Carv's Thinky Blog I'm an author with a focus on satirical sci-fi and agnostic commentary.

22Jun/170

Pull It Together, America

Call me crazy, call me a misty-eyed nostalgic, but I believe there was a time in this country, a brief, delightful summer, when liberals and conservatives mostly got along with each other.

Then political action committees happened. Then the internet happened. Then FOX News happened. Then we all learned how to "unfollow" or even "unfriend" anyone with whom we disagreed about pretty much anything. But back in the long-dead halcyon days of, say, 1990, we tended to get along — even in the same actual, physical room. Now we can barely stand acknowledging each other's existence. Our current president offers a platform based solely on undoing everything the last president did, regardless of whom it deprives of health care, where it leaves our country in relation to its international partners or how many campaign promises get shredded and tossed in our faces. Now voters tell you, not which candidate they're happy to support, but which candidate they're desperate to destroy. There are liberal hate groups now, and liberal would-be assassins. I never thought I'd see that day. I'm not sure I thought we meek liberals would inherit the earth, exactly, but I assumed we'd stay meekly nonviolent.

I think some of the blame has to be laid on lobbyists and other paid extremists who tell us compromise is an act of surrender. It isn't. It's how this is all supposed to work. You want something and I want something, and each of us gets as close to 50% of what we wanted as possible. And conservatives, your party is pushing you to want what a greedy billionaire would want. They do so by telling you it's all to your benefit, but of course it isn't. There's no way the estate tax or slashes to Medicaid work in your favor. You never win that one. Sorry. They aren't doing it for "the American people," they're doing it for very rich people. And since almost any reasonable, factual analysis of the world around you would tell you that, they must pretend facts don't matter at all, that there are no facts, only "good news" and "fake news." Listen to them closely; note how many times they say "clearly," followed by something that is clearly untrue. It's become a running gag, and I'm sorry to say the joke is on all of us, even conservative base voters.

It doesn't have to be this way. You and I may disagree on abortion, for example, but I can understand why you feel the way you do. If you believe life begins at conception, then we allow a million prenatal murders each year. I can see why that'd send a reasonable person into hysterics. If I believe differently, then it seems to me the burden is on me to make my case as reasonably and persuasively as I can. You and I should be able to stand in a room together and talk about this because I understand you're trying to keep the blood of babies off our hands, and perhaps when I remind you of prenatal development you can see where I might be coming from, too.

But that's not how things usually work anymore. Our last election was fought between two candidates that most of us disliked. I despised yours, you loathed mine, but we weren't altogether crazy about our own. I could defend Hillary Clinton all year, and God knows I feel like I did, but even I get why she struck some people as shady. I found myself advocating for her in much the same way I'd recommend the flu over hemorrhagic fever. Perhaps you felt the same way about "your" guy. But each side did offer moderate, intelligent candidates, friends. We ignored them because the 24-hour news channels found them less interesting than the ever-controversial Clinton and Trump.

I don't want to play this game anymore. I got 5300 words into a third novel, this time about politics, then had to set it aside indefinitely because I literally have no idea what the country will look like in two years. I don't want to write and edit and sell and promote a novel only to find it irrelevant the day it's released. So friends, I want you to help me find a reasonable place in America again. Maybe the left's best candidate shouldn't be a dynastic power player or a democratic socialist. Maybe it should just be someone who makes a clear case for being kind and welcoming to as many different kinds of Americans as possible. Maybe you can talk your party out of an agenda based purely on "I got mine, screw you." Perhaps I can work harder to help you see that the way to improve your life is not to worsen someone else's, especially if that someone is already poor, gay, trans, a Muslim, a person of color or any combination of the above. Maybe I can remind you of people like my brother, a fiscal and, to some degree, social conservative who simply thinks it's unfair to expect the entire country to behave like either Georgia or Washington state. Maybe I can remind you of me, an agnostic, gay-friendly gun-regulation advocate who yes, dug Bernie but also likes sweet tea, old churches and even the occasional target-shooting excursion. Maybe you get to keep all your guns; maybe I get a national registry, reasonable waiting period and a safe to lock them in. Would that be so awful? Isn't that how every one of us might feel like a valued citizen of these not-so-United States we all call home?

So pull it together, America. Let's stop yelling about how we feel at each other. Instead, let's discuss what we think. You tell me your reasons and I'll tell you mine, and let's understand that in this game, winning should happen on the 50-yard-line, not in either extremist end zone. (Yes, that's a sports metaphor, because the right has no monopoly on either God or the NFL.) Let's be grown-ups again. Let's be kind to each other again. Let's stop thinking and talking and posting in memes. Let's purge exaggerated, bias-flattering, fight-or-flight-response nonsense from our news feeds, not each other. Let's turn off any commentator who says anyone who disagrees with him or her is an idiot. Let's do what liberals always pay lip (and bumper sticker) service to doing: Let's coexist. Strike that. Let's go bigger and better: Let's co-succeed.

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8Dec/160

Sore

sore loser: a person who becomes very upset or angry when he or she loses a game, contest, etc.--Merriam-Webster

I've been accused of this a lot lately, so I looked it up to make sure I knew what it meant. When I first read the definition above, I thought, yep, that's me, all right. Because I am mad as hell. I really am. I haven't gotten over it one tiny bit. I'm amazed that almost a quarter of all Americans would be so selfish, short-sighted and logic-proof as to elect a guy who stands squarely against decent treatment of women, Mexican-Americans, Muslim-Americans and anyone who doesn't think Trump is God's gift to the stars and stripes. I'm angry that even as I keep getting told to get over it, give him a chance and quit playing the victim card, he keeps appointing staff and cabinet members who represent the absolute worst of us. I mean, actual neo-nazis--Didn't we agree decades ago that those were despicable people? I'm angry at the news for false equivalence and normalization of fascism and nazism, I'm angry at Facebookers for embracing memes and propaganda, and I'm angry at people I'm trying to love despite their hurtful vote against fairness for my loved ones.

Except here's the thing. I guess in some sense an election is a contest, but it isn't a game. Elections have consequences. Elections tell the world how we want to look and act. Presidential elections decide who we want representing us and our ideals to other countries. Elections embolden outsiders--good sometimes, not so great now. Yet we treat our presidential election like we're voting for American Idol. We're drawn to the most entertaining candidate, even if that entertainer plays to our basest characteristics. We devolve into a binary, us-versus-them mentality that leaves no room for compromise or conflicting information. Then, once the election mercifully arrives at a decision, the "victors" act like hey, we won, the game is over, why are you still crying? The rest of us moved on to the next thing. Why can't you?

I'll tell you why. Because every time a candidate for leader of any other country in the world ran the kind of campaign this guy did, it led to fascism. Fascists don't choose the best candidates for staff positions, they choose the most loyal. They choose rubber stamps.

Okay, let's say Trump turns out to be an absolutely godawful president who somehow avoids impeachment. The other thing about fascists is they don't give up power easily. They don't submit to fair elections. Hell, they don't even like reviews of the election they supposedly won.

Meanwhile, as of this morning, Hillary Clinton leads the popular vote by 2.6 million and growing. I know that's not how the "game" is played, that in fact it's only the electors who count. I get that. But let's not pretend we should all submit to a decisive victory, because that's not what happened.

So no, this election outcome isn't a game to me, and it shouldn't be to you. If you think Donald Trump is a relatable comedian who's about to boost employment for high-school-diploma folks, lessen the influence of lobbyists in D.C., improve health care for poor and working-class people and revitalize inner cities, I sincerely hope you're right. Honestly, nothing would make me happier. I would love that. I would love to be wrong, because I can be a pessimist--but when I am, I almost always turn out to be right. But if I'm wrong, fantastic, and please check to make sure I admit that down the road. It's only fair, right?

But I do want you to do one thing for me. Just one, okay? Tonight, when no one but you and your conscience are looking, I want you to look in your bathroom mirror and ask yourself one honest question: What if all your friends who are scared to death of a President Trump turn out to be right? What if attacks against women and minorities continue to increase? What if, as I contend, Donald Trump is a b.s. artist who has no idea how the American economy and healthcare work or how to improve either? What if yelling memes eclipses reasoned debate based on facts in the national dialogue? What if your wife, mother, sisters and daughters aren't as safe as they were a few months ago? What if non-Christians like me get marginalized, harassed or attacked? What if my Mexican-American family members, all of whom were born here, get treated like second-class citizens and told to "go back where they came from?" What if we turn the clock back on civil rights, social security and just basic community-level kindness? How would you feel about your vote then? Would it still be a game to you? Would you still wave your as-long-as-I-get-mine pennant? Would you ever in a million years admit you were wrong?

Because if you are wrong--IF, I say IF, so many of your intelligent, well-informed, essentially decent friends are right about this man and his crusade to reshape America to his own, greedy liking--then we'll need you to fight with us. We'll need you to fight FOR us. I worry you won't be able to admit your mistake and commit to real change. But I will do my best to get along with you now, because if things go the way I increasingly dread, our neighbors and loved ones are gonna need all the friends they can get.

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23Nov/160

Here’s Why It Hurts

I address this to those in my circle of friends and family who voted for Donald Trump. If you haven't already unfollowed or unfriended me on social media, then at least I must be trying your patience. For Pete's sake, the election was two weeks ago! It's just politics! Get over it, am I right? Well, unfortunately, no. It isn't that simple this time. If your vote for Mitt Romney resulted in a win, I doubt you and I would have nearly as many issues. If your vote for John McCain yielded a McCain-Palin administration, I'd have done everything in my power to keep John McCain alive and well, but my Facebook photo would not be a rebellion symbol with a safety pin through it. I'd let it go—for the most part. I would.

But it's important to me that you understand this is absolutely, categorically different. What happened here is much worse, and you were one of many who helped light the match. Look, I'm not asking you to read this just so you'll feel guilty. You should, I think, but that's neither here nor there because it isn't my job to fine-tune your conscience. I'm asking you, for just a few minutes, to put yourself in my shoes. Forget my liberal friends. Buncha kombucha-sucking, tree-tonguing, Trader Joe's shoppers, am I right? Spoiler alert: I am right. But they're also Americans like you, folks struggling to raise their kids and pay their bills and get some enjoyment out of life, the best they know how. They fill jobs you don't want, like processing L&I claims so injured workers get checks in a timely fashion. They wear jeans, at least on laundry day, and ask their kids not to go postal when your kids call them horrible names. ("Libtard?" Really? Is that a word you feel good about?)

But seriously, forget liberal activists. They're not your people; they're mine. But so are you, so let's just talk about me and my wife and family instead.

I'm Mexican-American on my dad's side, which means I have Mexican-American family members. I've been told I don't fit your stereotype of Mexicans, so you may think I don't count as a Mexican-American. But trust me, if you met some of my cousins and aunts, you'd agree they qualify. Their ancestors were legal immigrants from Mexico. When Donald Trump literally began his campaign by saying most Mexican immigrants were rapists, that amused you and horrified me. When Trump said the federal judge overseeing his fraud case couldn't be trusted, solely because he was Mexican-American, I was already finished with "giving Trump a chance." I knew immediately that when he said he wanted to make America great, at least part of what he meant was minimizing my family's place and success in this country. He meant we didn't belong, that this country would be better if we'd just go away.

You may not hate Mexicans. You may think that means you're not racist against Mexicans. But you seem to agree we can't be trusted, and guess what? That does make you racist. I know you don't like reading that, because you know racists are bad people and you're not a bad person so how could you be racist? Well, it's the same way I can be a good person and still be a grouchy snob sometimes. It's simple human imperfection. We aren't living "Good/Evil" switches stuck in just one position. We have ranges of ethics, you and I. That's why it's so important that we look at ourselves honestly. I need to acknowledge my reflexive distrust of people with southern accents, and you need to acknowledge you weren't crazy about the notion of a mixed-race president. Because that's racist. You can justify it by saying you also distrusted this or that policy decision or statement, but let's be honest: it was mostly the fact that he was browner than you feel comfortable around. He didn't look like your mental picture of a president. And that is racist, racist, racist, and you need to deal with that. I can't make you deal with it. You need to process that for yourself.

My Mexican-American ancestors passed through Mexico on their way from northern Spain. They were Sephardim, which means they were Jews on the run. I'm ethnically Jewish on my father's side. Donald Trump has openly courted the white nationalist movement, which believes Jews aren't fully human. Trump's chief strategist and senior advisor, Steve Bannon, was the executive chair of Breitbart News. That's important because this summer, Bannon himself called Breitbart "the platform for the alt-right," a softer name for the white nationalist movement. That movement, by the way, includes neo-Nazis. Yes, actual neo-Nazis—or, as some dub them, "skinheads in suits." They insult the press in German and give heil-Hitler salutes. I'm not kidding. You probably haven't seen this, because your social media feeds are more conservative than mine, but you should pay attention to actual video of that happening in a government office. It's a red flag to end all red flags, because it's a red flag with a swastika on it. Yes, this really is happening, here in America, NOW. The time to prevent it has already passed. This is already a national emergency.

Incidentally, I myself am in the press. I'm the managing editor of a multiplatform arts publication. So when Trump pulls news reporters into a room, off the record, as he did two nights ago, and berates them at length for telling the truth, I need you to understand this is unprecedented in modern American history. The president-elect doesn't get to scream at and threaten the media. The news media exist, in part, to make presidents nervous, not to flatter them like toadying flunkies.

My wife Amanda is my best friend. I'm a mama's boy and a proud feminist. So when Donald Trump says horrible things about women and how they look, it disgusts me. Fine, you're no fan of Rosie O'Donnell. I get it. But what do you think he'd say about you, if you're a woman, or the women you love? Trump said plainly that he enjoys walking up to women he barely knows, even married women, and kissing them and grabbing them in ways they didn't ask to receive. Then he walked over to a married woman he barely knows, only months after his own marriage to Melania, and did exactly that. It wasn't just talk; he came right out and did it. That was sexual molestation, and we have very good reason to believe he does it all the time. Now you've rewarded him for that. You've said it's okay for our president-elect to harass women, and frankly, that makes me violently angry...yes, at him, but sometimes at you, too. It's not okay. You can't say to me or even yourself that he really didn't do that, because he did it on camera. It's not your job (nor mine) to decide reality. Reality happens, and then we must deal with it. The way you dealt with this reality is to spit in the face of women you care about, and I'm not okay with that.

You'll notice I haven't said anything about Trump's qualifications to be president. He has none. Being rich is not a qualifying credential, though it is the fastest way to buy ads and gain media attention to get there. Mr. Trump is a flat-out con artist. In fact, now that he's settled out of court for $25 million in the Trump University case, I can accurately call him a fraud. He conned you. He defrauded you. He has no idea how to fix your problems. In fact, not to put too fine a point on it, Donald Trump does not give two shits about you. He told a restaurant full of rich Manhattanites at the 21 Club their taxes would go down, but experts agree yours will not. He has no idea how to bring jobs back to the Rust Belt. His stated plans are all "trust me, believe me"—all sizzle, no steak. He told you he'd lock Hillary up for, you know, something, but now he says he won't. He told you he'd dismantle the ACA, now he says there's no guarantee and by the way, it won't happen overnight. Overturn Roe v. Wade? Enh, we'll see. He's a bullshit artist. Longtime readers of my blog know I don't often swear here, but I can't think of any clearer way of saying it: Donald Trump is completely, 100% full of shit. And you bought it. Doesn't that make you embarrassed? It should. But that's okay, because embarrassment can turn into righteous indignation and we need you to feel that right now.

I haven't mentioned the distinct possibility that Russian hackers altered voting in Trump's favor in three swing states, thereby tipping the electoral college. I haven't mentioned Hillary won the popular vote by (as of this morning) two million votes, earning more votes than any presidential candidate in history other than Obama in 2008. I haven't mentioned the pernicious campaign of lies and character assassination that made even liberals reluctant to vote for Trump's opponent. I haven't mentioned the CIA carefully timing false announcements about Hillary's email. I certainly can't prove Trump raped a 13-year-old girl, but I can tell you he's friends with a guy who was found guilty of running a child-sex-slavery ring for rich, Manhattanite friends. If Donald Trump is a Christian, then I'm a Rebel X-wing pilot. If he's a humanitarian, I'm Grace Jones.

I feel grief about this, and I'm hardly alone. My doctor tells me much of Olympia is on antidepressants right now. This isn't just depression, a condition I'm used to, it's a sadness that won't go away. I find it difficult to think about anything but the election and the very real possibility you voted for an aspiring fuehrer. It's affecting my work, my sleep, my health, and yes, my feelings about you. And even as I think about that in the self-judgmental, cynical light of day, it makes perfect sense that I would feel that way. You voted for the antithesis of every one of my values. You voted for a guy whose vice-president abhors my gay friends. You voted for a guy who won't accept the idea that presidents should avoid conflicts of interest. You voted for a guy who's been following the Hitler playbook, emboldening American terrorists and meeting every definition of a fascist. Should I really overlook that? Should I really shrug off what you've expressed with that vote about my family, friends and beloved wife, let alone what you've expressed about me? Am I really supposed to think our friendship should be bigger than that, when you've effectively told me you don't consider me a friend?

To be honest, I've given up hope I can reason with you. I can't persuade you by thinking, so instead I must talk about how we feel. You obviously feel I can't be trusted. You feel my wife is fair game for a sexual predator. You feel LGBTQ people should be ostracized. You feel people of color aren't as deserving as white people. Last week I visited a mosque, and when I looked into the eyes of the men, women and children who worship your shared God there, I saw real terror. You helped cause that. And I do want to meet you in the middle and talk about how we might continue Obama's crusade for jobs (you're probably unaware of this, but unemployment is actually quite low right now), but I can't do that until you admit there's a problem that needs fixing. And in order to do that, I need to make you see how you contributed to that problem. You were scared, you were played by a guy I've come to realize is a media genius, and it made you gullible. You have to join the fight on our side now. You have to push back against white nationalism and "post-facts" propaganda and mistreatment of women and minority groups. You have to cite legitimate sources when you post things on the Internet. You have to get smarter about how to recognize illegitimate sources. You need to put what's right and kind ahead of party loyalty or your identity politics. Be a grown-up, okay? Be a good person. Put your arm around the shoulder of someone who's scared and upset and ask how you can help. Understand we're not just whiny sore losers. We've been hurt to our very guts by the feelings you've expressed about us, and we can't somehow make you not have done that. All we can ask now is that you roll up your sleeves and help us limit the damage you helped cause.

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11May/165

Mistaken Identity

When I was a teenager, I had an experience that most of you haven't. I realized over the course of a few years that everybody who loved me was wrong about pretty much everything.

I was raised as a Jehovah's Witness. I was taught the tenets of that religion, along with its view of history and science, along with abstinence from politics, along with a distrustful view of humanity, by people who cared about me deeply. Those people weren't deliberately filling me with b.s. They thought they were telling me the truth. When Witnesses come knocking on your door, thereby annoying you in the middle of a college football game, they think they're potentially saving your life. I know because I thought so. I didn't want to "go in service." I felt I had to...for you. And no matter how passionate an argument I could muster at the time from my encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible, I was wrong. So was Mom. So was Dad. So were most of my authority figures.

So think about that. Put yourself in my shoes. Imagine learning everything you believe, everything you stand for, is a fraud. Perpetrated by whom, you ask? I don't know. I've often wondered about that. I suspect even the Witnesses' Governing Body in Brooklyn thinks it's telling its flock the whole truth. Maybe the fraud is in our own minds. We believe what sounds good to us, regardless of logic or evidence to the contrary. Are your beliefs so different?

The thing is, that experience changed me. It made me skeptical of concepts that sound too good to be true. Now I can't watch a single TV commercial without picking away at its promises.

Most of you have never dealt with this moment, at least not to the degree that I have. So for you, identity is everything, and by that I mean the identity you were given by Mommy and Daddy and the community in which you were raised. If your father was a Baptist, you're probably a Baptist. If your uncles were Democrats, you're probably a Democrat. If you're a Star Wars or Seahawks fan, your kids will probably wear those T-shirts before they learn half a dozen words. You've changed, sure, but only in superficial ways. And that's okay, generally speaking. It's good to be part of a community. It's good to know where you came from, to start your life armed with a preinstalled template.

Except here's the thing: sometimes the people who love us make mistakes. And sometimes, and this happens more often than we realize, the truth moves away from what it used to be. As a culture, we learn things. People my age can look back and see a time when racism and homophobia were ubiquitous on a level that makes most millennials queasy. It's not that we were awful people. It's that we just didn't know any better. I myself am a reformed homophobe, and I'm so glad I saw the light before most Oklahomans. But we didn't own magical Palantiri to help us see into the future--nor do you. The day may come, for example, when group or short-contract marriages are the norm, and our progeny will look back and wonder why we Generation X-ers were so keen to marry for life. They'll wonder how you could ever have bought tickets to SeaWorld or eaten the flesh of a mammal. Who knows? We aren't prophets, you and I, and always in motion is the future.

My grandmother was a staunch Democrat till the day she died. Y'know what, though? The Democratic Party she signed on for wasn't the Democratic Party of the 21st century. The Democratic brand in the mid-'60s included racist doctrines you and I now consider appalling. But my grandma, who, let's face it, came from a deeply racist Oklahoma tradition, never switched her party allegiance. She considered her party membership a key element of her identity as a person--regardless of what it meant from year to year.

So why am I writing about this now?

Each of us has a feeling of identity, a core group of ideas and values we consider our "self." Once we have it, we don't think about it often. An identity thief steals our Social Security and credit card information, but he never actually steals our identity. That stays with us like childhood inoculation scars. I'll give you a personal example. Right around the time I left the Witnesses, theatre became a huge part of my life. Three decades later, it's an aspect of who I am in my own mind. If you ask me, I'm a writer who acts and directs and loves his wife and Star Wars and a core group of family and friends. That's not all I am, obviously, but it covers about 80%. You could banish me to a faraway prison and if I escaped in five years, I would still be all those things. Did the uninspiring Star Wars prequels dent my fandom? Not one bit. Does my wife's snoring make me love her any less? Don't be silly. If I go two years without having a great time on stage, does it keep me from auditioning? Well, I've been through spells like that, and apparently not.

Should it? Therein lies the rub. I don't know the answer to that question. Some years I ask myself that question very pointedly. When I do, my mind yells back at me: Carv, if you aren't a theatre person, then what the hell are you? Who are you? Why are you even important? And that's a debilitating thought. It can sweep away reason. It can make us do and say things other people may look at and rightly evaluate as foolish and/or insane.

I'll give you another example. For most Americans, the Bible is a book of peace and the Koran is a book of bloodshed. That's just something we, you'll pardon the expression, take on faith. Now, I freely admit I don't know jack about the Koran, but I do know the Bible. And if you can look at the books of Deuteronomy (2:34, 3:6, 7:2, I could go on) or Joshua (6:21, 10:40...) and not see that Yahweh is a god who favors genocide as a method of acquiring preferable real estate, then you own one liberal translation. Read Hosea 13:16 and tell me Yahweh is a god of love, forgiveness and compassion. Tell me he's a god who loves life. Read Exodus chapters 21 and 22 and tell me he's a god who loves women. Because I can promise you this: if you had never read the Bible or had any emotional attachment to it prior to adulthood, and I asked you to sit down and read the Bible cover to cover, you'd be outraged that anyone could revere it an ethical guide. I mean, sure, there are great verses, too. I bet you know some of them by heart. But they don't paint a representative picture of the so-called Good Book as a whole. This is a book in which Yahweh told us ten moral rules were so important we could treat them as the sum of all moral behavior. And did "slavery is wrong" make the list? How 'bout "races who look unlike you are still people?" Or "stop beating your kids?" Nope. "Sex slavery is wrong?" Huh-uh. Know what did make the list? "No more sculpture." This is also a moral guide that frequently reminds you to throw rocks at your gay friends until they fall over dead. It's a book that claims Yahweh decided to kill us all, first one at a time, then with a global flood, then concocted a plan to make it stop--which, for some reason, required him to kill his own son. Oh, and by the way, death hasn't stopped. It's been two thousand years and counting, and earthquakes are still dumping church roofs on babies. But what a wonderful plan!

Now, I tell you all this knowing most of you will find ways to rationalize it away. And you'll do that, not because it makes any sense, frankly, but because Christianity is a part of who you are. It's a part of your identity. And very likely, it will be for the rest of your life. You might change churches or stop going altogether, you might accept the scientific fact of evolution, you might campaign for gay rights, but you'll go to your grave thinking this world would be a better place if more people just followed the Bible. Not read it cover to cover with a clear mind, of course--don't be silly. Simply followed it, meaning the verses we already know and like. We're about identity here, not homework!

I've never been shy about talking about religion, sex and politics--the socially awkward trinity we've been told to avoid in conversation. Screw that. I know what the weather looks like. I'm not here to belabor the obvious. That stuff bores me. But when I talked about these things, for years I went about it all wrong. I presented my arguments rationally, like we were in court and I was trying to send your most cherished ideas to logic jail. I'll be honest, I still try that sometimes. I can't help myself. If it annoys you, I apologize. If this essay has already gotten on your nerves, mea culpa. But I do try to learn from my mistakes, and I've realized in recent months that a lot of what you believe, you believe because it's part of who you are. It's part of your identity. If I tell you the Bible is a collection of short books written over hundreds of years by people who had no concept of physical or sociological reality and knew less about God or morality than any of us, I'm also telling you that your parents lied to you. I'm telling you that when you played cowboys and Indians when you were a kid, the Indians should actually have been the good guys. I'm telling you Jesus isn't coming to save you from the big D. I'm telling you neither "real men" nor "real women" have a divinely approved set of characteristics, which means you're not necessarily a "real" man or woman. I'm telling you Grandpa was a dummy about how nonwhites and women should be treated. I'm telling you Granny taught you methods of cooking guaranteed to make you fat. I'm telling you all those things, those vital contributing factors to your identity, those people who loved you and took care of you when you were sick and brought you nice things on Christmas, were all chock full of crap. And since that's clearly an awful thing to tell any human being, I must be wrong so all of them can be right--and so you can be right. It's vitally important that you and your loved ones be right about everything. Right? Because if someone else is right--especially a mean son of cultists like me--then what the hell is left for you to be?

My point is, I have to be careful when framing my arguments about these topics that I don't disrespect your identity and background. Because the truth is I value those things. I appreciate the countless hours my own mother spent teaching me how to be a better Witness. I thank my father for the snarky sense of humor he bequeathed upon me, though it often gets both of us in trouble--including with each other. I'm thankful to every teacher who taught me "all right" is a word and "alright" isn't, despite the fact that both are now okay in most dictionaries. I love the elder who changed my life by responding to one of my myriad pesky questions with the sincere claim, "Sometimes it's best not to speculate"--because that's the moment I realized it was absolutely necessary for human beings to speculate. Those moments built me. They're my own identity. And no matter how far I roam from McAlester and Crowder, Oklahoma, they'll be down there in my cellular nuclei, defining how I approach the world and my responsibilities to it.

We have come to a time in American history when the Republican Party, an organization that ostensibly represents a full half of our electorate, is in catastrophic disarray. That's a fact. I say it, not to gloat, but to find a way forward. And it's not just the Trump thing. We're also reaching the end of a period in which several Republican governors had the opportunity to follow the Republican platform to the letter in their states. Thus, we've been able to see, once and for all, whether those ideas pan out--and they don't. Those states are now bankrupt. Their educational systems are falling apart. As one of my Republican friends said of Oklahoma's political debacle, "We are basically in budget cut Hell out here," adding, "Thanks for my $30 per year tax cut and my kids' tears."

I'm not saying Democrats are better people. In no way am I saying we progressives have all the answers and ha ha ha, in your face. I'm saying good people had idealistic notions of how to run a government, but those turned out to be wrong. It'd be easy for us to go down in flames with those ideas because we can't admit our identities were flawed. It'd be easy to think, "I can see things are collapsing around my ears, and my kids don't have classroom supplies and the rest of the country is rolling its eyes at us, but I intend to stay loyal to Republican ideas and legislators because those are Republican ideas and I'm a Republican like my daddy before me and if I'm not a Republican, then who the hell am I?"--at which point there's a smell of fried circuitry in our brains and our vision gets blurry and we have to lie down for a while.

As we speak, the sole Republican candidate for president is a reality TV clown, a living parody of billionaire boobism. Working people feel shafted by the system, as well they should; but they've responded by rallying behind a vulgar tycoon whose tag line is, literally, "You're fired." They long for a return to Christian fundamentalism, yet they've voted for a non-churchgoer who said "Two Corinthians" at a Bible college. Donald Trump has never held political office, never served in the military, never learned how to compromise in a divided system, and never did anything for anyone but himself. He claims to be a uniter but called Megyn Kelly a "bimbo." I know the vast majority of Republicans see through his fools' gold facade. I know they do. But many will still vote for him--because there's an R by his name, and R's vote for R's, and that's just how these things are, because identity. I mean, what are they supposed to do, vote for a D? Stay home on R Day? Are you kidding?

My friends, identity can be a wonderful thing, but it is currently making us very, very stupid.

We fight tooth and nail against reasonable restrictions against guns, because we're gun people and you not-gun people shouldn't be attacking our identity as gun people. I mean, sure, some kids die in a school shooting each week, but I don't see myself as a bad person so somehow my complicity in that doesn't matter.

We refuse to admit gay people are people because we're straight people and it's part of our identity as straight people to look down on gay people. I mean, we say we love the sinner and hate the sin, but actually we refuse to acknowledge that being gay shouldn't be a sin because we're Bible people and we Bible people think gay people are sinners and if we're wrong about that, well, let's just not even go there.

We deny evolution because science people are nerd people and they're mean to us, I mean they act so superior, just because they studied anthropology and we didn't. And quit reminding us we were half-awake in science class, nerds! We're Bible people and who asked all you knowing-stuff people anyway!

We take an all-or-nothing stance on abortion because the way we feel about abortion was fed to us by people who love us, and this is babies and femininity and motherhood we're talking about so you know we can't be swayed by emotion or paranoia.

Folks, we have to take a good hard look at our issues of identity. It's long past time. Just because you were told some things in childhood by people who love you doesn't mean those good people were right about every single thing. And even if they had been, the world changes. We learn things. There's no good way now, for example, to argue climate change is a hoax. There's no world in which it's okay for Donald Trump to call Mexicans rapists and then claim he loves Mexicans because he ordered a taco salad. There's no way he wasn't screwing with us when he referred to 9/11 as "7-Eleven" in New York. That is not a mistake people make, especially adults who speak English and live and work in Manhattan. Trump is playing us for fools, and he's winning. There's no way the Republican Party can be said to represent everyday working people. You want to talk about Democrats? Fine, let's do that. I also think we picked the wrong candidate. And y'know why we did that? Because we couldn't expand our identity to include democratic socialism fast enough to take Sanders seriously. We went with the establishment candidate, because that candidate looked more like a D and we're D people and that's just what D people do.

Well, I for one am through feeling chained to my identity. I can grow. I can learn. And so can you. In fact it seems to me that cutting loose from what Mommy and Daddy told us with loving smiles on their faces is the only way any of us can move forward. The key to making America great isn't making it what it was. That country was only great to a select few. We make America great by making it inclusive and receptive and progressive and reasonable and above all, optimistic--not fearful. Let's be better than we have been. Let's be better than our parents and grandparents were. Let's build new and richer identities together. Can we do that? Can we please just try harder to do that?

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22Jun/152

Reflections on Metal Bikinis

I feel hesitant about saying any good may have come from the church shooting in Charleston last week. In every debate, at all times, we must remember that dozens of people lost their beloved friends and family members, a church lost its spiritual leaders, and a community lost positive social guides. They didn't die so we could learn. They died because a racist kid with an apparent prescription drug problem and a history of all the wrong Internet searches walked into their church with pro-subjugation iconography on his jacket and a gun stashed beneath it. He remained in that church for an hour, reportedly bandying scripture with parishioners (he identified as Lutheran), then blew nine innocent human beings into oblivion. The cause of that tragedy may be very specifically pinned on the shooter, not on the society around him nor on any of our laws or beliefs. It was his fault and his alone.

For whatever reason, however, it seems we've reached a collectively teachable moment. I'm including myself unequivocally. Among the more obnoxious traits of progressives like me is we can't resist opportunities to soapbox. We inject ourselves into every tragedy and exhaust with our liberal righteousness. I'm doing it, too! But I'm not without blame in this discussion. I admitted as much in my previous post, and I'll tell you right now I learned a great deal this week. I fact-checked dozens of Internet memes and offended Southern pride and was stunned at how little I knew about these topics. I'm an educated man. I read incessantly, including a great deal of history. I devoured A People's History of the United States, as you should if you haven't already. Yet I still find myself deeply ignorant. I wonder if our society goes out of its way to avoid facing its least admirable history. Who could blame us, I suppose, but it does catch up to us in moments like these.

I grew up in California. I saw the Confederate battle flag (note the phrasing) a few times in my youth, as on the "General Lee" Dodge Charger "them Duke boys" owned on Dukes of Hazzard. That changed when I moved to Oklahoma. Many Oklahomans identify as Southern. I don't know why. Oklahoma isn't in the south. Oklahoma didn't fight for the South in the Civil War, largely because it wasn't a state till 1907. Oklahomans are much more individualistic than Southerners, according to studies like the one described here. I saw the "rebel flag" more often in Oklahoma, though, and heard many of the same arguments in its support that I'm reading from folks online now. They didn't hold water, then or now, despite superficial sentimental appeal.

One of the things I learned this week is that the "Confederate flag" is actually one of many such emblems. The first national flag of the Confederacy, aka the "Stars and Bars," looks like the Betsy Ross flag as drawn by someone too lazy to draw 13 stripes; it has three. It was designed by a German-American artist named Nicola Marschall, who was probably influenced by a similar Austrian flag. The so-called "rebel flag" began its history as the second official Confederate flag, designed by William Tappan Thompson. What a sweetheart this guy was. The familiar X on a red field was actually a square in the upper left corner of the flag. The flag's remaining expanse was all-white. Lest this seem an unfortunate coincidence, Thompson himself explained the design in the newspaper he ran, a paper now called the Savannah Morning News. "As a people," he wrote, "we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause." He referred to his flag as the "Stainless Banner," the "stain" being people of color. But wait, there's more: he called his design "The White Man's Flag." Go, team!

The now-familiar Confederate X icon was magnified into a square flag to represent the Army of Northern Virginia, then stretched into the rectangular Second Confederate Navy Jack. That's the banner yet waving in South Carolina. By law, that flag can't be lowered to half-staff (except by a vote of the General Assembly), so it hasn't so much as dipped to signify mourning for Charleston's latest nine victims.

It's true the rebel flag is not South Carolina's state flag. It is also true that at least six other states have official flags designed around Confederate elements. (Don't believe me? Look here.) The question is whether we should continue to treat Confederate flags or iconography as anything better than shameful reminders.

I'm no expert on the Deep South, but I do know many Southerners ain't keen on folks from other regions dictating ethics, especially about matters that affect Southerners directly. I respect that, believe it or not. I respect it so much I've declined the opportunity to sign a national petition calling for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from South Carolina official state grounds. I'm in favor of removing it; I have no beef with other people signing the petition. I just hope the required number of signatures comes from South Carolinians with no outside help.

What might be helpful in that regard, however, is perspective. We get attached to the iconography of our childhood. Consider, for example, Princess Leia. How a 16-year-old got to be both a princess and a senator is beyond me, especially since Leia was adopted and had no royal Alderaanian blood, but I take my Star Wars history at its word. Princess Leia was an early adopter of feminist take-no-crappism. I like that. Her expressiveness and courage were a positive influence on girls, perhaps even on boys like me who got to see a strong female role model with a mouth every bit as fast as her blaster. Then came Return of the Jedi, in which Leia, a princess for the Maker's sake, allowed herself to be taken captive by "vile gangster Jabba the Hutt." She was garbed in a harem-girl bikini, then chained to a frog-addicted slug, presumably for sexual gratification. "Slave Leia," the action figure dubbed her, and she's basically the cause of puberty in all American males who came of age in the mid-1980s.

And she is basically a sex slave.

There's slavery all over the Star Wars universe, in fact. Droids, even such obviously sentient and emotional creatures as C-3P0 and R2-D2, get bought and sold in open slave auctions. Once purchased, droids apply the word "master" to their owners. Later, we find out Anakin Skywalker was born into slavery, albeit a dumbed-down form of slavery in which he gets to be a Tatooine-renowned podracer. But there it is: slavery. "We don't serve their kind here." Remember that? You can see it now, right? Pretty lousy, don't you think? I mean, now that you're actually thinking about it? I'd like that aspect of my beloved Star Wars movies to be dismissible, but it isn't. I'd love to say opposition to slavery, droid or otherwise, is a plank of the Rebellion Against the Empire, but in canonical materials at least, it never seems to come up. And why would it? The Rebellion's greatest heroes are all slave owners. Will this ethical dilemma be addressed in upcoming movies? I wouldn't bet your lightsaber on it. Don't expect Star Wars fans to rise up in united rejection of the Huttese bikini, either, no matter how skin-cancer-risky it might be on a world with two suns. That bikini is, as Lindsey Graham described the rebel flag, "part of who we are."

Similarly, the offensiveness of the Confederate battle flag is difficult for those who grew up around it to see. I imagine it's much easier for black Southerners to see, because that flag was made by racist whites in support of white racism. That's a fact. No matter what the flag may mean to individual Southerners now, it's damned by its very reason for being. And as soon as you know and understand that, don't you wonder how black Southerners feel seeing it day in and day out? Isn't that flag kind of the opposite of a welcome mat? Doesn't it scream "sorry, not sorry" for the Civil War? You know: that war to preserve slavery, declared in an act of outright treason against the duly-elected government of the United States?

Wait, wait, wait, you say, that war wasn't really about slavery. It was actually about--and I'm sorry, but I must stop you there. I have to nip that, you'll pardon the expression, whitewash in the bud. Think for a minute. We humans have a built-in tendency to justify our actions, rewriting history to amplify our nobility and obscure our mistakes. We see children do that all the time, and we adults do it, too. That's what's happening here. I say that with absolute confidence, because this week taught me the existence of the Cornerstone speech. That speech, delivered by Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens to the Savannah Athenaeum on March 21, 1861, reminded Georgians why Southern states seceded three weeks previously. Stephens did mention some of the Southern states'-rights complaints often cited in this argument, but then he said, "[A]llow me to allude to one other though last, not least. The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution: African slavery as it exists amongst us [and] the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this....The prevailing ideas entertained by him, and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically....Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the 'storm came and the wind blew.' Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition."

Some "great truth." So there ya go. Debate over. It can be proven from this, and from many other similar expressions by Confederate leaders at the time, that the South fought a war to preserve the slavery on which its economy rested. And that was a great moral wrong, one the South must acknowledge. The South deserved to lose that war. There's no glory in fighting a treasonous war so your region can continue to buy and sell human beings. Any flag or iconography that derives from and beckons respect for secession and slavery must be thought of as shameful. Yes, the rebel flag's part of Southern culture, just as the swastika's part of German history. Yet that doesn't mean it merits respect.

The Charleston shooter, whose name I won't repeat, put a CSA license plate on his car. That's no coincidence at all. It stood for the same racist hatred as the Rhodesian flag on his jacket. The rebel flag means many things to many people, but surely it always invokes rebellion. And rebellion against what, and for what? History provides those answers, and they must be taken seriously. It's time to put its relics behind us once and for all.

-----

One last thing:

Folks like me have used this tragedy to revivify calls for increased gun control. I make no apologies whatsoever for being staunchly in favor of reducing the number and power of guns in our country, nor for supporting the banning of untrustworthy people from owning them. I learned after Newtown, however, that nothing I say about guns--nothing, in fact, that the entirety of statistical data reveals about the overwhelming danger of our society's gun laws and attitudes--will make any damn difference. You'll believe about guns tomorrow exactly what you believed about them yesterday; and God forbid that ever comes to haunt you or your family. I mean that. It's kind of like slave Leia, though: people go to their graves defending what made them happy when they were kids. And that's okay...until it isn't.

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19Jun/152

Racism Is

In light of Dylann Roof's repeated insistence, to both churchgoers and law officers, that he shot nine people to death in an attempt to start a race war, I found myself wondering why certain media outlets (oh, screw it, Fox News) and political candidates were so desperate to deny that's why he did it. Rick Santorum, for example, claimed Roof's motive was persecution of Christians and added, "What other rationale could there be?" I'm no telepath, so I can't say for sure, but it seems to me right-wing folks are so tired of being accused of racist motives that they'd like to pretend racism died around 2008. We often hear we live in a postracial world. Unfortunately, no matter how much we'd love for that assessment to be true, it just isn't.

I mean, I'm no racist. You're no racist, I'm sure. We're good people. We'd never burn a cross on someone's lawn or refuse someone housing on the basis of race or even call someone the N word. Right? So I guess that means none of us are racist.

Well...no.

Because Jon Stewart is right: for many people in this country, racist attitudes and expressions and institutions are wallpaper, an everyday background to life. If you're African-American, getting pulled over by cops is a vastly different experience for you than it is for me. I know even if I'm guilty, the worst I'll probably get is a ticket. You don't know that, because you can't.

I'm biracial, genetically speaking. My father is Mexican-American, what some people (not my father, by the way) would call Chicano, and my mother is Clorox white. Yet I speak little Spanish. Truth be told, I feel white. In our twenty-first-century parlance, I "identify as" white. In some ways, I guess that makes me white. I look about as Hispanic as most of you do. When people meet me, unless they're concentrating on my last name, they don't see me as Latino, so I've gone through life facing little of the widespread dismissal faced by other members of my race. Is that a kind of "white privilege?" I suppose it probably is.

So I don't know the pain of racism firsthand. I was lucky enough to be raised in a religion that flatly rejects the worst behaviors and attitudes of racists. Mixed marriages were common in my congregation, and my babysitters were people of numerous races. When I moved to Oklahoma at age 14, I was shocked to hear slave-trader language come out of my grandfather's mouth. It wasn't long before I refused to ever speak with him again. I say this, not to wave away criticism, but to explain why I've been so slow to come around to the realization that I might be a little bit racist myself.

See, it depends on how deeply I see the problem. No, I would NEVER, EVER use the N word to describe anyone. EVER. I deplore it. I would never commit any violent act against a person because he or she had skin of a differing color from mine. I would never deny housing to a black family or tell hateful jokes about people of any given ethnicity. And that makes me wonderfully progressive...if this were 1959.

I ask that you join me in looking deeper. I ask that you join me in seeing, truly seeing, the racist wallpaper around us as a first step toward tearing it down. Because I've been guilty of some of what you'll read below. Very likely you have, too. And because of that, you'll immediately think to yourself, "But that's not racist!" because what you're really thinking is "I can't be racist! Racists are horrible people! I'm a good person! I love everyone!" And you do. I believe that. You do. We are all terrific people. But even terrific people can have wrong ideas or assumptions, and the longer we allow that to go on, the less livable our country becomes for so many of our friends and coinhabitants. I will not be a part of that anymore.

Racism is the belief that when you learn someone's ethnicity, you know something about their behavior. "Ah, she's Asian. I bet her mom was tough." "Ah, he's Hispanic. I bet he supports illegal immigration." "Ah, that family is Irish. Hide your liquor!"

Racism is the claim that they, whomever "they" are, "don't value life the way we do." It's the claim that "they don't value freedom the way we do." It's the claim that "they have so many kids, losing one doesn't make much of a difference to them."

Racism is the continued display of the Confederate flag...on anything, let alone a state building. And before you say, "It's tradition," remind yourself that Confederate tradition was all about slavery: the ownership of living, thinking, feeling human beings like yourself.

Racism is being more afraid of a dark man behind you at night than a light man behind you.

Racism is the fear of lingering or using ATMs in "black neighborhoods."

Racism is "It's okay for them to say it. They say it all the time. So why can't I say it?"

Racism is frowning at a seemingly ethnic name on a job application.

Racism is comedy that hinges on the notion that most members of a certain race possess a given quality.

Racism is the use of expressions like "gyp," "manifest destiny," "awful white of you," "jewed him down," "from the other side of the tracks," "Indian giver," "sold down the river," "paddy wagon," "mongoloid," and so on.

Racism is the idea that God ever had a "chosen people."

Racism is often referring to your friend, who happens to be black, as "my black friend."

Racism is asking the sole person of a given ethnicity in a room to speak for that entire ethnicity.

Racism is making sure the protagonist of a movie you're producing about a civil rights movement is white. You know: so people can relate.

Racism is "They're taking over our country" and/or "We need to take our country back."

Racism is "There goes the neighborhood."

Racism is "I can't be racist; I have black friends."

Racism is "They only voted for him because he's black."

Racism is the insistence that people should use the phrase "Islamic terrorism" more often.

Racism is the idea that Christianity or Judaism are inherently more peaceful than Islam.

Racism is annoyance about a Spanish-language option on a phone tree.

Racism is the feeling that immigrants should learn English--not because it would improve their economic opportunities, but because they just owe it to us.

Racism is discomfort around a doctor with an accent.

Racism is the belief that things were better before all this political correctness.

Racism is the belief that things were better back when everyone "knew their place."

Racism is the belief that black children are less innocent than white children, black teenagers less innocent than white teenagers.

Racism is the belief that even if a black man who was arrested (or perhaps even beaten) turns out to be innocent of that charge, he was probably guilty of something else anyway.

Racism is global. It is deep down in all of us. ALL of us. Me. It's in me. Sociologists tell us we operate on an algorithm called "kin selection," in which our tendency to protect and care for someone varies directly by how much that person physically reminds us of ourselves. Ergo, we love our families more than our neighbors, our neighbors more than other Americans, other Americans more than anyone else. I don't imagine that biological tendency will go away anytime soon; it's been inherited for thousands of generations. Yet we can keep a watchful eye out for its negative side effects. We can worry more about policing ourselves and less about keeping "them" in check.

I know you don't want to be racist. I don't, either. But racism isn't merely its most vicious or violent offshoots. It's the feelings we hide away, partly to be polite, partly to stay out of trouble, and partly because we're so prone to self-justification that we deny our own biases. Enough is enough. We may never be as racist as Dylann Roof--and yet all of us, myself included, can be better than we are.

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18Feb/150

A Straight Meditation on National Themes, Part 1

Unless you're an actor, it's probable you know nothing about Tony Kushner's landmark 1993 play Angels in America (though you may have caught the HBO miniseries version). Angels sounds like the kind of show you'd find at a Baptist theme park. It is not. Theatre folk revere this multiple Tony winner, but it's both arduous to stage and off-putting to elderly, conservative audiences, so most companies shy away from producing it. Oh! I should also mention it's divided into two parts, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, each of which is three hours long. That's a long sit, especially when characters are rambling on about government and "power to the people." So why do we in the acting and directing games adore it so much?

A key element of the play is gay Americans' struggle for acceptance in the 1980s, as a viral plague ravaged their community while amplifying the phobias of heterosexuals. I've told the story before of how a visit to a drag club, and a list of names read there of the recently deceased, won me over once and for all to the side of righteousness--meaning I am a straight ally. That night in, I think, 1991 was a game-changer for me. It put the lie to everything I'd been told about homosexuality by my Christian elders while injecting harsh reality and urgency into the AIDS crisis. Five years later, I found myself playing Louis in an SIU-C production of Angels in America, Part 1. I auditioned in hopes of earning the part of Roy Cohn, a thinly fictionalized incarnation of the very real attorney at the heart of the Red Scare and marginalization of gay citizens. Cohn died of what he called "liver cancer," in actuality HIV, in 1986. Instead I got Louis, who has many more lines and is openly gay and is also kind of a bastard himself, in that he begins an affair even as his longtime boyfriend disintegrates from HIV infection.

We heterosexual folks who love theatre spend our lives working side by side with gay men and lesbians. We love them as family. They're part of us. So when we hear about legislators, to this very day, working overtime to curry favor with Fox News viewers by yanking hard-won rights away from those we love, it destroys us on a gut level. We embrace Angels in America because it articulates, in so many ways, a cause we view as embedded in our cells. Its characters demand equality, from God and other humans, as opponents close ranks around them. This play is the Marseillaise to our war: "C'est nous qu'on ose méditer de rendre à l'antique esclavage! Aux armes, citoyens!"

But if I'm being honest, even as the justice of our cause swelled my chest, I was uncomfortable rehearsing as Louis. I'd never kissed a man before, and I'd certainly never mimed sexual activity with my pants down before hundreds of people. The play is still shocking to conservative audiences, but man; in 1996, in Bible-belt southern Illinois, patrons' outrage--yes, I know the word outrage is vastly overused, but I stand by it here--nearly set the room on fire. I had to confront and get over my own hangups and prejudices, then face the collective displeasure of six hundred people a night. There were letters to the editor. People were assigned to walk actors to their cars. It was crazy. And I know it changed at least one life...mine.

Fast-forward 22 years to tomorrow at 7:55 p.m., when I'll walk on stage, finally, as Roy Cohn in an Olympia Little Theatre production of Angels in America directed by Nic Olson. We're presenting Millennium Approaches this first week, then Perestroika the second. It's a staged reading, meaning we actors will have books in our hands, but I think even OLT was surprised by the level to which this staged reading has been produced. It's fully blocked, costumed, lit, and sound-designed. There's a rudimentary set, complete with levels and special effects. To facilitate fight, love, and sex scenes, we've memorized certain pages. We studied Aramaic, French, Hebrew and medical jargon. No one gets naked, but we would've if asked. At the risk of implied condescension, I can't imagine how OLT could've asked for or gotten a smarter, more dedicated, talented cast. Kudos, for example, to Austin Lang, who's playing Louis; he's made choices I wish I'd been clever enough to make at SIU. I think what audience members get from this show is 85-90% of a fully-staged production, and remember, that's over six hours of theatre. Not too shabby!

If, that is, we get an audience. I haven't made too big a deal of the show up till now, because frankly, some of my readers won't want to see it. If, for example, you oppose gay marriage, this show isn't for you. Gay marriage wasn't a remote possibility when Angels was written, but the absolute rightness of it underlies every word. If the sight of two men kissing gives you the squeams, then, again, this show isn't for you. I suspect the 21st century won't be, either. If you can't abide swearing--I say words in this I wouldn't call my worst enemy--or seeing me play a horrible person--absolutely the worst I've ever played, by the time Perestroika gets through--then please stay home. Save your eight bucks a night. I mean, maybe this'd be a great learning experience for you, but frankly, you seem like the kind of person who avoids those. Not my problem. If you love to be challenged, however, to be wildly entertained by the hugest of emotional arcs at the climax of the Eschaton itself, then I damn sure know what you should put on your calendar.

It's different doing this show now, not just because I'm playing Roy instead of Louis. The world has changed in so many wonderful ways over the last two decades, some of which allowed it to mature in ways that helped it catch up with the play. My friends helped make some of that happen. One of our professors at ECU, Mary Bishop (now Bishop-Baldwin), was a driving force in legalizing gay marriage in Oklahoma. The cool theatre senior who lived next door is now a different sex altogether, which makes her one of three transgendered people on my Facebook friends list. Again: not part of our collective reality in 1996. Each day, the fight for equality is taking place in everyone's neighborhood, on TV and in social media, and the good guys and gals are finally winning. On the theatre side, no more do we see open homophobia in newspaper reviews. Actors are expected to be fully comfortable performing gay characters, including same-sex physical contact. It's part of our lives now. And y'know, once that period of uncertainty and yes, discomfort, passed, it freed people like me to understand that Angels in America has a much bigger theme than even the securing of equal rights for all our fellow Americans. It's about what it means to be a country itself. What is the point of all this? What are we trying to accomplish? How do we move ahead, and toward what, when we haven't decided what our guiding principles are? No, God isn't dead, but He also isn't president. He doesn't tell us which legislation to pass. The books He allegedly wrote seem decreasingly relevant to our daily lives, not because we're all fallen sinners, but because they predate modern science or humanistic ethics (or, in the case of the Torah at least, Euclidean geometry). In other words, while God continues His two-thousand-year history as a deadbeat dad, how and, as significant, why do we conduct our civilization? Those are vast questions. In some ways, six hours of drama isn't enough to scratch the surface, but Kushner's attempt at doing so is comparable to Shakespeare's meditations on the human condition in Hamlet. It doesn't get any bigger or better.

So that's the outline. I'll have more to say about our experiences with Angels, and in more of an anecdotal fashion, next week. In the meantime, wish us broken legs. Let us know what you think of our show. It'll be interesting, for both us and you.

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8Jan/150

#JeSuisCharlie

“It was a shocking thing to say and I knew it was a shocking thing to say. But no one has the right to live without being shocked. No one has the right to spend their life without being offended. Nobody has to read this book. Nobody has to pick it up. Nobody has to open it. And if you open it and read it, you don't have to like it. And if you read it and you dislike it, you don't have to remain silent about it. You can write to me, you can complain about it, you can write to the publisher, you can write to the papers, you can write your own book. You can do all those things, but there your rights stop. No one has the right to stop me writing this book. No one has the right to stop it being published, or sold, or bought, or read.”--Philip Pullman

“Government has no right to hurt a hair on the head of an Atheist for his Opinions. Let him have a care of his Practices."--John Quincy Adams

“Because if you don't stand up for the stuff you don't like, when they come for the stuff you do like, you've already lost.”--Neil Gaiman

“Most people do not really want others to have freedom of speech, they just want others to be given the freedom to say want they want to hear.”--Mokokoma Mokhonoana

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”--George Orwell

“If there's one American belief I hold above all others, it's that those who would set themselves up in judgment on matters of what is 'right' and what is 'best' should be given no rest; that they should have to defend their behavior most stringently....As a nation, we've been through too many fights to preserve our rights of free thought to let them go just because some prude with a highlighter doesn't approve of them."--Stephen King

“Free speech means the right to shout 'theatre' in a crowded fire.”--Abbie Hoffman

notafraid

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20Aug/130

That Subtle Difference

Here's a fun example of two news outlets, MSNBC and Fox News, reporting the same occurrence in very different styles.

First, MSNBC's take:

The federal budget deficit plummets.

Hey, that's incredible news, right? The deficit has fallen by over half since President Obama took office! How could that possibly be bad?

Now, here's Fox News:

Were you able to spot the subtle difference? I bet you could!

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26Oct/121

“Something That God Intended”

I'm sure you've all heard by now that a Senate candidate from Indiana, Richard Mourdock, is in hot water over a reply he gave during a debate this week. He was asked if he'd allow abortion in cases of rape, and he said he believes "life begins at conception" and that "life is a gift from God." All life? You bet. "I think," he continued, "even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen."

I hesitated before including Mr. Mourdock's party affiliation here, because I wasn't sure it was relevant and I don't want to come off as partisan. Ultimately, however, I decided to note that he's Republican, largely because it follows on the heels of several ill-advised remarks from other Republicans on the topic of rape. These comments have many female and/or feminist voters wondering whether the GOP has it in for women. In states like Florida, recent polls suggest the female presidential vote leans toward Obama while the male vote leans toward Romney, so this is no minor issue.

If the GOP has, shall we say, a more traditional view of women and what makes them tick, that shouldn't surprise anyone. By definition, conservatives tend to like things the way they used to be; the only real variation is whether they want to regress to 1900, 1950, or 33 A.D. Being a woman who's Republican these days is kinda like being a black guy who's a Klansman. Now, before that enrages you, please don't misunderstand: I get why a woman might be fiscally conservative. I get why she'd oppose bloated government or a staggering deficit. I can even understand why she'd be pro-life. I just pity her for all the nonsense she has to overlook to be in her party of choice. Whether it's Henry Aldridge and Todd Akin believing a woman's uterus contains anti-rape sperm stompers, or Rush Limbaugh (what a wonderful sense of humor he has) quipping, "I love the women's movement--especially when walking behind it," or Clayton Williams advising rape victims to "lie back and enjoy it," or Jon Kyl claiming "well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does" is abortion (try 3 percent), then having his office tell CNN this "was not intended to be a factual statement," you conservative women must live in permanent cringe mode these days.

So yeah, it kind of is a party thing. I tried to find equivalently stupid things Democratic candidates have said about rape but came up empty. If you know of one, please, post it below. I know liberals say imbecilic things all the time--Joe Biden is everyone's current favorite example--but not on that subject. What I will admit about liberals is we take abortion too lightly. If life did begin at conception (more on that in a moment), then abortion would be the leading cause of human death in America. It's not just some occasional thing. If you believe a day-old fetus is a person, then yeah, abortion is genocide. I can see why you'd be incensed about it.

I have to say, though, I've thought about this issue very deeply, as deeply as most in the pro-life camp. Indeed, I used to be pro-life myself, at least until well into my 20s. Without getting into specifics, it's touched my family (though not me directly) in a personal way. I've walked down a line of museum displays of zygotes and fetuses and embryos and tried to determine exactly when I believed those lumps of cells qualified as a human. I couldn't do it. It was somewhere to the right of the start and left of the end. I go around and around on this, and I don't blame anyone for being undecided about it, though I disregard any claim that life begins either at conception or the instant the baby sees daylight. That just doesn't make any sense. If you're going to say life begins at conception, why stop there? A sperm or an ovum is still a potential life; in fact, it's already alive. If you're a man who's ever masturbated or a woman who's ever menstruated, you've terminated sex cells that could've been babies nine months later. If God wanted every sex cell to become a baby, He wouldn't have created a reproductive system that blithely dispenses with so many possible lives. On the other hand, it's pretty much impossible to look at a seven-month-old fetus and not see it as an infant in training. We have to understand these issues are not cut and dry, and even well-intentioned geniuses like you and me can disagree with good reason.

Now. Back to Richard Mourdock. I want to commit liberal heresy and let this guy off the hook.

Whaaaaaat?

Listen, Mourdock is simply wrestling with a problem as old as religion itself, the problem of suffering. If you believe in a loving, all-powerful God Who can see into the future, eventually (say, age seven) you're going to wonder why He doesn't do something about suffering. And your authority figures, who never quite figured this one out themselves, will say something soothing about "God's will" and the "divine plan." Later, as you get older, they'll develop this argument to contend that when Jesus died, this somehow fixed the problem of suffering. Then Mom or Dad or Pastor Smith will tell you to go outside and play before you can ask the obvious question, which is why we're still suffering and dying two thousand years after Jesus died. The problem of suffering, or, to use its smartypants name, "theodicy," is an insurmountable paradox. Now, generally speaking, when scientists discover a paradox in earlier thinking, they realize somebody made a mistake. Religious people have a harder time doing that, but it still comes up surprisingly often.

Epicurus said, "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is He neither able nor willing? Then why call Him God?" Or, as Archibald Macleish put it more succinctly in his play JB, "If God is God, He is not good / If God is good, He is not God." Martina McBride developed this line of thought further in her song "Anyway" (written with the Warren Brothers): "God is great, but sometimes life ain't good. When I pray it doesn't always turn out like I think it should. But I do it anyway." To ask these questions is not blasphemous; they're basically the subject of the Biblical book of Job. And hey, if you think you worry about suffering, try being a Jewish Holocaust survivor. Some of those folks gave up on the whole question of whether God is good, preferring instead to concentrate on why we should be good and leaving God to deal with His own conscience.

That's a valid response. When scientists wonder where all the time travelers from the future are or run up against the "grandfather paradox," they tend to conclude time travel is and always will be impossible. That doesn't prove time travel is impossible, of course. It may be that time travelers are here right now, disguised as insurance salesmen or TV news reporters or pedantic bloggers. Likewise, the fact that evil exists may not be sufficient disproof of a loving, omnipotent God. It just doesn't help.

So when Richard Mourdock says if a woman is impregnated by a rapist, that tragedy must be God's will, he's simply beating his head against a very old paradox, and no more nor less successfully than most Christians. Mr. Mourdock's Democratic opponent, Joe Donnelly, of course, seized on Mourdock's remarks, insisting, "The God I believe in and the God I know most Hoosiers believe in does not intend for rape to happen, ever." Well...that's debatable, actually. I know, because I'm about to debate it.

Are you familiar with the Biblical term "concubine?" Do you know what it means? Uhhh...it's kinda like a wife, right? Kinda, in that concubines had sex with men and Israelites (especially kings) were allowed to have lots of them. Solomon famously had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3). The English word "concubine" is a popular (because it's evasive) translation of pilegesh, a word Hebrews borrowed from the Greeks. What it actually means is women who were captured or purchased to use as unmarried sexual partners. But wait, you say, that can't be right. Isn't that fornication? Well, it is, and yes, God forbade it, but only if you were a Jew who had sex with an unmarried Jewish woman. If, however, you were a Jewish man and she were a Gentile captured in battle, no problemo! Not to put too fine a point on it, many concubines were sex slaves. Consider this passage from Leviticus (25:44-46), a direct quote from Yahweh:

"As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves. You may also acquire them from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property. These you may treat as slaves, but as for your fellow Israelites, no one shall rule over the other with harshness."

Yeah, 'cause that'd be mean.

If you want a real hair-raiser, check out Judges 19. Just read that chapter from the woman's perspective. Spoiler alert: there's a twist at the end! So that's how the Bible feels about rape: it's terrific unless it happens to Jews or your sex slave, in which case it's best to kill the victim. Who, by the way, has been your victim all along anyway, so awesome job.

The fact is, in the Old Testament at least, God is pro-rape. I know that's not a fact that's going to sit well in your head. If you doubt me, please do the necessary research. You'll find countless Bible apologists who say, well, it's all part of "be fruitful and multiply" or "some concubines were treated like wives" (as if that were a supreme privilege in the B.C. 1000s), but none who can make Leviticus 25 or Judges 19 go away. You can also find Christians who say Jesus came to negate the filthy "morals" of the Old Testament, but none who can change the fact that Leviticus 25 is a direct quote from God (see verse 1). I say again: if most Hoosiers believe in a God Who's anti-rape, then they're ignoring the fact of God-endorsed concubines in the Old Testament. They're also ignoring the questionable relationship between the Roman centurion and his "servant" (Greek pais--better translated as "catamite" or, not to put too fine a point on it, "boy sex slave") in Matthew 8. But that's okay; Jesus ignored that relationship, too. He said nothing condemnatory about it, even bringing the pais back to life at the centurion's humble request. And yippee, what a life!

I know my own way around this eternally intractable problem. After decades of thought, I concluded that if there is a God, then the Bible writers had Him/Her/It/Them all wrong. God may indeed possess cosmic power, but I see no evidence that God intervenes in the day-to-day events of our lives or preserves earthly justice. That'd be like asking a biochemist to make life in a petri dish fair. Of course, I'm not telling you what to believe. I know my opinions sound dark-hearted or devil-possessed to some of my readers. But do yours make any more sense than mine? Do Richard Mourdock's? I'm just saying maybe we should cut the poor guy a little slack. There's nothing dumb about wondering why God lets evil happen. Indeed, Mourdock's efforts at armchair theodicy put him in the company of such great minds as Russell, Voltaire, Augustine, and Leibniz (who coined the term theodicy 35 years after, oh, inventing calculus). Like many Christians, Mourdock settled on the rationale Joseph gave his murderous brothers in Genesis 50:20: "You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones." Awwww.

Still. That Rush Limbaugh. What a dick.

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