Behind the Fear of Sun

One day I was driving with my British housemate to a local market in Ha Noi, Viet Nam.  I was actually sitting on the back of her bike. I do not drive motorbikes and that’s often funny to my Vietnamese and American friends because motorbikes are the main transportation here; and they seem to associate motorbikes with Asians in general. Anyway, it was spring here in Ha Noi, and it was rather sunny so we saw many Vietnamese bikers waiting in the shade of some trees at a red traffic light. The trees were a few feet back from where the traffic light stood, so that the short, sun-drenched, stretch of road directly in front on the light was almost empty.  I simply looked at the mass of people under the trees, turned away and remained silent, but my housemate, as she  pulled up to occupy the large empty space in front of the traffic light,  looked back at the people waiting under the trees, then at the largely unoccupied space either side of her and said:

I do not understand why they choose to stay far behind rather than right here where they could  move faster?’

My housemate’s question was not surprising, nor was it the first time I had heard it. I have had friends from Western countries who came to South East Asia [SEA] and voiced similar thoughts when they saw people in the street, fully shrouded in  a long-sleeved jacket, a hood and a face-mask  (or other similar apparel) during scorching, summer days. “Doesn’t it make them feel hotter?” They said. “It probably feels like in the sauna,” others remarked.

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Image by Tố Nga Trần Thị

To this, my Vietnamese friend Ngoc Anh Pham replied: “The fact is that when you dress like a ninja [the jacket, hood & mask combination], it hurts less, as the sun’s rays do not touch your skin. Even if you have sunscreen on it’s still too hot to not wear a sun coat.”

 I have been living in Vietnam for over one and half years, and such a scene is so common that it is no longer surprising, although early on, it certainly was. I even thought the hoodie-like fabric that Vietnamese ladies wear on sunny days was a veil, like those some Muslim women wear.  Initially I was thrilled, because I had never seen Muslims in Viet Nam and I even planned to do a small research project on them. Then a few Vietnamese friends from different regions of the country told me that wearing jackets, or stopping in the shade is a kind of sun protection. I understood it then, partly because I had seen such practices a lot during my younger years in Indonesia. Also I can assure you, that this phenomenon is not exclusively Vietnamese, nor Indonesian at all. I have seen it also in Myanmar, Thailand, and even Cambodia during my short stay there. Whilst there are various reasons of doing so, most of my Vietnamese friends say that their primary reason for doing it is to protect their skin from darkening- that is to say,  to stay white. To that end, many Vietnamese ladies will put on their jacket, or ankle-length coat, with hoodie-like fabric when they are driving or walking on sunny days; even on very hot days when it might seem more appropriate to wear fewer clothes, rather than more. This method of sun protection is by far the most common one employed; and it is interesting to note that, despite the region’s frequently hot and sunny weather,   sunscreen is not so popular in SEA for one reason or another. The fact that it hasn’t really caught on, compared to other countries with sunny climates, can be mostly attributed to its cost, its inability to cool you down (unlike a sunhat for instance) and its perceived ineffectiveness at preventing bronzing of the skin. Other popular ways to stay white include avoiding outdoor activities at the noon time. That is likely why you will find, for instance, local tennis court or swimming pool in Ha Noi, empty and cheap during these hours.

To this, my Vietnamese friend Ngoc Anh Pham replied: “The fact is that when you dress like a ninja [the jacket, hood & mask combination], it hurts less, as the sun’s rays do not touch your skin. Even if you have sunscreen on it’s still too hot to not wear a sun coat”.

So why do the people of SEA (and Asians more generally) fear the apparent curse of high melanin concentration? And; conversely, why is pale skin often considered so much more beautiful and desirable? After all, these standards of idealized beauty stand in sharp contrast to those valued by Caucasians in The West, who will frequently go to absurd and frankly dangerous lengths to obtain a golden-brown tan (the enduring popularity of tanning salons and their UV sunbeds, despite the now widely accepted evidence that they cause skin cancer, is a case in point).

Like with many other seemingly irrational and prejudicial beliefs, the current Asian preference for white skin over darker shades of pigmentation is likely to be rooted in reasoning pertaining to racist and/or classist thinking. In South Korea for example, it was reported that having white skin is considered favorable as it represents ”Western” qualities[1]. Imelda Tesalona, General Manager of Fine Nutrition company from the Philippines made a similar remark, saying that after centuries of colonization “White supremacy probably stuck and that became our standard for beauty”in Filipino culture which goes some way to account for her fellow citizens’ obsession for white skin, because “they also want to look presentable and be physically attractive just like our former colonizers”[2]. Here you see whiteness associated with beauty, refinement; and in some other cases, with intelligence, purity, and power.

The origins of such an association is debatable. My former academic advisor once told me that racist thinking could be traced back to ancient times, when untouchable non-caste status Dalits people in India, (smaller, darker people from the South)  were invaded by the northern peoples with their Vedas many, many centuries ago. Other scholars like Hannah Arendt noted in Race Thinking before Racism the appearance of race thinking in the 17th and 18th century France. She recounts in the The Portable Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, and the Origins of Totalitarianism how such race thinking is then developed into racism in the 19th century  and manifested itself in  European countries  in the same century, and subsequently brought  Asia  through the various colonial projects of those countries. The works of Frantz Fanon the Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks also explain the mechanisms by which such modes of thinking  remain in the culture of colonized countries long after they gain their independence, and continue to condition the way the people of these regions think and act.

Whilst the history of European colonialism in Asia may play a significant part in Asian’s current differing attitudes towards varying degrees of skin pigmentation, the obsession for having white skin could also be tied to class-thinking that seems to have pervaded each country in Asia long before colonialism came around. I know that adherents to the Brahmanic Religions of South Asia (such as Hindus) have practiced the caste system long before the arrival of the British Empire in the subcontinent. Moreover, in respect to Indonesian milieu, as far as I am concerned a more open type of class system than the caste system has also been around long before western colonialism came, which is still supported by many to this day. This system is rooted not in perceived notions of racial difference, but in economics. Thus, it was no surprise to read McDougall’s finding, “Asian countries look down on dark skin because they don’t want to be perceived as poor. Historically, dark skin was associated with people who worked in the fields. The upper class stayed indoors and under the shade”[3]. Thus, having whiter skin may be less about not wishing to look Asian, and more about not wishing to look poor.

Either way such a prevalent obsession for having white skin is not merely about physical beauty. The longing for white skin is more about a yearning for social emancipation; to move up to a higher social rank in relation to the prevailing class system in one’s respective living environment, or perhaps in relation to a racial hierarchy; which invariably favors white people [to put it blatantly, in relation to white people]. The end goal of this game is to attain a change in lifestyle, to assume a life which frees people from the sweat and toil of meeting their daily physical needs, and in doing so, grants them the freedom to do what they wish to do. Such an aspirational goal is normal and, in fact, advisable. However, because a great many countries in Asia have at least some history of colonial oppression (either in a traditional sense or, in a much broader sense of globalization), one needs to take into account the possibility that such an obsession with white skin could be an indication of a latent problem Frantz Fanon refers to as collective inferiority complex.

This inferiority complex, put simply, denotes a feeling of not enough: not smart enough, not beautiful enough, not worthy enough, not big enough and et cetera. Such a neurosis results from the colonial practice of systematically undermining the self-worth of the colonized peoples.  The colonizing, “developed” people,  in varying ways, constantly tell the colonized, under-developed people  that their knowledge systems, culture, ways of life, educational systems et cetera are not [good] enough compared to that of the developed peoples’. Therefore, the new, modern, and supposedly better practices are “imported” and imposed on the colonized peoples to replace those of the natives. Consequently the conquered peoples internalized such inferiority-superiority doctrines and acted them out so wholeheartedly that they become the living embodiments of such doctrine; the artifacts of I am not enough mentality, in Fanon’s terms. Such cultural trauma has not yet been addressed properly and thus, it remains with, in this case, Asian culture in Asia to this day and asymmetrically manifests itself whenever the underdeveloped people come in contact with the developed [white] people, to follow Fanon. More perniciously, still to Fanon, this internalized sense of cultural inadequacy not only affects interactions between colonizers and their oppressed subjects, but also interactions between members of the oppressed, colonized group, causing the colonized groups to, in some situations revere and favor their colonizers over their fellow victims of colonization, who are often treated with relative contempt. Such manifestation of I am not enough spreads across various aspects of life from the economy, to tourism and even to romantic relationships.

From a romance perspective, one could ponder over the phenomenon of the so-called “bule hunters” in Indonesia, in which some locals (mostly ladies) “hunt” white looking fellows to date, or to marry. This phenomena in fact has been documented in a book called Kisah Para Perempuan Pemburu Bule [Bule Hunter: the stories of women who hunt for white men] by Journalist Elisabeth Oktofani. “Bule hunter” is supposedly equivalent to the “câu Tây” in Viet Nam, a Vietnamese woman told me [ some Vietnamese girls may  refer to it as “Săn Tây”]. I first encountered it in a city in Central Viet Nam where some Vietnamese ladies I know would compete with each other for the affections of the limited number of white men. As for Ha Noi, I have had a few Vietnamese friends asked me to hook them up with my white friends. I obliged – and it regrettably made me feel like a pimp.

Are white men aware of this? I suspect that they are. At least, that’s what I have learned from a few different sources: one of my bule hunter friends in Indonesia and, a former American housemate who admitted that part of his reason to come to Viet Nam was to find a local girl. I heard the phenomena of a marked preference for Asian women by non-Asian men referred to by an American expat as Yellow Fever. A more disturbing trend is that of the sex-pat, a usually white, usually middle-aged, non-Asian man who comes to Asia for the purposes of Sex Tourism or simply for sex with Asian women. This phenomenon appears to be becoming a problem for some countries like Thailand and Cambodia; and Thailand has responded by revising their immigration laws in a manner aimed mainly at keeping away the expats who stay for sex, a Canadian expat once told me. This is possibly why Thailand now has “good guys stay in, bad guys out” signs in DMK airport. As for Cambodia, you will find some hotels in Phnom Penh will have sign on the wall “No drugs, no guns, no women allowed.”

Meanwhile, the manifestation of such the post-colonial inferiority complex in the professional sphere; (particularly in relation to teaching English as Second Language –TESL) and tourism is obvious, at least for those who have been living in Viet Nam for a while. It is not uncommon for white tourists in SEA (with the exception of Singapore) to be approached by locals mostly either for photographs, chatting, or even to be invited to stay in locals’ house, be offered free food and generally to be treated like royals. Whilst this level friendliness and generosity is of course very charming, it is important to note that it would be very unlikely for Asian tourists to receive the same courtesy. In my personal experience, there were times when I went out with my white friends to restaurants or other public spots in Thailand, Cambodia, and Viet Nam and I noticed that locals would treat me differently from my Caucasian companions. Thus, I was not shocked when I read of a Vietnamese-Australian girl who complained of being treated different from European looking customers by the manager of the salon she visited. She ascribed the discriminatory treatment that she received to her Vietnamese appearance[1]. By the same token, I tend to be skeptical about my white friends’ remarks about hostels or other public spots on the basis of their apparently wonderful service and friendliness, until I check it for myself. Meanwhile, from TESL working setting, the inferiority complex seem to have led to some blatantly discriminatory practices. My former housemate once told me that his Korean-Australian girlfriend had difficulty finding teaching jobs because of her Asian appearance, despite the fact that she was a native speaker of English, just like any other Australian person. In a similar story, an African- American friend of mine was told by a prospective employer that they could not hire him because of his skin color. Instead, they chose to go with white-looking candidate, who’s imperfect grasp of English meant that he unfortunately needed to look in the dictionary when he talked with me. Clearly this was a decision bound to not only negatively impact upon my friend, but also upon those students who hoped to learn an English with a qualified and competent teacher.

—————————————–

By now, I hope I have made the case clearer that the obsession with Whiteness and having white skin could be the symptom of the collective inferiority complex; and that striving to be white is an attempt by Asian peoples to complete themselves by attaining something that they have been conditioned to they think they lack: be it beauty, self-worth, power or intellectuality.  This inferiority seems to have become so deeply entrenched into the social system that you could see it manifested even in children, who instinctively “hold white-looking people to be smarter than they are”, as a volunteer from the Netherlands I met in Cambodia told me. Moreover, employers in China might have incorporated whiteness into the criterion to look in their future employees[1].

For those who wish to see an end to this self-imposed, self-perpetuated and self-denigrating racism, there are no quick and simple solutions. For example, the fact that many scientific facts about the danger of chemicals substances in whitening products apparently do nothing to lessen the  popularity and ubiquity of skin whitening products is a troubling puzzle; and whilst the availability of safer skin-whitening products might ostensibly improve matters, this is a simple solution that masks a much more complex societal issue.

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Image by Tini

Instead, the first step towards finding any solutions would first require this inferiority complex to be examined   critically, Fanon advised. Only by doing so, Fanon says in White Skin, Black Masks: one is able to see that people of color’s devaluation of their fellow colored peoples is a form of self-alienation; that the fact they hold prejudices or act discriminatorily toward their fellow Asians or other colored people is actually an attempt to overcome or disown what Asian identity is perceived to represent – an “inferior” culture. It is then foreseeable, perhaps even reasonable that people may attempt to overcome such a matter by running from it towards “whiteness”, which supposedly represents all encompassing “superiority”, he adds. Accordingly, in Fanon’s terms, having white skin or actively attaining some other feature of “whiteness” in one’s life  – be it language, manner, or Romantic partner- could be interpreted as achieving this goal of casting off or masking an identity seen as gauche or inferior in relation to the dominant, white cultural hegemony. But, this is false consciousness, loaded with self-destructive notions of inferiority; and reliance upon it should be shattered using the second step.

The second step consists of coming back/returning to yourself, in Peter Berger’s terms. Be yourself, no need to change your skin or hair color, in my housemate’s terms, which I understood as finding that aspect of yourself, in your Asian-ness, that you like the most and nurture it. These aspects are your beauty features which could lift you up when you have that moment in which, Fanon described,  your ego collapse, your intellectuality shrinks, your self-esteem evaporates, and you have stopped being a self-motivated person in the presence of white fellow. After completing both these steps you will truly understand that you do not need to change your skin or hair color, or emulate white people so as to be like them or be liked by them. Or, if you do, that action is better meant for yourself. On national level, such advice could be executed through, for instance, cultivating local wisdom in relation to education or tourism projects which could help other national projects. Once this step is completed, more effective secondary solutions such as choosing healthy beauty products or even unsubscribing from mainstream beauty standards would come more easily.

 

[1] “Racism in Asia”, last modified 19 August 2017, last modified on 19 August 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Racism_in_Asia.

[2] Pe, Roger. “Yes, Asia is Obsseed with White Skin”. INQUIRER.NET, August 25,2017.  http://business.inquirer.net/215898/yes-asia-is-obsessed-with-white-skin.

[3]Ibid.

[4]https://tnhvietnam.xemzi.com/tw/spot/7050/q-cut-hanoi. Retrieved on July 28, 2017.

[5] Martin, Phillip.”Why White Skin is All the Rage in Asia”. PRI, November 2,2009.

]https://www.pri.org/stories/2009-11-25/why-white-skin-all-rage-asia.

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Ideology in Politics

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Painting by Wes Bishop.

 

On November 8, 2016 the United States did the unthinkable. On that day the US political system elected as the next president a billionaire real-estate mogul, and former reality TV star, whose major television claim-to-fame was a series dedicated to firing “disappointing” workers.

How did this happen?

No doubt this very question will preoccupy political historians for the remainder of time the US is a subject of study. Countless interpretations, analytical lenses, and pieces have already emerged crediting, or blaming, certain aspects of politics, economics, and culture for the rise of Trump.

Not all of these interpretations are of equal worth, however.

One explanation, particularly popular with moderate to liberal thinkers, is the idea that Trump’s rise can be credited to a “Post-Truth” culture. Yet, this interpretation, besides being false and ahistorical, does nothing to actually explain the rise of Trump, and in many ways obscures the real problems of our current political situation.

“Post-Truth” is a concept in political culture that describes a supposed lack of interest in facts and policies, and instead relies on emotional thought to inform political positions. Debate surrounds the “true” meaning of the term and its exact origins, but many attribute the term to the late Serbian-American playwright Steve Tesich. In a 1992 essay for The Nation, Tesich decried the state of American political culture by arguing that the country had given up on finding out what was true, and was instead content with accepting false narratives that conveniently fit within preconceived notions. Tracing a line of development from Watergate to the Iran-Contra Scandal, Tesich wrote—

We are rapidly becoming prototypes of a people that totalitarian monsters could only drool about in their dreams. All the dictators up to now have had to work hard at suppressing the truth. We, by our actions, are saying that this is no longer necessary, that we have acquired a spiritual mechanism that can denude truth of any significance. In a very fundamental way we, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world.

The allusion Tesich made was not hard to understand. In George Orwell’s famous novel 1984, readers were shown a world where government officials worked hard to rearrange reality daily. Yet, instead of doing it willingly, people had to be prodded, and then threatened by the state to rewrite what they knew to be the truth so that they were not challenging governmental power.

As Orwell writes in one scene—

“You are a slow learner, Winston.”
“How can I help it? How can I help but see what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.”
“Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.”

Orwell explained further by calling this mind washing “doublethink.”

“Doublethink,” he explained, “means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”

In this way, war was peace, freedom was slavery, and ignorance strength.

In this way, Donald Trump is both sadistic billionaire boss, firing people for entertainment, as well as a champion of the working class. He is the defender of American Christian values, as well as a rich playboy who doesn’t play by the rules of polite society. He is a man who can stand in front of the world, brag that he has enough power to walk out onto the street, shoot someone in cold blood and get away with it, and still be described as caring about democracy, truth, and making a nation-state great (again).

This disconnect, this ability of his supporters and media outlets to jump wildly between diametrically opposed positions, makes it seem as if Tesich was correct. We are living in a post truth blighted hellscape. A barren place where facts are bombed out shells of buildings. Something appeared to live here at one time, we think, but no more. All that is left is a crumbling sense of the familiar.

As appealing as this argument is, it is a dangerous analytical lens to take for several different reasons.

First, it feeds into a false idea that Trump won the majority of Americans. In other words, by saying that Trump’s parade of lies won the day by convincing people to commit a societal mass lobotomy, we are giving the false impression that most American voters chose him.

That is simply not the case. Less than 25% of the electorate chose Trump. Also, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton received close to 3 million more votes than Mr. Trump.

Democracy did not give us President-elect Trump. An outdated electoral system from early American history did. We need to remember this and repeat it often, because “the people” are going to be increasingly blamed for whatever nightmare awaits us post January 20th.

So, if we are going to blame the rise of Trump on anything, and we accept these basic facts, then we cannot blame his ascendancy on a failure of the masses ability to think.

Yet, to be fair, there was a significant number of people who did vote for Trump, and that number is telling in and of itself. So why? Why did so many people vote for Trump? And more specifically, why do so many people continue to vote based on seemingly irrational criteria like homophobia, climate change denial, and blatant racism?

By now the charges are well known. False consciousness! Obviously, that is it. There are “real” factors in politics, like economics, and then there are the “false” ones, like culture, religion, and social identities. Furthermore, the great intelligentsia of the internet says, if we just jettisoned this identity and post truth nonsense, and focused on “the basics” then we would be alright. After all, these wishy-washy feelings driving politics today just divides people.

This line of reasoning continues by arguing that for a left/liberal alliance to move forward we need to jettison this focus on identity, subjective opinion, and instead focus on the “facts” of our material existence.

Mark Lilla, a professor at Columbia University, has recently argued as much in a New York Times piece saying, “the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life…When young people arrive at college they are encouraged to keep this focus on themselves by student groups, faculty members and also administrators whose full-time job is to deal with — and heighten the significance of — ‘diversity issues.’”

Lilla received no shortage of criticism for his arguments, and rightfully so. This disparaging of identity politics speaks to a larger issue the American progressive movement, and liberalism in general contain. The idea that politics focusing on “economics” (that is the shape of social democratic programs and the level of benefits worker’s receive from capital) automatically leads to a total liberation of people is bunk.

Again, we can see this in actual historical analysis. Despite a post- World War II boom in the US economy, that did in fact grow a “middle class,” the US did not see an automatic expansion of liberties for marginalized people. That is why there was a Civil Rights Movement, the feminist movement, Gay Liberation, and Black Power. These would be today decried by economic progressives as useless “identity politics.” And that is the great lie that many “economic focused” liberals don’t want people to realize. Identity politics, at least those practiced by the left, are the continuation of civil rights, and it is often these movements that have made the most headway in the past decades in liberating people from various oppressive systems.

“But wait!” Critics could charge. “Why this collapsing of criticism of identity politics and post truth thought? Surely, there is a difference between acknowledging the need of continued civil rights movements and denouncing outright reactionary propaganda?”

To this question the answer is simple: no. The connection between decrying identity politics and the criticism of post truth politics is much closer than we naturally assume.

At the heart of the criticism of post truth politics is the idea that there is a singular reality which we must all agree upon, and that deviation from that singular truth produces demagogue monsters. Only when we have a singular sphere of communicative exchange, a wholly integrated and standardized public sphere, will democracy work. Or so the denouncers of “post truth” argue. As such, any view which radically challenges the way in which we see the world, in which we question the way political knowledge is gained, is suspect.

Avenues of communication that feed into this fracturing of the public sphere are therefore not just distracting, but are in fact dangerous to democracy.

Granted, there is a difference between a diverse media landscape, and just outright lies propagated to purposefully mislead people. But that is hardly new. Several of the pamphleteers in the Colonial Period, Yellow Journalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, networks like FOX all traded in purposefully manipulating information for political purposes. In other words, there is no “post truth” period to American politics because there was never a time when emotions, lies, and propaganda did not factor heavily into popular ideas.

This realization directly challenges communication and media scholars like Neil Postman who argued in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death that a decline in the public sphere happened at the time of mass media’s rise. Postman’s reasoning was that TV was an inherently irrational mode of communication due to its reliance on entertainment. “Americans no longer talk to each other,” Postman wrote, “they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.”

Printed word Postman argued contained an almost inalienable nature that forced people to be rational. However, this argument completely breaks down when we realize the internet, in large part, relies heavily on print.

Therefore, the argument contained against the internet in “post truth” outlooks is strikingly similar to that found in Postman and other critics of television. Democracy is impossible, they tell us, because we have created a technology that appeals to human emotion, instead of human intellect.

All of this, Postman, Post Truth, etc. is exactly what it purports to be against— baseless arguments that are poorly researched, sloppily reasoned, and reluctant to study politics as a historic process of human endeavor.

The primary issue with the post truth thesis is the belief politics is primarily an arena where truth is generated, that is it is a sphere of exchange where mass agreement is reached. This is typical in liberal thought, because it completely ignores the way in which ideology informs political action.

Politics is less about truth, and is much more a reflection of ideology. It is not so much an arena for agreement, and is instead a venue where ideals are expressed and action to change society taken.

Therefore, when Trump and his surrogates argue that “millions of people voted illegally” they are less concerned about the actual validity of that claim, and are instead expressing a political ideology of voter suppression. Instead of debating the validity of this issue, treating it as a position worthy of respect, we should instead oppose it outright. In much the same way that the Nazi Party of Germany argued that Jewish people secretly controlled the world economy, and had orchestrated Germany’s defeat, this outlook was unconcerned with “truth” and was instead a rallying point for a particular political ideal, namely a nation-state based on ethnic nationalism.

But that begs the question— Couldn’t a simple engagement, strong and continued, with these ideologies defeat them?

This is the plea of liberalism. It is based on a belief that a certain form of rationality is universal, and that through debate and education any person’s mind can be changed. But this outlook, in fact the very promise of modern American liberalism, is flawed. Instead of taking fascism, racism, and authoritarianism as serious challenges to democratic society, liberalism in the American state hopes to bury it via a complex system of checks and balances, and in civil society change it through an assimilation process that debates and modifies it.

But the only way this is possible is if we assume the ideologies of fascism and racism are not serious positions, but just confused potential liberals. The fascists just need patience, and eventually they will be convinced.

This is political arrogance, and it assumes democracy exists in a perpetual state that will never, can never, be overturned.

Trump is dangerous. His political movement, his allies, and those who enable him are a threat to not only present diversity, but the very future of free people. Democracy, as a way of life which embraces diversity, cannot tolerate ideologies that see diversity as perversions. Frustrated and decentralized by liberal democratic republics, like the one in the US, eventually fall prey to these forces through sheer chance. We saw this with Trump in 2016.

Whether or not this is merely a temporary setback to the left in America, or is the harbinger for a longer more repressive period remains to be seen. Yet, what can be said with certainty is that only through treating fascism of the “Alt-Right,” and the racism of Trump as an ideology which challenges democracy will we be able have any chance for success.

It is time we acknowledge this fractured nature of political ideology, and in doing so consciously choose ideologies that are dedicated to human liberation, instead of social oppression.

 

 

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On Being Little

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I’m only five foot tall, but most people would tell you they’d never know it. I might be small, but I’m loud. I’ve got a high-pitched Disney princess voice that carries as far and wide and James Earl Jones’ soothing baritone. I’m the friend you have to hush in the library, the next booth over in the restaurant, the one who speaks just a little too loud, a little too much, a little too often. The one who doesn’t need a microphone at a protest or a rally.

But sometimes, when someone uses that voice with me, I shut up. I shut down. I’m out. You know that voice, the one your father, or your mother, or maybe your teacher used with you. The one that mockingly tells you that you’re stupid, that you’ve done something so incredibly offensive that you don’t deserve to be here. You don’t deserve to be you.

I’m an intelligent, educated, radical, loving, and loud woman, and that voice cuts me down every single time. It stops me in my tracks. It makes me feel as small as I am, smaller than I am. Smaller than a human can possibly be.

“We can’t be doing that.”

“I’m glad everyone’s being so quiet right now.”

“Why would you even think that was okay to do?”

“What were you thinking?”

I was not thinking, clearly, as you do. I was not expecting the talons of your hatred to come ripping me apart from this, your aerial position of trust.

I tell myself that that voice comes from a position of smallness itself. In its sarcastic, hateful mockery, it works to bring me down to its level. It is literally a voice of belittling, to make little, because little is not loud, little does not take up space, and little is never in the way of power or authority. Little is accommodating and nice and sugar and spice. Little is there to help, to be told what to do, to live vicariously through and just for you. Little gets shut up, put away, put out in the trash. Little gets left behind.

So, you see, that voice wants you and me to be little because if we’re not little, we’re big. If we’re big, we fill up the space that it can otherwise fill with hate. We’re in the way, we’re defiant and definite. We matter because we are matter, and if we get purposefully madder and madder and madder we can’t be little by being belittled.

Yet, no matter what I tell myself, what I know to be true, I can’t help feel the heat of my shame well up behind my eyeballs that are diverting their gaze to the floor. I can’t help but feel the lump of my self-hatred expand in my throat as it constricts to stop, to prevent, my voice. I can’t help but feel the aftershocks, the hot flashes of embarrassment that show up as rosy pink splotches on my face and neck hours, days after when I’m alone and stumble, accidentally, into my mind working through my most private of my most public of humiliations.

I am the loudest woman I know, but that voice is still too much for me.

 

 

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Celebrating Marbles: Raison D’etre

You’re probably familiar with the vintage idiom, “losing one’s marbles,” and may have used it on occasion in a playful manner, either to mock oneself, or to chide your friends, family, and colleagues during moments of  forgetfulness, anxiety, or despair. My grandmother, Banny, taught us how to play marbles back in the 1970s, and I craved the weight of the felt bag, holding what I envisioned were little glass eyeballs, before the lucky sibling or cousin was allowed to carefully release the marbles into the circle to begin the competition. The solid clank of glass spheres was a satisfying sound to my sensitive ears, and lining up the perfect shot to knock an opponent’s marble out of boundaries fulfilled my brain’s attraction to both geometry and chaos.

There are scads of theories on the origin of this phrase, and the most compelling I came across involved The Elgin Marbles, a collection of sculptures that were scrupulously removed from Greek ruins and relocated to London. While I’d like to examine the pilfering of ancient artifacts as related to cultural property, I’ll let the audience peruse the debate over the collection of alluring metopes on their own time. There’s little evidence that the idiom in question relates to The Elgin (Parthenon) Marbles. “It’s more likely that marbles was coined as a slang term meaning wits/common sense, as a reference to the marbles that youngsters play with” (Martin, n.d.)  Indeed, my trusted Webster’s dictionary, circa 1983, has a sub-listing for marble as:

marbles. [pl.] brains; good sense; as to lose one’s marbles [slang].

I’ve had a collection of those once trendy word magnets shuffling around my kitchen for several years, and during bouts of writer’s block, I randomly grab a handful of the small rectangles and throw them on the table, hoping that a brilliant idea will arise from the pile. I now realize that I must have been channeling Tristan Tzara’s “To Make a Dadaist Poem” from 1920:

Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them all in a bag.
Shake gently.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are—an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.

My children often join in the scrambling, and one morning, my eldest child, who is now a teenager with an aptitude for linguistics, waltzed in the room and said, “Mom, you should always celebrate marbles.” He understood, at the ripe age of seven, that words, in their wildly awkward glory, could be rearranged and synchronized into newfangled nonsense.

Indeed, our lives are often collages formed by absurdity and disarray.  I have ongoing discussion with a friend about the idea of a technological memoir- what if our brains were to produce a digital report of every word we’ve ever muttered? Of every thought that’s traversed our minds, the parade of recurring images that haunt us, or the colors that frequent our dreams? Would there be white space galore, or would it be colorful, chaotic glitch art? Horizontal bands of memories stretched across the screen of our programmed existence?  What if we could edit the cache of our recollections, splicing the frustrating and debilitating episodes of lost marbles with the energizing discoveries of finding ourselves intact after a breakdown?

To lose one’s marbles is a kindhearted euphemism for darker connotations; the history of language centered on mental illness is a wide and misconstrued maze. There’s a tangled thread of nuance associated with being deficient of good sense; we could pick a random strand of words synonymous with crazy, analyzing their etymological roots until our glassy eyes start rolling around on the linoleum floor, escaping the circumference of conventional wisdom.

That’s what celebrating marbles is about. It’s about capturing the moments when our wits are slipping through the crevices. It’s about revising our chronic need to appear strong, and allowing ourselves to move forward even when we aren’t entirely whole. It’s about lauding the imperfections of our brains. It’s about commending our friends, family, and colleagues for embracing vulnerability.

When we’re the most open to being criticized, we have the chance to look at ourselves through the lens of another human.  Perhaps it’s a social microscope, or an emotional intelligence barometer that allows a certain transhumanist telepathy to develop.

You’re very emotional = I am capable of expressing myself in terms I am comfortable with.

You’re so sensitive = I value my empathy as it contributes to a creative consciousness.

You’re too aggressive = I have the right to know what I want and what I don’t want.

That spell of insomnia you had last night- were you ruminating over an unpleasant or hurtful incident that transpired two years ago? I was. I often lose my marbles precisely between 2:47 am and 3:54 am,  while the clicking of the water heater sounds like a phantom typing out morse code. As I piece together the information that was delivered through a lucid dream, distracted by kaleidoscope migraines, I contemplate if I am morphing into a breathing analog, processing bits of reality with snippets of the fleeting transcendence that is most prevalent after my brain has settled down. Once morning arrives, I sit in silence and count my marbles. I rearrange them until I am breathing in, breathing out. I remember that losing one’s marbles is just fine, because when we are able to gather them up, we will remember to be more conscious of their weight on this world.

“Half my life is an act of revision.”

~John Irving

 

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