This Liberal Isn’t Sitting Down and Shutting Up

Perhaps I should have bailed out after the first sentence: “I know many liberals, and two of them really are my best friends.”  This is how Gerard Alexander, professor of political science at the University of Virginia begins his call for liberals to shut up and sit down (my words) in his Sunday Review New York Times opinion piece “Liberals, You’re Not as Smart as You Think You Are.”

This isn’t a new drumbeat for Alexander. He’s complained before about liberals painting conservatives with a broad brush, claiming all conservatives are racist and has called liberals out for being “so condescending” to conservatives. This essay appears to be a continuation of those themes, and Alexander is hardly the only conservative to make those charges.  In this most recent essay, he takes the broad brush into his own hands, labeling liberals (as a whole) as “self-righteous” while requesting that they stop talking, essentially, about human rights in absolute terms. And, he states clearly, that the price for liberals saying too much will be another Trump term. As he notes, “People often vote against things instead of voting for them: against ideas, candidates, and parties.” So, to Alexander, the solution is simple: Liberals need to quiet down so conservatives will listen. He’s short on evidence for that claim, but he spends a good amount of time working through the sins of liberals and how their insistence on justice for more than Christian, straight, white men is hurting America.

There’s so much about Alexander’s essay that’s objectionable, but I’ll start with where I agree with him. Yes, there are insufferable liberals. There is nothing about being liberal, conservative, or somewhere in between that makes one delightful company and unerring in judgment.  Humans from all walks of life can be jerks, and one only has to spend a few minutes on social media to see that play out. Yes, liberals (and conservatives) can shut down thought and conversation with a slur, and that action can lead to a negative perception of the other and that ideology. And, yes, there are conservatives who aren’t bigots.  I know them, and some are good friends, to borrow a phrase from Alexander.

Alexander ruminates about free speech, and he and I certainly share the value of that on the whole (although asking liberals to tuck theirs in seems a bit incongruent with that concept), and I agree with him that college campuses should be places where ideas other than the ones held tightly before college can be heard and explored.  I realize that by writing that statement, some liberal friends of mine might find themselves on edge. But, as someone who has taught argumentation to young teens for several years, someone who asks young people to explore the arguments of others and to think critically and ask questions, I bristle at the idea of these same children going to a college that tells them they can’t ask the simple questions: “Why do you think that?” and “How do you know?” Part of owning your beliefs (and then living them out) is understanding more completely and applying critical thinking skills along the way. Part of settling into an ethic of one’s own should be listening (or at least reading) to those whose ideas appall you, not so you can nod and agree or modify your belief that all humans have dignity and worth because they are human but so you can formulate arguments in return. One can’t form a counterargument without understanding the conflict at hand or the arguments made on the other side.

There is, however, an important caveat: Oppressed people have no obligation to listen to the musings of their oppressors. Women needn’t listen to rapists and abusers explain and defend their actions. Immigrants have no obligation to hear how and why they should “go back where they came from,”  and any person of color has no need to stand one minute of nonsense about how they are less because they are not white. And, no, I’m not advocating finding a KKK member or neo-Nazi for coffee and hate conversation, although I’m sure doing so could be informative. ( I’m also not advocating Milo’s presence on anyone’s campus, as provocateurs spouting for attention, not actually forming arguments.)  I am, however, arguing that taking a stance without understanding what others think and why is damaging to progress, and progress is what progressives are all about.

My main complaint with Alexander is with his dangerous, illogical, and damaging stance: He asks liberals to, essentially, stop speaking up and out, at least outside of the ways they have wielded “their cultural prominence in recent years,” specifically in the news and film. “Racist,” he then notes, “is pretty much the most damning label that can be slapped on anyone in America today.”

I don’t disagree that naming entire groups of people with any name, true or not, with the object of shaming, scolding, or slamming them is unproductive even if it is accurate. I don’t find my eyes opened when I’m called a libtard, Marxist, socialist, commie, feminist (oh, please, you can do better than that), feminazi (there you go!), SJW (wasn’t Jesus one?), snowflake (I’ve not melted yet), baby killer, idiot, and (wait for it) liberal. Slinging slurs don’t win anyone a friend, although slurs may influence people to break off friendships or stop conversations. No, calling names isn’t useful.

But racism is alive and well in this nation. It has been for a long time, of course, but Trump has made a sport out of spouting and spreading that hate and racism during the campaign in 2016 as well expressing his own racist tendencies in his business practices in the decades before that campaign. Who can forget his frenzied “Build The Wall!” chants at almost every rally? His base ate it up, and wall talk continues to this day. Sprinkle in a few immigration bans against people from Muslim countries, some highly disparaging remarks about people in Haiti and several African countries, absolution of alt-right tiki-torch carriers in Charlottesville, silence when black people die at the hands of angry white people, and chummy relationships with known racists, and, well, you have the picture. Trump built a campaign on hate and fear, and it bought him the presidency. And his base still eats it up and spouts it back while his beloved Fox News strokes his ego, spouts his nonsense, and otherwise fans the flames of his that base. Alexander may be uncertain about bigotry underlying Trump’s win, but I am not. Trump won on what he campaigned on: hate and fear. We, as a nation, got what was promised, and that was bigotry at the helm in order to maintain the status quo, which is straight, white, largely male, and Christian.

Calling names doesn’t solve anything, and it does build divides. But Alexander’s request that liberals quiet down and stop being divisive is eerily familiar when a system is fighting to hold back others to maintain power.  Women have long been told to quiet down so people will like them more. Women have been asked to smile and nod when what is appropriate is yelling and fighting back. Women (and LGBTQ, brown, black, Jewish, Muslim, disabled, and other marginalized people subject to oppression) know what it is to be shamed and then ignored when using their voice.

So we, as progressives, as liberals, must break the silence when others are ignored in the public sphere, torn from their families, shot in our streets, denigrated for their biology, violated by those in power, herded to inferior schools, confined to neighborhoods by de facto redlining, hated for how they pray, despised because of the color of their skin, and mocked because of their dress or language. It’s about damn time, too. Silence is complacent, and, when we make the choice of silence in the face of injustice, all for the sake of politeness, manners, and maybe winning over a Trump voter in 2020, it makes us complicit in the hate and oppression itself.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it this way, in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:

First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice, who prefers a negative peace, which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice.

That’s what Alexander is asking liberals to be: The white moderate. Make no mistake. There are still plenty of those to go around. But, as King notes, the absence of tension in the face of injustice does not lead to peace or equity, equality, or fairness. It does not lead to the right running to the left, ready to vote for justice. It does not lead us away from populist, racist politicians bent on maintaining their comfortable status quo. Yes, people vote against things, as Alexander notes. Voters for Trump voted against brown immigrants, against women, against their own financial interests (coal is not returning), against their own health care, and against the roots of their own religion.

It is not “self-righteous” to speak up for and about those who are marginalized in this world. It is, in Christian terms and values, the moral and good thing to do, and Jesus reminds people of this endlessly. (Now there was a social justice warrior!) It’s simply the right thing to do, religion aside (and in politics, we should be setting it aside).  It is part of the long and hard path to King’s “positive peace, which is the presence of justice.”

And that’s what progressives, overall, want. They want positive peace. They want justice for all. They want a better nation and a better world, one where we work together for the good of all people. Many say that 155 years after slavery is a blink of an eye in the arc of human time, but, by many measures, it is lifetimes. Too often, “But this takes time” is the mantra of the moderate, used to assure that, with enough patience, justice will come. It is indeed a mark of privilege to make that claim. King told us this, 65 years ago, from that Birmingham jail:

More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.

By requesting that liberals muffle their voices, Alexander is encouraging stagnation in a nation that supposedly strives towards progress. He conflates name calling with calling foul on injustice. Yes, there is room for civility in our conversations with others about the hardest issues in this nation, but civility is the luxury of those in power. Civility has never been the sole mechanism of true progress. It is instead loud voices, strong convictions, and unyielding insistence on justice that has always brought us further along as a nation.

 

The Small Stuff

It’s a few weeks after #Metoo left social media feeds full of accounts of sexual harassment and assault, but accounts about those harassed and assaulted by men in positions of power continue to dot the news and remind all of the pervasive nature of these wrongs. My sharings here are some of the small offenses in the bigger picture of my life as a woman, yet they carry a weight of their own to this day.

“Hey, are you wearing a bra?!”

Warmth crept to my cheeks, and my mouth dried. The voice repeated the question.

“Are you wearing a bra?! It looks like you are! Sarah’s wearing a BRA!!” whispered the fourth-grader behind me in gym class, where we sat in evenly spaced rows. We were an arm’s length away from our neighbors, allowing plenty of room for jumping jacks but apparently not enough room for the boy behind me to ogle (hopefully?) at the outline thin straps of my undershirt, which was –as the name indicates — under my shirt.

I was nine. While there were girls in my class with bras and the budding breasts that go in them, I was all of seventy pounds and flat as the gym floor upon which I was seated. I wore children’s shoe sizes, although others around me had crossed into women’s sizes already. I was a child in a child’s body. Bras and breasts were not on my mind. Neither was discussing underwear with classmates.

“NO!!” I whispered hotly as I twisted around (tricky in the full lotus we were in). “NO!! I am NOT wearing a bra!”

“Sarah’s wearing a bra,” sang the voice behind me.

I’ve never been so grateful for a demoralizing game of dodgeball to start.

I’d not thought about that day in gym class for decades. The boy who taunted me was, otherwise, a nice kid, a generally shy kid who even cried when teased. He wasn’t exactly a friend, but he wasn’t someone who’d ever been unkind. And I don’t recall thinking of him as unkind much after that day. I simply awoke to the unpleasant reality that my personal underclothing and what they contained was going to be a matter of public scrutiny and comment all too soon.

I started to think about bras looking like undershirt straps, and so returned to undershirts with sleeves, the kind that without straps that could be mistaken for bra straps. It was two years before I actually wore a bra, giving me plenty of time to put that gym-class event behind me. And, in ways, I did. And, in other ways, I didn’t. From that gym day forward, hiding undergarment status became part of the task of getting dressed.

Fast forward a few years to junior high. I’ve moved from public school to Catholic school, and my clothing choices shrunk thanks to school uniforms. Blue uniform pants or the uniform skirt? A short-sleeved, lightweight white button-up blouse or the long sleeved, Oxford cloth shirt? Navy cardigan or not? The pants/skirt issue was easy. I didn’t like skirts, as they required a responsible way of sitting and just were more restrictive. But the shirt…oh, the shirt. See, the long-sleeved shirt was too warm for our unairconditioned school, but the short-sleeved shirt, well, through it — in just the right light — one could almost see bra straps. So it was back and forth, trying all three (identical) short-sleeved shirts, looking for the one that might be thicker, that might not bring a snicker or comment. I sometimes settled for a t-shirt under my shirt, which certainly didn’t keep me cooler but did minimize my concerns and hide that marker of the presence of my breasts, if not entirely deny their existence.


Jump another few years to high school, sophomore year. My first kiss and first break up were in the past (and just days apart), and uniforms have given way to dress codes. White shirts aren’t required, and layering is in, leaving the bra strap issue as a non-issue. Bras are still issues, and no one with any authority seems to care if boys snap a girl’s bra, or perhaps no one wants to acknowledge that good Catholic boys snap bras with the apparent hope that they’ll open, leaving the wearer embarrassed and the forbidden breasts free.  Either way, bras, hidden or not, still matter, but mine isn’t visible.

My breasts, however, are quite visible, or at least they were in a particular dark green, wool pullover that, on reflection, I might have outgrown in ninth grade yet continued to wear in tenth. The boy who’d kissed me and dumped me, now a platonic friend, noticed my breasts, which were enclosed in a padded bra (so nipples don’t show) which was then covered with the requisite shirt with a collar and the aforementioned green sweater.  

“Whoa! When did you get those, Sarah? You sure didn’t have those freshman year!” he proclaimed in a classroom devoid of a teacher but half-full of students. He didn’t mean the sweater and shirt combo.

I don’t know what I said. No one had ever commented on my breasts or any other part of my body, not that I could recall. I had no template for this sort of pronouncement, which I’m sure was intended as a compliment. I’d not the presence or words (or nerve, had I thought of words) to note that he was sporting more under his fly lately, and I’m guessing my response was simply a flushed face and downward glance. 

Uneventful as these events may seem, I remembered them. And both of these events, the fourth-grade taunt and the tenth-grade harassment-disguised-as-complement, left their marks. Breasts were something powerful, obviously, as were whatever contained them. Breasts mattered to men, sometimes more than to the person who owned them. And, oddly, bras were public property, there for the snapping and snagging, and breasts, therefore, were also communal property of sorts. I wish I’d wondered then why the same wasn’t true for jock straps and their contents.  

Nipples held a strange place in the female body parts melee. They seemed to be the tattletale part of the breast, indicating to all if one was cold or, possibly (hopefully?!) sexually aroused. I’ve never confused those two conditions myself, nor have I ever thought differentiating those states cause for discussion, but apparently, to the teen boy, this is worthy of great debate. So, to be safe, I kept them under a layer of padding, safely in a bra thick enough to give away nothing, and then under clothing that covered any hint of the bra. And forty years later, even after breastfeeding two boys (often in public), I still do the same. I can’t explain it.

This is, to be sure, the small stuff. This is not rape. This is not assault. But this seemingly small stuff matters. Girls experience their bodies as public property from an early age. Comments from boys are part of that, but so are dress codes that focus on covering girls so boys aren’t tempted, stripping boys of personal responsibility along the way. We end up raising our girls to expect, dodge, and ignore these small slights, and we too often fail to remember that blaming victims is never the path to justice or change.

Yes, this is the small stuff. It’s the polyp before the cancer. It’s the smoke before the fire. It’s the fever before the plague. The small stuff, it turns out, matters.

Thoughts and Prayers

Harvey, Irma, Maria.

Thoughts and prayers.

Orlando, Plano, Las Vegas.

Thoughts and prayers.

Trayvon, Philando, Tamir. 

Thoughts and prayers.

Travel bans, hate crimes, DACA.

Thoughts and prayers.

Thoughts and prayers. Those words fill my Facebook feed,  but they are meager offerings in the face of yet another tragedy at the hands of a man with a gun. They leave the mouths of our elected leaders, yet those words don’t finance rebuilding a distant and brown part of the United States or bring back black boys and men who died because of the color of their skin. They are what we offer when we are scared and sad and overwhelmed. Thoughts and prayers are what we say when we don’t know what to do and when we want to be seen (even by ourselves) as doing something. They are what we say when we wash our hands of problems and throw the troubles of others to the divine.

Thoughts and prayers. I have thousands of the former. Sad and pleading thoughts. Angry and outraged thoughts. Hopeless and helpless thoughts. Even, occasionally, a hopeful thought, which always surprises me, blooming among the ash and debris of a nation exploded. I have thousands of thoughts. Not one has held back a hurricane, blocked a bullet, raised the dead, protected the innocent, or brought any good out of evil. Thoughts can’t do that. Thoughts are, well, just what our head does when we’re not otherwise occupied. Our thoughts can consume us, and it is easy to mistake thoughts for action.

But prayers. Of these I have none. In the saddest and most desperate moments, I’ve found myself pleading to the universe, perhaps invoking a God whom I no longer believe in, but prayer? Prayers, like thoughts, have yet to hold back a hurricane, block a bullet, raise the dead, protect the innocent, or bring good out of evil. Prayer can soothe us, as it, like thought, can feel like action. But prayer — an act of faith in the divine — is an escape hatch I no longer have.

I left my faith behind over a decade ago. I didn’t lose it. It wasn’t misplaced, nor was it neglected and thus somehow tattered beyond all recognition. It was, after much thought and no small amount of distress, set aside somewhat reluctantly and with a sense of loss that kicks back in times like this.  This was not unlike the fate of my wedding ring, reluctantly yet resolutely removed post-separation, returned to its velvet box of origin, now a casket for the ring and a marriage, and tucked deep in a rarely-used dresser drawer. Not lost. No. Intentionally left behind.

 

Faith. Religious faith is a slippery commodity. It is the currency of religious belief, which is both gifted and cultivated. Faith is considered a gift, given by the one who is then the recipient of the belief (God, by whatever name or names) that comes from the gift. This circular and seemingly self-serving system seems to benefit mostly the divine, but to say the mortal receives no benefit would be dishonest. Faith is a refuge, a sure shelter when the world seems rocky and riotous. To have faith — to believe in what cannot be seen and cannot be empirically known — is said to be a virtue. It is good to have that faith, to take that gift, to believe. It’s good for the belief system overall and, from personal experience, it can be good for the believer. 

It was good for me. First, I had a sort of blind faith, one that moved from a child’s faith that what my parents and church said must be true: that a divine being, which we called God, was somewhere or everywhere, doing something generally beneficial for someone or maybe everyone or perhaps just some people. It was fuzzy, the faith of my childhood, and in many ways, I’m grateful for that. The God of my youth was distant but apparently cared that we thanked Him (and the God of my youth was male) before meals. Jesus did the hands-on stuff — curing lepers, raising the dead, and turning water to wine. God took the credit and quietly cared for us.

During my teen years, Catholic school and a rather conservative (for the 1980s)  Catholic youth group brought some complexity to faith. It was in those years that faith became part of my vocabulary, truly an entity that could be protected, abandoned, lost, squandered, sought, or gifted by the divine. Faith shared some traits with virginity — given to one without request but lost if not careful and virtuous, and, perhaps, returned if one repented for losing it and promised not to do so again. Thus faith can be a word that could be used somewhat threateningly: “Don’t you have faith?!” “You just have to have faith!” And, perhaps most ironically, “You just need to pray for faith.”

So I had faith. And I was careful not to question it, to hold it up to the light. I had faith because I needed God to keep me, to love me, to approve of me. I wasn’t afraid of hell (having not been raised with a heaven). I was afraid of being alone, with only myself to keep, love, and approve of me. Faith was somewhere between talisman and weapon, like a rabbit’s foot with a sharpened claw.

Yet faith served me. It kept my life in order, and it warded off the worst of evil. Faith, after all, allowed me to lean on a god who loved me no matter what and who wouldn’t let humans destroy one another. It kept me in the safety of the Catholicism I’d chosen at the start of my adolescence, a Jesuit Catholicism, steeped in justice, simmered in the Gospels, and garnished with Jesus’ messages about how we should love and care for one another. It was faith that allowed me to see hope where there was little, as the God to whom I pledged my faith was a God of redemption and unconditional love, and God clearly would make all okay.

Well, that was until I thought it about it. It was thoughts about prayer that undid my relationship with faith. It was a slow undoing, a reluctant and gradual process of unwinding the first-whispering and then-shouting doubts that prayer was not going to save the world or even me. Doubts whispered at first, buzzing in the words of priests whose praise only was for those who believed in a Catholic God (which I knew was not a thing). It then roared as 9/11 made my world bigger and darker and scarier. Holding my newborn son in my arms, nursing him during the night, watching the flashes of light from the TV, bombs falling on moms and nursing babies who were dying in Afghanistan after so many people died here, deaths not canceling one another out but simply amplifying suffering and fanning the flames of hate. I spent many nights, my son at my breast, drowning in the tears of sorrow for those I’d never met or even considered. I prayed, but still I drowned, and still moms and babies died.

It was then that I loosened my grip on faith.  Still, it took years for me to fully examine the heart of my religious life: prayer. Mine wasn’t a unique crisis. It was new to me, but it is as old as ideas of a divine who — if s/he chooses — can interfere with human lives. How can a benevolent, omnipotent, omniscient God listen to some prayers and intervene for good while letting moms and babies die in horrific ways? That was the first question, one that sat stewing for some time, but it was quickly joined with both a logical undoing of a system not designed for logical analysis but rather counts on, ironically, faith.

So I set down faith. I didn’t throw it out. I didn’t lose it. I set it aside, holding it from time to time, occasionally praying, again ironically, for that faith to somehow work again. I changed belief systems, but moving to an Episcopal church brought me only time to work through the grief. I stuck at it for a bit, needing the ritual and rhythm of the service and wanting the option to pray to a God I was increasingly sure wasn’t there, just in case he was. But I could no longer make it work. I could no longer see the divine in a god. I could see love in Jesus and compassion in the Buddha and the power of community in action working for the common good, but I had set down my faith, as I could not see God.

A year or two later, I was doing the same with my wedding ring, reeling at a reality that was only the stuff of books and movies. Marriages take a faith of sorts along with hard work, patience, dedication, honesty, and love beyond measure. The faith in a marriage can similarly be undone by logic and reason, as well as by violence and injustice. I held onto the messy remains of a marriage torn asunder like I’d held onto my fraying and failing faith. It HAD to work, you see. This is how it is to be.

But it didn’t, and so I let go. I did not let go with the quiet grace I that accompanied leaving my faith in God. I was not simply resigned and saddened, or simply empty. I was instead furious, gripping tight and throwing off all in the same breath, deprived of choice and agency. But I let go and put the ring — and my marriage — away.

A decade later, I’ve found love again, but this time I have also found faith in my ability to care for myself and still let someone else care for me. A decade later, my religious faith remains packed away, a sometimes tempting treasure of the past that I still occasionally mourn, as faith and prayer and the comfort of a God who was looking out for me is, at points, appealing in its complex simplicity and ancient promise. 

That setting down of faith leaves me without prayer, and when others offer both, I offer only the thought half of the duo. Thoughts — free and wild and sometimes hot and angry and sad — remain with me. But thoughts of any kind do not touch the violence of our world. They never have. And they never will.  But, by my calculus, prayer doesn’t change the world either, or at least it doesn’t seem to have done so yet. Prayers have been offered for millennia, and to what end? Humans still suffer from disease and from one another. We pray to countless gods, and yet we still remain a predictably violent species how are markedly vulnerable to pain and suffering. I won’t deny that the chief benefit I see in prayer is a respite from hopelessness and helplessness for the one offering the prayer. It is precisely those benefits I miss. But prayer as an antidote to the inanity of humanity? No. It doesn’t work.

So much for thoughts and prayers.

Thoughts are silent and impotent in themselves. Prayers are, by my accounting, not actually feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, rebuilding Puerto Rico, or bringing back the life, health, and hope of those who found themselves in an impromptu war zone instead of a concert. Thoughts and prayers may comfort us when nothing else does, and that is indeed good. But what thought and prayers cannot do is save the world from the harms humans wreak upon it.

Those jobs are up to us. It’s up to us to create a society that screams ENOUGH with violence. It’s up to us to push our representatives in government to act in ways that serve people, not big business. It’s up to us to have the hard conversations with those who regard any human as less. It is up to us to work for justice at home and abroad. It’s up to us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and demand that we rebuild Puerto Rico, Houston, and Orlando. It is up to us to never let another Trayvon, Tamir, or Philando be killed because of the color of his skin. It is up to us to speak, to act, to act up, to act out, and to live fully what we think and for what we pray. We cannot rely on thoughts and prayers to heal our world.

So I pick up faith. Not faith in the divine, but rather faith in the ability of humans to make change in the world. I have faith in the strength and power of human beings dedicated to justice and love. I have faith because good people do feed the hungry, speak up for the oppressed, care for the sick, and fight for rights for all human beings. This faith, I can keep. This faith, I can share. With this faith, you and I can change the world.