Friday, August 29, 2008

Noun, Verb, POW

Image by Darkblack (Extra thanks to Darkblack for this inspiring image.)

Noun, Verb, POW

I have a friend named Jamila who years ago handed me a phrase to live by. Before I go on, let me affirm yes, Jamila is an Arabic name: She was raised white Catholic in Iowa but she has converted to Sufi and it has made her extremely happy. If you can't get past that, you're not the intended reader of this article.

So, what Jamila said was: "Any difficulty I have with your difficulty is still MY difficulty."

It's the ultimate statement of personal responsibility. It means it's my work, my life lesson, my nudge from g*d, however you want to phrase it, when I encounter emotional resistance to your obvious emotional resistance.

This does not mean you can reduce institutional and systemic forms of oppression to "emotional resistance" on the part of those employing it. You have to trace the source of power, and if it comes from societal, cultural, and governmental institutions, you are NOT reduced to seeking therapy for how oppression has fucked you up (although it doesn't hurt to get it), you have a right to demand CHANGE.

But in a great many of our personal interactions and reactions, "privilege" is not what's going down. What's going down is that someone we're listening to is showing damage, and how we interpret and respond to that is OUR responsibility, not something they "make" us feel or do.

Any difficulty you have with my difficulty is still YOUR difficulty.

There's been an obvious wish, if not displayed tendency, on the part of Democrats to play the age card with John McCain, i.e., "He's too old to be President." I won't go there, mostly because it's just wrong -- it's ageist. Competence is not measured by years, and the Constitutional measure for the office of the President is 35 years. I have known plenty of 25-year-olds who are far less sharp and able to track than John McCain.

Instead, I think we should be up front about the issue of competence itself, and how we define it. In this I would include mental stability. I think it's clear, at this point, that George W. Bush was (and remains) mentally unfit for the responsibility of leadership. He's immature, he's vindictive, he's incurious, he's immature (did I say that already?), and he lacks personal insight to such an extent that he's volatile. He is clearly damaged.

I personally believe that this damage was visible before he was elected and that, perversely, it's why a lot of people voted for him, especially white men. I think his damage is what "someone I'd like to have a beer with" is code for: He's just like me, and why can't I be good enough to run for President? If you're sick of being a failure, of being told by your boss and wife and family and even some of your friends that you're not handling what is expected of you, if you're called privileged but you feel like every other group gets special consideration and hell your parents raised you to be absolutely no more than what you've accomplished, then that anger will latch onto another wretch as a role model.

This is partly the result of hurling "privilege" accusations at folks instead of labeling systems of oppression, targets and non-targets for oppression: Personalizing the oppressor simply has not worked. Nobody "feels" like the "oppressor"; no kid is specifically raised to be the overlord, the bad guy, the eater of all extra (even when they are.) Every human being is targeted in at least one way for subhuman treatment, and every human being is trained in the ways of treating another group of humans with subhuman disrespect. This has to be sorted out on a one-on-one basis while still identifying the major flows of power -- race, gender, class, age, religion, geography, physical ability.

Because we were in the midst of the Right's framing of seeking personal insight as "feminine" behavior (pussy, faggy, liberal, hippie, atheist), we as a nation chose in 2000 to adopt a vigorously "masculine" approach: Just make a decision, dammit, someone else will clean up any mess. Look firm and strong-jawed, that's all that counts. Now we're in the position of housewives everywhere, looking at the living room where an eight-year Superbowl party of immature teenaged old boys have never once been told No. In some parts of the room, we'll have to rip down to bare studs and rebuild.

If you can face this job without utter despair, congratulations: You've acquired the human conditioning which is, in our Right-skewed culture, labeled "female" but which is in reality (and in other cultures) known as adult.

But, as any experienced housewife can also tell you, we have to learn our lessons from this indulgence. And one lesson we need to pick up, as a nation, is the ability to judge and value competence. We have to assess mental competence and signs of damage.

I'll be brave here: John McCain is showing obvious signs of damage. What is the main clue? He'll tell you right away. He was a POW.

Now, not all POW's remain damaged from their experience. Some PTSD survivors are able to completely eradicate any negative vestige of their experience from their behavior. (I speak from personal knowledge here.) Many others, perhaps most, can clean up enough so that the deep scars manifest only occasionally, with particular and rare triggers. You have to get past feeling shit on for having been traumatized in the first place, accept the work of recovery and pursue it resolutely until your life is your own again. Sucks, but that's the drill.

At age 13, in 1968, I became an anti-war pacifist. My parents were both at that time Republicans who voted for Nixon, so you can guess how well this went over. I never missed a chance to vocalize my beliefs, and consequently my adolescence was a sore trial for us all. I made straight A's, didn't use drugs, played sports and won state-wide academic contests, so my parents didn't feel like they could ground me for my political beliefs, although I'm sure they talked it over. I wore on my mother enough that by 1972, she didn't vote for Nixon a second time. (Hee hee hee.)

It therefore confused them, and some of my friends, when in 1972 I purchased a POW bracelet at the State Fair in Dallas and swore I would not take it off until that man was either freed or his remains identified. I saw no contradiction in my belief system: Being anti-war meant defending the rights of those caught up in the war machine against torture and imprisonment.

That year, my senior year, I was captain of my local basketball team, a starting forward. The second game of the season, during warm-up one of the referees went to my coach and told him league rules stipulated no jewelry could be worn during a game, and that included my silver POW bracelet. As we filed into the locker room for our final lecture, Coach told me the news: The bracelet had to come off for the game.

I explained to him what the bracelet symbolized and that I could not possibly justify removing it for a basketball game. He was, in addition to coaching and teaching (badly) algebra, the local Baptist deacon, and I'm certain both he and the ref had a snicker together about the thrill of forcing that symbol of hippiedom from my body. He was adamant. My choice was to either take off the bracelet or sit out that and every other game for the season. He shouted at me a minute, then stormed out of the room.

My teammates were devastated. They didn't all agree with me, but they knew I would not budge. One of them, a former best friend who had been born again and renounced me two years earlier in an unacknowledged lesbian panic, actually sat on the end of the bench and prayed to herself. It was her who came up with a solution: She retrieved the thick white tape we used to wrap sprained joints and wrapped it around my wrist, over the bracelet, until all traces of its outline were concealed. I went out with the rest of the team to start the game. Coach of course knew what was going on, but somebody told him whose idea it was -- the good Baptist girl -- and he let it slide. I went through the season with a wrapped wrist. And no, we didn't win that game or most of the others. I was a crappy player on a crappy team. This is not a Rudy story.

I was watching TV in 1973 when my POW walked off a plane onto U.S. soil again. Sobbing, I pulled the bracelet from my arm and traced the engraved name one last time: Lt. Commander John S. McCain.

When the vote came up before the U.S. Senate to redefine torture and reiterate our stand against it as a nation, I wrote John McCain personally, telling him the story I shared above and asking him, not as a constituent of his nor even a party member but as an American who loves her country -- beseeching him to stick to his principles and lead the way against torture. He never responded, even with a form letter, and we all know how he voted. I wasn't personally offended, but I did understand what it meant: He's not recovered in any meaningful way from his experience 30 years ago.

If you look at his personal history, he's shown no concrete evidence of recovery in other areas. He's betrayed personal loyalties, he's pursued wealth the easy way, he has serious anger control issues, he leaves hard work to others, and he cannot maintain his own proclaimed principles. These are not "senior moments", this is a classic PTSD profile. When he answers basic questions by first referencing his having been a POW, he's telling us that this is the defining moment of his personality, the box he's never managed to escape, what comes up inside him at every turn, out of his control.

I have compassion for him. I wish he belonged to a culture that believed in seeking thorough help and putting the experience behind him. But my compassion doesn't alter my rational opinion that he's not competent to assume leadership, especially not military leadership. It's an opinion I get to make as a voter, not based on the lies of oppression or bigotry, and I'm taking the opportunity to state it here because I suspect there are others who want the relief of hearing it. The damage you receive along the way (and kids, my childhood would curl your toes) is damage, not character, and it is important you do whatever you can to clean it up before you ask others to accommodate it. We do have a right to ask our sisters and brothers to accommodate our scars. I personally choose to live in forgiveness. But forgiveness does not mean handing a drunk the keys to my car.

No to McCain BECAUSE he approaches leadership from the mindset of a POW.