(in) Divisible

I’ve seen various social media attempts to commemorate the anniversary of 9/11 today, including #onenationundergod, at which I nodded wryly. That statement is, at best, two different lies.

Sidestepping the religious quagmire for today (you’re welcome), I’ll note that over the past year the part of the Pledge of Allegiance which has struck me as the most farcical is “indivisible.” We as a country seem incredibly ready to divide; true unity among American citizens is both rare and fleeting, predicated on unthinkable tragedy which — after a collective gasp — devolves almost immediately into by now tiresomely predictable squabbling, hand-wringing, and finger-pointing.

At the heart of the debate is a dichotomy, and whether it is false or not does not seem to matter, because we have stretched two ideals away from each other and claimed they are poles toward which (and consequently away from which) one simply must gravitate.

Here is the tension: Do you value FREEDOM or do you value SAFETY?

So that my cards are on the table, you should know that I’ve long fancied and espoused the view best captured in the words (whatever their original intent) of Benjamin Franklin, “Those who would give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” I like it not for its supposed “patriotic spirit” or even because of who said it (because let us be honest, Franklin was hardly role model material) but because it parsimoniously captures both the premium I feel ought to be placed on freedom and the subsequent aggravation brought about when Feeling A Little Safer is the justification for curtailing that freedom.

Last summer I had the opportunity to teach a course on Media and Terrorism, and while I endeavored as much as possible to avoid focusing on 9/11 or then-ubiquitous al-Qaeda (I say then because ISIS has since usurped the group in the twisted popularity contest we call mainstream news), I nevertheless found that most academic thinking — thinking in general, really — about terrorism is now firmly embedded in the lens of WTC-as-exemplar. I spent the better part of that summer trying to provide some new heuristics to accompany those smoking towers in my students’ minds, but the fact remains that when you say “terrorism” to the average American, September 11th, 2001 is what jumps to mind.

I wanted to reclaim the humanity of terrorists, to underscore what merit there is to the cliché one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. I found that distance renders this a far easier task, and empathizing with Tamil Tigers or Basque separatists was easier perhaps because those groups weren’t blowing up our buildings or setting fire to our streets. It’s easier to play devil’s advocate for the person releasing poison gas in someone else’s subway. My point wasn’t to legitimize the violence — far from it — but to get my students to understand that the violence isn’t mindless, that it is perpetrated for the most part by rational human beings, and that often it is the result of losing faith in any legitimate course of action for accomplishing what one perceives to be needed (not wanted, needed).

Eventually things had to make their way back around to the home soil, and it was admittedly uncomfortable. You get people understanding that — wonder of wonders — terrorists are people too, and suddenly the question of what motivated 9/11 becomes a necessary but uncomfortable one. Much of the progress gets flushed at the inevitable recoil, and the way to plunge it back up is to return a kind of sickening balance: okay, those are terrorists you don’t want to think critically about, so what about the freedom fighters you defend? At their most patriotic, I made my students compare their definitions of terrorism — asymmetrical warfare, nonstate entity against established powers, ideological justification, spreading of fear amongst a population — to the actions of the colonists whose revolution founded the country. I put them in the shoes of colonial Loyalists, and the stars and stripes suddenly became a few shades darker.

My point here isn’t that this country that so many of us adore was founded by terrorists (though if you haven’t considered that statement, it is at least a worthwhile thought exercise). And I am definitely not trying to mitigate the atrocity that was September 11th.

But considering the lengths to which our founders were willing to go in order to secure autonomy and to get foreign powers out of their land, our response to modern acts of insurgency seems painfully un-self-aware. Judging by my students’ attitudes, we would rather try to snuff out those with grievances than even consider they might have grievances (to say nothing of addressing those). And I think a failure to consider the motivations underlying an act of terrorism renders most of how people respond to terrorism moot.

In the aftermath of 9/11, America doubled down on its resolve to Not Let The Terrorists Win, but how can you calculate wins or losses if you don’t even know the parameters of the game? If the goal of terroristic acts is to instill fear in a population and create change in the state’s operation, then the only way to win is to remain resiliently unafraid, and to refuse to change.

But we did change. We were afraid. Most of us still are.

Take the U.S.A. P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act: “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism” (yeah, that’s what it stands for). When you’re done laughing, let’s sober up and consider how much more unified or strengthened we feel with the N.S.A.’s hand in our cellphone records and the T.S.A.’s hand down our pants. Then there’s the racial profiling, the knee-jerk equating of Islam with Islamist with Extremism, the see something, say something mentality that has sprung up in public places alongside militarized police.

We are a radically different nation than we were before the nation was rocked by an act of international terrorism. For a few days, maybe even weeks, we really did seem “indivisible,” knit together by unspeakable tragedy perpetrated by seemingly (but, remember, not actually) inscrutable evil. But then we cracked. Our strategy for not letting terrorists win was to try to stop them from playing — and in doing so, we have happily surrendered privacy and liberty for a peace of mind that may not even really be justified.

It is echoed in micro each time violence shakes the nation — every shot fired in a school, theater, or other public venue reverberates with cries for less freedom and more safety.

I am not saying we should not think critically about these things. There are legitimate reasons and ways for making our lives safer and better. That tragedy catalyzes these discussions does not mean they are not discussions worth having. Yet I find the zeal on both sides disconcerting; understandable, yes, but disconcerting nonetheless for all the moderation it tends so often to lack. When liberty and safety are treated as mutually exclusive, the valuing of one too frequently leads to the overhasty dismissal of the other.

We are not, despite how loudly or badly we may sing otherwise, the land of the free and the home of the brave. A brave people would not have curtailed its own freedoms out of fear.

Nor would a brave people shy away from a discussion of what constitutes essential liberty when daily living seems to be unnecessarily unsafe. Fear is what makes someone say to hell with liberty, I don’t want to die. Fear is also what makes someone say to hell with you dying, I want my liberty (sorry, Patrick Henry). Fear is refusing to engage with a person of differing values; it is the kindling upon which ideological strawmen burn.

America continues to face threats (and perceive threats) from without and within. This is not newly true since 9/11, but perhaps our awareness of it — bolstered by a 24/7 episodic news cycle — is newer. Yet even in the wake of increasing understanding of how pervasive danger can be, we have a choice as a people in how we respond. Do we stand resilient, declaring ourselves united and strong, brave and free? Or do we continue to panic, uncritically sacrificing freedom out of fear?

And as we seek a path forward, whether proactive or reactive, how do we handle our differences? How do we address foreign ideas? Foreign people? As a presidential election begins to brew, will America seek actual unity? Or will it continue to pay bankrupt lip-service to nonpartisanship that goes no further than a trending hashtag?

I look at a map sprayed red and blue, and I see fifty states, but I don’t see one nation. I sure don’t see indivisible. I don’t see us prioritizing liberty. And justice? If we tore off her blindfold, we’d see tears in her eyes.

I think back fourteen years to what a nation truly standing together looked like, and I am chilled to the bone at the coming sound of partisan punditry parading in a star-spangled media circus.

Can America be indivisible? Do we even want to try?


Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand.
~ Matthew 12:25

Bioshock Infinite: A Filthy Reflection

It is both impossible and deceptive to attempt a discussion of Bioshock Infinite without raising the matter of racism and xenophobia. The game goes beyond mere representational homage and into explicit commentary: shoving your face in this seedy side of America’s past and making you grapple personally with how pervasive the mindset was and still can be in a society which accepts, overtly or implicitly, the notion that some human beings are naturally superior to others. It comes at a time when America finds itself once more in the midst of an identity crisis, wrestling with whether some of its citizens are treated as second-rate, inferior, or despicable simply because of the way they were born. The honest player looks in this mirror and sees filth: not because the glass is dirty, but because it clearly reflects dirt.

I find it’s not so much the flagrant “preserve racial purity” banners which got to me as I explored Columbia, but rather the minor encounters with NPC’s, be it the girls at the beach talking about the scandalous moment when “an oriental” had the audacity to ask for the time to a mother scolding her son for kissing an Irish girl (spawn of one of those potato eaters) to the black man who apologizes for his cigarette as if enjoying a luxury on his own time and dime were a sin for which one needs pardon. Stand near the bathrooms for long enough and Elizabeth asks why separate facilities are needed for whites and colored people. Booker says that’s just how it is, and Elizabeth naively notes that it seems unnecessarily complicated. Oh, Liz, if only “complicated” could cover it.

This isn’t a game about white guilt. By the time the credits roll, Infinite makes it quite clear that power abuse and treatment of people based on differences is a hardly a one-way street. But to the extent that the majority of people who will be picking up a game with two attractive white people with guns on the cover are probably going to be white people who have enjoyed massive, unearned, invisible privilege their whole lives, Infinite definitely hones in on that angle of its message.

Making a point about America’s sordid past (and, I’d argue, insidious present) is, sadly, not even reliant on hyperbole. While the stylized nature of the Hall of Heroes is starkly offensive, it affords a very real look at how history is written by victors. Blacks, Irish, Asians, Natives, and anyone who treats them as normal, equal human beings, all are portrayed in Infinite according to a model which seems frighteningly accurate for the time, and I find it grimly shocking how some people consider the game itself to be racist for having the guts to just show that racism and xenophobia.

A racist game would have you throwing stones at an interracial couple, nodding in agreement with gossiping white girls on the beach, indignant at the sight of a mulatto on break, scoffing with the socialites at the idea of fair pay and equal treatment. Infinite has you furious, but in a different way: ready to go on a killing spree in the town square not against the Vox Populi with their modified rocket launchers but against the bonnet and briefcase-bearing bourgeoisie whose tongues and tarnished minds are weapons far more dangerous.

I’ve been told that last year’s Django Unchained is required viewing for anyone who wants to have a modern conversation on the state of racism in culture and media. I’ll add Bioshock Infinite to that required list. The fact that a game like this can be made — and made so well — is a sign of the times for sure. Years ago, Ken Levine brushed off the naysayers who called what he makes unworthy of the title “art,” and proceeded to design a masterpiece. It’s one of gameplay, of narrative, and of mental provocation, but perhaps most importantly it’s a masterpiece of social commentary, too.

Abortion: Defusing the Bomb

Warning: if you are incapable of maintaining composure and levelheadedness when exposed to viewpoints that differ radically from your own, do not read this blog. I am 100% serious. Go look at pictures of kittens. In fact, even if you plan to read this, may as well open a new tab with kitten pictures just in case. Or, better yet, momongas. Or red panda cubs. Now then…

I missed the deadline to register to vote. I’m not particularly upset about that. As a New Yorker, I already know which candidate my state’s electoral votes are going towards (and as for local elections, I wasn’t well informed enough to responsibly vote anyway). Whoever wins this presidential election will inevitably bring good and bad, and I guess it’s our inability to agree on who will bring what that leads to such divisiveness. For what it’s worth, I think socialism is the greatest danger to economic prosperity and true social justice, and as Obama’s policies tend toward that extreme I fear for the economic impact he will have. I also fear for the rights of religious institutions to freely practice what they feel convicted to practice. Already church-funded institutions are being asked to provide medical care they have moral problems with. How long before church-based charitable organizations have their tax-free status completely revoked on the basis of their unwillingness to compromise on certain doctrinal issues?

Romney is hardly a knight in shining armor either. While his business practices will likely lead to better economic recovery there is sure to be a cost, and I’m honestly not sure what that cost will be. Many have already noted that they’re not voting on the basis of things like guns, homosexuality, or the environment, because jobs and the economy are more important. And while that’s good, if Romney wins many of these people will likely find themselves in an America in which they have a job but have taken a hit on the other fronts about which they care.

There is one issue, however, which I really would like to address, because I have seen far too many rallying cries from my more liberal friends and it has gotten to the point where I honestly cannot remain silent. I am sick of being painted black, and sicker still of the many with whom I agree who have done nothing to address this problem. I speak, as it were, about abortion.

A great many people seem to be under the impression that this is a women’s rights issue. They couch their platform in language that conveys that abortion is about a woman deciding what happens within her own body. On the basis that some women do not have a choice about becoming pregnant — that some are forced to have sex, which is the natural process leading to pregnancy — they argue that for a woman to truly have “choice,” she must be able to terminate a pregnancy regardless of whether the conception was consensually brought to term.

This of course brings up a great many other issues which are also trumpeted as women’s rights: contraceptives and morning after pills are considered critical and necessary healthcare for which advocates of this position want the government to pay (using, of course, the tax dollars of plenty of people whose moral and religious convictions expressly forbid such things). Nevermind the fact that sexual intercourse is (with rare exception) a completely optional part of life, and that any healthcare which addresses its consequences must also be considered optional. While I won’t stoop to the depth of one infamous radio host, I can sympathize with his point: the only women who can honestly say they need these services are those who refuse to stop having sex until they are ready to have a pregnancy.

I’ll allow for the possibility of oversimplification. Contraceptives aren’t my point here, and to be honest I’ve never really given much thought to the ethics of using them. I don’t subscribe to a religious doctrine that has a hard and fast law (of which I’m aware, at any rate) regarding their use, and even if I did I’m neither a woman nor a husband and so am currently indifferent.

What is my point, however, is the sort of thinking that has led many Americans to argue for optional consequence-dampeners as fundamental entitlements to be paid for out of my pockets. It’s the sort of thinking that says that anyone who disagrees with such practices “hates women,” “will take away women’s rights,” “will set us back a hundred years” and all the other ways in which you can say that a man who has a problem with funding contraception is a troglodyte.

Contraception is as much an economic issue as it is a moral one, but it’s been painted as a civil liberties case and thus opponents of its flag bearers are set as enemies to freedom. And so with abortion. Time and again I’m told that my stance against the practice means I am trying to limit the fundamental rights of a free and equal woman. Our dialogue brings that nomenclature to bear: I call myself “pro-life,” but you call me “anti-choice.” I say “the choice was to have sex,” you say “not all women have that choice.” I say “not the point,” you say “Agreed. The point is it’s my body, and the government needs to get their hands off of it.” I say the government needs to intercede and you say screw off.

The problem here is that abortion is not a civil liberties issue, and it’s not a women’s rights issue. Perhaps, more accurately, the problem is that people like me don’t view it as a civil liberties issue, and our entire position is framed from a completely different conceptual universe from those who support it. The same evil you see in those ostensibly trying to keep women in an inferior position to men is an evil I see in you, for something arguably far more pernicious than chauvinism: murder.

I define life as beginning at conception.

That is as simple as I can make it, but people seem to miss the point. I earnestly, and deeply, and beyond any shadow of doubt believe that. And with that belief there are certain intractable conclusions by which I stand and stake my position. If life begins at conception, then termination of that life must be considered the same regardless of whether it is done at 10 years, 10 months, or 10 days from its start. We have legal and ethical frameworks for defining what the termination of a human life is. We call it murder.

I see abortion as the termination of human life.
I see abortion, therefore, as murder.
I see those who have and provide abortions as murderers, or accomplices to murder.
I see those who support abortion the same way I would see a person who candidly and with unwavering conviction told me that they thought shooting or stabbing other people was a perfectly acceptable practice if that person inconvenienced or endangered you, or infringed on your wants and needs in any way.

The question of whether the murderer is a man or a woman never enters the equation. I do not believe anyone has a “right to murder.” To the extent that abortion is a civil liberties issue, it is a matter of the right to life for the unborn — not a right to choice for the woman who, I daresay in most cases, at least had a choice when it came to the intercourse. And while I will never, ever justify rape or make excuses for a rapist, two wrongs have never been considered the path to righteousness. Committing murder because you’re a victim of rape does not paint you in a sympathetic light, and I’m not sure why anyone would think it would.

I do not hate women. In fact, I generally prefer them to men. I get along with them better, I feel more comfortable with them. I would rather talk with a woman, learn from a woman, be cared for by a woman, work with a woman, play games with a woman. And whenever I see a woman treated as inferior — be it receiving unequal pay, slander, coarse joking, or any of the myriad ways in which men mistreat the fairer sex — it bothers me greatly.

But when it comes to abortion, this is not that. Don’t kid yourself into thinking my position is as simple as feeble-minded bigotry, and don’t shame yourself by disregarding me as another woman-hating white man with antediluvian ethics. I stand against something that has always been wrong and defy those who would redefine the limitations on the inalienable right of all humans to life. And in our discourse, I think it’s critical to treat one another with the respect to which we claim to believe all people are entitled.

Stop calling me anti-choice; give me the benefit of the doubt and don’t assume I believe what I do because I don’t like women having freedom. Likewise, I’ll assume you don’t support murder, and I won’t do you the indignity of calling you anti-life. Our disagreement lies in our definition of where human life begins, and that is the only battlefield worth fighting on because all the other fights are distractions from that one, simple point. Argue elsewhere on either side and you slip into the stereotypes of the other side’s framing. A person who believes life begins at conception had better not be supporting abortion in any circumstances whatsoever. A person who believes otherwise has no basis for limiting who has access to the abortions he or she believes acceptable. I see no margin for exception that cannot rightly be defined as hypocrisy.

This political season has brought out the worst in so many of us, and frankly I’m glad I can’t vote, because I’ve been relieved of the burden of responsibility temporarily. It’s replaced with a guilt that I did not do all I could to ensure that the way I view things is the way our nation is run; but then this issue, like so many others, isn’t won with a ballot. Electing a “pro-life” candidate won’t convince people that life begins at conception anymore than electing a “pro-choice” candidate will convince people it doesn’t.

I’ve used strong language here, partly because I’m naturally aggressive and partly because I wanted to leave no room for the typical equivocations and qualifications I tend to use to hash up so much of the conviction from which I write. I don’t want to start fights and I don’t want to offend and make people hate one another. If I have offended you because I’ve called you a murderer or murder sympathizer, perhaps it will help to consider that you’ve been calling me a woman-hating bigot for years and that hasn’t stopped me from getting along with you. All I hope to have accomplished is to diffuse things a little bit with clarification, and give you — whichever side of this divide you’re on — a reason to take pause next time you’re about to share or post some partisan blog or slogan and consider the terms in which we phrase this delicate, heated discussion. We both believe that people are equal and important; in our endeavors to defend those truths, let us not make the mistake of dehumanizing those who oppose us. It may be inconvenient, it may be hard, but in the end we’ll all be better off for showing our enemies just a little love.

All that aside, abortion is not likely to be a major issue in this election, and what I’m about to say is not meant to be associated with what I just said:

If you, unlike me, are registered, I encourage you to go and vote tomorrow for a candidate you can honestly say you believe in, and I truly, truly mean that. I do not care who you vote for. I think there are extremely valid reasons for supporting either of the main candidates. I also think there are reasons to vote for neither of them. So if you can’t honestly say you believe in any candidate, I encourage you not to vote. Because there’s no sense betraying your own conscience to support a platform officially with which you emotionally or psychologically disagree, particularly if they win and you find yourself in years to come regretting having done so. So many people will tell you that there’s no such thing as a vote that “doesn’t count.” If you believe that, then act on it: value your suffrage, and use it with conviction and intent. The right to vote entails the right to withhold a vote.

May your decision tomorrow — whether Obama, Romney, Other, or none — be calculated and honest, and may our nation’s future be one of hope, however the ballots fall.