Beware the Fog of War-talk

The 2010s were the decade of the lie. Even though 2020 is shorthand for clear vision, so far this decade is shaping up to be the same as the old one. The life spring of the most consequential lies these days is, of course, our liar in chief.  Trump finished out 2019 topping over 15000 lies during his time in office, or an average of 13 times a day, ranging from the sublime art of election manipulation to the ridiculous claims about windmills. We’ve gotten used to his lying at best, and come to accept it from sheer exhaustion at worst.

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Now comes real trouble: war with Iran looms. Mobilized troops have yet to land but the half-truths are already doing major battle on the airwaves.  Wars rise or fall on their PR campaigns.  Shaping public perception of who and why you’re fighting is essential to maintaining support for war. 

The death count of American soldiers that played on the news during the dinner hour soured American appetite for war with Viet Nam.  Lesson learned, officials in the Gulf wars carefully constrained access to the war for journalists, “embedding” reporters in a move that looked like transparency but that allowed the brass the ability to control where journalists went and what they saw. Even as the war in Afghanistan drags on into another decade, American audiences don’t see flag-draped coffins or the tiny shoes of noncombatants killed on the ground, so there is little energy around stopping a war few of us even remember is happening.

Manufacturing consent—getting people to support your fuckery—is major keys for governments in a time of war.  Wars are won not only with bodies on the battlefield but more importantly with hearts and minds. Think about the powerful imagery from World War 1 or 2: Nazi propaganda was one of their greatest weapons, shaping the perception of Germans, while at home wartime propaganda created powerful American iconography that still stands strong to communicate American values today. 

During the Gulf War soldiers tossed Frisbees and candy from tanks to win over Iraqi residents, and at home, they tossed red meat phrases like Operation Iraqi freedom to American’s making us believe we were hero’s swooping not rescue.  Only later was the careful campaign of lies used to make the case for the Iraq War exposed when it was too late to take back the bombs that killed thousands of innocent non-combatants.

Already we can see the shape that Trump’s story: we didn’t start a war, we stopped a war; the phrases ‘imminent attack’ and ‘worlds greatest terrorist,’ and the claim that they saved hundreds, possibly “thousands of American lives”. These all sound like powerful reasons to support a preemptive attack and stir up the fear of Middle East terrorism that had us in the grip of fear much of this millennia. Is this real talk or more Trumpisms?

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We didn’t start a war. We stopped a war.

I mean this is catchy enough to embroider on a red hat, full of the punchiness with the balance of a great advertising motto.  I’m sure someone got props for writing this beautiful bite of rhetoric.  But what does that mean?  America was not at war when this assassination took place despite Iran’s aggressions. Iran’s steady stream of provocations over the many decades we’ve had beef has not resulted in all-out war—even during the Iran hostage crisis.  Now just a few days after the assassination, both America and Iran are signaling their willingness to get to fighting, each side boasting they already have targets picked out.  So actually, it is looking like they DID start a war. This handy catchphrase is about as true as any other Trump has trumpeted.

We killed the world’s greatest terrorist.

Was this General Soleimani a bad guy in Iran’s long-standing beef with Iran? Yup.  He certainly had his hand in thousands of deaths and was the architect of attacks on Americans.  But this was no Bin Laden, or Al-Baghdadi, no leader of a rogue terrorist group operating outside of the league of nations.  Soleimani was General and one that enjoyed some popularity among the Iranian people who are often at odds with the brutal behavior of their military. In fact, in Iran, one poll shows that Soliman enjoyed a 60% popularity rating in his home country of Iran as opposed to Trump’s own 38% polling in his home here in America.  While it is tempting to see us as Marvel-ready heroes that swoop in to stop bad guys, here in the real world we have rules for war.  Killing a duly appointed official on sovereign territory—in this case, our ally Iraq who did not get the heads up—is against the rules.  Imagine if someone from Iran killed one of the joint chiefs while he was traveling in England.  That’s a fight. If we are ever to win back any moral standing in the world, we can’t do it assassinating people at will.

We saved hundreds or thousands of lives.

How can you argue with protecting the lives of Americans? Anyone who did that could easily be branded a traitor, so it’s tricky to question this argument that can only be fact-checked by what doesn’t happen in the future.  With thousands of US troops shipping out, and Americans in Iran and Iraq evacuating the middle East it doesn’t sound like things are about to get safer there. 

Trump and his team assure us intelligence had then in the know. Except Trump has spent the better part of his presidency questioning the intelligence community, and ignoring the more reasoned advice of his own generals. Starting just a day after his inauguration and consistent throughout, Trump has derided the FBI, the CIA, and the State Department.  He has dismissed their dire warning about election interference, ignored their work around corruption in Ukraine, and denied their findings of his own shenanigans here at home. Trump is not known for taking his time with military briefings but pulled the trigger on the most extreme intervention with no input from Congress, not the Intelligence Committee or Committee on Foreign Affairs. In the few days since the assassination, already sources are sprinkling doubt on the strength of the story of an imminent threat, with one source saying it was a “normal Monday in the Middle East.”

And the impeachment isn’t even on anyone’s radar now.  Hmmm.

The drums of war tend to drown out more reasonable reasoning.  The importance of getting public opinion on your side means that words are your most powerful weapon at home. So how do you know what to believe? As always, you have to do your work to be informed and stay grounded. But beyond fact-checking, spend some time thinking about what you think about war and conflict. 

Don’t wait for one side or another to sell you a story you like—you can decide what you think in your own preemptive strike.  Do you think that assassinations make the world safer?  Do you cosign the killing of innocent people? Do you really honor our military when you send them to fight in a war of revenge? Do you truly believe killing each other solves international conflict?

You are the fact-checker of your own morality. As the fog of war roles in, you better get to work.

Coffee and Collapse

These last few months we have seen enormous erosion in the stability of our democracy as we descend into a roiling pit of racism and division ahead of the true start of the 2020 presidential campaign. I bought a coffee maker! This isn’t the first time I have used a little retail therapy to soothe emotional distress—you know how it goes, bad day, buy a cupcake, rough work news? New shoes.  For the current constitutional crisis, I thought a coffee pot would be just the ticket.

I must admit, for a while, I just stopped watching the unfolding of our contemporary apocalypse. My eyes hurt, my brain hurt, and most of all, my heart was broken each day.  Unlike the news cycle that washes itself clean with the next big story, I was unable to forget the horrors of yesterday, last week, last year. Kids in cages, killer cops, deregulation, tax breaks for the wealthy, racist attacks, white nationalism. When reporting moves on, these situations continue to explode like strings of landmines left behind. Years after the Black Lives Matter movement’s moment has ceased to command top news status, cops that killed citizens are exonerated and justice is denied for the families and communities that have fought the respectable way through a justice system stacked against them. Boom. Gone are the riots in the streets and the mask-wearing protesters, gone the swing of national attention and concern.  Buried under the fold, at the bottom of the hour, a few sentences, a few seconds about the exonerated taking a  badge again, a second of dog-eared sympathy barely mustering a sigh before launching into celebrity news—Beyonce in Lion King—amazing! 

News wasn’t just depressing to watch, it felt like a daily push down a slippery slope. I felt less informed when I watched, felt like I was being spoon-fed just the hot sauce, just the frosting—the hot takes, shady snaps, and sweet endings that drive the most click-worthy content. Sure Trump is the master of distraction, but the opinion panels assembled to opine hours a day feed on the distraction even in their outrage. Like clockwork, Trump tweets outrageous bullshit Saturday evening, setting up the red herring all the Sunday shows will chase. The week is spent tweeting and subtweeting both on twitter and around the water cooler. We all compete for the hottest take, the sweetest rebuttal, and the most coveted prize of all—the best meme.

So time for a new morning ritual, one removed from the problems of the day. My coffee maker is small: I enjoy drinking coffee, but more than two or three cups a day has my heart racing like a racist Trump tweet. I figure I can save the environment by cutting back on styrofoam Dunk’s cups and straws. I pull a huge bag of beans out of the cabinet—super cheap due to the collapsing coffee market: what a bargain! Plus the ritual of grinding and making the coffee is a more soothing way to start the day than the latest headline about the crisis at the border. I have a small coffee grinder. It drowns out the sound of a Morning Joe segment on record heat waves. The coffee only takes a moment to brew, one Round-Up weed killer ad, one for pickup trucks. Coffee’s ready! Environment saved, I click on the a/c and hit my writing room.

I have a hard time writing about our current state of affairs without lapsing into hyperbole or tottering into fiction. I doubt my own understanding of what is happening on any given day. We’ve slid so far into the simulacrum that reality is not only relative but sometimes not even relevant. Multiple civil rights movements compete for headline space while the patriarchal white supremacy propaganda machine pumps out another generations’ worth of ignorance. Lost in the fog of our information war are the glacial gears grinding us all—capitalism, environmental collapse, technological determinism and a religious adherence to me-over-you on a tiny rock where it’s going to be all of us or none of us.

There is no neutral these days, though. Choosing sides is easy—drop into a social media circle where an algorithm feeds you only the kind of information you like. Not choosing is choosing too, to look away from what America is just now waking up to (again) is to sing its favorite lullaby. In every generation of America’s short life, black and brown people have battled to be free to live the American creed of equality and justice for all, and in every generation, the powerful machine of white supremacy that manufactured America has refused to produce a more equitable country. I am only the latest in a long line of people for whom this battle has always been, for whom it is always personal. So no there is no choosing, and no losing myself in endless self-care at the expense of my own responsibility to be informed.

I spend cup one pouring over the latest on the reparations debate. Some can barely understand why we should care about a debt so old and potentially overwhelming—in a country where millions are drowning in their own debt, the failure to flicker an eyebrow at life long debt seems not so out of pocket. Besides, how can we enjoy our best life if we’re always attending to the crushing debt we ignore like so many melting ice caps? Besides, no slave owner still lives. Though corporations—who of course are people per Citizen’s United, and in our hearts where our [brand] loyalty lies—that benefited from slavery can and do live on, fueled by the blood money of millions kidnapped and killed in the fields of early American capitalism.  Banking and insurance industries, shipping and trade found their foundations of success in trading humans. Some of those companies still exist, their books intact with the transactions that sold people like so many cattle plainly marked in fading ink. While individuals slave owners may be dead their capital lives one; trade of people created pools of generational wealth still tapped into today.

I like my coffee sweet, so today I, too, enjoy my legacy from the slave trade. Sugar, like another early staple cotton, fueled a boom so big it built the richest nation in the history of the world. On the one hand, it seems ludicrous that a product as prolific as sugar would be the basis of so insidious a trade, and yet it was because this trade was so prolific that sugar is the sweeter that sits on every countertop. Four hundred years ago only the rich could afford what was an exotic sweetener newly arrived on the tables of Europe. Now sugar is in practically every edible product but salt. Perhaps it is fitting then that America struggles with an obesity epidemic as we keep feeding on the fruit of our most toxic tree.   

Cup two and it’s on to news of massive ICE arrests just days after a domestic terrorist targeted Latinos first in his manifesto using words borrowed from a Trump stump speech and later with bullets in a Walmart as parents and kids shopped for bulletproof backpacks and crayons for back-to-school. Crying children are left homeless and parentless, registering a weak tick on the sympathy chart. Kids in cages, kids shot by police, kids molested, kids shot in school. Showing sympathy for kids being crushed by the systems we adults create and execute is becoming a full-time job. Better to turn the page, perhaps another cup. Good coffee, grown in Guatemala. The picture on the package shows green mountains—with no sign of the struggle so many are seeking asylum from—must be lovely this time of year!

Cup three is always a push, leaves me feeling a bit jumpy—too aware of all that I need to ignore to get through a workday. But it tastes so good I drain the cup, feeling myself tilt like a patron on a sinking ship. Is it the coffee or is the world tilting? At the back of my mind the strains of nearer my god to thee sound a titanic tune for going down. From my precarious perch on the edge of cup three, I can see too much. I watch a week of mass shooting coverage like I am reading tarot cards. 

I notice the newscasters’ eyes shine where the breaking news is hot and fresh. Wolf Blitzer appeared suited and booted in CNN’s headquarters in under an hour of the El Paso shooting, claiming the news desk from the second-string Saturday anchor to get that juicy coverage airtime. Twenty-four hours after the El Paso shooting, bodies still lay in the aisles of Walmart but we had already moved past them to take up familiar positions: gun control, mental health, Trump, Trump, Trump.

There is a breathless excitement at the traumas of the day. There is little information beyond soundbites—many newsrooms were long ago gutted by cutbacks and media consolidation. Each news story is a sip of bitter and sweet, hits of content like a drip of a drug where the high has long been replaced by addiction to the ride itself—shock and horror, followed by thoughts and prayers topped with a dose of the viral good vibe of the day to keep you coming back. Delicious! A little sugar has always sweetened this country’s bitterest chapters.

We are too busy turning our crumbling world into killer content to think clearly about what is happening.  We are deconstructing reality to build the inter-webs of our fantasies with nary a glance at what we are becoming. There are too many likes to be had to do the boring grunt work in, say, door-knocking or book-reading, or critical thinking. I see the crisis clearly—headlines and think pieces abound for you to see too, in case you haven’t heard of our imminent collapse. And yet I feel deeply the chasm between the world we are narrating and the world we live in. Like you, I wring my hands and wonder what can we do; I try not to focus too much on Trump, on the individual slights…but I like my steak in the matrix, too.

Even as I write these words I sip on the seeds that planted all this catastrophe. My coffee and sugar, my SUV and my lawn care, my a/c and my social media rants—my life is not separate from the systems that are wreaking havoc on our nation. It is easy to focus on where the news cycle tells us to, but harder to acknowledge the ways the fabric of our own life is used to build the world.  It’s not just the leader of the legislature it is all the ways that we structure power. The world created by those structures gave rise to what we see now. It is in our daily rituals, our common habits, snaking throughout our whole culture.

One day if all continues, Trump won’t be president, and we will still be America, addicted to consumption and clinging to our sacred individuality. No tweet-able position will right this ship, only a return, a rethinking, and rebuilding can make us seaworthy enough to travel towards our better stars. Beyond the clickbait is a longer and more difficult conversation about who were are to become that we need to have.  We don’t have to wait for things to get better—or worse, more likely—before we begin in our own sphere of influence, wherever that is, to build a new world

Let’s practice every day. Let’s talk outside of talking points. Let’s think and read and learn beyond the story of the day. You have a responsibility to be informed about the world you live in and the impact your choices can have in that world. You can do that with the same internet connection that brings you our beloved memes. You can do that today, wherever you are, and talk about what you learn with whoever you see.

Let’s think about what really matters—and live our lives that way. Just because our country is out of whack that’s no excuse to throw your own code to the wind. Make connections between your own behavior and the systems we seek to change. Act in ways that align with your beliefs.  Do what you are good at—knit for resistance or bike to end hunger—to encourage others to do the same

Let’s get real about the problems of our nation and let’s bear careful witnesses to the daily injustices so that we may stop them. Let’s call a thing a thing and stop letting the propaganda machine redefine what it means to be free. Stop checking out and show up. Talk, donate, act, join, walk, shelter, feed, and manufacture with your words and deeds a reality that we might live in a world that is more than a house of cards against the wind.

I’m off the sugar.  I’m paying attention. I am writing this to me as much as to you. This is a daily practice. This is a grueling workout. Yes, it will wear you out but I’m here to tell you that you—yes, you— are alive at this moment for this very purpose. 

If you read this far, you are a champ! Thank you! -sxj

How to Make Not-Racist Fashion (And Why You Should)

The latest trend in fashion seems to be apologizing for your overtly racist design that you just didn’t notice was racist af.  Sporting the trend this week is Burberry who sent this hoodie with a noose attached down the runway at London Fashion Week.

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Hot on the heels of the Virginia Governer’s moonwalking defense of the blackface pictures in his yearbook, Gucci showcased their blackface sweater just in time to contribute to one of shittiest Black History Months in recent memory.  Prada was an early adopter, releasing their blackface space monkey keychain last year.  They are also first to move to address the controversy that embroiled them, recently moving to create a diversity council to address internal issues of racism in the brand headed by the always justice minded Ava duVernay.  Let’s hope the trend of a turn around catches on too.

What is it with these fashion brands–major design houses that have stood for decades, filtering the zeitgeist of a hundred year through their fabric?  Shouldn’t they, the arbiters of the resonant images at any given moment, be most attuned to the long-standing tropes of anti-black racism?  Are their claims of ignorance and innocence to be taken at face value? When racism is top of mind, showing up everywhere in news, entertainment and even fashion with active discussions of cultural appropriation, that’s hard to believe.  Times are changing and it’s time fashion catches up.

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My mother used to say that ignorance of the law is no defense.  Perhaps if this was 1619 when humans were trafficked to Jamestown, terrified to discover they were property in this strange land, then we might believe that the ideas and symbols that mark white supremacy had yet to take hold.   If it was 1719, before lynching became the terrorist weapon of choice in slavery and then during Jim Crow we could claim that the noose was a tool disconnected from ideas of race, and a sweatshirt had yet to mean anything; Maybe if this was 1819, when the Transatlantic slave trade had been outlawed, with European and American abolitionists pushing back against the continued expansion of colonial powers, and the rise of America’s the minstrel shows still a few years away  we could believe they were unfamiliar with the significance of red lips in black skin.  But it’s 2019.

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It’s 2019, seven years after Trayvon Martin was killed in cold blood by George Zimmerman and a jury of adults blamed a boy in a hoodie instead of a man with a gun.  There was lots of public debate about the lowly hoodie as gateway clothing to criminality: Geraldo Rivera said Trayvon Martin’s hoodie was as much responsible for his death as George Zimmerman. one of a hundred talking heads debating whether a hoodie was probable cause for execution in urban areas.  Spoiler alert we decided it was.  Just two years after Trayvon Martin was killed, 21-year old Ricardo Sans was shot for wearing a hoodie and ‘looking suspicious.” Trayvon Martins hoodie stands as a powerful symbol of the complex and problematic demonization of black people in America.  It’s hard to deny the contemporary power of the hoodie or the ubiquity of its representation in relation to race.

It’s six years after the start of the Black Lives Matter movement when black people took to the streets to demand justice and then took to the voting booth, electing hundreds of people of color to local, state and federal office, passing laws to protect the rights of black people and to curtail extrajudicial police killing.

It’s been five years since the fashion world acknowledged the shifting landscape of race.  As early as 2014 the conflict over racial violence was showing up on runways. Pieces like this protest sign inspired Chanel bag, or Pyer Moss’s in your face runway show were all over the Spring shows. Other brands incorporated the signs of BLM resistance into their work, inspiring trends, slogans on shirts, and whole collections and emerging fashion movements that appropriate ever-evolving black style.

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It’s been four years since the start of #Oscars so White,  a soul-cry calling for more- and more accurate representation of people of color in the entertainment industry.  It’s been four years of some of the best movies and TV shows made for and by black people, from Get Out to Moonlight. In the last year alone we’ve been treated to Black Panther and Wrinkle In Time, Blackklansman,  Widows and on the small screen Queen Sugar, Atlanta, Blackish, Insecure, Dear White People, The Chi, and a dozen other shows. Black artists filmmakers and writers are reshaping the image of Blackness in a glorious renaissance.  There is plenty to inspire designers far removed from the boring tropes of the past four hundred years.

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It is a year after the Equal Justice Institute opened The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial to Peace and Justice, commemorating America’s history lynching.  There have been no less than 175,000 news articles about lynching in the last year alone, not including articles about three different actual lynchings of black people perpetrated in 2018.

Its been long enough for major brands to get staff, training, and resources to make sure they understand how to navigate the shifting culture their artistry seeks to affect and reflect.

While brands are quick to apologize, and some like Prada are putting resources to moving their understanding forward, brands watch from the sideline don’t have to take these hits.  Companies of all sizes and industries need to do their work to find the intersections between their work and an increasingly diverse world. For content creators that means familiarizing yourself and your team with racist tropes.  The good news is that this information is not hidden for those that seek it.  Cultural critics (like me!) been writing and teaching about racist images for many years.  Informing yourself is one part history, one part media literacy and one part acting like a frigging human.  If you are ready to go beyond googling “racism”, here are some tips for keeping your fashion house on the right side of racial justice.

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Get that it matters. The time has come to stop using racist imagery. It’s not clear from what we know that all of these fashion accidents are truly accidents.  The most generous read assumes that people just didn’t know, and frankly, in this day and age that is pretty hard to swallow.  For the designers who try to subtly slip less-than-political-correct imagery into their content, a warning: the cost for cheeky racism is steep.  After the row over H & M’s King of the jungle shirt, the company stock dropped 62% in one quarter. Boycotts are common and effective in the age of social media, not to mention the canceling power of Black Twitter is best avoided if you want your brand to flourish.  If someone on your content team thinks a subtle nod to racist tropes is edgy and will help drive traffic, its time to either drop a dime to management or dump your stock options before the boycotts start.

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Know your history. Racist stereotypes develop in cultural context, reflecting the ideas and values of their place and time.  Understanding where racist stereotypes come from and how those stereotypes supported the oppression of marginalized people can help you better understand why it’s totally not cool to use imagery like blackface or nooses in your fashion.  Stereotypes are not constructed from real common characteristics of a group of people so much as they are made of the mainstream’s beliefs about a group, a collage of assumptions and projections, not facts, that help to support the narrative that those in power want to thrive.  Blackface is a set of visual codes–black skin, red lips, wide eyes–and each part of that code was designed to communicate the marginalization and dehumanization of black people.

Understand how stereotypes function. Stereotypes are shorthand codes that communicate not only identity but also ideology.  You cannot separate the negative ideology that is the flesh beneath the stereotype’s skin. Stereotypes teach us what people deserve, and racist stereotypes effectively communicate that racial hierarchies reflect natural truths, ensuring their enduring power to define and oppress minorities. The ignorance and animalism encoded in blackface cannot be separated out from those codes.  Even if in the course of artistic examination an artist is inclined to use these images to challenge the conventions of the code, the audience is unlikely to be able to receive the code in this new way without being primed or prepared in advance to see something other than what they have always seen.   A powerful example of the enduring nature of stereotypes happened with a Swedish artist commissioned to make a provocative piece of art for a show about provocative art created a work he called Ni***r Cake, an interactive blackface cake to draw attention to female genital mutilation in recent African immigrant populations in Sweden.  At the reception, the sobering and difficult recasting of blackface was lost on the laughing Cultural minister and guests in the image below that went viral, resulting in widespread criticism of the artist and the firing of the cultural minister.  Individual design decisions are not enough to reshape the powerful coded communication of stereotypes.

Hire diverse teams. A lack of diversity in the room can lead to bad decisions, as we have seen over and over again.  Each of us has our own filter and our own blind spots.  Having a diverse team ensures a wider perspective, allowing your team a broader filter for capturing problematic content.    Hiring diverse creative talent is one way to ensure that the right ideas get through and the wrong ones get caught early on.  Diverse teams mean more than having an intern pipeline, it means diversity up and down the org chart. Hiring diverse teams at all layers of an organization creates a stronger network of fail-safes, and empowers members of your team to speak up.  This is a must–you cannot accurately and authentically represent a population without having that perspective represented in a strong way in your team and throughout your process.  And if you don’t want to reflect and connect with racially diverse populations you are shutting out a growing 40% of the American population who identifies as a minority.

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Diversity is not inclusion (and you need both).  Diversity is the mix in the room and inclusion is getting everybody active in achieving and maintaining a healthy equitable culture. You cannot hire your way to an inclusive organization without providing the training and resources to make sure all of your employees are responsible for maintaining inclusivity.  Put plainly–the white people in your company need to be as responsible for creating an inclusive environment as the employees of color.   Organizations often hire people of different races thinking their mere presence will change the ideas and thinking of other people in the room, and usually without any extra compensation for the task.  This is a set up for people of color brought into culturally ignorant organizations and prevents employees less comfortable with race from growing the skills they will need to stay relevant in an increasingly diverse environment. Instead, organizations need to provide training, coaching, and resources to support teams in doing their part to make sure every member of your organization represents your values around inclusion.

The truth is culture is complex, more so now than at any point in the last 50 years. The stakes are higher for brands who have to work hard to connect in our cluttered media environment, and the costs are steep for companies that refuse to acknowledge consumers’ increasing desire for culturally competent companies.  But the days of disregarding people of color, claiming ignorance and laughing at white supremacy’s lame jokes are gone. I hereby declare the moment for mea culpas over.  No more oh-so-sorry apologies for overt racism a simple google search could have averted.  Fashion brands, do you work to wake up or bear the righteous wrath of the Twitter police and the pain of the boycotts that follow.

Semantics: When a Wall is a Fence

Word are houses built by the speaker, explored by the listener, and decorated with both their ideas, experiences cultural beliefs and ideologies.  Words matter tremendously.  Like lots of social constructs, they are not real things and yet they have massive real-world consequences.   

What is the difference between a wall and a fence?  These days the answer is party affiliation.  In the fight over security at the southern US border, both parties seem deadlocked with no solution in sight.  But recent political shows have been debating the meaning of the word wall–is it concrete like Trump first promised his base in campaign speech after speech, or is a fence with steel slats also a wall? This undercurrent to the debate is strong, though when pressed, both sides dismiss tinkering with the definition of the wall as semantics.  What better place than here at Smntks (pronounced semantics ) to demystify this semantic battle?

Semantics is the study of language and the way that we construct meaning from it, so when Trump says the difference between a wall and a fence is just semantics, he says in effect, “the difference between the words will be how I make sense out of each word, and the meanings I construct with them.” This is one of Trump’s favorite weapons. His manipulation of language endears him to his base and makes it hard for his opponents to nail down an argument with his ever-shifting lexicon.

Semantics helps us unpack the connections between objects or referents, words, and the thoughts, ideas, and concepts we attach to them. Words themselves are actually disconnected from the things they describe–that’s why different languages can refer to the same object with different words: cup, taza, and kikombe all refer to the same object. semantic triangle.004

We can use the same diagram (a semantic triangle) to see how Trump connects the word wall to racist and nationalist ideas.  It’s not about the bricks–it is about the narrative that others are invading our country, connecting the object to Trump’s nationalist ideology.

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Now Trump is swapping out words that are similar, and allowing for a change in the object, but he is doubling down on his racist rhetoric. If a fence can be defined as a wall, the symbol at the heart of his nationalist approach can stand intact, the meaning unchallenged even if the fence is steel instead of brick.

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On the other side of the aisle, if a fence can be a wall, the reverse is also true:  a wall can be a fence.  So when the Democrats agree to an outlay of cash for ‘border security’ instead of a ‘wall’, even knowing that Trump’s argument for the need is based on his demagoguery, they can still claim victory.  We didn’t give in to a wall but we do agree to a fence and sometimes a fence isn’t a wall, so our fence isn’t his wall.

The problem is there is not enough energy directed at challenging Trumps racist and xenophobic rhetoric.  Studies about where terrorists and drugs are really entering the US–hint: legal ports of entry and airports–show that a barrier at the southern border is not a priority.  A compromise bill will mean Democrats cave to Trump’s racist conception of Mexico. Trump has hammered this point from the moment he descended into the race for president on his golden escalator and is likely to keep crowing about the wall/fence victory straight through 2020.

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We may seem to just be playing word games, but the important thing that gets lost when we dismiss semantics is that what words mean matters tremendously. Both groups are using semantics to manipulate their bases into believing they have won a nonsensical battle in which all taxpayers will be the losers, paying for an unnecessary wall, and caving to imagined emergencies.  Instead, both teams will have fresh fodder to fling at dazed and confused voters meandering through the fog of words from both sides.

Communication is the way we construct reality, so the person who holds the power to define the words gets to define reality. This is the power of semantics–use wordplay to cement your power, use your power to redefine words–a vicious cycle that supercharges demagogues.  The further down the rabbit hole we go the more meaningless everything becomes, the more difficult for us to return to a normal that is daily redefined.

The technology we use also helps shape our words and the way we talk.  The brevity that came with the rise of the internet also leaves little room for specificity or complex definitions and long elocutions.  Our shorthand discursive environment has led to snippets of communication that leave lots of room for interpretation, letting audiences fill in our own ideas, making rhetoric a weapon that we sharpen on ourselves. Trump’s phrases “somethings going on”, or “we all know what will happen, folks” are examples of how he uses vagueries to fire up the base.  Supporters fill in his abstractions with their own fear, experiences, and prejudices.  Our shorthand culture helps people manipulate language and then hide behind misinterpretation.

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It may just be semantics, but in a culture that is obsessed with the semantic houses we build, words and the meaning we ascribe to them are everything.  Think about the words of late that have tilted our culture into the future:  me too, black lives matter, make America great again, yes we can.  These simple phrases now carry deep complex and layers meaning history and evocations.  Semantics helps us understand the way that a tear-filled victim statement or a die-in shivering in the snow become attached to these words. Moments in history that evoke strong emotion in us are triggered by phrases, like a pavlovian ding that molds us and into an ideological stance charged with emotion.  In some cases, we can scarcely articulate what these things mean to us as they are so broad, a few words that mark a destination far at the bottom of the iceberg of culture, where our deepest beliefs and values lurk beyond the parlance of the common man.

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Word are houses built by the speaker, explored by the listener, and decorated with both their ideas, experiences cultural beliefs and ideologies.  Words matter tremendously.  Like lots of social constructs, they are not real things and yet they have massive real-world consequences.  We move in a material world based on the words we use, and the meaning we assign them. Be careful how you move through the house of cards built of politicians’ words.  Don’t be fooled that you live in a meaningless world.  Be clear that semantics matter. Stay woke to the ways of words and the walls they build.

Mom, Me and Question 3

Three women sat in the descending gloom of the first day of daylight savings time. The hour was early but leafless trees scratched the windows to say how very late it was. Three generations sat in a circle in the sewing room, mom, daughter, granddaughter. Mom grew up in the 50’s in the mythical America of winged cars and sock hops where my dad, voted class wolf, wore greased back hair and cigarettes rolled up in his sleeve. The daughter, me, was born in the years between the high of civil rights and the low of bussing in Boston. The granddaughter, my brother Andrew’s daughter Seba, was born in days of cacophonous change when homosexual became gay and lesbian and queer and trans and became a fight for equality we thought we’d nearly won.

The sewing is done and we have finished stitching out the news–how is school, and what will we do for Thanksgiving, and aren’t little brothers just the worst. Three women sat in a room: a white woman who had the great joy of a life full with family, of middle-class dreams paid for with sweat equity and houses painted with her own hands, an American experience that spawned a million MAGA fantasies; a black woman born biracial and living half a century in predominantly white spaces, dancing along the heartbreaking ridge of America’s color line; a young woman, a girl still, brave and bold, president of her school’s gays straight alliance that she helped to found, trick or treating as the gay superhero for Halloween, trailing a rainbow and trans flag behind her.

“So,” my mother begins, calling to order this unplanned meeting in her sewing room. “how are you voting on the questions,” she says in reference to Massachusetts’ three ballot questions.  Question one is hard to decide, and we talk about the arguments being put up by both sides while Seba, the granddaughter watches us ping-pong back and forth.  “I’m too young to vote,” she reminds us, free from having to figure out the complexities of mandated nurse minimums.

“And three? ” my mother asks, like a host who has finally gotten to the juicy part of the interview. We three exchange glances, pausing to see who takes sides. Question three is about recent protections the state put in place for trans people, allowing them, among other things, to use the bathroom of their choice without fear of consequence. A “no” vote would roll back protection while a “yes” vote would ensure that protections stay in place. Sometimes similar bills are dubbed bathroom bills, but the stakes for trans people aren’t contained in the stall alone.

We talk about the incidents of sexual assault resulting from someone taking advantage of gender misidentification.  There are none.  My mother seems skeptical at first but agrees that she has seen the reporting.  We talk about what a gender-neutral bathroom looks like.

We talk about sexual assault. Do you really think that sexual assault will be curtailed by this bill?  One in four women are sexually assaulted, and no one seems to care about all the places where that happens.

We talk about the false narrative of people “claiming” trans to get some mysterious benefit–what? bathroom privileges? the joy of trans discrimination?  Seba tells about her trans friends who worry about violence at school and violence at home.

“How do they know they are trans?” my mother asks. I ask her when she knew she was straight. We talk about decades of changing ideas about what “makes” someone something.

We talk about suicide rates and school bullies and trans men and trans women.  We talk about trans people we know, trans people we love and the struggles we hate to see them go through. We talk about history and the not so distant past. “We didn’t use to have trans people,” my mother says.

“Because they died.  Or they hid. It wasn’t safe, but they were always there,” I say.  We sit for a moment with the heaviness.

Seba turns our mind to ancient history and cultures that had three-four-five genders. I talk about the forties and fifties when sexual orientation and pedophilia were lumped together in the deviant sex category by a psychology field in its infancy, and how much we have learned since then about the human body and mind in our evolutionary times. This is a good debate.  We talk calmly. We work to inform each other with solid information.

Seba, with the prescience of children, sees first the rising tide of my tears.  My mother can smell my emotions, suddenly surging, threatening to flood our most civil debate.  I see myself wound tight reflected in the concern in their faces.  I did not plan to have this conversation. I can feel myself mount the bull of all the anger and sadness about racism I cage.

“You know,” I begin.  I don’t want to go on because I feel the tears and I’m fighting them because I don’t want to. I don’t want to cry and I don’t want to make this personal but it is personal and it’s too late and fuck it so with love I remind her.

“You know how hard it was.”  I don’t have to finish.  I don’t have to remind her how hard it was to grow up the only person of color in my community, my class, in my family. “And her, ” I motion to Seba. My mother sees in real time her beautiful brave rainbow butterfly emerging from her cocoon in a world that is not quite ready to love her yet.

And my mother knows.  She is a white woman who wore gloves, and saddle shoes, a Hancock girl in a tony Back Bay dorm waiting for marriage to sweep her up into her life of raising a family.  She is also a woman who whispered to me of a great grandmother’s kitchen table abortion and quest for a college degree, who loved my father–a second generation American who’s Irish father emigrated when “No Irish” signs dotted Boston’s streets, who adopted a biracial child even when others whispered about her black baby, who knit, just this month, a rainbow-colored scarf for Seba ringed with a neon green as bright as her cherished granddaughter. My mother has soothed too many tears caused by discrimination to be unfamiliar with a world of pain she may not frequent.

“And you’re a woman,” Seba reminded her.  For all my mothers many happy years, she too has never lived in a country that granted her full equality.

“In the end, there is only one question–do you believe everyone deserves the same rights?” Arguing for the rights of trans kids, I find myself arguing for my own liberation, feeling like that awkward second grader, my afro floating like a balloon amongst my all-white classmates.  I see my mother recognize the girl in me, a little girl that she would do anything to protect from discrimination.

We had exhausted the talking points, finished arguing with our heads. The argument of the heart simply and sweetly settled the debate. If you love me, you want the best for me.  If I deserve it, everyone else’s child deserves it. There is no debate.

“I know.”  My mother is unequivocal. Her answer was a vote not just for a ballot measure for trans children, but also for her own daughter and the racism she faced, and her gay granddaughter, and for herself.  Empathy is not easily compartmentalized: enough of it will spill into all areas of life,  a rising tide that lifts all boats.

“This is very different from what it used to be like,” my mother says, no nostalgia, merely observation.  We balance the weight of change between us. It is hard, we agree, to sometime wrap your mind around ideas that are different from what you have always heard. But life is this, listening, learning, shifting. It takes time, like growing the loveliest flower, to let new ways of thinking take the place of outdated dogma. Seba and I watched my mother bloom, opening up to see clearly her daughter and her granddaughter and her own self stretching towards the light,  towards justice.

So we sat, three women in a room, three generations, three different identity groups, bound together by a mix of blood and love and time.  Bound now by a renewed commitment to each other’s freedom.  Three women who loved each other dearly bound by an explicit commitment that we would none of us be free until everybody ‘s child was free, seeing each other clearly in the rapidly darkening night.

When They Tell You Who They Are

The looming approval of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination comes barely a week after he raged and yelled and cried in front of a Senate committee, half of whom were drawing hearts with “B.K.” and their initials in it when his accuser Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford presented her case. The FBI, who has enough resources find all the lost socks in the world, presented the findings of an investigation where neither accuser nor many others interested in offering information were interviewed.  For a representative government, this seems like a good time to ask who they really represent.

Maya Angelou said, “When someone tells you who they are, believe them the first time.” That is good advice in another week when women some women people who care about sexual assault victims are pleading to be heard and have their experience recognized.  Kavanaugh supporters have spent the last weeks dragging out every reason to minimize, dismiss and silence sexual assault victims. Thousands of victims shared raw powerful stories of their own experiences to try to help senators and their supporters understand.

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Stop.  Stop sharing your feelings and your deepest pain with the people who care more about power than people.  Stop trying to help those whose spirits are set on sleeping, illiterate in their own humanity.  No carefully crafted explanation you give will make them change their beliefs. They are not seeking to understand. They do not want your help.  They want to be insulated by their hate and ignorance.  More than anything, they want to rule the world, at any cost. They demand to keep living in their nostalgic America–the America of Big Dan’s and sexual abuse in the back rooms of churches, days when a woman who wanted a voice just needed to be reminded of her place.

While it is true and important that the #MeToo movement has brought important conversations about rape culture to a wider audience, the senators who will vote to support Blackout Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination are uninterested in cultural transformation. The question raised by an enraged constituency–would you confirm a bellicose liar (31 lies and counting) who also is a potential sex offender–is answered with a simple yea.  The end game for them is power, a court that will lean conservative for years to come.

Kavanaugh’s confirmation won’t take years to pay off, though.  While lots of people are thinking the rush is on to beat the midterms, there is another, bigger fish on the line.  The Supreme Court will hear a case on double jeopardy that has potentially massive consequences for Trump and the Mueller investigation according to the Congressional Research Service:

The Gamble case may nevertheless have significant collateral legal effects … A win for Gamble could also indirectly strengthen the President’s pardon power, by precluding a state from prosecuting an already-pardoned defendant who has gone to trial on an overlapping offense.

And there it is: save the supreme court nominee, save Trump’s world. Looks like Trump and Kavanaugh have more than sexual assault allegations in common.  Their conservative leaning on this case have them in la-la-love and rushing to get to the spicy part where Trump helps tank the FBI investigation and Kavanaugh ensures Trump’s pardon powers.

In these days of change, we rightfully resist.  We demand that previously marginalized voices be heard. We work to create space for new ways of being that foreground compassion, humanity, and empathy.  We think we can appeal to the humanity in others–if we just say the right thing, show them our wounds, beg them to remember we are family they will finally see the light and usher in utopia with us.  We all want the same thing: to be safe, to be free, to have a healthy family that can thrive, and the resources we need in the pursuit of happiness.

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But we have a blind spot. We forget that there are people who are wholly willing to kill for safety, to enslave others to create their own freedom.  There are people invested in keeping the narrow definition of family in order to center their traditions. There are whole systems set up to funnel resources from the many to the few.  This is not a drill–this is really who they are and no amount of tragic personal narrative will stop them from working against everything we believe in. We can’t reason with them; we can only remove them.

The Black Lives Matter movement has gone through these growing pains. While many massive peaceful protests did focus attention and grow the movement it was only the beginning. After Trayvone Martin’s killer walked free, and video after video showed cops kill people with no subsequent consequences, after die-ins and marches and the occupation of Ferguson, there was no come to Jesus moment when America suddenly recognized the humanity of black people and called for widespread change.  You can’t win systemic transformation by appealing to people who are invested financially and ideologically in your oppression.

Working with community members to solve problems seen as the most effective tactic to help blacks achieve equality

The tactics of the BLM movement didn’t stop at protests alone. Our liberation was never going to be born the love child of white supremacy and our demands for justice. Instead of begging our oppressors, we are building ourselves. In fact, there is a solid case to make that we are in the midst of an unprecedented black renaissance.  Our activists are moving from the streets to the halls of power, becoming elected officials with the ability to make change Our artists are creating a vision of the new world in film and TV, illuminating our path. Millions of black people are doing what they can with what they have where they are: starting businesses, growing community, getting educated. Most importantly, black people are talking to each other, working to create unity and help our sleeping brothers and sisters wake up. This is how we get free.

Whatever the result of Kavanaugh’s nomination, the past few weeks have shown us who the right is.  Conservative men AND women have dismissed sexual assault as just a teenage rite of passage or a privilege of prep school boys who later rule the world. They do not care about women’s equality.  They do not care about holding men accountable.  They will not change their mind even when they find your case compelling.

It’s time to stop begging and keep building.  Lingering on your anger over Kavanaugh will not help.  Instead, take stock of what you can do and do it.  Vote, create, build and talk.  Talk to the people that matter, and work with the willing.  Work to get the fence sitters to come to the right side of history. Remind them there are many more of us than there are of them.  Numbers are on our side and the stakes are sky high. Tell them as you tell yourself: none of us is free until all of us are free.  Stay woke.

The Optics of Oppression

Kids in cages.  “Tender age facilities.”  Baby prisons. A chorus of wailing children ‘in need of a conductor.’  This week on American Apocalypse, Trump’s disastrous zero-tolerance immigration policy separated families at the southern U.S. border, resulting in thousands of minors, including babies and toddlers, incarcerated in immigration detention centers.  Just days later Trump ends the practice, not because he felt it was wrong but because he said he didn’t like the way it looked or felt.  It was the optics that forced the reversal.

Image result for family separationAnd why shouldn’t they? Children were drowning in a sea of mylar blankets, kenneled in dog cages.  Babies weeping as their mothers are taken from them. The above image was ground zero of the outrage over zero tolerance.  The detention of people crossing the southern border is not new, nor did these childhood detention centers pop up overnight, but the images were too arresting to allow people to ignore the problem. Optics-fueled outrage forced the President to issue a new executive order–and also prompted the government to tighten down the flow of images of detained asylum seekers.

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In the battle for the soul of America, optics are the primary weapon.  We are a culture obsessed with the image, so what we see determines much of what we think and where we direct our energy.  Our media environment relies heavily on images–clickbait and real news sites alike use arresting images to capture readers attention in fast-moving social media streams. With the crush of information that we stagger under every day, only the image that shocks can cut through.  The undeniably real and awful reaches straight into our lizard brain, stopping us in our stupor.  Despite the constant obfuscation of our political and cultural climate, we are still human, and that human within us can be activated by the egregious.

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So the image of a crying girl and kids in cages galvanized a nation into a moment of wokefulness.   Even Republicans agreed that keeping kids in cages without their parents is wrong, and they pushed for a bill that would reunite kids with their parents in cages in indefinite incarceration–this way everyone is happy: cage manufacturers, tent city wardens, and virulently racist Trump supporters rejoice! In the land of optics, the devil is in the details.  What seems like relief is little more than a nod to public outrage.  Families can now be detained indefinitely, internment camps look more and more like those that held Japanese-Americans, and control tightened on images of the continuing crisis.

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Japanese Interment Camp
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CPB Detention center

 

 

 

 

 

 

The federal government is limiting access to the shelters and keeping reporters and senators alike from being able to witness or share the conditions of the immigration detention facilities baby jails.  Melani’s staged camp tour was more propaganda in a week heavy with it, the illusion of information. Yes, even now that the order has been signed. While many of us were horrified by the images of kids in cages, few of us are aware that these few images from inside the detention centers were released to news organizations for use by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and are not first-hand images collected by journalists and other witnesses during short observation visits.  By contrast, the Pro Publica audio tape of wailing children was not a piece of government content, showing that actual conditions were more stressful and traumatizing that the sanitized images of children lining up and sterile tents.

The American public can be swayed by dramatic and horrific images.  The Vietnam War is an instructive example.  During the war, the advent of color television and meals in aluminum that make for easy reheating combined meant many people spent dinnertime watching the evening news.  Each night Americans choked down the death count of American soldiers and the carnage of the war along with their TV dinner.  This exposure to the horrors of war in full color became indigestible to the public, and narratives of glory soon turned to clamor to end the war, especially after the Tet offensive.  As the optics soured and criticism grew, support for ongoing resources dwindled and political support evaporated.

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The federal government learned from this loss to optics, weaponized for the new medium of color TV.  A tacit adherence to government policy by news agencies emerged:  out of respect for the families, news agencies would not run images of returning soldiers coffins.  While its true such images could be upsetting to family members, it is also true that images of returning soldiers caskets dulled the public’s taste for war, making it hard to get the support needed to invade say, Kuwait, or Iraq, or Afghanistan.

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The suppression of images of war was managed by the U.S. government by allowing some reporters controlled access–remember embedded reporters?  This relationship between journalists and the military meant that there was lots of amazing and important footage from within the war zone, but always with a handler, a filter–a censor.  When servicemen were tortured and killed in Fallujah, debate raged whether to run the horrific images of the mutilated bodies. When a reporter published graphic images of American dead, he was barred from the field. There were consequences for journalists and outlets who chose show images the government didn’t want to be seen.

There are consequences now for journalists who question the Trump administration in this undeclared immigration war.  We have watched over the last two years as the administration eats away at the free press, shutting out those who disagree, openly disrespecting the press in rabid rallies and press conferences alike, barring journalists from taking images of asylum-seeking babies in kennels on the border.  The government has gotten smarter–they control their media as carefully as a Kardashian.

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We can talk ourselves out of anything with words.  All of the horrors of history from war to holocausts happened in real time to millions of people who had to make sense of it.  People went about their daily life eating and pooping and living while others were sold as property, captured and tortured, packed on to trains or locked up in baby prisons.  We can read what they thought or said, but the images still stand as a testament that they should have been able to see right from wrong in front of their eyes.

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In the age of information, the only image that can’t go viral is the one you can’t take.  The only atrocity you can get away with is the one that you hide. It is exhausting to be the ones to bear witness in these times, but make no mistake your witnessing matters.  Like Schrodinger’s cat, it is the power of the observer that brings the cat to life–or not.  Every horror that can befall a human can go on unchecked when we look away, all possible oppressions can happen when we refuse to watch.  As long as we watch, optics will be the weapon of our civil war.  As long as we support those who hunt for these images, we will have the ammunition we need to stand up and say no. Donate to those fighting still to reunify families, pause for a second to rest your weary eyes, and stay ready to bear witness as resistance.