Category Archives: Racism

Existential indifference

Existential, as the word implies, has to do with existence. Our existence.

Indifference is somewhat easier to grasp, since the sentiment of “I really don’t care” is so frequently on common display in America – most recently in large letters on the back of First Lady Melania Trump’s jacket.

Still, it isn’t accurate to say that we simply don’t care about the values, principles, and issues we hold to be important. For many of us, it’s more appropriate to describe our indifference in terms of being overwhelmed, confounded, even laid low by a comprehensive, intense, and unrelenting assault on those very values, principles, and issues that we once defined ourselves by. The hyper-nationalist, increasingly authoritarian, and deeply divisive discourse, policies, and direction in this country, as well as in once democratic (or quasi-democratic) countries like Hungary, Italy, Poland, and Turkey have grave consequences. We watch as Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Vietnam all sink deeper into authoritarianism. We see global inequalities rise more precipitously than ever before.

What does it take for ordinary citizens to withstand such a torrent of outrageous, destructive, self-serving, corrupt, often callous, and sometimes evil policies, actions, sentiments, language, and assumptions – and their dire consequences? What kind of ideologies can drive such disarray?

In the United States, labeling the politics of Trump, Pence, and Sessions as “ideologies” presumes a coherence, intelligence, and intentionality that would have to be more strategic and inspired than what we are confronting, yet the danger is no less real. Existential, even.

So, what’s the threat?

Well, the list is long…we could start (in no particular order) with human dignity and human rights. Trump regularly refers to human beings in language that denies any shared moral commitment to universal human dignity. He describes immigrants infesting our country, and members of the notorious  MS-13 drug gang as “animals”. Human beings do not “infest”, and even hardened MS-13 gang members are still human beings (after all, we seek to prosecute those who are proven to be criminals because we hold that all human beings – and not animals – are obligated to act morally and in compliance with just laws). Even Hillary Clinton’s election campaign indiscretion of labeling some Trump supporters as “deplorables” spoke about their racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and Islamaphobic values, not their lack of human dignity. Trump, Pence, and Sessions have similarly ganged up to humiliate, malign, and deny the equal dignity and rights of between 4,000 and 10,000 patriotic US active-duty and reserve transgender military service members, not to mention those transgender persons who are aspiring recruits. The transgender phenomenon seems particularly troublesome to these and many other Republicans, as they also have acted to deny basic equal human rights and legal protections to transgender students, and to push back on transgender people accessing essential health care. Obviously in their eyes, some of us – including people just like me – are not quite human enough.

A second casualty of the current assault is truth itself. We have a president who seems to be incapable, or at least indisposed, to be truthful. Trump is on the record in saying that lying in public is acceptable. He lives this belief every day; the cascade of lies is nearly beyond the best fact-checkers’ capability to count that high. With truth so battered and eroded, day after day, we finally grow numb, even indifferent. We grow complacent, no longer expecting truth from those elected in positions of public trust. What’s “public trust”? A quaint notion, it seems.

A third casualty is compassion. This administration equates compassion with leniency, weakness, and a lack of virility. We’ve had the most graphic example this past week in the boldly callous Trump policy of separating the children of immigrants charged with illegal crossings along our southern border. The reality of innocent, vulnerable, distraught, traumatized young children and even toddlers being ripped away from their parents’ arms does not appear to elicit a scintilla of care, concern, or compassion from Trump, Pence, Sessions, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, or White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders. Most Republicans in Congress demonstrate their own callousness by their silence. Continue reading Existential indifference

“Not acceptable”

Back in early June 2016, I posted a memorial blog about the tragic and violent deaths on April 25th of that year of Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy, two remarkably brave and courageous Bangladeshi human rights defenders. They had fearlessly asserted through launching Bangladesh’s first LGBTQI magazine, Roopbahn, that the dignity and human rights of all Bangladeshis – not just those who are straight and cisgender – ought to be respected.

For that audacity, they paid a dreadful price.

This past week, I had the privilege of hearing a presentation from an openly gay Bangladeshi man who’d been a friend to these two men. Now Ahmed is here in this country, pursuing two ambitions. First, he’s sharing a remarkable exhibition of photographs (including the one above) to remind the world that justice remains unfulfilled for those who viciously took the lives of Xulhaz and Tonoy. Second, Ahmed wishes to have some hope for his own future – not to forsake his friends and family back home, but to find a safe space from which he can use his art and his voice to open the eyes of the world to the strident and unforgiving intolerance of his native land. He’s seeking asylum from those who would do him – and possibly his family and friends back home – great harm, because in their culture people like him are not acceptable.

“Not acceptable” is a perilous place to find oneself. Most of us who came to his presentation last week have looked that accusation straight in the eye ourselves, repeatedly, although seldom at the risk of violence or death.  For us, being “not acceptable” is even more abrasive when those holding such views are so unshakably self-righteous about their bias, and when they are empowered to bend the institutions of government to inflict harm on those marginalized groups who dare to express their integrity of self. The Bangladeshi government is now on the offensive, and since the brutal murder of Bangladesh’s two LGBTQI leaders, the movement has been forced to adopt a low profile. Not low enough, however; “not acceptable” asserted itself yet again last year when on May 19th an elite security force with the arguably glamorous name of the Rapid Action Battalion arrested 27 young gay men who’d gathered discreetly at a community center in Dhaka.

“Not acceptable” is rough company to keep. In 1995, well before I came out as openly transgender, I was working in Durban, South Africa. Nelson Mandela had recently become president, and the country was in a state of tectonic change and unsettling uncertainty. Many white South Africans felt great fear, as the historically subjugated black population rose up proudly to take their place in building the new Rainbow Nation. It all came into painfully sharp focus for me one evening; I was riding in an elevator filled only with whites (mostly older white South African men) who spontaneously struck up a loud, boorish, and unashamedly racist conversation about President Mandela and his supporters in the African National Congress (ANC). The simple assumption of this crowded elevator’s white passengers was that I was in solidarity with their views, because I too am white. The realization of this presumed fellowship sickened me. I pushed the emergency stop button, and when all eyes turned to me all I could say was “shame!”. I then pushed the button for the next floor, exited the completely silent lift, and left them to stew in their own fear-induced prejudices.

“Not acceptable” isn’t only about race, same-sex orientation, or transgender identity. I’ve also directly experienced “not acceptable” being regularly employed as a judgment by many men here in my own country as they exploited all-male meetings and gatherings (of which there are many) to make frequent sexist (and often wildly misogynist) comments deriding and disparaging women. Unlike my cisgender sisters, I’ve spent much of my life embodied as a man; I haven’t forgotten what I heard and saw. I know all too well the coarse and objectifying ways that so many men routinely feel at liberty to demean women and girls. As troubling as that banter is, what bothers me even more is the relegation of existential, urgent issues such as gender inequality, gender-based violence, and even violence against children as “women’s issues”. To this day, men are barely present among those who labor tirelessly to achieve progress toward gender equality and fairness among all genders. Continue reading “Not acceptable”

On thin ice

I can’t remember the last time I saw someone fall through the ice. Given that my high school and college years were spent in upstate New York, there’s little doubt that I’ve seen such a thing, but somehow watching this happen again yesterday – several times – transfixed me.

Saturday January 20th was auspicious – Year #2 for the Women’s March in Washington and around the world. So I probably should’ve been paying more attention to the many “big name” speakers up there on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in the heart of my city. Thousands of people (yes, mostly women) gathered around the Reflecting Pool, which was covered with ice from our long bout of extreme cold weather. Yesterday, however, the sun baked down and the temperatures soared. A few of those gathered chose to wander out onto the ice… and in time, a few of them fell through.

Their mishaps were little more than uncomfortably cold brief embarrassments; the water was barely deeper than their knees. Still, it offered an apt metaphor to where my thoughts had wandered. As I mused on their icy exploits, speaker after speaker exhorted us to redouble our resistance, to mobilize in strength for the upcoming midterm elections, to “do politics – or else politics will do you”. I knew they were preaching to the choir – we were there because we’re the committed ones. Still, even our staunch commitment had limits; the speeches were too many, too long, and most of us wandered off after the speeches had droned on for well over an hour past the official march start time. So technically I did not march yesterday, but the afternoon was well spent and reinforcing; at this stage I will take whatever solidarity I can find. Living in Trump’s Washington is dispiriting in the extreme, and the harshly cold winter has only exacerbated the misery – and the alarm.

After all, we’re walking on thin ice. Our democracy itself is in peril, as most in Congress prove – yet again – to be ineffectual or inept, unprincipled or simply opportunistic. It’s hard to find a positive narrative as I watch the U.S. Government shut down again, irrefutable evidence that our legislators cannot perform the most fundamental task that they were sent there to do – pass a budget. Living in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., I know that so many of my neighbors who are hard-working, vastly under-appreciated federal civil servants or foreign service officers will again feel that they’re pawns in a cruel and unnecessary game. Continue reading On thin ice

Indignation and outrage – precious and necessary

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The position of President of the United States of America is intended for those whom we most esteem – people we hold up to our children as exemplars of all that is best about this beloved country. Just speaking aloud such names as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, or Franklin Roosevelt is to invoke respect and awe…these leaders and many others among our past presidents truly were transformational, and we honor them. Based on such exemplars, we now rightly expect anyone holding this highest office to model the virtues of wisdom and temperance, decency and compassion, empathy and judgment, patience and restraint, and unyielding respect for the human dignity of all persons. In their private lives, and in their business and public transactions, we expect them to be accountable to the core secular ethical standards that underpin the public trust: competence, civility, transparency, honesty, responsibility, consistency, and accountability. We look to their courage and fortitude, we depend on their reliability and honor. We delight if they are witty. They should be patriots in the best sense of that concept – dedicated to upholding the Constitution and being wholly committed to the pursuit of the common good…in which “common” means for everyone. No exceptions.

It is a very high standard, and historically no previous president has scored highly in all respects. Our presidents have not been saints, but their human foibles and modest limitations have made them people we could relate to. And yes, Donald Trump will soon ride to his electoral college victory by having cultivated that populist persona – a flawed man that ordinary folk could relate to. Those attributes are important, but not nearly good enough. At an absolute minimum, the President of the United States must be someone we can trust. Continue reading Indignation and outrage – precious and necessary

The fight for America’s soul

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Transgender people know what it means to fight for our souls. After all, it really isn’t a choice. If we fail to live our lives in full commitment to who we are, we lose our identity. Without our identity, we lose meaning. We lose joy. We lose self-respect.

We lose.

Yesterday evening America lost. Now we have to fight to get her back again. After all, it really isn’t a choice. If America fails to conduct itself as a nation committed to the principles she was founded on – “American values” for which so many have sacrificed and struggled and died – we lose our meaning and our place in history as a great nation. We lose any reason to be proud. Far from becoming “great again”, we become small…just another country with a narcissistic, self-serving, unprincipled ruler, and a citizenry who has been conned into thinking that this is who we are.

If that becomes the status quo, we all lose.

It may not seem very obvious this morning, but America is still a nation of ethical principles founded on revolutionary ideals of universal dignity and freedom. We are a nation where human rights values are manifest in our laws, and where we innately know that our (much eroded) tradition of civility in public discourse is necessary if we are to foster our co-existence as a diverse society with a common identity. We are a nation where we have labored hard to create and sustain strong democratic institutions characterized by integrity, self-sacrifice, justice, compassion, and the service of the common good. America is about freedom of religion. America is about caring for the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. America is about responsibility to our children and our grandchildren and generations yet unborn, especially in the face of a threat as existential and monumental as global climate change.

That is my America, but this American awoke this morning with a new edge of vulnerability.

My suspicions are that the vast majority of those who voted in Donald Trump yesterday do not view me and those such as me as human beings worthy of respect. If you think locker room talk is corrosive to the dignity of women, that low standard of behavior that the majority of American voters chose to overlook isn’t limited to misogyny and tough-guy boasting. For those who are at home in that particular locker room, there is a special dialogue of enmity and scorn for anyone who dares to challenge the assigned-at-birth gender binary. The prospects for transgender rights were dealt an enormous set-back last night, and that has implications across the civil rights spectrum for so many minorities in this country. While we may all be Americans, we who are members of sexual minorities find ourselves set-aside and “othered”.

Yet…if we bother to try, each of us is able to feel what “America” means. OK, this morning it is harder: it is now more darkly obscured by venal politicians, the irresponsible media, self-righteously intolerant faith leaders, faulty polls that we won’t ever trust again, and by all those Americans who cling to “deplorable” sensibilities and values. Yes, Secretary Clinton was wrong to use that adjective for the people she targeted, but she was absolutely correct using it to describe their behavior and their attitudes – their intolerance, smallness-of-spirit, isolationism, misogyny, racism, and profound lack of civility. “Trump the bitch” is deplorable. Threatening one’s political opponent with jail is deplorable. Promising to renege on the Paris Agreement on global climate change is deplorable. Suggesting that America will return to torturing suspected terrorists with water boarding (or worse) is deplorable.  Urging the summary deportation of millions of undocumented people is deplorable. Claiming Mexican immigrants are all rapists and criminals is deplorable. Closing the country to Muslim visitors and igniting a national witch-hunt against Muslims who are already here is deplorable.

Voting for all of this was deplorable, and frankly beyond my comprehension. Continue reading The fight for America’s soul

The folly – and necessity – of human dignity

dignity free and equal

Our world is beset by callousness and brutality.

The death toll grows each day from the cruel violence of Boko Haram, Daesh/ISIS, Al Qaeda and its offshoots, Quds Force, Haqqani Network, and other terrorist groups, all of whom frequently target even defenseless women and children. President Assad and his Russian allies indiscriminately attack areas thickly populated by Syrian civilians, and the fighting roils on in Iraq, Yemen, the Lake Chad Basin, South Sudan, Burundi, and Afghanistan. We’ve become numb to the incessant news reports of yet more civilians suffering grievous harm, adversity, or death, and there’s no reasoning with those who place scant value on destroying human lives except as instrumental statements on their unyielding ideological trajectories.

In this context, what are we to make of the opening line of the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”? After all, there are no qualifying clauses to cover the significance of human dignity in the eventuality of death by violent extremism. For far too many “free and equal” members of humanity, threats of violence, brutality, exclusion, subjugation, and death itself appear to have rendered our global moment of idealism when that Declaration was signed back in December of 1948 as, at best, a curious historical anomaly.

Is the notion of universal human dignity not sheer folly in 2016?

It’s worth noting from the outset that “human dignity” has several meanings. My first assignment for the students of my new graduate-level course on Human Dignity was to read a short opinion piece – “In Search of Dignity” – that conservative cultural commentator David Brooks had written in the New York Times back in July of 2009. Brooks described a “dignity code” as a set of rules and civic virtues, and it was his contention that this dignity code was exemplified by George Washington. According to Brooks, Washington subordinated his personal interests to national interests and duty. Brooks’ message however was not sanguine, as he concluded that “…the dignity code itself has been completely obliterated. The rules that guided Washington and generations of people after him are simply gone”. And while Brooks did allow that “Americans still admire dignity”, he asserts that there is no longer any popular consensus on, or practice of, the ethical standards that constitute such dignified convictions and behavior in the United States.

The concept of human dignity however is much more ambitious than seeking widespread consensus on rules of conduct, or on matters of deportment. Yes, for someone to sacrifice perceived self-interests for the greater good is refreshing, and we all know of examples of that taking place (starting with parenting). And human dignity is certainly more than just a reflection of social status or bearing, although that more limited definition of dignity still has its place in certain contexts. So while I applaud David Brooks for his pondering on one dimension of human dignity, I am arguing that in the context of the exceptionally violent world of 2016 we ought to refocus our sights on that most ambitious interpretation of the human dignity concept: that “being human” means that we are each unique and valuable, and that we are each as valuable as any other person on the planet.

That’s a very large statement, and it certainly isn’t borne out by the way in which humanity conducts itself on this planet. Or, as stated most poignantly by Princeton University’s emeritus professor of politics, George Kateb: “The pathetic fact is that the only enemies of human dignity are human beings.” What is it that drives so many who are in positions of economic, military, political, social, or governance power to erode the shared basis that all of us – each and every human being on this planet – depend upon as the moral and ethical foundation for all human rights, all laws, and any sense of justice: human dignity? Continue reading The folly – and necessity – of human dignity