Talking Philosophy With Kids At The Brooklyn Public Library

This Sunday afternoon at 4PM, I will be participating in a Philosophy for Kids event at the Grand Army Plaza branch of the Brooklyn Public Library (in the Info Commons Lab); the event is sponsored by the Cultural Services Office of the French Embassy. I’ll be functioning as a kind of Philosophical Advice Columnist taking on, and considering, the following question with an audience made up of six to twelve-year old youngsters):

A friend of mine has a three-year old daughter. Every piece of clothing he buys her is pink and floral. Every toy is a doll or makeup kit. He’s already started joking about how she won’t be allowed to have a boyfriend until she’s 30. This all makes me incredibly uncomfortable, but I don’t know whether I’d be crossing a line if I said something. Can I let him know how I feel?

After I posted this announcement on my Facebook page, a friend asked the following question–in what seems a rather irate tone of voice:

The bigger question is why someone should think that they have a right to even think about how someone else is raising their children in the first place, let alone believe that have a right to interfere.

This is a very good question. The straightforward response to it is that because we live in a community, a society, our actions always carry the possibility of bearing on the welfare of others, no matter how self-directed or ‘personal’ they might seem; it is a libertarian and liberal fantasy to imagine that we are isolated islands in the social sea; we are caught up, inextricably, in the lives of others, and they in ours. A family bringing up their child in a sexist or racist environment is raising someone who might very well inculcate those pernicious doctrines and then act on them–to the detriment of someone else’s child. We form political communities directed toward the common good, even as we strive to maximize our individual welfare; the challenge of figuring out how individual freedoms and self-determination can be safeguarded and enhanced while ensuring the rights of others are not infringed on is a central challenge to political and moral philosophy.

To make this discussion a little more personal: I’m the father of a four-year old daughter, and I try my best to bring her up as well as I can to prepare her for the challenges that will undoubtedly confront her in a patriarchal society. My task would be made incomparably easier if the parents of male offspring brought up their children to be sensitive to such considerations as well; it undoubtedly takes a village to raise a child.

This afternoon, I will not pretend the question raised above has a straightforward answer, and will not attempt to provide one to my ‘discussion group’; instead, I will try to draw out some of the central issues involved, perhaps by engaging in some level of abstraction so that the general form of this particular query can be exposed, and the difficulties of answering it can be confronted directly. I’m looking forward to it.

The Normalization Of Donald Trump

Before the elections of 2016 we were informed at every step of the way that Donald  Trump was a fascist, one to be stopped by any means necessary; we were urged to stop this greatest danger to the American republic ever by throwing our bodies into the breach, by manning the barricades, by storming them. The skies were falling and we were urged to put down whatever it is we were doing and to run out to hold it up in the company of our fellow citizens. Great crises demanded appropriately pitched responses.

Then the elections happened. Many Americans did not hear the call. Some urged the sky to fall. It did.

Now that a fascist has been elected, magically purified and sanctified by something called an ‘election,’ an ‘expression of the people’s will,’ because ‘the people have spoken,’ fascism is no longer so. Outgoing presidents who spent months mocking and villifying the orange harbinger of doom now welcome him, wish him the best, and make known their willingness to support him at every step; defeated opponents urge gracious acceptance of defeat and future cooperation on joint endeavors; the commentariat and the joint orders of the journalistic pundit class unite in describing any protests at this stage as strategically and tactically misguided, as ungracious failures to accept that democracy is working. (Unsurprisingly, that cabal of gangsters, the Republican Party, has already made nice, and is looking forward to the spoils of power.)

The water grew muddied for a while; it must be bade settle down, calm itself, and cease its restlessness. There is work to be done, money to be made, stock exchanges to be placated. There is talk of ‘coming together’ and being ‘stronger’–all the better to calmly, quietly, quiescently, accept and reconcile ourselves to the presence of Donald Trump as president.

The language used in describing Trump spoke of dark, dangerous, radical thoughts threatening to roll over America; they spoke of how deeply held political convictions were to be laid aside for the sake of rolling them back, back over the dark horizon that had produced them. The language used to describe our supposed interactions with Trump seems animated by entirely disparate sentiments: don’t rock the boat, all hands on board, the ship is sailing onward and we must lend our efforts to Captain Trump of the USS US.

America needs to make up its mind. Is this man a danger to the American republic or not? If he is, then let us not speak of biding our time for protest, or of extending him the usual courtesies extended to this nation’s leaders. Conventions of courtesy are dangerous luxuries when dealing with existential dangers; and my desire to preserve the wild and extend a lending hand to wildlife stewards will take a rapid backward step when confronted with a wild animal threatening my family.

If Donald Trump is truly a racist fascist with his hands on the nuclear button, if he does intend to implement a racist and xenophobic police state, he is going to need to be greeted with more than a protest march at the inauguration, a banner drop at the State of the Union address.

The 2016 Elections: Chronicles Of A Disaster Foretold

In October 2008, I went door-knocking in Wilkes-Barre, PA–for the Barack Obama campaign. (Earlier, I had donated a total of $100 to the Obama campaign, making two contributions of $50 each.) I was assigned a map of a neighborhood, along with names and addresses and an indicator of whether earlier in the election season, the voter at the indicated address had said they would vote for Obama or not. I met a mixed bunch during my travels; some of those who opened their doors to me were friendly, some were brusque. (I did not bother visiting homes which bore a McCain-Palin sign outside.) On one occasion, I ran into a gentleman standing in his driveway, made a few initial queries, and then got down to inquiring into whether Barack Obama could rely on his vote in the upcoming election. He said yes, because he was sick of ‘things not changing around here’–but then almost immediately launched into a loud and vitriolic diatribe. Against Hillary Clinton–who was not a presidential candidate, having been defeated by Barack Obama in the Democratic primaries.

It was all there–the standard elements of the critique of Hillary Clinton that American voters are used to hearing from ‘the right’: she’s untrustworthy, she lies, she’s a crook. As my interlocutor spoke, he grew visibly irate, waving his smoke-emitting lawn-mowing implement in my face. I came away shaken, having been made very aware of the fact that there were voters in this supposed ‘swing district’ in a ‘battleground state’ who were willing to vote for the Democratic Party’s candidate, but not for Hillary Clinton.

In 2012, I did not contribute money to the Obama campaign and neither did I go door-knocking; it did not seem like the campaign needed my help on either front. Like many others who had voted enthusiastically for Obama in 2008, I had felt some of my enthusiasm ebb; not enough hope and change I could believe in. I wondered whether Obama would take Pennsylvania again; he did. In the 2016 election season, I wondered again about that man in the driveway; I could sense there were others like him in that part of Pennsylvania; he was a recognizable member of an identifiable demographic. A working-class white man who had seen better days and was tired of waiting for ‘politicians’ to hear his voice. (My friend was wearing a baseball cap, natch, with a pick-up truck parked at home.)

Throughout this election season, over and above my expressed criticisms of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, I remained uneasy about her deep and abiding unpopularity with large segments of the American electorate and with her visible identification by yet others as ‘part of the problem.’ In 2008, Obama had presented himself as the candidate of change; it had been easy to portray Hillary Clinton as a member of the establishment. Eight years on, Clinton had become ever more entrenched as a member of the establishment; when she ran in 2016, the best she could offer was ‘more of the same.’ To folks like that man in the driveway in Wilkes-Barre, PA.

Donald Trump won the 2016 elections not just because of folks like that; he won because wealthy and upper-class whites voted for him too; he won because racism and sexism and xenophobia and chauvinism have not lost their power to seek out scapegoats and indict them for a host of crimes. He won because millions of voters who voted for Obama in the last two elections, could not bring themselves to, and indeed did not, vote for Hillary Clinton. Some of these voting predilections were visible early in the voting season; they formed the basis of the skepticism about her candidacy, and for some, the greater hope of the Bernie Sanders campaign. (Trump also won because of the vagaries of the American electoral system, which has been broken since time immemorial.)

Sanders’ primary win in Michigan indicated that: a) polls were not working as well as they might have been expected to b) Democratic strongholds and ‘bluewalls’ were not reliably so c) that in areas with economic downturns, job losses, and particular demographics (like Wilkes-Barre, PA) establishment candidates would suffer in comparison to ‘outsiders’ promising to shake up the ‘system.’ Very few seemed to care or listen; the Democratic Party was committed to getting its candidate across the finish line by any means necessary, including, if needed, the systematic denigration of the Sanders candidacy and the coalition that supported him. It was a fatal mistake.

The populist appeal of Sanders was lost, as was the energy and idealism of his campaign; those vital ingredients remained visible on the Trump side. The folks who attended Trump rallies all over the country were not any more racist or chauvinistic than the ones who came to McCain-Palin rallies in 2008, alarmed about the possibility of a black man with a Muslim middle name becoming president; they can be counted on reliably vote for the Republican candidate every four years. They were not the ones spelling trouble for the Democratic Party; the ones that were really the harbingers of electoral doom for the Clinton campaign were those who had thought change was coming in 2008 and 2012, who could not abide the thought of voting for an establishment that is now viewed as only concerned with its personal enrichment. The weight and power of party machinery would bring a candidacy for Hillary Clinton; it wouldn’t bring a presidency. It especially would not bring a presidency because there were some voters Clinton would never be able to persuade to vote for her, the ones who would unify any unease about a Trump candidacy into a solid anti-Clinton electoral bloc. In the last days of the election season, I had come to believe the polls myself and confidently predicted a win for Hillary Clinton; I had forgotten about that man in Wilkes-Barre, PA.

All has become ashes; American has elected a fascist to the presidency. Those who castigated the Sanders campaign for its lack of realism and chose to live with their own particular fantasy will be reconciled to this new state of affairs much more quickly than those who saw this disaster coming, and whose personal fates will be severely implicated in a Trump presidency.

The Words We Mutter Under Our Breath

Some years ago, as I waited to be served food by a prickly employee of an eating establishment, I sensed my temper flaring. She and I had had run-ins before; she had always seemed unnecessarily querulous and brusque in her interactions with me; the  milk of human kindness seemed to have curdled long ago in her. I anticipated more trouble in this encounter; I was on edge, wondering which pronouncement of mine would be met with curtness or indifference. I wasn’t mistaken; a few seconds later, I was subjected to a familiar, rage-inducing rudeness. I placed my order, picked up my food, and walked away. As I did so, I muttered under my breath, “Fuck you, you fucking stupid bitch.” My short and bitter rant was loud enough to be overheard by someone–not a complete stranger–standing next to me, who promptly did a double-take and said something to the effect of “Wow, that’s harsh.” Now mortified, I mumbled something about having a bad day and walked quickly away. (I was especially embarrassed because I had just interacted with a service worker, someone who at the best of times is underpaid and overworked.)

It wasn’t the first time–and sadly, I don’t think it will be the last–that I will say something quite unhinged, in a hushed tone of voice, in words only audible to myself. On various occasions over the years I’ve deployed almost exactly that same line above on the conclusion of an aggravating social encounter–with ‘bitch’ replaced by some other derogatory term, sometimes racist, sometimes homophobic, sometimes sexist, sometimes fat-shaming. In the encounter I make note of above, I had been detected and called out; on most occasions, I am the only audience for these private expressions of my feelings.

I do not know if this history means that deep down at heart I’m a sexist, racist, misogynistic, homophobic person; I do know that I’m afflicted with many kinds of implicit bias, and they play a role in my understanding of the world and my relationships with those who inhabit it; I do know that being exposed to all those strands of thought as I grew up, and living in societies that still suffer from those afflictions predisposes me to fall back, lazily, in the cauldron of unfavorable circumstance, to those very same attitudes when I express anger. They suggest themselves to me as the right kind of ammunition to deploy against my imagined foes, the only balms that will assuage my psychic wounds. (Conversely, with probability one, someone has referred to me in precisely the terms above after an aggravating encounter with me, with their favorite prejudiced expression for folks of my ethnic persuasion inserted into the schema above.)

These are not flattering reflections on oneself; my utterances are only partially excused by being made in a fit of anger. Perhaps I can congratulate myself on having found a ‘safe outlet’ for my frustrations; after all, all I did was rant a bit to myself. My words did not lead to prejudiced action or violence or politics or some form of systematic discrimination against those who, unknown to themselves, had been subjected to abuse my me. But perhaps that lets me too easily off the hook; and perhaps it lets off our societies and our times too easily as well.

Donald Trump’s ‘Hot-Mic’ And Men Talking About Sex

A friend offers the following reaction to the latest ‘sensational’ disclosures about Donald Trump’s misogyny:

To all the guys on my feed posting their shock and outrage over Trump’s hot-mic comments about women: give me a break. “How could America possibly elect someone who talks like this about women??” you ask. Do you honestly think we haven’t elected guys who talk like this about women before? Do you think Bill Clinton never talked like this? George W Bush? Come on. This is quintessential Americana, right here. Boys talk like this about girls in ELEMENTARY SCHOOL, for pete’s sake. Men have talked about women like this for EVER. And you’re so shocked that **Donald Trump** talks this way? One of you posting your shock once forcibly blocked my entrance to a restroom and shoved your tongue in my mouth, some years ago. I bet you don’t even remember, because it was a total non-event or you felt like, because you liked me, it was OK. This is normal, every day behavior. Yes, it sucks, but please don’t pretend this is your first time experiencing this reality. Your b.s. outrage is an insult to those of us who have been aware of this reality since we were children.

Indeed. Men talk like this about women all the time. Many conversations like this take place when men get together to talk about women, about sex, and about their sexual ‘conquests.’ The distinctions that many are seeking to draw between sexual assault and sexual ‘conquest’–which, supposedly, makes these conversations worse than normal ‘locker room banter’–is easily blurred precisely because for so many men this line is blurred in their ‘locker room banter’ about sex and their sexual partners:

[M]en, when talking about sex, cannot drop the language of conquest and domination, of conflating sex and violence (‘Dude, I fucked the shit out of her’ or ‘I was banging her all night’) [they] imagine sex to be a variant of rough-and-tumble sport (‘scoring touchdowns’), [and] associate weakness with womanhood (‘Don’t be a pussy’ ‘Man up’ ‘Put your pants on’).

Men have been used to talking like that about women for a very long time. It’s how they’ve learned to talk about sex and women in the company of men. In general, when men brag to other men about their sexual conquests, they do not describe how they generated intimacy–physical or otherwise–with conversation; rather, they speak of how they ‘overcame’ the barriers that the woman had put up between herself–as a sexual target to be attained–and sex. In these circumstances, getting a little pushy goes with the territory; don’t you have to get women drunk before you can have sex with them? And if a women doesn’t resist your advances, then men can talk about what a ‘whore’ and a ‘slut’ and a ‘dirty bitch who really wanted it’ she was as she got ‘down and dirty.’

To this toxic mix, add a little entitlement and arrogance and you get the Trump conversation. Indeed, with probability one, hot mics would reveal conversations like this in most public figures’ portfolios. It is not just ‘deplorables‘ who ‘talk like that.’

Brock And Dan Turner: Rapists And Their Mentor Fathers

Brock Turner raped an unconscious woman. This All-American hero, well-versed in the rituals of manhood that center around heavy drinking and sexually assaulting women, had to be interrupted by two Good Samaritans (also male), who unlike Turner, did not find anything remotely sexy in his violence. Brock Turner found himself in court, and there, facing a judge who thought it more important to take care of his future than that of the woman Turner had raped. That male judge–and a legal system which works hard to preserve sexist and patriarchal structure–sentenced Turner to six months, worrying as he did so that any more time would be too harsh a penalty on this ‘star athlete.’ (The moral lesson that should have been imparted by the judge to this champion swimmer was found instead in the powerful letter that Brock’s victim wrote to him.)

But even that sentence was too harsh for the man who educated Brock Turner in the Way of Rape: his father, Dan Turner, who wrote a revealing illumination of how a rapist got to be that way:

As it stands now, Brock’s  life has been deeply altered forever by the events of Jan 17th and 18th. He will never be his happy go lucky self with that easy going personality and welcoming smile. His every waking minute is consumed with worry, anxiety, fear, and depression. You can see this in his face, the way he walks, his weakened voice, his lack of appetite. Brock always enjoyed certain types of food and is a very good cook himself. I was always excited to buy him a big ribeye steak to grill or to get his favorite snack for him….Now he barely consumes any food and eats only to exist. These verdicts have broken and shattered him and our family in so many ways. His life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve. That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of the 20 plus years of his life.

Brock Turner didn’t start out a rapist. He was turned into one by his father, a man who can describe rape as ’20 minutes of action.’ Such an understanding is indubitably grounded in past experience and conceptual clarity; it must have formed the basis of an education presumably imparted to his son through his happy childhood, one in which he indicated girls as members of a demographic constituting possible marks when suitably intoxicated. Or perhaps they discussed the tits-n-ass qualities of the neighbor’s girl next door even as Dad worried whether his son would get as much ‘action’ or ‘tail’ as Dad did back in the good ‘ol days when you could just have any woman on campus. Dad must have been ecstatic at the thought that his son was going to campus as an athlete; those guys always get laid. All the time. Woe betide the woman who doesn’t comply with their demands–they have a rep to protect.

Rapists don’t start out as rapists; they are educated and acculturated into that role. They need mentors and coaches. Brock Turner’s was his father, Dan.

‘Straight Outta Compton’ And Ambivalence

A couple of weeks ago, I finally watched F. Gary Gray‘s Straight Outta Compton, the cinematic biography of N.W. A. (More accurately, I saw the ‘Unrated Director’s Cut,’ which features an additional twenty minutes not found in the theatrical release.) Since then, many tracks from the N. W. A, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy E oeuvre on my Spotify playlist have received extended playtime; the music is as astonishing as it ever was. And yet, as I listen to these tracks I’m reminded again about my deep and abiding ambivalence about gangsta rap, and the unease it perennially stirs in me.

Tracks like ‘Straight Outta Compton,’ ‘Fuck tha Police,’ ‘No Vaseline‘ ‘Ain’t Nothing But A G Thang,’ ‘Real Compton City Gs‘ are exhilarating. There is defiance and unbridled energy, mordant social commentary (no one is better on police brutality), some exquisite verbal styling and delivery of lyrics, a dazzling fusion of varied musical styles–the whole package. These tracks–and many others like them–are irresistible in many dimensions. (If you feel like getting charged up for a tough day at work, ‘Straight Outta Compton’ or ‘Fuck the Police’ are great tracks to play as you get dressed and head out the door; woe betide that annoying co-worker who tries to get under your skin that day. Lyrics like “Boy you can’t fuck with me/So when I’m in your neighborhood, you better duck/Cause Ice Cube is crazy as fuck” will do that to you.) It is small wonder they found so much playtime on radio stations and television channels–even if in some venues they had to be sanitized. Which brings us to an enduring problem with them.

Quite simply, there is little room to maneuever, to offer exculpation, when confronted with lyrics like these:

Now I think you a snitch,
throw a house nigga in a ditch.
Half-pint bitch, fuckin’ your homeboys.
You little maggot; Eazy E turned faggot.
With your manager, fella,
fuckin’ MC Ren, Dr. Dre, and Yella.
But if they were smart as me,
Eazy E would be hangin’ from a tree.
With no vaseline, just a match and a little bit of gasoline.
Light ’em up, burn ’em up, flame on…

Or:

I find a good piece o’ pussy, I go up in it
So if you’re at a show in the front row
I’m a call you a bitch or dirty-ass ho
You’ll probably get mad like a bitch is supposed to
But that shows me, slut, you’re composed to
A crazy muthafucker from tha street

Such examples can be multiplied effortlessly. There is misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism, violent death threats–another comprehensive package of sorts. The defense of these lyrics is a familiar one: these tracks are not promotions or endorsements of the lifestyles and attitudes noted in them; rather, they are reports of an existent state of affairs, a grim reality, in precincts unknown to most Americans. The contestation of this defense has resulted in an enduring debate, one facet of which was visible in the the sharp accusations of misogyny that made the rounds once again during Straight Outta Compton’s theatrical release. That case is damning, and rightly so.

And so, I find myself perplexed once again: the musical qualities attract, but many ‘messages’ within it repels; there is no way to listen to this music without that tension present.