See Infra

Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else

Monthly Archives: April 2015

You Cannot But Choose a Side

Steven Inskeep did a radical act of reporting for NPR’s Morning Edition – he talked to people on the ground. Inskeep went to Baltimore and instead of fitting the situation into the narrative about black victims of white police power he asked the locals what they thought. The locals (or at least these locals) are not impressed with the rioters-cum-protesters and similarly unconvinced it’s about race. With a police force that is about 50% black, they finger something else: class. But the disagreement isn’t just about a root cause analysis, but about struggle for ownership of black identity and “the community”.

When we use “culture” or worse “the community” to signify a coherent group, we’re doing an act of violence, a bit of construction, a smoothing over of disagreements. Anyone part of a church knows there are disagreements. Or an industry group. Or a neighborhood. Or a potlock group. These groupings can have real power when people signify them as , say, the Christians and “Christian beliefs”, the industry, and “industry standards”, or the neighborhood and the “character of the neighborhood”. That smoothing over, the act of category construction is inevitable, necessary, and dangerous.

Factions are inevitable and healthy and ignored by outsiders to their peril. On some level, this is understandable because it is complicated. On the other, it is infuriating, because it is complicated and important. Within the unrest following the death of Freddie Gray, you see that factional struggle in how black folks talk about it. Are they riots, or is it an uprising? Do they side with the mother berating her child for participating, or advocate for more violence in protection of the community? The struggle in and among and between blacks can be seen and felt in the newspaper columns and the Facebook timelines. And everyone else is going to end up picking the winner.

Something that every racial minority knows implicitly is that factional struggles within our race are won by convincing whites and our victories are enforced by co-opting whites. When whites talk about Asian values of hard work and discipline, they sided with my parents over the 5th generation Chinese in California. When whites wring their hands about cultural appropriation of minority cultures, they side with the isolationists within those minority cultures over the assimilationists and boundary pushers. When whites make yoga a fashion statement and daily exercise, they side with the physical focused Hindu traditions over the spiritually focused Hindu traditions. When whites complain about Christian bigotry, they empower traditionalists over liberal Christians. When whites call ISIS the Islamic State, they side with the violent extremists against the Muslims who curse and mock Daesh. These choices are almost never made to make one faction the victor. In fact, these choices are most often made ignorant of that dynamic. But you cannot help but choose. The moment you, as a culturally powerful outsider, essentialize another culture, you finger one faction as the true, authentic representative of that culture.

I am not black. I do not have a personal stake in the outcome of the factional struggles within black communities, social circles, and media outlets. But I am affected by the struggle, because the fight isn’t quarantined to black folk. We are all in this society together. However much we segregate ourselves and each other, whether maliciously or emergently, by class, or race, or any other marker, we cannot change the fact that our destinies are bound together.

For many things I (we) can and must remain neutral on. But often we have choice thrust upon us, factional allegiance hides itself inside image memes, complaints about media narratives and inspirational quotes. So when I must choose, I do not on harming my political rivals or supporting my ideology, or for or against the Powers. I choose instead based on who I want as part of my community, my neighborhood, and my potluck group at my dinner table. I choose the people I want in my schools, and the people who I want to have children so that my children can be friends with them. To choose another way would be to concede to the factions that favor undifferentiated rage and destruction. To condemn the city’s protesters as thugs is to empower those who would have black folk be nothing but a predatory animals. To excuse the violence as justified rage is to empower those who would have black folk be nothing but an abused animal.

You cannot but choose a side. Choose wisely.

Inconvenient Victims

A week and change ago I wrote about Oisin Tymon and our tendency to devalue victims, especially male ones in favor of their high-profile abusers. And really, I’ll bet a bunch of you don’t remember who Oisin Tymon is. And that’s because we’ve disposed of him, a low status male, in favor of Jeremy Clarkson, a high status male even though Clarkson is clearly in the wrong.

One of the core insights of feminism is that we are all part of a mostly invisible destructive system of incentives and assumptions that support incumbent interests by awarding status.1 That is to say, feminism is saying that we’re all part of a destructive culture.

They’re not wrong. Not about that anyway. There is a problem though. That destructive system of status isn’t just destructive. Not every turn of vocabulary is the result of a conspiracy to harm women. Some, maybe most of the real problems they finger are emergent instead of curated. Maybe talking about male privilege at the same time men were kicked out of the economy in a culture that makes self worth exactly equal to employment is tone deaf to the point of offensiveness.2 And maybe calling the subtle systems of a mostly free and positive culture the Patriarchy at the same time very unsubtle patriarchal systems are subjugating, mutilating and murdering women is unacceptable hyperbole. I mention this mostly to point out my disagreements with feminism are occasional3 but not just with the “extremist” sorts.

This is also a good time to lay bare (another) one of my own biases. Well, more than a bias, a value. In Leah Libresco’s terms, one of the kittens I am trying to protect. I try to speak for those forgotten in debates. That is, the unintended casualties, the unexpected beneficiaries and the inconvenient victims that get in the way of the narrative. Sometimes it is the the low status victims. Sometimes it is organizations like the Straight Spouse Network.

The Straight Spouse Network is for the forgotten half of triumphant coming out stories, of men and women finally getting to marry those they really, fully love with all of their being. It’s for the man or woman who married a homosexual woman or man, unknowingly, unwittingly, and unsympathetically. And then was divorced, and left behind. Here is a 2014 article about them. There are some more articles about that organization, or just straight spouse stories in general, but nothing compared to the avalanche of sympathetic coming out stories. No media friendly campaign about it getting better. Here again, disposability rears it’s ugly head. Male straight spouses especially are failures in the traditional status markers of society. They’re the punchline to the whole of a Friends character. Here again, my complaint is not that we’re treating the plight of LGBT persons too seriously, my complaint is that we’re not treating the plight of the straight spouses seriously enough.

I don’t think it’s just about status either. It’s about narratives. Straight spouses don’t fit. They get in the way of the story where we get to choose to be on the side defending the bedrock of society from radicals or a powerless minority from reactionary prejudice. Nothing to encourage pride about. Because “both sides”4 don’t want these people to exist in the future so maybe it’s just easier if we pretend they don’t exist now.

I’m going to be doing my level best to grapple with some very difficult and divisive subjects, especially in the next few posts. I will end up with some frequency on the wrong side of an issue – defending people I ultimately disagree with. In doing so, I hope to do well by an honorable tradition and that you’ll stick with me to the end. This blog isn’t about changing people’s minds, but it is about opening them.

Wish me luck.


Easter is Not the End of the Story

Easter is about hope. Easter is hope. It is the tomorrow that promises many other tomorrows. But it is also a day like any other. Many people will die today. Many people will suffer. Many people will give up hope forever and let the darkness swallow them into death and into evil. That is because Easter is not the end of the story. Easter is not a magical panacea. Easter is hope.

Christianity – at least the sort I am part of – is a story that leads to a relationship. A relationship with God, with Christ, with Love itself. These, for the Christian, are the same thing. (Also different things, our relationship status on Facebook is “it’s complicated”). That story cannot end in death on Saturday and still have the same meaning. Perhaps any meaning, because without a better tomorrow, all we have are the Powers. Christianity is actually pretty fatalistic about the world, because we realize that humans will never, ever be perfect on their own. We will continue to break things because we are broken. Without the Powers, without religion, without tribe, without politics, without the interference of malign forces, we would still be warring, and fighting, and breaking, breaking, breaking things and each other. Easter, the Resurrection, the point where Jesus of Nazareth, preacher becomes Christ, Son of God resurrected hope that the broken things will be made whole and that we will be made whole so we can stop breaking things. But the world is still broken this Easter and the world is still broken after every Easter and I am still broken after every Easter.

Christianity isn’t magic. The Creed isn’t a spell that you can mouth to bend physics to your will. Baptism may break the chains of your imprisonment but it won’t remove your scars, destroy the nightmares or give you your lost time back. Easter is a celebration because of and in spite of all of the brokenness. Easter is understanding that we ought not act like the older brother when the prodigal returns (though we do) and that we are have been and will be the ashamed and shameful younger brother. At Easter we give thanks for the intervention we have received instead of lamenting the intervention we have not. We, on Easter, are Lazarus instead of all of the other people that died that day.

Evil continues on unbothered by Easter, the Powers still rule and we are still broken. But Easter is hope. Easter is the punctuation mark at the end of the last sentence of the second act. Turn the page! God pleads in whispers. Turn the page! God shouts in demand. Turn the page! God urges us lovingly. Be not afraid, for God is with you. And with fear and trembling for what will befall all those we love we must. Only fools dare turn the page, believe in the foreshadowing written before them. Only fools believe that love can defeat death. But it will. It has. It is doing it right now.

Easter is hope because Easter is not the end.

Happy Easter.

A Wanderer’s Rest and Reflection in the Moment Between Grief and Joy

Holy Saturday is a pause. It is the narrator of a tragic tale silently waiting on stage refusing to leave. And the Christian watchers have already had the ending spoiled for them. At the Episcopalian service that I attended last night, the liturgical service ends in silence. We were to leave the sanctuary dark like a tomb, but stilled and at peace. The effect was diminished somewhat by parishioners chatting gaily upon entering the vestibule. It was the first time in a long time I felt I belonged, if only for now.

Allow me to recap the end of my conversion story. It has been a long time since I’ve been to church. I mean sure, there have been the stop-offs at an Easter Vigil here and there. (Say what you will about the Catholics, and I have, they know their ritual). And there are the funerals and the weddings, including my own religiousish ceremony. But I’ve resisted going back to church for a long time. The last church I got close to “belonging” to disintegrated and in a way I felt relieved. I took a long hard look at myself and I didn’t like what had happened to me there. So I wandered out. My Christianity became, is, always was that of a wanderer through the scrub. I followed the work, or the flock or the mirages. I may enjoy the temporary hospitality of churches and fellow believers, and I must share what I can in return. I named it, I now call it, had always sensed it was, Christian Nomadism.

Last night, I went to church for the first time in a long time with the hope, the intent of resting for a while. Christian Nomadism isn’t meant to be a denomination. It is both a temporal state of being actively unchurched and a disposition in relation to Christ, whether in church or out of it. And it is meant to keep me searching not just staying away. I’ve long reached the point where the trauma from the last church has faded and I’ve been selfishly keeping myself away from the Body of Christ, my brother and sisters in the ecclesia for too long.

Folks, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the Body is in some trouble and the ecclesia is not getting along well with itself. For a bunch of people convinced that on a tomorrow long ago a dead man broke death with love and in a very literal sense lives on, not in but as us (but also outside in the nonplace where there is no outside or inside) you would think that… well I’m not sure. But you’d expect it to be better right?

Well. No. Maybe not. Maybe we’re just that much more aware of sin. To riff on Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry’s riff on Francis Spufford’s reimagining of original sin, Christians are supposed to be specially aware of that Human Propensity to Fuck Things up Because We Like It. Because it seemed like a good idea at the time. Because we think we deserve it, whether riches or punishment. We are the reason that we can’t have nice things. You can be “good without God”, says the atheist placard. Well, we think we have God, and we’re still not very good at being good for any length of time. Maybe they should have a sign “It has been 57 days since our last fuck up.” Our signs read 0.

Imagine that group, that team of losers, that International League of the Guilty, that endless meeting of Fuck-ups Unanonymous, if the story ended on Saturday. There was a preacher, he preached, he was crucified as an example to all others who might challenge the Powers, he died, and now we’re really quite sad, but live on following the teaching of our great moral teacher.

Jesus wasn’t a great moral teacher. He was a lunatic. Jessica Kantrowitz at Ten Thousand Places has a useful reminder:

What if their neighbors saw! What if seeing them carrying the Roman’s equipment caused other Jews to think the Roman oppression was okay? What if there was other work that needed to be done — good work, charity work even, but they spent all that time carrying equipment for the evil oppressor? But Jesus is not worried about any of that:

“If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also,” he said. “And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
If someone forces you to bake a cake for a gay wedding, bake for them two.

Christians, our Jesus said to not only follow the law, but to rise to a higher standard of love. Christians should be the FIRST people baking cakes — for everyone who asks us. We should be known for our cake baking. People should be saying, “There go those crazy Christians again, baking cakes for everyone. They just won’t quit!” Then, when we share the reason for our wild, all-inclusive love, people will want to hear it. “Let your light shine before others,” said Jesus, “that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

But, but, don’t we hate the sin and love the sinner? No. You can’t hate “the sin” in Christianity and be right with God. You can, at the very most, have a stringent disagreement with sin. You can lament sin. You can identify something as sinful. You can get into vociferous debate about the degree to which sin is corrupting our government and laws. But fingering “the sin” or “a sin” doesn’t work, and hating it definitely doesn’t work, even if you promise to love “the sinner”. Hating the sin and loving the sinners is the sort of thing great moral teachers tell you to do, probably after mellowing out with some great weed, man. It’s the careful virtue of righteous comity. Francis Spufford reminded us about this in Unapologetic. “God doesn’t want your careful virtue, He wants your reckless generosity.”

I’ve been out of church because I wanted to preserve my virtue from the evils of groupthink, of reactionary bigotry, and of the mind-numbing jargon of Christian religion. Well that’s not right. That’s sin too. That’s fucking up by being afraid of fucking up.

Holy Saturday is a pause. A moment I take now for reflection and commitment. Easter is coming.

Good Friday and Passover

Good Friday happens to fall on the day preceding the first night of Passover this year. That makes it a good time to remind everyone that Christian Church is, in Francis Spufford’s words, “The International League of the Guilty”.

Good Friday should be the day should be the day of all days in the Christian year when we are ashamed of even our tiniest and most necessary cruelties — seeing before us the image of their consequences. But instead, grotesquely, it was often the day for pogroms; a day of heightened emotions which could be resolved, for Christian mobs pouring out o of churches, into a search for Jews to kill. Then Easter was celebrated with smoke and screams and Christ re-crucified. The final catastrophe of European Jewry, in the twentieth century, wasn’t just powered by religious anti-Semitism, but it played its part. The is the greatest shame of Christian history; the most disgusting misapplication possible of the story of compassion unto death. My own church and most of the other mainstream branches of the universal ecclesia too, now insists that on Good Friday we all of us in the building shout out “Crucify him! Crucify him!,” to remind us whodunit, and that it wasn’t Them. – Francis Spufford, Unapologetic

Christianity is more than mere tribal affiliation, even of Christians themselves are often tribal. It is in fact, an idea that reaches beyond tribe and into universality. And we need to be reminded that in a particular time, in a particular place, each and every one of us finds ourselves consistently on the side of the angry crowd and of the high priests, with or without the Powers of the world pushing us along.

for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me. – Matthew 25:42-45, NRSV translation

We can barely manage charity for the people we know and like. And we never recognize the face of the divine when it is right there in front of us. We are not with the apostles, and even if we were, the apostles weren’t with Jesus in the end either. As Jews celebrate Passover, in remembrance of their tribe’s liberation from slavery and bondage, we need to remember they needed to be liberated from people just like us. And we are doing it, to someone, somewhere, right now. We are doing it to Jesus.

Good Friday is the darkest part of the story. The hero is dead, and we killed him. Thank God Easter is coming in spite of us, and for us.