Monthly Archives: July 2015

Circus Week!

I’ll be offline through Monday, August 3 as I take some time to work for the OPENAIR Circus. Those who are local are welcome to stop by and enjoy a show at Nunziato Park in Somerville. Suggested donation $3. Shows will take place:

Friday, July 31 | 7pm
Saturday, August 1 | 2pm and 7pm
Sunday, August 2 | 2pm

You can read more about my work with the circus here.


Mad Max

While its been several months since the latest Mad Max movie came out, I was only just recently able to slip in a chance to see before it left the big screen.

I’m generally a fan of action movies, but I was particularly intrigued when early reviews praised Mad Max as a feminist dystopic. That’s not what I expected based on my recollections of post-apocalyptic barbarian men fighting each other from tricked out, dilapidated vehicles from earlier films.

By the time I started seeing reviews that, perhaps, the film wasn’t as feminist as some might hope (or fear), my interest was already too piqued to miss it.

Now, before I get into a feminist critique of the film, let me start with this: I enjoyed it. It was a fun movie. There were lots of explosions, and I like explosions. There were some decent fight sequences with good choreography. Nothing of the caliber of, say, the first Transporter movie or even of the new Daredevil tv series, but it was better than the CGI nonsense some films try to pass off as action these days.

It was as enjoyable as any other action movie I might go see in theaters.

But. Mad Max: Fury Road is not a feminist movie.

Put another way, if Mad Max meets our standards for feminism, our standards are terribly low.

It surely does a better job of representing women than most Hollywood films, but “better than completely sexist” is not my definition of feminism.

The film stars a woman – not the titular character, but arguably the main protagonist nonetheless – who is a tough, competent, fighter. She is even a better shot than the male protagonist; a trait which, I suppose, brought some men close to fainting.

But the idea that a woman can defend herself – and that she might even be tougher than men – should not be radical. We should expect strong women in all our movies.

And the fact that Furiousa is the only truly tough woman in the movie should give us pause.

Similarly, Mad Max passes the famous Bechdel test – indicating that the film includes at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.

It is great that Mad Max passes this test which is failed by Terminator Genisys, Amazing Spider-Man 2, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, and many other movies.

But, again, women talking to each other is a pretty low bar. I expect more than that.

Perhaps what struck me most about Mad Max was the tenderness of the women. All the female characters – even bad ass Furiousa – had a certain softness to them. A warmth and a love.

The message of the movie seemed to be: the hardness of men destroyed the world; the softness of women can repair it.

There were some excellent scenes emphasizing the injustice of male dominance and boldly advocating for women’s sexual freedom, but the pervasiveness of stereotypes seemed to balance them out.

It wasn’t a terribly sexist movie, but it wasn’t feminist either.

At least no one tried running from dinosaurs in heels.

Compromise and Justice

Compromise is often considered to be a good thing – just as we are taught to share toys as kids, we are also taught to share solutions.

If we can’t both get what we want, then reasonable adults will find a compromise – each getting a little of what they want while ceding some ground.

That might be all well and good if we’re debating something relatively trivial, but what about when it comes to issues of justice?

Then the best course is not so clear – if a full victory is beyond our reach perhaps a step towards justice is better than the status quo. Or, perhaps, a step towards justice will simply mollify the moderates, who will no longer feel the need to fight for more robust reform. On the other hand, refusing to compromise may earn you enemies – alienating moderates who might otherwise be willing to support your cause.

These are complex, strategic questions which every movement and activist must evaluate and consider.

Importantly, a wiliness to compromise for the good of the movement should not be confused with an instinctual response of conflict-avoidance.

Compromise can be good, but it should be a strategic choice – not a convenient dodge.

When debating such matters for myself, I’m reminded of the words of Charles Mackay in his poem No Enemies:

You have no enemies, you say?    
Alas! my friend, the boast is poor;    
He who has mingled in the fray    
Of duty, that the brave endure,    
Must have made foes! If you have none,
Small is the work that you have done.    
You’ve hit no traitor on the hip,    
You’ve dashed no cup from perjured lip,    
You’ve never turned the wrong to right,    
You’ve been a coward in the fight.



Gender in an Ideal World

I’ve had some great discussions following my post on Feminism and the Transgender Community.

The topic has stuck with me as I’ve reflected more on this simmering rift between progressive communities.

The good news, as some have pointed out, is that younger cis women tend to be more welcoming of their transgender peers than those who came of age in earlier waves of feminism. But that doesn’t change the fact that there are still plenty of feminists who actively disparage and discriminate against transgender men and women.

That doesn’t sit well with me. That doesn’t sit well with me at all. It strikes me as deeply unjust that women who would proclaim themselves as advocates for equity would discriminate so intentionally.

Not that this is a new or unique issue. There have long been tensions between the white feminist community and the feminist communities of people of color, for example. But those topics deserve their own post.

Today, I’d like to think about what gender or gender identity might look like in an ideal world. There are many tensions between feminists and transgender communities, to be sure, but I think this might be one of them.

Both groups may share a view that gender expression as its normalized now is stifling, but I wonder if there’s a subtle but important difference deeper in these views.

Imagine first a feminist utopia: people do whatever they’re interested in and are respected for whoever they are. There may be some functional differences to restrooms, but overall gender is not a “thing” that defines us.

You may even be inclined to envision this a little more radically: seeing a society where gender is not a binary, but a spectrum encompassing a rich diversity of thoughts, feelings, looks, and expressions.

Now ask yourself: would there be transgender people in such a society?

This is where we start to get into trouble. I think – and I may be entirely wrong about this – that there is a certain flavor of feminist who would be inclined to imagine that “transgender” would be obsolete in such society.

If you are truly free to express yourself regardless of your gender, how can your assigned gender be “wrong”?

There’s a reasonable logic to that argument and a certain comforting simplicity.

But it also has some disconcerting undertones. It implies that transgender people are only a temporary element of society – that “transgender” is not a real thing, but rather a response to a paternalistic paradigm.

Under this model, you may be willing to accept a transgender person as choosing to express their gender a certain way as a means of survival.

It’s not unlike accepting the person who wishes public schools were better, but still elects to send their children to private school: they have to play into the system to make the right choice for themselves, but ultimately the act is a symbol of a broken system.

But what if we were to imagine that yes, there would be transgender people in a more gender fluid society?

Suddenly, the valuation of transgender people seems to change. They aren’t just playing a broken system instead of trying to change the rules. They are genuinely trying to express themselves, express who they are in a meaningful, ineffable way.

As a cis person myself, I don’t really know what that means. But the more I talk to transgender people, the more I hear their stories of discovery and transition, the more I’m convinced that being transgender is more complex and more deeply rooted than our society’s broken gender norms.

That our existing gender system is broken certainly complicates matters – creating false ideas of what is “feminine” and what is “masculine.” But even if we were to do away with those tired tropes, I don’t think that the identity of transgender would just wash away.

Being transgender is something deeper than that, something more fundamental to a person’s being, something which we as a collective society are only beginning to understand.

Bar Fight with Socrates

So, I have a running list of miscellaneous “post ideas.” Topics I’m thinking about but not ready to write on yet or things the come up over the weekend or a vacation.

I consult the list periodically to see if I’m moved to tackle a subject I may have neglected. And when I checked the list earlier this week, I saw I’d previously suggested a rather intriguing topic:

Bar Fight with Socrates, I’d written.

I’m not quite sure what I meant when I wrote that, though I hope someday I’m inspired to write a post far better than this one on the topic.

All I can imagine is that I was thinking – if I had a drink with Socrates, we’d probably get into a fight.

And not a proper dialectic debate with a little heat of intensity. I imagine a full our bar brawl.

Perhaps this image particularly struck me today because I just finished Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations – a work which I would desperately like to see turned into a one act play in which the protagonist gets increasing inebriated during his philosophical soliloquy.

Seriously. Wittgenstein writes like a drunk man talking to himself.  Which I mean, of course, as a complement.

What I want to teach is: to pass from unobvious nonsense to obvious nonsense.

A lot of Wittgenstein sounds like madness, but there’s a certain Zen meaning in his words. It reminds me of that old koan:

Before you study Zen, a mountain is a mountain
When you study Zen, a mountain is no longer a mountain
When you master Zen, a mountain is a mountain again

Wittgenstein is at home in the uncertainty. He tries to reason it all out using thoughtful, well crafted arguments. He tries to get at the root of language and meaning through examples and thought experiments. But even in doing so, he cleverly shows the folly of such an approach:

To say “This combination of words has no sense” excludes it from the sphere of language, and thereby bounds the domain of language. But when one draws a boundary, it may be for various kinds of reason. If I surround an area with a fence or a line or otherwise, the purpose may be to prevent someone from getting in or out; but it may also be part of a game and the players are supposed, say, to jump over the boundary; or it may show where the property of one person ends and that of another begins; and so on. So if I draw a boundary-line, that is not yet to say what I am drawing it for.

Compare all this to rigid Socrates, who always seemed to me to proudly use his skill in dialectic to belittle those around him. I have no doubt I’d lose to him in a debate, but I’m not sure I would consider it a fair fight.

Dialectic is a remarkable skill, no doubt, but is it wisdom?

I prefer the approach of Wittgenstein, who reflects:

But if someone says, “How am I to know what he means – I see only his signs?”, then I say, “How is he to know what he means, he too has only his signs?”

Reflections on Northern Racism

The Black Lives Matter protests that shut down two democratic candidates’ speeches at Netroots Nation highlights an emerging topic of the conversation around race.

While white southerners are arguing against the idea that racism is all Dixie’s fault, white northerners are being confronted with the troubling idea that they, too, might be part of the problem.

To be clear about my own identity, I am a white person born and raised in California. I’m fairly sure that makes me neither a Yankee nor a southerner, though California officially supported the north in the civil war. I have lived my entire adult life in Massachusetts.

I have spent very little time in the south, though thanks to my father – who grew up in 1940s Florida – I ate a lot of grits growing up.

All of that is to say that I am in no position to judge the south. Certainly recent events – such as our nation’s president being greeted by Confederate flag wavers in Oklahoma – indicates that there is important work to be done around racism in the south. But that’s hardly enough to write off the entire south, and only the south, as our nation’s problem.

I am also struck by the reflections of John Gaventa, exploring white powerlessness and poverty in Appalachia: “Programmes which present people like those of [Appalachia] do so usually as stereotypes of passive, quaint or backwards characters…What a society sees of itself on television may provide its mainstream with a kind of collective self-image, by which individuals and sub-groups evaluate themselves and others…the lack of coverage of a subordinate group keeps the members of the group isolated from one another, unaware that others similarly situated share common concerns or are pursuing challenges upon common issues.”

All of that is to say: stereotypes of white, racist southerners help nobody.

The south should indeed confront its racist past and present, but it is wrong to scapegoat the south as the home of all our nation’s racism.

Northern racism – or liberal racism or progressive racism, if you prefer – is just as real. It is somehow more proper, a fine veneer of inclusion over a troubling racist interior.

This northern racism is arguably more insidious: a norther says the right things and goes through the right motions. But all the while, the system pushes to ensure segregation and white dominance.

Historically, this has put white northerners in an enviable position of avoiding fault: They wanted the meeting to be inclusive, its just that only white people showed up. The dutiful liberal heaves a sigh. What could be done?

The reaction to the interruptions of Gov. Martin O’Malley and Sen. Bernie Sanders at Netroots reminds me of this type of liberalism.

As one reporter noted, “I, like many of the others there, was initially irritated by the protestors. I was there to hear the candidates and was frustrated that they weren’t being heard. Even a bit angry, in fact. “These are your allies,” I thought. “Why on earth are you attacking them? Why are you disrupting an event where the people there are sympathetic to your cause?””

That is the response of the white liberal. Sympathetic to the cause, but not to the method. Wanting there to be a chance, but not willing to work for it.

The author eventually reflected on his own experience of being silenced in that moment – emotions “felt acutely and painfully every single day by racial minority groups in our country.”

Yes, indeed, being silenced is frustrating.

But all is not lost for us well-meaning, white liberals who genuinely want to do more than sigh and blame the system. Paulo Freire proposes a path beyond liberalism – to radicalism:

Those who authentically commit themselves to the people must re-examine themselves constantly. This conversion is so radical as not to allow of ambiguous behavior. To affirm this commitment but to consider oneself the proprietor of revolutionary wisdom – which must then be given to (or imposed on) the people – is to retain the old ways. The man or woman who proclaims devotion to the cause of liberation yet is unable to enter into communion with the people, whom he or she continues to regard as totally ignorant, is grievously self-deceived. The convert who approaches the people but alarm at each step they take, each doubt they express, and each suggestion they offer, and attempts to impose his “status,” remains nostalgic towards his origins.

Creating Space for Dialogue

A few different conversations over the last few weeks have made me more deeply appreciate just how difficult it is to have real dialogue.

It might be easy to brush this off as a problem of the Internet caused by a few particularly nasty trolls – and I have no doubt that is a problem – but I think the problem is broader than that.

Most of us don’t have opportunities to participate in productive dialogue in person, much less online. It’s generally considered polite to avoid contentious items, instead sticking to those topics where everyone can agree.

In Pygmalion, for example, Henry Higgins’ explains his plan to pass Eliza Doolittle off as upper class, saying, “I’ve taught her to speak properly; and she has strict orders as to her behavior. She’s to keep to two subjects: the weather and everybody’s health.”

Sticking to those topics may avoid conflict, but they in no way help people have real conversations across differences.

Having no experience with productive dialogue tends to lead to one of two responses when conflict does arise: either engaging in the conflict by arguing your point of view or shying away from the conflict by changing the topic.

But those aren’t the only options.

Those who have participated in productive dialogue know that conversation shouldn’t be about avoiding conflict or about having your way. It should be about learning.

I myself am still learning how to create safe spaces for real dialogue, but, I think, the most important thing I’ve learned is this:

Dialogue should be about trying to understand someone else’s point of view. It should about trying to see where someone else is coming from and appreciating the logic that leads them to their beliefs. It’s about respecting another person’s point of view and about expanding your own thinking by trying to see through someone else’s eyes.

On the Challenges of Social Interaction

Years ago my sister went to an event where they did the most brilliant thing: along with a name tag, attendees selected a color to indicate their interest in social interaction.

One color meant, “I’m very social, please talk to me!” while another indicated simply, “I am having fun, but please don’t talk to me.” I believe there was a level or two in between, but it’s those extremes that stand out in my memory.

I was always a little jealous: just think how handy that color coding would be in every day life.

But here’s the thing: that event my sister attended was for her job as a social worker. The social indicators color coding was done because many of the attendees had mental illnesses which made them, supposedly, less capable than the rest of us of socializing appropriately.

I’m pretty sure that analysis isn’t accurate, though – most of us have trouble socializing appropriately.

Far too many people feel isolated because they don’t know how to find the friendships around them.

Far too many people isolate themselves because they’d rather not have to deal with the madness that is socializing with new people.

(And then there’s the creepers who just ruin it for the rest of us. Seriously, the next time a guy randomly tries to pick me up on the street I’m going to tell him he’s ruining civil society. I bet that’ll smart.)

Meeting new people is hard – especially since “please don’t talk to me” tends to be the default assumption.

But there are ways we can change that.

Several months ago I went to a gaming convention that had an “open chair” policy. That is, any time a group of people were hanging out, they were encouraged to leave an empty chair as a sign that they welcomed more people. It didn’t matter if you didn’t know any one in the group, you were welcome to take the empty chair – provided you brought another chair to welcome whoever came after you.

That was really handy.

So, here’s my proposal: let’s come up with a universal sign. Some non-creepy way of saying, “hey, I want to make friends!”

Especially at events which are supposed to be social in nature. This weekend, for example, hundreds of people will be in Davis for ArtBeat, but, I’d guess, most people will only talk to the people they already know.

Which is unfortunate because ArtBeat should be a great place for meeting new friends.

Somerville is a small, engaged community and I feel like we ought to be able to figure this out. We ought to be able to come up with some way of non-awkwardly show who’s open to talking with strangers.

So, if you’re interested in meeting new people…wear a yellow ribbon or something. I don’t know. Let’s figure it out.

New Horizons

In January 2006, I’d just wrapped up a year working at the planetarium at the Museum of Science.

At the time I could have told you exactly what was visible in that night’s sky. I could have told you which planets were in retrograde and I could have told you where to point your junior telescope to see something interesting.

Also in January of 2006 – nearly 10 years ago – NASA launched a new and ambitious mission. One that would take a decade and three billion miles to complete. A flyby of Pluto by the New Horizons spacecraft.

That icy underdog that was just eight months away from being reclassified as a dwarf planet.

One of the largest of the icy “Kuiper Belt objects,” Pluto and its largest moon Charon will add important knowledge to our understanding of the objects at the edge of our solar system.

Interestingly, Pluto is the only planet(like object) in our solar system whose atmosphere is escaping into space. This flyby could help us understand important things about our own atmosphere as well.

In February of 2007, I don’t even know what I was doing because it was so long ago I can’t quite remember clearly.

But at that time the New Horizons spacecraft was determinedly chugging along, passing that popular gas giant, Jupiter. Slingshoting off that planet’s gravity cut three year’s off the weary spacecraft’s journey while capturing over 700 separate observations of the Jovian system.

In December of 2011, New Horizons drew closer to Pluto than any spacecraft has ever been.

And on July 14, 2015, 3463 days after its mission began, New Horizons made it’s closest flyby of Pluto, capturing so much data that it will take us 16 months to download it all.

That’s incredible.

I don’t know what to say other than that. It’s incredible. It’s incredible what can be accomplished with a passionate team of people and a whole lot of patience.

Congratulations, New Horizons, you made it.

Feminism and the Transgender Community

I’ve been deeply struck recently by the narratives I’ve heard from some feminists about transgender people. There is a disconnect, or a tension, it seems, between certain conceptions of feminism and a full embrace of transgender people.

Among many older feminists, for example, there seems to be a general confusion about transgender identities and, perhaps, a too-eager willingness to dismiss those identities.

I mention age here not to imply that older people’s idea are inherently out of date or old-fashioned – this isn’t like when everybody rolls their eyes at the kind-of-racist thing your grandparent just said.

Rather – the women I’m thinking of are deep, liberal, radical feminists. Their age is important because they fought on the front lines of sexual liberation. They’ve personally felt that glass ceiling pushing them down. They know what it’s like to be sexually harassed and discriminated against as part of institutions that didn’t even put up the appearance of condemning such behavior.

They knew the first women in their families who were allowed to vote.

These women have been leaders in the battle not only only for women’s rights and equality, but for women’s freedom of self-expression.

Being a woman, they’ve rightly argued, is no single thing. There is no perfect body type. No thing you must enjoy or activities you must hate. It’s not clothes or hair, attitude or aptitude that define femininity.

In this way, the women’s movement isn’t just about the right to be treated equally, it’s about the right to be ourselves.

This concept runs into challenges with the transgender movement which – correctly or not – is often interpreted as arguing that, for example, a transgender woman is someone who feels like a woman.

A radical feminist doesn’t know what that means.

How can someone “feel like a woman” when womanhood itself is something that eludes definition?

This approach interprets transgender men and women as people who are simply conforming to the gender binary: transgender men were assigned female at birth but were too macho to be stereotypical women. Transgender women liked princesses too much to live by their assigned gender of male.

And while I am not at all convinced that the above interpretation of transgender people is accurate, it does create tension between the two communities as feminists bemoan the reinforcement of gender norms and see people of privilege – those assigned male at birth – claim the title of womanhood.I don’t know the way out of this tension. I have no idea what it feels like to be a gender other than the one I was assigned to at birth, but I have to trust people when they tell me that’s who they are. For me, that is enough. But as a society I think we need something more.

This conflict is particularly tragic because there should be no greater allies to the transgender community than feminists. There should be no one better able to appreciate the struggle of being unable to genuinely be yourself.

In many ways, that is, we are all in the same fight – all struggling to find and be our true selves.