Sunday, 30 June 2013

Being proud of your own parenting

This is an odd and slightly self indulgent post. Of course being the depressive I am I view any post not overly intended as a public service announcement as self indulgent.

I'm sitting at the table watching my son East grapes,  delicious almost pitch black grapes that my mother-in-law buys,  and almost crying.

I'm so pleased that he gets to eat such lovely food as a snack.  I'm proud, for once,  of myself.  I'm so relived and glad I can give my children this life,  where these things are commonplace and not completely out of reach. I want my children to grow up never hungry like I was, and although I want them to always appreciate how lucky they are to have such nice things,  I don't want them to ever feel guilty for having them.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

America's refusal to accept multi-culturalism

Back in the UK, a standard Conservative talking point is the "failure of multi-cultural ism." This is essentially a rejection of the previous Labour government's suggestion that there might just be room in the country for other cultures, beyond a boiler-plate model of "Britishness" that looked more like the 19th century than a modern complex nation. But for all that multi-culturalism was thrown around as a political football, it is the reality in both my home country, and the country I now live in.

The United States is built on waves of immigration from all over the world. Often these groups of immigrants would gather together, usually forced to by the economics of the time, leading to concentration of their culture. Despite this the US seems deeply uncomfortable with the idea of these other cultural identities, in fact despite being formed from an impressive patchwork of backgrounds, the US seems wholly allergic to multi-cultural ideas. There is a determined effort to demand all Americans adhere to a template of "Americanism, " and to therefore classify all those who do not fit that mold as other.

With this in mind I think it is important to see the way the US is processing the Boston bombing. Honestly I think it came as a relief to many that they could identify the suspects as "foreign" despite the one they now have in custody being a naturalized US citizen who came here as a small child. Despite these young men spending their most formative decade in the United States, it is comforting for people to point at their Chechen  background and say "there it is, that's what was wrong. They weren't really american." Because Americans don't do things like this (except when they do, do, and certainly do.) While they may have been living in America, they may have legally been American, they did not conform to the cookie-cutter format, and thus are not allowed to be American.

I was discussing this with my wife the other day, and she remarked that when the7/7  bombings happened in London the real crisis within Britain was because they were British. Were were upset because we thought we were doing it all right. We had tried so hard to not do what the US is doing, to reject a broader definition of our nations culture, one that included many different distinct cultures. We were upset because every one of us had gone to school with a boy named Muhammad. We were inclusive of the people who carried out the bombings, and proud of it. So unlike the US, it was harder to neatly "other" them, they were Brits. Really we had to lean on a religious angle, but even then only by putting emphasis on the world "radical" whenever said alongside islam. We had to distinguish them from that nice Muhammad we all went to school with, because they were like "those" muslims, those muslims were British. No the attackers were those "other" muslims, the radical ones.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

A lesson in empathy from Justin Bieber

Bieber trying to work out what all the fuss is about.
Justin Bieber went to visit the Ann Frank Museum (you know this sentence can only end one way right?) and managed to offend the thinking world. Is anyone surprised? The terrible thing is not the inference that Ann Frank would have been a fan of a particularly annoying pop star, it is the flippancy with which the man stamps upon the feelings of so many. He does it without realizing (one hopes) through a serious lack of empathy not for Ann Frank, but for what she has come to symbolize for many people in the world. A young person whose writings survive long after her death, conveying her fears in an extraordinary situation along with her terribly mundane human concerns, is a figure we can all empathize with. But it is that matter, of our communal empathy and how it causes her to be precious, that Bieber ignored.

This leads me to the value of the study of history in our schools. These thoughts are concentrated by a recent hour long discussion on the subject with my employer, there are few things that focus the mind as much as justifying your employment. We have, thankfully, moved beyond the idea that history is the memorization of dates and names*, in the 21st century our relationship to knowledge has evolved sufficiently that this is a pointless waste of our children's time. Far more valuable to our young people are the skills for which history is an effective medium**

The key skill in this instance is empathy, not to be confused with interpretation. Interpretation, as a historical skill, governs a historian's ability to see any given event in history as existing simultaneously in multiple forms. A single event can, and will have, happened in multiple ways, all of which are accurate to a good historian. Like Schrodinger's cat the death of Harold Godwinson in 1066 can be both by an arrow in his eye, a sword blow from a norman Knight, and any number of other causes all at the same time. Because we only see history through the eyes of those who reported on it and passed their telling down to us, so, unlike the cat, we can never know the truth of how it happened. We are locked in a situatuion where all versions are true.

Empathy, on the other hand, is a historian's ability to place themselves in the position of someone from the past. To use all the available evidence to theorize on the feelings and motivations of that person. From this position they can attempt to understand why historical events came to pass. Why did Guy Fawkes attempt to assasinate the King? We can only use our skill of empathy to attempt to explain this action for a man whose existed as a persecuted and distrusted class. A foriegner, of a hated faith, who hears daily that his religious duty is to kill this Protestant anti-christ. Perhaps we can imagine what drove him to this desperate end, and in doing so gain an insight into the chaos that was the religious struggle of the period.

It would be nice to think that all humans develop empathy in equal measure as we grow, but I don't think that's true. I think it is more like a muscle; it grows as you use it. A colleague of mine said he thinks "liberals are just conservatives who haven't been mugged or raped yet." Rather I feel that conservatives are people who have not worked out their empathy muscle. Until they feel something for themselves, they are unable to imagine what it would be like for others. Rob Portman's recent change of heart on gay marriage shows a man suddenly confronted by a personal experience of injustice, suddenly he can understand why people have been so angry.*** Without the ability to understand the feelings of other, it is no surprise that conservatives do not grasp the need for a social safety net. They are doing ok, therefore the world is doing ok. In fact there have been two excellent examples of just this form of lack of empathy from Paul Broun and Saxby Chamblis.

To avoid this narrow worldview, it is essential our young people learn to exercise their empathy muscle. We must set them challenges that involves depth and understanding of the influences on people. There is no place for cold facts in the history curriculum, only endless questions. Paramount of these questions may well be "why did they do that?" And since interpretation tells us we will never know the answer, we can only attempt to understand all the forces acting upon a person, and place ourselves in their shoes. So I come to the crux of the Bieber-blunder, had Justin Bieber been able to place himself in the shoes of someone reading his post, who was not a devoted fan, he might just have realized that both societal forces of decency, and the powerful effect of Ann Frank's writing, were influencing much of the world to look on what he was about to write with abject horror.

*  Although Michael Gove is giving it his best shot at taking the UK curriculum back to it.****

** Also, as discussed on Melissa Harris-Perry recently, of value to our society as a whole. Don't we want the people around us to be able to empathize with us?

*** The fantastic "Tom the Dancing Bug" comic satirizes this point beautifully.

**** PS Gove, if even Niall Ferguson doesn't like your ideas, they must be shit.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Growing up scared

I realized some of my sexuality, like most people, in my pre-teen years. I have a hunch it's more of a realization for people who don't identify as straight; because it's the sudden discovery of a way you're different. (I had plenty of those, so another was hardly a shock to me.) But around 10-11 I had this nagging sense that I thought about boys the same way I thought about girls, nothing concrete, just a gut feeling.

I have to say, the thought made me very uncomfortable, and now how you might expect. I wasn't grappling with any sense of "wrongness," I was lucky enough to grow up in a family that, for all their faults, were incredibly open minded about such things.

No, I was scared because I thought I was going to die. Because in 1991 that's what happened to Freddie Mercury, and he was the only non-straight person I knew. Queen was about the only music my family could agree on, it was one of the only tapes in our car, and I listened to the Queen: Greatest Hits album on an almost constant loop. So when Freddie died I was heartbroken, but when I learned more I was afraid. The only thing I knew was there was this disease, and it killed gay people.

In the early 90's people were just dying in terrifying numbers, despite us having a better idea of what AIDS was, we still didn't seem to have any real hope of slowing the deaths. This was what we all grew up scared of, not the cold war, not terrorists, my generations specter was AIDS.

So today as I sat and tried to watch the fantastic documentary "How to Survive a Plague" I found myself weeping. Not just for the amazing work of Act Up, who I will always feel indebted to, but because I flash back to childhood fears. I am sure it was less scary for me, as a pre-teen growing up in the far-cast shadow of it, than to actually be on the front line trenches watching your friends die. I regularly read Joe Jervis' "I will hold you ten times" and wonder at the fear and heartbreak it captures. But for me, AIDS was the terrible boogeyman that was going to kill me.

But I also cry with relief, because thanks to so much work, especially by the Act Up protesters who refused to let this epidemic go unwatched, I can look at my two sons and know that their chance of dying of Aids is far smaller than mine was growing up. I also know that should one of them turn out to be gay or bi, they will never see a world where human beings are willing to sit by and watch them die, because of who they choose to love.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Batman: the perfect American hero.

I was sitting around in a local comic store last night playing a rather pointless card game (The DC Comics deck building game, for those interested.) While the game itself was rather turgid, it did lead to a conversation about the relative morality of Batman and how it is he, not Superman, who best represents the American personality in the 21st century.

Let's leave aside the aspirational nature of the man of steel and think about Batman for a while. It is, after all, the Dark Knight who has had a smash trilogy this decade, while Superman's movie was met with significantly less enthusiasm.

Batman is an anti-authority figure, a format of hero that has been hugely popular in the American psyche for a long time, but certainly became a mainstay after the Vietnam war (see The A-Team, Airwolf, Knight Rider, etc.) He does what he does without care for rules, procedures and protocol. Indeed his very existence is built on the premise that the established system is unable to cope with the manner of criminals he fights. Very much a Reagan-like attitude. Without this attitude Batman would just be a nasty thug who went around beating people up, by default "vigilante" should not be considered a heroic thing, but when caste in the light that the authorities cannot maintain control, then the actions of Batman are exonerated. In that situation one man can indeed make a difference, perhaps you should indeed call in some soldiers of fortune.

However, Batman is in himself inherently authoritarian. No one can argue that with his deep gravelly voice (which just keeps getting more scratchy as he goes on, eventually he'll be a blues singer) and his intimidating presence Batman isn't a simple of power and authority in any space he occupies. His very intent; to intimidate Gotham's criminals into renouncing crime, is employing a form of fearsome authority that smacks of Big Brother. Batman sees all, he is waiting on the rooftops to catch you committing a crime, don't make those bad choices, freedom is slavery!

But the brand of authoritarian control Batman brings is not about society being in unified, to the exclusion of personal freedoms. In fact far from the socialist nightmare George Orwell in visioned  Batman is that wonderfully American creation; the libertarian. He is an incredibly wealthy man, who chooses to spend his wealth on what makes him satisfied. His drive to do what he does is built on a feeling of being wronged (how very common that seems in this country) and he feels empowered by this combination of personal righteousness and vast financial reserves (which is itself a form of moral purity to some) to go out and commit crimes. The fact that his wealthy appears to require no work from his part (how very Romney-esque) is only the icing on the libertarian cake.*

Finally, like so many on the right of this countries (and more than a few on the left) the Bat sees the two dots. Crime of the sort Batman fights (I've yet to read a comic where he investigates white collar fraud and corporate ethics) is almost always a symptom of poverty, of massive holes in whatever social safety net normally prevents people from slipping into desperation. Which, it is noted, seems to be non-existent in Gotham, I see churches handing out soup, but I don't see unemployment offices and social welfare programs.    But Bruce Wayne chooses not to reduce crime by funding massive private charitable giving, or vastly expanding his manufacturing industry to bring masses of well paid low-skill jobs to Gotham, or even running for public office (often the domain of the super-rich in this country, he could be the next Bloomberg ) Because to him crime is a disease, not a symptom.
solution to all the countries ills in violence. It is pretty clear, from the position of any casual observer, that the problems Gotham City faces are terrible poverty and crime. Personally when I see this I connect the
So he solves the problem with violence and incarceration. How very American.

In fact this point is brought home by the clear issues of mental illness that characterize his biggest villains. These people are all deeply unwell; they are the perfect example of the "crime is a disease" hypothesis that Batman is built upon, the bigger the crime the bigger the illness.

When it comes down to, Batman is just a hyper-rich libertarian who spends his time beating up the poor and the mentally ill, what a hero.

*By the way a libertarian cake is a cupcake that can only ever serve one person, is exactly as good as you can afford it to be, and all the ingredients must be taken from other people's cup-cakes.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

On presenting as straight and supposedly safe spaces for bigotry

Oh I hear you there, and you know I hear it, not that you care. Because you feel this is a safe space to say your nasty bigoted views. You look around the room, or you look down your friends list, and you see no faces you identify as gay. So this should be a nice safe space to express your opinion. Maybe you think that gay marriage is a biblical sin (neatly ignoring all the other biblical sins you commit during your day, is that suit really 100% wool?  Lev 19:19?) or that homosexual marriage will undermine your marriage (remember when interracial marriage was legalized and everyone's marriages collapsed?) or, and this is the one that makes my blood boil the most, that gays are pedophiles.

So you open your mouth, or you hit "share", or whatever you feel like doing with your standard privileged that the rest of the world will either agree with you, or not want to make waves by disagreeing with you.

But here's the thing. I know I don't look like that "other" you're so afraid of, with my nice opposite-sex marriage and my two kids. But I'm the other.
I'm just what you're afraid of, you might not think of it, but I'm one of the B's in LGBT and when you say that nasty bigoted shit about people who don't identify as straight you are talking about ME.

So now, that's a little scary huh? Your nice safe space for bigotry had an interloper, a stealth queer listening in, getting angrier and angrier by the second. But at the same time being wounded by every comment.

So let me clarify. When you say these hurtful things. When you share something written by a homophobic bigot. When you continue to work on out of date information (whether it's a study that's been soundly debunked, or a book that's 2000 years old) to push a hateful stereotype. You are talking about ME.
Put a face on that queer you're so upset by, it may as well be mine, and think of it every time you hit "post", or press "share", or just flat out open your mouth to say something horrendous.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Explaining the current marriage situation

I realize from the distance of the UK and without the daily barrage that is the US news cycle the current position of marriage equality here in the US may be confusing. Frankly its pretty complex from here. So for those puzzled by the recent flush of red user pictures on Facebook, or wondering why the Daily Mail is having a fit about someone getting smacked in the face I will attempt to clarify.

To understand this we have to consider a little bit of the US federal system. Keeping it simple (and making my lawyer friends cry with the simplification) there are three levels of "law" in the United States: State, Federal and Constitution.
Every State is free to make its own laws, these are decided by state lawmakers and signed into law (or not, but that's another matter) by that state's governor. These laws can be completely different to the laws of the next door state. For example I live in New Jersey, where if you come to a stop at a red light, and there is not a sign saying you can't do it, it is completely legal to turn right without waiting for the green light. A few miles away in New York this would be illegal, trust me on long journeys this gets confusing.
However, due to the overlapping jurisdictions of the Federal and State government State laws rarely win when they clash with Federal law (that is law created by the United States Government) an example being Colorado, which recently legalized the possession of marijuana, but since Federal law still bans it the reality is that you can still be prosecuted for carrying it. Federal laws are created by the lawmakers in Washington DC and signed into law by the President, they apply everywhere,
Confused yet? Stay with me.
Finally the highest law in the land is the US Constitution  This document has been revised no less than twenty-seven times and forms the framework that no law is allowed to contradict. With the 14 amendment this has included state law as well. This is the final decider, the only way to pass a law that contradicts the Constitution is to change the Constitution. This law is decided on by Federal Judges who decide if a law is, or is not, allowed, there are several levels of these judges, local, regional, and finally the supreme court. Obviously it is really about the judges interpretation of the constitution in each case, if you don't like the interpretation of your local judge, you'll probably appeal to the next level up hoping they rule your way.

The reason for all the to-do yesterday and today was the US Supreme Court finally ruling on two cases, deciding whether two laws were allowed by the constitution.

Proposition 8.
In May 2008 the courts in California (state court) ruled that Californian law allowed gay couples ot marry. This was a huge decision and allowed gay couples to marry for the first time in the United States. Later that year a well organized and well funded move put the matter up for a public vote - this was called "Proposition 8," the people of California voted to change the law and ban same-sex marriage. Many couples who had been married were suddenly... not married? Maybe married? Who knows.
As the comment below notes, they were still legally married, but that in itself was a whole fight.
A group including two of the leading lawyers in the country Ted Olsen and David Boies (previously opponents in the landmark Bush vs. Gore case that decided the 200 Presidential Election) organized to take this to Federal Court saying it violated a clause in the Constitution that says everyone in the US gets "equal protection" under the law. At the local and regional levels they were successful in having proposition 8 rules unconstitutional. On Tuesday the case finally reached the Supreme Court. By this time many people had joined their side, in fact the case was argued before the nine Supreme Court justices by Ted Olsen, and the current Solicitor General representing the President.
The signs suggest that the Supreme Court will probably say they will not decide on the constitutionality of proposition 8, because they think the anti-marriage equality activists who brought the case do not have "standing" to do so. Since it is a Californian law the court will say that the governor of California (in a bizzaro world moment when it was passed this was Arnold Schwarzenegger, no really THAT on.) should be the one bringing the case, since the governor does not wish to defend the law, they will argue it cannot be brought to them and so they will throw the whole thing out. This will mean the previous ruling against Proposition 8 will stand and same-sex marriage should be legal again in California.
By doing this they avoid making a far reaching ruling that would either ban or make legal gay marriage for the whole country.

The Defense of Marriage Act was passed into Federal law in 1996, it is a very simple and very nasty little bit of work. It ensures that the US government only recognizes opposite sex marriages, denying any of the advantages in terms of tax, inheritance, hospital visitation rights, etc. It also blocks states from recognizing marriages from other states. Federal law currently rules that if you're married in Wisconsin you are also married in Michigan, However, DOMA prevents that from applying to same-sex marriages. Even though you can get married legally in New York, if you cross the Hudson River into New Jersey you are magically unmarried here. (Not as fun as it might sound.) The woman bringing the challenge to this is Edith Windsor, she was married to her partner of 40 years in 2007, in Canada. When she passed away in 2009 New York (where they lived) had a law recognizing same-sex marriages from other places (despite the issues this would have with DOMA, this kind of State/Federal clash happens a lot) but Edith had to pay out over $350k in taxes on her wife's property when she inherited it. Something an opposite sex spouse would not. The case again rests on the fact that the US Constitution does not allow you to treat one group differently to another - "equal protection." The legal background of this has its roots in slavery.
This case again involves the people you would expect to defend the law, the President's Justice Department, not defending it. Instead the Republican lawmakers in congress footing the bill to fight for this bigotry.
The chances of DOMA being repealed look pretty good. The anti-gay bigots have to argue that the Federal Government has an interest in keeping marriage as only opposite-sex the outweighs the constitutional issues. This seems unlikely, in fact the questions being asked by some of the justices seem to indicate they will rule DOMA out.

While the news from the court today suggest how these cases will be ruled, we wont know the actual verdict for quite some time.

All this comes at an incredible moment for the gay rights movement. Support for marriage equality has shifted incredibly dramatically in the last ten years. Recent polling showing over 60% of Americans support some sort of unions for same-sex couples. With the current President and the lady very likely to be the next democratic nominee both in full support of full marriage equality, and even the head of the Republican party suggesting that his party wants the votes of marriage supporters (it's just not willing to do anything to get them yet), it is an incredible moment in US politics.