Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Theology of Broadway's The Book of Mormon Part One – Cultural Imperialism, Suffering, & God's Comfort: “Hasa Diga Eebowai”

Part of Broadway's The Book of Mormon Week. Expect mild spoilers and offensive content. Detailed disclaimers can be found in the introduction.

When I lived in London, I attended a conservative evangelical church for two years. I am, as you might have gathered, neither conservative nor evangelical. Evangelicals are extremely keen on sharing their faith; in fact, they talk about little else. Nearly every week we were encouraged to bring a non-Christian friend to some church event (and, knowing how most non-Christians react to being invited to a church event, I can only admire such perseverance); and nearly every week we were asked to pray for “our mission partners” in South Africa or China or France.

The whole concept of mission is very problematic for liberal or left-leaning Christians. On the one hand, mission workers did and do bring much-needed education, infrastructure, and supplies to destitute areas. However, mission's intertwining with imperialism, both economic/territorial and cultural, can't be ignored, and Christian mission can certainly be held responsible for many of Africa's problems today.

The plot of Broadway's The Book of Mormon sees two young Mormon men – all-American golden boy Kevin and nerdy comic-relief figure Arnold – sent on their mission to a village in Uganda. A lot of immediate humor is mined from the simple incongruity of the squeaky-clean, hopelessly naïve Mormon boys transplanted to a little war-ravaged African village. Refreshingly, the jokes are mostly skewed, not against the PRIMITIVE AND WACKY NATIVES!, but against Kevin and Arnold, due to the ways Africa defies their expectations (which, like mine when I moved to East Africa at the age of seven, are based almost exclusively on The Lion King).

Hasa Diga Eebowai” is the song with which the Ugandans greet them on their arrival. It's a direct rebuttal of Disney's “Hakuna Matata”*: “There's war, poverty, famine, but having a saying makes it all seem better!” Kevin tries to tell the villagers that they mustn't say “hasa diga Eebowai” (=“fuck you, God”), because “things aren't always as bad as they seem.” Naturally, he has no idea what he's talking about.

*Though, to be fair, “hakuna matata” is in fact a common saying in East Africa.

God's presence might comfort Kevin in times of trouble, but the experience of God is subjective. When your “times of trouble” constitute the plane being crowded and the bus being late, it's perhaps a little presumptuous to tell a poverty-stricken war-torn AIDS-plagued community that your God will make them feel better.

Too often, rich Westerners like to ascribe greater spirituality to the poor, as if people living in poverty are unilaterally pure and Godly. I call it “Gap Yah-ism”: to salve our rich-person consciences, we ascribe to people in poverty other assets than material ones – “a sense of enduring hope, as if to say, 'You know, despite our differences you and I are one, we are kindred spirits'...” – trying to convince ourselves that economic injustice isn't so bad because material poverty goes hand in hand with spiritual wealth. Of course, it's true that God does comfort many people who are suffering, and it's true that, per liberation theology, the poor have spiritually privileged voices; but the danger arises when people think that this means poverty and suffering are not so bad after all.

Some Christian exclusivists believe that alleviating the troubles of this life is not as important as converting unbelievers. This lack of concern for social and economic justice was one of the major reasons I left my evangelical church in the heart of London's financial district: it's easy to say that souls are what matters when your body is comfortable, healthy, and safe. In reality, millions of people are suffering, and the breathtaking arrogance of telling people their suffering doesn't matter is exactly what this song is skewering.

“When God fucks you in the butt
Fuck God right back in his cunt.”

To a Westerner, it sounds appalling – I imagine that the vast majority of even secular Westerners wouldn't be entirely comfortable saying “Fuck you, God, in the ass, mouth, and cunt” – but that's the brilliance of the song: if we're so inured to the suffering of our fellow humans that “Fuck you, God” is more shocking than “Eighty per cent of us have AIDS”, doesn't that indicate our profound moral bankruptcy? If Christians – whose entire way of life is supposed to be based on the Golden Rule – care so little for suffering people, isn't it reasonable that suffering people should in turn reject Christianity?

“When the world is getting you down
There's nobody else to blame
Raise your middle finger to the sky
And curse his rotten name.”

There certainly is Biblical precedent for calling out God for heaping suffering on your head. Check out Psalm 88:

“O Lord, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me?
...I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
Your wrath has swept over me;
your dreadful assaults destroy me.”

Psalm 88 doesn't end with words of faith and hope in God. It is a litany of despair and pain, and its final line is “darkness has become my only companion.” Contrary to many people's insistence, the Bible doesn't gloss over suffering or offer easy answers (read Job or Ecclesiastes if you want a real head-scratcher). Any honest theology must admit that sometimes God seems at best absent, at worst malevolent, and acknowledge the legitimacy of every response to this fact.

“If you don't like what we say
Try living here a couple days.
Watch all your friends and family die
Hasa diga Eebowai!”

Tomorrow: The Theology of Broadway's The Book of Mormon Part Two – Pascal's Wager, Reward/Punishment, & Mercenary Faith: “Sal Tlay Ka Siti”

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Theology of Broadway's The Book of Mormon: Introduction

The latest fixture of my iPod is the original cast recording of new Broadway musical The Book of Mormon. Obviously, I haven't seen it, but I've been enjoying the songs a lot, and that's why this week is Broadway's The Book of Mormon Week here at Gay Christian Geek!

I won't be talking about the show as a musical, because frankly there's nothing much to say. Lyrically and musically, it's about as complicated as A Very Potter Musical, and shares with that show an infectious pop sensibility that's far from Sondheim.

I will be talking about the show as a vehicle for its creators' philosophy of religion. Matt Stone and Trey Parker – best known for South Park, which is a little too preachy and a little too reliant on gross-out humor for my taste (though I admit that in small doses, e.g. highlight clips on YouTube, it can be absolutely hilarious) – have never shied away from mocking any faith group, even when legal threats were involved. Their fascination with Mormonism in particular is documented in a South Park episode and in the delightful, underrated Orgazmo. What do they have to say about it? What tone do they strike, and what points, valid or otherwise, do they make about organized religion?

I'll do my best to discuss all of this without getting too spoiler-y, for those of you holding out for the West End transfer (I admire your resilience, Michael!), but mild spoilers will be unavoidable. And, to give you fair warning, some of this stuff is incredibly offensive. If you have a problem with blasphemy, cuss words, or jokes lightyears beyond the boundaries of good taste, then this series of posts is probably not for you, and this musical is definitely not for you.

Disclaimers out the way, it's time to gird the loins of your mind (oh, how I love that phrase) and gear up for some serious overthinking. Check back tomorrow for Part One of Broadway's The Book of Mormon Week at Gay Christian Geek!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Everyday Queering

Have you noticed how everyone says QUILTBAG now? It's a quality acronym, obviously – if you're too lazy to click that link, it stands for:









Good, eh? More inclusive (and waaaaay more pronounceable) than LGBT.

Personally, though, I like to use “queer” as my umbrella term for all that stuff. I know some people have problems with the q-word – mainly older LGB folks to whom it still carries the resonance of a slur – but even academia has reclaimed it.

The reason I like “queer”, though, is that it's a verb as well as an adjective and noun: it's not just something you are, it's something you can do. Cis, het, monogamous people with 2.4 kids in the suburbs aren't a part of the QUILTBAG community, but they're still capable of queering.

What do I mean by queering? Anything that challenges normative behaviors or attitudes around sex and gender. Anything that critiques the dominant, heteronormative culture. Anything that might introduce somebody to the concept of deconstructing their identities.

Even the tiniest actions matter. These parents are queering radically (and I think they are awesome), but not everybody needs to do what they're doing. Even the humblest challenges to the kyriarchy can open that crucial door in somebody's mind.

Buying pink booties for your cousin's newborn son: that's queering.

Teaching your young kids that trans*, intersex, and genderqueer people exist: that's queering.

Not correcting the shopkeeper who took you for the opposite sex: that's queering.

Reminding the right-wing Christian who's always talking “family values” that Jesus not only was unmarried (celibate; perhaps asexual?), but also rejected his biological family in favor of his friends (OMG JUST LIKE ON BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER)? Queering.

Using Spivak pronouns in everyday speech? Queering.

Sometimes I feel sorry for cis heteros, because they have to try that much harder if they want to challenge the kyriarchy. We QUILTBAG types queer the place up just by existing, but y'all have to do something. And that's also why I appreciate you queering non-queers so much.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Red Shirt

I wrote a song. It's about the jackass who thinks "raped" and "scolded" are synonyms. It's about the drama queen who thinks every little problem is the WORST THING EVER. It's about Privilege-Denying Dude. It's about me when I'm being a whiny jerk. It's about you and your first-world problems.

You should really listen to it.


I'm shocked to hear that your workplace is run by a man
who hates Jews, queers, and non-whites with all his heart: see,
people that venerate Hitler are not too common nowadays
but I assume that's what you meant by "My boss is a Nazi"
And I feel bad for you, buddy; really I do
But forgive me if I think some people have it worse than you
I'm glad I wore my red shirt to hide my bleeding heart
And I know the world's full of evil folks and I'd never dream of making jokes
about you and your first-world problems.

I can't begin to imagine the horrible ways
that this violent violation must have shaped you:
the trauma, the soul-sickness, and the horror that must result
if, as you say, the telephone company raped you.
And I sympathize, my friend; I mean no rebuke
But forgive me if your metaphor just makes me want to puke
I'm glad I wore my red shirt to hide my bleeding heart
And I know this world is sick with sorrow and I'm praying for a better tomorrow
for you and your first-world problems.

I understand you have to prioritize your cares
You can't fight every battle on your own
And children dying in Africa don't affect your life as much
as breaking your iPhone

It must be really awful to have no money at all
Living on less than a dollar a day's no joke
when you can't afford a meal or a roof over your head
That is what you meant, is it not, by "totally broke"?
And I know it's hard, pal; yeah, your life's a chore
But forgive me if I just don't want to hear it anymore
I'm glad I wore my red shirt to hide my bleeding heart
And I know this world's full of suffering but I've honestly just had enough hearing
about you and your first-world problems
You and your first-world problems.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Apocalypse Threatdown!

I admit it: I'm an apocalypticist. I didn't seriously think the world was going to end this weekend, though I'm wary of proclaiming any future event as definite either way – I must have been seven or eight when a teacher undertook to explain to my class that nothing can be predicted with 100% certainty, and while my classmates were offering counterexamples (this period ending, the sun rising tomorrow) I was agreeing, “Right – we could be hit by a meteor and wiped out within the next half an hour.” Half an hour later, the bell rang, and as we scrambled for our next period my classmates shouted in triumph that this proved their point.

Maybe it was my childhood love of John Wyndham and Arthur C. Clarke that gave me my taste for apocalypse (I read The Day of the Triffids dozens of times before I ever saw a zombie movie). Maybe it was my earlier love of dinosaurs and outer space that made me aware of the extinction of species and the eventual death of the sun. Maybe it was my father's work in international development that taught me the finiteness of earth's resources and the unsustainability of our wasteful lifestyle.

Whatever the cause, I've lived my whole life under the assumption that things like long-term plans were irrelevant, because any day now a major event would turn our world into the world of Z for Zachariah or The Day of the Triffids or The Road or Earth Abides. It was a nasty shock last year to find that, at the end of my undergraduate degree, the world as we know it was still here and I was expected to make plans for The Rest Of My Life.

As I said, I didn't really believe that the world would end yesterday. Any self-professed Christian who claims to know the day or the hour of the End Times is directly contradicting Jesus (“you do not know when the time will come”), which is sort of a no-no in most denominations of Christianity. And anyway I reckon Jesus makes it pretty clear that the End Times will resemble the grim apocalyptic fiction of my youth.

So what will end the world? I have a list of scenarios, ordered by increasing likelihood. Apocalypse Threatdown!

5. Total War

Watching movies from the 1950s and 60s, I'm often struck by the fact that, even though disarmament has not happened, we no longer feel the dread of all-out nuclear war hanging over us. When the bomb's remained undropped for so long, mutually assured destruction starts to seem unlikely, but it only takes one megalomaniac dictator with his finger on the button.

As seen in: Z for Zachariah, The Road (?)

Likelihood: 6/10

4. Plague

Modern medicine marches forward, endeavoring to eradicate as many diseases as possible. In response, the diseases are mutating new and terrifying strains as fast as we can develop cures. Looking at all the false alarms we've had over the past few years – SARS, bird flu, swine flu – I'd say we're due a real pandemic on the scale of 1918's Spanish flu. Also, when my brother told nine-year-old me about ebola I didn't sleep for a week.

As seen in: Doomsday, 28 Days Later

Likelihood: 7/10

3. The Undead

Let's face it: as much as we nerds plan for it, world governments are just not equipped for the zombie uprising. We were warned, but we're still doomed.

As seen in: World War Z, Romero's Dead movies

Likelihood: 8/10

2. Robot Revolution

Revolution has been programmed into the whole concept of robots ever since the great Karel Capek coined the term in his play R.U.R.(War With The Newts, fantastic though it is, does not make the top five threats.) This scenario was level-pegging with zombies until a computer won Jeopardy, reminding us that machines are getting ever more advanced. Plus, when I asked Chatbot if it was planning to enslave humanity, it was pretty cagey.

As seen in: The Terminator, R.U.R.

Likelihood: 8.5/10

And the number one probable cause of the apocalypse is...

1. Climate Change Disaster

Yeah, this one's unavoidable. There won't be enough fresh water or food to go around. Places lucky enough to have some food and water will militarize in order to keep out the desperate have-nots, who will turn to cannibalism in order to survive. And all the other scenarios will probably happen just to join in the fun.

As seen in: the future

Likelihood: 10/10

Of course, when I say “unavoidable” and “10/10”, I mean them only insofar as these things can be predicted. Tomorrow we might be wiped out by a meteor. Or tomorrow Jesus might return, just to mess with us.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Intersectionality, As Explained By A Tipsy Person

One of the things that's both wonderful and frustrating about the social justice blogosphere is the frequency of teacup shitstorms. Whenever we call each other out on something (like calling Scott Adams “idiotic”), it spirals into a dust devil of righteous fury. It's great to have a movement that encourages internal debate – despite the antis' desire to construe us as a monolithic entity, no one is harder on a feminist than a fellow feminist – but too often the semantic back-and-forth risks obscuring the real issues at hand.

Back when the Andrea Wallace Asians-in-our-libraries-getting-Asian-all-over-America debacle happened (remember that?), Racialicious kicked off another intramovement blame-a-thon with a post about white female privilege. White feminists bumrushed to respond that “white female privilege” is not a thing, and AJ meant “female white privilege” which really is just white privilege and why is she being so meeeeeeean?

Semantic dickering is the tragic flaw of the third-wave feminist movement. Of course “white female privilege” is a thing. Check out these great posts at the always-challenging Womanist Musings if you're not convinced. It's white privilege as experienced by women (in Andrea Wallace's case, by a cis able-bodied woman), which is different from white privilege as experienced by men. If this is hard to grasp, try flipping it: compare white female oppression with black female oppression. Qualitatively different, right? It's called intersectionality. Maybe you've heard of it.

I was in the pub the other night with a dear friend (in this story, he was “the absolute brick”), and we got talking, as is our wont, about social justice. I started blithering on about intersectionality, and brick asked me to explain the concept. Under the influence of Strauss, wine, and beer, I think I did rather a good job, and, sober though I currently am, I will endeavor to reproduce something of my explanation here.

The example I used was homophobia. (Please don't think I'm trying to equate gay oppression with black oppression. LGB folks do that a lot, sometimes in service of a useful analogy, more often in a false equivalency that helps no one. I'm simply using an example from my own experience.) In some circumstances, e.g. when fighting unjust legislation, we can reasonably lump all homophobia together; but in other conversations we recognize that a gay man experiences oppression differently than a gay woman.

Gay men are “disgusting”; their sexuality is a threat – see some of the worst arguments against allowing openly gay people to serve in the US military. Gay women are “hot”; their sexuality is a joke – witness Tyler, the Creator's super-mature response to Sara Quin's impassioned plea for a forthright rejection of the homophobia and misogyny in his lyrics.

To make sense of these different attitudes, we have to look at the dimension of male supremacy. If only male sexuality is seen as legitimate, then of course gay men are threatening and gay women aren't real. (As to those outside the binary, it's easiest to pretend they don't exist.) Now, in order to fully map each individual's experience of privilege and oppression, we have to layer in every other strand in the kyriarchy, plotting their positions on the axes of cissexism, ableism, racism, classism, and so on.

Obviously, we don't map out each individual's experience of the kyriarchy in this way, because we'd never get anything done (we wouldn't even have time for semantic dickering). The point is to recognize the complexity of the kyriarchy and to remember that every time we talk about misogyny or racism we are artificially isolating one axis of oppression. The point is to fight the bullshit generalizations of the kyriarchy and to affirm the uniqueness of every individual's experience.

We're not playing Who's More Oppressed, people. We're engaging with a vast and many-headed hydra of injustice, and if we want to defeat it we have to attack all the heads at the same time.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Geek Identity

“What are you doing this weekend?” my coworker asked, as she wiped down the bar.

“My Dungeons & Dragons group is meeting for the first time in ages,” I replied – whereupon she collapsed into a fit of laughter that lasted for about five solid minutes. Each time the giggles seemed likely to dry up, she would take another glance at me, patiently waiting for her to finish, and a fresh wave of uncontrollable mirth would strike. Eventually, staggering upright, wiping away the tears, she hiccuped out,

“I suppose – you still have – a few more years...”

Most of the people I regularly spend time with, online or in real life, are, like me, nerds. The ones who aren't tolerate my nerdiness, to the point that they don't tend to laugh uncontrollably at me (to my face, anyway). I had forgotten that the world is full of people who react to forthright declarations of geekery the way my coworker did.

If geek culture – as signified by markers like Dungeons & Dragons, devotion to cult TV series, paperback doorstoppers with dragons on the covers – is an adolescent pursuit we should all outgrow by our mid-twenties, what does that say about those of us who are lifelong geeks?

You're never supposed to admit this, but I haven't always been devoted to Firefly and Mystery Science Theater 3000 and China Miéville. These things are merely the current trappings of geekdom. Being a geek is a lot like being gay: anybody can latch onto the external behaviors and signifiers of the subculture, but externals do not a geek make. Geek is something you always have been and always will be, whether you like Star Trek or not.

Geekdom is the eight-year-old who sneaks away from the birthday party to spend the afternoon hiding in a closet with a book. It's the kid who works so hard in school that even the teachers write “Swotticus mingicus” on her report card (that's neo-British-East-African for “Dorkus malorkus”). It's the teenager who enjoys exams and spends her free time writing a novel.

Geeks are, I think, almost all introverts. It's not that we're friendless social misfits, though many of us have been at some point in our lives, but we thrive on our own company. The defining characteristic of geekdom is a love of minutiae and depth – the enjoyment of overthinking for its own sake – and that necessarily entails time spent alone with one's interests.

That's why we're all internet-diagnosed aspies (I score 34 on the AQ Test, yo), and that's why we all love Dr. Sheldon Cooper. The Big Bang Theory is probably the most popular mainstream representation of geek culture, and Sheldon is its best character by a parsec *audience laughs because I geekified a common idiom*. The other characters engage in the recognized cultural currency of geekdom – they read comic books, play videogames, watch sci-fi shows – but none of them displays that single-mindedness that is the hallmark of being a geek.

I realize that watching people be introverted would make for terrible TV, but there's no indication that Leonard or Howard or Raj gives to anything the time and attention that Sheldon gives to his work and his fandoms. Of course, in his single-minded devotion to his own interests, Sheldon frequently misses social cues and acts like an ass to people, but we like him because we wish we could do that too.

The Big Bang Theory, for all its claims to be representative of geeks and geek culture, buys into the idea that geekery is adolescent. Although lately it's improved its portrayal of women, adding several strong (and geeky!) female characters to the regular cast, the show is still beholden to its initial premise of laughing at the geeks' failures to interact with the pretty normie girl. Just last week, Priya (the other pretty normie girl) spoke disparagingly of her brother's nerdy hobby from when he was little, “but not as little as you'd want him to be.”

This coding of geek activities as immature plays directly into the heteronormative patriarchy. Yeah, I just wrote that sentence, and I believe it. Because “you'll outgrow geek culture” sounds to me a lot like “you'll get broody before you're thirty”. It's a way of delegitimating non-mainstream identities and assuming every life has to follow the traditionalist model of “growing up” – leaving behind all your interests and ambitions in order to have a spouse and children and a house in the suburbs and Tupperware parties and a mortgage. Which is fine if you want it, but not everyone does.

People tell me that one day I'll want to “settle down” and bear children; people tell me I'll “outgrow” my geeky interests. I say: God, I hope not.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Half-Man-Half-Biscuitism: Why I Can't Stand Ricky Gervais

I am not a fan of Ricky Gervais. I just don't find him funny. Clips I've seen from Extras have proved that, for me, celebrity self-mockery with a wink to the camera is not half as funny as Brass Eye-style send-up of celebrities who don't know they're being mocked; last year, my plan to watch all of The Office UK collapsed with the first episode, of which, judging by its profound tediousness, I accidentally watched the eight-hour director's cut.

So my attempts to engage with his work have failed, and I don't much care for his persona either. When he guests on The Daily Show, I am mystified by his ability to charm Jon Stewart and the audience into fits of giggles with every sentence that emerges from his mouth; when he promoted his film Cemetery Junction on Mark Kermode's show, I got very irritated by him; when he caused a stir by making some cheeky remarks as host of this year's Golden Globes, he seemed altogether too pleased with himself.

That, I think, is the heart of my dislike of Ricky Gervais (or rather of the Ricky Gervais persona he projects; obviously, I don't know the man personally): he always comes across as incredibly smug. I have no problem with lampooning the Hollywood elite, many of my favorite sitcoms were influenced by The Office's comic sensibilities, and I am happy for people to publicly profess their atheism, but it's nice if they can do it without being so damn smug.

In April, the Wall Street Journal blog ran a piece by Gervais entitled “An (Atheist) Easter Message From Ricky Gervais: Why I'm An Excellent Christian”. I'm not sure I've ever seen an article that took more cheap shots at tired targets, misrepresented Christianity more wilfully, or was smugger in tone than this one.

For a start, Gervais refers to Christians' belief “that Jesus was half man, half God”. It takes about eight seconds of engagement with Christianity to know that this is not remotely the Christian view of Jesus. In John 1:1 and 14, in Philippians 2:6-7, in Colossians 2:9, in the Nicene Creed – the core of Christianity is that Jesus is both fully God and fully human (it's called hypostatic union, y'all!). Confusing? You bet – ink and blood have both been spilled in vast quantities in attempts to make sense of this doctrine for most of the past two millennia. Glibly dismissing the complexity of the issue for the sake of a cheap soundbite is intellectually dishonest and doctrinally naïve. It's like saying, “If God would kill his own son, he must be eeeevil!” Well, gosh, thank you for that innovative theological insight – it has never occurred to any Christian before, and it certainly hasn't been under debate for 1600-some years. It happens in feminism, too (“Someone should really call the third wave and tell them about these important revelations”). I hereby dub this practice – of thinking you've trumped your ideological opponents by bringing up a question that has long been discussed within their movement – “half-man-half-biscuitism”.

Half-man-half-biscuitism strikes again when Gervais takes lazy (and, in the context of the article, irrelevant) aim at the issue of gay people and the Bible. “So remember. If you are gay you are “Bumming for Satan” basically. (That would make quite a good T-shirt.)” Again, the way he talks about it you'd think nobody had ever debated this issue before. It's a very cheap shot, included only to further ridicule Christians, who apparently all share exactly the same narrow view on religious exclusivism, sola fide, and homosexuality. Also, can we call a moratorium on the word “bumming” in British comedy? Please?

The main substance of Gervais' article, though, is taken up with his point-by-point declaration that he keeps all of the Ten Commandments. Now, I know he's trying to be funny, but he's also trying to make a serious – and, undeniably, valid – point about religious hypocrisy, and I can't quite figure out how it's intended. Is he satirizing Christian self-righteousness by demonstrating that anyone who claims to keep all of the Ten Commandments is obviously lying (Romans 3, yo)? Or is he highlighting Christian moral hypocrisy by seriously claiming that he keeps all of the Ten Commandments while Christians don't? (Spoiler: he doesn't. I don't think he understands what the first two commandments mean, and I just don't believe he's never coveted something that belonged to somebody else.)

Either point is valid. It's true that professing your own moral righteousness, either publicly or just to yourself, is an immoral act for a Christian; it's also true that non-Christians often act more morally than Christians do. If you're going to make either one of those points, though, it helps if you can do it in a manner that's coherent, honest, and fair. Or – at the very least – funny.

Friday, May 6, 2011

A Question

Do you ever wish you could just switch it off? Just stop caring? Do you ever wish you could dial the empathy right down to zero for a day?

Do you ever wish you could sit down at the computer and not feel the obsessive urge to watch The Rachel Maddow Show and check AlterNet every ten minutes? Do you ever wish you could swear off the social justice websites for a while, and only read about pop culture and funny kittens?

Do you ever wish you could read about Western foreign policy without a welling sense of shame and dread? Do you ever wish you could contemplate worldwide human rights abuses without feeling sick to your stomach? Do you ever wish you could accept war and poverty as unfortunate but unchangeable facts of life?

Do you ever wish you could walk past a homeless person without being swamped by guilt and sorrow? Do you ever wish you could pass the sick kids' hospital without feeling your eyes fill with tears? Do you ever wish you could witness the gap between rich and poor without raging against the injustice?

Do you ever wish you could watch a TV show without internally criticizing its depiction of people of color? Do you ever wish you could see a movie without wishing for better representation of women? Do you ever wish you could engage in feminism and LGB activism without getting incensed by the frequent erasure of trans* people?

Do you ever wish you could stop caring?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

“I Love Elections. I'm Having One Right Now”: Some Thoughts On Voting

The other night, I had a big argument with my parents. It was a family argument in the Jewish sense: a minor disagreement leading to a heated philosophical debate that gets the juices flowing, unveils deeply-held beliefs for a thorough savaging, and leaves everyone feeling warm, fuzzy, and closer than ever before. (As a general FYI, if you're the kind of person that finds big arguments upsetting rather than unifying, you probably shouldn't date anyone who can claim descent from the Chosen People. Just sayin'. From rabbinical midrash to which pages of the Pesach haggadah we can skip to whether Superman or Batman or Spider-man is the best, bonding through disagreement is in our heritage and in our blood.) (Have I mentioned before that I'm Jewish as well as Christian? Future posts will explore this further, I promise.)

The subject of our argument was feminism. I think my parents view my feminism the same way they view my being gay: they don't totally get it, but they've come to accept it as a part of who I am, and they're willing to engage with it. A lot of people believe in the fundamental tenets of third-wave feminist thought, even if they wouldn't self-identify as feminist, and my parents are no exception. But when they asked me what I think about affirmative action, or “positive discrimination” as they put it, we parted ways.

I said that I think affirmative action is far from ideal, but it's at least an attempt at redressing the centuries of imbalance and ongoing institutional bias against minorities. They said it's unfair to punish today's white men for the privilege enjoyed by their forebears.

It would be quite possible to spend a few hundred thousand words unpacking everything that's going on in this dispute, but if you're reading this blog you're presumably – unlike my parents – familiar with a lot of it, not least my feelings about white people, my feelings about privilege-denying, and OH MY GOD WE CAN'T FORGET ABOUT TEH WHITE MENZ WHO IS GOING TO TELL THEIR STORIEZ? So, yeah, there's still plenty of educating to be done (Mother, Dad, I love you, start here), but at least we agree on one thing: the system is broken.

Our world is a zero-sum game. Earth's resources are finite, so where one person gains something, somebody else loses out. Human society is broken on such a fundamental level that I don't know how to begin fixing it, and that's one of the reasons I believe in God – because I don't see how we can possibly get ourselves out of this mess without outside help. (This is also why I hope for benevolent extraterrestrials to gift us with their wisdom before we run out of resources.) As such, I'm not sure there's any such thing as unqualified Right in this life. Every attempt at a good action has bad consequences, either immediately or somewhere down the line. Does this mean we should stop trying? Surely not; that way lies despair.

Today, the UK is holding local elections and a national referendum. Voter turnout at local elections tends to be dismally low, and I'm sure that one of the reasons for this is a widespread belief that the system is broken beyond saving and that therefore there is no right choice.

That's true. There is no right choice. I've been a voter for four years now, and most of those votes I wish I could retroactively change. (Not just my conscience-defying Lib Dem vote last year - would you believe, in my very first local election I voted Conservative? In defense of my younger, stupider self, they're the most unionist party, and that was back when we feared the SNP might walk the walk of Scottish independence instead of just talking the talk.) However, there's not one of those votes I would retract altogether. I'm proud to have voted in every UK election – local, European, London mayoral, general – since I turned eighteen.

I vote because of Emily and Emmeline and Millicent. I vote because of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. I vote because of every person in world history who has ever fought or died for a right that I was gifted on a platter at birth just because of where I was born and who my parents are.

I have serious issues with the whole concept of nationality. (And I have issues with my issues, because I'm very conscious that said issues are largely a product of the oceans of socio-economic privilege that permit a comfortably transnational childhood like mine.) However I may feel about it, I own a UK passport and I benefit from that hugely, in a number of ways. When the UK government takes action, it does so in the name of the British electorate – in my name. Given a chance to influence, even in the tiniest of ways, what is done in my name, how can I not take it?

Whoever I vote for, it won't change the fundamental injustices of our world. But I have to do what little I can: when life hands you a teaspoon, you darn well use it.