and make it better.

Now that you are free of the constraints of electoral politics, what are you going to do?

Preparing for Peace

January 18, 2010 By: Mel Category: Conflict, Core, Seeking

Many people believe that some injustices are so heinous that violence is not only necessary, it is obligatory.  But they rarely take the next step.  They rarely imagine what would happen after the violence stops, assuming it can be stopped.  Who among them is going to create a better, more just world?  A soldier?

A soldier is not trained to create.  He is trained to destroy.  Military training is about smashing a person’s ego until they are willing to obey without question.  It is about instilling hierarchy.  It is about learning to dehumanize the “enemy.”  It is about suppressing pangs of conscience.  It is about becoming a killer.

When the soldier returns from whatever horrors he has to see and participate in, he brings the horrors back with him.  Returning soldiers have mental health problems.  They are more likely to have drug and alcohol problems.  Many are suicidal.  Some are homicidal.  Is that soldier, with all his problems, the person who will be able to create a better way of life?

Contrast the training of a soldier with the training of a non-violent resister.

Imagine the inner strength, patience, and command over your own emotions it takes to face down dogs without responding with violence?  Imagine the vision that comes from that kind of discipline and self awareness.  How could that not be better preparation for building a more just world?

When James Baldwin and Malcolm X debated each other (recordings below), Malcolm X asserted his right to defend himself.  He claimed that the black man’s freedom rested on his willingness to do “the same thing that Patrick Henry did to make this country what it was for white people.”  And in doing so, he called out the hypocrisy of idolizing the actions of one person and vilifying those same actions when another claims the right to them.

That hypocrisy is indisputable.  So is the fact that Americans idolize violence and violent heroes.  But while Baldwin did not dispute Malcolm X’s facts, he did dispute his conclusions.

“Patrick Henry is not one of my heroes…I don’t see any reason for me, at this late date, to begin modeling myself on an image which I’ve always found frankly to be mediocre and not a standard to which I myself could repair…the only thing that really arms anybody when the chips are down is how closely, how thoroughly, he can relate to himself and deal with the world…I don’t think that a warrior is necessarily a man…It is very difficult to be a man…What it involves, for me anyway, is an ability to look at the world, to look at whatever it is and to say what it is and to deal with it and to face it.

A soldier will have a very hard time looking at the world and seeing it for what it is.  A soldier has to lie to himself.  How could a soldier stand not to?  You can’t make a better world by creating people who can’t look into their own hearts, who have to live in denial of their actions.

We all have the right to defend ourselves, but we also have the obligation to examine what we will become by exercising that right.  If, in the process of becoming the victor, you have to also become a monster, what have you really won?

Poor Man Can’t Eat, Rich Man Can’t Sleep

December 28, 2009 By: Mel Category: Core, Criminalization

I used to shoplift as a kid.  When I was about fourteen, I was busted with a purse full of makeup and banned from Rite Aid for life.

My father was unusually rational about the whole incident.  Clearly, all the crap I had in my room could not have been purchased with my babysitting money.  And my parents weren’t giving me money to buy clothes or makeup or anything else.  I don’t think my father had lost his business or had his stroke yet, but it was only a short time away.  I suspect he was feeling guilty or inadequate about not being a good “provider”.

So instead of my parent’s usual tirade and grounding my father simply explained to me that I was hurting people.  He said it probably didn’t seem like a bit of makeup from a huge company would even be noticed, but thousands of people doing what I did added up.  And that company, he said, wasn’t going to let their profits suffer.  They were going to raise prices or lower wages to make up for it.

I never wanted to hurt anyone.  And I never stole anything again.  But if I were starving and couldn’t see another option, I would steal.

I confess my past (and possible future) thievery because of a post last week on The Freethinker.  Apparently, a Yorkshire vicar told people that they should shoplift if they need to. A couple of us godless actually had to side with the vicar on this one.  Not surprisingly, others objected.  One commenter, Ash Walsh, pointed out that

Criminality only entrenches poverty. If a Thief gets a Criminal Record, the Thief will find it a lot more difficult to get a job thus starting a poverty cycle that is difficult to break out of.

That is absolutely true.  But why do we place the blame squarely, and solely, at the feet of the thief?  Doesn’t the community also bear some responsibility?  If the thief was stealing out of necessity, the community failed in providing its members with the things they need to survive. If the thief (like my fourteen-year-old self) just didn’t see the harm they were doing, then the community failed to educate them.   If the thief didn’t care that they were doing harm, then the community failed to teach them morals.

And if our system of retribution ensures that a thief has virtually no opportunity to turn their life around, then the community has failed yet again.

I was lucky.  My father felt some responsibility for what had happened and so reacted with compassion instead of just harsh judgment.  And it wasn’t just him.  Had the manager of that Rite Aid called the cops, I might have ended up in juvi instead of home with my parents.  Things could have gone very badly.

But all too often thieves receive no compassion at all.  They are dehumanized and vilified to the point that we accept whatever is done to them.  We don’t blink when someone gets a life sentence for theft or shot by people “protecting” their property from “looters” after Katrina.

We live in secure buildings in gated communities with alarms and trained dogs.  We authorize armed guards, police, and mercenaries to shoot anyone who breaches security.  We are terrified of being robbed by our fellow citizens.  And all the while, the biggest thefts are happening behind the scenes and are perfectly legal.  Where’s the guard to protect your pension from Goldman Sachs?

Not long ago, a would be robber in Long Island was thwarted by the owner of the store he was trying to rob.  The store owner showed him some compassion, gave him some money and bread, and didn’t call the police.  Months later, the robber repaid the store owner and sent the man a letter saying that he got his life back together.

I’ll bet they both ate that day and slept really well that night.

Anarchy as Responsibility

December 18, 2009 By: Mel Category: Anarchism, Core

Conservatives like to talk about personal responsibility.  By that they mean taking responsibility for your own well being and perhaps that of your family and community.  But if you are not within the circle, what that comes down to is “fend for yourself.”

Liberals talk about taking responsibility for the less fortunate.  By that they mean donating time or money to organizations (that employ other liberals) and letting them help people in need.  But that creates dependency and doesn’t question the privilege underlying their altruism.

Anarchism, as a system based on cooperation, addresses the weaknesses in both liberal and conservative philosophies.

Like conservatives, anarchists think we should be taking personal responsibility for ourselves, our families, and our communities.  But where conservatives want to put up a wall, beyond which their responsibilities don’t go, anarchists have always understood that resolving our problems requires taking responsibility on a worldwide scale.

Like liberals, anarchists are concerned with the vast majority of people who struggle to have even the basic necessities of life.  But anarchists don’t want to install themselves in positions of power where they can met out drips and drabs of whatever liberals have been willing to give up.  Anarchists want to work side by side with people, questioning the hierarchies and privileges that cause those inequities.  We are not creating dependency, we are recognizing interdependency.

And anarchist principles work.

Worker managed coopertives are more productive than hierarchical models.  Community policing is more effective than conservative models.  Community involvement in schools means better results for kids.  Community involvement in budgeting means better allocation of resources.  The more people around when a conflict begins, the less likely that conflict will escalate.

These examples aren’t perfect representations of anarchism by any stretch of the imagination, but they do exhibit anarchist principles of responsibility and cooperation.  They demonstrate that we can solve our own problems.

Its easy to sit here and criticize our “leaders”.  But what did we expect?  Did people think we could just pull a lever every few years and then go back to watching American Idol?  If we want problems to be solved, we need to take responsibility for solving them.  And anarchism is a philosophy built around taking responsibility.

White America’s Existential Crisis

December 14, 2009 By: Mel Category: Core, Politics, Stratification

People have, apparently, lost their minds.  There seems to be a panic that we have lost the fabric of our society and I’m having trouble getting a handle on what has happened that is so drastic that people would think its tyranny or fascism or hitleresque or stalinesque (Jon Stewart)

That quote is from Stewart’s interview with Lou Dobbs (video below).  Dobbs never really answered Jon’s question, so I’m going to try.

There is a certain segment of the American population that really believes in the American foundational myths.  They identify with them.  They believe that America was built by a handful of white, Christian, men with exceptional morals.  Their America is the country that showed the world democracy, saved the Jews in World War II, and tore down the Berlin wall.

These people have always fought changes to their mythology.  They have always resented those of us who pushed to complicate those myths with the realities of slavery, Native American genocide, imperial war in the Philippines, invasions of Latin American countries, and secret arms deals.

And we have been so busy fighting them to have our stories and histories included in the American story that we sometimes forget why the myths were invented in the first place.

No myth illustrates the sleight of hand behind our national mythology quite like the myth of the cowboy.  In the mythology, the cowboy is a white man.  He is a crusty frontiersman taming the west and paving the way for civilization.   He is the good guy fighting the dangerous Indian.  He is free and independent.  He is in charge of his own destiny.

Read Richard Slatta’s Cowboys of the Americas and you will get a very different picture.  In reality, the first American cowboys were indigenous people trained by the Spanish missionaries.  In reality, more than 30% of the cowboys on Texas trail drives were African American, Mexican, or Mexican-American.

And cowboys were not so free.

Cowboys were itinerant workers who, while paid fairly well when they had work, spent much of the year begging for odd jobs.  Many did not even own the horse they rode.  Frequently, they worked for large cattle companies owned by stockholders from the Northeast and Europe, not for small family operations (a la Bonanza).  The few times cowboys tried to organize, they were brutally oppressed by ranchers.

So what does all this have to do with Lou Dobbs, Glenn Beck, teabaggers and white panic?

Marginalization and myths have always been about economic exploitation.  White supremacy is not simply personal bigotry.  It is the systematic exclusion, dehumanization, and erasure of the majority in order to preserve economic dominance for the wealthy minority.  And while white men may be in most positions of wealth and power to this day, only a very few of them really benefit from our current economic system.  White supremacy helped distract poor and working class whites from targeting their economic exploiters.  White supremacy helped mask the lie of equal opportunity.

When you know the real history of the cowboy, it makes the selling of Reagan and Bush as cowboys seem like an inside joke.   The mythological cowboy is the heroic figure that many Americans wish they were.  The fact that the cowboy was actually an exploited worker is virtually unknown.

When Americans vote for a president, they want to see that heroic version of themselves looking back at them.  They want to see that free cowboy of the mythology.  No matter how poor or exploited white people were, they could always take subconscious comfort in the fact that, when they looked at the highest power in the land, they saw an idealized version of themselves.

And then came Barack Obama.

Pop.

It’s a powerful thing to be able to identify with the people who are your leaders, to feel like they are one of you.  It’s a feeling that many people in the United States felt for the first time when Barack Obama was elected.  It’s equally powerful when your elected leaders are clearly not like you, when the fact that they do not represent you is glaringly obvious.

I had my whole life to get used to the idea that the government was never made to really represent my interests.  Many of these angry people are the very white, Christian, men that this country was supposedly built by and for.  And this is the first time the myth of America has been unmasked for them.

Undoubtedly, there are some bigots out there who are just angry that they have a black president.  Clearly, even for those who don’t feel motivated by personal bigotry, there is a healthy dose of racism underlying the fact that it took a black president for them to realize that their government is as dysfunctional as it is.  But I doubt the people we are talking about have an understanding of the difference between bigotry and racism.

And I don’t believe it is just blackness that makes Barack Obama different and symbolic.  It is also his intellectual cosmopolitanism.  He is a symbol of the privilege that is replacing whiteness – the educated professional/managerial class.  And there is a significant amount of animosity directed towards those people who justify their privilege by virtue of their intellect.

And so these people who have lost their foundational myths are out in the streets.  They are using all the synonyms for “bad” that our pathetic school system and media have taught them – communist, fascist, totalitarian, socialist, nazi.  All the words are interchangeable.  They all mean not American.  They all mean not them.

How I Became an Anarchist

November 27, 2009 By: Mel Category: Anarchism, Core

An anarchist future depends on more people adopting anarchist principles. It occurs to me that learning how individuals became anarchists may be useful.  So here is my story.

I’ve always been a little independent and rebellious, but my teenage years really brought that out. Partially it was my natural reaction to the suffocating socialization we are all subjected to. Partially it was me being pissed that the world turned out to be a lot shittier than I had been led to believe. I started learning real history at this point, particularly Native American history.

I got into a lot of trouble. I ran away frequently. Eventually, I was kicked out of school and out of my house. (Truth be told, I wanted to get kicked out of both. I really hated them.) Luckily for me I had been part of a work experience program in high school and, through them, had been working for a law firm.

I sort of skated into law firm work and was able to pay the bills without too much suffering. At twenty-five, I found myself managing the Florida operations of a litigation support service. I was busy and stressed and not particularly happy, but the money was good.

I started the office from the ground up. When a year had gone by, I called the home office to find out about their raise policy. I was told that, unless there was a promotion, nobody got more than .50 an hour raise. With a promotion, people could get a dollar.

Now the people who worked for me did not get paid what they deserved, not even close. Starting salaries for the organization were pathetic. And these people worked their asses off. They were there late and on weekends (sometimes with their kids). They didn’t get overtime.

After my boss told me what I could offer, I went silent on the phone. Sensing that I wasn’t happy about what she had just told me, she said “remember, if you pay your staff too much, you won’t get a big bonus at the end of the year.”

I got a percentage of the profits, you see, and that was supposed to motivate me somehow. But I knew that I never wanted to be that person, the person who gave other people less than they deserved so that they could get more. And I realized that all businesses operated on that same ‘me first’ principle. I left shortly thereafter to try my luck with nonprofits.

So off I went to California to get my bachelor degree and a nonprofit job. (Nonprofits require a B.A. to sweep the floor.) By that time I had my high school diploma and an A.A. in sociology – night school mostly. It didn’t take long for me to end up in a management position again. I didn’t plan for it or want it. I was trying to juggle college and a full time job, after all. I just had this stupid habit of feeling compelled to get done whatever needed to get done.

But, in the end, the nonprofit work wasn’t much better than the for profit work. We were helping people, but not as many as we should have been. We were government funded. When I calculated the percentage of tax dollars that actually went to direct services, it made me want to cry. Some of the grants went through so many agencies that, by the time each agency shaved their overhead costs off the top, there was virtually nothing left.

And even though the organization I worked for made a good pretense of listening to and caring about staff, much of it was for show. Additional funding we received went straight into raises for my boss and a fat consulting fee for a wealthy board member. Meanwhile, we were short-staffed and asking employees to start paying a portion of their rising health care costs.

Worse than the frustration, overwork, and disillusionment was how being a manager changed my relationship with all the people I worked with. Although I felt like I spent most of my day battling with my boss on behalf of the staff, in the end I was just one of the managers who was making decisions behind their backs – decisions they often did not like, decisions that were sometimes bad. It didn’t matter if I had fought the decision in those meetings. Once it was made I had to stand behind it.

I’ve worked for other nonprofits since that one. And while I have steadfastly avoided any more management positions, I have seen the same dynamic in every place I have worked. Larger nonprofits, especially here in DC, have the added issues of ivy league elitism and grotesque hierarchy (which they are in denial of). Yet somehow they think that they are going to make the world a more democratic, egalitarian, and just place from within an organization that is anything but.

It ain’t gonna happen.

Now I don’t mean to bag on the people that I have worked with. In fact, if the woman who told me that I wouldn’t get a big bonus if I gave my staff too much had been an asshole, my life might have taken a different course. The fact is that most of the people I have worked with aren’t any more evil or selfish than any other people. It was putting power into the hands of a few and pretending that they could actually represent the needs, desires and thoughts of everyone else that made everything go bad.

In short, experiencing the disasters of hierarchy led me to ask if it were possible to live without it. Once I started looking around, I realized that it is possible. In fact, I think it is impossible to live with it.

So that’s pretty much it. Take a fiercely independent person, let them experience the disasters of hierarchy from both perspectives, throw in a bit of anarchist leaning literature and…voila.

Any other anarchists out there want to share their journey or epiphany or slog to anarchism?

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Ignoring Elites is so Elitist

November 06, 2009 By: Mel Category: Core, Politics, Seeking, Stratification

Jim Vandehei and Mike Allen at Politico wrote a story about how Obama’s White House is “working systematically to marginalize the most powerful forces behind the Republican Party.”

The Heritage Foundation quoted that story and then did a fascinating little maneuver where they tried to turn “the most powerful forces behind the Republican Party” into the “average Americans” that progressives have “contempt” for.

The argument goes like this.  Obama’s people are shutting out the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Rush Limbaugh, Wall Street executives, and Fox News.  This shutout shows that Obama is targeting those organizations, just like Saul Alinsky advises people to target their enemy in his book Rules for Radicals.

Alinsky said that the middle class was “materialistic, decadent, bourgeois, degenerate, imperialistic, war-mongering, brutalized, and corrupt.”  Ergo, Obama, who is using Alinsky’s tactics, has contempt for the middle class.  Since all Americans are, of course, middle class; Obama hates you and wants his elite friends to make all your decisions for you.

Let’s break that down a little.  Wall Street executives, whose bonuses are being paid with the tax money Obama gave them, are feeling shut out?  Even better – Wall Street, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News are “average Americans?”

And, goodness me, aside from Saul Alinsky, no one on earth has ever attacked (by ignoring) another person – not ever.  So this must be an Alinsky thing, cause the world of politics was all civility and roses aside from that.

Oh, I could go on and on.

What should we take from this (aside from the fact that Heritage is full of shit)?

Republicans have done a very good job of painting Democrats as elitist.  That isn’t particularly difficult.  Democrats are elitist.  So are Republicans.  This whole town is elitist and everybody is working to get their elites as much as they can.

The good news is that many (most?) Americans, while still widely accepting of all the hierarchies that prop those elitists up, have a little voice in their head that responds negatively to the idea that ivy league Wall Street schmucks should get bonuses for screwing us or that you need alphabet soup at the end of your name in order to be capable of making a decision.

That’s why people respond to messaging like that.  And that’s a good thing. Or, at least, it could be if people besides The Heritage Foundation were tapping into it.

Are Anarchists Naive?

November 02, 2009 By: Mel Category: Anarchism, Core, Seeking

Once people find out I’m an anarchist (and get over the shock that I am not a fifteen year old punk rock white boy who likes to smash windows), they want to know what anarchy is (if not violence and mayhem).  I explain to them that anarchy means “without rulers” and that I am against all forms of domination.

Now, of course, they want to know how we are going to live without domination.  They tell me that, without police, we will have no protection from violent criminals.  They tell me that, without bosses, nobody would do anything and we’d all starve.  They tell me that, without coercion, people would just argue forever and nothing would ever get resolved.  They tell me that, if you remove coercive institutions tomorrow, someone would just go about trying to recreate them.

They think anarchy is a utopian dream.

They’re right.  It is a utopian dream.  And there is nothing wrong with utopian dreams.  Whenever humans have made progress, it has been because of people who had seemingly unrealistic dreams about human possibility.  Mother Jones, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King had utopian visions for the world.  Their visions may not have been fully realized, but they changed things radically for the better.

I don’t believe I will ever see a society that is completely free of coercion and violence.  But that doesn’t mean that I’m just going to roll over and accept coercion and violence.  I don’t believe I will ever see a society where hierarchies don’t exist.  But that doesn’t mean I’m just going to roll over and accept man over woman, white over black, straight over gay, rich over poor, owner over worker.

When they tell me that, without police, we will have no protection from violent criminals; I tell them that half the people who are languishing in prison are not violent criminals.  I tell them that “17.6 % of women in the United States have survived a completed or attempted rape.”  I tell them that most rapes go unreported and most rapists unpunished.  I tell them that, in many cases, the police are the rapists and not protecting us at all.  I tell them that I don’t think I’m protected now.

When they tell me that, without bosses, nobody would do anything and we’d all starve; I tell them that people are starving now.  I tell them that “almost one person in six does not get enough food to be healthy and lead an active life.” And I tell them that there are alternatives to hierarchy.  I tell them about the FASINPAT in Argentina and Arizmendi bakeries in California.  I tell them about AK Press and Mondragon (soon coming to a U.S. town near you).

When they tell me that, without coercion, people would just argue forever and nothing would ever get resolved; I tell them that ordinary people, working together, can come up with solutions on their own.  And if they don’t believe me, they can ask nobel prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom.

I don’t disagree that there will always be people trying to rebuild the coercive institutions that we manage to tear down.  There are people out there who long for the antebellum south.  There are people who would like to bring back ruling monarchies.  And obscene amounts of people supported McCarthyism and the Patriot Act and every other rollback of civil rights some butthead has proposed.  That’s not an argument against anarchy.

I’m not naive.  I understand the challenges.  I understand how imperfect we all are.  But I also see the possibilities.  I see anarchy happening in little (and not so little) ways all over the world.  And I know that the people are wrong who think obtaining power, and using that power over others, is the only way to accomplish anything.  It isn’t the only way.  It isn’t the right way.

I do not believe that the world will ever be all peace, love, and cotton candy.  I do believe that the more people adopt anarchist principles, the better off we will be.

In Defense of Graffiti and Teen Angst

October 30, 2009 By: Mel Category: Art, Core, Stratification

This Week in Race published a post titled Does It Still “Take a Village?”: Multiple Perspectives on a Chicago Encounter.  In it, Stephen tells how he witnessed “three young Black boys — maybe 13 years old — tagging the station walls with spray paint” in a Chicago subway.

Stephen decided to confront the boys and got an earful of cursing in return.  He was torn about what to do.  Should he have reported them to the authorities?  Should he have ignored them?  He didn’t want to be the great white savior, but he felt a responsibility to do something about the boys behavior.

Several people were asked to respond to Stephen’s dilemma, but amazingly nobody challenged the basic assumption Stephen was making.  All the responders seemed to agree that graffiti was degenerate behavior that needed to be corrected.  At best, the boys had “gone astray” and at worst they were “ignorant thugs.”

Is graffiti really a sign of thuggery?

Graffiti is beautiful.  (If you don’t believe me, check out some graffiti archeology.)  Graffiti is social commentary, self expression, public conversation, or grassroots support.  It’s free public art in opposition to a culture that commodifies everything.  For many artists, it is also part of an historic tradition.

Granted, Stephen said these kids were tagging and not painting works of art.  But art is in the eye of the beholder.  And if tagging isn’t art, what is it?  It is a way for kids to make a mark, to say “I’m here and I exist.”  Who among us didn’t do that growing up?  Even my friends who didn’t tag still wrote “Tammy is here” on bathroom walls, folders, sneakers, blue jeans…whatever was handy.

And who can blame kids for wanting to shout that they exist in a world that ignores them so completely – unless, of course, they violate some rule or social convention?   I’m not so old that I don’t remember what it is like to be a kid and have nobody listen to you.  The whole world wants to judge you, mold you, try to make you into whatever serves their interest.  If anybody needs a means of self expression it is a teenager.

True, I would not want someone tagging the outside of my house.  But who is more degenerate, the kid who tags or the society that constantly values property over people?  How many people are happy to spend money on police to keep graffiti off their walls but don’t want to spend a dime on education or other social programs to give those kids options?

Adults are often incensed that kids don’t respect authority like they used to.  But why should they respect authority, particularly when it doesn’t usually respect them? I’m 36 years old now and I can say with absolute certainty that, when I look back on my sixteen year old self, 90% of the adults I was supposed to listen to didn’t know shit.  And I was right not to pay a damn bit of attention to them.

Happily, many of the responders did point out that kids were unlikely to listen to any adult unless there was a previous relationship of trust.  Kids have plenty of people jumping in to tell them what they should do or not do.  What they don’t have is people who listen to what they have to say.

Who knows, those kids you want to save may see the world even more clearly than you do.

The Nuclear Family is a Failure

October 13, 2009 By: Mel Category: Core, Culture

According to a study by Paul R. Amato, children  “who grow up in stable, two-parent families have a higher standard of living, receive more effective parenting, experience more cooperative co-parenting, are emotionally closer to both parents, and are subjected to fewer stressful events and circumstances.”

Amato admits that, while his research shows a relationship, it cannot show a causal relationship. But lets assume, for the sake of argument, that there is a causal relationship between two-parent households and positive indicators for children.  And lets assume that single parent households have a harder time providing the stable environments that help kids to thrive.

What do we think should be done?

Like many Americans, Amato concludes that “the importance of increasing the number of children growing up with two happily and continuously married parents… is self-evident.”  The U.S. government seems to agree.  Under the Bush administration, a program called the  Healthy Family Initiative was started to encourage marriage and to provide relationship skills training.  The Obama administration is continuing the initiative.

There is nothing wrong with a stable two-person relationship.  However, we seem to be offered only two choices for raising children – the “healthy” two-parent family or single (usually) mothers struggling along in poverty.  But the nuclear family is not the only structure for raising children in this world.

The Europeans who stumbled upon the Americas came from a culture where a man was only responsible for the children he fathered within a marriage.  He had no responsibility for children he fathered outside of wedlock, much less for other children in the community.  Many Native American communities, in contrast, had very different ideas of who was responsible for the community’s children.  In Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, Stephanie Coontz tells of how one Jesuit reacted to the sexual freedom enjoyed by native women.

One missionary warned a Naskapi man that if he did not impose tighter controls on his wife, he would never know for sure which of the children she bore belonged to him.  The Indian was equally shocked that this mattered to Europeans.  ‘You French people,’ he replied, ‘love only your own children; but we love all the children of our tribe.

Other native societies believe that every man who has sex with a woman while pregnant “contributes a part of his biological substance to the child” and has responsibilities toward that child and the mother.  And in some societies, it is not the biological father but the mother’s brothers who take responsibility for the child.

All of which is to say that structures for child rearing are cultural not immutable or “natural.”  And these structures of responsibility are as much about abdicating responsibility for “other people’s children” as they are about taking responsibility for “your own.”

The two-parent family is a structure that relies on two people. Half of all marriages end in divorce.  Parents get sick.  Parents die.  And (all too often in the U.S.) parents go to prison.  Ultimately, that means that many children are not going to have that two-parent family.  Rather than trying to bury our heads in the sand, wouldn’t it make more sense to question the cultural beliefs that lead us to only take responsibility for children on such a limited basis?

The nuclear family is a weak institution.  When one parent is taken out of the equation, as so often happens, the children suffer.  Kids need more than two people that they can rely on in this world.