In Case You Missed It: Weekend Reading 10/16/15

Hello there, and welcome to (what will hopefully be) the first of many installments of In Case You Missed It, where I’ll post links to the most interesting things I read on the web in the previous week and linked on my facebook page.

The big news this week was the first Democratic Presidential Debate. But I also found some interesting think pieces on Columbus Day (or, as we celebrate in my adopted home city of Seattle, Indigenous Peoples’ Day), violence, and socialism in the modern day and age.

And, in what I hope and expect to become a weekly tradition, we’ll end with a dueling WTF?/Fk Yeah! pair of stories to make you scratch your head and cheer. Continue reading “In Case You Missed It: Weekend Reading 10/16/15”

Put an Asterisk Next to His Accomplishments: Why It’s So Difficult to Get a White Man to See, Much Less Admit, His Own Privilege

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his [privilege] depends on his not understanding it.”

-Upton Sinclair, paraphrased

Very few people see the world as it truly is. It’s not our fault; that’s just how human brains work. For the most part, we only see what we’re looking for, what our worldview and training prepare and allow us to see. And it’s useful, even necessary: imagine what your life might be like if you were conscious of everything, every quantum of sense-data, every implication and nuance of every thought and decision. Without reasonable filters, you’d be overwhelmed, unable to sift through the reams and mountains of input in order to make enough sense to act or even just understand.

The flipside of the coin is that those filters can and often do filter out useful, even necessary information, salient facts and inconvenient truths that clash with our worldview and training. Cognitive dissonance ensues, and we find ourselves in the position of the robot caught in a logic trap, saying ‘Does not compute, does not compute’ over and over until our mainframe overheats and seizes up in a cloud of smoke, shutting us down.

Of course when that happens to people, we don’t generally seize up and shut down. Not literally, anyway. Mostly we just get angry and deny whatever information slipped through the filter to dissonate our cognizance. And who can blame us? It’s a lot easier than recalibrating (or replacing) our much-beloved and ever-so-useful filters.

In The Question Concerning Technology, the philosopher Martin Heidegger characterized our modern way of knowing with the word enframing, that is, by capturing what we sense and experience and placing it within a set of bounds by which we can render it meaningful. That sense of meaning is important, because it defines the grammar by which we interpret the narrative of our lives.

Its important to note that that grammar is both positive and negative, in that it allows certain formulations while disallowing others. This is why it’s so hard to get people to see their own privilege, especially cisgendered white men, who are most privileged of all.

Not that most of them will admit it.

Why won’t they? After all, to those outside the frame of cisgendered white male privilege, it’s plain as the nose on your face. The whole system, our whole society is set up with us at the top of the pecking order. In earlier times such was taken as both just and true, a sign of some inherent superiority or God’s will.

As Roland Barthes said in his book Mythologies, myth is what turns history into nature.

These mythologies are more contentious nowadays, and rightly so. But they are insidious, both in the macro-level social environment and in its micro-level reprise in our minds. They are at odds with new, and to my mind better, notions of egalitarianism and a level playing field, a world where, to paraphrase Dr. King, a person is situated by the content of their character and not by qualities outside their ability to determine.

Which is why even straight white guys (like me) who are allies and progressives can have real difficulties recognizing and admitting their own privilege.

In the end, I think it has mostly to do with our self-assessment. Our place in the narratives we tell ourselves about our lives. To recognize our privilege requires us not only to endure but embrace the cognitive dissonance that comes from admitting truths that undermine our view of the world and our place in it, which by itself is painful enough. But difficult as that is, that’s not the bit that really undermines our sense of self. What undermines our sense of self is the asterisk it requires us to put next to all our accomplishments. That’s the bit that sticks in the craw, because part of those insidious received mythologies that make up our personal narrative grammars is that a man stands on his own two feet and wins his advantage from the world through his own blood, sweat, tears, and toil. Admitting to a privileged spot in the hierarchy and the advantages that go with it undermines that sense of accomplishment, that sense that a man has earned what he has, and therefore deserves it. Take that away, even put an asterisk next to it, and that man feels like less of a person.

It takes a lot of heart to admit something like that.

Look, the thing is, most privileged people don’t feel privileged. And compared to the rockstars and oligarchs at the top of our social pecking order, they aren’t. Even with the advantages of cisgendered white masculinity, being accomplished enough to self-assess positively on your own merits takes more effort and sacrifice than most people can muster. To admit that folks without those advantages have a harder time of things can require a fundamental re-evaluation of the mythologies by which we live our lives and structure our society. That the work is necessary makes it no less difficult.

An Open Letter to the Democratic Party

A week ago a handful of too-big-to-fail Wall Street banks threatened to withhold campaign donations from Senate Democrats in response to the efforts of Senators like Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown to rein them in. The move was petty, vindictive, even cowardly, leaked as it was on background, the threat as much symbolic as actual, though its implications rang clear enough: Stop messing with us, or we’ll cut you off.

I’m here to urge the DSCC, and the Democratic Party in general, to take them up on it.

I know, it’s probably foolish to expect a political party to turn money down, especially in the age of Citizens United. But it’s not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing, too. Continue reading “An Open Letter to the Democratic Party”

I Read Only Books by Women For a Year: Here’s What Happened

I read a lot of great books, is the short answer.

So, a few days ago writer K Tempest Bradford published this article, in which she challenged readers to stop reading white, straight, cisgendered male authors for one year. Sadly (and predictably), certain corners of the internet exploded in rage at the notion (she has assembled a lovely collection of rage-tweets here, if you enjoy that sort of thing). I won’t reprise their objections, which savvy interneteers will likely be able to intuit themselves, nor pass judgement on any validity those objections may or may not have. But it so happens that I recently spent the better part of a year doing something very similar to Ms Bradford’s challenge. From roughly November 2013 until late last year, I read only books by women(*), many of them women of color, others not cisgendered (two of the new favorite writers whose work I discovered are married).

I did so for my own reasons, both personal and (for lack of a better term) professional. On a personal level it was simply the realization that the vast majority of the books on my overstuffed shelves were by men. I fought it for a long time, that realization. I mean, these were great books, each easily defensible on the merits. I have, if I may say, damned fine taste in literature, and reading material in general. Ask any of my friends. I’ve been an obsessive reader since kindergarten, the kind of person who never goes anywhere without a book and hasn’t since he could carry one. But looked at en masse, the unconscious bias in my collection was (and is) painfully clear (in my defense, I actually am a cisgendered white male).

My bookshelves.
My bookshelves.

When I was younger, the notion of placing any kind of limitation on my reading material for a whole year would have seemed preposterous. Now comfortably ensconced in middle age, it didn’t seem like that big a deal. It wasn’t like I was going to run out of good books to read, and while it might mean holding off on some things in my to-be-read stack, it’s hardly without precedent for a book to be in that stack for years before I get around to reading it. Really all I had to do was rearrange the order, though of course I used it as an excuse to go book-shopping, which is one of my favorite things to do.

The timing that November seemed propitious. I’d started writing Continue reading “I Read Only Books by Women For a Year: Here’s What Happened”

How Good Does a Sandwich Have to Be? Wage Theft, Paseo, and the Industry

The best sandwich I ever had was from Paseo. In fact, every sandwich I ever had from Paseo was the best sandwich I ever had (the fact of it being the sandwich I was eating now giving it the winning edge over sandwiches I had already eaten and could therefore only remember with wistful fondness). I may or may not ever have a sandwich that good again, and I mourn for all the people in the world who will now never get to eat one, or eat one again. If you ever ate at either location, you know what I’m talking about. If you didn’t, well, you’ll just have to take my word for it (or, you know, read one of the many valedictions and cris de coeur posted in the last couple of days since the company shuttered both their Fremont and Ballard locations, apparently without even notifying their employees).

It was hard to find, even if you knew where it was, unless you went there at lunchtime, when you could spot it from blocks away thanks to the line out the door, rain or shine. It was not uncommon for the place to close before dinner because they had run out of food.

But man oh man, when your wait was done and the plate with your name on it came up, what heaven awaited: tender, slow-roasted pork on the most perfect sandwich bread (crusty enough to hold together, mostly, but doughy enough to sop up all that juicy flavor) topped with just enough cilantro, peppers, and onions to give it a slight vegetal crunch. It was enough to send your umami circuits into sustained platform orgasm, the flavor lingering on your palate like the taste of a lover’s sweat.

Now it’s gone, I regret not eating there more often in recent years (I worked as a bartender in Fremont for six years; since I’ve moved (and moved on), I don’t get down to Fremont much). Given those lines out the door (and the $1.5-2 million a year in sales), I figured it would be there forever, and was as surprised and dismayed as anyone by the news of its sudden closing.

I was not surprised (though I was dismayed) to read about the lawsuit by four former employees alleging discrimination and wage theft.

*Before continuing, a disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, and even if I was, the trial has yet to begin (it’s scheduled for next October). I did, for what it’s worth, spend twenty-six years working in bars and restaurants.* Continue reading “How Good Does a Sandwich Have to Be? Wage Theft, Paseo, and the Industry”