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On Protest

You can’t be held down by a big bunch of lip,

And nobody cares about your paranoid trip.

You know Death and the Devil sure got it easy today,

Souls come so cheap, some people give theirs away.

You’ve got to break out!  You’ve got to prove you’re alive.

What makes you think that the weak survive?

And if you don’t have the stomach for all this radical crap,

Then have the guts to stand for something our you’re gonna be trapped!

Trapped in a world that you never made, a world that you never made.

Utopia, “Trapped”

As Will Rogers said, “All I know is what I read in the papers.”  There are a couple of significant items in the news today.  One is the commencement of the court-martial of pvt. Bradley Manning, the guy who sent thousands of classified documents to Wikileaks.  People were shocked – shocked! – to discover that governments engage in obfuscation, subterfuge and outright dishonesty in their dealings with each other.  Oh gosh, really?  How naïve do you have to be to not already realize that how’s it’s always been.  It’s called realpolitick, and without it, society wouldn’t be able to function in a high tech, post-nuclear age.

Let’s be clear of what Manning really stands accused of.  Behind all the rhetoric of “aid and comfort to the enemy” and “endangering lives,” stands one clear, undisputable fact: Manning violated the oath he took when he entered the military, the one where he swears to respect the chain of command and not violate orders.  One such order was to keep this information classified.  He took a sacred oath, and then violated it.  Period.  He committed treason, and the full weight of the Uniform Code of Military Justice must fall on him; if not, what’s to prevent others from just doing as they see fit?  The military works because it functions as a single entity.  When you join, you cease to be an autonomous human being and become the property of the United States government.  If you can’t handle that, don’t join (I didn’t).  Once you do join, you damn well better follow orders.

None of this is preventing people from rallying to his “defense,” calling for his immediate release, calling him a hero for being brave enough to tell the “truth” (again, who didn’t already know?).  Government should be answerable to the people, they say.  There should be no secrets.  Not surprisingly, there’s also a tremendous effort to make sure that every element of the trial be made public, to support the people’s “right to know.” 

What right?  Do we truly have a right to know every detail?  To those who say yes, I ask this: what are you looking for?  What “secret” information are you concerned about?  What are they trying to hide that has you worried?  “I don’t know,” you say, “but that’s the point.  The fact that it’s secret proves there’s something terrible going on.”  How paranoid can you get?You don’t know what you are looking for, but not knowing gives you the right to look for it?  Fair enough.  With that in mind, I assume I have your permission to ransack your house looking for… well, I don’t know what, but I should still have a right to look.  “What?  Hell no!  Stay out of my house!”  You have a right to know, but it doesn’t apply to yourself. 

It’s amazing how people can firmly believe two contrary things.Let me see if I can sum it up for everyone: “I have two unalienable rights, the right to know everything there is to know about others, and the right to prevent them from knowing anything about me.”  Makes perfect sense.  Nothing hypocritical there.

But back to the Manning supporters.  They stand in front of Federal Buildings, waving their signs, shouting their slogans, and doing everything else that passes for “protest” in the United States.  Which is ironic, given the other major news event of today.

Exactly twenty-five years ago today, the Tiananmen Square protests took place.  I assume everyone is familiar.  Student activists stood against repressive government forces in China, while the tanks were brought in and soldiers opened fire.  You all know the picture: a lone man stands in front of a tank.  The symbol of protest, of standing up against repression.  To this day no one knows what happened to him, but chances are he was executed.  For standing up.

Consider also the events of the last few years in places like Libya and Egypt and the Middle East, the so-called Arab Spring.  People putting their lives on the line in uprisings named after the Prague Spring of the 1960s, where Soviet forces rolled tanks into the Czechoslovakian capitol where attempts were being made to open things up for democratic values.  Similar incidents have happened elsewhere, people risking their lives to stand up for what they believe is right.  Now let’s compare that to “protest” in America.

I’m talking about things like the Tea Party movement.  There are people screaming about “tyranny,” when what they really mean is that are expected to pay taxes for the things they take for granted.  Egged on by wealthy media figures, they argue against their own best interest by waving signs that compare Obama to Hitler and making dire predictions about “socialism” (whatever that means) and Obama turning the country into a dictatorship full of prison camps and death panels.

The government response?  Nothing.  No tanks have rolled into the town square.  No soldiers have opened fire.  Sure, there have been guns, but they are brought by the protestors, not the government.  Can you imagine what would have happened if a single Chinese dissident had been caught carrying a gun?  But, clueless of the rights they already enjoy, these people wave their guns to protest supposedly not being allowed to wave their guns.

And for this, they are not shot at, not arrested, not impeded.  Unlike for the Chinese, the Libyans, the Czechs, these people show up wearing their funny hats and waving signs with nonsensical rhetoric, and face no risk, no danger, no threat at all.  The worst thing that will happen is that they will go home, turn on the news, and not see themselves in front of the camera.

And they will indeed go home.  They will protest how bad things are, but then go home to continue to enjoy the highest standard of living the world has ever known.  They have food on the table, a safe place to live, and a government that is Constitutionally bound to protect those rights above all else.  And the fact that they still have them after two-hundred-plus years proves that the system works.

Lest I appear to singling out the Right in this, the Left is no better.  The Occupy movement is every bit as ridiculous.  The only difference is that they have little political influence, and thus their protests tend to turn into hacky-sack tournaments.  That the Tea Party does have influence owes less to their message than the fact that they are more easily co-opted by conservative politicians who are fighting for wealthy industrialists and corporate giants.  There’s money there, whereas there’s no money to be gained in supporting the Occupy movement.

To compare this idiotic posturing to real protest, where people with nothing to lose – because they have nothing – put their lives on the line, is offensive.  Show me a Tea Party or Occupy “protestor” willing to do that.  Show me just one who wouldn’t turn and run at the first sign of real oppression.  They would shut up in a hurry, because they know damn well that they actually have a whole lot to lose.

For such real protest in this country, we must go back to the 1960s, and the Civil Rights movement, where people did risk their lives.  Or further back, the labor riots of the early 20th century.  There, people fighting for a decent wage and non-lethal working conditions were oppressed by government forces who were so clearly in the pocket of the wealthy industrialists they didn’t even pretend they weren’t.  These are the same people, by the way, bankrolling the Tea Party and feeding average people’s unjustified fears, to keep them so distracted worrying about government secrets that they won’t notice that the corporations have been robbing them blind their entire lives.

So what am I really saying?  Don’t protest?  Shut up and enjoy what you have?  Well, when you have more than everyone else, it probably is a good idea to not make a fuss about it.  But what I’m really saying is to figure out what really matters, to find out how you can make a difference.  That comes from paying attention, listing to all sides, learning everything you can.  It means getting involved, not just waving signs.

And sometimes, occasionally, it means really putting your life on the line.  Anyone ready to do that?

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Facing the Consequences

Recently I wrote about Martin Luther King and his assertion that real progress is not brought about by waiting.  And I suggested that sometimes it is a matter of waiting that gets the result, that taking confrontational action may not actually be the most productive approach.  And I said that I had a personal perspective to share on that, which would be forthcoming.  It’s taken longer than I expected, because, as it turns out, I was waiting for the ending to play out.  I just didn’t realize it.

People who know me know that I am an appreciator and advocate of nudity: in art and literature, in social life, in our basic humanity.  This is reflected in my writing, where casual nudity is presented as a healthy norm, not as something dirty or salacious or offensive or anything like that.  The human form is a thing of beauty; we have the entire history of art to confirm this.  It should not be hidden in shame, but appreciated and celebrated.

Further, conventional western attitudes towards nudity are not only backwards, they are destructive.  It’s not nudity that is unhealthy, but rather a clothes-compulsive culture based on shame that is.  We teach our children “modesty,” but really we are teaching them that their bodies are dirty, ugly things to be kept hidden.  Except when you’re with someone you really love.  But not family members, of course.  Even though you love them, you must never see each other naked.  So say generations of psychologists and advice-column-writers.  No wonder the kids grow up with highly warped concepts of body image.

Even worse, we then fill media with images of near-nudity.  The distinction is important.  We crave titillation, want to see a woman in a state of near undress.  Better still, completely naked.  But wait, we need to blur out the “naughty bits.”  In other words, we want to know that she’s naked, but not to actually see her naked.  At the most extreme form of this insanity, consider the Howard Stern radio program, where eager listeners tune in to hear a woman take her clothes off.  Raise your hand if you understand that.

Perhaps part of the problem comes from the way our culture conflates nudity and sex.  Granted, nudity greatly enhances sex, but there is nothing innately sexual about nudity.  But you won’t convince people of that.  Thus we arrive at the very problematic issue of pornography: a catch-all term that people use to refer to things ranging from hard-core coitus to naked people playing volleyball on the beach.  It’s all classed as “porn.”  And thus, “filth.”  There it is.  The naked human body is “filth.”  No wonder we’re all ashamed to have one.

I want to do something about that.  In my book, I am presenting body-positive nudity.  I want my readers to encounter a scene where a teenage boy takes an evening swim with his younger sister, both of them naked, and have the reader think it’s so perfectly natural and pleasant that it never occurred to them to think it’s weird.  This was in fact the reaction of one of my beta readers, and I was very proud of that.  If I engender that reaction in teen readers, it’s worth everything.

Teens, my target audience, are particularly vulnerable to body-negative messages.  They are fascinated by their bodies, and those of their peers (and potential mates), but so terrified of nudity that they use the word to refer to someone who’s topless, or wearing underwear.  We say this is as it should be, that being exposed to nudity is damaging.  Tell that to the numerous young people who have been raised as nudists.  These are people who grew up at nudist camps and resorts (never nudist colonies – there’s no such thing).  Studies have shown that these children and teens are, nearly without exception, bright and healthy and well-adjusted.  No doubt there is a correlation with the fact that most nudist parents are well-off and health-conscious, but still, these children have very healthy body-image and are not, as people might fear, over-sexed, but rather have very realistic attitudes towards sexuality.  Compare this to all the teens, who, overwhelmed by hormones, turn to internet pornography as their only representation of the human body and sex.  And we wonder why they have such unrealistic expectations.  They can hardly have realistic expectations when reality is kept hidden from them.

So to that end, I went further.  People need an attitude adjustment, I decided.  In much the same way that King advocated tension, the way the early gay-rights activists shouted, “We’re here and we’re queer!” I thought I’d show people a way.  My forum: social media, the great communications platform of our time.  I made some “motivator” posters (you know, like the ones that have a picture of an eagle and the words “Take Flight” at the bottom).  These were pro-nudity, showing images of nudity and statements about it being positive.  Thus, there was nudity.  It was pointed out to me that there was a preponderance of young naked women.  Okay, guilty.  I confess a preference for the female form.  I’m wired that way.  But also the female nude is more socially acceptable than the nude male.  A naked woman can potentially be appreciated as beautiful, by both genders.  A nude male, on the other hand, is at best hilarious (consider Will Farrell).  Beyond that, it’s pretty much a guarantee of a label of obscenity.  Ugly, disgusting, sorry to ruin your breakfast.  So yes, it was easier to find suitable female images, and less likely they would cause offense.  So I thought.

I placed these posters periodically on Facebook.  You can predict where this is going.  What little response I got was positive, but mostly there was no response from people at all.  I upped the ante a bit.  During the Supreme Court arguments on gay marriage, I realized we were still limiting the definition of marriage, and asked why we aren’t also reexamining laws regarding polyamory and age-of-consent and so forth.  With images to match.  Someone objected, sending a message to me.  So I pulled everything and started over, staying away from overtly sexual material.  But still there were images of nudity on my page.  This included families in nudist settings.  This I considered appropriate, because it is young people who most need to hear the message.

I received a “warning” from Facebook saying there had been a complaint.  But they also said they had reviewed the material and found it did not violate their “community standards.”  Okay, vindication.

And then they shut down my account. 

Right in mid operation.  All of a sudden I’m logged out, and when I try to log back in, I’m told my account has been permanently suspended.  I’ve been banned from Facebook.  For posting images of nudity in what turned out to be an ill-conceived attempt to do…I’m not really sure what.

What was I thinking?  I’m not going to compare myself to King, who went to jail and gave his life fighting for an issue infinitely more significant than nudism.  It was the wrong forum, and I ignored the warnings.  But this also shows how things have changed.  King fought in a time where everyone was pretty much seeing the same things through media.  Compare to today, where there are so many sources of information that we can pick and choose and surround ourselves only with perspectives that support our own.

Someone objected to my content and got me banned.  Why didn’t they just un-friend me, or block me outright?  Why was it necessary to get Facebook to shut me down?  It’s because we are in a culture that says we have a right to never see things we don’t like.  Blame both sides of the political spectrum.  The right tries to force a repressive morality on everyone, while the left fights to rid discourse of any words or depictions that might hurt someone’s feelings.  So we are accustomed to the idea that we should never have to see anything objectionable.

Worse, we take the next step and decide that nobody else should see it either.  “I don’t like nudity, so you shouldn’t be able to see it either.”  Funny thing, there’s stuff on the internet, and even of Facebook itself, far more blatantly sexual than my content.  Go figure.

But that’s that.  I’ll live.  Beyond the initial irritation, I’m sure I’ll eventually come to appreciate all the spare time it frees up not reading up on what my friends are doing.  True, I just lost contact with a few people, and also lost the primary way I publicize this website.  But it’s not the end of the world.

But let me just end by saying this.  If you get kicked off of Facebook (which happens quite often), don’t be fooled by all the websites saying “Here’s all you have to do to get back on.”  I followed every channel, and, apart from a single message essentially saying they reviewed my case and determined I am “ineligible” to use Facebook and that the decision is final, I have received no response to my pathetic pleadings and promises to “be good.”  Once you’re out, you’re out.  It’s not like we pay to use the thing, so they have zero motivation to reinstate anyone.  Word to the wise.

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Waiting

Currently I’m leading my Advanced Composition students through an examination of the argumentative strategies of Martin Luther King.  In fact, I really should be reading their essays on the subject rather than writing this.  Most discussion of King tends toward the hagiographic, but close analysis finds he was in fact a master manipulator, who resorted to hyperbole, logical fallacy, and even played the race card, as when he threatens the readers of “Letter from Birmingham Jail” with a racial holocaust that he alone is valiantly holding back.  Great stuff.

But recent events have lead me to pay greater attention to one passage in the “Letter” that I had generally overlooked beyond the analogy to the controversial drug thalidomide.  King’s adversaries are telling him to wait, to trust the legal system rather than confrontation.  He replies that “wait” usually means “never.”  I’m sure we all have experience with that.  It’s like when you and your older brother pool your allowances to buy some choice candy, and he says because he’s older he should go first, at which point he eats all the good stuff, leaving you little.  When you object, he says that you can go first next time, but you know well that next time he’ll go first again.  Assuming he even agrees to a next time.

King says that tension must be maintained, that his non-violent protest movement is necessary to spur action.  And there’s validity to that.  But let’s look at it further.  If the choice is, as suggested, between waiting and confrontation, is confrontation really better?  In light of the current deliberations of the US Supreme Court, not necessarily.  At issue is the legality of gay marriage, a cornerstone to gay rights and general legitimizing of homosexuals in society.  It’s unclear how the Court will rule (although most people are confident of what eight of the nine justices will do).  It’s likely that action will not be taken.  And it’s illustrative that Chief Justice Roberts put it most significantly when he said, in effect, we shouldn’t move too fast.  In other words – say it with me – “Wait.”

This should, I suppose, be seen as a huge setback for gay rights.  It’s not, even by those who are pressing most strongly.  As many people on all sides of the debate have noted, the perspective in the US on gay rights is changing.  Indeed, in less than a decade, it’s been often pointed out, the subject of gay marriage has shifted from majority disapproval to majority approval.  More people accept and support gay marriage than oppose in this country.  Less than ten years ago, that was not the case.  The reason for this shift has been largely painted as a demographic one.  That is, younger people are more tolerant and accepting of things like homosexuality, and they are increasingly coming to outnumber the people who are not.  It is reasonable to assume this trend will continue, and in the forseeable future we as a society will reach a point where we look back and say, “What was the big deal?” much the way we look back at the controversy around inter-racial marriage today.  And how will we reach that point?  By waiting.

This is not to say that political action hasn’t played a part.  But it’s worth comparing the gay rights movement of today to that of the 70’s, the time of the Stonewall riots.  Back then, activists were highly confrontational, even inflammatory. Activists were spoiling for a fight. When I was in the teacher credentialing program, there was one student who was very outspoken about his orientation, to the point that it informed everything he said and did.  Notably, he spoke with enthusiasm about beginning the job search, and looking forward to being turned down for the job so he could sue for discrimination.  As though it couldn’t possibly be simply because he wasn’t the most qualified applicant.  Really?  That’s why you’re becoming a teacher?  Nice.  I’m ashamed to say that I was hoping he wouldn’t get the job, not because of his sexual orientation, but rather because of his hostile, politically-driven attitude.  I know plenty of teachers who turn their classrooms into a soapbox for their political causes, and I find that offensive.  And that’s college, where the students are there by choice.  This guy wanted to teach high school!  But I digress.

People during that time were very provocatively “out,” and high profile gays who weren’t often found themselves forcibly “outed” (a strange development for a movement supposedly about individual freedoms.  It seemed people were fighting for the right to be flamboyantly gay, but not the right to remain closeted, even if that’s what you wanted.

At the time homosexuality was being presented by activists in ways that were intended to be offensive.  It was like shoving every negative stereotype in the enemy’s face.  “You don’t like to see men kiss?  Well watch this!”  Followed by a big sloppy one.

What was the result of all this?  Not much progress, but a lot of gay-bashing.  By being exactly what homophobes feared, activists did nothing to get such people to change their views.  The advent of AIDS only served to inflame people’s fears, making homosexuality the cause of all the world’s evil.  Granted, the arrival of one of the most significant epidemics of recent history had nothing to do with homosexuality per se and it would be deeply offensive to even imply any blame.  But it was the worst possible timing.

But, perhaps because AIDS led to a change in the “gay lifestyle” (if there is such a thing), gays began to embrace, and strive for, monogamy to a greater degree.  The majority of gays already preferred committed relationships, in a rate commensurate with straight people, and we should note AIDS changed sexual attitudes across society, not just among homosexuals.  But with the change of focus, the gay rights movement became less about sexuality and more about relationships.  And as people came to understand that gays didn’t want to attack traditional relationship institutions, but to become part of them, it became harder for people to reject that. 

Essentially, it means that when people objected to homosexuals because “they’re all promiscuous,” responding in the form of over-the-top promiscuity didn’t help.  On the other hand by saying, “We’re ‘promiscuous’ only because you will not legitimize the commitment we crave and that you fault us for not having.  Let us make the same commitment you make, and you will find us to be at least as honorable as heterosexual couples, at least the ones on reality TV.”  And, really, it’s not hard to beat that record.  Can anyone name even one reality show that celebrates homosexual debauchery the way heterosexual licentiousness is on shows like “JerseyShore”?  There aren’t any.

The point, ultimately, is that King was right that tension is needed.  But he was wrong that “wait” means never.  Waiting may be intolerable, but, as we are likely seeing in the matter of gay rights, sometimes it’s what makes progress possible.

As a straight person, what does this have to do with me?  Beyond a general belief in live and let live, more than you might think.  I’m already clear on calling for greater sexual freedom for all.  But there’s a lesson for me within my own words here, a lesson about what does – and does not – win people to your perspective, and I will address that in my next article.

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