Without Fear or Favor

I just spent ten days marveling at Asia. But, despite the magic of travel, no trip I’ve taken has ever been tinged with such sorrow.

Every morning for the past ten days, I read an entire physical, newspaper. Could the news be sadder than it is now? Gay men shocked to death in Chechnya, one hundred thousand people detained in Turkey, another blasphemy killing in Pakistan, another Russian journalist beaten dead, millions of refugees swallowed by the muds and sands of Bangladesh, Lebanon, Jordan, Sudan, a river disappears in Canada, one hundred young recruits blown up in Afghanistan, the total collapse of Venezuela, the sixth year of holocaust in Syria.

Putin, Assad and his pretty-faced wife, Maduro, Kony. The extermination wrought by this short list of names is too much to bear.When asked by a television reporter about the reports of gay men disappearing, dying, Chechen leader Kadyrov responded that the reports were false because there were no gay men in Chechnya, no people “oriented in the wrong way.”

And then there’s Trump, whose full frontal attack on Planned Parenthood and climate change may be the greatest crime against humanity in the news today. No lush diplomatic cake with China can sweeten the smog away.

When you do the math, there is no addition, only subtraction, division. Poverty and violence swallow entire countries whole. To write, and read, “Without Fear or Favor,” as The Japan Times proudly claims to do, is a privilege of the insufficient few.

Apart from donating, voting and speaking out, staying informed is its own form of protest, of empathy. But serious newspapers are suffering as free (often fake) news gains traction. So, today, I decided to subscribe to a few major national newspapers. The New York Times, for example, is on sale. For $1.50 a week you can read every article on their site. The Washington Post gives you unlimited access for $99 a year. A small price to pay to make sure someone is watching.

Transgender in the Air

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A few weeks ago, I finished Jeffrey Eugenides’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “Middlesex.” For those who haven’t read it, it’s about a hermaphrodite named Calliope, then Cal.

The book’s merits have been sung far and wide, so I won’t repeat them here. I did want to share a passage from the novel that I loved though.

 

Facticity

Two sections are highlighted above. The first stuck me because of the phrase “the facticity of my body.” Granted the speaker is a hermaphrodite, so facticity here matters a lot. But, each of us has a certain facticity to our bodies that nevertheless determines a great deal about who we are.

My husband insists that had he been born taller, with a better nose and a better name he would not have done as well in life. Without the challenge of his height, his nose and his name, he wouldn’t have cultured the tenacity that today gets him what he wants.

Plus, “facticity” is just a great word to have around.

 

From Brain to Mind

The second section that is marked does a great job of summarizing the nature vs. nurture debate. Since science proved that we humans are not as genetically fabulous as we had once thought, the notion of self-determination is “making a come-back,” as Eugenides puts it. Something must account for our apparent superiority within the animal kingdom. So if genetics can’t explain it, then what?

That question is a very personal one. One that is linked to heavy words such as “god,” “history,” “evolution.”

But, on a daily basis, the question of who we are is also linked to gender. By no means does gender make humans remarkable, but it plays a role in how we go about being remarkable in our individual ways.

 

Middlesex Eugenides Book

Gender on the Mind

Gender has been popping up in my reading lately, unintentionally so. A philosophy course I took recently addressed the question of gender as an opportunity for self-expression. The piece I wrote about it lives here.

Then I came across this video about an amazing woman who accepted her six-year-old boy as the girl her son insisted she was. And this article about a highly trained woman in the Army who allowed herself to be mistaken for the man she felt she was. As a result, the Army kicked this woman out.

Finally, I finished Eugenides’ book, which I’d been reading slowly over several months.

After all this reading, there is no question in my mind that gender is imposed. Normally, girls identify with being girls, and boys with boys. But this is not always the case and it isn’t always absolutely true.

 

Tomgirl

For example, there are “girlish” practices I’ve incorporated into my routine because I was born a girl. High heels, for one. I can recognize the fun in make-up, but unless I am confronted with it, the thought never crosses my mind. I have to make a conscious and constant effort to sit with my knees together. Nothing I envy more than the emotional practicality linked to many a guy.

Nevertheless, I am fully a woman. Maternal in a universal sense, but not in a feel-happiest-when-I-am-pregnant one.

What’s more is that many people feel this way about one thing or another linked to their gender. They are absolutely girl or boy, but certain things supposedly linked to being girl or boy remain foreign. So why is accepting and respecting some people’s choice to switch genders such a big deal?

If a man wants to walk around in heels, he should be able to. Yes, as uncomfortable as they are, they can also be damn pretty.

Transit Poem

 

The way it happens proves too much

 

Russian weapons carved for a dead menace

sold to hungry Hezbollah

 

Borders get pierced

 

A regime firm as bone

takes in the Shiite mobs

 

An ayatollah fingers a final prayer bead

before the burnt fridges of Homs

 

This is called ash

That is called hole

 

In Aleppo a stalemate forks neighbors

feathered gunfire plays siege

Sexuality is Possibility

LGBT Gay Transgender Rights

Proud moms unite. Photo by Tim Evanson

 

The last half of the twentieth century saw the birth, adolescence and remarkably mature adulthood of a new field of cultural investigation: Gender Studies.  A natural consequence of the sexual awakening of the Western world in the sixties, Gender Studies focuses on how we define what it means to be a man and/or a woman, and why we insist on creating such definitions in the first place.

 

Sex, which is where our understanding of femininity and masculinity intersects, is of special interest to this field of study. Here, sex is understood as a manifestation of desire and is inseparable from identity, because what we want in many ways defines who we are.

 

Gender as Self-Reliance 

 

Judith Butler Gender Studies

Judith Butler in black and white. Photo by Jreberlein

 

Judith Butler, now Professor of Gender Studies at California’s Berkeley University, is one of the leading figures in the field.   For Butler, gender is not prehistoric or precultural; it is learned. We are taught to be a woman if we are born a girl, and we are instructed in the ways of manhood if we are born male. Granted, Butler allows for biology to play a role in the construction of gender, but it is subject to cultural conditioning.

 

The following excerpt, from Butler’s ”Undoing Gender,” summarizes her view:

 

If gender is a kind of doing, an incessant activity performed, in part, without one’s knowing and without one’s willing, it is not for that reason automatic or mechanical. On the contrary, it is a practice of improvisation within a scene of constraint.

 

Two major themes from Butler’s work are presented here, performance and improvisation.  For Butler, gender is the combination of authentic improvisation (a nod to biology) and showmanship (a nod to cultural expectations) upon society’s narrow stage.

 

Gender Studies’ work to vindicate each person’s right to create his or her own sexual identity is surprisingly similar to the firm defense of individuality posited by America’s most traditional and best-loved philosopher: Ralph Waldo Emerson.

 

Insist upon Yourself

 

An eighteenth century thinker, Ralph Waldo Emerson is worlds away from concerns of sexuality and gender. Yet, his foremost preoccupations are individuality and identity, today irrevocably linked to sexuality.

 

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the happy man.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the happy man.

 

Emerson travelled the country sharing his message of self-reliance, urging all who would listen to embrace their individuality and to remake themselves anew every day.  Here are two examples:

 

Insist upon yourself.

 

Your conformity explains nothing.

 

Emerson’s self-deterministic program remains the most influential manifesto in American philosophical history, and can be linked to Butler’s work in Gender Studies via her idea of performance.  For Butler, performance, as regards the construction of gender, need not be a negative, forced act. Instead, performance can be an opportunity for agency, for action. Butler’s definition of performance is thus parallel to Emerson’s notion that individuality should be built within and then displayed without.

 

The key link between both thinkers, then, is that they believe that the construction of a self is possible, even within the context of a demanding society.  Emerson, like the poet Charles Baudelaire, invited his followers to relish a life lived amongst the crowds, while maintaining a keen sense of who they are as individuals.

 

Inapplicable for All

 

Granted, Butler’s individual has fewer options than Emerson’s, but there are options nonetheless.  Society and culture tell us what it means to behave like a woman or a man, biology influences this behavior through hormones and impulses, but there remains an opportunity for each of us to define our sexual identity. For Butler, sexuality is equal to possibility.

 

gender issues transgender

A polo shirt apart. Photo by Duffboy

 

The problem arises when the law attempts to universalize what it interprets as beneficial for most. In the contemporary world, where individuals are creatively enacting their sexuality, policies that standardize practices related to sexuality, such as marriage and adoption, are no longer effective. Here, in this point of conflict, is where Butler’s work operates, seeking to create awareness of our inherent differences, a difference that need not be feared.

 

If only Emerson were around to witness our era’s range of individual expression. Would this trusted and forward-thinking voice express support for gay marriage? It is quite likely that he would, for he once said:

 

Let us treat the men and women well, treat them as if they were real. Perhaps they are.

 

 

 

Shameful and Shameless Election Coverage in Colombia

colombia elections

Election Day

Today, I am veering off topic to write about politics in my home country of Colombia. Today, is the presidential run-off between incumbent President Juan Manuel Santos and hopeful candidate Oscar Ivan Zuluaga.

It is a very tight race, exacerbated by the reprehensible media coverage of the candidates and the positions they represent. Every major Colombian news outlet blatantly supported President Santos since the elections began, and with increasing force when his campaign faltered as it became clear that he would not count with a decisive win.

 

How Elections are Won

It is easy to see why El Tiempo, Colombia’s most-read newspaper, serves Santos. Its majority owner and one of Colombia’s wealthiest men, Luis Carlos Sarmiento, is after the adjudication of massive infrastructure projects that the country desperately needs and that the Santos administration is late to deliver.

It is less clear why the much-respected news magazine Semana would put its reputation at stake. A cousin to President Santos does act as Director, but one would hope this is simply an unrelated fact.

El Espectador, the nation’s second newspaper, gave the candidates somewhat more equal air time and deserves recognition for that.

Serious media outlets have a duty to inform opinion and to express it. News informs opinion; editorials express it. Trouble arises when news headlines and content begin to express an opinion. This is when newspapers lose credibility, relevance, purpose.

Such is the case of Fox News; no one watches it to form an opinion. It is watched by those who wish their views mirrored back to them and by others who want a laugh.

 

Headless Monster

The Economist usually takes an open stance a week or so before a presidential election. Prior to that they present the candidates, their positions and the country’s current state with accuracy. And, when they finally pick sides, they say why.

Last week, the British weekly threw its support to President Santos, citing the importance of giving him more time to close peace negotiations currently under way with Colombia’s FARC rebels. If the negotiations are successful, they would put an end to 50-year’s of guerrilla warfare. Of course, this sounds great. The problem is that this peace is a symbolic peace. And, Colombia does not have the luxury of staking an election on symbolic peace.

It is unlikely that the FARC leaders negotiating the deal with Santos’ government in Havana still control the 8,000 or so members of the guerrilla group. Originally a Communist movement, the FARC devolved into a profitable, ruffian ring dedicated to drug-trafficking and extortion.

Some would lay down arms in the event an agreement is reached. But a large part would simply continue their daily routines, without the banner of Communist justice.

For me, the problem is that Santos has proved inept at dealing with violent crime. Sure he will take a pretty picture with the FARCs head men, but I have serious doubts he will effectively control the headless monster that will remain.

Uncontrolled violent crime is not peace.

 

Peace on Paper

Colombian media also claim that they support peace, and so Santos. A respectable stance if left to the editorials and columnist sections. But, they molded everyday headlines to support their position. One day giving scant airtime to reports that the FARC killed a police captain. Another day headlining the President’s agenda. Yet another day editing videos of opponent Zuluaga to fit their views.

A debate in which Santos fared poorly, organized by El Tiempo, could not be seen on the newspaper’s website. An interested reader could only find the raw, unedited footage on youtube.

Yesterday, I spoke to an individual personally vested in the President’s win who could not believe the Santos campaign was doing so poorly considering he has the entire governmental apparatus in his pocket and the nation’s media up his sleeve.

Voters are not as clueless as they seem. Ineptitude pays a price at the ballot box. One can only hope that today’s results will be a faithful reflection of what the Colombian people want, nothing more and nothing less.

 

 

 

 

 

No Wrong Questions

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Last night I went to a lecture on the moral limits of a market economy presented by Michael Sandel, which was part of the Hay Festival in Cartagena.

Professor Sandel teaches one of the most popular courses at Harvard University. It’s called “Justice” and it’s about how to decide what is right and what is wrong when everyone everywhere has a different notion of “good” and “bad.”

Sandel’s lectures are so popular because he employs the Socratic method, whereby students learn through dialogue with their teacher, forcing them to answer questions on a truly personal level.

He applied this same strategy last night to a very varied auditorium. His first question was “is it morally right to pay to be first in line for a concert?”

Here, people stood along a fairly clear 50/50 divide.

Then the professor asked if we thought it was right if people paid to be first in line in an emergency room. Here, most people agreed that it was morally wrong.

I am still torn as to what I think. On the one hand I have a firm belief that human morality is varied, unpredictable and fuzzy. And this is in reference to a single person’s morality. Put millions of people together and drawing a clear conclusion on wrong vs. right is impossible.

So upon what sort of input can we expect our lawmakers to base their policies? Upon what I think is right? Or upon what you think is right? Or, should we let more objective economic forces decide?

Out of the three I prefer the economy. But then the real problem becomes equal access to the economy, equal access to the pursuit of happiness.

Many Americans will disagree with me, but if economic opportunity is close to existing anywhere, it is in the United States. In my home country of Colombia, the possibility of economic mobility is centuries away from where it is in the U.S.

Nevertheless, access to the economy is far from perfect even in fabled America. So questions like Sandel’s need to be asked.

Market inefficiencies exist. Otherwise Wall Street wouldn’t have bets to make. And, until they do, moral questions will remain as to the accuracy of basing policy on faceless forces like supply and demand.

The difficulty then is in making sure that, somehow, these questions get asked, and answered, in the “right” way.

If France Ruled America

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I am not much of a magazine reader, but The Economist is The Exception. To almost everything.

I don’t read it as often as I’d like, so I was fortunate to pick up the latest issue, which has some interesting reads on technology and jobs. Pretty much, we’d all better start doing what we love in an exceptional way or risk omission via the mighty computer.

In the mean time, though, we can lighten up thanks to the French and their scandalous scandals. The Economist certainly does in a surprisingly (even for them) tongue-in-cheek article on (the lack of) sex in American politics.

Above is an excerpt I considered delightful.

Read Bogota 2014