Monday, December 12, 2016

It Takes A Lot of Courage To Attack A Book

It takes a lot of courage to attack a book.

Of course, some books are heavy, especially those that are cloth-bound hardbacks.  They could fall from a shelf and fracture a skull or, at the least, cause bruising.  Ouch!  One could suffer a paper cut when paging through.  And then there are the ideas.  Oh, the ideas are most dangerous of all!  Very dangerous.  Must be destroyed.

So it is with great trepidation that we read in The New York Times that these wily books have been causing an uproar by demanding to be read.  Luckily, an army of ignoramuses, very good ignoramuses, I might add, the best.  They have been doing ignorance a long time.  They win at ignorance.  An army of ignoramuses has begun a counter-assault.  They have subdued and identified these books by defacing them with racist graffiti and swastikas to mark them for the dangerous miscreants they are.  We can’t have this.  We cannot have such ideas roaming free.

“There has been a spate of hate crimes targeting libraries, their books, or patrons, the authorities say—offenses they had rarely seen before,” writes Christopher Mele in the Times.

Who are these “authorities” who spread this fake news?

A student in a college library in New Mexico was attacked by a man who tried to rip off her hijab.  Who is this woman and what is she doing in New Mexico wearing a hijab?  Does she think she can just express her Islamic terrorism so freely in this country?  We have laws against this kind of expression of religion.

In Portland, Oregon, librarians at Reed College found racist graffiti and swastikas on library walls.  Now, we don’t know if these were actual racists or not, but they should just stop.  Until we know what they intend, what can we do?

In Toronto, Canada, a librarian found anti-Semitic graffiti scratched on library windows.  Just so happy it was not found here in America.  Canada is very weak on terrorism.  We really need to build two walls:  one on the border with Mexico and another on the border with Canada.  I’m sure everyone agrees that Canada is a dangerous country.  Very dangerous.

Right now, it seems, hate trumps reason, or truth, or decency, or intelligence.  Books are dangerous.  Ideas are dangerous.  Thank God we have the ignoramuses to protect us.  Don’t forget these are great ignoramuses.  The very best.  They will make America so ignorant, people will be sick of being ignorant.  We will be ignorant all the time.  America will be known for its ignorance.

Friday, December 9, 2016

A Dark Night in the Forest

Christopher Thomas Knight after his arrest for burglary

Christmas 2016.  It is an uncertain world, as it is always an uncertain world.  I’m also skeptical about this as a season of peace and light.  There is desperation in the air.  On the commute home, people fly by me as darkness falls.  Drivers swerve and change lanes without a backward glance.  Everybody’s frantic; everybody’s impatient, in a rush.

I went to a Christmas party last week where the hosts actually worked off of a script timed to the minute.

“I want to welcome you all to our annual Christmas party,” the host said.  “We’ll have a half hour for small talk and then we will eat.”  And exactly 28 minutes later, we ate.  “The main course here is barbecue,” she gestured with a Vanna White wave of her hand.  “And over here we have our vegetarian entrees and our gluten-free options.”  They had covered all the bases.

Forty minutes later:  “we will now play holiday-themed games.”

Thirty-five minutes after that:  “now it’s time for dessert.”

I felt like I was doing one of those Olympic events where contestants run so many miles, then swim, then shoot rifles at targets, and then bicycle.  If this constitutes the holidays, let me off the train.  I’m not in shape for this.  I left the party exhausted.

I cannot get into the mall parking lot.  The lot for my mailbox at the UPS store is overflowing with angry people trying to get at their mail.  The car wash is full.  Even gas stations have lines.  Where is everyone going?  Did Armageddon come and I missed the warning signs?

Yesterday, I read a story about Christopher Thomas Knight, who lived undetected in the Maine woods for 27 years.  He was known as the North Pond hermit.  Before he was caught and arrested, he committed 1000 burglaries of cabins and houses in the area, stealing only food, kitchen utensils, and books.  He did not need anything else.  He was tried and convicted, spending seven months in prison.

Over the course of almost three decades, he lived in a campsite just a few hundred feet from someone’s cabin yet he was undetected.  He met only one other person in all those years:  a day hiker with whom he exchanged greetings.  When he was taken into custody, his communication skills were so rusty, he had trouble answering basic questions.

When he walked into the woods in 1986 at the age of twenty, he did not say goodbye to anyone nor did his parents report him missing.  “We’re not emotionally bleeding all over each other,” Knight said.  “We’re not touchy-feely.  Stoicism is expected.”

A psychologist who evaluated him thought he might be autistic.  He comes off as rather emotionless and blunt.

It’s weird how some people simply fade into the shadows completely off the grid.  In Knight’s case, no one can figure out how he survived on his own for so long, especially in winter.  He said he slept from 7:30 PM to 2 AM.  If he stayed awake and moving during the coldest part of the night, he could survive the subzero temperatures.  Otherwise, the steam from his own body would freeze him in his sleeping bag.

Suddenly, the irony is real.  Sitting in gridlocked traffic, thousands of us in our metal cocoons inching toward home, we are surrounded by the disappeared, the invisible.  They are tucked up under the concrete buttresses of the freeway in their cardboard shelters.  They are above the angst and frantic energy of all of us in this holiday season, but they are tortured as well.  For many, the trauma of everyday life brings back memories that are overwhelming, debilitating, full of images of war, violence, and loneliness.  Like Christopher Thomas Knight, they walked off into the wilderness of their lives and chose to live in the urban jungle in anonymity for reasons known only to them.  They all have stories, but very few get to tell them.

For many people in this season of anxiety, dropping out of the rat race is a romantic notion.  Some of us long for Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond.  But we must be careful; Thoreau’s cabin is just a version of Ted Kazcynski's shack in Montana.  A respite from civilization can all to easily become something dark and sinister, even murderous.  The homeless of Los Angeles might have something in common with Knight:  they have no need to text or email or post their status on Facebook.  They stay huddled in their cardboard, castoff, makeshift rooms and try to escape the cacophony hammering inside their skulls.  This is the parallel universe of Christmas, the darker twin of the season of peace and light.  It is unsettling, and much too real, but it exists, and we must bear witness.

Christopher Thomas Knight's campsite for 27 years in the Maine woods

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Turban As Motif

As is the case with many world religions, in Sikhism we find that patriarchy is deeply embedded in the traditions and texts of the faith, even as Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh tells us that Sikh Gurus “empathized” with women oppressed and in turn, “emphasized gender equality.”  This, in some ways, contradicts Geetanjali Singh Chanda and Staci Ford’s piece, “Sikh Masculinity, Religion, and Diaspora in Shauna Singh Baldwin’s English Lessons and Other Stories.”  Chanda and Ford state quite clearly that “The family, specifically the hetero-normative family, is at the heart of the performance, the pedagogy, and the continuity of specific notions of a religio-cultural masculinity.”  This leaves the Sikh male in a difficult place, especially here in America where the turban often subjects men to physical attack and even death in this post-9/11 landscape.

Chanda and Ford describe ads featuring Sikh males prominently displayed in the bright lights of Main Street America:  Times Square in New York City.  Where once there was disappointment at the lack of presence in American culture for Sikhs, Chanda and Ford now charge that this constitutes objectification and commercialization of the Sikh image.  Well, this begs the question, what exactly do they want?  Part of what has opened the door to violence against Sikhs is the lack of cultural inclusion in America.  In short, Americans are ignorant about Sikh beliefs and culture, and while this is not the fault of Sikhs, the charge that they constitute an “Other” in American society must be overcome and negated.  Americans need to be educated about Sikhism and its followers.  As Chanda and Ford state in their thesis, the appearance of a Sikh male on a billboard in Times Square encourages the idea that “lives and histories are connected (and often irrevocably changed) in the transnational flow of people, capital, and histories.”  For modern Sikhs, this inclusion may be more welcomed than more traditional adherents, and the alt-right movement might preclude welcoming our turbaned brethren as fully participatory Americans, but like the issue of patriarchy in this religious tradition, those who fail to understand these modern times—and a woman’s role in a modern faith—are reaching back centuries for a sexist reading that is no longer valid.  “Turban-wearing Sikhs,” Chanda and Ford tell us, “constitute a visible subgroup of the South Asian Diaspora.”

What makes Chanda and Ford’s essay unique is its focus on three fictional stories and their impact in a feminist reading of Sikh literature that sheds light on Sikh masculinity with depth and insight.  This kind of reading is long overdue in many patriarchal religions.  Specifically, the author of the three texts, Shauna Singh Baldwin, “considers men and masculinities at various stages of life and in diverse contexts—social, familial, and cultural—from a feminist perspective.”  She also utilizes the theme of the past telling us what the present means within the context of literature and culture and even history.  She opens the door to questioning, and questions always lead, not to destruction, but understanding.  Make no mistake, the Sikhs murdered in acts of violence after September 11th were victims of misunderstanding; they were killed, quite simply, because they wore turbans, and most Americans, erroneously, believed turbans equaled Muslims.  Chanda and Ford applaud Singh Baldwin’s use of fiction to present these ideas because the lens of story allows us to walk in the shoes of another.  In her work, she writes “about men as complex and multifaceted beings who are, themselves, victims of racism and economic imperatives in a global marketplace.”  The stereotype of the turbaned 7-11 store clerk has some basis in reality; Sikhs often are small business owners in communities big and small across the country.  In many of these communities, they are treated as the “Other,” someone who comes into the neighborhood to take economic advantage of those who live there.  The truth is that they are a vital part of the American economy, and are often victimized through robbery and violence and are resented by the communities they serve.

Another aspect of this that Chanda and Ford discuss is patriarchal notions within Sikhism.  It seems that Sikh traditions and discussions need to happen within the current patriarchal hierarchy in the faith.  The stories as written by Singh Baldwin perform this function as well because she presents how these ideas challenge the family as keeper of the masculine flame.  The family often reinforces patriarchal beliefs.  She introduces “real men who are caught between cultures, shifting economic realities, and the varying generational expectations of mothers, wives and sisters.”  She flips “the traditional script of literary texts, where more often men narrate women’s lives.”  In one story, “Montreal 1962,” she presents a situation where Sikh immigrants were encouraged to come to Canada because North America needed skilled workers, and therefore, people overlooked race, at least initially, to bring in people to fill high tech jobs.  Of course, this also exposed them to discrimination, as Latinos face in this country.  There is always the prevailing notion that somehow these workers deprive native born citizens of jobs when in fact, these immigrant workers are often recruited to fill positions that others could not fill or do not wish to fill.  Singh Baldwin calls these workers “exotic new Canadians, new blood to build a country.”  What is clear both in history and culture is that immigration plays a key role in a healthy society, especially here in America.

The focus of this rising of Sikh culture is the turban.  It is, in Singh Baldwin’s stories, a symbol of defiance, even when the wife takes it on, wrapping her “five meters” of cloth around her own head, adopting “a symbol of religious identity and manhood.”  It is clear from the actions of the young wife in Singh Baldwin’s story that a woman adopting the turban is an acceptable evolution of gender roles in this new world.  History and events by necessity change defined gender roles.  In comparison, there is a continual debate about ordaining women priests or allowing priests to marry in the Catholic Church.  Protestant and Anglican Churches are battling with the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy.  Many reform Jewish congregations have female Rabbis.  Times are changing, may be not at great speed, but with a consistent, plodding advancement that is difficult to ignore.  Gender issues must be solved before we can tackle and defeat racism.

To illustrate this point, Chanda and Ford launch a discussion of honor killings and rape culture.  Feminist writers have relentlessly explained that “notions of honor and shame fan the flames of revenge and violence in men but are carried out on the bodies of women.”  In many ways, this is a product of gender codes, even the medieval Code of Chivalry governing the behavior of noble men with women.  Still, such codes enforce the idea of women as victims and men as their saviors.  It is interesting to note that men who do not live up to such codes are often dishonored and emasculated as punishment for failing to be manly men.  Therefore, the lines between protective behavior and violence are blurred.  A man must “protect the honor of the family even if it means killing his sister to do so,” Chanda and Ford write.  This presents a significant paradox:  can one preserve by destroying?  In these Partition narratives Chanda and Ford discuss, it would seem so.  In the ritual suicides of women who would rather “jump into a well” than “bring shame upon their village, family, or religion,” preservation of the honor in this manner is also acceptable?  In the west, we reject ritual suicide, and therefore, we do not understand this concept.  However, we hear about such acts more and more.  Chanda and Ford talk about the United Nations report of “5,000 women and girls worldwide, across religions and countries [who] may be murdered each year by their own families.”  Since those numbers come from 2010, I wonder if the total is not much higher now in 2016.

It is without a doubt that Sikh men face discrimination and emasculation in American society.  But, men, in general, have a long history of attacking each other’s manhood when conflict arises.  In English boarding schools, verbal, physical, and sexual abuse is commonplace.  Males challenge the masculinity of other males with derogatory, emasculating language denoting female genitalia or homosexual labeling.  Chanda and Ford cite many potent examples of this, including the male student deprived of his turban and made to play a female role with his long hair in a theatrical production.  To a young man still developing his gender identification, this is devastating.

None of this is all that different from many societies, including American society.  These gender “rules” are reinforced from a young age.  As a teacher, I have had parents, all most always the mothers, plead with me not to give their sons low grades because this might make him “depressed” and “feel inadequate.”  I’ve shopped in supermarkets where mothers, mostly white, treat their inattentive sons like husbands, asking them what they would like for dinner, and catering to their every whim or whine.  Much of what has happened in the presidential election has to do with the questioning of gender roles.  Trump has been characterized as a “real man,” (his Twitter handle is @realDonaldTrump) who will “make America great again” by sending Muslims and Latinos back where they came from while promoting some mythical past in our history where men were men and women had babies and serviced the men.  This is a man who does not hesitate to discriminate against his daughter, whom, he has said, he would be dating if she were not his daughter.  This is a man who does not consider groping a woman wrong and harmful if the groper has power.  A powerful man can get away with such rapist encroachment, and if one is not a powerful man, he is less than a man.

In the end, Sikhism, like all other religions, continues to grapple with the role of women.  Singh Baldwin, as Chanda and Ford note, uses the lens of fiction to create a discussion.  Fiction allows the what-if.  In fact, the what-if is built into the art, and if it can help religions, cultures, societies, and individual houses on our streets to come to grips with the issue of equality of men and women, then it is a good thing.  For fiction is the dream-life of a culture, and although these dreams might often be nightmares of zombies or the horrors of war, our dreams can also show us a world that could be, a good world, not perfect, but more equal.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Join Team Trump: No Experience, Morals, or Ethics Necessary

In a time of fear and uncertainty, one more area of concern is the president-elect’s cabinet shortlist.  According to several news organizations, Trump is using a method that has worked for him in the past:  The Apprentice reality show way to pick “winners” to help him “Make America great again,” and “win so much that Americans will be tired of winning,” or “you’re fired!”

There are cameras stationed outside the lobby elevators at Trump Tower to catch each candidate and newly designated official sycophants like Mitt Romney as they take the magic elevator to the Trumpian version of Oz (only I think it is more the horrific Oz of the HBO prison drama than the yellow brick road Oz with Dorothy and Toto).  Is there anything more pathetic than watching spineless Romney come to Trump to kiss his ring?  Where’s the fire, Mitt?  Where’s the passion?  When you kissed the president-elect’s hand, did it still taste of “fake” and “phony” in your now trumped-over words?  Did he make you crawl across the floor in supplication?  How quickly any sort of integrity can be surrendered.  Wave to the cameras, Mitt.  Kiss the ring like a good boy.

So we have the big reality show with all the tension and surprise of a season finale:  who will be Secretary of State?  Attorney General?  Personal assistant?  Oh wait, that last one has been filled already.  (“Christy, fetch me a steak from Jean Georges!”)  I just know this moment WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING!!! in the parlance of reality show lingo.  The ratings will be HUUUUUUUUUGE!!  Let’s look at the list of contestants…errr…finalists?  What did they do to get to the final round?  They loyally supported the candidate through his bigoted, sexist, degrading, malevolent campaign.  They choked out compliments to the king when he proposed banning Muslims from America, and promised to build a wall while simultaneously sending immigrants back where they came from.  They sucked it up and stood by the candidate while he basked in the swirling debris of his own shit storm.  It’s okay; everything came out in the wash.  Now the sheets are clean and we are ready to hit the ground running while the Alt-Right salutes the brand new day with extended hands at their convention in the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington D.C.

Jeff Sessions for Attorney General?  This little man with the sparkling eyes of an imp just screams racial equality and justice, doesn’t he?  His own party rejected him back in the 1980s for his extremist views.  With the country roiling with police shootings—officers killing black men; people killing officers in ambush—how will Sessions bring peace?  In my own city, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said he will not have his officers deporting people even under orders from President Trump.  This is a noble stand, but is it solid ground?  If Chief Beck won’t do the deporting, there will be somebody waiting in line who will.  Bravo, Chief Beck, but watch your back.

Reince Priebus for Chief-of-Staff.  This is not a questionable call, mainly because Priebus is Republican mainstream and the sole hope for a voice of reason in this surreality show.  Too bad Steve Bannon may shout him down and shove him out the back door.  Bannon is chief strategist, and it would appear most of the strategies involve inflicting pain on Americans of color, immigrants, women, members of certain religions, et cetera, et cetera.  Welcome to the new world order.  How long will Priebus last before he starts looking for the parachute to get out of this jumbo jet hurtling toward the earth?

Secretary of State?  The front runner is Rudy Giuliani.  What experience does this guy have with foreign policy and diplomacy?  Stop and frisk won’t work with North Korea or ISIS or Putin in Russia.  Yes, he allegedly “cleaned up” New York as mayor, but most New Yorkers have mixed feelings about the Giuliani years.  Many people chafed under his abrasive, in-your-face style.  Trump ran on a platform of getting tough with our allies forcing them to pay up for our protection, eliminating the threat of ISIS, cracking down on trade with China, but will this play in real life beyond reality television?  Diplomacy requires an iron hand in a silk glove, and Giuliani appears to be all metal and machetes—no subtlety of state craft; no nuances of diplomacy.  The other candidate lobbed about is Mitt Romney.  Poor Mitt.  Stayed out of the race this year and became the voice of reason in an out-of-control, skidding Republican Party only to be invited to Trump’s New Jersey golf course to be paraded in front of the media as a tiny man shrinking by the moment.  It’s tough to surrender your convictions on live television, but there he was, shaking the tiny orange hand and claiming to have had a good conversation about real issues, like apologizing and begging for forgiveness.

Sarah Palin for Secretary of the Interior?  One of Trump’s earliest supporters is her only qualification for the job.  Of course, any woman who works for Trump should watch that Access Hollywood clip over and over again until she has “blood coming out of her eyes or blood coming out of her wherever,” or maybe they could read Trump’s divorce papers from his first marriage where he abused and raped Ivana, according to her deposition.

The entire country waits to see what kind of president Donald Trump will be.  Those who voted for him want to see the wall go up, the Muslims registered, and the undocumented deported.  Those who are along for this ride not of their own choosing keep hoping he will “pivot.”  But as we saw time and again in the campaign, Trump is Trump.  He is a loose cannon, a danger to himself and to America.  Worse, he is lining his cabinet with people who are unlikely to restrain him, mainly because they got their jobs for remaining mum and blindly supporting Trump even in moments where he acted Hitleresque and childish.  His election surprised many Americans and even Trump, himself, if his body language in the Oval Office with President Obama is any indication.  Running the country and taking a seat at the world table are not part of some reality show; this is the real deal, and the guy we elected, and the people with whom he is surrounding himself, are amateurs.