Thursday, December 20, 2012

Newtown, Occupy and The Book of Mormon

1.  When I first heard about the school shootings in Newtown, I didn’t have a particularly strong reaction.  I saw the headlines, I saw the number 20, then it became 26, but I didn’t read the details.  When a friend said on the phone, “That’s so sad,” I agreed without really thinking about it.

Friday evening I went to a meeting at a cafĂ©.  The Palestinian owner served my wine.  I noticed he looked upset.

“How are you?” I asked and he said, “Not very good.”

I asked why and he pointed to the television.  Military guys were moving around ambulances and at first I thought something must have happened in Palestine.  But the words on the screen said it was Connecticut.

He has an 18-year-old daughter.

It was only then that I stopped to feel the news.
Omar al Masharawi, killed by Israeli shelling
in Gaza, November 14
2.  The mainstream media is nonstop funerals, speculation about the shooter, debates on gun violence, tedious interviews with the same law enforcement people and politicians.  The progressive media has moved on to speculations about how different the discourse would be if the victims or the perpetrator had been people of color, at home or abroad.  They remind us of all the deaths we’re not grieving, from kids killed by gun violence in Chicago (117) to kids killed by drones in Pakistan (168) to kids killed in last month’s Israeli bombing of Gaza (30) (read their names).

These are totally valid things to remind us of, fair and even necessary questions to raise.  Usually I’d be right there with them.  But the efforts at parallelism are making me uncomfortable.

I think that’s because it emphasizes the profound alienation we leftists feel from the rest of our society.  It feels like we want to wallow in our alienation and fling it in people’s faces.

And I can’t help feeling that wallowing in alienation is what brought Adam Lanza to the point where he could think it was right to kill 20 children and 6 women.

Aren’t drones the ultimate expression of the alienation our society promotes?  It’s a form of warfare that alienates the actor from their actions, the shooter from the target, the person from their compassion. I don’t want to encourage any more alienation, by seeming to criticize people for their emotional response to the suffering of other parents.

I know that’s not what my friends and fellow leftists are aiming for.  They want people to feel the same compassion for the parents in Gaza and Pakistan and Oakland that they feel for the parents of Newtown.  But I can’t help feeling that heaping negative information onto people’s consciousness will only encourage them to distance more, to dull their awareness of other people.

For years, I believed that if only people knew what was happening, knew the cost of our policies, they would care, and they would do something.  But the evidence is that it doesn’t work that way.  What it usually takes for people to change their positions or their actions is deep personal contact with someone who is hurting.

Would white Americans feel the pain of Palestinian parents if they could see a Palestinian father grieving for the families in Newtown?
3.  In my writing class on Saturday, we discussed the first few chapters of my novel, Murder Under the Bridge.  Most people found the American peace activist highly annoying.  (Everything I do to try to make her more sympathetic seems to have the opposite effect.)

A young woman said, “I knew a lot of people like her in college.  They all went into the Peace Corps.”

“Yes,” said the teacher, “people who go into the Peace Corps are usually annoying.”

“They’re idealists,” someone else said.  “And idealists are annoying.”

That’s true, I realized.  In our culture, idealists are considered very annoying.  Why?  Because their refusal to be suitably alienated makes us question our own alienation?
4.  A friend and I saw The Book of Mormon on Thursday night.  (Please do not ask how much we paid!)  It’s hilarious.  It’s also deeply offensive on so many levels: casually racist, sexist, making jokes about things that aren’t funny like AIDS and rape.  A lot of its comedy is mean-spirited, but it’s sharp and the music and dancing is incredible. I couldn’t decide which I was more ashamed of: enjoying it or criticizing its political incorrectness. I’m pretty sure the fact that it’s such a huge hit says something about how we can do such terrible things to each other, not to mention those we consider Other.  Cynicism has become our religion.  Idealists are annoying.  Alienation is our god.
5.  Karl Marx predicted that under capitalism, workers would “inevitably lose control of their lives by losing control over their work.”  But Marx did not see capitalism continuing for this long.  He foresaw that the working class would rise up and reassert control over their lives through socialism.  Aren’t these mass shootings, at their most basic level, a response to the prolonged alienation of people from our labor, our environment and each other?

But a transition to socialism, whether by revolution or some more gradual means, can only take place if the alienation that separates us from each other is somehow lessened or challenged.

Occupy was the answer.  People were coming together, relating without the mediation of wages and commodities, representation and hierarchy.  That’s why it had to be so swiftly and thoroughly repressed.  It might also be why the crime rate in Oakland declined during the encampment at Oscar Grant Plaza.  But the repression succeeded.  The new manifestations of Occupy, smaller, targeted campaigns for foreclosure defense, debt relief, labor support, are great but they do not offer that broad, easy access to an alternative vision of what our society can be.

What the brief flame that was Occupy/Liberate/Decolonize did was cut through the cynicism that says that idealism is just annoying.  It made a space for ideals and the people who hold to them to be loved and cherished.
6.  Today is the Solstice, the End of the Mayan Calendar, The Great Turning.  Let it be a turning toward a world in which idealism is cherished, not annoying.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Does Mental Illness Exist? Yes!

I was trying to write something very different, something much more cerebral and complicated, about Newtown and alienation and Occupy and The Book of Mormon, which I saw the other night.  Maybe I still will.  But I just couldn't get it done because I kept being drawn to people's Facebook chatter.  A lot of it centers around this piece by Liza Long:
I Am Adam Lanza's Mother.
Three days before 20 year-old Adam Lanza killed his mother, then opened fire on a classroom full of Connecticut kindergartners, my 13-year old son Michael (name changed) missed his bus because he was wearing the wrong color pants.
“I can wear these pants,” he said, his tone increasingly belligerent, the black-hole pupils of his eyes swallowing the blue irises.
“They are navy blue,” I told him. “Your school’s dress code says black or khaki pants only.”
“They told me I could wear these,” he insisted. “You’re a stupid bitch. I can wear whatever pants I want to. This is America. I have rights!”
“You can’t wear whatever pants you want to,” I said, my tone affable, reasonable. “And you definitely cannot call me a stupid bitch. You’re grounded from electronics for the rest of the day. Now get in the car, and I will take you to school.”
I live with a son who is mentally ill. I love my son. But he terrifies me. Read more

Someone posted it.  I sat in the cafe where I am writing and tears ran down my face.  I resonated with it, because I grew up in a family with mental health issues.  I knew that out-of-control feeling, of knowing that someone you loved was going through something you could not get at.  Just loving them, just wanting to help wasn't doing it.  I was a kid but I saw the helplessness in my parents' eyes because they couldn't heal this deep pain and couldn't get the help they needed.

I have a friend whose sister is troubled.  We don't know exactly why or what's going on with her, but she's a sweet kid who can erupt in violent behavior.  Her mother is scared.  My friend hides in her room when her sister has outbursts, which is mostly what I did.

I was struck by some of the comments to Long's piece.  Some were preachy and blaming, others filled with vitriol for herself or her son.  Some tried to be compassionate at the same time as they were saying Long wouldn't have this problem if she were not such a bad mother, or had not gone to bad doctors.  After I posted it to my wall, friends posted other responses, like this one:
You Are Not Adam Lanza’s MotherAfter this blog post was republished on Huffington Post, I thought it necessary to summarise the main reasons why it’s a terrible springboard for further conversation on the subject.

1) The suggestion that this woman’s son is of the same type of person who would or will commit a “rage murder”, without any real evidence to back up this suggestion.

2) ...By reducing ‘mental illness’ to ‘outward behaviour’ the article dehumanises the mentally ill and completely glosses over the inner mental life and experiences of those with mental illness.

3) The article complains about mental illness stigma while reinforcing it by explicitly tying it to violence, and in particular, mass killings. The reality is that there is no such observed link: “after analysing a number of killers, Mullen concludes, ‘they had personality problems and were, to put it mildly, deeply troubled people.’ But he goes on to add: ‘Most perpetrators of autogenic massacres do not, however, appear to have active psychotic symptoms at the time and very few even have histories of prior contact with mental health services.’” And most people with mental illness are not violent, although they are far more likely to be victims of crime (see here, for instance). more
The author of that post makes good points, but its emphatic conclusion is:
You are NOT Adam Lanza’s mother. The sort of quasi-solidarity expressed in “We are [oppressed people]” or “I am [dead person]” appropriates the experiences of people who are unheard, in this case the victim of a mass homicide, and uses that to bolster a narrative that doesn’t even attempt to discover or represent the experiences of those they claim to speak for. Don't do that.
Author, did you miss something?  Liza did not claim to "be" the victim of the mass homicide, unless you are saying that Adam Lanza is the victim, in which case, who is the perpetrator?

Liza is saying she never wants to be the mother of a mass murderer.  I have friends who have said that, who held their breaths during their sons' violence-riddled teenage years.  Nancy Lanza is dead, but we should still have some empathy for her.  She didn't raise Adam to do what he did, but he did it.  It could happen to any of us who dare to raise kids in a deeply troubled society.

I have friends who deny that mental illness exists at all.  People are merely misunderstood, not challenged in school, not valued for who they are, not given the freedom to run around, too smart, too creative, too special for this one-size-fits-all society.  It's true that our first twenty efforts to solve behavior problems in kids and adults should center around trying to figure out what they need that they're not getting, give them more attention, more love, more opportunity.  It's true that the loss of empathy required to commit mass murder is fostered by capitalism and militarism.

But mental illness exists too.  I know it from painful experience and so do many of you.  For years, I felt I was teetering on the edge of it.  I was always able to pull myself back, but others in my life have not been so lucky.  A number of friends of mine have recently had to deal with suicides - more than one, by people who obviously could not get whatever they needed.  Depression is anger turned inwards.  If it turns back outward, it can be dangerous.  I don't know what to do about it, and Goddess knows, I don't want it to involve any more guns or prisons or laws (which it inevitably will).  But denying its existence will not make it go away and neither will heaping blame on the parents who are every day worrying and trying to figure out how to help their kids.

I've written about the problem of trying to isolate causes and effects before.  Saying that mental illness can cause violence is not the same as saying that all or most mentally ill people are violent.  They are not.  Not all unemployed people are poor, either - look at Mitt Romney.  But we all know unemployment can cause poverty.  Cancer can kill you, but not everyone who dies has cancer.  We need to get a lot better about this cause and effect thing.  And we need to treat the causes in a hurry.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

9 (Sort of ) Revolutionary (Sort of) Gifts for the Holiday Season

A number of my friends have the misfortune to have birthdays very close to Xmas.  It's a misfortune because it’s hard to schedule parties and because people like me, who hate shopping, avoid it even more ferociously as December wears on.  But of course, the Internet has changed all that.  In the cozy privacy of my office, I figured I could be a good friend and not give IOUs or “love yas” instead of real live gifts this year.  But having made that earth-shattering decision, I was stuck when it came to where on the ever expanding world wide web I might actually find something suitable for the revolutionary who has almost everything she could want except revolution.

So I Googled “gifts for revolutionaries”.

I skipped right over the ones that were using “revolutionary” to modify an app, device, fabric or appliance – surprisingly, there weren’t that many.  I guess maybe the days when “revolutionary” got anyone’s attention are bygone, since it must by now be the second most common word in the English language.

I did get a little excited by “Redesign revolution” because boy, do we ever need to do that!  But sadly, it wasn’t a how-to guide for a consensus process that works in just 45 minutes or getting media attention for your creative direct action.  Instead it was “Gizmos, Gadgets and Gifts – Oh My! Holiday Gift Guide for Gadget Geeks.”  I am kind of a gadget geek, but I don’t wanna be so I clicked away in a hurry and went on to:

1.      The very first item was Jesus Christ Revolutionary, and it actually said “You searched for Jesus Christ Revolutionary” which I certainly did not!  But I clicked through to, which features a Jesus-as-Che Viva La Resurreccion Baseball Jersey.  The cutest thing I found there was the No Justice No Sleep baby bodysuit.  I don’t have any revolutionary friends getting ready to deliver, but when I do, I know what they’re getting for baby shower gifts.  

2.      From Amazon comes The History Channel Presents The Revolution (2006).  Revolution in a box for $49.99 would be a good deal, but sadly it’s a 13-part miniseries about The American Revolution.  No doubt I’d learn something, but not what I had in mind.

3.       Zazzle, as it turns out actually does have a “revolutionary gift” site offering everything from U.S. Army mugs to revolutionary war memorabilia to pictures of Villa and Zapata to Ron Paul bumper stickers to Socialist Party pins.  I clicked on the last and found myself at the page entitled “Home > Politics > United States > Parties > Communist” – wait, was it a socialist or a communist pin?  Couldn’t buy it unless I knew.  Oddly, the Red Star on a black field pin was not on that page, but on the “Philosophy and Belief” page.  Go figure.  At the top of my screen, underneath “Revolutionary Gifts - T-Shirts, Posters, & other Gift Ideas” it said:  “Related Searches:  vladimir lenin without, war, war cannon”.  Huh?

4.       There’s Revolution Tea:  “Revolution Tea is proud to introduce you to the wonderful world of tea. In the past, you may have experienced the bitter taste of low quality teas served in paper bags. At Revolution, we are committed to changing the way tea is served in addition to offering high quality, great tasting teas crafted to suit the taste of today's palate.”  In addition to tea, they offer tea lights, tea cups, tea servers, tea cakes but sadly not "Revolutionary Tea Party," my favorite CD by the great Lillian Allen.  You can get it on CD baby though.  

5.     Revolution Books, marketing hub of the formerly-antigay-now-only-mildly-heterosexist Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), offers “shirts, sweatshirts, mugs, hats, calendars, tote bags and more with challenging and inspiring quotes from…the cutting edge work of Bob Avakian, whose new synthesis of communism envisions a radically new society that is overcoming all of the oppression of the current world while giving great scope to the intellectual work, ferment, and dissent as integral to the complete emancipation of humanity.”  Okay, just how “new” and “cutting edge” can his work be after 50 years?

6. offers Chinese propaganda posters.  Site labels include “Posters”, “Calendar cards”, “Fakes & reproductions” and the ever-popular “Personalized oil paintings”:  “A revolutionary gift idea: your portrait oil painted like a propaganda poster."  I thought about it.

7.     Mug Revolution was actually kind of tempting, as both I and one of my Saggitarian friends love mugs.  These boast lead-free glazes and certified 100% non-toxic local clay.  They are hand-made in Oregon, meaning they wouldn’t be being shipped too far, but they're kind of ugly, at least in the pictures. Maybe it takes toxic clay or lead glaze to make pottery that looks pretty? (No offense meant to any of my potter friends, who all make gorgeous and I'm sure healthful stuff.)

8.    Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Apocalypse Saga L.E.”  I gather is a Japanese animated TV series.  It’s a 3 DVD set and sounds rather gender-bending:
"Utena, fueled by her desire to protect Anthy, continues to prevail over the feeble ambitions that drive the Student Council to fight.
The Council's ambitions are reignited, however, when they hear a sound. At first, it's faint, but soon it becomes clear: the promised revolution is within reach - and the duels must go on.
And what of Utena's own ambition? To become a prince, the duels may be only one of the trials she has yet to face."

It might be just the thing for friends or kids who like anime, which I don’t.  Though for full disclosure, one of the swordswomen on the box cover is wearing a long pink gown.

9.   Revolution Brewing, a Chicago brewpub has a host of “Revolution Brewing” paraphernalia, including shirts, caps, signs, and bottle openers.  Cute for a revvy who drinks beer, but I'm going to keep looking.