The Book of Good Living: Just Say No

BGL copyLooking back over my life, one of the skills that would have saved me a lot of anguish, annoyance and wasted time is the skill of saying No.

If I’d been taught to say No, just no — without anger, without guilt, without any sort of emotional spin — oh boy my life would have been different. I would have spent a great deal less time getting roped into doing things I didn’t really want to do. My life would have been more MINE — which I strongly suspect would have better allowed me to say Yes in the ways I wanted to say Yes.

Some people seem to have no trouble with it, but a lot of us DO.

The thing is, this is one of the things your parents won’t usually teach you, because you’d certainly use it against them. NO! It’s something you won’t learn in school, because you’d use it against them. NO! And it’s something you don’t really learn out in society, because everybody out there wants you to say YES, to whatever it is they want out of you. Buy this, do this, donate to this, join this, believe this, say this, do what *I* want you to do.

It’s one of the orphan lessons of life, the lessons that have very few real advocates or teachers. You only learn it via the constant inconvenience — or actual pain — you get from the repercussions of saying yes, or from not saying no quickly or definitely enough.

Here’s the thing:  Those other people don’t owe you a Yes, right? Which means you don’t owe THEM a Yes. You were born to be you, with your own interests and desires, and you can only be your best you by BEING you, doing the things you want to do, care to do. No is BUILT INTO the fact of you being an individual.

No can be friendly but definite. No can be gentle and quiet, but it can also be loud and forceful. No doesn’t have to be explained or justified or defended. It can just be No.

But it probably does have to be definite. Not: Well, maybe. Um, okay. We’ll see. Oh, well, sure, I guess. And definitely not “If I say no, they won’t like me anymore.” If they won’t like you for saying no, they ALREADY don’t like you — they like what you can do for them.

If they won’t take no for an answer, and if you LET them, they own you. Maybe a little bit. Maybe a lot. And you simply cannot allow that if you want to continue to be your own self.

It took me until I was almost 60 to really get good at it, and in just these past few years it’s saved me an enormous amount of time and discomfort. Which makes me think it’s never too late to practice and perfect this Very Important life skill:

No. No, sorry. Aw, hell no. No, I can’t do that. Not at this time. No, thanks. Nope. Nuh-uh. Are you crazy? Of course not! FUCK no! No way. Don’t think so. Don’t want one, don’t need one. No, I plan to laze around and do nothing all day. Maybe next time, buh-bye. None for me, thanks. No, that’s not my thing. Not interested; take my name off your list. I feel for you, but no. No, it ain’t gonna be me. I can’t do it; I wish you the best of luck, though. How about … never? No, I’m otherwise engaged. No, I’m not ready. I think I’ll have to say No at this time. No, I’ve got other stuff on my mind. No, I don’t want to do that. No I don’t want to try that. All booked up for now, dude. No, it’s not a good time for me. No, I’m not going. No, I’m not gonna be a part of that. No, I can’t agree. Ha! Good idea, but No.

No. Just no.


Beta Culture: A Third Approach to Gender Equality

Unequal copyI’ve been thinking about feminism for a couple of years, and I’ve actually felt a certain amount of dread when I attempted to relate it to my conceptual work on Beta Culture. It’s completely obvious that Beta can’t work without a healthy respect for the needs of women, something better than what our western society has now, but I couldn’t see how ‘feminism’ – not the thing I want feminism to be, but the thing that it presently is – could be integrated into it without overwhelming the welcoming, inclusive vibe I wanted it to have.

I may have figured something out:

Many times over the years, I’ve wondered why we humans find dichotomies so easy. Everything is

THIS thing, or the OTHER

My best guess is that it’s biological. We have two-lobed brains and bilateral symmetry, with a left side and a right. Presented with two-value choices down to our very bones, it actually takes a bit of work NOT to see things as just that simple.

And yet, very few things are as simple as Yes or No, Column A or Column B. In fact, any time you do see something as a simple dichotomy – Republican or Democrat – it’s a good bet you’re doing a disservice not only to the subject but to your own rational mind. Heck, even Alive or Dead isn’t as simple as it once was. There’s an infinity of real stuff between every one-or-the-other choice, and this is never more true than when you’re dealing with human social matters.

Black OR white: As I wrote in a recent post, if you view people through the filter of “race,” you will see “black people” and “white people,” despite the fact that none of us are actually black or white. Just the “black” people alone come in shades more varied than the rainbow. Besides which, there are many more “races” than just the two.

Liberal OR conservative: I consider myself a fairly liberal person. Yet if there was a list of 20 items that make up a staunch liberal in today’s sociopolitical atmosphere, beliefs and attitudes and goals, I might fit only 80 or 90 percent of them. There are things I disagree with fellow liberals about. Given that same list for identifying conservatives, I would fit only a small percentage of them … but I think there would be some.

The fact is, if you’re the type of person who actually thinks about things, you will – in fact, you MUST – often come up at least slightly at odds even with the people you most identify with. I loved my Cowboy Dad out of all reason, but more than once we got into discussions I cut short with “We better not talk about this.” Neither he nor I wanted to like each other less, and we could both see an argument coming that neither would back away from. It was better simply to avoid the dicey subject.

Just so, I have largely avoided the subject of feminism, here and elsewhere. Talk about a black and white issue! The way it works at the current state of the subject, you’re either 1) a feminist, or 2) you hate women. No third choice.

If you’re a feminist reading this, I know you’ll instantly want to argue that, but it’s about the truest thing about feminism I know. Every disagreement you might have with feminism in a public space will very soon spark the question – more likely the accusation – of why you hate women.

(There’s a much rarer response, only slightly more generous, that goes something like “Well, I don’t think you’re a bad person. You probably fail to understand this because you can’t see past your male privilege” – which is sort of the kindly feminist version of that Christian chestnut, “Jesus loves you anyway; I’ll pray for you.”)

Miss O. Jenny

Read the following word carefully, because you will find it in every discussion of feminism: Misogyny.

The word does not mean temporary irritation, willingness to argue, or disagreement about facts or strategy. It means “contempt,” “ingrained prejudice against” – in simplest terms, unconsidered, automatic hate.

Misogyny is to feminism as bacon and eggs is to mornings, or aspirin is to headaches. Misogyny is the opposable thumb of feminism’s grip, the stars and planets of the feminist galaxy.  If feminism was a paint store, misogyny would be Eggshell White.  If feminism was a camping trip, misogyny would be a Swiss Army Knife.

You hate women. He hates women. They hate women. Why do you hate women? She’s a self-loathing hater of women. Stop hating women. I just don’t know why you have to be such a hater of women. Misogyny! Misogynist! Misogyny! Misogynist!

And yet, in the sociocultural universe I live and move in, the true misogynist – I’m sure there are some out there, just as I’m sure there are 300-pound pumpkins – seems to be fairly rare.

I don’t actually know anybody who hates women. I know a shitload of people who have been accused of it, online at least. I know a certain number of people who disagree with feminists about certain facts or nuances. But in my social universe, I don’t know one person that actually HATES women. Even among people who sometimes strongly disagree with feminists, I don’t see them.

The conservative sociocultural universe certainly seems to contain them. All the effort spent on limiting women’s reproductive rights has to spring from the purest desire to control and limit women. I can’t see that as anything less than an arrogant disdain that sees women as things – property, or domestic slaves. That certainly qualifies as contempt, the 180-proof version of it. Hate.

But over here where I live and think, nobody wants to be like that.

And yet about 90 percent of the heat and light of feminism, the accusations of hatred of women, seems to occur well away from the conservative universe. In fact, my direct experience is that the accusation is USUALLY leveled at fellow reasoners, liberals and freethinkers.

If you disagree with anything a feminist says – say that Shirtstorm is a worthwhile discussion – you hate women. It’s one or the other. No third choice. No spectrum of nuance. No other views allowed.

1) You agree. OR …

2) You hate women.


The drawing of that line is quick and final. You could strike up a conversation with a feminist about the proper treatment of dogs in the winter, or your feelings about organized religion, or your thoughts regarding events in Ferguson, Missouri, and find yourself warm kindred spirits, both well on the same side of the liberal-conservative divide. But disagree about ONE feminist issue, however minor – “I’m not sure this NASA guy’s shirt is worth getting all hot and bothered about. It just seems silly.” – and in short order you’re branded a raging woman-hater, shoved over the line into the company of career rapists.

And that’s the thing I can’t accept about feminism. Aside from the validity of any of the internal arguments, this one first fact spoils it for me, ensures that I can’t be a part of it.

So I’m not a feminist. Not going to BE a feminist. But I’m also not a hater of women.

Imagine that there’s a third choice, though, a conceptual space in which you can  1) be a non-feminist, and yet 2) care about women.

Is such a thing even possible? If you’re reading here, I have to believe you are rational enough, intelligent enough, to know a third option is possible, even likely. You know the world is not black and white, divisible into two perfectly separate camps or concepts. So what is that third choice? Here’s my answer:

Equality and Ethicism

I actually believe the fate of civilization rests in some large part on educating and providing reproductive choice – billions of dollars in condoms, contraceptives and sex education – to women worldwide. Further, I believe there is an easily explainable reason why a woman hitting a man is categorically different from that same act in reverse.

Even if I cared nothing about women, the equality and opportunity of more than half of humanity strikes me – at this incredibly dangerous moment for civilization – as important to the survival of all of us. I’m an avid supporter of women’s rights, safety and reproductive choice.

But in my mind, there are three SEPARATE movements now occupying the social justice landscape that relates to women.

First and loudest, there is feminism. Which is quite a bit about women’s rights, but is undeniably based on a foundation of with-us-or-against-us, and contains a very big, very angry scoop of “every problem is the fault of men.” It can get spitting-nasty in an instant if you question or mistake any part of it. Wear the wrong shirt, even, and you’re international toast.

Second, there is the women’s rights movement, which focuses on the rights and needs of women, but which seems to contain dramatically less of the “you dare not make a mistake” element. It’s a sort of women-and-men together, everybody-can-pitch-in, Big Picture movement aimed at bettering the lot of women. I support it for what I consider obvious reasons.

(Whatever it was in the past, today’s feminism is NOT the women’s rights movement. It is feminism first, last and always, often rising to a level of pure rage that has nothing welcoming in it to anyone, man or woman, who attempts to disagree, question or doubt. You can get on feminism’s Shit List by using one wrong word.)

Third is something else, an alternative to feminism I refer to as “gender ethicism.”

Gender Ethicism aims at equality, but it aims at equality predicated on the needs – both common and unique – of both women and men. It’s based on the idea that well-meaning men and women must work together amicably on common issues if any useful and rational – and lasting – end result is to be reached. It is everything about goals, nothing at all about blame.

How does Gender Ethicism work?

As I would like to avoid hot-button issues for the moment, I’ll focus down on a minor, possibly even comical illustration of the idea: Public restrooms.

Gender Ethicism would make public-space restrooms fair for women.

If you’ve ever gone to a theatre or stadium and had to go to the restroom, here’s what you may have seen: There will be a men’s room, with men cycling in and out fairly rapidly, but nearby there will be a women’s restroom with a long line.

Why? Because the architects who designed the thing thought that giving each gender a 400-square-foot restroom was “equal.” But given our anatomical differences, which MUST be taken into account, those restrooms are actually a cheat for women. Inside the men’s and women’s room both, you will find five stalls and several sinks for handwashing. Equal, right? But in the men’s room, you will also find five compact urinals tucked up against the wall in front of the stalls. So if you’re talking about the number of people who can cycle through the restroom in any given period, the men’s room has twice the through-put of the women’s. Which means, out in the real world, that women’s restrooms should be about twice the square-footage of men’s, and contain twice the number of stalls.

This is an example of something I call “gender asymmetry,” and it seems to me that any approach to equality between the sexes must be based on it.

The thing I mentioned earlier, the easily explainable reason why a woman hitting a man is categorically different from that same act in reverse, is another good example of gender asymmetry.

A teenager might look at the question of equality vis-à-vis one person striking another and conclude that a woman giving a man a good slap would be no different than the same situation in reverse. Hey, if a girl hits a guy and he hits her back, it’s same-same, right? But due to our evolutionarily supplied sexual dimorphism – gender asymmetry – the average man’s MUCH greater strength means he could seriously injure (or even kill) her with a slap, whereas she, exerting herself with the same amount of anger and avidity, might only leave him with a stinging cheek.

(And no, I don’t think either sex should be hitting the other. But I recognize that it will continue to happen. A social rule “It’s never okay to hit your partner, but it’s REALLY wrong for a guy to hit a girl” is a real-world-fair rule.)

The idea of gender asymmetry is that you simply cannot make rules pertaining to equality without taking into account the actual facts of men’s and women’s biological strengths and weaknesses.

I actually don’t know why women 6 or more months pregnant shouldn’t be issued a handicapped placard so they can park close to stores and entrances. No, they’re not crippled. But they’re not in marathon-running physical condition either, are they? I would not favor the same placards for any class of men not actually handicapped according to current law, but pregnant women, in my view, deserve a little extra social consideration. If you’re carrying around an extra 35 pounds and need to get to the bathroom NOW, I want you to be able to park close. In this case, the asymmetry works in favor of women.

I am way in favor of battered women’s shelters, in every city in the country, which obviously would not admit men. On the male side, though, there are huge numbers of homeless ex-military – men, who go into the military and into combat in numbers greater than women – suffering from PTSD. I would like to see a proportionate number of shelters – in every city in the country – that focus exclusively on the psychological and emotional needs of these MEN.

Though men and women both get breast cancer, only men get prostate cancer. A gender-ethical approach would devote attention and money to breast cancer, but it would also parity-invest in research and treatment of this deadly male-only disease.

The idea of Gender Ethicism is this: In those real ways in which we are NOT biologically equal, you take those facts into account in designing fair gender-specific solutions, accepting that there will be situations where one sex could or should get certain playing-field-leveling social considerations the other sex would not.

And also that we can actually talk about this stuff, working out the details in order to be fair and generous to both halves of the human condition, without shouting and blaming.



A little final note here: In everything I write about Beta Culture, my goal is to examine each idea, to explore it by teaming up, hopefully, with a group of playful optimists and conceptual gamesters, as I/we work out some of the details of the thing.

I’m aware that feminism is a furiously hot, hair-trigger issue right now, so I will allow only reasonable, good-willed replies to this post, or to comments. I want people to be able to talk, to explore the idea, to agree or disagree, without having to tiptoe around each other. Male or female, if you want to post one of those hit-and-run zingers, I’ll delete it and sleep well that night. And yes, fuck me, but you have an entire Internet out there to do your thing. In this place right here and now, I get to decide what’s acceptable and what’s not. Pitch in or go elsewhere.

But hey, nothin’ but love for yah! 😀

(PS: I’ve also been told that Thomas Jefferson never said that thing. But it must be true — I found it on the Internets.)




conspiracyLet me toss some sentences at you.


But what if the real sentences, the complete sentences, were these?

I’M GOING TO HIT YOU … up for a favor.
BOB HATES THE HOMELESS … policy in this town.
JOHN KILLED THOUSANDS … of hours playing videos games.
KARL ROVE SUCKS DICK … Cheney into his arguments every time.

I sort of cheated you with those half-sentences, didn’t I? If each of those pieces was a factual news item, and I told you half the story like this, you’d trust me less, wouldn’t you? Because you’d know, on some level, that I had done something to you deliberately. If you sat and thought about it, you’d realize I’d done THREE things to you.

1) I told you half the story.

2) In telling you half the story, I got you to accept something that was not simply  incomplete, but perfectly false.

3) In telling you half the story and getting you to believe something false, I manipulated your emotions, making you angry, disturbed, or otherwise outraged, with messages of violence, hate, murder and sexual innuendo (*).

Stated as they are, each half-sentence leads you deliberately in a certain direction, not only misleading you but manipulating you.

Those sentences could extend into paragraphs, whole lengthy articles or televised “news” pieces, each one of which could lead you in a certain direction, each of which could cause you to reach conclusions which were not only divorced from the true story, but that made you angry, furious, dismayed.

But why would anybody do that to you?

Okay, you know that Fox News is a type of entertainment, right? It broadcasts entertaining fictions for well over half of its content. Only instead of making viewers happy and content – or, you know, INFORMING them about things they need to know –  their type of entertainment makes people angry, scared and unhappy.

But hey, no biggie, right? Their audience is those right-leaning, brainless Teabaggers. Sure, we have to deal with the way they vote and stuff, but at least it’s not US out there sucking up those manipulative lies.

But let’s talk about Fox News for a second. Why do you suppose they exist? They exist to do what they do, don’t they? They get large number of people to believe certain things – lies – and THEY MAKE THEM ANGRY ABOUT IT.

And they keep them angry and scared, keep them in a state of mind in which it is very difficult to think objectively about things. Believing what they’re being fed, trusting that this reputable person on TV or radio has done the research, they do almost no fact-checking to verify or disprove what they’re being told.

Those people are controlled. They’re puppets. They are sheep who run to and fro at the will of the bosses who own and control Fox News and other such outlets – people who know exactly what they’re doing, and are masters at it.

Do you believe that? Do you really believe it? Then here’s what you believe: There is a CONSPIRACY to brainwash conservative voters.

Wait … really? You really believe in a conspiracy? You? Haw, haw, haw! You’re a CONSPIRACY THEORIST!! Haw, haw, haw!

Except in this case it’s no theory, is it? The lies and half-truths and false stories happen on Fox News, all the damned time. If you watch it over a period of time, it will be impossible to conclude anything but that it’s deliberate, and part of a larger campaign. Powerful right-wingers, billionaires and GOP officials, hugely and shamelessly MANIPULATE their own conservative people with half-truths, falsehoods and deliberate, breathtaking lies. Through a concerted, planned effort, an advertising campaign that runs 24/7 on conservative media, and so closely coordinated that scores of different voices use the same words and slogans in each and every day.

Are there a handful of fat cigar-smoking billionaires who meet in an exclusive resort and decide what lies are going to be told on-air to their viewers and followers? You want to really hope not, don’t you? But however it happens, the effect is the same as if they did. They conspire to keep their conservative audience afraid, angry, confused and CONTROLLED.

Where else have we seen something like that?

I’ll suggest the Catholic Church is exactly that sort of creature. If the RCC didn’t originate it, they certainly perfected the successful model that allows large numbers of people to be frightened into obedience, angered into wars, and outraged into … anything. Betraying neighbors into torture and witch trials. Looking away when priests molest children. Opposing their own best interests, and the best interests of their families and loved ones. And the funny thing is, in the case of the Roman Catholic Church, there ARE a handful of what amounts to fat, cigar-smoking string-pullers who meet in an exclusive resort – the Vatican – and decide things for their billions of followers.

You think what happened with all those molested children, where the church silenced or shamed or paid people off, in recent history but also for generations prior, is some sort of clumsy accident? Did it just sort of happen that almost nobody went to jail? That all those molester-priests retired safe and happy on comfortable pensions?

I can’t even begin to believe that the whole response to the situation wasn’t some sort of coordinated, deliberate campaign, directed from the top office at the Vatican itself. It just worked too well, while so many of us looked on in disbelief.

But all this is not really my main point. It’s a preface to this other thing:

I’ve been worried for some time at how my own people are falling for a sort of mob hysteria, something that makes THEM afraid, angry, confused and controlled. What if we on the Left are just as susceptible to half-truths, lies and manipulative emotional stories?

The Fort Lauderdale story is just one instance, but it seems there are one or more stories every day that sends me – and a lot of others like me over here on the left – into an instant, all-consuming emotional state that is interested in reacting rather than fact-checking and thinking.

Wait, WE are subject to manipulation? No way! We’re the People of Reason! We THINK about stuff, we LOOK INTO stuff! And besides, who would manipulate us? That’s crazy talk!

There’s plenty to be angry and upset about, I’d be the first to tell you. But at the same time, I worry that we’re focusing on silly side-stories, things deliberately created for us, a sort of red-meat Outrage Bait cast in our direction every day to drum up audience.

The truth is, we’re humans, no less susceptible to this sort of stuff than the winger-sheep on the right.

That’s something worth thinking about, all by itself.

And even though there’s no obvious collection of billionaires meeting and deciding which way to herd us today, just the deliberate effort to increase views or hits or clicks can create substantial effects all on its own. (Among bloggers, by the way, if you can keep readers excited / enraged /engaged, it translates into money. I know a few who specialize in stoking constant outrage; whether that’s their main mission or a side-goal to their main mission, I couldn’t say.)

I do think there are forces interested in maintaining the status quo, in keeping reasoning people from thinking very deeply about so much that’s happening, but I can’t say it’s something central.

My own approach, in dealing with outrage stories, is to look past the anger I feel, to see if each story or situation I come across feels too pat, too perfectly outrageous, to be real, or complete. To research it if I can, and to reach my own conclusions.

This can be surprisingly hard to do, especially when some of the people you ordinarily trust are caught up in their own emotional storm, and don’t want you to question or discuss anything beyond their own quick conclusions. I’ve gotten flamed more than once – by my own people – while trying to expand a conversation into areas I felt were ignored.

I suspect this very idea right here, that liberals and science-minded people are susceptible to manipulation, that it happens all the time and that most of us probably seldom even notice, and that this is a bad thing to allow to continue, is going to spark ridicule rather than thought.

Because hey. It’s US.



(*) Okay, I’ll admit “Karl Rove Sucks Dick” isn’t really ‘innuendo’ – it’s more a flat-out accusation. I still wonder … Remember when that mysterious guy Jeff Gannon got admitted to White House press briefings, and he tossed up those softball questions for Bush and the press secretary? And it turned out he was a buff-bodied gay male escort? SOMEONE got that guy a press pass, and entry past the Secret Service. I’m not the only one who suspected it was Karl Rove, and done for Rove’s own personal reasons as much as public ones. “Secret Service Records appear to show that he checked in, but never checked out on many occasions, and visited the White House on several days during which no press conference or other press events were held.” ~ Wikipedia  The story vanished, and the supposed left-wing media let it, when it should have been major front page national news. But hey, there’s no such thing as a conspiracy.



fl-homeless-feeding-citations-foloI’ve been reading this business about ‘90-year-old arrested in Fort Lauderdale for feeding the homeless!’ and I keep thinking something isn’t quite right with the story.

I commented on a couple of Facebook threads, suggesting that what was happening was probably not what was being reported. MAYBE nobody was getting arrested for “feeding the homeless” and maybe the law, and the arrest, was about something else.

After looking into it, it appears that this might be the case. I’ll tell you some of what I’m discovering and what’s going through my mind right now.  I know you’ve seen the stories:

90-Year-Old ‘Chef’ Continues Feeding Homeless Against Fort Lauderdale Law

First off, look at this map. Looks like it’s got chicken pox, doesn’t it? Each one of those red dots is a church.

FL Map 2

Now look at the red outline, showing the city limits of little Fort Lauderdale. Near as I can gather, there are 208 churches within this boundary line. Hell, just in the Baptist denomination alone, there are 34 listed churches.

Ft. Lauderdale has a population of 165, 521 and a surface area of 38.57 square miles. That means there’s an entire church for every 168 people in the city, an average of 5.4 churches every square mile. Which means that wherever you are in Fort Lauderdale, you’re less than a mile from SEVERAL churches.

Here’s the mayor of Ft. Lauderdale: “While the ordinance regulates outdoor food distribution, it permits indoor food distribution to take place at houses of worship throughout the City.  By allowing houses of worship to conduct this activity, the City is actually increasing the number of locations where the homeless can properly receive this service.”

Which means: On the grounds of every one of those 208 churches, it is legal to feed and shelter the homeless, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day.

But what a bunch of assholes, right? They won’t allow anyone to feed the homeless!! Why does Fort Lauderdale HATE THE HOMELESS!!?

Worse than that, the people feeding the homeless have to provide restroom facilities and places to wash hands. To make matters worse still, the temperature of the food has to be regulated for safety.

Restrooms? Safe food? A place to wash hands? Dammit, why shouldn’t a homeless person be able to pick up a sandwich after a morning of sorting through trash cans for recyclable bottles, and enjoy a bite of room-temperature egg salad that’s been sitting in the sun for a few hours?

My god, it’s like Auschwitz.

I’m not saying Fort Lauderdale’s mayor and council that passed the ordinance are harmless fluffy little bunnies. The city was previously criticized for giving one-way bus tickets to homeless people (but then again, that was only half the story; not only was it voluntary and there were a limited number of tickets, plus a waiting list with over a hundred names on it of people who eagerly wanted them, those who qualified had to have family at the other end willing to pick them up at the bus station).


What the city intends, from what I gather, is that the homeless can be fed, will be fed, in places other than public parks and beaches.

Why? Why shouldn’t the poor, disadvantaged homeless people eat anywhere they want?? Well, that’s the thing – they can. They can eat anywhere they want. Just like Christian children can pray in school anytime they want. What the city hopes to do is discourage these feeding missions from attracting homeless people to parks and beaches, to instead provide for their needs at churches and private sites – which are already providing, or are able to provide, food and shelter.

Again, why? Why marginalize these poor, disadvantaged people? It might be because “the homeless” are not, each and every one, harmless fluffy little bunnies either.

You may have a totally different take on this than me, but if you focus your compassion only on the homeless (and yes, I know there’s a MUCH larger story here about the economy, the destruction of the middle class, homeless veterans with PTSD, etc.), you may be failing to notice Fort Lauderdale’s other residents.

I can’t help but have a certain amount of compassion for some of those other people at city parks and beaches, and the picture that springs to mind is young mothers with children, or tourists out for a carefree day. Does their right to enjoy an untroubled day at the park or beach, unharrassed, unfrightened, unworried for the safety of their kids, come second?

I’m a fairly healthy, fairly muscular man (and not a rich one, either, I might point out) and I’ve been to cities where the panhandlers were three or four to a block – enough that I would actively avoid those particular streets in future. I confess, as a hypersensitive introvert, some days my compassion on the street is sky-high, and some days it just isn’t.

Think for a second about the catcalling video you may have seen recently, where an attractive young woman walks city streets and gets harassed almost continuously by lurkers along the way. Now picture that same woman with a 3- and 5-year old in a stroller, headed for the playground in a nearby park for a carefree hour out of the house. Should she have to worry about her safety, or that of her kids? Should she and her children face panhandlers and harassers and lurkers in the park?

Everybody’s got their rights, even the homeless. But given a choice of ATTRACTING the extremely varied group we refer to as “homeless” to the park alongside that mother, and encouraging them to gather instead at a nearby church – I say again, NEARBY church – I don’t have great objections to that second option. Even the 90-year-old man retreated from the park in question to his church, the 5th Avenue Temple of God, about 3.5 blocks away, after being notified.

It may be that the city council of Fort Lauderdale are raging assholes who’d like nothing better than to eliminate the poor, wretched homeless from a visible presence on their precious goddam streets. Hell, it may be that my innocent young mother is instead a rich white bitch who shoves homeless veterans off the sidewalk and into traffic as a regular thing.

But it also may be that this ordinance is a reasonable guideline intended to make the city livable for everybody.

Given the available facts – somewhere distant from the shouting and wailing about the rights and dignity of the homeless – to me it looks like the city is trying to balance the concerns of several different parties. I don’t see how giving food to homeless people at churches – rather than in parks and on beaches – is any great abrogation of anyone’s rights or self-respect.

(I also sort of wonder why the rest of those 208 churches aren’t pitching in to solve the problem, but maybe that’s just me.)

But there’s more to this, too, another thought I’ve been having recently, and I’ll bring that out in Part 2.

The Book of Good Living: Innocent Until Proven Guilty

innocentA common thread that has run through many of the stories we’ve seen in the last few years, about the public outcry over genetically modified crops, and over the PCBs which GE dumped in the Hudson River here in Upstate New York, is that there is insufficient proof of the dangers. The implication is that anyone harboring baseless suspicions about these things, which are after all the result of scientific progress, is either a Luddite or a superstitious primitive.

Nobody ever says it out loud, but the basic idea behind such an argument is one dear to our American hearts: “innocent until proven guilty.” Unless we can prove there’s some real hazard, the argument seems to be, we should just shut up and let good honest corporations go about their business.

“Innocent until proven guilty” has to be one of the most sensible concepts in any modern system of justice. Pitting an accused David (a lone defendant) against the Goliath of government (police, prosecutors and prisons with apparently unlimited manpower, unlimited budgets and unlimited punitive will) is woefully one-sided unless David has this quick and heavy stone in his sling — the firmly-established concept that unless his guilt can be positively proven to a panel of peers, he is automatically innocent.

Charges alone, suspicions alone, are not enough. Nor is the magnitude of the supposed crime, nor the race or appearance of the accused, nor the relative anger of the people injured. What matters is: Did the guy do it? At least in determining guilt, everything else is superfluous.

Theoretically, the accused need do nothing at all to defend himself. In practice, of course, any defendant would be a fool not to mount a vigorous defense — but at least the playing field is leveled by the institutionalized presumption of innocence. Innocent until proven guilty is such a good idea that it’s rather amazing to think of past times — and even present-day societies elsewhere in the world — that don’t automatically observe it. We have our own inglorious examples of non-observance, of course — witchcraft trials in Salem, Massachusetts, for example, in the year 1692, and the Deep South’s centuries-deep treatment of blacks suspected of various supposed transgressions against white people.

Beyond David and Goliath examples, the argument has deeper logical roots: it’s virtually impossible to prove a negative statement, easier to disprove a positive one.

No, I’m NOT a witch.

Well, can you prove you’re not a witch?

I’m not a witch because I go to church, I wear a cross around my neck, I do community service, I take care of my ailing neighbor, I have 35 friends who will bear witness to my good character, and I spend all day every day in the town square selling apples – during which time I have never been heard to speak a curse or seen to wave my arms in a manner suggesting the casting of a spell.

Big deal. Of course you do all those things, but maybe you’re also a witch in your spare time. Maybe you know a way to cast spells without moving your lips or arms, and those 35 people are all under your spell. Since you’ve failed to prove you’re NOT a witch, I guess we’ll just have to hang you.

Instead of forcing the accused to prove the negative, which she can’t ever do, we expect the prosecutor to make a definitive positive statement, and then back it up, to prove his case:

She IS a witch. She’s been seen to wave her arms in a manner suggesting the casting of spells, and she speaks a language nobody understands.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, who gives a hoot what my client does with her arms, or what language she speaks? As for the arm-waving, she could be shooing away flies, conducting an imaginary orchestra, or just enjoying the fresh air with childlike glee. Could be she just shaved her underarms and applied an alcohol-based deodorant. And she could speak anything from pig latin to ancient Persian to a secret language she created all on her own, and it’s nobody’s business. Surely there are ten thousand other people out there right now waving their arms and speaking strange languages, and none of them stand here accused of witchcraft. Nope, the prosecutor has completely failed to support the statement that my client IS a witch. She’s innocent, she goes free, end of story.

Just for the record, though, she’s practicing for her part in a community theatre production of Romeo and Juliet – in Polish.

In human affairs, at least, “innocent until proven guilty” is a good idea simply because it works. Though the occasional miscreant might go free, it produces the most humane solutions to questions of justice. Rather than living in constant fear of prosecution on the flimsiest of anonymously-conveyed grounds, leaving individuals and the justice system in general to the fury of jilted lovers or the jealousy of neighbors, most people can go about their day happily ignorant of the machinery of cops, courts and hanging ropes.

Does it apply in other realms, though? Just how widely applicable is the idea of “innocent until proven guilty”?

Suppose the “accused” is a drug that makes pregnancy easier to bear, but which later seems to be linked to horrendous birth defects?

Suppose it’s a food additive placed in children’s cereal which the manufacturer maintains is harmless, but which is later suspected of causing hyperactivity that makes it difficult for children to learn?

Suppose it’s a new insecticide planned to be sprayed on food crops, about which nothing is suspected or known, other than it kills bugs?

In the first two of these cases, the fundamental difference is that the “accused” is not a person suspected of causing a problem for another person, but a thing – a chemical, drug or process – suspected of causing a problem for a human being.

The core question is, does a THING have the same right to presumed innocence that a person has – particularly when the thing is suspected of harming real people?

Asked that way, it’s immediately obvious that the answer has to be a resounding No. Things don’t have the same rights that people have. Things have no rights at all. Presumption of innocence is turned on its head – things are guilty until proven innocent.

How do we handle the third case, where the thing in question is not even in question?

The answer would be easy even to our most distant ancestors: given a choice of two different types of berries, juicy purple ones which you know are edible, and shiny red ones about which you don’t know anything at all, you don’t even touch the unknown ones. Given a choice of a forest-grown mushroom that you absolutely recognize and know to be safe, and another mushroom a few feet away that looks a bit like the edible one, but a bit different too, you don’t just pick the new one and assume that it will be okay.

In a sometimes unfriendly world where some things are food and some are poison, and the cost of choosing the wrong one is your life and maybe the life of everyone you love, you keep the wild culinary adventures to a minimum.

In other words, things not even in question are in question, every time, until they’re proven to be safe. It’s still basically a question of the rights of people versus the rights of things. Things are automatically to be considered harmful to people unless you can somehow prove that they’re not. It’s why we have a Food and Drug Administration that approves – or declines to approve, after extensive trials – new drugs.

The benefit of any doubt, even manufactured doubt, has to fall on the side of human health and safety every time. Not on the side of corporations, or things.

Only PEOPLE are “innocent until proven guilty.” THINGS are automatically guilty – suspected of being dangerous – until proven otherwise.

We’re in danger of forgetting that.

The Wrong Answer on Race

race copyThis is my second Charles Barkley-inspired post. You can find the first one here – Assholes and the Umbrella of Safety – but I’ll echo the quote from that first one:

When asked about a report that Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson isn’t seen as “black enough” by some of his teammates, the NBA Hall of Famer went on a rant about how “unintelligent” black people believe they have to hold successful African-Americans back.

“For some reason we are brainwashed to think, if you’re not a thug or an idiot, you’re not black enough,” he said in an interview on CBS Philadelphia 94 WIP’s “Afternoons with Anthony Gargano and Rob Ellis.” “If you go to school, make good grades, speak intelligent, and don’t break the law, you’re not a good black person.”


Wrong answers persist.  When we “learn” something, either a folk belief at our mother’s knee or a fact from a cutting-edge scientific experiment, we hold onto it. We repeat it to others. We automatically defend it against those who question it. And we pass it on, sometimes for generations. (Achoo! ~Bless you!)

We like to think we’re beyond hanging onto silly stories, wrong answers, but I think we’re still deeply immersed in it. The only way we get beyond such wrong answers is to actively work to disprove them, and that’s not something we’re willing to do with any speed.

Here’s something that seems silly and wrong to me: Our understanding of race.

Let me start explaining that by talking about something else:


I drive a van for a rehab facility, and I rub shoulders daily with drug and alcohol abusers.

Disclaimer: I learned quickly that most of the people I deal are not the cartoon drug fiends most of us would imagine, but rather ordinary, average people with this … problem. A housewife with anxiety issues finds herself dependent on Xanax. A middle-aged professional electrician develops a drinking problem that begins to affect his work. A young man has a motorcycle accident, and by the time he’s recovered, is addicted to painkillers. A suburban middle-class teenager dares to try heroin with friends, and soon finds himself with a $300 a week habit.

But among this population of drug users, I occasionally meet up with some who are NOT just “ordinary average people.” Some of them are very different from anything in my experience.

Making conversation with a client one time, I asked what he did for a living. He waved the question off with casual disdain. “Oh, I’ve never worked a day in my life.” He looked to be in his 40s. I kept any reaction to myself, but inside I was gasping. How can you not work? Yes, he might have had some invisible condition, mental or physical, that prevented him from working, but the dismissive reaction to the IDEA of having a job was something I’d never come across.

A 23-year-old man shared that he had 5 children. “How many kids do you have?” he asked me. “None!” I said, to his astonishment. “How can you not have any kids??”  I joked “Well, you used up my share.” Another client casually confided that he had 12 children by three women, none of whom he married, and none of whom – kids or women either one – he lived with.

On one trip up from New York City, I stopped at a roadside rest stop to give the clients a bathroom break. The rest stop had a McDonald’s, one of those with the drink fountain out where customers can serve themselves. I watched one of the clients, a young woman, beg a soda cup from the girl at the counter, so she could get some water. The counter girl gave her one of the small water cups at first, but the client asked for a larger one. “Oh, please, can I get one of the bigger cups? Because I’m really thirsty and I can only be here a few minutes!”

Back in the van, I listened to her telling the tale of how she filled the cup up with ice and soda, and the entire group had a big laugh at how she’d gotten a free soda.

This wasn’t a huge crime, just considering the value of the property involved. The cost of the cup and soda – mostly water and sugar, after all – was probably a few pennies.

But it was a pretty profound moral crime, in my view, in that one person did a generous, compassionate act for another, and that other instantaneously and automatically repaid the generosity with theft. And then laughed about it, and encouraged others to laugh. She could conceivably have gotten the counter girl fired.

To put it in blunter terms, she fucked over somebody who did her a favor, and this was not only okay with her, it was FUNNY.

Culture vs. Race

Can you tell the race of any of the people in these stories? No, you can’t.

If you come from the American South as I do – a place and a culture that has deeply entrenched views about race – the unmarried man with 12 kids will probably map out to “black man” in your head, but in fact there is nothing in the story – or in real life – that says it must be.

The color of any of the people described above is irrelevant to the REAL difference between them and me. The real difference is one of culture. Their cultures teach them certain values that are different from the values of my culture, or any culture I’ve lived in.

It’s a common social trope that all cultures are equally to be respected, but I don’t feel that way at all. For instance: Any culture that says women should not have full rights and equality with men (and vice versa), that’s an inferior culture, in my view.

The young woman who laughed about the free soda, I can say without doubt that she comes not just from a different culture, but a lesser culture, a culture that does not deserve equal respect. Any culture that encourages casual theft, especially from someone who helps you, is inferior to my culture, which says you NEVER do that. If you disagree, I think you’re just wrong, and it drastically lowers my respect for you.

I say “culture” in these cases rather than individual values for two reasons: One, the value demonstrated was casual and confident, obviously something of long familiarity and without any qualms of conscience. And two, even if I’m misjudging the individuals described, I’ve been in this business long enough to know the values demonstrated are out there in a cultural sense. They are common among large numbers of people, accepted and even admired, and definitely propagated – taught – from one person to another. There IS a culture of “fuck over other people and laugh about it” out there.

Let me toss another issue of culture at you. When famine in Ireland sent great numbers of Irish immigrants swarming to the United States, their reception was not uniformly warm. I’ve seen pictures of window signs that said “Help Wanted – No Irish Need Apply.”

Here’s British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli from 1836 :

The Irish hate our order, our civilization, our enterprising industry, our pure religion. This wild, reckless, indolent, uncertain and superstitious race have no sympathy with the English character. Their ideal of human felicity is an alternation of clannish broils and coarse idolatry. Their history describes an unbroken circle of bigotry and blood.

Anyone steeped in the idea of prejudice based solely on race would find anti-Irish sentiment mystifying. Reading about it in 8th grade World History, I remember wondering “How could anyone not like Irish people? They’re nice. Besides, how could you even tell they were Irish? They’re just another type of white people, aren’t they?”

The answer must be that you could tell they were Irish because of their culture. Other than red hair or the occasional wearing of green, we the U.S. today have no idea whether someone is Irish, but back then it must have been blatantly obvious, and in ways more profound than mere accent. Work habits, dress, accent, religion, family size, the part of town they lived in, ‘clannish broils’ … plenty of indicators that made it easy to pick them out from the larger population of white people, and discriminate against them because of it. White skin and all, you could probably have spotted an Irishman, or an Irish family, a block away.

What was different about them? Culture.

What changed so that they are today invisible in the social larger pool? Culture. They gradually adapted to the American overculture – they acculturated – and became ordinary Americans.


Here’s something I know about me: I’m not white. I’m not. I’m pink and tan and even a little bit blue and sort-of-yellowish in places. My ancestry is mostly (there was this family story) or wholly Caucasian, but I’m not “white.”

In fact, there are no “white” people. (If you bring up mimes, I’ll have to hurt you.) There just aren’t. NONE OF US IS WHITE.

Likewise, I doubt there are any “black” people. There are a lot of different shades of brown, is what there are. NONE OF US IS BLACK.

Look at the “black” people around you, and note the variety of skin tones. Line up a random bunch of humans from New York City and you’ll notice that some of the “black” people are lighter-skinned than some of the “white” people. (And yes, I know I’m not the first to point this out; hopefully you’ll hear it here without the smug tone often associated with it.)

In deference to the difficulty of relating to skin color, plenty of people would talk about Black Culture rather than just Black People. But they’d still likely be talking solely about black people, in that black culture relates to “white” people only in the broad sense of culture and not in the specific sense of individuals. No matter how many “black” cultural attributes a “white” kid adopts, he never becomes “black” … to either side of the color divide. The closest he might come is the unflattering “wigger.” If he checked “Black” on the Race question on some official form – say to get an affirmative-action-based scholarship – he might even face prosecution.

In common usage, “black” is therefore probably not culture. It is color. Race.

And yet, as I said before, there aren’t any black people. Even scientists agree: “Race” does not exist in any definable sense. It’s a pleasant – or unpleasant – social fantasy.

What we’re really doing when we discuss race is attempting to figure out which of the people around us are “my people” and which are “those people.” But the answer to the question of how you do that is CULTURE. Not race. Not color. “My people” – your people – are the ones who share some large part of your values, customs, aspirations and view of life.

There are plenty of “ black” people with whom I have more in common than certain “white” people. Considering the fact that I dropped out of college and have done blue collar work most of my life, any particular “black” man stands a chance of being my better in education and career, income and sophistication. I not only consider an educated “black” man or woman my equal, I go farther in that I know any social inequality between us is likely because *I* don’t measure up to THEM. If I ever managed to meet them, I doubt I would offer a high-five or a fist bump to Barack Obama, Neil deGrasse Tyson or Morgan Freeman. Lurking in my mind is the feeling that I don’t deserve to be taking up the time of these accomplished, admirable men.

And yet I consider them “my” people … because self-respect, knowledge, achievement, honesty, decency, a reverence for reason and science, so many other social and personal traits of they and the people like them, are what my people – the sociocultural group I most identify with – does.

My Somewhat Sloppy Conclusion

There should be a punchy ending here that ties up what I’m saying into one simple, understandable package. But I’m finding it difficult to end this, because … well:

One of the ways I write is to flow with my main theme along the path that maps itself out before me as I write, but to fairly often space down far below the main body of text and add in side thoughts as they occur to me. Later I read through them and see if they fit into the main body, and then try to insert them where they seem to go.

But in thinking about this subject – race, color and culture – it continues to open out in front of me, illuminating and disturbing me at every turn. I realize no single essay can cover the subject. Considering the wrong answer we’ve been living with, and the cost to everybody suffering under it for so long, it’s obvious that a book – or a lifetime – would be too short to deal with it fairly.

There is an infinite amount more that could be said.  (And I know it. I hope the fact that I’m only saying this little bit of it appears to readers more as “incomplete” than as “wrong.” In thinking about this huge subject, you have to start somewhere, and this was my Somewhere.)

For instance:

With the majority of us still keying on skin color, every “black” person in America lives in a state of siege – constant mental and sometimes even physical abuse – by “white” people. It involves cops and courts at the extreme end, but the near end includes co-workers, store clerks, teachers, government, even people just walking by on the sidewalk … and hundreds of things I know I can’t even imagine.

There has to be an entire personality-shaping stage every “black” kid goes through, a minute-to-minute, years-long dismay that amounts to “What the fuck have I done to deserve this?”

Surviving that and staying sane is … well, it’s not something I think I would have gotten through. Pondering it, I have to wonder if pretty much ALL of the “black” people I know aren’t better people than I am. Like human icebergs, I see only the top part of them – the ordinary guy / nice lady – but underneath is an immense mass of forbearance and patience and strength of character that I never had to develop, making me a simple-minded lightweight in comparison.

And for instance:

This generational siege has been a powerful shaper of a black culture (notice I say “a” and not “the”), such that one key attribute of it is the understandable Not White: “If they’re going to treat us like enemies, fuck it, we’re going to BE enemies – to every value they hold.”

Barkley and others like him – trying to live their lives as best they can – suffer not only the siege from the “white” side of the thing, but this other siege from that “black” side: “After all this has cost us, how can you let yourself be one of THEM? How can you not be Not White?”

Paraphrasing Barkley, those who catch crap for not being “black enough” have greater values and aspirations than mere blackness, the desire to operate on a broader social landscape than that bounded by skin color, or a culture based on it. Barkley asserts that the stereotypical and limiting street culture can’t work for him, nor for so many others who want a larger landscape on which to live their lives. In his success, he’s saying he won’t be limited by “white” people, but he’s also saying he won’t be limited by “black” ones.

In the end, my only conclusion is that “black” and “white” are huge mistakes. EVERY discussion of race starts from this mistaken first principle. A racial view of the people around us is false, incomplete and damaging. What separates us, or joins us, is culture.

Culture is not race. It has nothing to do with race. Race is something you’re born with, culture is something you DO. It’s that body of values, attitudes and behaviors you were either taught as a child or adopted somewhere along the way and now practice in daily life.

Realizing all this has been a final illumination for me in how to think about and treat other people. Having grown up in the Deep South and learned racism from my earliest conscious moment, it’s taken me way, way too long to get to the point where I begin to be able to see people as people, and not as races or colors. I like to think I’m there at last.

One more side issue comes to mind, something that feels both disturbing to realize and necessary to say:

There is a ruthless fairness within giving up the idea of race, something that argues against my staunch liberal tendency to believe that in every disagreement between a “black” person and a “white” one, it must be the “white” one who is in the wrong, that in every news story of “black man and cops,” it must be the cops who are the source of the problem.

Instead, it turns out I’m going to have to THINK about every situation and instance, to evaluate the thing based on known facts, and not racial sway. (Without, of course, losing sight of the fact that plenty of “white” people and cops – and the system they serve – really can be viciously racist.)

Hopefully I now have one more good mental tool for doing that.

The Book of Good Living: Favors

begging rabbitI was in a position to witness a young woman asking people for a cigarette at a highway rest stop a few days back. “Could you give me a cigarette? No?? Oh, please, please, please! It’s just one cigarette, and I really NEED it. It’s just one lousy cigarette!”

She ended up crying (!), complaining tearfully about how rude people are nowadays. “I just don’t understand (sob) how people can be so RUDE. Anytime I have cigarettes and someone asks me for one, I (sob) give it to them. Some people are such dicks.”

It sparked some thoughts:

“Out of the goodness of your heart.” That’s where favors come from, isn’t it? A favor might spring from fellow-feeling, simple compassion, or just today’s positive outlook, but you do a favor for someone because you want to, with no expectation of reward. It might be because they asked for the favor, it might be just you doing something nice.

Except there IS a reward most of us expect – a heartfelt ‘thank you’ — delivered as words, a smile, or just a nod. The ‘thank you’ that says “I recognize and appreciate your unnecessary kindness.”

Say “thank you” when someone holds the door for you. Wave “thank you” when the driver next to you lets you into his lane of traffic. Say “thank you” when your friend invites you along on an outing.

Favors arrive on a social landscape that contains certain other expectations. If those expectations aren’t met, it destroys the landscape so favors are granted grudgingly if at all. And of course, a ‘favor’ granted grudgingly is not a favor, it’s something completely different, with no fellow-feeling, but rather more along the lines of fear, or duty. The person granting that sort of favor loses something in the granting of it, becoming, for that moment, more of a underling than a friend.

Regarding that social landscape …

Here are the favors the world owes you: None.

Your friend the musician doesn’t owe you free tickets to his concert. Your cousin who has a shoe store doesn’t owe you a special deal on shoes. Your rich aunt doesn’t owe you the gift of $500 to keep you from losing your car. Your twin brother doesn’t owe you a kidney to save your life.

Nobody owes you the loan of their phone, or a cigarette, or a sip of their soda, or a ride into town, or an invite over for supper, or … anything. Nothing. Nobody OWES you a favor. The idea of “favor” and “duty” are mutually exclusive. Again, if it’s a duty, something owed (or the repayment of something owed), it’s not a favor, it’s the performance of a duty.

So if you ask a favor and the person says no, that’s not rudeness, it’s just life. And if someone asks YOU a favor, you’re allowed to say no. For any reason, or no reason at all. You’re not even under any obligation to explain.

You may not want to do it at all. You may not want to do it right now. You may not want to do it for that particular person. You may be in a hurry and don’t even want to consider it. In all of which cases, and any others you can think of, you have the right to say no.

Too many of us don’t understand that. We think “I really NEED you to give me a ride, and it doesn’t cost you anything. Besides, you said yes before. If you say no now, that’s you being rude.”

No it isn’t. If you think that way, that’s YOU being rude. Nothing wrong with asking (usually), but if that other person says no, that’s it. If you push it, you’re being pushy – the precise state under which you shouldn’t get the favor.

Because the driver didn’t owe you the ride in the first place, you’ve lost nothing, and have no right to be put out. Also because he didn’t owe you the ride in the first place, he has no need to feel embarrassed. If you think anything else, you don’t understand the concept of favor, and you’re helping destroy the social landscape that makes them possible.

If you walk away and hold a grudge over the favor that failed to arrive according to your expectations, you not only don’t understand favors, you don’t understand friendship.

If the guy you ask can’t say no, there is no possibility that what comes after is a favor. It’s the act of a servant under threat of punishment.