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

Shut Up, Be Perfect

December 18, 2012 By: Mel Category: Conflict, Stratification

This weekend I got into an argument about music. The person I was arguing with was blasting gangsta rap for glorifying behavior that was ruining their own communities. He even went so far as to say that the music, and everything it stood for, was causing racism.

I went a little apoplectic.

I may not be a huge fan of music that is often violent, materialistic, and misogynist. But I’m not going to blame a musician for white flight, urban decay, omnipresent policing, mass incarceration, the drug war, shitty schools, racist employers… I’m not going to hold a musician responsible for racism because a white supremacist uses them as an excuse. And I am sure as hell not going to accept that kind of blaming coming from someone at the top of the privilege food chain – which he was.

I thought of writing about how racist and classist that shit is. I thought of writing about how difficult it is to balance individual responsibility with structural oppression. But what I really want to write about is having an outlet.

We live in a world that is completely fucked up and filled with pain. Yet we aren’t allowed to express how fucked up it is. We have no strategies for coping with pain. We don’t even want to hear about people’s pain, much less help them deal with it. We don’t want to know what goes on in people’s homes and neighborhoods if it isn’t shiny, happy, and uplifting. And if you have thoughts that fall outside the spectrum of what is socially acceptable, you better hide them or else.

I was filled with rage when I was a teen. And I had a lot less to be raging about than some people. There were times when I had incredibly violent thoughts. There were times when the targets of my anger were wildly off the mark. The only coping mechanisms I ever learned were denial, sarcasm, booze, and flight. I learned to internalize the rage. I drank it, smoked it, snorted it, and walled it off. And I walled off a lot of other emotions with that rage too.

And that’s the way a lot of people like it.

People don’t want to know about your anger, righteous or not. Just take a Xanax and numb it so nobody has to see it. Don’t say anything inappropriate. Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve  Don’t cry in public. Don’t yell. Don’t make a scene. Don’t be destructive. Don’t be embarrassing. Don’t be perverted. Don’t admit that some things might not be fixable. Don’t show people things that they don’t want to see.

And whatever you do, make sure whatever coping mechanisms you have don’t get in the way of you being a good worker bee. Cause if you can’t manage to find and put up with a degrading 9 – 5 that pays your rent and rehab bills, we don’t want to know you.

I may hate violence, but I understand rage. I may hate materialism, but I understand the desire to have things when you’ve had to struggle. I understand that it is hard to live in a society where you gain status through violence and money without internalizing it. And I really understand how difficult it is to even acknowledge a maelstrom of emotions, much less channel them into something constructive. I understand that sometimes you just need to scream some shit out and have some person somewhere acknowledge that what you see is real and it is fucked up.

I’m not saying that cultural products don’t matter. They influence the way we look at the world. We should criticize them. But we can’t blame them for our social ills. Sometimes the most offensive things can start useful discussions. Sometimes a person just needs an outlet to express their emotions, horrible as they may be. If singing about something keeps you from doing it, that’s a good thing. If singing about something makes someone else think they should do it, the problem isn’t the song but the fact that the other person didn’t have an outlet themselves.

We are never going to have a world where nobody thinks terrible thoughts, hates irrationally,  or is just unable to deal with their pain. I don’t think any of us will be alive to see a world without poverty, violence, and oppression. Maybe if we gave people a little more space to express their fuckedupedness, instead of pretending like people pop out of the womb with all the answers and have perfect understanding at age 18, we could minimize the harm we do to ourselves and others.

But instead of trying to understand where the rage comes from and why so many people identify with it, we just tell people to shut up.

Communication. Understanding. Action.

July 23, 2012 By: Mel Category: Seeking

One of my most deeply held beliefs is that people shouldn’t just jump into things without spending a lot of time understanding the situation. And that goes a bazillion times more when we are talking about the actions of activists who are working on issues that affect others more than themselves.

Perfect understanding is impossible. We can’t be paralyzed by our lack of it. But if you find yourself imagining how the most affected people might feel, pondering how to get them involved, or fretting about why those who were involved are not any longer…

For fuck’s sake! Stop what you are doing!

Yet, as deeply as I believe that, I found myself caught in rescue mode, providing life support for a group that no longer had any of the things that drew me to it to begin with. I’m ashamed that I didn’t see it sooner.

I’m still processing all the things that went wrong, but it is clear to me that we tried to skip right to the action part and neglected to build the communication and understanding that would have made it work. It’s always a difficult balancing act. The problems are so huge and so urgent that they just scream for action. And it is working with people that builds the kinds of relationships where communication, understanding and trust become possible. That pull towards a certain kind of action is hard to fight.

But we really need to fight it. Doing something is not always better than doing nothing. And building relationships is not nothing. In fact, it is the core of what we need to do – an almost impossible task when so many of us have been brought up isolated, segregated, mistrustful, and socially retarded.

In short, I fucked up and I am sorry. I’m particularly sorry to those people who have been waiting for me to fulfill commitments I made and then dropped because I was trying to rescue something that I shouldn’t have been.

Live and learn.

Anti-Authoritarianism, Anti-Racism, and Avoiding the Subject

April 20, 2012 By: Mel Category: Conflict, Stratification

In response to my Trayvon post, one of the commenters denied that police and prison guards killed black kids and brought up how many black people were killed by other black people. I responded to the comment, but I think there is a bit more to say.

Within the black communities that are most affected by violence, there is a lot of discussion about black people killing each other and how to stop it. But poor black people don’t get attention from major media or get invited to Harvard symposiums to discuss race. When people do hold rallies or talks on the issue, there is no media. Few people outside those communities hear about it, much less show up.

Maybe it appears to some like nobody talks about it, but anybody who thinks that black people are ignoring black on black violence is clearly not speaking to any black people, or even just reading ColorLines (where that graphic came from).

But a lot of white people who don’t want to be perceived as racist do avoid the issue. Which means the only white people who talk about it are white supremacists who want to blame some kind of inherent defect – biological or cultural – for violence in black communities. Which, of course, makes it that much more impossible to talk about.

So we have too few real conversations about why things are the way they are and what can be done about it. It just turns into a racist shit show or an argument about personal responsibility versus oppression.

I don’t want to rehash everything I wrote in Who is Responsible. I’ll just reiterate that personal responsibility, social circumstances, and structures of domination are not mutually exclusive.

I’d also like to make one other related observation. I’ve been looking at drug war stuff for eight or nine years now. And I have found that a lot of my best information about police/state abuse comes from libertarians who have a real beef with authority and an obsessive penchant for documenting its abuses. Unfortunately, they all too often have done no work to understand how all the isms, including racism, are used by the authorities they hate.

I have also observed that the kind of information that drug war warriors and libertarians document doesn’t seem to reach people outside of their circles. So while I have seen many posts about Trayvon, I have seen almost no posts about the guy who was killed because a social services person thinks they smelled weed during their visit.

If only more anti-racists would become anti-authoritarian. If only more anti-authoritarians would become anti-racist. Then we might really start to get somewhere.

Proving It Can Be Done

May 05, 2011 By: Mel Category: Anarchism

People often ask me how I became an anarchist, but I’ve come to realize that it was really more of a discovery than a conversion. I think most people hold anarchist beliefs. The click moment for me was when I actually began to believe that I could live in accordance with my beliefs.

When I talk to people about anarchism I often get the response that it sounds great in theory, but it would never work. People don’t think it is possible to organize without hierarchy. They point to all the scary people out there that they can’t trust. They look at how we can’t even speak to one another, much less actually work together to solve big problems.

The first two criticisms are easy to respond to. There are plenty of people out there who are organizing without hierarchy – from pickup games of basketball to cooperatives. And if you think your neighbor is scary, wait until your neighbor gets elected and sends your kid to war. The people who want to be “leaders” are always the absolute last people who should have power over anything.

That last one is tougher to respond to. There is no denying that we have a really hard time speaking to each other. And if you can’t even speak to each other, then you sure as hell aren’t going to be able to resolve conflicts. But it isn’t that we are incapable.  It is that we have been trained from birth to do all of the wrong things.

We don’t discuss things, we debate to see who scores the most points. Everything is broken down into heroes and villains. Nobody wants to hear an ill word about their hero. Nobody wants to hear a good word about their villain. If we read something written by someone we like, we ignore the weak arguments or fuzzy assumptions. If we read something by someone we hate, we look only for what is wrong and refuse to acknowledge any good points they might have made.

That’s assuming we are even willing to read things by people we hate. How many people only preach to the choir? How many people make sure that all their news comes from those with their same ideological leanings? How often do we let all our knowledge about another group of people come from media or politicians or some other filter with their own agenda – rather than talking to those people directly?

Where the rubber hits the road is where anarchists can show that it is possible for people from different backgrounds and belief systems to actually work together. We have to show that it is possible to resolve conflicts without coercive authority. And that means that we have to be open-minded enough to at least talk to people. It means we can’t be dogmatic. It means we have to acknowledge that nobody is right 100% of the time and nobody is wrong 100% of the time. It means realizing that you will never find anyone who supports everything you support. It means no more guilt by association. It means we should stop making assumptions about a person based on one thing they said or on the fact that people you don’t like agree with them.

That is a lot easier said than done. It is hard to have a conversation with someone who seems to hate everything you most value. It is hard to confront people’s prejudices. It is even harder to confront your own. Sometimes it isn’t even content, but style that seems to be the most difficult. Some people take a super logical approach to discussing things and seem cold and heartless. Other people meander through their stories and anecdotes, driving the superlogicals off the deep end.

We are all going to fail miserably a lot of the time. But we need to at least try. Our ability to create a different kind of world depends upon our ability to develop skills in communication, conflict resolution, and horizontal organizing. We know how to make revolutionary change. We don’t know how to make change that lasts and that doesn’t reproduce the same oppressions we fought to get rid of. Once we can learn how to resolve our own problems – without calling daddy, or the cops, or Smith & Wesson – the jig is up.

If we can manage to bring seemingly incompatible people to the table and actually accomplish something, then the naysayers will see that it is possible.

Am I a Rapist?

December 24, 2010 By: Mel Category: Sex

I don’t want to talk about the Assange rape charges. There are more than enough people doing that already. But I would like to talk about something that Jaclyn Friedman said during her debate with Naomi Wolf on Democracy Now. Friedman essentially said that a sleeping/unconscious person cannot consent to sex and therefore it is rape. Always.

I paused the video.  The bfriend and I looked at each other and said, huh? He’s woken me up like that before. I’ve woken him up like that before. We never discussed doing it.  Does that make me a rape victim? Does it make me a rapist?

Blanket statements, the kind where people give no gray area whatsoever, usually bother me, because few things in life are that clear. And this was a blanket statement that made me into a rapist. At first, I must admit, I was inclined to roll my eyes and dismiss her.

But I just kept thinking about it.

I do not believe that consenting to one thing means consenting to everything else. I don’t believe in implied consent. That’s like those asshats who think marital rape is impossible.  It’s possible and all too frequent.

Now, I could say that I just knew it would be o.k. The bfriend and I have been together for more than 14 years. There are some things that we don’t really have to talk about anymore.

But that would be a bullshit answer. It’s a bullshit answer because there were other times before the bfriend, where I wouldn’t be able to say that. It’s a bullshit answer because it brings us back to the marital rape issue.  And it’s a bullshit answer because, if I have learned anything over the years, it is that false assumptions often precede relationship misery.

Besides, how can we really be sure that our assumptions are based on knowledge of the individual and not some social norm or gender essentialism?  It must be o.k.  Guys always want to have sex, right?  I mean when a woman decides not to have sex because she doesn’t want to risk pregnancy or STDs or just doesn’t think she is ready, that’s expected.  But a guy who turns it down, he must be some kind of freak.  So I can just assume, right?

The truth is that we should have talked about it.  We should have talked about a lot of things, right from the beginning, that we didn’t.

Last month, I came across a couple checklists of sexual activities – one on Scarleteen and one on the Beautiful Kind.  Even just going through the Scarleteen one, you know the one meant for teens, the bfriend and I ended up talking about things that had never come up in fourteen years.  And that is just sad.

Most of us have this Hollywoodized idea of sex.  It is always heterosexual.  All sexual activities end with male to female penetration.  The hottest sex is spontaneous.  When it is right, the other person is just going to know (magically) what you want.  There is no need to talk about it.  Just kiss, blow, fuck, done.

That is why you get guys who think that there is some point of no return where a woman cannot say no anymore.  That is why you have scenarios like this.

Her account to police, which Assange disputes, stated that he began stroking her leg as they drank tea, before he pulled off her clothes and snapped a necklace that she was wearing. According to her statement she “tried to put on some articles of clothing as it was going too quickly and uncomfortably but Assange ripped them off again”. Miss A told police that she didn’t want to go any further “but that it was too late to stop Assange as she had gone along with it so far”, and so she allowed him to undress her.

Really?  He undressed you and therefore it was too late to stop?  You had to go to the end?  Where is the end exactly?  Does he now have carte blanche to hog tie you, ball gag you, and whip you until you bleed?  Cause, for some people, that is where that undressing is going.

For responsible people in the BDSM community, it is a no-brainer to discuss what is o.k. and not o.k. beforehand.  There are parameters set.  There are safe words decided upon.  But for most people, it is all based on assumptions.  And those assumptions lead not just to rape, but to really bad sex.

I so wish that I had those checklists twenty-two years ago when I started having sex.  That is not because I was doing things I didn’t want to do, but because I would have done a lot more shit a lot sooner.  And I could have avoided a lot of mediocre sex.

People make fun of the idea that you should get an o.k. every step of the way.  Can I touch you here? How about there?  This o.k.?  Let’s draw up a contract and have it notarized.  But it seems ridiculous mostly because we are so horrible at talking about sex and because we make so many assumptions about it.  We should talk to our partners, future partners, and our kids about sex.  And we should talk about the entire pantheon of activities, not just assume that everyone is a vanilla, heterosexual couple.

That said, even though I’m not rolling my eyes at Friedman’s statement anymore, am I a rapist?  I understand that hard and fast rules make it easier to prosecute crimes.  Even though I would like to see prisons go the way of the rack, I realize that we cannot just let people get away with committing that kind of violence.  But consistency is not justice.  In fact, it can often be the opposite of justice.

When I was sixteen, my boyfriend was twenty-two.  By Florida law, that was rape.  But I was a willing participant.  I was not victimized by my boyfriend.  Do you know what would have made me feel victimized?  It would have made me feel victimized if somebody had prosecuted my boyfriend for rape.

And it happens.  Because well intentioned people want to keep grown-ups from having sex with seven year olds, some poor seventeen year old kid in Georgia got a ten year prison sentence for getting a blow job at a party.   There are people who are permanently on sexual predator lists for statutory rape.  And let’s not even get into the general disaster that is mandatory minimum sentencing.  Consistency is not always a good thing.

We are all suffering from some serious societal sexual dysfunction.  And we should be calling it out.  But, as unpleasant as it may be, we still need to leave some room for ambiguities.  Because by Friedman’s definition, I’m a rapist.  But the bfriend has now given me explicit permission to view his morning wood as an open invitation.  And I don’t think the state should be able to prosecute me for that.

Beliefs as Barrier

December 16, 2010 By: Mel Category: Anarchism, Seeking

I understand and respect the choices that many people within the anarchist community make.  I love the self expression and weirdness that is embraced in how people dress or act.  I completely respect the decision to be a vegan, to avoid chain stores, to criticize suburban homogeneity….

But there is a price that we pay by being too strict in those choices or too harsh in our judgments.

I have friends who grew up in the projects and really like suburban homogeneity.  They think it is great to live somewhere clean, without rats, where the plumbing works.  They don’t want to go to the vegan café, they want to go to Fridays.  And if I refuse to go to those places, I cut myself off from them.  If I am disdainful of their choices and dreams, they will know it.

I understand that people don’t want to support corporations and institutions that are at the heart of our problems.  But there is no way to extricate ourselves completely from that system.  We aren’t always going to be able to engage people on the most ideal terms.  And if we want them to consider coming to our spaces, we have to be willing to go to the spaces they want to be in, and to do it without raising eyebrows or preaching.

I’m not asking that anyone do things that are against their principles.  We all have to act in accordance with our conscience.  But we should understand that living in accordance with our beliefs can be an obstacle to working with people who find the anarchist subculture odd at best.  And rather than giving anarchists the side eye who aren’t fully immersed in that subculture, we should be happy that there are people who will be able to communicate anarchist ideas to audiences that we might not be able to reach.

Step One – Understanding

March 08, 2010 By: Mel Category: Seeking

On Saturday night, I went to a friends birthday party.  The party was at a club in Temple Hills, Maryland.  Temple Hills is 85% African American.  It took the bfriend and I three tries before we found a cab willing to take us there.  (FYI – It is just outside DC and an easy 10 mile drive.)  When we finally did find one, the cabbie spent the whole drive telling us what a dangerous place it was.

On Sunday, I attended A Continuing Talk on Race (A.C.T.O.R.) at Busboys and Poets.  Ironically, this month’s guest was Rawn James, Jr.   He was there to discuss his new book, Root and Branch: Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, and the Struggle to End Segregation.  The group discussion centered around exactly the kind of de facto segregation in 85% black Temple Hills or 79% white Santa Cruz (where I lived the six years before moving to DC).

And on Sunday night, I listened to Womanist Musings on blog talk radio.  The subject was bridging the divide between women of color and white feminists.  Renee asked, as she has been asking for some time, how we can more effectively work together.

Divisions, and how to work across them, have been on my mind a lot lately.  Two recent posts have been about collaborating across the divide and focusing issue by issue.  But I think I may have gotten ahead of myself, because we are unlikely to work together successfully without first understanding one another.  And in order to understand one another, we have to listen to each other.  Too often, we aren’t even putting ourselves in the same room, much less having conversations.

I’m not talking just about racial divides.  Political affiliation, economics, geography, religion, food, education, philosophy, music, clothes, cars, books, heroes, villains…  We seem to have a nasty tendency to let small differences (and not so small differences) become impassible chasms.  Sometimes the divides are rooted in prejudice and fear.  Sometimes, like one participant on Sunday admitted, it is just the ease of being with people you know and understand.

We are all (to some degree) uninformed, misinformed, bigoted, suspicious, petty, defensive, and closed-minded.  It may be easier to live in a neighborhood where everyone looks the same or to only get news from people who think like you.  It’s easier to shut out the things that challenge or offend.  It is easier to stay within your comfort zone than to risk exposing your ignorance or exposing yourself to other people’s ignorance.

But we can’t always just do what is easy.  And insulating ourselves only ensures that we stay uninformed, misinformed, bigoted, suspicious, petty, defensive, and closed-minded.

To be clear, we all need safe spaces.  We all need friends, family, and neighbors that we feel comfortable with.  We need people who know us well enough to overlook a bad day or a stupid statement.  We need places where we don’t have to navigate the daily minefields inherent in a society that is so separate and oppressive.  And the more a person feels the weight of those minefields on a daily basis, the more they need that space.

But we also need safe spaces for crossing the divides, because those minefields will not disappear on their own.

So expose yourself to different people and different ways of thinking.  If you are liberal, follow some conservative or libertarian blogs.  If you are white, follow some black blogs.  If you are a man, follow some women’s blogs.  Don’t be a troll.  Don’t read people just to find fault with them.  Don’t look only for opportunities to debate.  Look for opportunities to find common ground.

Get out there and make yourself uncomfortable.  Talk to people that you don’t normally talk to.  If you live in New York, spend time in Oklahoma.  If you live in Minnesota, spend some time in Miami.  If you’ve never left your country, do it now.  And I don’t mean go stay in a resort where they make sure you are not exposed to anything even mildly jarring.

If you look, you will find other people who are willing to put themselves out there, even when it is uncomfortable.  You will find people who will take the time to understand where other people are coming from and to explain where they are coming from.  You will find people willing to be open and honest no matter what kind of abuse or ridicule they suffer for it.  You will find people who create safe spaces, virtual and physical, that make the conversations possible.

Thank those people.

Cherish those people.

Be those people.

I strongly suspect that, if we focus on understanding each other, collaboration will follow.

Watching Your Tone

October 26, 2009 By: Mel Category: Seeking

What’s the best way to communicate ideas?

There was a blogger I was following until recently.  We disagreed on some very fundamental issues, but I don’t read things for confirmation of my beliefs.  I read to be challenged.  And I wanted to understand her point of view.

She wasn’t an easy person to read.  She is young and full of rage.  She has, from what I can tell, good reasons to be full of rage.  And she has every right to use her space to scream and curse and yell and direct that rage out at the world.

The last thing I am going to do is be one of those people who tries to shut others up by telling them to watch their tone. But a reader is only going to stick around and be raged at for so long.

I edit the hell out of some of my posts.  Other posts I don’t publish at all, because I don’t see anything productive coming out of posting them. And sometimes I am torn about the self editing.

But I don’t just want to use my blog to vent.  I don’t just want to find like-minded people (although it is a big perk).  I want to debate.  I want to open my mind to new ideas.  And I want to explain myself well enough so that people who disagree with me will at least understand my position.

Raging won’t accomplish that.

I was reading a blog post today.  Fofi tells about how one trainhopper/hitchhiker advised her to get people laughing in order to ask them for money.  My father, the consummate salesman, gave me the same advice when I found myself having to sell legal services to attorneys.

People are more responsive when you put them at ease.

Unfortunately for me, I’m only funny once or twice a year.  (That might explain why I was such a shit salesperson.)  But I can try to get my message across in a way that people will hear it.  It won’t always work.  And it won’t always be possible.  But it’s worth the effort.

Little Conversations

July 07, 2009 By: Mel Category: Seeking

Little Conversations by Concrete Blonde was something of an anthem for me growing up.

The little conversations
On me are very rough
They leave me all in pieces
You know there’s never time enough
Like a book with missing pages
Like a story incomplete
Like a painting left unfinished
It feels like not enough to eat.

I was never able to do small talk. Part of me envied the people who were. The other part of me dismissed it as shallow and pointless. How could people be talking about sitcoms and celebrities when there was tragedy all over the world?

As I’ve gotten older, having meaningful conversations has become both easier and more difficult. They are easier because I know more now and because I am more open to other points of view. They are harder because the farther I have gotten from home and childhood, the more other points of view I have encountered.

As an adult, serious conversations have a lot more minefields and potential for the kind of conflict that costs. If you offend someone you go to school with, you just stop talking to each other. If you offend someone you work with, you could have a very miserable working experience.

Some subjects, like racism, are particularly difficult to talk about. Attorney General Eric Holder was right, we are cowards when it comes to talking about race. But we have some reason to be wary. Mistrust is high. And if you look on the comments section of any website dealing with race, you will probably see why.

That’s where the little conversations come in. Talking about sitcoms and celebrities gives you the chance to build a relationship. Next thing you know you’re talking about your family or bitching about your boss. All these little conversations allow you to get to know a person and build some trust.

And any conversation that builds trust, builds bridges, and builds relationships is meaningful.

Obama, Bring Back the New Deal Arts Projects

January 14, 2009 By: Mel Category: Art, Politics, Seeking

Coit Tower Mural in San FranciscoArt isn’t usually the first thing on the agenda in a crisis. It isn’t fundamental to basic survival. But art is fundamental to addressing many of the issues that have gotten us into this mess in the first place.

In the 1930s, the Roosevelt administration started several federal programs which provided funding for artists. On the most basic level, the programs put artists like Jacob Lawrence to work. It also promoted United States art and culture, chronicled life in different parts of the country, and sometimes sponsored projects which tackled difficult social issues.

Seventy years later, public buildings throughout the United States are covered with murals steeped in history. Archives are filled with photographs of American life taken by New Deal artists. Museums hold paintings reminding us of the struggles that took place in securing the basic safety net that we take for granted today.

Perhaps this legacy doesn’t seem important to you, but hasn’t one of the main themes of this election been breaking down the divides between red state and blue state? Haven’t we been talking about the lack of understanding between different groups in the United States? Haven’t we been talking about the lack of understanding between us and the rest of the world?

Art teaches us about other people by enabling us to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Art appeals to the heart as well as the head and for that reason has the ability to transcend boundaries, to represent, to connect, and to mobilize. A Diego Rivera mural, a Bob Marley song, or an Almodovar movie help us to understand the worlds the artists are living in. They help us to create a dialogue. And in a world where so many problems require coordinated effort – poverty, environmental degradation, war – we need dialogue more than ever.

A new federal arts project would put American artists to work. It could document the road we have traveled to get here and the historic time we are in. Projects could show our common histories and values and help us visualize a new and better American identity for the future. It could help us share that vision with each other and with the rest of the world.