Month: August 2014

Ferguson: A Legacy of Race in America

0816lettersFERGUSON-superJumbo

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over—

like a syrupy sweet?

 

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

 

Or does it explode?

 

      ~ Harlem, by Langston Hughes

 

If you believe that having a black President means we live in a post-racial society, than you are sadly deluding yourself. In truth, we are living in a time that may in fact be more dangerous for African Americans—particularly young black males. In times gone by, racism was overt and the rule of law was firmly on the side of white America. The reach of Jim Crow stretched well past the mid 20th Century, and being black simply meant you were inarguably a second-class citizen. Over the last forty years, I would argue that the concept of what it meant to be an African American has improved in the eyes of white America, but only superficially and not substantively. That means that although overt racism was more prevalent and undoubtedly harsher in the years before Civil Rights, the modern era is perhaps more deceptively deadly, because our racism is deeply inherited from centuries of stereotypes, charged negative language, and violent or unhelpful encounters, and this makes it more insidious, leading repeatedly to the same brutal confrontations.

Let us not forget that what’s happening in Ferguson is something greater than it appears, and is just the latest episode in our long and brutal history. If you do choose to forget our simmering racial past, just remember that the African American community hasn’t. The reparations that we all must make are not financial handouts, but emotional investments. It requires honesty, humility, power redistribution, trust, and working from a place of respect and assumed competency. We continue to metaphorically fight battles of the Civil War and skirmishes from Jim Crow. They are reenacted everyday in this country, and our dead bear names like Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, and now, Michael Brown. What’s happening in Ferguson is a deep mistrust between two people that has festered for decades, if not centuries, and the most important thing to remember is that although both sides share varying degrees of blame for what’s happening, ONE SIDE HAS ALL THE POWER. And that is what it all comes down to. We need to think of Ferguson as everyone’s hometown, because it holds the seeds of change, the questions of our past, and answers to our future. The seeds we sow in Ferguson can yield rich crops or wither on the vine. If Ferguson is not the place, there’ll be another battleground, but don’t be fooled that Oprah’s healed all wounds, and that the battle’s won.

We may think we’re a post-racial society, but we are one that does not fundamentally understand each other, and continues to hold on to outdated and hurtful stereotypes of the other. The deep mistrust and burning resentment of past wrongs and injustices, is only compounded and inflamed by having to witness new ones. The citizens and police of Ferguson, Missouri are brutally reenacting our Master-Slave paradigm, which dominated this country even (or especially) in the age of Capitalism. The abolition of slavery did not erase this dialectical relationship, but perhaps legitimized it and gave it a fresh veneer. After the Civil War, and slaves were liberated, Reconstruction turned out not to be a time of reconciliation and assistance, but a scurrilous chance to shame and punish the South even further. Whether intentional or not, the Union’s Reconstruction efforts irreparably injured former slaves and free men. What employment there was, often meant returning to their former plantation jobs for little more than the nothing they had earned as slaves. And why not? They were unskilled, uneducated, destitute, and had no context for freedom and pursuit of the American Dream. Whereas Reconstruction could have been a time to help mend the fierce pride of the South and transition her into a different kind of wage-earning economy, it instead devolved into a lesson in shame and payback. Similarly, the era could have anticipated future African American struggles and helped transition generations of victims, and provided more opportunities for success. Instead, a community once ‘taken care of’ by an often-punishing authoritarian master and overseer was now at the mercy of their own cleverness and ability to quickly adapt to a foreign world. Thousands of former slaves made their way North and West, and many historically black cities, became so after Reconstruction, as their numbers swelled. Cities like Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis were popular destinations for Americans, just tasting of what that word meant for the first time. With hardly a penny to their name or the skills of a journeyman, these strangers in a strange land made their way across America—their country too—and relied on an ethic of hard work, and the strength and support of each other—survivors of this country’s worst institution.
It was roughly a century, and most certainly a rough century between liberation and vote and boycotts and marches. It began as a wave of freed slaves who little knew the taste of liberty in the air, but they soon brought forth generations born free, who had never tasted of bondage. Those hundred years were brutal and unwelcoming, and perhaps even more deadly than life on the plantation, where property was at least protected, if also abused. But these years were terrorized by the KKK and lynch mobs, and vigilante justice seemed far worse than a broken judicial system. What justice couldn’t punish, corrupt laws could prevent, and there was no man so feared as Jim Crow, who rolled back the clock of slavery and ensured America’s newest voters would always remember who was meant to hold the noose and was meant to swing from it. There was no doubt in any African American’s mind who held the noose. It was unquestionably a difficult time to be an African American, and yet, in many ways less confusing, since they nearly always knew where they stood. And it was usually at the back of the bus, or on the far side and badly served end of a lunch counter, or in some desperate cases, it was at the barrel end of a rifle with their name on it. Life was astonishingly bleak and a constant struggle, but if you played by the rules, you might just get along. Whether you merely looked at a white woman or whistled at her, moments like that could get you killed, as Emmett Till sadly learned. It was still a minefield of charges, but if you kept your head down, you might just pass. It seems that for those many years, passing was enough, and they’d come so far from where they started, it seemed silly to ask for more. Of course, that wasn’t what was in their hearts, as equality burns just as hot as freedom. Their Moses was a young man then, but was still some years off.

When Langston Hughes famously asked what happens to a dream deferred, it was 1951, and Civil Rights was in its infancy. Perhaps that question might be more apt, if asked today. Especially if that dream seems closer than perhaps it had ever been. What happens to a society that seems to have forgotten it hated you, and makes laws to protect you, and creates opportunities to promote you? It may not be a land of milk and honey quite yet, but for a land that had enslaved blacks less than a century before, this was a colossal sea change. The Civil Rights movement had brought significant strides and triumphant gains to a long-suffering people, and perhaps for the first time in this country, the African American could take pride in and even see himself benefiting from the ‘American Dream.’ Segregation and ‘separate, but equal’ were platitudes and myths perpetrated by a society fully unwilling to embrace the monumental changes imposed during Reconstruction, and the reality of a once enslaved people now free, but with few skills, resources, or opportunities. But now, there was none of that. The law books were ostensibly clean and reflected a generation of Americans who were progressively rejecting the prejudices of their ancestors and gradually accepting the place of African Americans beside them. But was forgetting, still forgetting, and you can still sit at the same table, but eat at different ends.

As is probably always the case with rapid technological innovation or radical social upheavals, there is a seismic paradigm shift in society, and the laws that govern it, but the evolution of human thought and adoption of progressive attitudes are often slow to follow. Such predictable cycles of profound societal change can be found all throughout the history of the world, and typically follows the same predictable pattern. When applied to the abolishment of slavery and assimilation of blacks into American culture, the model holds up reliably. Not surprisingly, the equation paints a vivid picture of a longstanding conflict or injury in this country, and what happens when a society’s emotional intelligence fails to catch up with its decidedly progressive and pragmatic legislative body and judiciary. As demonstrated in other historical events, the cycle begins with a major cultural event (Emancipation, Civil War & Reconstruction, for example), systemic changes in infrastructure, legislation, and enforcement are enacted (the Reconstruction Amendments—13th, 14th, & 15th), active objection and defiance of new laws which are viewed as a threat to purity and their traditional way of life (the formation of the Klu Klux Klan and spread of Jim Crow Laws), a peaceful movement to win the hearts and minds of the average citizen and gain more rights (the Civil Rights Movement), more substantial and articulated universal laws ensuring comprehensive equality and compliance (Civil Rights Act), the slow and progressive evolution of thought in the general populace, and gradual reversal/rejection of ignorant, uninformed, or morally corrupt views and prejudices (the willful and voluntary mixing of races amicably, sharing of culture, recognition and respect of each other’s cultures, and ability to view differences as culturally valid), and finally, the last and most important step, equilibrium and return to a new normal (the period after the turbulence and healing, when a paradigm has shifted, and a new world order has seamlessly replaced the old. In America’s continuing legacy of slavery, we have not arrived at this point yet).

We are in a transitional cultural period of recalcitrant prejudice and exclusion, which is at odds with progressive ideals of equity and inclusion. This can be seen in the immigration debate, the clashes over marriage equality, gender politics, and most notably, race relations (most disturbingly in the Hispanic and African American communities).

If you think that a small town white police force just went rogue on a predominantly black and effectually unarmed populace by chance, you are selectively ignoring a history of violence, distrust, abuse, and abandonment of the African American community by those whose job it is to serve and protect (everybody). I’m not suggesting that these officers deliberately chose violence and would identify as racist, but rather, they are the foot soldiers of a society still plagued by institutional racism and a language that matured in the age of slavery. Our attempts to staunch this gaping wound, have been superficial Band Aids, when in reality, a whole new innovative surgical procedure is needed. It’s akin to a Civil War surgeon crudely sawing off a soldier’s leg for torn cartilage in a knee, whereas we might use minimally invasive arthroscopic surgery to repair the wound, keep the leg, and ensure a healthy and speedy recovery. Are intentions may be good, but they’re too little and too late. As the modern doctor from the analogy above, we must use new tools to heal old wounds.

A pattern of failed or marginally successful civil rights legislation over the last 150 years has proven inconsistent and often failed to provide full equality and inclusion into American society. Not long after emancipation, the wounds of enslavement were quickly exploited by Jim Crow laws, and seemingly all of the gains African Americans had made—including holding public office—were effectively rendered obsolete, and former slaves were subjected to even harsher treatment at the hands of a cruel and bitter confederacy. Those scars from slavery were salted by Jim Crow, and mercilessly hunted and punished by those in the KKK. The wounds still bled; the pursuit of justice and punishment of lynch mobs years later nabbed only just a few. Perhaps the most disturbing thing within a lynching photograph is not the poor man hanging, but the smiling mob looking back at us—like eager grim selfies. These ordinary townspeople take delight in their strange fruit, and are complicit in their approval, but never responsible for their crimes—not murder, per se, but the even more haunting offense of apathy, lack of sympathy, bemusement, and the moral deficit to dehumanize a victim suffering so miserably. The use of lynch mobs was one of the most terrorizing methods of intimidation and vigilantism in this country. Although aligned with the government and municipalities, militarized police forces and rogue officers are not unlike an unruly lynch mob. These small town soldiers are armed not only with guns, but also with their learned prejudices and grievances against whomever. As objectively as they wish to enforce the law, they also hold the power—not only the guns—but also the weight of the law behind them, and membership to an elite, mostly white, group of individuals. And historically, one that has had a deeply antagonistic relationship with the African American community. So Jim Crow cleared the way for Southern police forces to retain their dangerous racist ways, while also allowing for lynch mobs to exact ‘justice’ on mostly innocent black men, without the interference of an approving law enforcement. Effectively, habeas corpus was suspended and for decades, blacks were the victims of inhumane mob justice.

When lynch mobs all but died, and more black men lived, those of color saw little change, as the specter of strange fruit still hung low. They years following Reconstruction, but before the Harlem Renaissance were relatively quiet, but there was still heavy rioting in the black community, primarily over housing. During those otherwise quiet years, African American culture was identified on stage, in film, and in the media as simple-minded, docile, and generally, unthreatening. During those culturally silent years, the seeds were actually being sowed for a movement larger than any other they had ever seen. Artists and intellectuals like Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Jackie Robinson, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jean Toomer tended to the garden, and transformed black art and ideas like never before. The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ‘30s exploded with art, music, literature, dance, film, theatre, and every other medium, and for the first time, provided a workable definition of what it meant to be black in America, and made strides at identifying goals, addressing grievances, and contemplated African Americans’ often troubling role in the country. Seemingly all at once, the African American movement had a voice and objective. From there, they needed the spark that would light the tinder, and start a revolution. It was still unclear if that was to be a peaceful or violent one. Opinions varied. The years of social unrest during the ’60s borrowed much from the activist social reformers and communists of the ’20s, ‘30s and ’40s. Of course, it found its spark in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, who preferred to follow in the footsteps of men like Ghandi, and exert pressure and force change through peaceful means. There were those who angrily called for more violent protest, and challenged MLK for power, such as Malcolm X. However, it quickly became clear that the non-violent approach was not only forcing policy change and overturning unjust law, but it was actually helping to change the hearts and minds of the average American, and gain powerful advocate and allies. Bitter old white men turning fire hoses on innocent and unarmed young black men was hardly justifiable, and one couldn’t help but feel for the oppressed and see how absurdly backward these white bigots looked. More than any other circumstance or tool, the chronicling of the Civil Rights movement on American television helped articulate the long overdue rights of a people still oppressed and unwanted in their own country. It also allowed viewers to be in the moment, and experience brutality at the hands of racists firsthand. Lastly, it allowed Americans to be guided by a mostly sympathetic media, and given context for certain things, while cutting back and forth between government ceremonies addressing racial strife and passing monumental civil rights legislation. Americans could witness travesties of justice, see black leaders publicly address such horrors, witness peaceful marches and boycotts in response, and then ultimately watch as the President and lawmakers passed serious social reform bills. In that moment, African Americans not only earned the legislation and fundamental backing of the federal government, more importantly, they were seen humanely by a vast American public, and were sympathetic to most. Arguably more than at any time, the African American community was seen as a part of our country, and deserving of their long overdue rights and freedoms. Naturally, this was by no means unanimous, but a general sentiment that settled over the country.

The Civil Rights movement was to be its own spark, and ignited a wave of various social movements, each advancing their own unique status. In the years the mainstream non-violent Civil Rights movement was organizing, so was a more militant and sometimes violent black power movement, called the Black Panthers. In homes and businesses alike, women known as Feminists were soon advocating for their gender, and demanding respect and equality. Many across the world had long objected to the plight of Palestinians, ejected from their land during the formation of Israel. These early years would also see the rise of the burgeoning gay movement, spontaneously and informally announcing its presence in 1969 during the Stonewall Riots. Other causes that garnered much attention, were the wounded Vietnam veterans returning from combat, the growth of environmentalism and stewardship of the earth, and the emergence and ubiquity of computers in our everyday lives.

Of all the (sometimes) competing social movements, black power seemed to grab the headlines most, and was rarely cast as peaceful protest, but sometimes painted as a group of ethnic thugs, bent on the destruction of white America. The loudest and most violent nabbed the headlines, and snatched back much of the good will blacks had earned in during the movement. Many older and more traditional people felt uneasy about race, and even those who might support the idea of equality and justice long overdue, still often wondered if we were all better off once everyone had their way. After all, if someone had to gain, someone else must have to lose. Suddenly, caring was a dirty word for sharing, and that meant the very same thing as surrendering, which everyone knows means nothing but loser. What had started as abject horror watching protests on TV had slowly turned to sympathy and wishes of success; but that soon dried up as the reality of complete and utter equality sunk in. To share their homes and workplaces and schools and businesses had to mean surrendering power and losing something that fundamentally made them who they were. Although most people couldn’t have articulated it, the Civil Rights movement was perhaps inspiring to them in the abstract, when those poor people needed a hand, but impossible in the real world, where whites already have enough competition, and they’d made a nice life for themselves, especially after the War. The African American as full-fledged citizen and equal partner was unacceptable to many people, even if they never would have said as much. It was ingrained in all of us. Blacks had once been slaves, and now were at the table. We couldn’t divorce our first impressions and the burning archetypal face of the slave from our collective unconscious. As much as African Americans had accomplished, and as many excused they had given us to like and accept them, we still had sneaky Jim Crow in the corners of our minds. Yet there was hope in the youth, and even if their parents struggled, the Civil Rights movement captured the hearts and minds of many young Americans—particularly a segment of the population who resisted and rebelled against the rigid morality of their parents and strongly protested the Draft and Vietnam. These future ‘baby boomers’ were mostly carefree and experimental, casually open-minded, not bound by any religion, thoughtful and caring, and devoted to social justice. It’s no wonder Gen-Xers were born to Boomers, for both share interest in other cultures, embrace various types of art and think deeply about what they are and what they see. The next generation of Millenials is unique in being the most accepting of diversity, and have mostly only ever known a world populated by computers and defined by the tech we use and wear every minute of our lives. For all its many flaws, technology seems to be a democratizing force. To some degree, it allows everyone the chance to create an online persona, and actively take part in contributing to the greater Internet world. For many African Americans saddled by poverty and debt, the Internet allows a place of escape, connection, education, and entertainment. As it does for everyone. It also allows us to do things like chronicle our lives—through pictures, text, videos, and more. This can be particularly important when it comes to capturing the encroachment, abuse, punishment, and crimes perpetrated by law enforcement in an area not easily accessible, dangerous, or ignored by the media and industry watchdogs. Suddenly, camera phones can transform any witness or bystander into an active participant, and they can function as a kind of civilian journalist, capturing breaking news as it happens. With so many platforms for disseminating that news, such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, etc, news does not need to be edited and can launch in real time, putting us ahead of even the municipal government, other law enforcement agencies, the military, and most especially, the media. This is front lines reporting, and it completely changes the game. Again. This kind of gorilla journalism has been around for years now, and we saw it most notably in the Iraq/Afghanistan wars and more recently, during the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war.

The prevalence of the smart phone camera is arguably one of the most important game changers in the history of the world. And it’s radically changing race relations in this country. In his article, ‘Does the Second Amendment Only Apply to White People? by Keith Boykin he says, “So it was here that at least Then it hit me. Suddenly I realized it didn’t matter if he had a gun. In the eyes of America, he had something more dangerous than a gun: his black skin. Yes, Ezell Ford was suspicious, in part, because he was black. That’s why unarmed black people continue to be killed.”

Regardless of socio-economic or political affiliation, not very many white Americans can honestly claim that they carry no racial baggage or unperceivable prejudice. We are shaped by our society, our culture, our past, our mistakes, and perhaps more than anything else, the language that we use. Institutional or Systemic Racism refers to any kind of system of inequality based on race. It can occur in institutions such as public government bodies, schools and universities (both public and private), or in private business corporations—even such liberal and enlightened places as theatres and museums. It is particularly insidious because it is built into our very systems and even permeates our very own language. It is especially dangerous because it’s not easy to spot and doesn’t lend itself to public outcries—like we’d all do if the Klu Klux Klan wanted to teach in our child’s school, for example. In this case, our language and actions are not as overt as the intolerant rantings of the bigoted, but still manage to serve the same function. Such as it is, these territorial markers stand unapologetically as powerful symbols—no less meaningful than burning a cross in the front lawn. It is often the case that when a certain group is scared or feels threatened by another group, the fearful will often make the first move, and usually commit a frightening act of violence and destruction. African Americans know this fact all too well. Although they have perpetrated a number of violent crimes themselves, blacks have disproportionately been on the receiving end of serious criminal abuse. Remember the story of poor Emmett Till, who was lynched and his body desecrated, all over some perceived slight or for breaking the unspoken rules of the white man. Peaceful and innocent African Americans have suffered grossly at the hands of those in power. Those who are threatened by what the black man represents. It is a barbaric and aggressive gesture, and we’re seeing it more and more, perhaps not because it wasn’t there before, but because we now have the means to capture ongoing injustice.

Perhaps a less overt, but no less potent form of racism is embedded in the very words we use. Just as prehistoric insects from the Triassic Period have been found trapped in amber resin, language has a tendency to preserve racist epithets, and even more subtle racial subjectivity. Although language evolves and changes over time, there are words and expressions that are carried down generations, and are shadowy specters that mostly go unnoticed. Language is influenced by social values and beliefs and is reinforced through the words and images used to convey information and messages that even ‘political correctness’ alone cannot address. The language of people, media and policies perpetuates racism. Media filters to us what we hear and read and see. Presenting only one side of a story influences what we think and believe – this perpetuates racism. We need to think about what we see on television and read in the newspapers and challenge those messages that present only one side of the story. The language of racism is both overt and covert. According to Paul Kivel, in his groundbreaking book ‘Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice’ (1996), “ because concepts of whiteness and race were developed in Christian Europe, references to whiteness are imbued with Christian values. We have ended up with a set of opposing qualities or attributes which are said to define people as either white or as not white. The tendency to see the world in sets of opposites, either/or categories, is in itself a core pattern of thinking developed in elite settings in Western Europe and [North America]. Many other cultures do not divide the world into opposing camps. The English phrase “black-and-white” reflects our desire to divide things into opposites even though everyday reality is rarely clearly defined or neatly categorized.” Kivel identifies some of the good/bad set of value pairings that influence how people think and speak. “Dark” qualities compared to “White” qualities may include: superstitious/scientific, tainted/pure, abnormal/normal, evil/benign (p.20). Kivel also notes that racism is imbedded in our everyday language. A ‘white lie’ has a much different meaning than a ‘black deed’ and in this case, color is the primary indicator of degree of wrongness. “Good Guys wear white hats and ride white horses and the bad guys wear black, the same racially tainted values are passed on and the development of images of darkness to convey danger and to provoke white fear.” (pp.26-27). All throughout our language, we find color qualifiers, and unconsciously make associations based on color. When we see a black man on TV or in the street, whether we want to or not, we may assign a value and assumption about who that person is. There are a few things working against us. The first problem might be the language we use, as indicated above. Although subtle and seemingly unimportant nuances in language may not sound like much, when they are all added together and combined with other factors, it is easy to see why we conjure such images in our minds. So we may associate the color black with bad, deceitful, untrustworthy, etc.

Beyond the subtle value judgments that our language imposes on our collective subconscious, our society has also been extensively exposed to television that has historically depicted people of color in negative and degrading ways. We may remember deadly black gang members, simple and obsequious kitchen maids, sassy talking unintelligent blowhards, pimps and thugs, etc. For every fifty negative stereotypes, we have one show like The Cosby Show that portray positive black American family life. However, The Cosby Show does not conform to our standards, and is not representative of the black culture we think we know. The characters are deemed white-friendly and watered down, and therefore somehow rendered ‘not really black’ or rare examples of ‘the good blacks.’ We once again reformat our minds to accept the Cosby’s as outliers, while tightly holding onto our comfortable impression of what true black life must be like. Things get uglier when we look for blacks in the media and other parts of TV. We see ghetto neighborhoods overrun by crack cocaine, we see the mayor of Washington DC smoking crack and engaging in other unlawful behavior, as well as arrests, race riots, domestic violence, and scandalous life stories of soul singers. Finally, we cross-reference our actual personal encounters with African Americans. Some might have been positive, but all too often, it’s the negative experience that we remember the most, and the one we assign meaning to. We base impressions and draw conclusions about an entire race, based on a single or multiple encounters with those of the same background. If we have had no perceivable slights or negative confrontations with a particular race, they risk being suspect through omission, or lack of encounters. If we have had few personal encounters, we may not know enough about them, so we must rely solely on how the media and Hollywood portray them on screen. In the early days, people of color rarely played more than a servant or stereotypical bad guy. As we’ve evolved as a society, we are seeing more positive role models everywhere. Hispanics, African Americans, Middle Easterners, and other people of color are beginning to find their way into a more prominent place in fictional and non-fictional shows and films. Oprah Winfrey was/is one of the most beloved cultural icons, and loved by people of all color. Actors like Samuel L. Jackson, Morgan Freeman, and Zoe Saldana are perfect examples of America’s enthusiasm for seeing people of color on television and in the movies. Not surprisingly, as there were more and more positive portrayals of blacks in the media, the depictions of people of Arab and Middle Eastern descent plummeted in the wake of 9/11. Seemingly all at once, TV and film villains morphed into vague terrorists from the Arab world or cab drivers or convenience store owners. Needless to say, Arab stock fell dramatically, and many African Americans joked that it took the heat off of them, as Middle Easterners were now the ones being profiled.

Of course, racial profiling is no joking matter, regardless of who’s being targeted. As ethnically diverse as this country is, the vast majority of people who make the laws are upper middle class white; the majority of those who enforce the laws are middle class and white; the majority of those who report the news and make our entertainment are upper middle class and white; the overwhelming majority of people that go through the criminal justice system are impoverished and black or Latino. We have a punitive system of laws and punishment that was crafted by privileged white Americans, which by and large, punishes citizens of color. It’s a system that paradoxically seems too expertly suited for people of color, and conversely, completely ill fitting and unprepared for such inmates.

I am by no means suggesting that the majority of these criminals are not guilty or are not deserving of their just punishment. They are. Most of these young men and women committed crimes, and have been charged accordingly. I am simply suggesting that we have a problem on our hands. Young black men are being profiled in disproportionate numbers, and are repeatedly being shot dead by over-zealous police officers or vigilante gun owners.

The problem is that law enforcement and trigger-happy gun owners frankly don’t have enough positive encounters with young men of color. Although most would hesitate to draw the parallel today, I firmly believe there is an undercurrent of the Overseer (Master)—Slave dialectic at work. We are still deeply entrenched in our archaic struggle, and it is what defined us for centuries. And yet, it hasn’t even been 150 years since the end of the Civil War. We are all still fighting a racial civil war, and the vast majority of us don’t even know it. Even the most liberal and progressive among us, are still unconsciously trafficking in stolen racist currency. As money, our language passes a lot of hands, and we cannot help but be dirtied as the change is made. White men enforcing white laws on young black men, is naturally going to evoke anger and breed resentment. That relationship was tainted from the start, and we are now scratching our heads as to why these exchanges keep turning lethal. They end in blood, because they began in blood, and there will be much more bloodshed ahead, if we don’t come to terms with our troubling past and shameful history.

Rome fell for falling a victim of conceit,

If we don’t rise to mend our ways,

At last our ends will meet.

America has always been a proud nation of conceit. She is a brave and brazen country, who is always steaming forward in the spirit of Manifest Destiny and ‘Go West, young man.’ There is always something greater on the horizon, and something new to conquer. America seems to have no shame, and the rest of the world seems amused (or horrified) at our brash enthusiasm. The spirit of discovery and newness can also be detrimental to the United States. The mass slaughter and annihilation of Native Americans is still fresh and destructive on those descendents who survived. There couldn’t be enough reparations to make right, everything these indigenous Americans endured. The next great injustice was slavery. For over 250 years, African Americans were bought and sold, and worked to death on plantations all throughout the South. These two abominations are what this country was founded on, and because we are uncomfortable with our shameful history, it has been easier to look away, and look ahead. We are still unhealed, and our wounds are raw.

How does a nation recover from wounds that are centuries in the making?

Carefully and creatively.

The first thing that must be acknowledged is that there is no easy fix for such calcified institutional racism. It really will take a number of significant changes on everybody’s part—both black and white. It’s important to recognize that we all still carry baggage and ancestral racism from our shameful past. It is reenacted everyday in classrooms, courtrooms, and street corners. We may not even realize that we play a part in the drama, but we do. It is on our televisions, film screens, in our laws, our law enforcement, job market, media, and language. It’s like a car we have souped-up and refitted with all new parts and exteriors, but no matter how you cut it, it’s still the same old car. It still has all the problems that come with an old and out-of-date model. The language and model we still use is out of date. It comes from a time when people of color were second-class citizens…if that. We look at Ferguson, and we wonder: ‘How can this keep happening?’ It keeps happening because we keep acting the same old script over and over again. We can make little fixes like having officers record their exchanges with suspects or by demilitarizing the police, but these are just band-aids on a much larger and graver wound. I’m not here to provide a list of changes to be made, but I can at least observe that this has to happen on the ground floor, and be a mission of peace, humility, contrition, reconciliation, compromise, and everyone needs to admit fault and accept responsibility. It needs to be a purposeful summit aimed at hearts and minds, not shock and awe. On a greater level, it needs to be about changing laws and shifting focus. That means decriminalizing certain crimes, lighter sentences, more proportionate race representation, parity in sentencing with whites, emphasis on reform and marketable skills, job counseling, community organizations, improved schools and more educational opportunities, more after school programs, crime prevention programs, beneficial sports organizations, arts outlets, drug awareness programs, strong church and civic involvement, and many more.

Investing in people of color—specifically black America—means shifting focus from reactive and punitive to preventive and educational. It means rather than spend millions and millions on building larger and more efficient prisons, we spend that money on pre-school and elementary schools. Rather than outfit a police force with military equipment, instead we could institute programs where officers go out into the community and volunteer or work with these youth, rather than shoot them. It means the federal government shifting it focus, and looking to be more inclusive. It doesn’t mean easy handouts to the poor, but making sure to create a healthy land of opportunity, where no young black man will need turn to crime. If that means fighting less foreign wars or providing aid to other countries, than so be it. We have a domestic crisis on our hands, and a wound that needs more help healing. The answer isn’t throwing more money at the problem. The answer is being more creative in how we spend our money, and look at ways to change the dialogue. That means involving African Americans in the conversation, and looking for ways we can be more inclusive and how we can give people the benefit of the doubt.

True reconciliation won’t come until both sides admit fault, both sides forgive the other, and we recognize that the script we’ve been using just doesn’t work anymore. Ferguson is a flash point, but sadly, one of many. A young man may have used poor judgment and committed a crime that day, but a police officer definitely erred that day by using excessive force. One young man lost his life that day, and his death sparked a firestorm of anger. People are angry and some are violent. Michael Brown Jr. is this week’s name, but sadly, there’ll be more. Surely, we must address the abuse of power in American law enforcement, and the ever-deepening mistrust and gap between the African American community and a militarizing police force. But let’s not stop there. Let Ferguson be a rallying cry to take a closer examination of race and its very real legacy in America today. Let us all work together to find peaceful solutions and ways we can include everyone and allow all of us access to the ‘American Dream.’

If nothing else, Ferguson should teach us what may happen to a dream deferred—it might explode.

The Nobility of Suffering: Is it Cowardice to Take One’s Life?

Suicide_prevention

In the wake of the tragic loss of Robin Williams by his own hand, we are left speechless and traumatized. And forever picking up the pieces, as is often the case with unfathomable suicide. It goes without saying that all but a tiny fraction of us will never know what’s beyond that door of despair. Most of us will never take our own lives, and the very thought tastes profane in our very mouths. Most of us will never need nobility of mind against the unjust scales of human suffering. We will all endure the scrapes and bruises, trials and tragedies of a life long-lived, but for most of us, our little lives are hardly stuff which dreams are made on. Or as the case may be, nightmares. If fortune favors the bold, we are most just fortunate to ‘scape through life without the task of courting death. For those who fear the reaper, their lives are precious gems, and may in fact be the only precious thing they inherit, and will only ever be so bold, as to not give up their fortune. This precious majority would never entertain the thought of self-slaughter, and could never fathom fortunes turning to a place of that most desperate measure. It is in this plane of existence that most of us will never visit, and most certainly never live.

There’s people out there hurting now, not because they’re desperate, but because they’ve lost something precious that they always thought they knew: Robin Williams. If he was crazy-funny, he was still that favorite uncle with the silly jokes and cock-eyed impressions that left us laughing, sometimes crying, sometimes crying-laughing. He was familiar in the best possible way, and though he was a movie star, he was also one of us. There’s a lot of people out there hurting now, and now they’re desperate for a cause. People want their answers neat, and only when the unthinkable happens, do we truly know how deaf the world is to our calls. We are desperate now and hurting, for the uncle that we knew, and the filmtrack of our lives is turning, but the answers aren’t. Only questions burning. How could someone that we thought we knew, do something so utterly foreign and alien to our very sensibility? Suicide was what terrorist bombers did to get our attention and to take out as many lives with them as they possibly could. Was this like that? Did Robin Williams want attention and to inflict as much damage on his loved ones and the ones who loved him most from afar? The answers were frustrating dead ends, that couldn’t be found in a note, or even the actions of days gone by. The answers were forever knit up in that brain we thought we knew, now forever closed to us, and leaving us frustrated, angry, and confused. We thought we knew our Robin well, and now we’re left to pick up pieces that don’t fit together, but we have glue and time now too, and glue is made for fixing. We are now attempting to reconstruct the psyche of a man inestimably damaged. We are no longer speechless, but rather, vocal in our outrage. It seems absolutely inconceivable to us that a man with so much talent and the love, respect, and affection of his friends, family, and adoring fans, could ever throw that all away so casually, negligently…spitefully. We are vocal now, indignant, and want answers for our hearts. How could such a trusted friend, have such callous disregard for his fan base? We are vocal now, projecting, and we place ourselves in him. Williams can no longer just be his unique brand of humor and poignant charm, for now he is the hill we wage war to capture, and soldiers stream from all sides, claiming victories and denouncing underhanded treachery. We claim him for ourselves, and Robin doesn’t live here anymore. Of all impassioned pleas and careful trickeries, we cannot help but keep asking whether Robin Williams was a selfish coward or a courageous victim, unable to stop his own hand against himself. The war raged.

This is just one of many contributions people have made to the debate over Robin Williams. There have been many valid points made, but I would have to assert that we have no right to judge whether someone is brave or not based on whether they killed themselves or suffered 80 years of hard-living. Personally, I can’t fathom the courage it must take to jump off a precipice from which you can’t return, not knowing if anything lies beyond. Or is that cowardice? Who knows? How can we make value judgements on the inner workings of a tortured psyche we know nothing of? So it’s great that some people are SO brave that they can endure the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but Williams is a chicken shit coward who doesn’t even have the balls to take up arms against a sea of troubles, and instead commits self-slaughter. It doesn’t work like that, and I’m sick of people who are not professionals in the mental health field making value judgements and backseat diagnoses of someone and something they know nothing about. Mental illness isn’t measured in cups and ounces, and bravery is a relative term. Was it brave for Jews to endure the inhumane treatment and annihilation at the hands of the Nazis? Of course it was. Flip that on its head though, and honestly ask yourself whether it was also insanity to face the daily extermination and torture of your people and still hold onto a thing called hope or faith. If the definition of crazy is to do the same thing over and over again, and expect different results, then what’s crazier than a people refusing to break in the face of unspeakable horror? Of course now we know their patience and courage were eventually rewarded–however bittersweet it might have been. But what happens to a dream deferred? What does that kind of trauma do to a psyche? Could we have honestly blamed them had they taken their own lives in mass waves of self-slaughter? Who are we to judge the holocaust of one’s own mind? One man’s courage is another man’s madness. I simply ask society at large, and you my readers in particular to loosen your tight grip on what your rigid definition of bravery, especially when cradled in the arms of a damaged man’s psyche. Everything is relative in the eyes of a broken soul, and who are we to accuse Robin Williams of selfish cowardice, when we know nothing of the wars that raged inside his embattled brain, and fought ferociously across his heart? Let’s leave terms like ‘brave’ and ‘weak’ for the real soldiers who pin medals and issue discharges, and show something more akin to compassion, when discussing the battles of the sick. Robin didn’t choose disease, but it chose him with a vengeance. Although he chose to take his life, his disease did that long before. Let’s use words like doctors use, find patience with our patients, and learn to finally bury our famous, without burying their memory.

A FEW WORDS ON MENTAL HEALTH & SUICIDE, FOR THOSE WHOSE EARLIER POSTS WERE PERHAPS A LITTLE MISGUIDED, MISINFORMED, & EVEN OFFENSIVE

tumblr_mnp1ka9lC21s6juq0o1_500

I feel like I have to say something, because in the wake of Robin Williams’ suicide, there is a lot of misinformation out there, and a fundamentally unsound, if not frankly dangerous, understanding of what it means to commit suicide, attempt to take your own life, and/or display suicidal ideation and planning.

The first and most important thing to know is that mental illness does not discriminate based on age, gender, religion, creed, race, orientation, fame, obscurity, wealth, poverty, or any other factor. That means that the bipolar disorder that Robin Williams had in California is effectively the same as the one ravaging the mind of a homeless man in Miami. Obviously, the significant difference in their two stories, is that Williams most certainly had access to the finest doctors, medicine, rehabs, and services, that our homeless friend likely did not. However, at the end of the day, the diseases are elusive and insidious parasites, that worm their way through brains, and weigh heavy with depression or burn fast and furiously through the night as mania has her tireless way with you. Robin Williams was under the care of a doctor, and had been seeking help for years. You must understand that just like chemo can’t always get the cancer out, these disorder are chronic and persistent, and all the medication in the world can’t necessarily save you from a devastating bout of depression. And that’s exactly where he was, when he decided (or his unstable brain decided) to take his own life. Doctors aren’t paid to follow you around and make sure you don’t die.

The comments I found most objectionable, were only written with the best intentions. And sometimes, those are the most dangerous and insidious kind. The stigma surrounding mental health is not born in the hearts of backward plotting deviants. It is passed and accepted and permeates ALL our households, as we gaze from afar, but make judgements all too near. The first fallacious argument asserted that Williams could have simply employed the power of positive thinking to wish suicide away. I saw a lot of suggestions that Robin should have swallowed his own medicine from ‘Good Will Hunting’ and simply told himself, “It’s not your fault.” Whereas, I understand your hearts may be in the right place, but it is nearly impossible to whisper a clever catch phrase from a movie, and somehow hope you’ll speak truth to power. It doesn’t work like that — not in these terrifying moments of abject hopelessness. Similarly, there is often little to be gained (BUT still worth trying on both sides) from summoning the love and affection of your closest and dearest friends and family. They can, and should make all efforts to intervene, but often for the suicidal, that ship has already sailed. Don’t you think the suicidal man has already berated himself over the hurt and anguish he’s painfully aware that he’s just hours from inflicting on his beloved friends and family? Trust me….they’ve carried that anguish from the very first dark seed to this last stage of execution. Indeed, the family has been with him the whole time, and I’m sure it was no different with Williams. And if the idea of those he loved the most could not sway him, the love and adoration of his fans would hardly do much more. By that time, he was more than likely beyond all consolation. In his mind, he was bringing peace to chaos, and sparing his family any further pain or turmoil. You may think that weak or ultimately selfish, but to the clouded logic of the anguished, it is a mercy killing, not only for themselves, but for the trouble and pain they see themselves cause everyone that they love, and even those who bear no love for them. There is very little reasoning that they can engage themselves in and rational talk has all but abandoned them by then. The planning has been done for days, the affairs are all in order, and now, the tools of their own destruction are at their fingertips, and only the vast nothing lies ahead. No, there is no rational talk or impassioned reason, for this is no longer a courtroom of reason and mercy. It is the gallows of their own making. They are their own executioner. By that point, there’s no sense in reasoning with the axe man, for his fate is now your own. Perhaps in that room that’s not quite nothing yet, there is something, and life is made from spoke wheels of something. And so maybe in that liminal land where life is soon erased, the words of man’s most cherished love, may find audience in a land still of somethings. If Robin Williams had had the fortune of a loving intervention, he may very well have lived to see another night. Sadly, statistics show that even those who are close to the act, but snatched from the jaws of death once, or even twice, still manage to find their way back to finish the job they started.

The reasons why it is so impossibly difficult to disengage from such a cold and brutal act, is not just that it’s nearly impossible to whisper those words and phrases of positive thinking to oneself, but because there are chemicals in the brain that are churning and burning, and obstructing us from sense, while compelling us to go on, whatever the cost may be. Because, you see, ailments like Bipolar, are debilitating neurological disorders of the brain, and you can’t just hope to whisper happy thoughts in there, and disregard the witches cauldron, brewing uncontrollably. In depressive episodes, manic depressives are beyond consolable. They may spend 18 hours a day in bed, as they try and disappear, effectively ending their pain and unburdening their guilt and aggregate shame. Robin Williams was in such a depressive episode. Had he been manic, he would have spoken uncontrollably fast, not unlike we’ve seen him before. Those frenetic moments were always funny, but also disturbing. Because when you are manic, it is the mania in control, and you are but its rag doll. Manics can sometimes take their lives, but they are far more likely to succumb during the excruciating transition and inevitable crash from mania back into depression. It is the time when most bipolar suicides occur.

I will leave you with this. No one wants to take their life. All of us have people we love, things we enjoy doing, and things we hope to accomplish. BUT NOT IN THAT MOMENT. In that frightening wormhole of regret, there is nothing else. There is no mother…no father…no car…no dog. In order to take our lives, we must rid ourselves of everything that makes us human. It’s as if we know we cannot take it with us, but even more than that, it’s really just a way of cleansing the palate and removing any and all possessions which may deter us from the course. Naturally, this is not true for everyone, and I can only imagine that there is something intimate and ritualistic in the ways each man and woman leave this earth. I have never made it to the flat plane of negative existence, where I imagine we shed the things we do not need. I cannot help but wonder which way the door does swing, or even if it swings at all, for perhaps it just revolves. I am not curious enough to find out quite yet. I picture a cold and barren field spread out before you, open to anyone who might tempt it, but closed to all all who carry more. I’m not sure if it takes the greatest amount of courage to take your own life, or the saddest and most despicable cowardice. I don’t believe it need be either, or is ever reducible to such simple motivations. I would guess, however, that when those who’ve suffered as far as they can suffer, and have already weighed the hurt they shall inadvertently cause to those they love, against the unbearable anger, pain, guilt, ennui, hopelessness, emptiness, and everything else that has filled each of their days, since they can remember, the choice may be more apparent. Perhaps not. I cannot put myself in the psyche of a man about to take his life, but I would guess that it probably wasn’t enough for Robin Williams to tell himself ‘It’s not your fault.’ With a society as conflicted and often unsupportive as ours, it’s hard to imagine that anyone suffering from mental illness could do anything but blame themselves.

I cannot help but think of one of my favorite Robin Williams’ movies, ‘The Fisher King,’ and how deliciously (yet tenderly) mad his character Parry was. And like Don Quixote, this knight-errant took to the urban city streets in search of his own brand of dragon. But in the end, Parry’s dragon was too fierce and nearly broke the man in two. If only Robin’s dragon could have spared such a brave and noble knight. He will be sorely missed.

My Brother’s Keeper: The Role of Society in Our Stigmatized Mental Health Field

 

 

robin-williams-quiz-banner

 

 

This is absolutely devastating. I’ve been a fan of Robin Williams since I was a small child, watching Popeye and Mork and Mindy on television. He starred in some of my favorite films: Dead Poets Society, The Fisher King, One Hour Photo, Good Will Hunting, and many more. His work was both dark and light, and could seemingly only come from the heart and mind of an artist suffering from Bipolar I Disorder. Williams was able to tap into the manic to conjure the funniest wisecracking characters you’ve ever seen. But from the depths of his depression, he brought us dark and complex psychoanalysts, serial killers, and motivational teachers of literature. His films were not always good, but Williams was almost always watchable.

I am saddened to see such a talent brought down in the prime of his career, by his own hand, and with so much to live for. But where he was–in that hole of despair–there’s little reasoning or hope to be had. And yet, what I do hope is that something good comes out of this–however small. Or will it teach us as little about mental illness as Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s senseless death taught us about drug addiction? I hope not.
Recently, we’ve seen the psychosis of those suffering from mental illness take the lives of innocent adults and children–most often because they went untreated or undiagnosed. But even though they inflict the most traumatic carnage and leave the deepest scars, they are less than an infinitesimal fraction of the millions of Americans that are living and treating mental illness everyday. The stigma that persists around mental illness is that it is somehow an untreatable disease, rather than what it is–a persistent, but manageable illness, not unlike some cancers, diabetes, or any other similar ailment.
I passionately believe in education and prevention as a way to combat stigma, help our beleaguered veterans, and find better networks, medicine, and support to prevent any more desperate men and women at risk of taking their own lives, just as Robin Williams did. Because mental illness doesn’t know the difference between rich and poor, famous and unknown, mom or dad, soldier or civilian, or any other of the traits that divide us. It is an indiscriminating affliction, that can descend at any time, anywhere, to any one of us. And yet as a society, we are woefully uninformed, unprepared, fearful, scornful, unsympathetic, and intolerant of what we don’t know and don’t understand.
In reality, there is little to fear from those whose harm is almost always self-directed. In fact, suicide is the number one cause of premature death among people with bipolar disorder, with a staggeringly high 17% to 20% taking their own lives as a result of negative symptoms and as many as one in five patients with bipolar disorder completing suicide. Compare that to the suicide rate of 1% to 2% found in the general public. More than likely, Robin Williams suffered deeply, desperately, and quietly. Sadly, he joins a heartbreaking group of other Bipolar/ Manic Depressive artists that also took their own lives, including, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Kurt Cobain, Vincent Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Jack London, Hunter S. Thompson, David Foster Wallace, and many countless others.

It is very frightening. Resources or not, no manic depressive is immune from the visiting temptations of self-destruction…in whatever form. In the last few hours, I have seen a number of posts by very well-intentioned people suggesting that Williams might have saved himself, had he thought of all his adoring fans or confided in someone he loved, These are all very sweet sentiments, but miss the mark of a deep-rooted neurological disorder. It would have likely taken far more than those quick fixes to mend the sorrow of a dark and empty heart. For those who have been lucky enough to have never tempted the void and traveled to the very brink of life itself, or been eviscerated at the hands of debilitating depression, there is no easy way to describe a barren landscape of no hope and only despair. It has been stripped of all memory, and any other earthly thing that may delay next passage. It is not of the next plane, but it certainly is not of this world either. It is a place where either the bravest go, or those most weak and cowardly. It cannot be an easy choice, and it frightens me beyond compare to imagine a view of nothing left to lose except for pain and sadness. By that time, the choice might or might not have been reversible. We are all just speculating, and ultimately, none of us will ever know what was in his mind, and what it would have taken to talk him down and out of harm’s way.

 

There may not be a cure out there, but there is in each of us. We have the ability and resources to embrace our sick and wounded, and remove the barriers of intolerance, the crippling shame all those who suffer feel, and the mercy and compassion it takes to see ourselves in the afflicted, and fundamentally recognize that at any precious moment, it could very well be us.

 

RIP Robin Williams. Let us work to lift the load off those who continue to suffer as you did, but may still find hope and a helping hand.

 

Dating Now Vs. The ’90s: A Blog Inspired by the Buzzfeed Video of the Same Name

Dating Now Vs. The ’90s.

 

I am that guy in the video, still hopelessly stuck in the ’90s and pining for that lost age before the internet and texting. Whether you accept it or not, the rapid and unprecedented explosion of high-tech innovation and market saturation has fundamentally changed the way we date and meet new people–romantic or otherwise. The ’90s were a doorway, if you will, between the traditional ways we had courted for centuries, and a brand new, fast and easy way to practically custom-order romance in lives filled with commitments, but short on time. In the Buzzfeed video, Dating Now Vs. The ’90s, a woman and man debate the merits and shortcomings of dating in the ’90s vs. today. One subtle idea that the video raises is that now, more than ever, we slavishly adhere to the silly notion that progress has delivered us into an age of skills and solutions unquestionably superior to everything that came before. Perhaps it is human nature to render the accomplishments of the past as quaint and/or something always to be improved upon. We must be careful not confuse the word ‘easy’ with ‘better’ or ‘faster’ with ‘successful.’ We must frankly evaluate the tools we inherit, and recognize when not to reinvent the wheel or throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Was dating in the ’90s better or worse than today? Does it have to be either or? For the purposes of this essay, my aim is to probe both sides of the debate, and draw conclusions based on how the scale tips and favors.

I contend that the ’90s were an instrumental transitional decade for the world–America, in particular–and that during these years, dating began to change some, while mostly staying the same. It was a decade on the cusp of something big, and thus, it had little responsibility to the decade before it, and could only wait anxiously for what was to come after. During the ’90s, there was a certain frivolity and abandon that changed dating from its more traditional past, while still holding onto much of its old-fashioned charm. At the very least, people had to use more traditional means to meet someone–a mutual friend referral, the bar scene, shared activities, academic flirtations, work affairs, etc. What dating sites there were were organized by phone, or in pre-arranged singles events. There were matchmaking services that tried to match personalities based on likes and dislikes, but there was nothing as nuanced and precise as an eHarmony, for instance. Finding love was a lot more analog and chemical, rather than digital and algorithmic. This all changed when the Digital Age arrived, and had no problem easily brushing aside the slight and quaint angst of the ’90s–a decade who anxiously sowed the seeds of a technological new world order, while being completely unprepared for how quickly they would be forgotten, and how thoroughly irrelevant those Grunge-filled years would be compared to the future of a second and more far-reaching Industrial Revolution. The world changed in an instant.

Now I’m the first to admit that I sometimes have an uneasy feeling about the ubiquitous role of technology in our lives, and am quick to observe the negative consequences it may have, despite its many obvious virtues. But we all know those, right? I don’t have to write an essay about how cool it is that I can send a text with directions to my house, rather than call someone from my old-fashioned landline to their old fashioned landline, and thus eliminate a two-minute conversation about nothing more than directions. We all know the innovative miracles we hold, touch, hear, and see everyday of our relatively new digital world. We know that, whereas I waste everybody’s time trying to raise questions and start conversations about what we can do to safeguard ourselves and our children from the potential harms and pitfalls inevitable in any new technology. Think about it: for the first time in history, we have an unprecedented amount of processing power in our hands, with little to no guidance on how to use it morally, responsibly, peacefully, altruistically, harmlessly, etc.  We have the divine at our fingertips–whether you belief in God or not, you can at least follow my metaphor–and with such power, we can actually (literally) give life or take it, depending on the device. I may sound hyperbolic, but honestly think about the myriad uses of your phone–to call, text, save information, take pictures, take video, surf the internet, do online banking, write reviews, etc, etc. All those things can be used for great good, neither good nor bad (most of life), or dastardly deeds like bringing down world banks and committing fraud, while taking a video of a car wreck and capturing a burning baby inside to post on YouTube later. Okay, that was meant to be dramatic, but you get my point. These are loaded weapons we all are carrying, and when we bring them into our dating lives, we always run the risk of having our technology unintentionally work against us, and even burn us quite sorely.  We just need to think about the role of a third and objective computer or digital program being a mediator / facilitator between singles, and how much we want a mechanical and inorganic presence to figure into the most intimate and organic of all human rituals: love. Love is already a fickle arena, and one might find technology adds a whole new set of unforeseen complications and difficulties. Then again, so does the barbaric and often fruitless mating ritual performed at bars and clubs every night, involving poorly worded and roughly uttered pick-up lines and come-ons. Does anyone really expect to meet their future spouse in a place like that, and in such a crude manner? Obviously they (we) do. That’s probably why half of us are there.  Although, I suppose we dream of something a little more sophisticated — we probably all have dreams of James Bond chatting us up with his urbane wit and roguish good looks, and buying us martinis til our head spins. I mean, duh.  I’m not even gay, but I have some variation of that dream myself. Shaken, not stirred, thank you very much. Haha.

Yet somehow, with all these devices to help us today,  I still got more play in the ’90s than I ever did since. Even taking into consideration all our poor choices and low standards during the Grunge Age (Haha!), there was still something…dare I say ‘better’….at least more organic, that my personality craves and thrives on still today. I wonder at the ubiquity of technology in dating today. Where does the device stop, and we begin? Are we in a post-talking and meeting naturally age? We’re obviously not going to turn back the hands of time, and nor should we. We are living in an age of great promise and technological wizardry, which naturally renders the past quaint and obsolete, as the automobile did the horse.

There is nothing wrong with using our instruments to help us in just another area of our lives: romance. However, I wonder if it’s possible for technology play a supplemental role or even a significant one, while not being the primary instrument of connection. This has always been the root of my dilemma. Can we use our tech safely, efficiently, and smartly, in a way that enhances and aids our lives, without supplanting the human part of the equation? We must always tend the store, and be vigilant that our servants and instruments of ease and convenience don’t become our masters, and enslave us. Mentally, of course. Our increasing dependence on them does put us at risk of becoming enfeebled and unable to endure pain, loss, failure, or defeat. It seems like technology has a way or bringing people together, while simultaneously dividing them apart. We are closer, but perhaps understand each other less. When we are in physical proximity of a person, we have a greater degree of success at judging and evaluating a person based on their body language, voice, actions, etc. We are globally closer, but in some ways, personally further away. People are encouraged to intermingle and find topics and groups of interest, and are often drawn in by the safety and connection engendered by similar interests and like-mindedness. But we must always be careful that we don’t allow ourselves to be duped and fooled by a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Of course, the Internet is full of wolves. If only this gift we all received had come with a guide book, disclaimer, or preferably, directions. We are set adrift in the Wild West of our day, and it is an often rough and tumble lawless place, where it often seems like the best and brightest of us are scammed and bamboozled by every fifth person we encounter. Or personality, rather. There are no people on the internet, but personas, avatars, and carefully constructed constructs. Now everyone knows that even the Old West had swindlers and flimflammers, who were always looking to scam another sucker. The Internet simply has a more sophisticated version. And sadly, you can’t see these ones. The Internet Dating Industry has probably satisfied over half of its subscribers. It’s a multi-billion dollar business, so someone’s getting happy (while most are getting sad, of course). I’m not suggesting that the dating industry is a racket or loaded dice game. I think they probably want to find you a match. Of course, then they lose a customer. But your happiness spreads to everyone you know, and you are suddenly Match.com’s new ad campaign. Ten new customers. It’s an algorithm, but it ain’t rocket science. These sites know how to match people, because they have complex processors and data bases able to process innumerable scraps of data about you and everyone else on the site (and probably the information of other non-members, which they’ve bought off a third party)  They are in the science of matchmaking. But humans are well-equipped with their own built-in gadgetry. The human pheromone is still not fully understood, but that only seems appropriate, given its ineffable and wily charms and potency. This clever, but elusive foe, has been adding and canceling out potential mates for…well…let’s just say tens of thousands of years. We are made of it, and secrete it, and in an ideal world, we’ll expose each other to it, in person. Naturally, we still have pheromones as we type away at our computers, but part of me can’t help but think that the first time I meet my next partner, there is something chemical in, as Star Trek would say, ‘First Contact.’ Are we losing the potency of naturally produced chemicals intended to work as a cocktail in conjunction with those we first meet? For that matter, perhaps everybody we meet is subject to our love litmus test, regardless of whether they are a suitable or desirable mate. Therefore, I cannot help but wonder whether First Contact made over the Internet is stronger, weaker, or about the same as a more organic face-to-face encounter. I don’t know the answer to that. It’s probably unquantifiable. However, it does seem like something is lost when a potential couple plays this back and forth messaging, in which they divulge everything (see: as much as they’re comfortable with) about themselves, but have only laid eyes on probably outdated pictures of their amour potentiel. Now, in full disclosure, I have dated online and even met an ex-girlfriend through a dating website, but that only seems to make me more unsure of my feelings of their efficacy. To me, there does seem to be something inorganic, fake, hasty, shallow, deceptive, and simply ineffectual in pairing people together through algorithms and thinking that having enough mutual foods in common is going to somehow make us compatible. There’s simply something fundamentally unsound about pairing people based solely on a binary series of 1s and 0s. I am not suggesting that technical wizardry such as that, has no place in romance. I just wonder whether it should be a starting point. In the course of several weeks, we think we know everything about a date we’ve never even met, but we all understand that websites and screen names can only go so far, and the most important ingredient is the first date. Such rites of passage have always been nerve-wracking, and probably were from the dawn of time. I can easily picture a cave man on his very first date…terrified to meet Krag at a club, and then terrified to club her if it’s a love connection. First dates were no easier in the ’90s or any other previous decade, however, there was a kind of bare and exhilarating anticipation that can only come from a) meeting someone for the first time; b) essentially knowing nothing about the person across from you and a wealth of topics to explore; and c) the physical intoxication of pheromones, other libidinous chemicals, eye contact, body language, comportment, courtesy/chivalry, politeness, ability to communicate, etc. that we can only experience in person. There is something more charged, dynamic, and unknown in not having communicated by email for weeks, not having shared pictures and playlists, Yelp suggestions, and silly cat videos. Those are all wonderful little perks to being a human being in the 21st Century, but those are simply more 1s and 0s, and when added all together, even the aggregate doesn’t begin to define who we are, and how we carry ourselves as human beings. Sure, you can find that out in various dates that follow the digital foreplay, but it will never be that same spark that can only exist when you start to see a mate in the eyes across from you, or conversely count the minutes until you can politely (or not) creep away. In the ’90s and past decades, that often meant men paid for a lot of dinners that were either enthusiastically devoured, or left hardly touched. What I’m describing was often painful and undesirable by every stretch of the imagination, but the reward came in finding pearls where you weren’t even looking. Of course the destination was the most important goal, but it seemed that there was virtue and payoff in the journey there. The work and sometimes strife was a reward unto itself. Although I rarely abide by my own belief, I do think there is much benefit in how you get there, and the work you put in. Those turbulent and uncertain years of my late teens/early 20s were not always easy, but I’d like to think they built character and made me the person I am today. I cannot help but think that the ease and efficiency of online dating and all the devices we use to court each other (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc) are poor imitations of the beautiful complexity that is the human mating ritual. I know it’s a new method or take on an old theme, but there is something fundamentally different about this. Meeting a girl you’ve been set up with at the Sadie Hawkins Dance is A LOT different than sending naked pics of yourself, via Snapchat, to a guy you’ve just met online. For one thing, as my grandmother would have said, ‘Why buy the cow, when you can get the milk for free?’ Indeed, we are all getting very candid glimpses of each other, but nobody knows anyone any more deeply or substantially. Are we all giving away the milk for free, without the experience and satisfaction of milking the cow ourselves? Okay, that was a mixed metaphor and a flagrantly unsubtle sexual innuendo. I apologize. You see…if you only knew me from my blog posts, you would falsely assume that I have nothing but dirty entendres and cheap laughs in my arsenal. In fact, I have many witty and high-brow bon mots, jests, rejoinders, jibes, and quips. All still dirty though. 😛

Apart from online business ventures, Internet dating is one of the most dangerous and deceptive areas of the internet. Should we not do it? No. I’m not suggesting that. I currently have dating profiles out there myself (with little success). Everyone today knows that the Internet is a place that can be fraught with danger. Parents know this better than anyone. I’m simply suggesting that we have to do double-duty, by not only looking out for deceptive and dangerous individuals in the dating world, but also understanding that even the best ones are only a flimsy representation of themselves. Perhaps their photos are not them or woefully out-of-date. The bio is impressive, but actually is untruthful thru omission, and sounds a little too good to be true. We all do it. As I alluded to earlier, our avatar is only a snapshot of us, in all the right lighting and on just the right day. What I’m saying is that we must be careful that our online personas don’t become us. I know this all too well, and have pushed the envelope in the past and sometimes tested the patience of those who read my words–both family and friends alike. And I am remorseful for some of the things I have written online in the past. I was always passionate, albeit sometimes a bit misguided. Again, that was a snapshot of me at a particular time–a bad one, at that–but not representative of all that I am, and everything I believe.  Just as I don’t deserve to be judged for my ‘worst’ day, nobody online deserves to be praised or worshipped for their ‘best’ day. Internet profiles are just that — us in profile. We can only see a very limited perspective of a person, and what we see isn’t always what we get. I’m not suggesting that we throw away internet dating. I think it is valuable, in its own special ways. For instance, in a time of challenging workloads, increased distractions, and personal pursuits, we have very little time to date the bygone traditional way. The Internet provides a very efficient means of meeting people. I’m simply saying that we need to be wary of some magical silver bullet, that is going to solve all our romantic needs. Sometimes being introduced to someone, meeting somebody out in the world, or pursuing someone more organically, might be more satisfying than trying to narrow your searches down to the type of food a potential partner might eat. There is something to be said for the good old fashioned face-to-face interaction I described above.

In addition to safety concerns and misrepresentation (either purposeful or inadvertent), I sometimes find this whole high-tech-dating business to be cold and inaccessible. For instance, I can’t think of anything creepier than that software that uses your cell signal to find people in your proximity at a bar/club who are also into [fill in the blank interest]. I know it’s a digital way to find like-minded people, but there’s still something unnatural about the whole thing. There’s something to be said for all the failure that comes before romantic success. We’re becoming so allergic to failure and do whatever we can to insulate ourselves from its contagious effects.

Of course, I sound like I’m blaming the digital age, when in reality, I just got old, lost my hair, gained some pounds, lost my game, and became obsolete. LOL. It’s probably easier to blame technology than myself or circumstance. Like the guy in the video, I’m nostalgic for a time and a way of life that just doesn’t exist anymore. Although, in actuality, that guy is young enough to be my son, and the beloved ’90s he pines for actually belonged to his parents or older siblings, and therefore he is only arguing a theoretical idea, not a tangible nostalgic memory. Ergo, this non-emperical premise is untested and especially weak in the hypothetical. Sadly, that young buck is not even old enough to remember MY mad, mad, mojo game of the most fabulous Grunge Epoch (his loss).  😉

The Internet is a curious place of extremes and contradictions, and seems to be a place where people come to gorge themselves, and want to know everything about a persona…to a point. In truth, most of us don’t really want to see anything too intellectually rigorous, starkly substantial, or emotionally vulnerable or confessional. With all of these, I mean them in their purest and most dense form–a mile deep, you might say. However, at its worst, the internet is a mile wide, but only an inch thick. It has seemingly everything you could possibly desire, but more often than not, only gives you soundbites and headlines, and rarely digs deeper. Of course, I am generalizing, and there are plenty of great hard-hitting sites that address topics, news, events, people, etc. in full and with probing inquiry. But by and large, the vast expanses of the Internet are filled with news, entertainment, special interest, and other similar sites, all devoted to providing all the latest and hottest headlines of any given area.

It may be helpful to accept that even the most sophisticated algorithms and matchmaking engines cannot make a dating site any more than what it fundamentally is — an unfathomably fast database and search engine which pairs people based on mutual interests, dislikes, philosophies, beliefs,  etc. Such a machine is impressive, but is innately flawed by its one overwhelming deficit: it can’t smell. I mean that it can’t smell your favorite type of flower, the perfume you wear the most, the musky and intoxicating scent–really undetectable to the untrained nose–of pheromones and other libidinous chemicals that inexplicably capture that prehistoric and reptilian part of our brains. Such time-tested and evolved human engineering has improved upon itself for millennia, and is the instinctual barometer and thermometer we use to measure the pressure and temperature of the room and exactly how our date is affecting that–for good or for bad. It’s in the smell, and in the eyes, the touch, and even the taste that we find love and stake proverbial claims on optimal partners. It’s savage and prehistoric, and it’s the animal still in us, that no computer will likely ever be able to truly replicate. So of course, it’s all right and good to subscribe to a service that tries to use numbers instead of the senses we were all born with, but we have to accept that one is not properly a substitute for the other. eHarmony may have all the tools and wizardry, but the sleek efficiency and numbing effectiveness of a human being at this stage in our evolution is unparalleled. We are the most impressive machine. And when the day comes when that changes, we better all be looking over our shoulders. Haha.

Now that I’m practically culturally irrelevant in this youth and tech-obsessed age, dating sites for guys pushing middle age might seem like the perfect place to hide all my inescapable flaws and all the things I’ve inevitably lost since I was a younger man. Or gained, as the case may be. Haha. Yet, I would rather be as digitally candid as I can be, while hypocritically admitting to having old and glamorous pics of myself up and of sculpting my words carefully to craft a profile that stands out. Guilty as charged. At the same time, I have always been painfully honest and outspoken (as my friends, family, and frequent visitors painfully know), and that often applies to my dating profiles or other means of technology I use in the dating game. My words are often flowery, overly articulate, intellectual, and undoubtedly intimidating. And of course, I seem to find it necessary to mention my three degrees and all the places I’ve lived and traveled. Clearly, I’m trying to impress would be partners, but I often think I only end up poisoning the well. Even as I carefully craft and manicure my online persona to be the most attractive and engaging profile out there, I realize that I am at odds with my slavish devotion to telling the truth and my insecure tendency to draw attention to it. Meanwhile, even as I come across as boasting and superior, I am, in reality, not representing myself accurately or effectively. In person, I may sometimes come across that way, but never would someone take away those negative impressions, if they heard it from my lips directly. No matter how hard we try, there is a filter (or lack thereof) that doesnt perfectly capture our tone, meaning, voice, and humor. Of course, there is the oxymoron of me loving words and language as a tool for communication and expression, but not always knowing how to wield them successfully. It is also that toxic blend of insecurity mixed with the very real pressure and expectation to be attractive, fascinating, and engaging to all your readers. It is that perfection paradigm that has permeated our social consciousness. I know I’m not alone, because I see such conflict and poor communication in most people out there. In posts, profiles, dating bios, blogs….everywhere. Sometimes it is due to insecurity, but often it has to do with shockingly poor writing skills, not helped by fast and abbreviated texts, a reliance in spell check/autocorrect, and inadequate or ineffective grammar and English language education. What I am saying is this: I have three degrees, have taught AP English, have taught at the middle school, high school, college, and adult education levels, and yet I still have spotty grammar, often fail in capturing a conversational and accessible voice, and constantly over-edit myself–often with worse results! If I struggle and fail so epically, imagine what many other people with less education or more uneven training are doing, and how they are mangling words and misrepresenting themselves left and right. No wonder we have become an increasingly functionally superficial and shallow society, when we conspicuously lack the grammar and language skills to support a world suddenly overrun with devices whose primarily function is to transmit the written word!!! If language is the currency of thought, that puts us in very real danger of bankrupting ourselves intellectually. And I don’t mean writing theorems on relativity, but the basic higher level cognitive skills we need to survive and thrive. If our words fail us, so will our ability to make meaning and express ourselves deeply. We went from people talking on phones and in person, with very little need to write daily, to suddenly all these platforms that function through the written word. We simply did/do not have the skills to maintain and engage in lengthy, substantive conversations. Twitter wisely limits us to 140 characters. Texts are really only effective and welcome in small chunks and grade-school simple language and bastardized abbreviations. Our FB posts tend to be no longer than 200-500 characters, if that (unless you’re me, and write short novellas). We live in a world newly re-baptized by the written word and we are swimming (drowning?) in communication we haven’t quite mastered, and aren’t always triumphant with. And you might rightly say, that is the learning curve of every new technology, and we will master language, or more likely, reinvent it for our purposes in time. Language isn’t fixed, by any stretch of the imagination. It certainly flows, and grows, and transforms, and evolves quicker than the human beings that use it–and ultimately shape it.  My point is this: if language is so imprecise and unwieldily in person, imagine what our words are doing online, and how others perceive us. I know this well, and foolishly decide to write on, despite what other people might think. My words have failed me extravagantly in the past, but I write on. That is the only way I can improve and refine my words, and hopefully deliver meaning more artfully. I understand that the world is not populated by aspiring and accomplished writers, but that literacy and ability to effectively communicate through the written word seems more imperative than ever before. My point in all of this, is that language is imprecise, inaccurate, deceptive, and corrupted by users who lack the skills, are careless, or purposefully use subterfuge to manipulate words in their favor. These are some very real dangers to both online dating, or using social networking and media to meet and find potential partners. Even using texts and Snapchat to flirt poses its own inherent risks.

I know this much: my online avatar may be confusing and inconsistent at times, but it almost always closely resembles myself–with the exception of some glamor shots and bio-boosting. Yet, at the same time, it isn’t me at all. It’s simply a sliver of what I was thinking in one infinitesimal moment in time. In reality, avatars are more like a kind of Darth a’Vatar, who is compelled to talk tough, act confident, huff and puff in intimidating ways like the real Darth Vader, but all the while hiding his true self.  While secretly behind the shiny black mask-helmet (avatar persona/profile), Darth a’Vatar can hide his true appearance online, and never reveal that underneath all that, he is nothing more than a weak and pudgy, squishy, bald, and scarred dad after all. None of us know what any of us look like on the Internet. I’d like to think that most of us are young Anakin Skywalkers more than old Darth Vaders, but we just can’t be sure. Until we meet. Technology is a wonderful blessing, but we should never forget what makes us human. Perhaps nowhere else is this more important than in online romance. eHarmony and other sites have provided remarkable results, and show no sign of slowing down. I’m not here to deride or denounce online romances or using tech in the dating game. My job is to simply raise questions, engage the public, and get people thinking about how we can more responsibly integrate this flood of new innovation into our lives. Technology has its place beside us, in our hands, underneath us, but should never be totally above or in place of us. Now is the time to evaluate ourselves in this ridiculously fast-paced high-tech world–romance included–and honestly assess whether certain things we’re doing are harmful to our dating lives, and actually more time-consuming and exhausting than the ‘old-fashioned’ approach. Are we making smart decisions about how we meet and stay connected to those we love? Are these encounters real and substantial?

I may sometimes be too harsh on technology, but I’m really only preaching the adoption of responsible safeguards to help us more smoothly integrate this tech into our lives. For instance, I prefer to use aluminum foil to wallpaper my house and wear as a protective helmet against extra-terrestial radio waves transmitted by our alien-engineered technology. That’s just one simple way to protect against the evils of High-Tec digital invasions. Haha.*

I’m actually not dating at the moment, and don’t desire to right now, but I may in the future, and it sounds like the future is now. As I stated, I’ve been on several dating sites, and I know they work for some people. In fact, I expect indignant messages from people that have been happily married for years, and met online. Yes, of course there are success stories. I’m not arguing that. Or that technology can’t be effectively used to navigate romance. I’m just saying…well, call me old fashioned, or a hopeless romantic, but I do think we need to be wary of how far we let technology be the primary romantic intermediary in our lives. There’s something to be said for the good old (nearly always bad) one-liner pickup lines we’ve probably all used or heard in bars. There’s something to be said for pheromones and chemistry that can only ever be captured in person. There’s something to be said for surprises, and going in blind and learning about a person in person, for the very first time. There’s something sexier and not seeing it all before you even meet. There’s something enigmatic in that energy and chemistry that can only take root in the natural and organic synergy that develops between two people that are undeniably attracted to each other. There’s something, nay, everything in that natural magnetism and approximation to another beating heart and nimble brain, that the often imprecise, manufactured, and stilted use of words and technology can never hope to capture. We are still animals, and sometimes the old ways are the best ways. Or at least, the old ways with the careful and tasteful help of all our modern tools. We haven’t quite found that balance.

Perhaps the biggest excuse for using dating sites or other new age solutions, is TIME. As the number of hours required in the average workday decreased or stayed the same, and our vacation time increased, we somehow took on even more work at work. We now stay later and longer, and workdays are often followed or preceded by trips to the gym, child transport, errands, etc, which often pushes dinner back to 7 or 8, and those last few hours before bed are mostly spent surfing the internet, watching TV, or reading. This doesn’t take into account the book club, the Yoga class, the family counseling, etc, etc. The single person sees no less of a hectic schedule, and oftentimes, packs even more in. So when and where do we expect to meet other like-minded singles? How can we possibly find viable opportunities to meet and get to know people we may wish to date. That seems to be one those burning questions in the paradoxical landscape of dating in America today. We simply don’t have time. Of course, that is a much larger question. To those people, I would simply say, why? It seems to me that if work is that demanding and consumes that much of a person’s life, perhaps that is not a healthy or productive endeavor. That, of course, speaks to a much larger issue of Americans and their compulsive work ethics and goal-oriented, competitive natures. As for all the other conflicts in their lives, I would have to ask how important romance and finding a mate is to them. If a person cares more about their spinning class than making the time for romance, than I would question their priorities. If you make time for romance, I am quite certain it will make time for you.

Technology is a gift and a miracle, bestowed upon us all. It makes our lives easier, fuller, and richer. It certainly has a role to play in dating, and is unstoppable and irreversible anyways. We live in an exciting age. Dating has never been so fresh and varied. The Internet, texting, and other communication tools offer exciting potential. At the same, there are perils and pitfalls, and what we may consider fresh, new, and exciting, may not always be better than what came before. Perhaps the ’90s weren’t so bad after all.

*I’m sure some people are now thoroughly convinced that I am off my rocker. Ah, sarcasm, satire, and irony…where have you gone? Oh yeah, humor also doesn’t work well online. And if my sick and twisted sense of humor doesn’t translate well over the internet and I never get another date again, well…at least the internet is good for something else.