Category Archives: social change

Marriage — to take his name…or not?

Who are we, as women?  As a woman, who are you?  Do you know?  If so, how do you express that? What sums up your identity?

For me, a big part of that is my name.  It’s something sacred.  It’s my calling card in the world.  It’s something that identifies me as me.  It’s something that provides continuity and coherence  in the long story that is my life.

I don’t always like my name, and in truth I legally modified my birth name several years ago to better suit me — I literally bought my first name an additional letter.  I don’t always like my last name.  It’s hard to spell and people often mispronounce and/or misspell both my first and last names.

But it’s mine.

I read an article the other day that struck a nerve.  Titled “Retro Marriage Trend Makes a Comeback, for Better or Worse” the piece describes how large majorities of women are now taking their husbands’ last names when they marry.  There seems to be conflicting data on whether this is more common among older women or younger women, but one statistic presented in the article is that 8% of women now keep their maiden names, compared to a high of 23% in the 1990s.

This troubles me.  It’s hard enough for women to discover who we are, what our values are, what our unique gifts and dreams are, and how to manifest them.  It’s hard enough for women to be seen as whole people, to have a Self outside the needs of other people — our children, spouses, partners, parents, and siblings.  It’s hard enough for women to be seen, heard and taken seriously — or for us to take ourselves, our voices, our lives and our responsibilities seriously.

So why add to all that potential for getting lost and not forming a solid independent Selfhood the additional variable of a name change?  A change in our major identifier, that connects us with our entire lives?  And a change that typically happens at an age when we’re just about to burst onto the stage of our own lives?

Maybe women in the United States don’t know the history behind the custom of changing names.  It comes from English law where women had nothing — were nothing — without attachment to a male.  First that male was their father, then it was their husband.  Women — even ones from rich families — had no right to own any property of their own, and no right to much of anything.  As economic entities literally owned by men, we women were vaginas and wombs used to pass on the names of men and their property (to sons) or to form economically and politically advantageous alliances with other families (through marrying off daughters).  To lose or gain a name was to lose or gain basic rights and economic safety.

And by the way the term “maiden name” is sexist in itself, implying that a pre-married woman is (and should be) a virgin.  Of course men enjoy no comparable labels distinguishing the various stages of their sexual activity (which is another subtext of unmarried vs. married — don’t get me started on the whole “Miss”, “Mrs.”  and “Ms.” thing).

It’s not this way in all parts of the world.  In countries colonized by Spain instead of England, people have at least two surnames — one from the father and one from the mother.  (This norm may have originally come from Arabic-speaking cultures, which spread to Spain.)  While the maternal surname eventually gets dropped after two generations, every person carries identifiers from both parents.  Latin American women rarely change their names when they marry, and if they do, it’s often added to the others and preceded by a “de” to show it’s a married surname.

Also in Spanish-speaking countries — cultures often thought to be more machista (sexist or male dominant) than the USA — women have long been able to own property separate from men.  In fact, California was the first state where women could own property separate from any man.  This was a holdover from Mexican law that was preserved when California became a part of the United States.

I understand the practical reasons for changing one’s name.  Sometimes we women don’t like our birth surnames.  Sometimes we don’t like our family of origin and are happy to join a new tribe.  Sometimes we want continuity with our children.  When I was married, I got a new passport with a hyphenated last name in anticipation of children, and signed legal documents as a hyphenated person when they were jointly executed with my then-spouse.  But nowhere else.  It gleefully tickled my feminist funny bone to no end when we’d get spam phone calls from some poor soul wanting to talk to Mr. [my last name].

My main issue about changing names is this — why is the name change only a woman’s issue?  Why don’t men get to go through this?  If marriage implies a union, why not make it equal and NOT a subsuming of the woman’s identity to the man’s?  Some men do change their names or both spouses take on a new hyphenated name, and I’d love to see more of this.  I adore how Antonio Villaraigosa, mayor of Los Angeles, actually combined his last name (Villar) with his wife’s (Raigosa) to create a whole new entity.  What a metaphor for partnership, union, shared new identity, and equity!

Marriage today has its roots in feudal economic relationships where women are not only unequal to men, but their property.  Because of this inequity and the burdens it brings, we continue to have to make myriad decisions that are men’s privilege to never have to consider — like having to time children before it’s too late biologically but after it’s sufficiently economically stable; whether to try parenthood plus career or choose one; like balancing”work work” and housework.  On top of all that, we have to decide what to call ourselves too?

There must be some payoff.  Let’s face it, the logistics of changing your name is a HUGE pain in the arse, especially in the digital age.  So ladies, what is the payoff?

I suspect there is another piece here that isn’t talked about much.  Women changing their names upon marriage is a public declaration of the married state.  It’s a way to announce to the world “I am married now!”  It’s a way to announce “I am now legitimate before the world, as are my children and my sexual activity!”  Even though we single women tend to be better offer financially and (according to some studies) also happier than married women — especially ones with children — there is still a stigma attached to being a single woman with our wild, unclaimed vaginas bandying about.  The stigma is that somehow we haven’t been able to attract a man that wants to marry us (which apparently should be our goal)…and therefore we are defective somehow.  Unintentionally perhaps, women taking on their husbands’ name contributes to a societal sense of “there are better and worse buckets of womanhood, and I’m in the ‘good woman’ bucket now!”

Let’s be honest.  There is some truth to the existence of the good bucket. Being married — and letting the whole world know we’re married by changing our name — still gives us an identity, legitimacy, and personhood that singledom does not.  Also, few relationships in a woman’s life outside of marriage have the power to determine the path and quality of a woman’s life (and that of her children) in terms of basic physical safety and economic well-being…whether for better or worse.

I hope for the day when marriage is NOT such a defining and critical moment in a woman’s life to the extent she feels compelled, or obligated (one of my recently-married acquaintances was pressured by her new husband to change her last name because it was “the polite thing to do”) to change her identity.  I hope for the day when marriage is just as critical and defining a moment for men.  And I hope for the day when men have to wrestle with the big questions of life, identity, work, children, and family to the same degree as women.

In the meantime, I do my part to encourage this shift by resisting the norm and its oppressive history.  While I may hyphenate again one day, I retain my surname, and along with it my identity, my herstory, my whole personhood, and my Self.

What do you think?  Why did you change your name? Or not?

In lak ech!

Jaxsine

The End … and the Beginning …

I would be remiss to not post on 12-21-12, given that the title of my blog is Evolving 2012.  So hello from Valladolid, Yucatán, México and the heart of the “mundo maya”– the Mayan World! And Happy Solstice!

You may or may not be aware that the Maya never disappeared from this land.  In fact, there are more living right now than at the height of the “Classic” period over 1000 years ago.  I was reminded of this yesterday as I roamed the streets of Valladolid.  I heard some form of Maya being spoken in the street almost as often as Spanish.  Few of the men are my height — I’m 5’5″ — and the women are shorter than the men.  A large percentage of those women — especially in their 30s and over — were wearing hipiles (seems the spelling is no longer “huipiles”)  as they went about their day, and not just selling items to tourists, but also picking up kids from school and taking care of cell phone business at the Telcel office! Of course there were also a number wearing tops and short pants — or four-inch stilettos and skinny jeans! — and the men dressed in anything from guayaberas and dark pants to (for the younger ones) long shorts and t-shirts like in any U.S. city.  The difference is that — with startling frequency — the brown faces above the outfits look like they could have jumped right off a carved stone relief at Chichén Itzá or Palenque carved centuries ago.

Even many of the Spanish speakers speak Spanish with an “accent” similar to the “accent” that many “Indians” back home in the U.S. have when speaking English.  Sounds made in Mayan languages seem more similar to sounds in the Diné (Navajo) and Pueblo languages spoken in my home of New Mexico than English.  And I was reminded there are more pan continental similarities.  The music full of drums and flutes and various percussion instruments made from natural materials.  The foods, based on corn and various local meats and local plants.  And the ceremonies, honoring life’s transitions, the circle, the cycle of life, the community, sharing, and taking a moment to appreciate and ask for help.

I got to witness such a ceremony last night in the main plaza — “hetz mek.” Done for male babies at 4 months and female babies at 3 months, the family members go around the table 13 times for boys, 9 times for girls, say prayers (from what I gathered) to desire a straight path in life for the child, and then share various foods.  I was offered some pepitas, some kind of thick tortilla, and a honey based sweet.  There was a little boy in the ceremony, but the purpose was also symbolic.  It was a ceremony for a new era, for baby humanity, for the Shift.

And it was a part of a week-long “festival de la cultura maya“(Festival of Maya Culture) which goes through Sunday.  I guess the Maya don’t expect the world to end.

All kidding aside about the end of the world happening today, the mood around today’s historic solstice is decidedly anticlimactic.  In a culture that has been around for thousands of years and lives in a cyclical reality, it’s only the linear gringos who seem to fear we’re falling off some kind of cliff (fiscal or otherwise!).

In fact, in quintessential Mexican tongue-in-cheek, creatively-capitalizing-on-the-moment, laughing-at-death, living-in-the-now fashion, the only signs I saw that anything might be different this December were literally written on the walls.  It’s significant that these walls were in Playa del Carmen (a very touristy area) and that the writing is in English.

Here’s one, advertising a cool “Day Zero” concert festival on the 21st (mostly techno music I gather):

Playa del Carmen, Mexico, 12-18-12.

And another:

023

This “Time and Space 2012 Countdown Festival” boasts 3 days, 90 artists (more techno it seems), 48 hours of nonstop music on 2 stages in Tulúm and live painting by metaphysical artist Alex Gray:

Time and Space 2012 Countdown

Here were some cool t-shirts for sale (the top one says “awakening” and “awareness” …

024

…and a festive holiday wish:

Happy New Age

In all of Valldolid, there was no reference to the Solstice (I actually had to ask around about events!) other than this one low-key sign in the Valladolid bus station, in Spanish:

ADO Valldolid

Its headline is “We’ll take you even to the end of the world” and announces extra buses between Valladolid and Chichén Itzá (which is being spelled “Xichén” more often now).

Speaking of which, as you read this I am on my way to Xichén to hang out with 5,000 to 200,000 (yes, that is the range of estimates) of folks, mostly foreigners I’m guessing (although I don’t know where they’re hiding because Valladolid — the closest town/city to Xichén — is definitely not teeming with tourists nor feeling like a woo-woo mecca nor a party waiting to happen nor a hippie hang out nor a doomsday hideout).

I’m not sure what today holds.  I don’t know if it’s true that we will be experiencing a celestial alignment that happens every 584, 283 years.  I don’t know if the aliens are going to land.  I don’t know if the world financial system or the U.S. government are going to collapse.  I can tell you with some certainty that the sun will continue to rise, a 5200-year cycle of time predicted by one of the most advanced civilizations of its time will end, and it is the Solstice — the darkest day of the year, which also signifies the return of the light.

That’s my favorite part of the Winter Solstice – the darkest day is the return of the light.  This is so profound and hopeful.  I prefer the pagan seasonal calendar which marks the seasons on cross-quarters, which means winter began in early November and ends in early February.  If you pay attention to the sunlight, the weather, and plant cycles, this actually makes more sense than the idea winter starts today.  [Although you wouldn’t know it’s winter at all here in the Yucatán with its 80+ degree heat, intense sunlight, humidity and mosquitoes!]

Regardless of what does or doesn’t happen, or what is supposed to happen or should, I see today as the Return of the Light — and possibly a brighter one than in Winter Solstices past.  I will be taking my own prayers and others’, and a few special objects (one of which was entrusted to me) to Xichén tomorrow.  I will express gratitude for all the blessings of life, for the learnings of 2012, and for this opportunity for humanity to grow, learn, and progress in a way that brings us back to our humanity, to love, to our femininity, to our collective caring for each other and other lifeforms, and to the earth.

In Lak Ech — tú eres mi otro yo — you are my other me…

2012 and beyond!

~Jaxsine

Sense and Sensibility: The Newtown Massacre

It’s happened again.  For the second time in a year, I’m blogging about a mass shooting.  For the fourth time in his presidency, Obama travelled today to a city to grieve with families after another bout of senseless violence.

And I am weary of hearing these incidents referred to as “senseless”.  From the principal of Columbine High School to the prime minister of Australia to news anchors and my Facebook friends, one of the most common words I hear is “senseless.”  But to me, it makes perfect sense.

In fact, I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often.  When you take a society that values money and material things over people and relationships, add social isolation and lack of true community (like Adam Lanza’s upscale neighborhood where he occupied two bedrooms in his mother’s spacious home and some neighbors didn’t even know them), leave out critical education about mental and emotional health (as well as resources to identify and treat those with these challenges), leave out education about healthy communciation and anger/conflict management, and add a healthy dose of easy access to guns, you have situations like Newtown waiting to happen all over this country — a country where there are as many guns as people (300 million) and, compared to most other industrialized countries, a very high percentage of people experiencing mental and emotional illness, excess stress levels, and a lack of healthy coping skills or social support.

This is not meant as an indictment of the Lanza family or of Newtown, but a plea for us to look at the bigger picture,  We are all connected.  We can’t tolerate institutions that oppress and dehumanize us; an industrialized food system that not only does not nourish us but addicts our minds and weakens our bodies; a prison-industrial complex larger than any in the world; forms of entertainment that dehumanize us; a lifestyle that disconnects us from the earth, other lifeforms and spirit; a general disregard for the needs of women and children; a general lack of purpose, meaning, and love … and expect there to be no consequences.

Newtown is one of many consequences.

I’m grateful that this time around, there seems to be less usage of the word “evil” to describe these murders, as I decried in my post about the Aurora shooting, despite the fact that most of the Newtown dead were six-year-olds.  I can’t even imagine the horror of such a thing for a parent.

And yet we still need a responsibility check.  It’s not useful to decry such violence as senseless or incomprehensible, because it is neither.  Doing so absolves us of any responsibility, and makes us believe we are powerless.  We are not powerless.  The “society” we rail against is not an entity outside of us — it is something we each create each day with the jobs we choose to work in, the decisions we make, where we spend our money, what we eat, how we speak and think, and how we treat each other and ourselves.

And calling Adam Lanza — or James Holmes or any of the other recent perpetrators — “crazed” is also inaccurate and feeds into this kind of helpless thinking.  The folks who perpetrate these murders — who are typically young males, usually White — are methodical and deliberate, and take months to plan their attacks.  According to Jack Levin, a well-known professor of sociology and criminology, they don’t “go off” or “snap.”  What they do have is a sense of their problems being caused by other people — they blame everyone but themselves.  They too see themselves as powerless and unresponsible.

Levin also challenges the notion that these events are increasing.  On NPR the other day, he said that there are about 20 such mass murders per decade, with about 150 total victims.  In the meantime, he points out that there are about 15,000 individual homicides — per year.   However, Connecticut Senator John Larson said today that of the 12 worst mass shootings in our history, half have occurred in the last 5 years.

Regardless of who’s right, it seems most people feel things are coming to a head.  And solutions are already being proposed.  Paul Bennett, author of Glock: Rise of America’s Gun, said today that two short term solutions are (a) greater security in public places, and (b) better support and resources for people with mental and emotional illness.  Others are using Newtown to bolster the argument for gun control — I’ve already seen a couple online petitions to this effect.

And while gun control would certainly be a sane approach to the insane ease with which people can access deadly firearms in the U.S., it’s not the solution.  Guns are still tools used by people, and while limiting access can minimize the damage (there was an incident at a school in China on the same day as Newtown, and while the perpetrator, a man in his 30s, stabbed 22 children, none of them died), it doesn’t solve the problem of hurt people hurting people, and the epidemic of walking wounded in the U.S. and the world at large.

Much like I argued in my “Aurora, Anger, and Evil” post, the drama of the latest episode of mass violence in all its technicolor drama often obscures larger, more sinister problems and a bigger context.  It’s a symptom, not the problem per se.

Perhaps it’s helpful to think and talk about what is working.  Be humble and reflect on how there but for the grace of God go we.  How many of us, when we are being fully honest and self-aware, can’t think of a time we wouldn’t have liked to take out a bunch of fellow humans with an uzi?  Or take our own hopeless, miserable lives in some dramatic way?  Or feel like everything is someone else’s fault and someone has got to pay?

My hand goes up on all three of those.  It’s profound to think about the little things that stood in the way of me actually doing damage to others or myself in those moments.  Perhaps we can learn from this and not stop at celebrating the heroes of incidents like Newtown, like Dawn Hochsprung and Victoria Soto, but also try empathizing with and mourning the broken souls of young men like Adam Lanza.

We should grieve.  We should rage.  But we should NOT hide behind “hugging our children tighter” or stop our examination of the situation as “senseless” as if it were random and outside of our power.  The bigger context is that we need to see and own our power, and therefore our responsibility.

Lately I keep coming back to the Marianne Williamson quote: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.”  I think owning our own power, and all that entails, is one of the invitations and challenges of humanity as we move farther into the shift.

I’m heartened that President Obama, and others, are talking about “meaningful action”.  I’m glad he said tonight in Newtown that we will have to change.   I’m grateful that he said,

“Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose? I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days … If we’re honest without ourselves, the answer is no. And we will have to change.”

He continued:

 “Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?”

And this, to me, is the key.  We are not powerless.   This violence isn’t senseless.  It isn’t incomprehensible.  In fact, it is in the comprehending, and in the activation of  our sensibilities — emotional capacity, responsiveness, and consciousness —  that we can make sense of this heartwrenching tragedy and take meaningful action in such a way that we take powerful responsibility for ourselves, those around us, our communities, and the “society” and country we all co-create, every day.

Que en paz descansen los muertos de Newtown y que duermen con los angelitos los sobrevivientes.

In lak ech.

Jaxsine

 

The real reason a vote for Obama is a vote for a better future

I voted over a week ago, and I voted for Obama.  You may think you know why, but you might be wrong.

Obama’s 2008 campaign for president was the first time I became active in a campaign.  I actually made cold phone calls from the headquarters here in town, and canvassed neighborhoods months before the election — alone.  I was energized by the potential Obama embodied — of creating structural changes in our country on a wave of tremendous popular support.  I was inspired by the profound significance of having an African American family in the White House.  The night of the election results, I celebrated with hundreds of strangers, exchanging hugs and tears ina ballroom where we watching history unfold.  There was elation in the street as well, which I enjoyed as I drove home.  Two months later, I watched the inauguration on TV and about lost it when Barack and Michelle danced to “At Last” sung live by Queen Beyoncé herself.

Like so many, I felt like I was finally a part of something great.  I was ready to get to work.  I was ready to receive my orders.  But none came.

Today in 2012, I am somewhat disillusioned with Obama, but less than many progressives.  I was concerned in the months leading up to Obama’s election that too many progressives viewed him as The Messiah.  I had a feeling that pedestal-pushing was going to backfire.  Like a love affair with someone who can do no wrong often ends in hatred, I saw and heard many progressives express almost as much disgust with Obama in the months following his inauguration as they had expressed toward John McCain in the months prior.  Damning McCain and exalting Obama never were healthy approaches to the real problems facing us, since this sort of good-and-evil rhetoric does the convenient job of excusing us from any responsibility.  More on that later.

There are things that Obama has done that I’m not happy with.  More undocumented immigrants have been deported on his watch than any other.  Drone strikes in the Middle East have become commonplace.  He has done nothing to roll back the excessive powers Bush placed in the Executive Branch.  He put banker Timothy Geithner in charge of reforming Wall Street, which is like putting a McDonald’s executive in charge of reforming our food industry.  He hasn’t taken advantage of key opportunities to bring up race or racism (see Ta-Nehisi Coates’s  excellent piece in The Atlantic). We continue to rapidly devolve into a Surveillance State with limited freedom and privacy (see Glenn Greewald’s writings and videos on this topic). We went into Pakistan, murdered Osama bin Laden in front of his wife, shamefully dumped his body in the sea, then celebrated our behavior as if such barbary were the righteous way to respond to the tragedy of 9/11.

But I still voted for Obama last week.  Not because his worldview and life experience is much more closely aligned with mine (and most of the country’s) than Romney’s.  Not because his Christianity threatens my rights and values less than Romney’s Mormonism.  Not because my access to contraception and abortion remain safe with him and Biden.  Not because he seems to genuinely care about the well-being of most people in the country.  Not because Europeans overhwelming favor Obama over Romney.  Not because he and Biden came out in favor of marriage equality.  Not because he allowed young, undocumented DREAMers to pursue their education unmolested.  Not because of the benefits I’m already enjoying under Healthcare Reform, or the promise of a slightly reduced unemployment rate.

All of these things definitely matter to me.  But the main reason I voted for Obama is the main reasons I voted for him in 2008.  He is the best person to most gently guide our nation into its decline.

Empires fall, and so will ours.  It already is.  For evidence, you need only look at our declining wages, declining health, declining standard of living, declining quality of products (clothing is where I see this the most), declining level of critical thinking and engagement, declining infrastructure, and declining institutions (educational, financial, healthcare, and political).  In fact, we’ve been able to prop up our economy for a few years with stopgap measures like the stimulus and auto and bank bailouts (funny how we decry socialism and then engage in socialism when capitalism leads to inevitable failures!).  But these only keep the illusion alive.

The truth is that our nation’s status quo is unsustainable.  Our level of consumption is outrageous and immoral (we’d need 6 more planets if every human consumed like the average American).  Our level of inequality is socially unstable.  Like Katrina, Hurricane Sandy once again uncovered the staggering inequities that we nonchalantly take for granted in this country.   The top fifth of New Yorkers makes 40 times more than the bottom fifth — a gap that’s not only growing, but rivaled only by a few developing nations in sub-Saharan Africa.

We keep wailing at our government to provide us with more jobs.  There are two problems with this.  One, there are less jobs today thanks to technology and outsourcing to locales where workers are not only cheaper, but often more competent than we are.  Two, we are expecting government to solve a problem for us, even when it means “creating jobs” at the expenses of the environment or any sustainable model of economic development.  We shouldn’t be struggling to revive a defective economy focusing only on growth and GDP, but create a new economy entirely, based on what Gus Speth calls “people, place and planet” in America the Possible.

I am no Libertarian.  Government is important and essential to do for us collectively what we cannot do ourselves.  But we’ve forgotten that we own the government — or we’re supposed to — and we have become lazy and complacent in solving our own problems creatively, in community.

Elected officials are always trying to get elected or hold onto their seats, so no politician is going to come clean with the U.S. public and say “look, we’re an empire in decline, there are no more jobs, we can’t keep consuming the way we have much less base our economy on our levels of consumption.  So let’s figure out a new game plan together.” Can you imagine?!

Actually, I can, which is why I’m more in alignment with the Justice Party or the Green Party.  However, I still voted for Obama because the risk of a Romney presidency is too great, and that risk is real if too many of us vote for “third parties” — here’s one perspective on that topic from LA Progressive.   The gross inequalities in France and the conspicuous consumption of its ruling elite right before the French Revolution keep coming to my mind these days — maybe because Les Miz is hitting the big screen this winter (coincidence or serendipity?) but also becuse I see parallels with the U.S. today.  A Romney presidency might push the rest of us 99% right over the ledge of complacency into all-out mutiny and revolution.

And maybe that would be the upside of a Romney election.  The potential of an Obama re-election is continued complacency among progressives.  In his brilliant piece on the “Empire State of Mind” that has shaped even Obama’s presidency — in which the super wealthy see themselves as super entitled and persecuted, and the rest of us accommodate, admire, and want to emulate them  — Imara Jones talks about the danger of the fantasy world all of us live in regarding wealth, and the danger this poses to democracy and our society.  He wonders if we’re ready to reconnect with reality, and so do I.

Still, Obama is the best person to continue to lower us gently into a decline that doesn’t have to lead to complete collapse or total destruction.  There are a few reasons I believe this, which have everything to do with the kind of person I believe Obama to be, and less about his policies.  First, everything I’ve read about Obama suggests a real person who is brilliant, willing to be vulnerable, genuinely caring, and even tempered  (see Michael Lewis’s recent Vanity Fair piece as an example).  Second, I believe Obama is in touch with his feminine side, witness his relationship and frequent mention of his two daughters, his relationship with his strong wife, and his politeness in the first presidential debate and respectful demeanor towards the moderators in all three (penis sword fighting with Romney in the second and third debates notwithstanding).

Third, Obama, and his family, are more similar in looks, life experience, and philosophy with the majority of the Earth, the majority of the U.S., and the future of both.  This can, and will, help ease our transition to being a participant in the world than its overlord.

This isn’t an easy transition for anyone to lead.  In fact, a recent study found negative attitudes towards African Americans — both implicit and explicit — are higher now than in 2008, and now held by a majority of U.S.ians (take that, “post-racial society” believers!).  Obama’s race is estimated to have cost him up to 5 percentage points in 2008.  But the fortitude, integrity and stamina required to face real, daily struggles of race, class, and privilege are the qualities we need in a leader.

My hope is that Obama’s second term is characterized by more boldness and real change.  Unencumbered by the need to campaign for a second term and forged in the fire of one, he may become the Democrats’ Reagan, as Andrew Sullivan outlined nicely in Newsweek.  My hope is also that more of us average Janes, Joes, Juanas, Josés, Jamals and Jamilas will wake up, hold Obama accountable to move real change forward, and take greater personal responsibility for embodying those changes and moving them forward in our lives, families, communities, and institutions.

Some of those changes might start with caps on campaign spending (imagine how those two billion dollars might have been better spent!) and reform of where those dollars come from.  From there, a reform of voter identification and where, when, and how we can vote.  A complete revolution of our consumption-and-inequality-based financial system starting with the repeal of Citizens United v. FEC.  An overhaul in the tax structure.  A huge increase in the minimum wage.  More collective bargaining and unions.  A complete revolution in quality education for all, and free healthcare for all.  A complete revolution in how we power and fuel our machines, and how we feed our bodies.  A reduction in the power of the executive branch and the level of surveillance in our lives.  A movement towards racial equity and reparations for Native American nations.  Full equality in pay and democratic representation for women in all spheres.  A lack of tolerance for violence against women and children.   Access to birth control and abortion at all times to everyone.  Marriage quality for all.  A commitment to integrity, people-centered values and community over profit and competition.  And a reasonably-sized lifestyle for everyone.

It IS possible, and only WE can make this happen — together.  No one is coming to save us from ourselves.

So VOTE!  And when you do, vote for people, place, and planet … not profit, plutocracy and powerlessness.  And regardless of the outcome of tomorrow’s election, continue every day after November 6th to stand up for people, place, and planet in your words, decisions, actions, and purchases.

Ometéotl!

~Jaxsine

Aurora, Anger and Evil

I first heard about the shootings a week ago today as I was driving on the freeway en route to see the new Batman movie with a friend.  The radio DJ made a reference to the “horrible act” and gave some basic information which left me with some questions and curiosity, but no alarm.  At the theater, my friend filled me in, then we enjoyed the mindblowing phenomenon that is The Dark Knight Rises and went home.

I spent the next two days deeply angry.  I thought about blogging then — the artist in me wants to be fully present with and free to express my most intense emotions while they’re happening — but the scientist in me wants to be prudent and gather more data before publishing any findings.  The scientist won, although I did write an epically angry epic poem on Sunday.

You might assume I’m angry because of what the shooter did, killing 12 people and wounding 58.  That’s not why.  I became incensed because of what I saw and heard in the media, and how the event was instantly, and virally, constructed,  packaged, delivered, and received.  My déjà vu was intense and disturbing to me.

I have now lived long enough to see history repeat itself in my own lifetime.  One of the many beauties of being young is thinking the world is new because it’s new to us.  At a deep level, we often have a hard time believing older folks, because our incompletely developed neocortex thinks this time is different, I’m different than anyone before, this is all new, and history just started.  In some ways this is true and at best delightfully refreshing and inspiring.  At worst, it is insulting and myopic or even blind.

I was in my native Los Angeles in April of 1992 during the L.A. Riots/Uprising, which occurred after a jury acquitted the four White male police officers accused of beating Rodney King.  Twenty years later, I saw a media story describing the riots as happening after King, who died this summer, was brutalized.  Not true.  The riots occurred when justice did not, and for an act that was caught on tape no less.

And also twenty years later, not blocks from where a White policeman pulled a gun on a group of us UCLA students protesting police brutality down the street from south central L.A. as it burned, an eminent African American surgeon is humiliated, minimized and silenced when faced with persistent discrimination and outrageously prejudiced treatment.  The case of Dr. Christian Head is disturbing in itself, but that it is happening at my alma mater in the same city as the King beating and L.A. riots, is downright depressing.

Why?  Why haven’t we learned?

On July 1st, citizens of my beloved Mexico went to the ballot box and the man who emerged triumphant is a man not a single one of my many mexicano friends from various walks of life and social classes voted for, nor any of their friends and family.  Amid widespread accusations of electoral fraud and vote buying, Peña Nieto and his PRI party were declared winners, not 12 years after the PRI was jubilantly ousted after 70 years of de facto dictatorship.

Why haven’t we learned?

Now we have a mass shooting, 13 years after the Columbine massacre, which occurred when James Eagan Holmes was 9 years old.  How is it that we allowed one more young man in our country to grow up in such a way that he saw  murderous behavior as his only option — or as an option at all?

I don’t profess to know anything about Holmes’ heart or mind — the evidence points towards him being very smart, very deliberate in his planning of the attack, and an unhappy person — and in truth none of us may ever know.  But where is the introspection and the conversation about how WE contributed, and how WE let this happen?  Again?

I had high hopes eleven years ago when 9/11 happened.  When I turned on the TV that morning and saw the destruction, one of my first thoughts was “maybe this will finally make a difference.”  I hoped that more of us might be jolted awake, start to listen, start to reflect, and start to question our identity as an infallible hero nation. I hoped more of us would start to really examine what might make a person — or a people — do such a thing, and how we might see ourselves in those shoes, and then do our part to co-create a different kind of world.

Instead, we went shopping, we went to war, and we handed over our freedom and privacy to our government.  We didn’t learn.

And now, once again, I see little introspection.  Right after the Aurora shooting, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner separately denounced the event, and the actor, as “evil”.  Obama seemed to take a more measured approach, calling for “prayer and reflection” not only for those directly affected by the shooting, but also “for all the victims of the less-publicized acts of violence that plague our communities on a daily basis.”

Amen Brother Barack.  Preach!

But in doing more research, it seems Obama did, indeed, also use the e-word.  Why is this a problem?

This is a problem because first of all, not everyone agrees on what evil is, where it comes from, or even if it exists at all.  It’s simply strong, archetypal language meant to communicate that something or someone is really, really bad or wrong (in our eyes).  Second, and more importantly, calling something or someone “evil” allows us to dissociate and distance ourselves from the person or event.  They are evil … and we are not.

Such distancing is problematic and dangerous because it allows us to see the “evil” person as less than human, which justifies us doing violence back and treating him or her in other dehumanizing ways.  It prevents us from having empathy, seeing connection, or realizing “there but for the grace of God go I”, for truly none of us is all good or all evil — we are not the archetypal characters in movies like The Dark Knight Rises.

Distancing and dissociating also serves to absolve us of any responsibility.  Absolving ourselves of any responsibility for “evil” committed by other people is problematic and dangerous because it keeps us in victim mode.  If we believe there are evil people who do evil things, period, then we can’t do anything about evil when it shows up — other than pre-emptively identifying and neutralizing the “evil people”, perhaps, which opens up a whole Pandora’s box of fascist possibilities.

I’m not talking about blaming the victim, but seeing the bigger picture, and the way we are all connected.

Ultimately, absolving ourselves of any responsibility prevents us from actually solving the problem.  Peter Finocchiaro wrote in the Huffington Post that the “evil” position is “fatalistic, counterproductive”, and “intellectually lazy”.  As Gawker’s Max Read put it: “James Holmes did not materialize in a movie theater in Aurora … free of any relationship to law and authority and the structures of power in this country.”  These events take place in a context.  We all contribute to, and participate in, that context.  We breathe it into being and keep it alive.  But because we do, each of us therefore has the power to change it, by shaping the behaviors, values, conversations and decisions that create that context by making new choices about our own.

One of my favorite new quotes is from Boston College professor Bill Tolbert (as quoted by international organizer/facilitator Adam Kahane): “If you’re not part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution.”  To me this is the core of so many matters — we need to figure out how we are part of the problem, and work on changing that, instead of distancing and dictating.

We contribute and we co-create, we are rarely innocent victims in The Big Picture.  It’s ludicrous to describe something like the Aurora shootings, or 9/11 for that matter, as “senseless”, “”unthinkable”, “unimaginable” and “inexplicable” (some of the words used by politicians in the media).  It’s precisely because they are thinkable and imaginable, that Holmes was able to do them, and why such incidents occur with some regularity — 14 times in the past 5 years, in fact (take a look at this analysis by the Pew Research Center  on what has captured our attention to media).   Just look at the scenes in any of The Dark Knight movies Holmes seems to have been reenacting as a case in point of the imaginability of such scenarios in real life.  Dismissing them as senseless and inexplicable keeps us from taking responsibility, getting at the root cause, identifying the contributing factors, and making new decisions and taking new actions to reduce the possibility of them ever happening again.

But apparently we aren’t learning.  Or perhaps some interest is served by us not learning?

This brings me to another reason I was angry (and am again, now that I write).  Out of the many horrors we humans perpetrate on each other, or willfully ignore, why is THIS type of incident the one that gets all the attention?

Let me give you some examples of other horrors deserving of attention and outrage, off the top of my head:

  • 46,800 people die each year in the U.S. from traffic accidents (by comparison, 18,300 from homicide)
  • Sleepy (often overworked and stressed out) drivers kill 1,500 people and injure 40,000 in the U.S. each year
  • Drunk drivers kill 10,300 people per year in the U.S.
  • One of my favorites: 90,000 people are killed each year in hospitals either through preventable medical error or hospital-acquired infections.  That’s the conservative estimate (I’ve seen numbers up to 178,000).  This is the equivalent of 9/11 happening 32 times each year!
  • 50,000 people have been killed in Mexico since 2006 in the drug wars there, largely fueled by U.S. Americans’ demand for drugs.
  • 5-15 million children die of starvation each year on Earth, a planet fully capable of feeding everyone, but whose human inhabitants create tremendous disparities in the distribution of its resources (we’d need 5-6 more Earths to support every human living like a U.S. American, for instance).

Evil you say?  I think some of these qualify.  So why isn’t anyone clamoring to get rid of cars, or to redistribute wealth so not one more child starves?  What about a real uprising about the immorality of our healthcare system, or widespread alarm about all the Mexicans we are murdering and torturing with our drug use (not to mention the damage we are doing to ourselves)?

And hey while we’re at it, what about a media firestorm, personal presidential visits, and demands for justice about Enron’s implosion, Bernie Madoff’s crimes, or the subprime loan fiasco?  These kinds of “white collar crimes” have affected millions of people in ways their descendants will feel for generations, and defunded incredible, creative, world changing projects.

Or how about about some outrage over the multiple U.S. citizens whose lives and families have been destroyed by them being targeted by our government, imprisoned in a secret location, abused, and finally released with no charges filed?  Or the murder of 17 Iraqi civilians by Blackwater?   That’s more people than James Holmes took out, and far more sinister.

We still need to be introspective and take responsibility for these situations too, but at the risk of sounding heartless, any of these examples strike me as far more evil and destructive to humanity than 12 folks shot dead in a movie theater by one unhappy, damaged man.  Sure, events like Aurora traumatize us, and a movie premier shooting might feel more personal and more visceral than the other examples, but I believe that in The Big Picture such things actually affect us less in the long run.

In doing my own introspection, I have been looking at my anger.  I am learning from my reflection and research (the scientist again) that anger is a secondary emotion that can serve to camouflage or control another emotion, particularly fear.  It can serve a coping, self-soothing, analgesic function which numbs pain and allows vulnerable people to survive destructive or dangerous situations.  Anger can alert us to attack, which I already knew, but what I didn’t know is that it can also alert us to a “something is terribly wrong” situation.

Perhaps I’m angry because I believe there are many things terribly wrong in the world, and since I’m afraid we aren’t going to be able to turn things around in time, I numb myself and maintain some sense of control by getting angry.

I still hope and believe we can solve the problem — if enough of us get crackin’ quickly enough.  Interestingly, the “defeat the enemy” neural pathway and the “solve the problem” pathway are close together in the brain, but “defeat the enemy” actually neutralizes our problem solving ability.  Maybe this is the subtle, and profound shift that we all need to focus on.

So why haven’t we learned yet?  Maybe that is also a key to the shift. And is it that we haven’t learned … or are there interests being served in keeping us from learning?  Are there interests served in the way events like Aurora are framed?  And in the way our attention and outrage is focused?

Answering these questions might get us closer to a more important question: Will we learn? And if so, how do we make different choices and take different actions based on our learning?

Answers and hope continue to be my quest.  What about you?

In Lak Ech,

~Jaxsine~

From Within or From Without?: The Locus of Catalyzing Change

My sister recently reminded me of a conversation we had years ago.  Apparently I was quite certain that the best way to create positive change in the world is to become a part of organizations and institutions and be a catalyst for change from within.  Infiltrate the system to bust it apart from the inside, so to speak.

I’ve changed my mind.  Well, not entirely — I still think change can, and should, come from inside organizations and institutions.  But having spent seven years trying to do just that, I now have a more complex view.

Each has its pros and cons.  Some of the pros of working from within:

  • You get to know the culture first hand, and therefore the most effective, appropriate strategies and tactics for change.
  • You get to know the people well, and build long-term relationships.  This not only eases change efforts and mitigates inevitable conflict and resistance, it is personally enriching.
  • If you are in a mangement role, you have some measure of power to actually implement change.
  • You may enjoy the satisfaction of seeing the fruits of your labor over time, and experience the benefits of the change directly.

Some of the cons:

  • You may not be taken as seriously as you should, or would like — people with subject matter expertise that are hired into an organization instantly lose some degree of credibility (ironically).
  • You may be viewed by outsiders or other groups to whom you are loyal, as a sell-out, or suspect.  You may be forced to choose between loyalties if they are perceived as contradictory.
  • There will likely be limitations on your ability to be completely frank or honest or act freely — and if you do, you may be forced to leave the organization or institution.
  • If telling the truth means going against the grain,you may be engulfed or silenced by organizational politics or leadership.
  • You may lose your original perspective and commitment to “the cause” due to the osmosis effect of the organization’s culture.
  • You have more to lose (e.g. professional reputation, career advancement opportunities, and sometimes the job itself).

Working to create organizational, institutional or systemic change from the outside also has pros and cons.  I am thinking of “outsiders” as both professional external consultants, and also members of community/grassroots agencies or movements.  Some of the pros:

  • Your stance, speech, and actions can maintain some level of “purity” — you don’t have to constantly compromise, self-monitor or negotiate multiple loyalties.  Therefore, your loyalty is less often questioned and your connection to “the cause” stays stronger and clearer.
  • You may have the ability to motivate changes through direct action (like protests or some form of civil disobedience or other disruption) or political activity that would be unfeasible or unwise for internal people.
  • If you are an external subject matter expert or consultant, you will be taken more seriously than an internal person saying the same thing.
  • You can push limits and ask difficult, thoughtful questions more safely — for all parties.
  •  You may have less to lose — at least directly, concretely, and immediately.

Some of the cons:

  • You have virtually no power to change the actual decisions, policies, or behaviors of the organization or institution
  • You run the risk of being perceived as a threat to the organization or institution, and not only not heard or taken seriously, but targeted in efforts to neutralize, discredit or destroy you and your group

You might notice that the content and length of the various lists reflect my recent switch from internal to external change catalyst.  You may also find fault or exceptions with some of the above points, or argue that they are relative, and you may be right.  To clarify, l believe change can, and should, come from both within and without.  But I have learned that there are some key elements that need to be in place in order for internal change efforts to succeed.

  1. Sufficient support.  This sounds like a cliche, but this is where any internal change efforts succeed or fail, and it’s where they usually start.  Regardless of the reasons for the support, two things are needed: (1) a sufficiently-sized group of allies and internal supporters (who are willing and able to voice their support), and (2) buy-in and motivation from key individuals with authority and decision-making power.  Little can be done without both, and you may start with just one or the other.  But down the road, if you have allies but no leadership buy-in, the changes won’t get traction and may even cause or exacerbate conflict, tension, or political jockeying.  If you have buy-in but no allies, the change catalyst runs the risk of quick burnout.  S/he also runs the risk of becoming an isolated token of a change effort that accomplishes little to nothing, or of vulnerability to being held accountable for the success of the entire initiative.  Either situation is supremely frustrating for the individual, and may harm her credibility, reputation, and self-esteem.  It’s easier to swat one fly than a swarm.
  2. Sufficient resources.  This may sound like a no-brainer, but not only are resources like time, money and expertise necessary for change, an allocation of resources by the organization reflects an actual commitment in action — words and good intentions are not enough.  This support should be in both monetary and human resources.  It needs to be adequate and meaningful, not superficial or temporary.  Of course there may be no resources at all when you start out on your change journey, but they must eventually be forthcoming.  You need more than hope that they might come — a plan, potential sources, and/or the promise from an influential leader with integrity are important.  Without adequate resources, the change will not go far or last long, and internal change catalyst run the risk of tokenism and burnout.
  3. A culture amenable to change through effective leadership.  Change is rarely easy and in large organizations and institutions it is typically slow, messy, and complicated.  However, in an organization driven by fear, or characterized by conflicting or unclear values, low accountability, poor leadership, injustice, poor communication, or chronic crisis mode, it is close to impossible.  Aside from real commitment, creating successful change requires managers (and employees) with sufficient courage, integrity, leadership skills, creativity and effective communication skills.  It requires a commitment to fairness, consistent accountability, and long-term strategic planning.  It also requires a basic tolerance for ambiguity, risk, and conflict.  In short, leaders must lead — not manage — and model the desired change.
  4. A good fit for the change catalyst.  Being an internal change catalyst is demanding, and not a good fit for everyone.  Such a person should demonstrate the leadership qualities described above.  But they should also have patience — creating change in organizations takes years, not weeks or months.   It can also be rocky, unpredictable and non-linear, so they should be in it for the long haul.  They should be willing and able to invest in creating good relationships at multiple levels in the organization with key individuals and stakeholders, building alliances and buy-in.  They should be flexible — willing and able to rethink things, change direction, or switch tactics.  They should be highly professional, credible, organized, and on top of things — since they will be scrutinized.  They should be assertive but tactful — willing and able to speak up and speak out when necessary, including to higher authority figures.  Finally, they need to be a “critical lover” of the organization or institution.  Being a “lover” affords not only credibility and a bridge to others in the organization, it provides the catalyst with much-needed commitment, inspiration, energy and motivation to get through tough times and hang in there.  Being “critical” helps maintain focus on the change objective.  Someone who is a “company person” or blindly loyal “lover” will not be committed to change nor inspire it, and someone who is critical but not a lover will burn out quickly, and alienate others.  A critical lover comes at the reality of the organization or institution with a “both-and” orientation — that it’s important and does much good, but also does harm or falls short.

Of course life and change are rarely tidy, so the above may not always be clear, and may likely happen in a non-linear fashion.  Resources may appear before support or vice versa, and the culture or leadership may evolve along with the change initiative.  Words like “adequate” and “sufficient” are subjective and dependent on individual interpretations.  And “fit” for the individual change catalyst may evolve — they may become less of a critical lover, or burn out.  The following are some questions which may help an internal change catalyst determine …

Should I stay or should I go? 

  • Am I a “critical lover” of the organization?
  • Is the work or culture just difficult, or is is toxic?  Is it killing me or some precious aspect of me?
  • Do I have the qualities and relationships that will allow me to be effective?
  • Am I in it for the long haul?
  • Does the need of the community — or my external loyalty groups — for me to stay inside outweigh my need to leave?
  • Can I stay inside and still act with integrity?  Are the compromises and sacrifices I am asked to make acceptable?
  • Do I have sufficient support? Resources?
  • If “no” to support or resources, do I have more than hope that they are forthcoming?
  • Am I seeing, and celebrating, milestones of progress?
  • Does the joy of the work outweigh the pain?

I would say a “yes” to most of these is necessary to effect true change as an internal catalyst.  My answers were all “no” (except for #2 🙂 ), so I left.  I realized I was on the two-year change plan instead of the ten-year plan.  I was much more of a critic than a lover (I was working in healthcare and while never a huge fan of healthcare in general — preferring alternative wellness paths for myself — I became less of a fan after being inside).  Ultimately I did not have sufficient support or resources, the culture was toxic and I was unable to stay in integrity.  And while I had high hopes at first and there were promising signs, when it came down to it, the leadership proved to be lacking the necessary leadership skills to back up words with actions.

In his paradigm-shifting book, Love and Power: A Theory and Practice of Social Change, Adam Kahane quotes businessman and Buddhist teacher Michael Chender:

When you get very close to the heart of the system, that is when the devils will appear.  By devils I means the system’s autoimmune system.  If you aren’t prepared for this, then you will be overwhelmed, and your efforts to change the system will fail. (p. 68)

I failed to anticipate, plan for, and appreciate the devils — the inevitable conflicts and unconscious resistance that come when birthing change.  I lacked the patience and empathy, and found myself going into what the Rev. Dr. Jamie Washington (Washington Consulting Group and Social Justice Training Institute) calls the “enemy model” of thinking instead of the “energy model”, which views resistance as positive and necessary — an opportunity that provides energy for transformation, and is a sign that change is imminent.   While I have the ability to do what Washington recommends — engage, explore, welcome, listen, honor, embrace, and use such resistance — I lacked sufficient support, energy, motivation, joy and love to do so.

A final word about power, which is an essential and often unspoken aspect of change.  While there are many forms, at its most basic, power “is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.).  Even though an internal change catalyst may have more organizational and institutional power to implement change than an outsider, that internal person’s power is always on loan from the organization or institution.  It is granted with multiple conditions of loyalty, obedience, toeing the party line, and (often) maintaining the status quo, and it can be withdrawn quickly and easily.

Kahane again:

To lead means to step forward, to exceed one’s authority, to try to change the status quo, to exercise power, and such action is by definition  disruptive.  There is no way to change the status quo without discomforting those who are comfortable with the status quo. (p. 116).

Those inside an organization or institution are often quite comfortable with the status quo — that’s why they haven’t left.  They may or may not be aware of this, and may say they want change or even help out — until it becomes real.  When change starts to become real, and actions or stands need to be taken, even allies can shrink back, eveni f this is not their intention or conscious desire.  Change is uncertainty, ambiguity, and obsolescence of the old.  These are frightening.  If the shrinking allies have more organizational power than the catalyst, they have the option of stopping or reversing the change, enforcing the status quo, or punishing the catalyst.  Being an internal change catyalyst means always working within this reality.

The power one has within an organization to catalyze change is different from the power without.  Each locus has its pros and cons and different sources of power.  And since change is often a change in power relations, the conversation about power itself is an important one.

But I will save that conversation for the next post. 🙂

What do you think?  Is it easier or better to create change from within or without? What is your experience?

In lak ech!

~Jaxsine~

Land of the Free … ?

Yesterday was July 4th and I celebrated big.  As in BIG.  I had a party at my house that was very well-attended by a large, diverse group of interesting, bright, caring, talented people who enjoyed themselves and each other, and stayed later than they planned.  The occasion?  My freedom!  But not freedom in the “patriotic” sense;  rather, my liberation from traditional full-time employment last month, and the tenth anniversary of my arrival in my adopted home state — which also reprented liberation from my miserable, toxic, abusive marriage.

So what is freedom anyway?  Yesterday morning I went to work out, and as we left the small studio after class, one of the owners made a point to say numerous times in a loud voice things like “Yay for freedom!” and “be grateful to live in America where we are free!” and “Yay for democracy!”  This sentiment was generally met positively, with one lady pontificating in return about how grateful she is to live here and enjoy freedom instead in other parts of the world where “all they have is a bowl of rice.”

This really bothered me, and it seemed to also bother my companion, who was born and raised in a “third world” country.  When the co-owner said her “yay America” piece after us, all I could muster was a “we’re not the only ones [who are free].”  This left me feeling yucky.  I didn’t want to pretend I agreed with what she was saying and let her perspective go unchallenged, especially coming from a person in an authority position, but my response felt incomplete and flippant.

Now that I’ve thought about it, this is what I might have said instead:

I appreciate that you love the United States and are grateful for your life here.  I am curious though, what do you mean by “free”?

I think this is the key question.   What does it really mean when U.S. Americans say they are free?  It seems folks don’t always know — perhaps it just sounds good and they accept it as a truth since they’ve heard it since childhood.  Sometimes they say something like “I can do whatever I want” or “I can say whatever I want” or “I can worship whoever I want.”

But is this true?

To the folks who say they are proud to be an American because they can do whatever they want, I ask — do you have the freedom to live wherever you want?  How about the freedom to go wherever you want, including Cuba?  Do you have the freedom to go to school wherever you want, for as long as you want?  To not go to school at all?  To see a doctor when you need one?  To drive a car or fly a plane at age 14?  To drink alcohol at the same age you can vote and get married?  To only go to work when you want to?  To be able to survive by doing work you don’t hate — or even enjoy?  To follow your dreams with no fear of starving to death?  To obtain a loan or mortgage?  To eat food that has not been poisoned by pesticides or environmental toxins, nor genetically modified?  To have sex with whomever you want, wherever you want, whenever you want?  To terminate your pregnancy?  To dress however you please — or not at all?  To lay down in the park or on a meridian and take a nap anytime?  To not pay taxes if you don’t approve of the government?  To kill yourself by jumping off a bridge or building without the police trying to stop you?  To spend less and still live in a thriving economy?

The answer would likely be confusion or a no, followed by protests that you can’t do any of those things anywhere, that we need to earn certain things, that we need money, that there are rules based in human nature, that this is a stupid question, that it’s still better here than anywhere else.

Really?  Often folks with this mindset haven’t been outside the United States, nor had significant relationships with people outside of the United States.  If they did, or if they just did some critical reading and research, they would learn that on some of those questions, several countries (particularly in Europe) fare better than we do — particularly with regards to health care, social and geographic mobility, education, work, healthy food, and even equitable pay.

I remember the first time my sister visited me when I was living in Mexico for the second time.  I think she was 19 or 20, and we were driving through the streets of my beloved city one morning in a friend’s car, passing a city bus packed to the gills with a staggering number of people inside, and plastered by even more clinging to the outside.  She casually remarked: “Wow, people are really free here — free to hang off a bus clinging on for dear life with their butts hanging into traffic and no one will tell them not to.  They get to face their own consequences.  Back in the U.S. you can’t even step beyond the white line on the bus.”

So what is freedom?  Ok so what about the freedom to say whatever we want?  Do you have the freedom to speak your mind to your boss?  To your spouse or partner?  How would you be treated if you expressed an unpopular opinion (like a belief in UFOs, a talent for telekinesis, or support for a single payer healthcare system?) or lifestyle choice? How do you see folks that express unpopular opinions, ideas, and lifestyles get treated?  How diverse and balanced are the viewpoints you read in newsmedia, or on TV?  Are you free to talk about terrorism or participate in left-oriented political movements without being labeled or surveilled?

The answer is usually no, followed by a protest that it’s better here than elsewhere.  Are you certain?  Have you spent any significant amount of time in other countries to gauge this?

Granted, freedom to do or say doesn’t necessarily mean freedom to do or say without consequences.  And granted, in many ways we have more freedom of speech than in countries struggling with repressive governments.  But are the consequences for people’s choices of that to do and say the same everywhere?  Is it truly the freest in the United States?

And how about freedom to worship whoever we want?  Ask a Muslim about freedom of worship in the United States.  Ask a fundamentalist Christian, Mormon, pagan, Wiccan, or Scientologist.  Or an atheist.

This is the point at which I might be called “unpatriotic” or “anti-American” for raising these issues.  So I ask another key question — does being “pro-American” or “patriotic” mean I have to believe in the superiority of the United States over all other countries?  Does “loving” American mean I have to believe it’s the best country on earth?

Personally, I don’t think so.  As a progressive, I tire of being told my love of, and loyalty to, this country is measured by my level of unquestioning belief in the USA as the best, strongest, most righteous country on earth.  It’s not.  Look at the data.  Our educational system is one of the lower-performing of comparable nations.  Our healthcare system is more expensive and in many ways less effective than in many other nations.  Our political system increasingly lacks credibility and effectiveness.  Our financial institutions are increasingly unstable and corrupt.  The health of our population (including life expectancy and infant mortality rates), particularly in communities of color like urban African Americans and rural Native Americans, is worse than that of many “third world” nations.  We have one of the highest incarceration rates in the world.  We have a wide (and widening) gap between rich and poor and a very high percentage of folks in poverty.  We have some of the highest rates of drug use and antidepressant use in the world.  A majority of us are unhappy with our work, and a lot of us are unhappy in general compared to other (even third world) countries.  Most of us are slaves to our jobs and to a material lifestyle we rarely question (just notice the tone, flavor, stress and obligations tied to the Holiday season).  And we are enslaved and controlled by corporate interests who limit our choices and prime us constantly to buy their products and consume to a level that is destroying our planet, and us.

In case you’re wondering, no, I don’t think the United States sucks.  I think we are good at innovation.  We are good at business and making money.  We are good at creating new technologies.  In some ways we are good at nurturing and supporting new ideas.  This is a good place to be a woman – especially a single, childfree woman over 40 like me.

But there are many countries that are as good as us in some things, and better than us in others.  There are countries where it’s easier to be a woman — economically and politically — than the U.S. (several countries are way ahead of us in terms of women in positions of political power, for instance, even in the “third world”).   There are countries that are much more supportive, financially and socially, of children, mothers and parents in general.  There are nations whose populations enjoy better health, better healthcare, better education, and more equity.  There are countries where it’s less devastating to fall ill, lose a job, or face major hardships — not just because of those nations’ social and economic programs, but because of cultural norms and more collective ways of being in community and supporting one another.

The danger of beating the “America rules!” drum is that beating that drum drowns out other voices and realities.  This narrowness and ignorance is dangerous.  We really aren’t the underdog of the American Revolution anymore, and we haven’t been since World War II.  The freedom the revolutionaries fought for in the 1770s is not the freedom we enjoy today.  In fact, movements similar to that of the revolutionaries are suppressed by our government — both here at home and abroad.  We are The Empire now.

The other danger of the drum is that it drowns out the truth of our history.  There has been plenty of ruthlessness, cruelty and dishonesty on our road to power and “freedom”.  We have invaded occupied lands, exterminated entire populations, enslaved people, raped and mutilated women, stolen land, stolen ideas, dishonored treaties and agreements, excluded whole populations from politial and economic participation, and manipulated political processes here and in other countries.

To me, love is not about blind admiration or pedestals.  It’s not about justifying ourselves by insisting on the perfection of our creation or object of our affection.  Love is about commitment. Love is about acceptance.  It’s about honesty and truth.  It’s about vulnerability.  It’s about growth and support.  It’s also about self-awareness, accountability, integrity, and healthy boundaries.  I don’t believe “loving” American means I have to believe it’s the best, strongest, most righteous country on earth any more than I have to believe a child (or person) is only lovable if s/he is perfect, without fault, and the best.  To truly love the USA is to look at it, see it for what it is, tell the truth about it, and help it be better.

This is what progressives try to do, at least the way I see it.  This may come across as “unpatriotic” only because it may feel threatening, or because I offer this additional perspective in an occasionally strident way as a counterbalance to the constant rhetoric about how great we are.  This is only part of the story, and America deserves for us to look at all of who she is, love her for who she really is, and help her be her best self.

And she is not being her best self right now, and neither are we.  In the USA when we talk about being “free”, I think we really mean “rich”.  This why we instantly refer to material situations like having more than a bowl of rice to eat, or allowing women to go to school or work as evidence of our freedom.  It’s not really freedom we are proud of, it’s our “American way of life” which is about our material wealth and ability to endlessly consume.   We consume, unaware, unbelieving, or uncaring that the lone daily “bowl of rice” some folks eat in other parts of the world (or other parts of the USA) is a direct consequence of our “way of life”.  I once heard a figure that if every person on earth lived like the average American we would need six additional Earths to provide the necessary resources.  This level of consumption is selfish, narrow-minded, short-sighted, abusive, and destructive.  This is not us being our best selves.

While gratitude in general is a positive way to approach life, the admonition to be grateful for what we have in the USA, and to appreciate how “fortunate” we are, absolves us of guilt or responsibility.   We don’t have what we do by magic or by accident.  We enjoy more than others because we take from others.  Those of us who experience more “freedom” (more wealth, more available life choices) often do because we are in the majority, or enjoy some form of privilege, or both.  We choose to be ignorant of the big picture, to not take responsibility for our contribution to this big picture, or to justify why we deserve more.

So what then is freedom, really, if not wealth or an abundant “way of life”?  My very fat dictionary says “state of being at liberty rather in confinement … exemption from external control, interference, regulation … power of determining one’s or its own actions …the power to make one’s own choices or decisions without constraint from within or without; autonomy; self-determination.”

So how free are you after all?  How do we experience more freedom?  Is it true that “freedom isn’t free”?

Freedom is a state of mind, a commitment, and a choice which manifests in action.  It is mindful, it is powerful and it is scary.  Choices have consequences, some more difficult to face than others.  Leaving my husband was one of the best, most difficult decisions I ever made.  Leaving traditional full-time employment was one of the messiest, most complicated decisions I’ve ever made – and after only a month I can already tell this was one of the most important, life-affirming choices I’ve ever made … and one of the most courageous.

But saying that “freedom isn’t free” — usually to justify military action — obscures the fact that the majority of our military action around the globe in the last few decades has nothing to do with liberating us from some oppressor (even though it’s framed that way so we’ll play along).  It has to do with securing our economic interests in other countries so we can continue to take more than our share of the world’s resources.  It has to do with ensuring the reign of our Empire — maybe because we are too terrified to imagine our lives liberated from the enslavement of material addiction.  The terrorist threats we face today are real, but they are not from a powerful oppressor.  They are from the rebel force, the freedom fighters, and the underdogs we still admire and identify with in stories and films.  But we have more in common now with the 18th century British Empire than the American Revolutionaries.  We have more in common with The Empire in Star Wars than the Rebel Alliance.

Since yesterday’s encounter at the gym, the line from that country song keeps running through my head: “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.”  Maybe that’s the heart of it all — many of us are unhappy, or frustrated, or struggling, but we calm ourselves and justify our choices by choosing to believe here is better anywhere else, and that this is as good as it gets.

Perhaps it’s time to declare our independence from unhappiness, ignorance, material addiction and low expectations!  Time to show up as our best selves … and help this country we love do the same!

What do you think? What does “freedom” mean to you and how can we experience more true freedom?

¡Paz, justicia y libertad!

~Jaxsine~

Breaking the rules

Five days ago I broke the rules.  I got my nose pierced.  Aside from the fact that I am over 40 — and although this is not my first non-ear piercing — this is a bold and daring move.  You see, my workplace has a policy against facial piercings.

Employees who already have piercings are supposed to cover them or wear transparent spacers.  But you can’t do this when you just got pierced.  Besides, most of the folks who have nose piercings in my organization don’t cover them or wear spacers.

But none of them are management.

So why would I do such a rash thing?  Am I, as one of my friends asked, trying to get fired?

No, I’m not, and I did not act impulsively.   It’s just that the policy is a rule–with a lowercase “r”.   Strangely, in three days back at work, only ONE person has said anything about my new facial jewelry or even seemed to notice — my assistant.  To me, this speaks volumes about our organizational culture.

So if I am ever asked by my boss, HR, or anyone who really wants to know, here are my reasons, in loose order of priority:

  1. I really wanted to do it (it’s very cute, sexy, and feels good to me!).
  2. I couldn’t think of a good reason not to do it that wasn’t fear-based, and I am resolved to not make fear-based decisions.
  3. I can’t agree to follow a rule that is exclusive, prejudicial, does not harm people, and in fact creates a false separation between me and the people we serve by implying some kind of superiority based on appearance.  This separation actually impedes my ability to do my job well.
  4. It’s up to us in power to push the envelope — to use our power to set new examples and effect change.  New behaviors come before new rules, and setting new, evolved standards is one obligation of leadership.  (Did policies and expectations about women not wearing pants to work change first, or did women just start wearing pants and the rules changed?  How about the laws against interracial marriage? Those rules changed because interracial couples took tremendous risks and went to court to challenge them.)
  5. I don’t agree to follow a rule that implies I am not OK, or should be ashamed of myself or how I look.
  6. Hyperfocusing on these sorts of superficial rules distracts us from the real problems in our organization/world — like how we treat each other and how happy and fulfilled we are.  Just because a person fits some sort of corporate mold of appearance does not necessarily mean she is kind, hard working, or customer-oriented.  The latter is what we should be more concerned with.
  7. I believe in following Rules about being my authentic Self, with integrity.  My piercing is one way I am true to this Rule, and it serves as a visible reminder for me of this commitment.
  8. My workplace and I are in a dysfunctional relationship in which I (mostly) give and it (mostly) takes.  This is one way to take some more (instead of waiting to be given to) or to give less.  It is one way to create more joy where it is lacking and to be more myself where I haven’t been.
  9. As long as all are not held to this rule equally, and not held accountable for much worse, I cannot agree to comply.
  10. Being a good girl and a chronic rule follower hasn’t gotten me what I want and need–at work, or anywhere else for that matter! (Have you seen the bumper sticker “well-behaved women rarely make history”…?)
  11. Doing this allows me to be more in touch with my Shadow Self, which is good for me and the world.  (Also see #10. 🙂 )
  12. I am willing to accept the consequences of my decision.

I can’t always change injustice, but I can choose whether or not to participate in an unjust system.

I can’t always change the rules, but I can choose not to comply with them.  This also embues any choice I make to comply with more integrity and power.

I can’t always inject reason into insanity, but I can choose to be sane.

I can’t always make people like, know, or respect me — but I can always know, like, and respect myself.

What rules are you willing to break to create change in your life and the world? What Rules are you truly committed to?

Ometeotl … In Lak Ech…

Jaxsine