Our American baggage: a July 4 reflection

Today marks the 240 years since an arbitrary point in time, one of several associated with the Declaration of Independence. It’s also a time to reflect on how irrelevant the Declaration is in the 21st century, despite constant references in political culture. Present American policy the antithesis of the right of revolution. The dismemberment of Occupy shows that even talking about revolution is taboo. This is to be expected- what kind of self-sustaining regime would ever recognize the right to be overthrown?

So even though it was created eleven years later, when we discuss our origins we speak, directly or indirectly, of the Constitution. Unlike almost every state with a written constitution, the US Constitution has undergone comparatively mild revision, even though it predates the French Revolution, and thus modern politics as we know it. In the past, I’ve talked about our origins as dead people’s baggage, and the problem of a pre-democratic Constitution. Consider this a third take on the same theme.

Taken from Library of Congress website.

Here’s a strange thing to consider. At this point, it is generally established that all-white clubs clash with civil rights law. This year, Harvard cracked down on single-sex clubs, indicating that even in bastions of privilege like the Ivy League, integration is now expected.

Were the Constitutional Convention assemble today, July 4, 2016, it would be a pariah. An all-white, all-male clique, who generally speaking despised the working class, and did not think of women or populations of color as citizens. Yet most people are okay with how the Constitution was created. This slides into the problematic “the times were different” defense, which has always been used to justify atrocity and injustice. All the institutions surrounding the Constitution have integrated in some sense- legislatures, courts, school boards, the Cabinet. But the roots remain the same. And when the three current female Supreme Court justices interpret the law, they wrestle with a legal history that women had no input on until a few decades ago.

The end result is a Constitution that is incredibly vague, which inherently supports existing privilege and white male supremacy. There are no protections for marginalized groups, because they were never thought to have political and social rights. In fact, one can say that constitutional change in American history is a story of turning universal rights into enforceable protections.

One reason a second Convention has never been called, despite Framers asking future generations to do so, is that the leap will be so dramatic. Can we imagine a Constitution ten times longer? Twenty? Can we imagine the Second Amendment remade? Can we imagine centuries of case law overruled?

So on this July 4th, we triumph the Declaration, as it remains pure, frozen in time. There is no sense of obligation to change it. On this day, we can travel to the past, and not bring its baggage on the return trip.



Moving beyond “don’t judge”

I don’t particularly like the idea that we shouldn’t judge other people. It’s a maxim taught to children, and the Golden Rule refers to the dangers of judgement.

Yet that’s not really the problem, or a reasonable solution. Humans instinctively judge and categorize new things, places, and people. To truly live up to the idea that we shouldn’t judge others, we would need to rewire significant parts of the brain. Judging others has no good or bad value attached to it.

The two aspects that I think are most important, and should be part of a more detailed lesson to youth, are the dangers of warped judgements, and the emphasis that we put on judgements.

Said plain, the core is judgements that are influenced by racism, sexism, homophobia, or other ideologies that devalue humans and make them lesser individuals. Additionally, if we value personal judgements over other facts, we run the risk of placing a person under a very skewed spotlight. This is much like the difference between prejudice and discrimination- one can have prejudicial views but do not believe they are important enough or appropriate to turn into action.

This may seem like splitting hairs, but I think it’s important to explore why judgement can be a dangerous thing. The simplicity of “we shouldn’t judge people” masks an important lesson about devaluing people and using a warped view of the world.

The controversy with calling everything a controversy

I generally don’t like the phrase ‘controversial’ as its used to describe conduct by politicians or celebrities.

A controversy involves a fundamental disagreement that two or more parties have for an extended period of time. In the context of politics, controversial is often used to describe remarks that are either:

a) clearly racist or prejudiced, which is almost always followed by some manner of apology (or dedicated non-apology), or
b) factually incorrect. It’s not ‘controversial’ to claim that the Earth is about 6,000 years old, it’s wrong.

The word seems to end up everywhere. Jonah Hill saying some bigoted shit a couple days ago is controversial. So is abortion policy. And the status of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey. If most celebrities apologize for their behavior when confronted, there really isn’t some protracted disagreement. Perhaps the grave Alec Baldwin has been digging for a while might qualify, but that’s a rare instance. It’s not controversial, it’s cringe-worthy. Or just simply dumb.

You are not, and never will be entitled to sex

There’s been a tumblr post circulating among my Facebook friends to support the idea that there exists a “rape culture” in America, and it demands serious action. Rape in our culture is a point of contention between various groups- debates over whether rape jokes are socially acceptable, or if the term is used too casually have happened again and again in the past few years.

The statistics in the post are legitimate, and are collected with citations here. A series of surveys and academic articles, published between 1981 and 1994, found widespread acceptance of rape among middle school and college students. In a disturbing result, many young girls accepted rape as justified in some circumstances- sometimes at a rate equal to young boys.

This data is compelling, but dated. However, an exhaustive survey by the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey has been published recently, thanks to significant support from government agencies. It is stark in its conclusions: if the rate of sexual abuse has gone down, it hasn’t gone down much. In the 1988 college survey, about one in four women reported rape or attempted rape. In the 2011 report, it was one in five.

I don’t mean to drown this post with statistics; rather, I want a strong grounding to stand on going forward. More below the fold.

Continue reading “You are not, and never will be entitled to sex”

The stubbornness of chauvinism

I was directed to a tumblr post that greatly dismayed me. Written by a woman who regularly takes public transit in Los Angeles, it talks about how often he is approached by men who are aggressive and, in the case she recounts in full, deeply threatening and scary.

The point raised is not that sexism is rampant or that men are pigs. Rather it is going to a core idea, for which these things are symptoms. It is the issue of male privilege- the inherent advantages men have in life, regardless of their socioeconomic background. The issue with critiquing them is that most men do not notice these advantages, or dismiss the idea as petty feminism. It is very difficult to cope with an unearned, background aspect of your life.

I was born a white male who, unlike my parents, was raised in a background of privilege rather than working-class self-reliance.  Privilege is embedded in me, and it defines my interactions with other people; particularly, it defines my interactions with people that are not white, well-to-do, and male. Activism, going to a UU church that focuses on inequality and entering public education at the age of 19 have made these interactions more frequent and laden with importance. The evening speech class I am taking this semester has a great many people in menial jobs trying to get a later-life education and improve their chances of moving up. It is quite different from my stint in an expensive and prestigious liberal arts college. Many colleges are cocoons, and they price out a great deal of reality.

Ultimately, what dismays me the most about these posts is that a lot of these men are under forty. I would hope that people whose lives have included the backdrop of modern feminism would refrain from the same callous chauvinism that their fathers and grandfathers had. Seeing someone my own age (three people in the post are mentioned as being about eighteen) act like a sixty year old man is disheartening. While I know that gender relations are still evolving, and should, sometimes I think that at this point we as a society should be further along.