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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Innovative Deception: The Charter Scam Chronicles Continue

The school choice movement has its roots in mid-twentieth century, and was bolstered by some ugly truths about racism in the U.S. during the Civil Rights movement and public school integration.

While school choice advocacy has maintained some foundational catch phrases such as “innovation” and relied on appeals to uncritical faith in market forces over “the damned government,” school choice has also maintained two key patterns: (1) promises associated with school choice advocacy have mostly failed, and thus, (2) “choice” has morphed repeatedly into new versions to stay ahead of all the bad news about outcomes falling short of those promises.

The last decade, however, has revealed a school choice gold mine in the charter school movement that appears to blend the public’s support for public schools with the allure of parental choice.

However, on balance, charter school advocacy has proven to be mostly rhetoric and absent evidence in ways similar to the larger school choice movement.

Public and charter schools, for example, are currently plagued with rising segregation, and both embrace policies that can fairly be labeled racist and classist—leading the NAACP to maintain a strongly skeptical position about the credibility of charter schools.

And when charter schools appear to succeed where public schools do not, a careful analysis nearly always reveals that what is too good to be true is, in fact, not true.

School choice innovation, including charter school innovation, actually has little to do with education and more to do with keeping ahead of the evidence in order to maintain political and public support for finding yourself in a hole and continuing to dig.

For a glimpse into how the charter movement seeks mostly to keep itself afloat, often at the expense of children and their families, consider Paul Bowers’s Erskine College’s new role as charter school gatekeeper could change landscape of public education.

Bowers hits a key point in the following:

Across the U.S., the National Association of Charter School Authorizers has been sounding the alarm about a trend it calls “authorizer shopping,” which it calls “a growing threat to overall charter school quality.”

“Authorizer shopping happens when a charter school chooses an initial authorizer or changes authorizers specifically to avoid accountability,” the group said in a 2016 report. “A low-performing school may shop for a new authorizer to avoid closure, or reopen under a new authorizer after closure.”

Also important to highlight is, as Bowers notes, how this new phase of charter expansion linked to less or no accountability is appealing to the least effective forms of charter schools:

Two of the first schools to express an interest in the new public charter school sponsor, the Charter Institute at Erskine College, are the S.C. Virtual Charter School and Cyber Academy of South Carolina. The two schools enrolled more than 4,000 students combined in kindergarten through 12th grade last school year.

The hard truths about educating children in a free society in order to create a more perfect union, to reach and sustain an equitable democracy, are that public education has mostly failed the children who need it most because the U.S. is plagued by political cowardice and that schemes labeled “education reform” are mostly even worse alternatives (including school choice and charter schools) to the mismanaged public system.

Near the end of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. called for addressing poverty directly and thus eradicate related social inequities and empower public institutions:

In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.

I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income. …

We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished. The poor transformed into purchasers will do a great deal on their own to alter housing decay. Negroes, who have a double disability, will have a greater effect on discrimination when they have the additional weapon of cash to use in their struggle.

King’s plea has been repeatedly justified since the claims that education is the great equalizer never materializes. For example, in Equal Pay Day for African-American Women, By the Numbers Emily Crockett confronts:

African-American women only earn 64 cents to every dollar earned by non-Hispanic white men, according to the NWLC analysis; the figure for women overall is 77 cents. That’s based on the average earnings of female and male full-time, year-round workers taken from Census data.

The pay gap for Black women varies based on age and industry. Older Black women have it the hardest—the pay gap is only 82 cents on the dollar for 15-year-old to 24-year-old Black women compared to white men, but the gap widens to 67 cents and 59 cents, respectively, for Black women ages 25-to-44 and 45-to-64.

As for industries, Black women working as physicians and surgeons—a high-wage and male-dominated occupation—make only 52 cents for every dollar paid to their white male counterparts. Black women fared slightly better in lower-paid occupations, making 86 cents on the dollar in male-dominated, mid-wage construction industries and 85 cents on the dollar working as low-wage, mostly female personal care aides. …

The fact that Black women are overrepresented in low-wage jobs doesn’t help, the analysis said. Black women make up 14 percent of low-wage workers and 6 percent of the overall workforce.

Education levels don’t make much of an impact on the high wage gap between Black women and non-Hispanic white men. While more education corresponds with higher wages for both Black women and white men, Black women still make between 61 and 66 cents on the dollar compared to their counterparts at every education level [emphasis added]. African-American women have to have at least a Bachelor’s degree to make as much as white men who didn’t finish college.

This equity gap along race and gender lines is a lingering and powerful fact in the U.S.

Education reform, then, especially under the guise of school choice/charter schools, is once again failing to address directly the root causes of why we believe public education needs reform in the first place.

The only real innovation among the charter school advocates is how many ways they can avoid the hard truths about reforming schools and the impotence of education to overcome social inequity and injustice.

More on White Men of Academia: Student and Self Evaluation Follies

“Higher education too can make a fetish out of ‘objectivity’ and ‘rationality,'” observes John Warner, confronting specifically The Pitfalls of “Objectivity” in teaching composition.

Warner’s argument is a subset, however, of the larger problem with the white men of academia, as I have examined recently: Concepts and terms such as “objectivity,” “scientific,” “valid,” “reliable,” and “rationality” prove to be extremely powerful in academia and scholarship, yet the great irony of that power is that these concepts and terms are veneer for maintaining white male power—inequity grounded in the racism and sexism that academics are prone to refute in their rhetoric while maintaining in their practices.

“Objectivity,” for example, frames a white male subjectivity as the norm (thus “objective”), rendering racialized (non-white) and genderized (non-male) subjectivity as the “other,” as lacking credibility.

Explore the history of what research paradigms count, and you confront the bias in favor of quantitative (experimental and quasi-experimental) research (paradigms created by and maintained by men) over qualitative research (paradigms championed by women and racial minorities)—the former is “hard,” “scientific,” and “objective” while the latter is “soft,” “personal,” and “(merely) anecdotal.”

In an institution created by white men, academia, where their claim is that everything is based on empirical evidence filtered through the rarified lens of objectivity, we run into a real conflict when unpacking the evidence—for example, the annual/bi-annual self-evaluation process linked to promotion, tenure, and merit as well as the embedded key element of student evaluations of faculty.

As a tenured full professor, I am currently drafting my bi-annual self-evaluation, a process I have been using as a political document to confront the inherent inequity in both the faculty evaluation process and the traditional use of student opinion surveys.

The self-evaluation is flush with traditional norms about what counts as excellence—peer-reviewed publications, for example, but not public intellectual work. And as is the case at many colleges and universities, student evaluations are central evidence in the entire faculty evaluation process.

We are directed in our self-evaluations to “include numerical results from student opinion survey forms”—the double whammy of quantitative and the ubiquitous student evaluations. The narrative at my small selective liberal arts university is that of the three areas of evaluation—teaching, scholarship, and service—teaching remains primary; therefore, I make my strongest advocacy case (nearly equaled by my argument for valuing my public intellectual writing) about how we determine faculty teaching quality.

My opening to my teaching effectiveness self-evaluation begins, then:

My teaching effectiveness has exceeded [our] high standards for teaching over the past two academic years. As evidence below, I will not refer to student opinion surveys because they have been shown to be biased (against women and faculty of color) and poor indicators of student learning [1]. Since I strongly support concerns raised in our Gender Equity study and FU’s Diversity and Inclusion initiative, I believe use of the student opinion surveys are contradictory to those goals.

If, I argue, our university has gender equity and diversity/inclusion initiatives, then using student opinion surveys contradicts those goals because the evidence is overwhelming that these student surveys are gender and race biased; they serve the interests of white male academics.

Here, then, are some key readings and research to support rejecting and resisting student evaluations of faculty:

As a white man in academia, if my claimed scholarly focus and agenda are grounded in equity, social justice, and not only naming but also dismantling racism, sexism, and white privilege, then I am beholden to both word and action in those pursuits.

In the ideal, yes, academia has the potential to be a model for equity and justice; in reality, academia is more often than not a white man’s world with garnishes of elevated rhetoric.

As Warner concludes in his interrogation of “objectivity,” students deserve a commitment to their “agency that allows them to make space for their ideas in the world,” adding what we can and must extrapolate to all of academia:

In this context, “objectivity” is not a value, but a pose, and one that’s usually sussed out by students as phony. They easily recognize it as a confidence game because it’s a game they’d previously been trying to practice, and during that practice they knew it was a pose.

Too often this pose in higher education is that of a gatekeeper, a position garnered through privilege but flaunted as merit.

If it were only phony, maybe we could brush it aside, but this pose of white male academics is determinant—it shapes, defines, and controls the careers and lives of everyone.

Changing academia in the pursuit of equity must be the work of white men, and two ways to begin that shift is to reimagine faculty evaluations and to end the use of student evaluations of faculty in that process.

See Also

Gendered Language in Teacher Reviews


[1] The footnote I provide includes the bulleted research and links above.

Toxic Masculinity, Predatory Men, and Male Paralysis

How can anybody know
How they got to be this way?

“Daughters of the Soho Riots,” The National

This is my sixth decade as a human, as a white, straight male.

Here I want to attempt confession, possibly seeking greater understanding, but fully aware of the huge complexities of making these claims, raising these personal struggles in the context of my many privileges.

I am treading lightly but committed to rise above the problematic satire of Ben Folds’ “Rockin’ the Suburbs”—which both speaks to me and makes me cringe:

Let me tell y’all what it’s like
Being male, middle-class, and white
It’s a bitch, if you don’t believe
Listen up to my new CD

My formative years over the 1960s and 1970s were spent in the redneck South. Just as I was reared to be a racist, I was taught very clearly to objectify women, even as that was tempered in my immediate family by direct and indirect messages about respecting and loving women/girls.

Growing up, I was a Mama’s boy, I was very close to my sister (my only sibling), and I had strong and warm relationships with aunts and my maternal grandmother.

As a so-called pre-sexual boy, then, I genuinely learned to feel deep and healthy affection for women/girls—to whom I have always been drawn more strongly than any male bonds.

As a teen, however, I was significantly enculturated into objectifying women, sowing the seeds for potentially behaving in ways that fed into and participated in predatory masculinity and even the various degrees of rape culture.

My classroom was, at first, superhero comic books and then soft-core pornography (such as Playboy and Penthouse)—but the wider popular culture was always reinforcing the worst possible models for how men treat women.

But as all this colored my attempts to be a sexual person, seeking out romantic relationships throughout high school and college, I was also being shaped in how I interacted with the world aesthetically, notably in that I was actively teaching myself visual art by drawing from both comic books and nude photography in the euphemistically named men’s magazines.

One can see a theme in my adolescent artwork:

Storm

Storm from the X-Men

Vargas

I shifted from comic books to men’s magazines and copying the objectifying artwork of Alberto Vargas, popularized in Playboy.

As a teen and young man, I was certainly trapped in very unhealthy but subtle patterns that could only be overcome by gaining critical awareness over my mid-20s into and my mid-30s (when I completed my doctoral program).

Some of that critical awareness was powerfully acquired through my commitment to learning from and teaching important literature such as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Margate Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as well as poetry units I taught on Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath.

Ultimately, writing an educational biography grounded in feminist theory stands in hindsight as the crowning experience as I approached 40 for a healthy awakening into fully appreciating toxic masculinity, predatory men, objectifying women, the male gaze, and rape culture.

Just as I would explain about my racial awareness, my sexual and gender awareness remains a journey, and as such, I find myself often paralyzed because, as a man, I represent still the potential for abuse through my status, the threat men pose for women in a society that continues to objectify and marginalize females—especially in terms of failing to listen to women who risk telling of their experiences with predatory men and rape culture.

My adult life has been spent as a partner, friend, parent, grandparent, teacher, and coach—all requiring me to monitor my status of power granted by being male and by my professional and familial positions in relationship with females.

As a coach and teacher, I have been (and continue) to be prone to call young women “darling” in casual moments—rightfully prompting some of my closest friends and colleagues who are women to call me on the language, the positioning.

I remain aesthetically drawn to photography and artwork of women nudes—entirely unsure if I can disentangle my toxic past from what I consider non-objectifying appreciation of art.

And so, as I noted above, I stumble toward 60, a man with good intentions who understands that is never enough; I am often reduced to paralysis in how to navigate the world in ways that are equitable and healthy for everyone regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or class.

I am genuinely terrified of ever making any woman/girl feel discomfort because of my masculine presence, my inadvertent gaze, my language, or the implicit threat of my status in relationship to her.

Often these days, I must confront these tensions as I snuggle with my granddaughter who I dearly want to grow up with healthy views of gender and sexuality, who I want to avoid any sort of predatory world.

My daughter was raised without corporal punishment, and now her children have been gifted that same dignity.

I work hard to practice what I preach and feel I make contributions small and even large to a kinder and more compassionate world—a world in which women and children need not ever fear men.

But even the best men walk in the wake of the worst men have given this world—the worst men continue to give to this world, and the women and children who must suffer for that.

Each man must moment by moment examine how he is culpable, where and how he stands in this world in relationship to women and children.

The dilemma of navigating the world as a man is couched in the unearned privilege, the potential for an abuse of unearned power that shouts out “First, do no harm.”

For a man committed to that, however, how does he live a full life without being paralyzed by the worst of being a man, behaviors that often go unpunished and even masked to protect some men from consequences.

How does any man avoid paralysis reading about the Stanford rape case or the stories of women as victims of predatory men?

This remains a rhetorical question for any man with an ethical imperative for his life—not a question for any woman or any child to offer their compassion.

For any man, for each man, this is ours to confront, to answer, and to act.

As long as men hold most of the power that shapes the world, it is ours to build a consensual environment in which human dignity supersedes the brute force of power.

Between acquiescing to the basest of male behaviors and paralysis is the true way, about which Franz Kafka wrote: “The true way is along a rope that is not spanned high in the air, but only just above the ground. It seems intended more to cause stumbling than to be walked upon.”

Pause. Listen. Look carefully before taking any step.


For Further Reading

Experts in the FieldBonnie Nadzam

Roxane Gay, Aimee Bender, and More on Assault and Harassment

The Predatory Men of Academic Creative Writing, John Warner

“He knows, or thinks he knows”: It’s Still a Man’s (Hostile) World

True Detective: It’s Still a Man’s (Hostile) World, pt. 2

Doubling Down (Again) on the White Man’s World

“Gravity”: The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Woman

In the U.S., Where the Female Nipple Is More Dangerous Than a Gun

South Carolina Ranks First in Political Negligence

Based on a U.S. News & World Report ranking, The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) announced South Carolina ranks last in education.

South Carolina also ranks first in women being murdered by men.

Rankings are popular in the U.S., but more often than not, terrible ways to understand what is being ranked as well as distracting fodder for both the media and politicians.

Ranking itself is problematic since the act itself requires finding data that supports that ranking, and then by ranking we are ascribing both a range of quality as well as some degree of blame for the relative status.

When saying SC is last in education and first in violence toward women, we must take greater care in clarifying what these rankings mean and where the accountability lies for both outcomes and the causes for those outcomes.

I suspect many would fault SC public schools for the education ranking, but almost no one would blame heterosexual domestic relationships for the inordinate rate of men’s violence toward women in the state.

But even more important here is that both of these rankings reveal something in common nearly entirely ignored: political negligence in SC.

The U.S. News ranking of education is far less about education, in fact, than about socio-economics.

Three of the six data categories to rank states by education are test scores (ACT and NAEP math and reading), and the other three are graduation rates as well as Pre-K quality and preschool enrollment.

At least 60% of test scores prove time and again to be correlated with out-of-school factors. In short, what we routinely label as “education” is in fact more significantly a reflection of poverty and wealth.

And thus, if we are compelled to say SC is last in education, we are actually saying that SC’s social and education policy are utter failures. The key here is that this ranking is about policy, a direct reflection of political will, political negligence.

And SC is easily in competition for elite status in political negligence of education as shown in the twenty years it took for the courts to address the Corridor of Shame, finally admitting that high-poverty schools serving high-poverty communities result in students being doubly disadvantaged by their lives and their school opportunities.

For comparison, consider SC’s violence toward women ranking and the state being one of 13 states that treat marital rape differently than rape of a non-spouse:

Men or women raped by a spouse have just 30 days to report the incident to authorities. For the rape to count, it must have involved “the use or the threat to use a weapon … or physical violence of a high and aggravated nature.” The offense is treated as a felony but has a maximum sentence of 10 years, whereas rape of a non-spouse has a maximum sentence of 30 years.

In both rankings, then, we must ask how policy creates the environments reflected in measurable outcomes—such as test scores and graduation rates or incidences of violence toward women.

There is a political advantage to keep media and public focus on schools with educational rankings; that focus, however, is akin to blaming hospitals for housing the sick.

Schools in SC and across the U.S. reflect the inequities of our communities, the failures of our policies, and as a result, they are ineffective as mechanisms of change.

While we have known for decades that poverty and inequity are the greatest hurdles for children learning, we have committed to decades of changing standards and testing students—and we appear poised to waste time and funding next on school choice scheme.

None of this addresses the root causes of the outcomes we continue to use to rank educational quality, a process that masks, misinforms, and guarantees to maintain the status quo.

Ranking invariably proves to be much ado about nothing because it tends to misrepresent and misinform, especially in terms of why conditions exist and what reforms would improve those conditions.

Policy is at the core of both any state’s educational outcomes and what threatens the safety of women.

Policy reflects what truly matters, and in SC, our rankings in terms of education and violence toward women are commentaries on who we are as a people, who we are willing to ignore and who we are willing to protect.

Ultimately, both of these rankings expose that SC ranks first in political negligence, negligence of equity in the lives and education of children, negligence in the safety of women.

“Something Like Scales”

Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again.

Acts 9:18 (NIV)

The existential crisis of my youth was my embarrassment and shame for having been raised in ignorance. My redneck past erupted from my mouth in the first weeks of college, and I exposed myself an arrogant fool.

Racist, sexist, brash, and incredibly insensitive to human dignity—I had no sense of community, no humility, little compassion, and no room for anything to replace the incredible callousness that filled my mind, my heart, and my soul.

Many years later in my doctoral program, I discovered Lou LaBrant and was immediately drawn to her warnings about word magic and provincialism, and her faith in progressive education as a path out of ignorance and bigotry:

The English class does not differ from other classes in responsibility for social situations which militate against prejudice and intolerance. Classifications which result in racial or cultural segregation, encouragement of small cliques, avoidance of crucial issues-all of these may be evils in the English classes as in others. Indeed, many of our classifications, built on results of reading tests, tend to promote rather than to destroy the kind of antisocial situation just mentioned….The question is briefly: Do the very words we use and our attitudes toward them affect our tendency to accept or reject other human beings? (p. 323)

In my mid-30s, I had already made significant strides along the journey captured by LaBrant, a journey that was deeply indebted to my reading black and women writers who shook the scales from my eyes and pointed me to the light leading away from the provincialism of my youth.

Concurrent to my passion for fiction and literature was my self-taught commitment to reading existential philosophy, which also resonated with me as I had become aware that every human is a prisoner of her/his own Being.

It was not that I came to know the world through my being white, male, heterosexual, and a non-believer; it was that I made the error of not recognizing those lenses, falling into the trap expressed by Claudia Rankine and James Baldwin.

That trap was to ignore my whiteness and to fail to understand that anything that defines any individual is inseparable from the world around that individual; as Baldwin explains:

White Americans find it as difficult as white people elsewhere do to divest themselves of the notion that they are in possession of some intrinsic value that black people need, or want. And this assumption—which, for example, makes the solution to the Negro problem depend on the speed with which Negroes accept and adopt white standards—is revealed in all kinds of striking ways, from Bobby Kennedy’s assurance that a Negro can become President in forty years to the unfortunate tone of warm congratulation with which so many liberals address their Negro equals. It is the Negro, of course, who is presumed to have become equal—an achievement that not only proves the comforting fact that perseverance has no color but also overwhelmingly corroborates the white man’s sense of his own value.

The existential crisis of my first three years of college did not bring me to some miraculous enlightenment. Neither did my doctoral experience in my mid-30s.

As I stumble toward 60, the crisis remains, and the journey continues.

My most recent leg of that journey has been grounded in social media, where I have gathered (especially on Twitter) connections that allow me to listen beyond myself about race, social class, gender, sexuality, ablism, and a whole host of contexts that, as LaBrant confronted, address “our tendency to accept or reject other human beings.”

Over the past few years when I have increased my public writing as well as my presence on social media, I have learned two important lessons.

First—although it has taken me decades to recognize and come to understand better my own struggles with anxiety and introversion—I am a lifelong outsider, a non-joiner.

However, I have experienced a few vicious (and unfounded) attacks directed at me either through a virtual connection only or about my role as a public intellectual.

In these cases, the conflict was grounded entirely (again as LaBrant noted) in how the other person was naming me, especially in terms of how that naming associated me with allegiances I do not have (to organizations, to known personalities, to acquiring financial benefits).

My non-joiner Self has always been rooted in my fidelity to ideas and ideals, not people or organizations. I am perpetually checking if people and organizations share that fidelity, but I cannot pledge allegiance to anyone or any organization.

These conflicts happened, it is important to stress, with both people I consider allies and those who are clearly in different camps than I am.

Just as a broad example, I have felt tension from union members and advocates because, I think, I hold an odd stance of never having been in a union (living my entire life in a right-to-work state) and of criticizing strongly both of the major teachers’ unions and their leaders—all the while being an unapologetic advocate for unionization.

I have also been discounted and discredited among my narrow field of teaching ELA because many within the field misunderstand blogging and academic publishing (neither of which is about making money, by the way).

This first lesson, then, is about how we label each other through association, and as a result, create fractures, angry divisions—much of which is inaccurate, or at least misleading.

Commitments to people and organizations to the exclusion of the ideals those people and organizations claim to be working toward are ultimately counterproductive.

But my second lesson moves beyond the personal and to the wider chasms of the U.S. as a people.

As a perpetual stranger, I am a critical observer, and I have witnessed a powerful and corrosive dynamic captured by the story of Saul’s conversion: “something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again.”

What I have witnessed is about power and privilege as the scales that blind the powerful and privileged.

From the Bernie Sander’s campaign to Hillary Clinton’s campaign to the accountability education reform resistance—and many other contexts—I have watched as white people with some degree of privilege and power have squandered their good intentions, alienating marginalized people by not listening.

The worst of which has been the tone deaf All Lives Matter (and Blue Lives Matter) response to Black Lives Matter.

In a recent post about rescuing education reform from post-truth, I highlighted that both the reform mindset that public education is a failure and the counter-resistance (that often says public education is not the problem because poverty is) are equally flawed—the latter because it spits in the face of the vulnerable students (black, brown, English language learners, special needs students) who are in fact being cheated by an inadequate K-12 public school system.

I think ultimately the second lesson is about missionary zeal, the bleeding-heart liberal urge to save the world, an urge that ignores (as Baldwin challenges) the arrogance of privilege, the condescension of privilege.

And thus, even as I have framed this with a sight metaphor, when the scales drop from our eyes—when we resist viewing the world through our provincialism, through our necessarily personal biases (and bigotry)—we are freed to listen and to hear with compassion and awareness so that our worlds expand.

Freedom and equity no longer appear to be a zero-sum game.

Ending racism is the responsibility of whites. Ending sexism is the responsibility of men. Ending economic inequity is the responsibility of the wealthy.

Privilege and power control how the U.S. works, for whom it works as well as over whom it plows.

Our country is in desperate need of a conversion such as Saul’s, the scales dropping from our eyes so that we may listen, understand, and act in the service of those we have too long failed to see or hear.

Half of a Yellow Sun: Adichie’s Historical Parable of Race, Class, and Politics

In her Author’s Note for Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recognized scholars, her parents, and other family members for helping her fictionalize the Nigeria-Biafra War of 1967-70; telling, I think, is this: “In particular, Chukwuemeka Ike’s Sunset at Dawn and Flora Nwapa’s Never Again were indispensable in creating the mood of middle-class Biafra.”

Powerful throughout Adichie’s gripping and sharp novel is her weaving together the significance of race, class, and politics—tribalism and race, race and class, and then intellectualism in the context of both race and class.

All of this as well is wrapped in examinations of the power of both language and dialect.

Adichie soars in her deft handling of characterization and narrative against her historical and political purposes.

But the West and especially the U.S. are now probably mostly ignorant of this bloody conflict, although my entry into it is rooted in Kurt Vonnegut’s New Journalism, “Biafra: A People Betrayed,” originally published in April 1970 for McCall’s and then collected in Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons.

Vonnegut tells a story of Biafra as a witness, a white ally of sorts angry in the opening of his piece at slights such as calling Biafra “a tribe” and recognizing how Nigeria/Biafra were pawns in international games:

Biafra lost its freedom, of course, and I was in the middle of it as all its fronts were collapsing. I flew in from Gabon on the night of January 3, with bags of corn, beans, and powdered milk, aboard a blacked out DC6 chartered by Caritas, the Roman Catholic relief organization. I flew out six nights later on an empty DC4 chartered by the French Red Cross. It was the last plane to leave Biafra that was not fired upon.

Despite Vonnegut’s romanticizing, his self-centered report on Biafra carries a recognition of Nigerians and Biafrans as sophisticated people in the way the West likely assumed they were not. But his story is ripe with contradiction:

I admire Miriam, though I am not grateful for the trip she gave me. It was like a free trip to Auschwitz when the ovens were still going full blast. I now feel lousy all the time.

I will follow Miriam’s example as best I can. My main aim will not be to move readers to voluptuous tears with tales about innocent black children dying like flies, about rape and looting and murder and all that. I will tell instead about an admirable nation that lived for less than three years.

There is always something unnerving about Vonnegut’s flippant and darkly humorous tone and his subject matter; in this way, despite his being a white Westerner of privilege, Vonnegut reporting on Biafra seems about right as that circumstance can.

Vonnegut’s WWII bitterness fits the horrors of this civil war: “The Fathers are now being deported forever. Their crime: compassion in time of war.”

As a primer for reading Adichie, Vonnegut’s essay confronts children suffering from kwashiorkor, General Odumegwu Ojukwu, the politics of oil, and “the arrogance of Biafra’s intellectuals.”

Also as in Adichie’s novel, Vonnegut highlighted the light against the dark.

This:

A more typical Biafran family might consist of a few hundred souls. And there were no orphanages, no old people’s homes, no public charities and, early in the war, there weren’t even schemes for taking care of refugees. The families took care of their own, perfectly naturally.

The families were rooted in land. There was no Biafran so poor that he did not own a garden.

Against this:

Palm oil, incidentally, was one of two commodities that had induced white men to colonize the area so long ago. The other commodity was even more valuable than palm oil. It was human slaves.

Think of that: slaves….

What did we eat in Biafra? As guests of the government, we had meat and yams and soups and fruit. It was embarrassing. Whenever we told a cadaverous beggar “No chop,” it wasn’t really true. We had plenty of chop, but it was all in our bellies.

Vonnegut had two agendas, common in his fiction and nonfiction: decry war without being simplistic or naive and champion his great Idealistic dream of large communities, families.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as Nigerian, a woman, and a writer has agendas also.

Unlike Vonnegut’s paternalistic outsider witnessing, Adichie dramatizes her witnessing as James Baldwin envisioned, a lived witnessing as well as a writer’s witnessing to raise the voice of the unheard.

The servant Ugwu framed against the scholar/intellectual Odenigbo and Olanna, from wealth and privilege, draw the reader into the realities and horrors of race, social class, and personal as well as partisan politics.

As in Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State and Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children, Adichie demonstrates that even in the pursuit of good and freedom, the world is mostly hellish for children and women—violent, rapacious, indiscriminate.

Half of a Yellow Sun works as a parable, then, as it works as a historical novel; this story is an enduring and damning story about human failure, the flaws of men and the wars they demand, the addictive and corrosive influence of power and the frailty of the weak in the path of that power.

Along with Gay’s and Yuknavitch’s novels, Half of a Yellow Sun sits well also with Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast, and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and The Temple of My Familiar—all resonating as parables and historical witnessing.

Beware war and good intentions, these writers implore.

Words matter, they also intone.

Humans are a mess of pain and suffering, they ultimately lament.

I feel no need to walk through Adichie’s novel here, but I do want to stress that along with its historical significance, Half of a Yellow Sun speaks eerily to now for those of us in the U.S.

Adichie recognizes the chasm between intellectuals and so-called common people while she is deft at exposing the hypocrisy and foolishness found in all people; she does not demonize or idealize any of the many ways people are distinct in this novel, how people truly were separated in the years of the war: within and among races, educated and superstitious, idealistic and cynical.

As I often do now, as I read Adichie I heard James Baldwin’s warning about the great human failure:

This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us; particularly now since if we cannot understand ourselves we will not be able to understand anything.

Adichie’s novel is bursting with “refusals”—political propaganda, interpersonal dishonesty and infidelity, and self-delusion—all of which confront today an already free people who are careless with that freedom and insensitive to suffering on our own soil and throughout the world.

I do not here wish to cross the line Vonnegut may well have crossed, making the plight of Biafra about him.

Adichie’s novel deserves your time as a novel, it deserves your time as a powerful unmasking of an ignored moment in history, but it also can serve you as you navigate the U.S. in the present.

After almost dying as a conscripted soldier, Ugwu exclaims to another servant: “‘There is no such thing as greatness.'”

Damning and bitter, yes, but a warning we should heed none the less.