Women and Children Last

I am always hesitant to suggest anything is unique to now, as if history isn’t right there for us to recognize our enduring human failures. So I will refrain from evoking “unique,” but I am convinced this is distinctly relevant for the now of 2017: In the U.S., the real and the satirical seem nearly indistinguishable.

Take for example Monologue: Dad of Newborn Girl Explains the Importance of Women’s Issues to a Table of Women at a Coffee Shop, a piece as brilliantly satirical as it is disturbing when revisited in the wake of revelations about Harvey Weinstein among a people who elected Donald Trump president.

On social media, I witnessed some misread the McSweeney’s article, missing the satire, and concurrently watched as many confronted the exact phenomenon occur in response to Weinstein’s sexual violence grounded in his wealth and power: Men expressing how they understand women’s issues because they are sons, fathers, or husbands.

Possibly my greatest existential angst as a white man is grounded in the weight of how often men have failed women and children through physical violence and sexual coercion and assault.

Weinstein has triggered my own discomfort and anger at Hollywood, personified for me by Woody Allen, and a powerful problem I have been wrestling with my entire adult life: the tension between the work of art (Can it still be “great”?) and the horribly flawed artist.

Several films, for example, remain burned into my soul because of this:

Cinematic rape and the killing of children—these films are nearly unwatchable for me, even when I appreciate their artistic value.

I have written about a similar tension when watching True Detective (HBO).

And I anticipate the same sort of discomfort I feel each time I watch Blade Runner (the aggressive kissing scene) when I eventually watch Blade Runner 2049, confronted for whether or not it portrays futuristic sexism or simply is sexist.

But this tension about art and artist as a problem, a question, is in no way concurrent in the reality of men as violent, as sexual predators.

There simply is no room for equivocation, as Allen and Oliver Stone, among many others, have offered.

There simply is no room to suggest these abuses are more about power than the men who are abusers.

The fact is that men have a default position of power over women and children; men as violent, as sexual predators and rapists, exist regardless of social status of those men.

Poor men hit their children, abuse their women partners, and poor men rape.

Only two facts exist with any credibility here.

First, as Arundhati Roy has explained, “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

Therefore, the voices of women and children matter first, foremost, as the targets of violence by men.

Second, this is a problem nested in men and perpetuated by the social norms created by and maintained by men.

Therefore, only men can end rape culture, toxic masculinity, and the abuse of children.

Laurie Penny, in a piece that should be read fully, confronts the ways in which terms such as “consent” as well as a woman’s right to her sexuality are used in ways that are themselves oppressive even when they appear to be otherwise:

The first thing you need to understand about consent is that consent is not, strictly speaking, a thing. Not in the same way that teleportation isn’t a thing. Consent is not a thing because it is not an item, nor a possession. Consent is not an object you can hold in your hand. It is not a gift that can be given and then rudely requisitioned. Consent is a state of being. Giving someone your consent — sexually, politically, socially — is a little like giving them your attention. It’s a continuous process. It’s an interaction between two human creatures. I believe that a great many men and boys don’t understand this. I believe that lack of understanding is causing unspeakable trauma for women, men, and everyone else who is sick of how much human sexuality still hurts.

And while I have examined the importance of intimacy, privacy, and consent—not as well as Penny, however—I am more fully aware of the inherent flaws with the seeming chivalry of “women and children first,” a concept grounded in paternalism that acknowledges a sort of comparative vulnerability between women/children and men.

The real world, however, paints a different picture—women and children last.

Men who view the world, including women and children, as their spoils, to do with as they please.

Again, speaking as a man, we are the problem, and we must be the solution.


See Also

Hollywood and Academia: Is the problem the same?

The Horizon of Desire

Intimacy, Privacy, and Consent

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Growing Old Not the Problem, But Lack of Community Is

Since I teach mostly young people, college age, and have been an active cyclist with much younger friends for a while now, I have depended on a persistent self-deprecating joke about being old.

Since the end of 2016, a pelvis fracture, a winter of illnesses including the flu for the first time in decades, and then my mom’s stroke followed by my father’s death have all tempted me to shift that joke to a more serious view of life. However, I am increasingly convinced the problem with the human condition is not aging—which is inevitable and preferred to the alternative—but a lack of compassion and community in the U.S.

While literature and pop culture are awash in portrayals of the challenges that families bring, Kurt Vonnegut spent a great deal of his work as a writer—in speeches, essays, and fiction—arguing passionately for more human kindness as well as the importance of the extended family, an idealizing of tribal life that recognized the horror that is human loneliness.

Like most people, Vonnegut himself may have failed some or even often as a spouse, sibling, and father, but that doesn’t diminish the power and truth behind his essential message.

I suspect I have compassion for Vonnegut’s flaws since I share them along with his ideological commitments to kindness and community—regardless of how inept I can be at both.

And my curmudgeon tendencies are strong, but as I grow older, and as I struggle with the necessary deteriorations of aging, I am more and more apt to recognize the futility of lamenting aging, of fearing and regretting old age (whatever that may be).

I remain frustrated with aging, and my vanity is triggered more than I like to admit. But I am more convinced than ever that the real fear is a lack of communiy as I continue to struggle with how to provide for my mom the sort of late life she deserves despite the consequences of her stoke (which took a significant part of her humanity) and the barriers we are encountering because, to be blunt, she has very little money to sustain her—and the typically horrible insurance that most working-class and poor people are saddled with (if they have any at all) in the godforsaken U.S.

Many times I have lamented that in the U.S. we simply do not care about children, and about that I am both deeply saddened and convinced. But that callousness and carelessness is a subset of a much larger and damning part of the so-called American character: we simply do not care about any vulnerable populations: children, disabled people, carers, and the elderly.

The great and caustic residue of being a rugged-individual culture is that we are willfully choosing to reject community in favor of Social Darwinism, consumerism, and the all-mighty dollar.

Instead of social safety nets being a foundational commitment among us, we have chosen to cast everyone to the fate of the Invisible Hand, our claims to being a Christian nature reduced to so-much hokum in practice.

The cost of growing old is in fact not the deterioration of the mind and body, but the consequences of aging being magnified by a people who refuse to provide for vulnerable populations as an unwavering commitment to human dignity.

I will continue to joke with my younger students and friends about being old; it is fun and often a way to assert my humanity into an environment that I recognize will eventually discard me because of age, although my privileges of being male, white, and well-educated will inoculate me for quite some time.

Despite my many, many flaws, my anger about the callousness of the U.S. toward vulnerable populations is not about me, and extends well beyond my sadness at how the world does not really care about my aging and disabled mother.

My anger is reflected in why Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones” has resonated so powerfully over the past several months. Smith forces us to admit “[t]he world is at least/ fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative/ estimate,” and she keeps us focused on the vulnerability of children.

My anger is enflamed because I do believe Smith’s closing lines: “This place could be beautiful,/ right? You could make this place beautiful.”

My anger grows because I doubt we will ever assure that comes to fruition.

To squander vulnerable populations—from children to the elderly—is to abandon our souls, to spit in the face of beauty, to declare our society morally bankrupt.

“So it goes.”

Human Frailty

You open a carton of eggs, and not quite with negligence but in the rush of routine, you lift out one egg that cracks open. Your fingers sink into the collapsing shell, sending cold and wet through your sense as you calculate the tiny disaster before you simply wanting to scramble eggs for breakfast.

You know, of course, that eggs are frail things, and you handle them with care—but this egg had been somehow slightly stuck to the carton and your reflex was to squeeze and pull a bit harder.

Half a shell and the exposed yolk still in the carton remind you, however, of the inherent frailty of eggs.

Over about three months now, I regularly spend time with my 76-year-old mother in the wake of her stroke and my 3-year-old granddaughter now freshly embarking on formal schooling by starting 3K.

Conversations with my mom and granddaughter are disorienting and similar—a garbled string of occasional words and phrases mixed with complete nonsense, not even words but mumbling.

And my mother and granddaughter both pause, eyes intent, awaiting some signal I have understood—and often I have no clue.

My mother suffers the consequences of a tiny blood clot in her brain while my granddaughter is victim to the simplicity of emerging from being a baby into early childhood.

Like an egg, they are both incredibly frail, but mostly in slightly exaggerated ways that are an essential characteristic of being human.

Humans all are frail, although we seem determined to ignore or refute that fact.

My mom has slipped into frailty, her body has failed itself after almost eight decades. While my granddaughter has begun navigating the very dangerous world in her new and tiny state.

The world is many parts angry and insensitive, like a hand hurriedly pulling an egg from a carton.

What would this world be, what could this world be if we walked through it with care, gingerly and slowly stepping along as if each step were vital?

The same week that we have been told by doctors, nurses, and social workers we can leave my mother alone during the day is when my granddaughter began 3K—equal terrors for me too much aware of the callousness of this world about human frailty.

To be aware of that frailty, I suppose, is overwhelming, and for me, possibly a great contribution to my relentless anxiety.

Callousness and carelessness, I believe, cannot be the alternative to the weight of being aware that humans are frail—that every human deserves compassion.

I have adopted a soothing tone, gentle smile, and reassuring words when my mom becomes frantic and sad, when my granddaughter fears she has done something wrong or tells us just a few days into her school life that she doesn’t want to go.

“I’m sorry,” “It’s ok,” “We’ll take care of it”—assurances offered, even though I really can’t promise they are true, because everyone must know that they are not alone, that the world doesn’t have to be so awful.

More and more often, the calm after these disturbances for my mom and my granddaughter is what I reach for to make each day worth all the other struggles and possibilities—the heaping mess of just plain nasty people who seem to outnumber the rest of us.

The calm, however, remains in the shadow of the facts of aging for my mother, life is shorter now than what she has lived, and for my granddaughter who will someday way too soon stop raising her arms for me to lift and hold her, stop crawling into my lap and guiding my hand to her feet while she eats a popsicle and watches TV.

It is a lovely and selfish thing to comfort another person, and each moment doing so should be handled with care, like taking an egg in your hand.

School Zones: A Meditation

I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishment after I’m dead.

Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian

No good route exists for my drive from my house to my university; my commute is a Groundhog Day of the Southernism “Can’t get there form here.”

To avoid the daily morning ritual of accidents on the interstate I could use to make that drive quicker, I tend to snake my way along back roads, and on that journey, I typically pass through two school zones—a high school near my house and then an elementary school closer to the university.

Both school zones bring traffic to a crawl, and then often, to a stop as crossing guards shepherd teens and children across the road to their schools.

These crossing guards are armed only with day-glo vests and matching wands to protect students from 4000-pound automobiles and the increasing reality that drivers are distracted by their smart phones.

The paradox of this cavalier optimism, this nod to the greater decency of people confronted with the frailty of children, is that schools have increasingly become more and more prison-like—police in the hallways, doors locked, intercoms to screen any who try to enter the building, and discipline codes and practices that parallel and even intertwine with law enforcement.

School zones and barricaded schools contrast sharply, however, with the broader disdain for and disregard for the conditions of children’s lives in the U.S. The largest group of people suffering in poverty are children, and this reality is far worse in the U.S. than many other countries.

And despite efforts to control students as well as protect them from the gun violence that the U.S. views as normal beyond the walls of schools, the U.S. also has more school shootings than almost four dozen other countries combined.

Our daily behaviors also reveal that too often our care for our own children, and children who look like us, exposes our disregard for “other people’s children”—in the cruel tolerance for corporal punishment as somehow just parenting and the rush to punishment in grade retention that negatively impacts poor children of color.

In our caustic and calloused political debates about healthcare, school choice, public monuments, and more, the absent voice is always that of children, and they are also rendered invisible as if our policies are not ultimately the world in which these children live.

No child chooses their parents or their places of their birth and living.

It may seem cliche, but there is no doubt that a people should be judged by how they treat their children.

The U.S. is the wealthiest and most powerful country in history. How we spend public funds and the laws as well as policies we implement are who we are.

Crossing guards in day-glo vests raise their orange wands to oncoming traffic all across the U.S. throughout the academic year, and drivers stop their cars while children laugh and even skip across the road to their schools.

It is in those moments mornings and afternoons that who we could be passes right by us.

Who we are remains in the tragedy of Tamir Rice, mostly ignored, mostly forgotten. Just a child who may himself have been shepherded across a road by a crossing guard in a school zone.

Who we are remains to be a truly negligent people unable to put grand ideals into our daily behavior, driven by a nastiness and callousness that in the future will be an ugly monument that tells a story of how we failed despite all the opportunities before us for being good and kind.

SC Fails Students Still: More on Grade Retention and Misreading Literacy

But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.

Oscar Wilde (1891), The Soul of Man under Socialism

Bells will certainly continue to signal class changes in public schools all across South Carolina this fall, but there is a much more serious (and unwarranted) bell of doom for many third-graders because of SC’s punitive Read to Succeed legislation.

Paul Hyde’s Furman professor: Read to Succeed retention policy ‘a disaster’ offers a primer on the politically and publicly popular move across the U.S. to retain students based in part or fully on third-grade high-stakes tests of reading.

Once again, literacy policy often fails to address valid literacy practices or to acknowledge that literacy proficiency is strongly correlated with systemic conditions beyond the walls of the school or the control of teachers.

Worksheets on literacy skills, test-prep for state assessments of reading and writing, linking teacher evaluations to students’ test scores, and retaining children are simply not only flawed literacy policies, but also negative influences on children’s literacy and academic achievement.

And decades of creating ever-new standards and then purchasing ever-new reading textbooks and programs have utterly failed children and literacy.

For about a century, in fact, we have known what is needed to help students develop literacy—but the political will remains lacking.

A robust literacy strategy for schools must include instead the following:

  • Addressing access to books in all children’s homes.
  • Insuring access to books in all children’s schools.
  • Providing all students ample and extended time in class to read by choice.
  • Guaranteeing every student balanced literacy instruction based on each student’s demonstrated literacy needs (not the prescriptions of literacy programs).
  • Discontinuing the standards and testing disaster dominating schools and classrooms by providing teachers the materials, time, and professional autonomy to teach literacy in evidence-based ways.

Just as education policy ignores a rich research base, political leaders and the public refuse to address how public policy directly and indirectly impacts student achievement; the following would create higher student achievement and literacy:

  • Eradicating food deserts and insuring food security.
  • Providing universal healthcare to children and families with children.
  • Creating job security for families with children.

Finally, we must acknowledge that grade retention fulfills a cultural negative attitude about children and people in poverty among the U.S. public—one grounded in individual blame and punishment.

But decades of research has shown (yes, even with the failed Florida policy that serves as a template for many states such as SC) that grade retention may raise test scores short term, but that gain disappears in a few years and the many negative consequences of retention remain.

As the National Council of Teachers of English detail in their position statement on grade retention and high-stakes testing, grade retention fails in the following ways:

  • retaining students who have not met proficiency levels with the intent of repeating instruction is punitive, socially inappropriate, and educationally ineffective;
  • basing retention on high-stakes tests will disproportionately and negatively impact children of color, impoverished children, English Language Learners, and special needs students; and
  • retaining students is strongly correlated with behavior problems and increased drop-out rates.

Of course all children need and deserve rich and rewarding literacy experiences and growth, but third grade literacy is both a manufactured metric (by textbook and testing companies) and a misleading emergency.

Grade retention and skills- and standards-based literacy instruction and testing have failed and continue to fail horribly the students who need authentic literacy instruction the most—black and brown children, English language learners (who may need a decade to acquire a second language), students in poverty, special needs students.

These populations are a significant portion of the students served in SC public schools; our hateful and misguided policies are created and tolerated by a more white and affluent political leadership and public who have racist and classist biases against “other people’s children.”

In fact, failed literacy policy in SC can be linked directly to how the U.S. demonizes and fails the impoverished:

It all starts with the psychology concept known as the “fundamental attribution error”. This is a natural tendency to see the behavior of others as being determined by their character – while excusing our own behavior based on circumstances.

For example, if an unexpected medical emergency bankrupts you, you view yourself as a victim of bad fortune – while seeing other bankruptcy court clients as spendthrifts who carelessly had too many lattes. Or, if you’re unemployed, you recognize the hard effort you put into seeking work – but view others in the same situation as useless slackers. Their history and circumstances are invisible from your perspective.

Struggling students in SC are viewed as lacking or broken, in need of repair and/or punishment to correct.

If you think this is harsh, compare how mostly white and more affluent students learn literacy in advanced and gifted classes in public schools (a dirty little secret about how we have maintained segregation) and most private schools.

Like No Child Left Behind and Every Student Succeeds Act, Read to Succeed is an Orwellian name for a horrible way to view, treat, and teach children.

SC continues to be a morally bankrupt state, calloused and driven to punish instead of offering our citizens, especially our children, the compassion and opportunities all people deserve.

For Further Reading

At Duke, I realized how badly many South Carolina schools are failing students like me, Ehime Ohue

Grade Retention Research

Executive Summary: THE EFFECTS OF MANDATED THIRD GRADE RETENTION ON STANDARD DIPLOMA ACQUISITION AND STUDENT OUTCOMES OVER TIME: A POLICY ANALYSIS OF FLORIDA’S A+ PLAN (9 January 2017)

THE EFFECTS OF MANDATED THIRD GRADE RETENTION ON STANDARD DIPLOMA ACQUISITION AND STUDENT OUTCOMES: A POLICY ANALYSIS OF FLORIDA’S A+ PLAN, Kathleen M. Jasper (2016)

NCTE: Resolution on Mandatory Grade Retention and High-Stakes Testing

Retain to Impede: When Reading Legislation Fails (Again)

Confirmed: SC Implementing Retain to Impede

Beware Grade-Level Reading and the Cult of Proficiency

Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”

Florida Retention Policy a Blight on Literacy, Children across US

 

Freedom, Choice, and the Death of Us

“they did not stop to think they died instead”

“‘next to of course god america i,'” e.e. cummings

Over the course of a couple hours after my mother was discovered comatose, the ER doctor offered us a choice: airlift my mother to a larger hospital for surgery to remove the clot in her brain that caused her stroke or leave her comatose, each moment destroying more of her brain.

Just twelve days later, in front of my mother then in a rehabilitation facility after responding well to the high-risk surgery,  my father became unresponsive; the EMS team summoned by a 911 call were frantically trying to resuscitate my father, kept alive by his pacemaker/defibrillator. Since my father had resisted switching off the defibrillator and choosing a do-not-resuscitate (DNR) order, the lead EMS responder asked me where I wanted him to be transported.

Because of the proceeding days when we all scrambled against my parents’ health insurance, my first thought was how was I to know where his insurance would cover this event (ultimately the last moments of his life).

While cycling on the local rail trail near my university and where my mother now remains in a single room—the building in which she witnessed my father’s death—a friend and I pedaled up to a road crossing where a father sat on his bicycle with a trailer attached for children to ride along.

This intersection has decorative circles of brickwork on each side of the road. As this man crossed, he steered poorly around the brickwork—the cart left wheel rolling up onto the brick, tipping the cart and his two sons over onto the side of the trail and jerking the bicycle out from under the father.

These are all complicated and difficult stories about choice and freedom in the U.S.

The U.S. is a cruel and calloused culture that values a false narrative about freedom and choice, an idealized version of freedom and choice as concepts that trump all else.

Even human dignity.

Even life.

Especially in healthcare, education, and providing social support for the poor, the guiding principle is giving people choice, believing that individual responsibility is the root cause of poor health, failing students and schools, and finding oneself in poverty.

The meritocracy and rugged individualism myths are so powerful in the U.S. that winners and losers both cling to them even when the game is revealed to be fatally rigged. As Tim Maly explains:

So there are people who can be so wrapped up in a certain worldview that even in the face of serious evidence that they have been taken in, and despite many warnings from the rest of the world, they persist. Indeed, warnings from the rest of the world seem to serve only to entrench them in their position. With some of them, it’s as if they end up making bad choices specifically to spite the people warning them.

The U.S. has instilled a tremendous amount of self-loathing, in fact, among marginalized groups (blacks, English language learners, women) who feel compelled to embrace the bitter American Dream in order to be American—even as each of them could utter as Langston Hughes wrote:

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

The parent cycling with his children in tow was free to choose placing those boys in the trailer, free to choose to pedal along the trail and then to send them tumbling.

And there we must admit, parental choice is not universally a good thing, and we must also confront that anyone’s choice necessarily encroaches on the freedom of others: children routinely suffer the consequences of their parents’ choices.

The children were fine, however, but my mother and father—along with our family—have been navigating a hellscape of healthcare dictated by patient choice and freedom, jumbled with a nightmare of bureaucracy in which mandated and bounded choices are not really choices at all.

In the U.S., we celebrate the choice between a Toyota Camry and Honda Accord (essentially the same car with the free market promise of competitive prices in your local market!), but few people are afforded the freedom of not buying a car at all—and no one is allowed the freedom from sales and property taxes or freedom from insurance and liability for all that driving.

Freedom and choice are in fact a nasty shell game used to keep the masses occupied so that they do not realize only the few have some sort of economic freedom and choice because of the labor of those masses, those people drawn to the myths like moths to a flame but never allowed to survive the allure.

It’s July 4th, a patriotic orgy in the U.S. that is as shallow and materialistic as the country we celebrate.

A people truly committed to equity and our moral obligations as humans would recognize that sometimes, maybe even often, choice and freedom are not as important as insuring that no one needs to choose because essentials are collectively provided for everyone to insure the dignity of simply being a human.

No child left to the lottery draw of their parents, no sick person tossed into the meat grinder of market-based healthcare, no elderly cast into the dark well of individual responsibility.

As we wave tiny plastic flags today, swill (mostly) cheap beer while overeating from our decadent grills, let us roast in the sun and the recognition that we actually have freedom and choice—and this heartless and selfish country is what we have chosen.

For Further Reading

Why poverty is not a personal choice, but a reflection of society, Shervin Assari

‘What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?’ by Frederick Douglass

Our Gladiator Culture: On “Grit,” Competition, and Saving Future Generations

my father moved through griefs of joy;…
his shoulders marched against the dark

“my father moved through dooms of love,” e.e. cummings

This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

“Good Bones,” Maggie Smith

While sitting in the ER with my father a few nights ago before he was admitted into the hospitals’ heart center—a few days after my mother’s stroke sending her to another, larger hospital 40-minutes away—I was reminded of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, a novel, among other things, about the abusive power imbalance between men and women.

Late in the novel, Celie explains to her sister Nettie: “Take off they pants, I say, and men look like frogs to me. No matter how you kiss ’em, as far as I’m concern, frogs is what they stay.”

The most powerful and imposing man in my life, my father, sat in the ER—stooped, shrunken, pot-bellied, tongue hanging out of his mouth and bowed head like an aged human-sized toad somehow in a wheelchair. My father has always been my physical and athletic superior, despite my being in my mid-50s and quite successful in my career and my athletic hobby; he has always cast a shadow, darkening my lingering insecurities and anxieties.

This morning, Father’s Day 2017, I visited my father still in the heart center after spending almost all my time at my mother’s side as the number of family members able to help has dwindled as the day-count grows. Although improved, frog-like and frail, my father declared to me: “Nothing is wrong with me. I need to go home.”

For some time now, his heart has been working at only about 33%, wearing him and his pacemaker out at an accelerated rate.

In times of great medical stress, when families are brought together, stories spring forth to stabilize the chaos and restore our delusion that we have some sort of control.

One of the many myths of my father: In high school, because of fights and sports (my father was a four-sport letterman and captain of his high school’s first state championship football team in the 1950s), by age 18, my father had a full set of false teeth. So many teeth had been knocked out, his dentist eventually pulled the remaining 10 or 12 one day.

After the procedure, my father played in a baseball game, prompting his father to track him down, trying to make him come home to rest.

Like him, my mother is a gendered twin of the fanatic 1950s template for self-sacrifice, rugged individualism, and blind faith in the whitewashed American Dream—the racialized lie about hard work paying off and good guys winning.

I believe I am not being hyperbolic to recognize that my parents lie now in hospitals, broken and frail, because they bought the hokum, the hard-work hokum that makes people define their dignity in how fervently they sacrifice themselves, in how they work moment by moment to prove they are not lazy, soft, or in any way dependent on others.

My parents passed onto me a neurotic work ethic; my father instilled in me an incredibly unhealthy obsession with being athletic as proof of my manhood.

Although I have been trying to ween myself off sports fandom, I remain often connected to the sports fanaticism of the U.S.—one most solidly grounded in college and pro football, the perfect metaphor for the gladiator culture that defines us.

Dragged kicking and screaming, college football and the NFL have begun paying lip-service to acknowledging that [gasp!] the sport is cruelly violent, that football players are turning their brains into mush because of the relentless concussions that are simply part of the game.

The stories linked to the concussion debate in football are powerful and disturbing because they reveal a subtext that also came to mind as I sat with each of my parents: pro football players, many retired, admit that they have and would continue to lie about concussion symptoms to remain on the field.

The gladiator culture of the U.S. is replicated exponentially in the NFL [1]—toxic and hyper-masculinity, anything necessary including sacrificing health and even life.

And while the NFL and football mania of the U.S. are disturbing, the most troubling reality is that our neo-work-ethic of the twenty-first century targets children, specifically black and brown children from impoverished backgrounds.

The “grit” and growth mindset movements have become (mainstream) socially acceptable ways to wink-wink-nod-nod that black, brown, and poor people are simply too lazy, unwilling to work themselves, like my dad and mom, into decrepitude for the 1%.

Frantic—we are a nation with a ruling class snowblinded by their own privilege and terrified they won’t have a servant class—the whitewashed American Dream for black, brown, and poor children.

The U.S. has devolved into a perverse and inverted gladiator culture with the 1% in the stands and the rest of us reduced to a dog-eat-dog existence, an artificial and unnecessary dog-eat-dog existence.

Visit the elderly of this country, worn down by the demands that they work hard and depend on no one.

Look into their faces and if you can their eyes.

This is the future we are demanding of “other people’s children.”

But it is also a future we can reject, choosing instead an ethic of community and compassion.

As I look at my parents—discardable white working class Americans—I think that they deserved better, despite their own culpability in our whitewashed American Dream.

On this awful Father’s Day 2017, I would prefer above all else to be on the couch with my granddaughter, who yesterday kept imploring me “Wake up, Papa!” as I tried to doze between sessions with my mother, as she snuggled against me, her futon.

I know she deserves better—as does every single child having come to this planet and country by no choice of their own.

“This place could be beautiful,/right? You could make this place beautiful”—a haunting image of everything that I wish for this world in a poem by Maggie Smith that confesses:

The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.

On this awful Father’s Day 2017, I have kept much from my father and my mother in ways substantial and indirect.

But there is no way to justify the lies we tell children—that they fail to work hard enough, that they are somehow not good enough unless they act as if they do not matter, that they should shut up and suck it up.

Few things are worth fighting for, but one is to keep every child from the gladiator’s ring, to promise every child if not a beautiful world, at least the possibility of one.


[1] In the same way the NFL promotes the great lie that the U.S. is a meritocracy:

Despite this, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell rejected on Friday the idea that any kind of blackballing was taking place. He called the NFL “a meritocracy,” saying, “If they see an opportunity to get better as a football team, they’re going to do it. They’re going to do whatever it takes to make their football team better. So, those are football decisions. They’re made all the time. I believe that if a football team feels that Colin Kaepernick, or any other player, is going to improve that team, they’re going to do it.”