Sunday, December 21, 2014

Urban Mythology and "Wilderness" Truth

Friends, many of the voices you hear from the proverbial wilderness are those who have managed to ensnare the group imagination. They are those that the group mind likes to think threaten some cherished 'way of life', and thus should be put on display in the virtual village square and pelted with virtual rotten veggies.

It's less often that we hear voices of reason, like Wendell Berry or Terry Tempest Williams, or like me. I will place myself in this lofty company for this entry only, but I like to think I have learned from and share some of their wisdom and perspective. I like to think I confront the mockery aimed at wingnuts with a saner and healthier perspective, one I have gained over the last year.

Right now, I have one such perspective to share: you don't have to accept the lies and justifications about why you need to live in a major urban area.

Let me first share my take on what constitutes a town and a city, and what constitutes smallness and largeness, just so we are using a common vocabulary.

A city is distinguished from a town in that it is a cultural destination, and steers the cultural and political development of a larger region. It often provides a range of services that can only exist because a regional population's needs make providing them tenable, like specialized medical facilities. A town serves the same role on a much more localized scale, and tends to be where only day-to-day critical needs can be obtained.

Smallness and largeness in the context of a city are harder to define, but I tend to think of what is gained and lost as one crosses thresholds between the two as defining. The importance of relationships, curiosity, and working with what you have are defining positives I associate with smallness. The prevalence of alienation, suspicion, waste, and stress are negatives I associate with largeness.

I'm not going to be fair to the large city environment. I'm not going to buy into the delusions that the large city avails of cultural opportunities, high-paying specialty employment, mobility, power, influence, connectedness and so on. Why? Because there are too many losers in order for the few winners to exist. There are resource 'pies', and all but the richest and most influential capitalists and owners have to live with one of two realities: either everyone gets so small a sliver of a given pie that it's not enough for anyone, or pieces of some pies are only available at certain thresholds of economic power; some of the pies necessary for long-term health and well-being fall into this latter category.

There's too much misery, poverty, homelessness, and untreated mental illness abetted by the urban context. There are too many service workers spending most of their lives trapped in inhumanely early and/or interminable mass transit commutes from 30 miles out, or giving up intolerable portions of income to keep an aging vehicle limping along, and even then working multiple jobs that rob them of seeing their children and focusing on what all the struggle is supposedly providing them: enjoying life. The city is a slaughterhouse, a mountain of bodies everyone is eternally scrambling up, and really only those dropped from a golden helicopter on a golden parachute will ever get to the top of it anyway. The large city is defined by the 'pursuit' portion of the constitutional 'pursuit of happiness' for most, a pursuit that rarely achieves that happiness.

Think for a moment on this: why is escape to a place that is not-city one of the primary themes of travel agencies and car advertising? Why is this brand of 'freedom' so compelling? Do most people living in large cities hunger for something the city can't provide? You know the answer.

Let me tell you about the reality of living in Missoula, Montana, a small city of around 70,000 inhabitants - the second largest in Montana - and a central hub of culture and speciality services for perhaps three times that number that live within 100 miles of it. If you can't get what you need or want in Missoula, your next larger metropolises are Spokane (160 miles to the west) and Boise (250 miles to the southwest).

I will offer this caveat first: I am very, very fortunate. I came into this world with all the privileges (see John Scalzi's "Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is") afforded a white male in America, save for material prosperity. I grew up in poverty, an all-to-common feature of being born to a Mormon family in Utah; adherents of that faith tend to have larger families than they can economically support. Religious doctrine trumps economic sense in this case. The upside of poverty was that I learned that I had to work for whatever I wanted, and learned to spend that money wisely.

I was able to go to college, to gain the perspective and identity offered by travel and study abroad, and I have both the personal passion and intellectual penchant to be well-suited to a profession in information technology. I have the rare gift of being equally capable with both machines and people, and have long considered my special ability to be making the people work better with the machines. I've played my hand well, and with a few obscure and unorthodox moves, was able to transmute all that I've experienced and learned (both because of and in spite of a suburban and urban existence for 45 of my years) into a tech job that pays the top end of the scale for such jobs available in Missoula.

Most people in Missoula don't have much money. It's not a place to get rich, unless you're running one of the nearby resorts that subsist off selling rich idiots a pampered and deceitful version of the 'freedom' illustrated in the aforementioned car advertisements. Said resorts do everything they can to exploit the lack of legal regulation for which Montana is known, to avoid supporting the coffers of local and county infrastructure. The best-paying jobs are associated with several regional medical centers and the University of Montana. There are also good jobs in skilled trades, especially if you are entrepreneurial, which many Montanans are. Most families live on about $35,000 a year, which is roughly the equivalent of $50,000 a year in Seattle. If this sounds hard, it is. Many people own their own homes, but those homes are extremely modest, sometimes double-wide mobile homes with a couple of tool sheds in a small yard for storage.

Surprisingly, this doesn't suck. As independent, 'lawless', and fiscally conservative as Montana may be, there's an encompassing spirit of common cause that's almost socialist in flavor. Self-reliance is a given and an entitled mentality is rare, but people share things, as there's an understanding that not everyone can or needs to own every little thing they might occasionally need. There are affordable housing developments built on a unique adaptation of the land trust. There's a food co-op that keeps prices down through every member staffing the store 40 hours per year, along with the familiar voting rights on what happens. There are multiple public and private enterprises that support self-reliance through providing know-how, tools, and building materials for re-use. There's a robust local economy that people understand will only thrive if they invest their money in it, and not the exploitative Walmarts and other national chain stores.

Within the sphere of a 30-minute drive away from Missoula, one can buy 20 acres of prime land for $40,000, and then set up as connected or disconnected a life as they wish on it. You can spend tons of money and bring in all the utilities to establish a sprawling ranch house, or you can go 100% off-grid, tapping a stream or drilling a well for water, bringing in propane for large appliances on an annual basis, setting up solar panels for incidental electrical needs, going satellite for Internet access, and building tiny houses for shelter. For one-quarter of what the most abysmal house in the Seattle suburbs costs, you can live in the middle of what the travel agents and car advertisers hold out as the carrot on the stick most urbanites will never taste.

Missoula is uncommonly bike-friendly, even by the standards of what passes for 'bike-friendly' in cities like Portland or San Francisco. Many trace this positivity back to an experiment the Army did with a bicycle 'cavalry' in the 1890s, based out of Fort Missoula. Missoula has as developed and amazing a system of urban bike and pedestrian trails as most cities 10 times its size. What's my daily commute like? I ride two and a half miles each way, and half of that distance is covered on dedicated paved trails. If I don't mind adding a mile each way, I can do three-quarters of my commute on the trails.  Drivers are wary, but rarely confrontational and often unnecessarily courteous, since many of them are on their own bikes when not behind the wheel of a car. I spend 30 minutes of my day commuting. When I lived in Seattle, I never spent less than three times that long getting to and from work.

More than anything else, Missoula's population is genuinely friendly and engaged. Making eye contact with someone sets the stage for something more, sometimes just a passing 'hello' on the bike trail, and just as often a concept alien to large cities, that of 'visiting'. The willingness to engage in 'visiting' can be taken as a measure of social health, since it is the anathema of hurrying. People in large cities are eternally running late, more because there's not enough time to do what needs doing after navigating all the urban hurdles; though it's rarely due to any flaw in their character, their lateness will frequently be attributed to some personal failing. One of the abiding principles of the large city is that it can't be the city's fault if you aren't able to survive it.

I wrote most of what you've read about two and a half months ago. While my intention wasn't necessarily to write an advertising piece on behalf of Missoula specifically, and Montana generally, that seems to be where it went. More to the theme of my post, the example of Missoula stands as just one possibility in a much broader landscape. There is life - often of distinctly greater quality and fulfillment - in small cities / large towns. You can slow down, and you can have the connectedness with family and community the urban mythology is always peddling. You just have to be willing to break the urban habit.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Revealed Privilege and the Grieving Process

I'm going to take up privilege again. Assume that any generic reference to 'privilege' means 'white male privilege', but consider it to also include the next ring or two out from the bullseye, since those who bear more privilege than less are still subject to what I'm going to write.

The response of many white males to discussions (or 'accusations', as such barings of reality expressed by non-white people are frequently spun) of privilege makes a lot more sense if one looks at it in the context of grieving. There are a lot of bearers of privilege (and, yes, I'm including people who have *most* of the major privilege categories, especially those men who are - like me - white, male, American, Protestant-literate, but who lack wealth, for example) who have already entered into the grieving process. This may account for the prevalence of denial, anger, and guilt in discussions of privilege where these reactions seem emotional, unbidden, inappropriate, or exaggerated.

Let's face it, white males: we've been lied to. The established narrative of our lives has been this: you can have it all, and no one will ever demand that you justify having whatever you can obtain. It's not that you have it all. It's that you have the unquestioned right to have it all. Dominion? Go for it. Conquest? Knock yourself out. Greed? Break a leg. You are the cat's meow and the bee's knees, and only a [fill in some unsavory and uncouth noun for those who would dare question your birthright] would be so crass as to call that into question.

It is a primary characteristic of being non-privileged that you are required to explain, to justify, to establish merit, to apologize, to feel guilty for having what the privileged assume as their birthright. If the privileged are victimized, or have any elements of their birthright taken from them, it's an injustice of the highest order. They deserve compensation, restitution - to be made whole. When the unprivileged are violated, they are made to explain what they did to invite the violation, since the underlying assumption is that THEY DESERVE NOTHING. They must have impudently and brazenly attempted to misappropriate that which was not theirs to begin with. They must be deceivers, and possibly even thieves!

There are 7 stages of grief: shock, denial, anger, guilt, sorrow and depression, acceptance, and engaging life. Loss leads to grief. You lose love. You lose control. You lose people. You lose, in essence, what you could not imagine losing. The loss for bearers of privilege? Ignorance of their privilege. The invisibility that comes with being the (socially constructed) default condition of humanity. The armor off which calls for awareness and responsibility commensurate with heretofore unacknowledged, great power bounce harmlessly. Not only are bearers of privilege suddenly made aware that so much of what they've taken for granted may be negotiable, and is certainly unearned in a society touting merit as the primary determinant of eligibility for everything, but they are asked to take on a new, unpaid task of witnessing at what cost their privilege (and ignorant complicity) comes to the non-privileged.

Let's talk about rape as a particularly provocative and destructive manifestation of privilege. The narrative tells me that I can have whatever I want, and never have to face justice (after all, if I'm the cultural default, how can I be wrong?) or have to apologize for having. I deserve sexual gratification. It's my right. If I'm heterosexual, it's the job of women to give me what's mine. Using words like 'deserve' doesn't really do it justice. If I could cognitively get to 'deserve', I might enter into an awareness of worth and effort, might imagine and empathize, and ultimately realize there might be an 'other' condition, where what's been my birthright is negotiable. Those with privilege are shielded from getting there, from having to consider it. It just *is*, and thus this reflective component never troubles.

So, if my rights are being withdrawn for inexplicable reasons, I just need to try harder. This is the 3-year-old's version of 'try harder', since this element of the birthright is not only fundamentally exempt from consideration, but also primal. What does the 3-year-old do to 'try harder'? Scream, hit, bite, throw themselves on the floor and pound their appendages about in an attempt to compel through discomfort. "Just give in, Mom or Dad, and I will give you the peace you so dearly desire." What does that look like, driven by the hindbrain, say 15 to 20 years later, with adult complexity, and sex as the central desire? It looks like taking, by force, what's yours. It means being scary and violent, to get the provider of what's yours to relent and give it.

Privilege, in my mind, is never having to give respect. It is a mindless refusal to consider that anyone else might be equal to you, or even above you, in terms of power. You are at the center of everything. The privileged are stunted in this regard, stuck in some pre-cognitive toddler phase. Privilege affords them all the things constituting their birthright in the same sense we all conceive of air, water, and food. So, when you tell them that these things are not like air, water, and food, it doesn't calculate, and then begins the grieving.

I will say, editorially, that what I just wrote about rape scares the shit out of me - I just wrote what could be taken as a justification for rape, even though I would never have set out to do so. But this is the crux of it: it is love and empathy, and the compassion and generosity that comes of those, that create civilized behavior. Any man has the raw capacity to subdue and violate. We can all kill and we can all rape. Civility arises out of connectedness and feeling the warmth of belonging to a greater group. We want to be accepted, and our deep mammalian roots drive us to seek membership in the greater community over alienation from it. If there is cause to hope for the current examination of privilege, and healing our culture, it is that drive to be included and embraced, and then to turn those primal urges to providing and protecting that greater community.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

White-'splained!: cultural appropriation and white privilege

(Before I get into it, let me clear up a common misconception inherent to 'white privilege' - it's not about being 'white' in any ethnic or skin-color sense. It is about a state of social, political, and cultural power which places a preferred group of traits above others. No one cares if you're ethnically a Euro-mutt. Many people care if you have power and ignorantly act like you don't.)

I've become increasingly interested in the condemnation erupting in the American mainstream (primarily funneled through articles in Salon) aimed at various white folks (mis-)appropriating the cultural traits and memes of backgrounds not their own for personal benefit.

Such was my interest that I started feeling a deeper treatment – at least deeper than a Facebook post could deliver – started to feel like the right way to go. So, I penned some thoughts over the last few days:
The hot topic of cultural appropriation has been very interesting to me of late. Twenty years after I studied the confluence of race, class, and gender in the context of Women's
Studies in college (in which I minored, thank you...), these themes are getting a broad and prickly discussion in the mainstream. 
White people have a hard time understanding what constitutes cultural appropriation, let alone why it's problematic. Cultural appropriation is a function of white privilege, so
understanding it requires an examination of that concept, first. White privilege is like a shopping basket. There are a lot of privilege-items (male, wealthy, Christian, of northern European descent, heterosexual, sensorily and bodily-abled, even owning an automobile) that can go into that basket, but most white people focus only on which privilege-items aren't in their basket when considering and responding to charges of cultural appropriation. They don't consider the basket itself to be a thing that confers privilege and gives them a leg-up by default over those who don't have the basket. 
I can say I grew up in poverty, and that my life as a teenager and young adult was one marked by alienation from the Mormon (we'll detour for now around the topic of whether that faith is 'Christian' or not) mainstream around me. I can say I'm the first generation of my family to have a college education. I can say the only real advantage I've had is my intellect. On a certain level, that's all bullshit. I could *decide* to go to college. I could *decide* to take an unorthodox career path. I can and do *decide* to walk down a city street alone at night. I got and get to choose. I have the basket, and it's filled with more privilege-items than it's not. 
Yes, some non-white people have some privilege-items but, without the basket to carry them, they are often an unwieldy and awkward collection. The basket is intrinsic to a
privilege-item's meaning, and so those without a basket may have to put them in the backpack or bag they brought, leading to questions and even accusations of theft. If you don't have the basket, how can you legitimately have the items identified with it? 
Cultural appropriation happens when you borrow from a cultural background that's not your lived experience, and is easily identified by whether that which is appropriated confers the same social or economic esteem on the originator as it does on the appropriator. This is the common thread connecting Iggy Azalea and her "Blaccent" with gay white men and their stereotyped repurposing of female "blackness". 
Some may confuse cultural appropriation with code-switching. If you are code-switching as the participant with greater privilege, you understand you're risking some of that privilege by doing so, but are willing to take that risk to connect more deeply with the experience of another. Code-switching is adaptation in the service of relationship (or simple survival for the person of lesser privilege) across boundaries. If you are appropriating, you are dishonoring and stealing from a heritage of suffering and sacrifice for your own financial and social profit. Cultural appropriation is taking from others with only yourself in mind, an alchemist's trick that transmutes another's survival skill into a new kind of privilege-item.
I don't pretend to have all the answers, but I do know (and believe) that it is the job of in-group members to explain why other members of their group are screwing up. Men need to teach other men why abusing women is wrong. White people need to teach other white people why ignorant and power-blind appropriation of what others created for their own survival is at best dishonest and, at worst, fueling continued oppression of the group from which they just thieved the material of their success.