November 1, 2018

stoicism

I love my job.  I use my years as a university instructor of research methodology, literature, academic writing, philosophy, and critical thinking to manage a writing and learning center at a community college in a very cool part of San Antonio, Texas.

Our center is blessed to have four incredibly dedicated and talented tutors, all of whom have bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English or a related field.  It’s easy to manage people who are bright and resourceful.  Actually, I’m supposed to show them how to do things and to act as a mentor, but I find myself—on a daily basis really—learning things from them and feeling mentored myself.

One of our tutors is a guy named Michael.  He recently graduated from the University of North Texas with a kind of interdisciplinary degree and calls himself an expert in Tejano music, especially the part it plays in Mexican-American culture.  I really like him for a number reason.  For one, he is very much an intellectual and wants, eventually, to get his PhD and become a professor.  He’s also he’s very passionate about politics, and anyone who’s read any of my blogs understands that this makes us brothers in arms.  (He has said, on more than one occasion, that he has friends who are quite active in a variety of anti-fascist organizations.)  I have not pushed him for details on what his friends actually do and he has not voluntarily offered to say more than what he’s already revealed about them.

I mention Mike because he’s both cool and also recently said something that really got me thinking.  On the day he delivered his words of wisdom, it was a quiet time in our writing center, so we had an opportunity to chat about a variety of subjects.  Somehow, I can’t even remember how now, the subject of my goatee came up.  (I’d let it sprout out again after being clean shaven for months.)  While talking, I confessed to having mixed feelings about it because it’s so grey now.  I told him that it had been jet-black and really groovy back when I was younger.  After hearing this, he crossed his arms—I’ve noticed this to be one of his mannerisms—got that half-smile look on his face, and then said, “So you’ve got grey hair.  Embrace it!

His words were exactly the right ones to speak at exactly that moment.  They made me realize how much of an imposter I sometimes can be.  I mean, come on, I call myself a stoic, have read and studied all the great stoic texts, including Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, a book I would advise every human being alive today to read and to ready carefully, and yet here I was whining about having facial hair that was a little discolored due to age.  Michael’s words embarrassed me and made me realize that I need to live stoicism not just understand its tenets.  I need to fully accept that I am getting older.  That I am aging.  That this body I have is, slowly and inexorably, fading away.  I may not be dead yet, but I am certainly on my way down the path.

By the way, the stoics believe that one of the few things we can count on is that decay and impermanence are part of the natural order of things.  Thus, fighting against the aging process is like trying really hard to keep the sun from rising in the east each morning.  Michael had helped me see that embracing my greyness was a way of practicing stoicism.

I want to finish by thanking Michael for giving me a metaphorical slap in the face.  I certainly deserved the sting of his words.

Goodbye, Tony

anthony rip

I still find it hard to believe that Anthony Bourdain is gone.  On the morning of June 8th—not yet a month ago—I woke up, brewed myself a cup of Joe, looked at my Twitter feed, and saw that he’d used the belt from his bathrobe to hang himself in his hotel room in Kaysersberg, France.

I immediately Googled his name and started reading.  I needed to confirm that such a thing had really happened.  After looking at the internet for a few minutes, I turned on CNN and a variety of journalists—many of them just hearing about this and now teary-eyed—were talking about Bourdain’s life and his death.  Indeed, this horrifying news was true.

Anthony was one of the most decent people I’ve ever known.  I wrote “known” without consciously deciding to do so.  It is perfectly normal that I wrote it, though.  So many of us knew him.  He was our brother, our father, our son, our uncle, our best friend, the guy we could see ourselves hanging out with.  He was a fellow traveler.

It goes without saying that we are all travelers.  We are all on our way.  We are all wandering and looking for the right path.

While I was living abroad for nearly two decades—in Poland, the UAE, Turkey, and then Egypt—I only occasionally got to see Tony because I rarely looked at television in those faraway places.  But when I came home for vacation during the summertime, I watched, as regularly as the beat of a human heart, No Reservations and then Parts Unknown.  In Anthony, I saw myself.  He was the famous me.  Both of us traveled and explored.  His adventures made it to TV while mine didn’t.  This meant he spoke for me.  I turned on the TV to watch him tell my stories.  Thank you, Tony, for telling them even better than I could have.

Tony was an unapologetic internationalist and we will miss him for that too, especially now that so many Americans seem to be proudly proclaiming themselves “America First!” ultra-nationalists.  (Every time I hear America first, I can’t help but think “Deutscheland uber alles!”)

By the way, blessed be the internationalists because they promote a message of peace and mutual respect.

If you ever watched Tony on television, you know he had a really good time when he was out and about, but he also carried an enormous responsibility.  He explained other countries and the peoples who live in them to a nation of individuals many of whom don’t own passports.  This made him a teacher who didn’t lecture or draw up lesson plans.  In other words, he taught without teaching and he preached without preaching.  And we all sat raptly listening and learning and were converted.

So, Tony, I end this by simply saying goodbye.  I will miss you, and this nation and the world will miss you too, especially now.

 

 

 

Strange Fruit

strange fruit

I am married to a Muslim woman from Africa.  One of my closest friends is a gay man who was born and raised in a small town in flyover country.  I am an avowed socialist.

Question:  What do I have in common with my wife and good friend?  Answer:  We are all outliers.  There is something about each one of us that is “abnormal.”

I’m not the sort of person who feels comfortable thinking in this way.  What, after all, is “normal”?  Even using the word, to describe myself and others, is troubling.  I don’t think about “normality” when I think of human beings.

Suddenly, though, America is changing.  Islamophobia, homophobia, and hatred of “liberals” is on the rise in many quarters.  So, even if I don’t like labeling folks, there are plenty of my compatriots who have no problem doing so and then shunning (or worse) those they think of as foreign, deviant, or un-American.

That and the country is certainly more divided than I ever remember it being.  I keep hearing pundits say that “tribalism” and “tribal” thinking is on the rise.  Actually, tribal thinking is really an oxymoron.  Tribalism and primitivism are the ultimate knee-jerks and have almost nothing to do with sober consideration or rationality.  Primitivism is a celebration of some mythic past, some simpler time, a time that never truly existed except in the imagination.  (When I hear radical Trump supporters say that they “want their country back,” I think I’m hearing a kind of primordial wail by those who believe in fairytales.)  I also think of snowflakes and those who suffer from some form of persecution complex.

Trumpism is really an interesting mix of primitivism, nativism, and fascism.  Too many pundits use the terms “populism” and “populists” when they describe the movement and its adherents.  Populism is a euphemism.  Populism sounds innocuous, and the reason many use it is because they are afraid to admit that there is a large fascist movement afoot in America and elsewhere.  By referring to fascism as populism, we feel more assured that there is no monster lurking under the bed.  The use of populism is us sticking our heads in the sand.  It’s our way of whistling past the graveyard.

Not long ago I asked my gay friend if he was ever afraid.  His answer went something like this.  I used to not be, but now I don’t know.

Could gays ever be scapegoated?  Well, we have seen scapegoating in the past, haven’t we?  We’ve seen genocide in the past, haven’t we?  We’ve seen lynching and cross-burning and bombing.  We’ve seen almost everything in the past, haven’t we?

For those who think such horrid things couldn’t happen here, I’d like to remind them that this sort of ugliness has already happened right here.  Just Google “lynchings” and then click on the “image” link.  It would also help if such skeptics went to the nearest bookstore or library and checked out Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, penned in 1935.

Read the novel and then turn on the TV.  Watch for a day or two and then get back to me.

 

The Total Unfairness of Conservative Thinking

albright

In my last blog I wrote about a Twitter exchanged I had with @SamGipp, a Baptist “preacher” who thinks that it is his Christian duty to hate Muslims, political progressives, gays, lesbians, immigrants, and “perverts”—a catchall phrase he likes to use to describe anyone who doesn’t look like him or live like he does.  He would not use this word to describe a president who gets off on stomping on the downtrodden or having sex with porn stars or grabbing women by their pussies or participating in extramarital affairs.

Sam Gipp lives in a very twisted world and practices a very twisted logic.  According to his way of thinking, Republicans cannot be perverts, no matter what sort of behavior they engage in.  It’s only political progressives who are capable of perversion.  If I think about his reasoning for a moment, I see that the idea of perversion is not tied to the sort of acts or behavior a person engages in; instead, it’s about who it is that is acting.  If a political conservative engages in sexually predatory behavior, then such behavior is acceptable because of the perpetrator’s political affiliation.  As we all know, conservatives are godly people and thus incapable of behaving wrongly.  Godliness, therefore, nullifies the predation.  This is circular reasoning at its finest.

On the other hand, if a progressive acts predatorily, then no one should be surprised because liberals are just inherently sinful people.  In other words, political conservatives can do no wrong because they are children of god, and even if they do stray away from the straight and narrow, it’s just because the devil made them do so.  Progressives, on the other hand, can do no right because they are devils themselves.  Because liberals are inherently evil, everything they do becomes sinful.

Politicized evangelicals of Sam Gipp’s sort have really shown, in a multitude of ways, that the Bible has become subordinate to the Gospel of Conservatism.  And in the age of Trump, the Gospel of Conservativism looks frightening like the Gospel of Authoritarianism or The Gospel of Fascism.

By the way, Madeleine Albright, a woman who knows something about politics, international relations, and fascism, has just written a Book entitled Fascism:  A Warning.  When asked, in a recent televised interview who she was trying to warn, she spoke up very clearly and said, “Americans.”

Gipp, the asshole, has been tweeting again and he’s really got my dander up this time.  He sent out an obnoxious and hateful tweet about Muslims.  The gist of his posting is there is no such thing as a peaceful Muslim and that they should be wiped off the face of the earth.

Does he really think that Jesus would be in favor of his followers committing genocide?  I’d like to ask Gipp where, in “The Good Book,” genocide is advocated.

Being married to an extraordinarily kind Muslim and having lived among them for approximately fifteen years, I responded to Gipp by tweeting, in effect, that his hatefulness would help him find his way to the front of the line of those being ushered into hell.

I know this was harsh, but sometimes harshness must be met with harshness.

He then responded by telling me that unless I had nail holes in my hands and feet, I had no business telling him who would, and who would not, be going to hell.

I responded by asking him to show me his nail holes—I actually asked him to post photos of them.  I said that since he always seemed to pass judgment on others and thus enjoyed playing at being god, he surely had the marks of Christ on his body.

It’s been two days now and he hasn’t responded.  I think it’s because the cat’s got his tongue.

 

Weirdness of the Weirdest Sort (Or on Being a Trump Supporter)

clown

I really want to remain civil.  I really do.  I try hard.  But in this age of Trump, an era when so many celebrate irrationality, it’s hard to be patient and humane.

I am on Twitter.  I like tweeting but probably not as much as your average sparrow does on a typical day.  I certainly don’t tweet as much as America’s douchebag president does.  (By the way, that’s probably a first for me; I don’t ever remember using the word “douchebag” in anything I’ve ever written.)  I do have one rule of thumb while on Twitter:  I try to send out things that are not stupid or nonsensical.  This puts me automatically at odds with Trump.  He seemingly prefers to tweet dumb and absurd things.  I recently heard Eugene Robinson, well-known columnist at The Washington Post, say that Trump is certainly venal and probably senile.  That sounds about right.

Lately, I’ve gotten my back up against the evangelicals.  Many claim to be supporters of an immoral and sadistic president while simultaneously (and piously) referring to themselves as “children of God” or Christians.  At least they’ve got the “child” part right.  Many are childish, and they see Trump as their “daddy,” the one who’s going to protect them against everything and anything that’s scary (think caravans of scary foreigners coming to America).  The question is, who’s going to guard them against daddy.  Being children, it’s likely they haven’t gotten that far in their thinking.

When I was a boy and going to church, I naively thought that a person was automatically good because he or she would spend a few hours each week warming a pew in some house of worship.  Now that I’m a man, I realize that some of the very worst people warm pews on Sundays.

All this has been a roundabout way to mention that I recently ran across this Baptist preacher who tweets some of the most bigoted, ludicrous, and dishonest stuff you can imagine.  His Twitter handle is @SamGipp.  In a recent tweet he misquoted George Washington as saying, “When government takes away citizens’ right to bear arms, it becomes citizens’ duty to take away government’s right to govern.”  I thought that sounded weird—like some kind of NRA slogan—so I looked it up and found that the authenticity of the quote had been disproved.  I pointed this out to Gipp, and after doing so, even more people who’d seen his tweet began to like and retweet it.

gipp false quote of washington

This is just plain old weirdness of the weirdest sort.  It’s odd that adults, when presented with evidence that contradicts something they believe in, would continue to cling to that which was clearly shown to be crap.

Perhaps it’s a new form of derangement, some kind of Trump Syndrome?

LOOK

laptop-eyes-technology-computer

 

I wrote this a little more than a year ago, but it seems, once again, very apropos…

***

I can’t believe I’m being dragged back into politics.  But that is exactly what’s happening.

In 2015 I quit visiting all the political websites that had held my interest for many years.  I stopped thinking about politics and discussing the topic with others.

2015 is also the year I left Egypt after living and working there for seven years.  During that time, I was very political, at least from 2008 to 2014.  In 2011, I witnessed the mass uprising against Hosni Mubarak and found myself swept away by the euphoria that followed his deposing.  Then, two years later, during the month of July, I watched in horror as Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, was overthrown in a military coup.  Some very scary characters referred to it as a “second revolution,” but the more apt term was “counterrevolution.”

The counterrevolution crushed my spirit but not because I was a Morsi fan.  I was devastated because I had seen how hard brave Egyptians had fought to free themselves.  And I saw the sacrifices they’d made.  Suddenly, though, they were right back at square one or even worse.  The only way I could survive such devastation was to numb myself.  So, I withdrew from politics and became apathetic, which takes me back to the point I was making about myself in the second paragraph.

I had a bit of a revival when Bernie Sanders decided to run for president.  The old political juices began to flow again.  From the moment he declared his candidacy, I felt the Bern.  Eventually, he built an incredible following and I began to see a glass that was half full.  Egypt had certainly lost its way but America, it seemed, was on the verge of finding its soul.

Then the Democratic Party machine decided that Hillary Clinton was somehow owed the nomination.  Bernie was treated unfairly and his supporters were pushed aside.  Many of us warned that Clinton was too compromised and therefore vulnerable.  Too few listened to those warnings.  Too many people were too certain about what they thought was a foregone conclusion.  There were many ominous signs for those with the ability to see and read them.  With Bernie out of the race and everyone saying Clinton was a shoo-in, I began to lose interest again.

But I never drifted entirely away.  That weird sense of foreboding I felt wouldn’t let me turn completely off.  The mood of the nation reinforced the sense of dread I felt.  It seemed all too possible that something catastrophic might happen.  And it did on November 8, 2016, a date that go down in infamy.

Now that the world as we’ve known it is in the process of vanishing, the old jump-up-on-a-soapbox Troy has reawakened.

I grew up during a period when Americans smugly believed that the nation and its people were somehow special—or exceptional.  They watched as other countries fell apart or came under the influence of evil powers but felt that such things could never happen in the greatest country the world had ever seen.  America would always remain the beacon.  It would always set the model for others to follow.

But just look where we find ourselves now.  Just look.  Look long and hard.  And while doing so, make sure not to turn your eyes away.  Don’t delude yourself into believing that what you see isn’t as bad as many are suggesting.

The truth is, it’s every bit as bad as people are saying.  We cannot know for sure how bad it may get, but it is already way beyond horrific.

 

#NotMyPresident #TheResistance

points-of-light

I have this friend named B*** S******.  We got to know each other while we were both teaching at The American University in Cairo.  I returned to the US in 2015 and he did so a year later.

When I came back, I got a pretty lucrative education and training job with the Department of Defense as a private contractor.  I was hired to work with foreign military personal—both enlisted and officers.  I had students from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Djibouti, Jordan, Mauritania, Togo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Georgia, Bulgaria, the Ukraine, Mongolia, South Korea, and Indonesia.  I might have left out a country or two, and I apologize if that’s the case.  Then, student enrollment declined, beginning in the springtime, and I got laid off exactly one year after hiring on, making me collateral damage which sounds a lot better than a bullet-riddled corpse that had been mutilated beyond all recognition.  It was the first layoff of my life and it came at the worst time imaginable.  In fact, it’s left me with ugly scars and something akin to PTSD.

B*** came back and got a job at a community college in some Podunk in the Midwest, an area sometimes called “flyover country,” and for good reason, because to land there puts one at risk of contracting a deadly form of ignorance, the sort that turns the brain to mush, making someone like Donald Trump look like a reasonable human being who might make a good president.

I might be giving my friend’s current place of abode away by saying it garnered national news a while back when the police arrested three scraggly, lily-white, neo-Nazi-looking guys who were in the midst of plotting to blow up a building inhabited by Somali refugees who had committed the heinous crime of leaving their troubled homeland to start life anew.  I’ll go back and look at the reports again, but I believe one Donald Trump, the fellow who froths at the mouth like a rabid skunk when you suggest he’s opened up Pandora’s Box of hate in the country, had been the rednecks’ primary inspiration.

To quote one of my favorite writers of the 20th century, a kinky headed dude named Kurt Vonnegut:  “And so it goes.”

B*** and I talk about politics on the phone from time to time.  During one of our pre-election conversations, I said, “There might be a silver lining to the election of DT if it happens.”

“What the hell would that be?” B*** asked incredulously.

“Well, in the short run, I agree it would be catastrophic, but in the longer term, it would likely be a powerful impetus to kick start a truly robust progressive movement the likes of which American has maybe never seen before.”

Do I see such a coming together of progressives happening now that we are living in the alternative universe known as Trump Reality?  Quick answer:  Hell yes.

The last time we talked—about two weeks after that very flawed presidential election—B*** was terrified.  (I could hear him quaking in his boots through the phone.)  His fear was that we were entering a phase where the fascist brutes, aligned with law enforcement, would just start rounding people up or mowing them down—whatever was most cost-effective and convenient.  I advised my buddy to get on Twitter and just have a look around at the pushback that was taking place against the Chief Nihilist of the US and his fascist minions.  If he did so, I exhorted him, he’d feel a lot better.

I have always felt that STEP ONE in the resistance of despotism can only come after millions of people have linked arms—this linking can start virtually, on places like Twitter—become comrades, and have declared a common goal.  This is happening as I write this.  If you’re feeling alone, hopeless, and isolated, reach out to others who are your political brothers and sisters.  Once you do this, you will begin to feel a part of something that is much bigger than yourself.  This will embolden and inspire you.  You’ll see that lots and lots of people have your back.

You will also discover resistance movements and find out about street protests and planned acts of resistance and civil disobedience.  Join one and become an activist.  Use your feet to move through the streets.  As your feet carry you along, your voices will rise up to say “No!”

My feeling is the fascists are really mostly bluster.  (It is no accident that the most obnoxious ones hide behind fake Twitter handles, afraid to show their true identities.)  Stand up to them.  Get in their faces.  And they will ultimately slink away.