Help Me Not Be Such an Ass: July 2015


In a world that just pukes injustice all over itself, what on earth does it matter if I am such an Ass? in times of inner and outer world messiness, I both hate and incessantly ask this question. It makes me think of Parker Palmer’s idea of “the tragic gap”* (see footnote, but roughly: “gap” between reality and possibility, between “corrosive cynicism and irrelevant idealism”; “tragic” because it will never ever close). It’s nice for a moment because he says that’s where Gandhi and Mother Teresa et al lived…but my thought, mid-flail, of “ohh, it’s the tragic gap thing again” is quickly followed by “ugggggh, fuck the fucking tragic gap!” which is how we can all tell that I am, you know, Really Not There Yet.

So I flail about, and read, and watch, and cry, and fume, and flail-read-watch-cry-fume, around and around, until I get to talk with a good Beloved Other, like maybe you.

Here is some of what I have turned to for help this month, in addition to many belovedly beloved others:

When the Levees Broke (2006) and If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise (2010). I was in and out of the country during Hurricane Katrina and much of the aftermath, and I never educated myself enough–I never even watched When the Levees Broke.  It put me in the kind of pain I need to be in if I’m to move towards the possibility of doing better–really move. If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise was made five years after and checks in with the same people.

“How Orange Is the New Misrepresents Women’s Federal Prison and Why It Matters” : I think we are better off with this show than without it for a lot of identity-representation reasons, but we gotta know this stuff too. i.e….six in 10 women in real federal prison are there for nonviolent drug crimes. For every woman who has committed murder there are 99 drug offenders….in real federal prison four in five women have children, and over half have kids under 18….62 percent of all women in federal prison suffer mental health problems.

And speaking of who gets incarcerated…good stories this week on who gets elected as prosecutors and thus decides “when to pursue criminal charges, which charges to file, and if they will carry prison time”. ColorLines: Of the 2,437 elected prosecutors serving in jurisdictions around the country last summer when the survey was conducted, just 4 percent are men of color, only 1 percent are women of color, and white men account for fully 79 percent (while only accounting for 31 percent of the total population). And 60 percent of states have zero black elected prosecutors. The only state where white men make up less than half of the prosecutors is New Mexico. Good NPR story too (5 min).

Jeff Chang, who wrote Who We Be (also recommended), started as a hip-hop journalist and I’m not even all the way through Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation but I have to recommend it right now, because what if you are looking for a good book?! It’s amazing. It’s grounded in the political context and consciousness that shaped the late 70s-early 80s Bronx emergence of hip-hop, and I can hardly put it down. AND: Jeff Chang has a Spotify playlist for each chunk and that is an incredible gift (here’s the first–and here’s Chang‘s profile where you can find the rest). Two movies also came to my attention via this book: Style Wars (documentary–on YouTube) and Wild Style (not documentary, but the cast is the people who were doing what the movie was about at the time. Fab 5 Freddy!! Stream-rentable on Amazon Prime). They are both an hour-ish. I learned a lot. I’d read the beginning of the book first though so you know who everyone is and care about their futures.

No Logo by Naomi Klein. Written right before “globalization”… globablized. Prescient and still madly informative. Also, will make you start shopping at thrift stores.

The Charleston Syllabus“A list of readings that educators can use to broach conversations in the classroom about the horrendous events that unfolded in Charleston, South Carolina on the evening of June 17, 2015. These readings provide valuable information about the history of racial violence in this country and contextualize the history of race relations in South Carolina and the United States in general. They also offer insights on race, racial identities, global white supremacy and black resistance.” Not just for educators, not just in classrooms.

Amandla! a movie about the role of music in apartheid South Africa. It’s beautiful and devastating. Fun fact about my childhood: I saw a lot of movies about apartheid South Africa when I was pretty young (before apartheid ended). It might have not been a lot, actually (at least 3), but they took up a lot of space in my brain. So it’s nice to work in some beauty, and to now, as an adult, be able to see what bravery wrought, instead of just being a terrified child. This movie, and Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, and When the Levees Broke, all point out to me how insanely many things I only know the littlest bit about, relative to their depth as subjects, and how that littlest bit is so narrow, and basically just what is culturally ambient. I knew Grandmaster Flash and Miriam Makeba mattered somehow; I did not have the faintest idea how or really even realize that I didn’t know. 

Is America Possible? Forgiveness, Justice, and Charleston” by Omid Safi.  Even now, as our hearts are broken over Charleston, as we see the lack of willingness to look at this virus that is deeply embedded in the soul of America, the answer is still love and justice. Even now, as we see refusal to acknowledge the problem with systematic violence in American society, the answer is still love and justice. Even now, as America is unquestionably an empire, the answer is still love and justice. Do not be satisfied with this excerpt! Go read more.

That’s it for this time…if you have suggestions for not being Such an Ass, I’ll always take them.



*From an interview with The Sun (which is amazing! I LOVE The Sun and didn’t realize he’d done this with them) :

By the tragic gap I mean the gap between the hard realities around us and what we know is possible — not because we wish it were so, but because we’ve seen it with our own eyes. For example, we see greed all around us, but we’ve also seen generosity. We hear a doctrine of radical individualism that says, “Everyone for him- or herself,” but we also know that people can come together in community and make common cause.

As you stand in the gap between reality and possibility, the temptation is to jump onto one side or the other. If you jump onto the side of too much hard reality, you can get stuck in corrosive cynicism. You game the economic system to get more than your share, and let the devil take the hindmost. If you jump onto the side of too much possibility, you can get caught up in irrelevant idealism. You float around in a dream state saying, “Wouldn’t it be nice if . . . ?” These two extremes sound very different, but they have the same impact on us: both take us out of the gap — and the gap is where all the action is.

That’s the gap Martin Luther King Jr. stood in his entire life, the gap Nelson Mandela stands in to this day. That’s the gap where Rosa Parks and Dorothy Day stood. I call it “tragic” because it’s a gap that will never close, an inevitable flaw in the human condition. No one who has stood for high values — love, truth, justice — has died being able to declare victory, once and for all. If we embrace values like those, we need to find ways to stand in the gap for the long haul, and be prepared to die without having achieved our goals.

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