What I Learned from Watching The Voice: I Think I Live in a Bubble

2016_TheVoice_S10_mdot_1Besides a few episodes of Disney Channel shows geared to middle schoolers in the 90s, I didn’t really watch TV growing up. I preferred to read books, having been raised on the general theory that television is bad for the brain.

My first foray into television was after college, when I discovered the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Insightful, biting, and well-researched, I used it as a news source and a sort of moral guide. Other than the Daily Show, I have seen the first several seasons of West Wing, and a few episodes each of Master of None and 30 Rock. I also love Sherlock.

I have never watched a reality show. I never watch mainstream news channels (I don’t own cable). I do not watch sports or dramas.

My biggest interactions with the media are indie films, Pandora radio, and news publications. I read the New York Times and The Boston Globe and a daily political digest called MASSter List, and articles posted by my friends on Facebook from sources like The Atlantic, Jezebel, The Guardian, VerySmartBrothas, and Salon. I think I am probably representative of a large segment of the young, liberal, elite-educated population. We think of ourselves as smart and well-informed and interesting and curious, and we get a lot of our information from each other and from the same news sources. We are in an echo-chamber of sorts, a Bubble.

Don’t get me wrong: the Bubble can be a beautiful place. Inclusive, diverse, and justice-oriented, not to mention intellectually stimulating, it keeps me on my toes and pushes me to think critically constantly. But I am a bit concerned that it’s a Bubble in the first place.

A few weeks ago I caught an awful fever that had me sprawled on the couch for three days straight. In my delirium, I began watching The Voice, recommended to me by a colleague who knows I love to sing. I was so enthralled by what I saw (and heard) that I am now following the whole season.

Watching The Voice has been eye opening for me, not the least of which included recognizing how ridiculously talented some people are at singing. But I’ve also learned some unexpected lessons:

1. I live in a Bubble of intellectual, critical, negative, and sarcastic commentary on the world. In this Bubble, people are respected for criticizing authority and systems, pointing out weakness and mistakes of people in authority, and discovering ways in which someone else’s way of thinking about the world is not inclusive enough. Life seems to be about accomplishing important things, making the correct criticisms about the world, being smart (using certain advanced vocabulary is key here), and having experiences that are unique and would be respected by others.

2. Outside of the Bubble, these things are not values. They are seen as negative and arrogant and obstructionist. Rather, values include: being nice to your mother, being grateful for what you’ve been given and loyal to your country, being warm and friendly, participating in community properly, living a good and humble life, being loyal to your spouse and loving to your children, and working hard at your job. Life seems to about relationships, home life, and fun experiences that you enjoy in the moment.

3. Outside of the Bubble, most people believe in God, and saying thank you to God will earn you applause, not derision.

4. Outside of the Bubble, people respect members of the American military personally. They don’t just talk about American foreign policy on an abstract level. The sacrifice of soldiers is personal, and is based on a deep love for America. If that love for America is questioned, then you are questioning the sacrifices and risks of real soldiers and making those soldiers out to be worthless.

5. Outside of the Bubble, story, character, and personality matter: how people come across personally, how their backgrounds are narrated, how they make you feel… these things affect a person’s popularity and status.

I don’t know that I can change who I am or who I’ve been educated to be, but I wonder if there are ways we can bust the Bubble. Can we abandon our sarcasm for story? Can we concern ourselves less with criticism and more with character? Can we expand our sources to include the voices of those outside the Bubble?

Or is this sort of accountability and questioning necessary for the advancement of justice? Are our sources legitimately better?

Is it a Bubble it all? Maybe I’m imagining things.

But as we watch the election against Trump near, I am wondering above all: how can we use our awareness of the values of people outside of the Bubble to achieve a better world for all people? Instead of deriding ‘them,’ can we bring a message to the non-Bubble-dwellers that respects and invites them in to our work?

Thoughts for the day.

Advertisements

27

11892089_10205064262781998_245366716439010653_n27 comes slowly
like a street sign I creep up to
in the traffic home from work.
27 seems terribly old to the 12 year old inside my heart:
she was brave and bold
if a little too bullheaded for a world
that didn’t end up always wanting to go her way.

27 is admitting that I
wasn’t always honest
with myself,
was impatient,
didn’t know the answers,
was wrong,
still needed help
I didn’t know how to ask for.

27 is learning to grieve and love and lose and wonder
and be grateful all at once,
to be unable to answer simple questions
like “how are you?”
“what do you want?” or “why did you do that?”
or least of all:
“what does it mean?”

We are all from lost generations,
All six million years of us,
sweeping up dustpans full of narratives to cling to,
finding hope in clean dishes and the joy of having someone to hold on to at night;
Even cavemen were afraid of the dark.

And we have all, for generations,
said we’d be in each other’s corners,
but when the bell chimed,
found ourselves with bloodied gloves on,
across the ring,
still hoping to win:
27 is finding out that love can be selfish.

And 27 is learning that love can be a good bye,
That not all loves are permanent adhesive; some are more like
buffeting wind currents,
that there is a love that doesn’t stick but sets free
gives up
moves on
burns out,
and this is not a failure,
even though it hurts,
and makes you cry.

And 27 is finding out that goodness can be small;
That surviving evolution, supervolcanoes, and meteorites
for 6 million years
is a tiny feat of human luck
that allows us to participate in tiny feats of human kindness
in return.

*
27 is a recipe book that is slowly filling up,
written in an ink of spilled memories you feel too young
to be etching with this much nostalgia.

27 is traveling the world
to find that all along
you just needed to call mom.

27 is a testament
to the friends whose names fill up
your calendars and your memories and your dinner table
and the other halves of your inside jokes,
whose foundation you’ve unknowingly built
your own happiness upon.

27 is an obsolete insistence on paper books
in the age of Kindle.

27 is shoveling your own damn driveway,
doing your own damn laundry
cooking your own damn soup.

27 is thousands of words
tumbling into a mess of a google drive folder,
as you wonder if childhood dreams of music and writing
that you expected to disappear
can end up more than dreams;
and if childhood dreams of love and marriage
that you expected to come true
will only stay dreams.

27 is recognizing that this world is not really your own
that there was no oyster.
It is knowing you might stop hoping and fighting tomorrow
if there were no children,
but there are children
(though they aren’t your own).

*
I watch 27 approach
Neither fearless nor afraid.
It is inevitable, if both I and time continue;
I have no speculations to make now.

27 is being pretty sure I’m messing something up.
But since no one really knows the words to this song anyway,
it’s turning up the volume,
and singing loud,
and dancing stupidly,
And hoping some other lonesome, frightened fools
will join in the ridiculousness
and start dancing to 27
too.

Or to whatever numbers we want, really.
The music is universal.

How do we change the world? Part II: A Treatise on Human Nature

Scale of Goodness

Click Here for Full Sized Graphic

A Treatise on Human Nature

No human is fundamentally, inherently, completely evil. While we all have our personality differences, and we all probably have self-interested, competitive, lazy, or ignorant tendencies, the actual completion of evil action that hurts others doesn’t come naturally to us. As much as we have instincts to protect ourselves, we also have instincts of compassion and the desire to please others.

This is why the question of evil is such a fascinating one. Arguably, all that is wrong with the world is the fault of humans. Yet humans aren’t born monsters. Human nature doesn’t work like that; someone whom we call “evil” is someone who has acted in an evil way enough times to develop a habit of evil, at which point it is a character trait. But evil isn’t a personality. We don’t put it on our driver’s licenses like our eye color or our height. And you might even find that it changes situationally. Humans who do evil things become that way because they are hurt, broken, ignorant, or put into situations that somehow bring out the worst in them.

This doesn’t mean we don’t have choices. But, unfortunately, choice-making is not actually one of our strengths. Humans are pretty terrible at thinking through our actions, words, and lives, and for the most part we live dumbly and uncritically—following habits and expectations laid out for us.

Nor does this mean that we are born in a vacuum. On the contrary, each of us is born into a position of either privilege or disadvantage, usually related to class, nationality, skin color, education, language/culture, or gender. As we make choices within our positions of power, we move up and down the scale of human goodness. If we make a choice to hurt people in our own self-interest, we move towards evil. If we make a choice to do good for people against our own self-interest, we move towards good. If we have little power in the world, our actions affect few others, so we stay near the middle of the scale. If we have great power in the world, our actions have huge repercussions for others, so we swing about wildly.

Many people would say that the more power you have, the harder it is to do good. This is why we are so impressed by people in power whom we admire; they’ve kept their heads and their hearts together. I’m not sure if I agree. I think the question is really who you are listening to. Are the people, systems, and institutions around you reminding you of your principles and purpose? Are they expecting you to do good? Are they giving you regular feedback about your character and its importance to them? Or are they encouraging you to win money at all cost? Are they encouraging you to protect your own interests? Are they encouraging you to ignore the needs of the wider world?

This is why systems and institutions and communities are so important: they either help us become better humans or make us worse humans.

One of my friends from college, Tim (name changed for this) and I met in a summer sublet. He was tall, smart, and goofy. Our first conversation together was 8 hours long. We discussed urban education, the nature of evil, the ways cities are structured, what causes we most care about, our families, our friends, and so much more. He wanted a comfortable life for his family, for the most part. He didn’t need to do anything heroic. But he would be willing to donate or share or help out if one of his friends asked. And he cared.

Three years later, I ran into Tim in Boston, where we both now live and work. He had become a consultant, and he was with some of his friends from work. We were excited to see each other. I joined them all for dinner and we made conversation. A few things quickly became clear: (1) they had zero interest in, or respect for, my job as an urban public school teacher, and (2) Tim had become obsessed with earning money. He and one of his colleagues spent much of the evening bemoaning the fact that they went to school for the wrong thing and if they had only started out at X they would be now earning so and so.

At the end of the night, I wished him well as I hopped onto the city bus to take me home. I haven’t seen him since, though I’m curious if he’s changed again.

Tim’s concept of success had been completely reshaped in the little bubble in which he was living. There was no sign left of the fascinating guy I had met in college, who cared so much about the world and was so interested in how it worked, who only wanted a comfortable family life. All that was left was a cookie-cutter Wall Street craving for more money and the perfect American life: 1 suburban home, 2.5 children, and enough vacation time to make it all pleasant. At least, that was what was being exhibited in our conversation with his coworkers.

I don’t think Tim is an evil person. However, I don’t think he is consciously making choices to be a force for good in the world either, and as a result, because of his situation and actions, he’s drifting down the scale. Then I wonder– if I asked him to donate to my classroom, would he be relieved to have the opportunity to do good? If I asked for his help, would he come in and volunteer? How much of doing good is merely the opportunity?

A few cautions about this graphic. I agonized over whether to create a separate category between 8 and 9 for people who at least keep themselves informed about issues, desire to change the wider world and do good, and like to have conversations about how to make the world a better place. I eventually decided this didn’t merit its own category. For all of us, our beliefs lead to action in some way, and the ways we exhibit our goodness are our own. If you are having conversations about the world, then you may in fact be a leader in some way, because you’re helping shape other people’s ideas and drive the conversation. And if you keep it on your to do list forever but never do anything, then your actions aren’t doing good for the world, so I am not sure you should get credit for it.

Lastly, I know that most of us want to be in one category but are actually in another, or we drift between two depending on what situation we are in, or we evaluate ourselves in different ways at different stages in our lives. This is by no means intended to be comprehensive, judgmental, or final. It’s a thought experiment that’s meant to start a conversation about human nature. No one’s pointing fingers.

From Robert Mugabe to Mother Theresa, Cheney to Obama, your mother to your best friend, we all fit somewhere on the scale. Where are you? Would you draw the scale differently? What values and principles guide the categories you create?

Especially for world changers, I think it’s worthwhile to think about the other people making up the world, how to mobilize or cater to them, or how to set up systems and institutions for them to be able to do better. And for all the other 7s and 8s trying to be 9s… I’m with you!

Reparations Convert

This piece is technically in response to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “A Case for Reparations” (The Atlantic), which is a long but important and compelling read. But it’s also sort of in response to his most recent piece, and so many of my friends’ recent facebook posts, and it’s sort of an extension of my previous post.

– – – –

rep·a·ra·tion –  repəˈrāSH(ə)n/

noun

  1. the making of amends for a wrong one has done, by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wronged.
  2. the compensation for war damage paid by a defeated state.

I’m not sure when I started to believe in reparations. Or, perhaps I should say, when I started to realize that reparations were what I believed in.

I recall thinking when I was younger that reparations seemed like a crazy idea. How could you even count how much to pay, or navigate who to pay back, for damage done so long ago? And who is to say that whoever you give money to now really needs that money? You can’t just write a check to people based on their skin color and claimed history; how will you prove things? How will you prevent cheating? Is money even going to make up for damage done? Doesn’t that elevate money itself to a level that it doesn’t deserve? Plus, who ever heard of the government giving people checks based on who they were at birth? It’s a ridiculous idea, barely worth pondering. And no one would ever vote for it. The number of people who would call out ‘unfair!’ is overwhelming to think about, like a kindergarten class gone wrong.

But my idea of reparations was too small.

Reparations could be a check given to a certain set of people. It’s not a bad idea necessarily. Research on programs like GiveDirectly show that giving cash to people– one year’s income, no stipulations, and no corruption– goes a long way to helping alleviate suffering and helping alleviate poverty. But that’s a tough sell, and tougher to implement.

But maybe there are other forms of reparations.

Reparations could also mean providing 1.5x the school funding to a child whose great grandparents were forbidden to read by the state, providing an extra stipend for books to a child whose father has a greater likelihood to be behind bars, and providing extra childcare support to children whose parents in general are less likely to earn enough money because of state policies. These are not hard things to calculate, and they don’t even need to be done individually– they can be done by zipcode (sadly). Reparations is deciding to build monuments and memorials for important events and people in Black History (**Please note: pretty much everything in this blog post could be said about the native American community as well, and prisoners of American internment camps, not to mention victims of foreign imperialist tendencies. I’m only focusing on the black community as a continuation of my previous post). Reparations is the government stepping in to keep an extra eye on police departments and hold them accountable for inter-race relations. Reparations is food stamps, job programs, anti-recidivism re-entry programs, drug rehabilitation programs, health care, and homelessness support– anything made to give a leg up and help families and communities recover from government policies that have done them damage. Reparations is having counselors, financial advisors, and support systems available to people who have suffered psychological trauma historically and have never had access to stable financial management tactics before. Reparations is (as in India’s case, for example) sometimes having quotas for leadership positions with seats from the oppressed community.

Reparations is also providing financial damages compensation to families who have suffered from wrong done by an unjust criminal justice system. Reparations is providing an accessible legal avenue to fair damages compensation for families whose homes, property, and livelihoods have been taken from them for no legitimate cause in the last 3-5 generations, as records can be uncovered.

Reparations is protecting voting rights. It’s also protecting running rights- making sure that anyone who has an interest in running for government office also has the financial ability to try.

Reparations is rewriting the national narrative, and our children’s history textbooks. Reparations is saying sorry.

Reparations is so that my students whose parents can’t read, who now have special needs, still have a way to give a better life, better education, and better abilities to their children. And reparations is so that my Yale classmates, future leaders of this country, understand that wrongdoing and injustice has a cost, and even our people and our government will be held accountable for paying that price. We need the people at the bottom of the food chain a chance to move up and the people at the top to better understand the consequences of their choices.

I started this post by anticipating there will be cries of ‘that’s not fair!’ as soon as any reparations program is suggested. (Of course, there are many minorly implemented reparations programs already in place in many cities and states across the country, some of which can become replicable models.) But I suppose the truth is that I’ve come to believe that a set of nation-wide well-implemented reparations programs is in fact the only fair thing.

Reparations gives us a clear rationale for doing the right thing. I can imagine the conversation: Why social welfare programs? How could that be American? In a country where all people are born equal, why are some people getting treated differently? Well, because of history. Because we are a country who deeply understands equality and fairness and because we know well the disadvantages and unfair treatment of the past, and we are willing to fix that through proper legal avenues and a fair trial system. We are willing to face our history and all of its violence and damage and we are willing to pay to make tomorrow better. And we know whatever the cost, it will be worth it to all of us, because then we will be a country that actually has values, that honestly gives all people a fair chance, and that can stand unashamed and unhidden from its past mistakes. We are a country of justice and equality: this is what it means to be America. Plus, it’s practical. Reparations would help nurture strong families, communities, and inner city economic ecosystems. It would make our schools better, our national image better, and our communities much safer. America is falling rapidly in the international rankings of respect and power. Now is the time to step in.

Any reparations program would be both complicated and expensive. It would require commitment, good leadership, and a whole lot of government time and money. But it is long overdue, and I fear the alternative will be far more costly. If we let the generational damage of government-endorsed mistreatment of people in the past to continue to fester, our country will become weaker — economically, morally, educationally, and in terms of community and family structures. We are letting people’s pasts & ancestry dictate their futures; the exact opposite of what the movement for race-blindness intended.

Plus, we tried a reparations program once before, and it worked brilliantly (though no one ever seems to remember the first few years of Reconstruction). I think it’s worth trying again.

And I know I’m focusing a lot on Black Americans right now, but I think that we owe reparations much more widely. Native Americans should be on the list, as should any interned Japanese people during WWII, perhaps others I haven’t thought of. I don’t know that reparations is the right term for the VA situation, but I’m also pretty concerned about veterans too. In all these cases, government policies and programs actively did damage to people, which is the essence of reparations. I don’t know what we owe the wider world, but I suspect if we got that far, our national debt to citizens of other countries would grow heavier with shame and apologies. These questions will need to be solved.

But I’m still not sure how we can avoid the backlash. Who needs the KKK when you have Donald Trump’s homophobic, xenophobic, racist rhetoric? Such fear wins votes. That is, after all, how Hoover came to power.

So someone else is going to have to take care of the branding. And w’ll need to set clear standards for the programs to ensure that they are provided only to the people who merit and need them. Because there will be such strong opposition, the programs will need to be clean, efficient, effective, and well-marketed. There will be no room for mistakes.

But those implementation questions are for another day.
I’m just saying that I have come around. Ta-Nehisi Coates, you got one.

ON POLITICS, Part 2: Design Thinking & American Society Across Changing Generations

I Voted

I recently read an education philanthropist’s piece about how American education is in crisis. Perhaps you will make me out to be a terrible person for this, but whenever people tell me there is a ‘crisis’ in education and that they are shocked by some new situation of injustice in America, I am dubious– and a bit perplexed. Do you not know American history? I want to ask. What’s new?

I wonder if they understand what ‘crisis’ means. A crisis is an immediate, urgent problem that suddenly appeared. When exactly did this education crisis appear? Was it when the first slave child was born in America and denied access to literacy? Was it when reconstruction schools were shut down and lost their financing in the 1870s? Was it when children of color all across our country were denied access to strong schools, acceptable resources, and self-esteem for over a century? Was it when our government decided to fund schools based on local property taxes instead of state taxes? Or did this ‘crisis’ appear when someone wrote an article about charter schools in the New York Times three years ago? Maybe these people who say that education is in crisis just didn’t realize that for the last ten generations, about half of our country’s children were experiencing a ‘crisis’ in education. Which seems to me to delegitimize the use of the word ‘crisis.’

There is nothing surprising about our education system or our government. Both are designed to privilege and provide for certain groups, and if we want to improve the justice they provide, we should use this knowledge of their design to determine our actions. Though our instinct may lead us to react with fiery passion, the response to a sudden removal of justice should be very different than the response to something designed for injustice, and it’s very important to know which one you are dealing with. One response is to fight angrily and violently against your attacker, no matter how much they resist. The other is to change the design, which almost certainly necessitates educating rather than attacking your opponent.

1.

I left off in my last post in the series arguing that we need to remove the pressures of moral imperatives and group acceptance from our politics. A freer conversation should greatly aid our ability to problem-solve effectively around current policy issues. As citizens, we all can try to hold ourselves more accountable to thinking for ourselves and conversing freely across the aisle (and not raining down on our enemies with a firestorm of demonization).

But increasing the quality of debate will only do so much. Unfortunately, we cannot count on a connection between elevated debate and more sensible voting. We need to use design thinking to understand how the system we have built actually works, and that necessitates analyzing the roots of people’s choices. People’s political decisions, much like their economic ones, do not make sense. People vote based on their feelings and their principles, and then they justify these decisions with reason retroactively. You can ask any economics professor if the principles of supply and demand are always perfectly executed and he’d (or she’d) be the first to tell you that humans do all kinds of things that are unpredictable and make no sense. It’s the same in politics.

Several years ago the New York Times published a small piece highlighting the fact that the people in America most opposed to government benefits seem also to be the most dependent on them. And Jon Stewart did a segment recently on Kansas with a similar jibe: even as Kansas enacts laws to shame and restrict its state welfare recipients, Kansas is accepting federal aid itself. For anyone who is looking for logical sense in politics, these moments of hypocrisy would seem impossible to fight. How on earth can you convince poor and middle class white Republicans to stop voting for tax cuts for the wealthy and against government programs that actually help them? And on the other side, how can you convince Democrats to be reasonable about the limitations of the federal budget?

The first step is to accept and understand that Americans do not vote in their own interests. Americans vote based on feelings, beliefs, and principles. It would be simple if Americans simply voted for what they wanted, needed, and used. If Jon and Sally use Earned Income Credits and Susan uses the commuter rail, then there should be 2 votes to keep EIC and 1 vote to keep the commuter rail subsidy. Instead, Americans vote for a distant ideal they think should exist. Jon is voting to get rid of EIC because he thinks Americans shouldn’t need help, and Sally has a dad who used to run a train company and he always told her that the government can’t run anything effectively so she votes against the commuter rail, and Susan is voting to keep EIC because she was always told that the government should help the poor.

This morality sway extends to a million issues today. We develop feelings about issues that come from social pressure and media propaganda and a false sense of our own expertise (because we read an article somewhere about the topic). We can justify our side in an argument, but internally, we have placed a moral value on our side of the issue. We have an irrational feeling that we should vote for this because it is the ‘right’ thing to do. People feel like GMOs are ‘bad’ (but how many of you actually have the biological agricultural expertise to decide that?). People feel like the government is an ineffective institution and should therefore not be allowed to run anything. People feel like government has no right to limit businesses. People feel like the environment should be cared for. People feel like charter schools are good and teachers unions are bad. People feel like only non-felons should vote, or only law-abiding English speaking people should vote. People feel like healthcare will be provided better in this way or that way, and people feel like wealth should be distributed this way or that way. But people’s feelings are very inaccurate problem solvers.

For better or for worse, this is the psychology of the political process that shapes our lives. And once we accept that voting is a process based on feelings, we can begin to consider where those feelings come from, which is a far more interesting question.

2.

The beginning of a new country always holds a unique kind of promise. With the language of mission and vision, and with the hope that comes with power, the creators of a country can imagine an ideally functioning society and governing body. They see what has gone wrong before, what needs they are facing now, and they problem-solve.

I truly believe that the founding fathers of the United States had this same hope and imagination as they created our country. They saw legitimate problems in previous governing structures they had faced, and hoped that their creation could solve those problems. They had seen a government rocked by reckless policy change, so they created a government with checks and balances. They had seen how nobility excluded newcomers and fought for the legitimacy of wealthy men who had earned their way to power, rather than being born into it. They recognized both the powers and failures of republics, of taxation, of various economic policies and tried to enact solutions. I think they were very excited about the ways they solved the problems they faced. I think people were excited about voting for such a responsive government.

Of course, that group of men were solving problems they faced. They lived in a world almost wholly stratified by race, class, religion, and gender, and they interacted solely within the bounds in which they stood. They saw the problems of their own time period; they were not envisioning the problems of the future.

Despite our tendency to insist that “liberty, equality, and democracy” means our country was made for liberal policies, the founding fathers were not acting on a progressive agenda from which we have since regressed. Any such nostalgia for a lost vision of equality in America is false; it’s a misinterpretation of the founding documents of our country. Our country was created by wealthy white Christian men for wealthy white Christian men. Liberty, equality, and democracy under God were words that applied to these men. The masses—the uneducated, the poor, the laborers, the marginalized, the women, the natives, the immigrants, the slaves— would simply have to adapt to whatever happened.

I think this is crucial to understand. Today, our government’s policies must apply to and provide for all these people groups, but our original government did not do any such thing. Our government now leads an exponentially larger and more diverse population than the founding fathers could have even conceived. Though our personal concepts of justice and logic may indicate what our government obviously should be doing for these people and how our society should function, there is a missing step. We cannot simply expect our government to do what it is not designed to do, without our active participation in its redesign. So we need to figure out what has changed in our society, why it has changed, and how our government should be changing in response. This vision of our society– and our unity to support it– is what is driving how people feel, and how they vote.

3.

“Who is an American?” is perhaps the most essential, unsaid question we face in politics today. There is no question that is so important to understand if we want to clarify both policy creation and voting patterns. Those who “count” as “American” are the ones who define what “American” means. They are the ones who get a say in the government. They are the ones who benefit from the government.

At its founding, the United States considered white landowning men to be Americans, with few other exceptions. Americans were soldiers who fought in wars. Americans were hard working, independent, a bit rough around the edges. Not noble or royal by birth. They were problem-solvers. They were involved in their own governance. Then the middle class began expanding. Pioneers set out. They too became “American.” If people have a nostalgia for this America, they have a nostalgia for its simplicity: in a government that claimed freedom of religion and equality of all men, the society was overwhelmingly homogeneous. There were no significant conflicts about who counted as an American.

The first real conflict exploded in the mid-1800s, as the black petition for membership and acceptance boiled over into the Civil War. This would be a huge change in society; a people group on whose oppression our economy actively depended wanted to be seen not as a chattel labor product but as human members of society. At the end of the bloodiest war in our history, Blacks were finally allowed some nominal ownership over the country. And— though few people remember this now— for a few years, it seemed all was going well: Blacks served as political figures, civil servants, and seemed on track to be fully accepted as “Americans.” During the first years of Reconstruction, in a shift that has never been repeated since (we could argue these years were our governments only legitimate attempts at reparations, and they were wildly successful at first glance), Blacks moved toward economic independence, got access to education and property ownership, and were leaders in society. But it was short-lived. Too many southern whites agreed that such acceptance wasn’t part of their vision of their society, so, with the help of the KKK, a violent backlash threw the South into a spiral of racist exclusion. Because southerners did not adjust their concept of America to match a new, more diverse society, the Jim Crow era began.

But history has other moments to teach us too. A huge influx of European immigrants began to fill American cities around the turn of the 20th century. Like today, it was controversial. How many people should we be letting in? Are they really American or are they changing America? Are they good for our country or ruining our country? America’s foremost reaction was seen in its education policies. Schools became the front lines of an assimilation battle. To be “American” meant speaking English, behaving in a certain way, preparing for a job in the American economy. It meant being white– which at first meant not Irish and not Eastern European and certainly not Jewish; at that time, to be white meant to be of Western European protestant descent.

But society actually shifted to accommodate many of these types of white people. Perhaps because the diversity of immigrants increased, and general society wanted to exclude Asians and Latin Americans and Blacks even more (see the Chinese Exclusion Act, for example), they began to feel that they could relate to these ‘pretty much white’ folks. So over the following decades, more and more groups— including Eastern Europeans and Irish people— were allowed to belong to this ‘American’ label. As long as they conformed and fit in and helped defend the prominent vision of white America, they belonged. This reached a height in the 1950s, when the government began actively promoting the detailed interactions of an “American” white suburban life (See a video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nyEo6hHnoq4). So even as immigration had altered American society, the concept of an “American” was solidified in defense. Being American meant being polite, popular, pretty, cool, and social. It meant not being communist. It meant being middle class or wealthy. And it definitely meant being white.

These examples highlight the importance of our subconscious imaginations in political struggle. People have an understanding of the society they belong to and what it should be like, and that feeling deeply affects how our government functions. If we want people to vote more effectively, we must do the necessary work to alter our internal vision of our country and create a new language and imagination of what it means to be “American.”

If when I think of America, I imagine nothing short of a Disney Channel movie—wealthy white families with token diverse characters sprinkled throughout the suburban, all-English, heterosexual love story, then that is the image I will expect on the news and on my streets every morning. When I am faced with realities that don’t fit into this vision— poor and minority enclaves; other languages; economic failure, other lifestyles that make me feel uncomfortable and less at home— I will become angry and defensive. My expectations aren’t being met. Someone is at fault. Things have ‘changed.’

This is what people will feel, even if the narrative they hold is totally false. The narrative for many people in this country is that our country was doing just great, everyone had access to education, middle class suburban life was widely available, people were moral and faithful to God, and people got along. And then it all went downhill. Now there’s violence in cities, our borders are overrun, immigrants are stealing our jobs, white people are under attack, English is under attack, people have no social skills any more, religion is losing its place in society, etc. So we must blame someone. There must be a reason America has ‘changed.’

As a U.S. history teacher, I wonder how much our U.S. history classes are to blame for this. Children are taught the Civil War, industrialization, immigration, the roaring twenties, more wars, and the protests of the 50s and 60s. But this history is wildly unhelpful when we are trying to define the society and struggles we face today. It leaves out the history of a huge part of our population. Only 64% of our census population is white (non-hispanic). And if you assume that a good portion of those whites are impoverished, even fewer match our concept of suburban America from the 1950s. Being generous, perhaps our narrative tells the story of half of our country. Only half.

We desperately need a better narrative and a better vision.

4.

Part of our struggle is that U.S. history classes haven’t caught on to what happened in the 1960s, so neither have our kids— or their parents. Two crucial changes occurred in the mid-sixties that altered our country’s makeup: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. In my (admittedly few) years of studying, teaching, and talking about American history, no one seems to realize what these laws collectively did or just how earth-shattering they were. The Civil Rights Act is usually taught as the successful end of the Civil Rights struggle; it is not taught as a cause. And the Immigration Act is not taught at all. But no two pieces of policy change have altered the makeup and culture of recent American society or have as much impact today as much as these two pieces of legislation.

These two acts, passed within two years of each other, redefined who counted as “American.” They forever altered the privilege of 1950s suburban white families and wealthy capitalists to have more of a claim over America and its government than other groups. The Civil Rights Act declared that the government really was for all the people— especially blacks and minorities. And the Immigration Act said that people of all races and nationalities had an equal right to join this country and become ‘Americans.’ It is crucial to understand that these acts, combined with Brown v. Board and the Voting Rights act of 1965 and a number of similar decisions, were the beginning of an entirely new way to understand the American government. Before this, the government didn’t function on the principle that it was obligated to not-in-power people groups. But now our white male Christian government from the 1780s would be for everyone else too. [I might argue that the New Deal was the first step in this direction (the government was forced to provide for the poor because most of its previously ‘legitimate’ citizens were now poor), but that is a longer exploration than we have time for.]

So a generation or two later, we face a completely new society, and a completely new concept of government. Our demographics are changing, and our expectations of government are changing. Women, Black Americans, disabled Americans, Latino-Americans, poor Americans, first, second, and third-generation immigrants from all countries are claiming they have legitimate rights and demands on this country’s government, that they legitimately belong to our society and should not be excluded.

We need to understand the gravity and magnitude of this change. It cannot be changed back, so everyone needs to accept it, progressive or not.

Our country since 1965 is a completely different beast than it was pre-1965. We can’t let the old design work for a new problem. We have a country set up to take care of the middle-class and wealthy, to provide legitimate membership to whites who speak fluent formal English. We have a country based on the idea that assimilation is possible. We were given a vision of America based on suburbia, homogeneity, two parent households, soccer moms and car ownership and vacations abroad, patriotism when we are winning world wars, newly paved roads and manufacturing companies and an education system that culminates in Ivy League schools. We expect everyone to have a job, we expect to understand and be understood anywhere we go. We expect that the ultimate American myth will be true for us: if you work hard enough, then you too can make it.

But that is not a true picture of America anymore. A true picture of America would include plenty of people who don’t speak English, who aren’t white, who have never owned a car or a house or even been to a suburb. It would include vast swathes of unemployed and disabled people. It would include meth addicts and pot smokers. It would include refugees from abroad, and immigrants. It would include the incarcerated population and the trailer park population. It would include black fear of the police and white privilege. It would include the complexities of young adulthood and old age. It would include the diversity of what parenthood, neighborhoods, culture, family, and experience could look like. It would include gangs and crumbling infrastructure. It would include admitting that the job market isn’t providing for all people, that it isn’t true that everyone has fair opportunities, and that making it in America is a matter of luck and privilege as much as hard work. It would include admitting that there is no single American Ideal left to assimilate to.

That is not a simple vision to understand, and it is a hard one to sell with hope and positivity. But I think it’s a conversation worth having. Whatever we change our vision of America to be, we cannot keep the old one.

5.

I wonder if changing this concept of America is in fact our primary task today, especially with the current right wing bloc of American voters. We dedicate far too little time today to developing the uniting rhetoric that defines our country, but never has it been more important. To too many people in America, the old vision of America lives on in their head. They are oblivious to what changed in 1964 and 1965 and how their world was going to alter as a result. They developed no sense of pride over what America chose in those years; only a sense of crisis as they saw their world changing around them in the years that followed. They didn’t know why. They panicked.

It’s going to be a hard sell. There are a lot of barriers to developing a new language about America, not the least of which is many Americans’ distaste for anything resembling patriotic rhetoric. But it’s my hope that we can recapture some sense of that idealistic promise on which our country was started if we take the time to redefine America’s purpose post-1965 together. Sometimes we just need a starting point to recognize a new narrative. So what could it mean to be a New American now? Couldn’t this be a conversation we have across parties?

Maybe it will mean a massive, globally entrenched military or a completely deregulated capitalist economy spinning toward irreparable income inequality. I fear it will mean a culture of selfishness and unjustified arrogance. I’m worried it will mean ineffective leadership, incorrigible governance, and a constant slide toward gun violence and test-based education. But perhaps it could mean a deep commitment to care for refugees. Perhaps it means to be an economic leader. Perhaps it means to be the center of creative and intellectual thought in the world. Perhaps it means to have an authentically multi-cultural, multi-racial, and multi-religious society. Perhaps someday being American will imply being multi-lingual. Perhaps American could aim for being the leader in human rights and opportunity (that would take some serious policy change). Or maybe we will be known for the high quality of policy debate in our government. What else could it mean? Maybe it will mean being non-judgmental and inclusive? Maybe it will mean being educated? Could it mean being peaceful? Would it be possible to have a highly functional infrastructure?

It seems silly, but I think vision-making might be more important than we think it is. At the end of the day, we don’t face a moral problem. We don’t face a set of enemies. We didn’t lose something. We merely face a societal design issue that people seem not to have noticed. In this case, the design is in how we narrate our history and identify ourselves in what is essentially a new country. We need an ideal to reach for, a belief to be proud of, a vision to unite us. People need something to feel strongly when they vote. People need a sense of purpose.

And we really need to consider changing how we teach the history of the American people.

ON POLITICS, PART I. In our Politics as in our Religions

FullSizeRender

1.

A few weeks ago, the Daily Show with Jon Stewart ran a short segment mocking Americans who can’t stand the idea of an ‘interparty marriage.’ In the segment, after interrogating groups of single Republicans and Democrats about stereotypes they hold about members of the other group, Samantha Bee sets up a random date between a Republican and a Democrat. The date goes just fine, despite Bee egging on each person to start an issue-by-issue heated debate. The segment is pretty funny, but I think it speaks to a much more serious issue in our country.

I’ve heard many people say that Congress today is the most polarized it’s been since the Civil War, that no one alive today has ever seen America like this. I am wary of such sweeping doomsday statements not just because the narrative of rose-colored nostalgia is pervasive in more than just politics, but because it’s also generally unhelpful. Plus, democracy is not a particularly effective form of government; its effectiveness lies solely in its ability to prevent action from happening and thus maintain stability. If you must make decisions through vote and agreement, it will take forever to do anything— everything is checked and balanced constantly. So I am not deeply concerned about the ineffectiveness of Congress— in a way, it is doing what it was designed to do. If we wanted effective government in an actionable sense, we could have made George Washington a dictator.

But the more I have watched and listened and read in recent years, I have found that I am less concerned about Congress and more and more concerned about the American public. Even examining some of my own gut instincts and beliefs has made me worried. It seems to me that we have a serious issue within our society regarding our political parties, and it’s an issue that no one is talking about: Belonging in a political party today is not derived from beliefs about issues. Instead, beliefs about issues are being held as entry tickets for affiliation to a political party inherited from the previous generation, and affiliation is being defined negatively against other groups. In other words? Political parties today are becoming akin to religions.

As a Democrat, I am told what to believe on various issues if I want to belong, and if I don’t believe those things, I am threatened with both chastisement and a sort of excommunication, because I am too similar to a member of the other group. Democrats, first and foremost, are not Republicans. So I must avoid anything that might make me seem Republican if I want any measure of political access or validity in my own party.

The only other historical instance I can think where group affiliations worked exactly this way was during the medieval age, at the convergence of four major religions and their splinter groups, when wars broke out across Europe. During that time, it was more than acceptable to say deeply offensive things about members of a different religious group. Muslims, Christians, Jews and Atheists spoke about each other in ways we now see as horrifyingly discriminatory; but then, such words seemed merely like facts and moral truths. The so revolutionary and amazing Martin Luther said some wildly anti-semitic things. Yet he was speaking as a product of his time, and so we usually forgive him his blindness. Will people forgive us ours?

People of various religions during medieval times rolled their eyes at each other and made fun of each other, accused each other and battled each other, avoided and ignored each other, sought power over each other and many many times, they killed each other. Even within Christianity, wars broke out about the small differences in doctrine in a post-Luther world. It is hard today to imagine the point of killing a fellow Christian over whether the bread and the wine actually transubstantiate during communion, but this is what group affiliation does to us: it develops a righteous fury in us that is as much about justifying what we have always believed as it is about fearing excommunication from our own group.

We no longer feel this way about our religions; postmodernism has shed that for us in favor of something that is halfway between tolerance and agnosticism. For many decades we felt this way about our nation states, but with the end of WWII and Cold War politics, and with the decline in respect for authority since Watergate and Vietnam, that loyalty too has faded. What has surprised me is how the political loyalty has snuck up on us. No one seems to have noticed, and no one seems to admit it.

2.

Growing up in my family was a process of indoctrination into the Democratic party. Like many parents in America, my parents believed in passing on morals to their children, and like many parents in America, our political affiliation was a deeply felt piece of those morals.

I resisted this at first. I remember my frustration with their stubborn biases— furious dinner table conversations where I accused my parents of an inability to see the other side and the ridicule I bore from my mother that I would dare defend something so easily swept aside as nonsense. I remember the feeling of anger at their disregard for my wise and measured, compassionate and peaceful approach. And I remember the ensuing question: could the other side just be that legitimately wrong? Is it possible that there is a time when being right is more important than being understanding? Is there an end to our patience?

These were questions I learned to silence. When I turned 18, I registered as a democrat. To this day, I have no close Republican friends with which I discuss politics. As I was raised to do, I have voted faithfully in every election, ordering absentee ballots and accepting my parents’ recommendations for local elections I knew nothing about (*Note: I actually don’t think this is a bad strategy, given how much they knew about the candidates; I always recommend just asking a better-informed person if you don’t know what to do in an election). Later, I began a political network of my own in Boston, got engaged in my ward, researched and knew local politicians and races. When I faced criticism on Facebook for respecting a candidate’s willingness to vote outside his own party for legitimate reasons, I was none-too-gently reminded by a friend’s parent that the other candidate was the loyal, consistent democrat that we should all be voting for. I accepted the chastisement and re-posted that I’d be voting for the latter candidate. I swallowed my own thoughts, because I knew the price of belonging. And so I helped vote Ed Markey into office.

These are each but small memories in the bank of my political experiences. I have been an enthusiastic political participant for much of my life, and these tiny moments of concern seem barely threads in a much larger tapestry of convicted engagement. But they all have something in common: they were moments of indoctrination, moments when I was told what members of my group did and I felt that to belong rightfully, I must do so too.

This is how medieval religions worked too. (*Note: I do not speak of faith in its personal, living manner here— only the institution of a religion.) There were clear sets of actions and there was a clear bank of language that was considered right, and social acceptance was based on one’s willingness to follow. You made friends within your religion, you agreed to believe and speak that which was right in your religion, you only married within your religion, and you set up your very own morality and value system within your religion.

But what does it mean if our political parties have become our religions? If we can’t intermarry or befriend each other, if we see the others not just as differing opinions but as morally bankrupt? Can our society handle that?

3.

As faithful and enthusiastic a Democrat as I am, I actually think Republicanism is a pretty remarkable idea, and I generally think Democrats are completely delusional about how government works. Particularly progressive Democrats.

The basic concept of Republicanism, as I understand it, is that the federal government should be as small as it can possibly be, that state governments should have their own identities and powers, and that local government is the most legitimate form of democracy and deserves most of our action and focus. Given how difficult it is to get rid of anything we add to the federal government because of how giant and unwieldy it is, I think there is a strong case for states rights and state individuality. States are more flexible, and they cover much less ground in terms of regional differences. I live in Massachusetts, not Alabama. I don’t know much of anything about living in Alabama. It sort of makes sense that Alabama should be making most of its decisions for itself and I should have nothing to do with those decisions. And I can imagine how, if we keep adding giant infrastructural departments and tax burdens on to the federal government, eventually it will be too big and will collapse. No one in political office is going to make the political-suicide votes to clean out the federal government and make it more efficient. It’s the red tape version of the Tragedy of the Commons.

And Republicans (at least the ones who know what they are talking about) make the case for a strong military, clear borders, and a fierce economy led by the biggest businesses. Republicans understand how Ancient Rome worked, and they buy into its legacy. Perhaps it doesn’t fit a concept of universal justice, but there is a historical case for protecting your own first and foremost, for keeping a nationstate strong and competitive in terms of physical force, finances, and privilege. There is certainly also a historical case for having a single set of values and a fairly uniform public. Republicans understand that tradition and assimilation create a unified, and thus stronger, culture. They know how to make their country competitive.

Democrats, on the other hand, seem to think that government is capable of overwhelming societal change for good, the more centralized and far-reaching the better. It’s sort of beautiful: we have access to tax money and huge amounts of legal power… why not do something amazing with that and create a country where all are welcome and all can achieve? where public schools are strong and healthcare is widely available and the people are secure and well-fed? where anyone can marry and everyone feels safe? where the environment is looked-after and the food we eat is carefully held accountable for health?

I love the vision too.

What annoys me is how the vast majority of Democrats have absolutely no stomach for the battles involved in getting there. They are dreamers with very little concept of political process or obstacles. They vote candidates into offices on beautiful, distant ideas and then they get frustrated with their own elected official for not being Jesus-as-autocrat himself. Remember how much of a fad it was to hate Obama and be mad at him before the 2012 election? Yeah, that’s actually a Democrat thing. Liberals love themselves some hating. In their self-righteous visions, they are exempt from the woes of their governments, from having to fight the hard battles. Voting once is what gives them their ticket to their political heaven and a license to ignore legitimate political obstacles their leaders face, to ignore the realities of prioritization and budgets. They wash their hands of any failures of their own government; after all, it is easier to criticize and blame than to keep supporting a vision of hope that is hard to achieve.

But rants aside.

What I think is amazing about juxtaposing these two visions of political parties is how (a) non-issues focused they actually are, and (b) how they aren’t opposites at all… rather, they are simply about totally different things. Just like religions. The vision of every great world religion ever simply has nothing to do with any other religion; it is its own concept, a beautiful idea. It is only later, when men institutionalize it and create affiliate groups out of it, that it becomes a source of doctrine, of in-group rules and exclusionary tactics where we define ourselves by not being the ‘other,’ where we create lists of right and wrong beliefs.

In our politics as in our religions.

4.

Florida is an interesting place to come of age politically.

In Florida, no political party is ashamed to hold its own; both parties have a clear stake in the social scene, and nowhere was that more visible than at a high school full of teenagers who couldn’t vote during the Kerry-Bush election of ’04. I was a sophomore at the time, and I remember the red and blue plastic wristbands, the heated lunchtime conversations, the strangely bitter silence that eventually split the two sides. When we defended our beliefs, we were practicing the defenses our parents expected of us.

I remember one conversation in particular. A student who was an uncompromising, far right-wing Republican told me that if a poor person was poor it was his own damn fault. I remember having a visceral, gut reaction to that statement that it was wrong. That’s not what we believe. And then I had to piece together just why.

Today, I know a lot more about how certain systemic structures make social advancement difficult in our country. I’d be able to argue that much more eloquently.

But I’d also be able to argue the other side (much better than he did, by the way. He was very demeaning as I recall. I was not friends with him after that.).

The reality is that even on these incredibly touchy subjects, where we feel a moral imperative— don’t blame the poor for their poverty!— we are shutting our eyes to a vastly more complicated, multi-faceted issue. The reality of poverty is that no case of poverty is exactly like another, and if we want to fight it as a whole, we must be able to talk freely about it without fear of moral accusation. It is very likely that there was some systemic disadvantage that contributed to any family’s position in poverty. It is also very likely that in many cases there were some choices one person made at some point that contributed to the family’s position. Do my students get bad grades and smoke pot because they choose to or because their society leads them to? Probably both. Republicans have pitched their tent with the personal choices, as defenders of by-the-bootstraps American dreams. Democrats have pitched their tent with the systemic disadvantage, as defenders of social welfare programs that change broader American systems.

But no one is siting around the campfire actually talking between the tents.

Research shows that arguing with another person actually helps you develop better, more refined ideas. Companies depend on such arguments for their best innovations. We need these better conversations. We need our politics to be set free from our morals.

5.

There is a remaining question on the table. What of people who don’t belong chiefly to one party or the other? What of the people who don’t like voting? Politics in America is a funny thing. While the moral value of the political process seems to have near universal weight historically, how we interpret the moral injunction to act is a thing we overwhelmingly inherit from our parents or develop as young adults.

My father says he hasn’t missed an election since he turned 18 and registered to vote. I don’t think I’ve missed an election since I turned 3 and was old enough to come along with parents and pretend.

For many of my students however, they have inherited the bitterness of government failure and thus a refusal to vote. Their moral imperative is that our country has betrayed them, that it does not deserve their vote. To them, the option of voting is just the man throwing a bone; to participate would be demeaning. As long as you abstain, at least you have your voice and your dignity. At least you aren’t participating in the theft that is tax-paying and tax decision-making.

When I speak to many of my peers who are politically disengaged, this sort of argument comes out too. I don’t know that they inherited it, but they found it— the feeling of betrayal, the sense of power in abstaining, the freedom from responsibility.

They don’t vote, but they do it for all the same reasons I do; it’s a moral inheritance.

I still tell my students that they need to vote. I use all the arguments my mother used— if you don’t vote, you have no right to complain; it’s your American duty; people died for you to have this right; if you don’t vote you clearly don’t understand the deep impact policy has on real life. I don’t think these points are false, but sometimes I worry that even the value of voting itself was a part of my indoctrination. Do I have too much faith in the political process? Do I have a right to tell my students to vote against what they’ve been raised to do? Yet, if I don’t do what I was raised to do, somehow I will be calling into question the validity of everything my father ever taught me— I feel I will be doubting my very self.

That is a heavy burden for politics to bear. We lay all our baggage of identity and belonging and belief right on top of this thing called voting: a process of decision-making that should be very thoughtful, well-researched, and objective. When we vote, we should not be afraid whether we belong; we should be freely making thoughtful choices and contributing original ideas about current issues.

It’s this prevention of true choice and original thought that makes the religious-like nature of our politics most concerning.

As a public school teacher, I see daily the direct effects of policy decisions on people’s real lives. Political decisions pervade everything about public schools, and I cannot underscore enough how much policy can alter our society and our daily lives— from the food we eat to the technology we use to our safety and health and education and finances. We need good policy.

But to get good policy, political decisions must be made as choices of thought, not as doctrines. If we lose the ability to converse and push ideas around freely because our party affiliations have silenced us, we have lost the very free speech that allows us to creatively problem-solve. And if we lose that, the ineffectiveness of our government will go far beyond a gridlocked Congress.

(To be continued in ON POLITICS, Part 2: Design Thinking and American Society across Changing Generations)

Leila [Short Story]

It wasn’t always this way.

Brides used to be absolutely glowing, caught on a thousand bits of film over a few short hours of a ceremony and reception. Fathers– and mothers– would bear them down the aisle, and husbands would bear them back into the world, kisses tasted and hands firmly grasped, as solid as beings can be.

That’s what Leila used to tell me anyway, her eyes gazing ravenously at my plate as she furiously sipped on her glass of water. Leila’s strength always lay in the fierceness of her will.

Our strengths are always too our weaknesses.

I met Leila on the rooftop of the chemistry building at college. She had snuck up there to avoid the throngs of people below and was irritated to find her space already occupied. Meeting her under such circumstances, I tried to be as friendly an offender as possible, but she just furrowed her brows and tilted her chin out a little to the left, how she does when her mind is already made up but the world will not oblige. I would come to read the frustrations of her heart through that chin tilt. But I said hello and how are you? and my name is Taylor, what’s yours? and she barely eked out some measure of courtesy in her brief replies. The conversation eventually drifted into the air and beat its wings and flew away and in the silence, we found our way to opposite corners of the roof, where we sat awkwardly sensing the presence of the other nearby, but stubbornly insisting we could still find our own solitude there.

Leila was brave every day of her life as far as I could tell. Don’t get me wrong– she had plenty of fears– but she was always trying to conquer them. She was terrified of telephones and would shut tight her eyes and inhale like a child at the edge of a swimming pool when the phone rang, but when she finally picked up the receiver and said “hello?” I don’t think any person but I could hear past her smile. Her acts of courage were small ones– she would walk up to stray dogs, ask directions without shame, inform professors they had offended her, and occasionally trespass on abandoned lots when she was trying to escape the obligations of her own kindness. Those are the things that I most remember.

When she told me that she was also planning to flicker at our wedding, I swallowed and nodded and assured her that I loved her no matter what but that she is her own person and should do what seems best to her. At this, she smiled and brought her face close to mine ’til I could count the two star-shaped freckles on the bridge of her nose and see the faint curl of her outermost eyelashes. Then she ran her fingers through the hair behind my ears, cupped her hands around my neck, gave me a kiss, and said sincerely, “Thank you.”

I asked her if she was scared and she looked at me curiously and didn’t answer. I always wondered what she was thinking. Maybe this was being brave.

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had argued with her then, if I had said no and put my foot down and insisted that she stay solid. But I no longer had it in me. I had lost two women I loved before Leila because I had tried to argue with them about flickering. They had stomped away in the bitter fury of a woman who feels you are intentionally forcing her into the powerlessness of their own ugly shame. By Leila, I had learned my lesson that it is better to gamble on a loss you might not have to bear than to ensure a loss happens.

I’m not sure when flickering first came into fashion, but to women, it is considered the essence of beauty. Women are supposed to disappear over time, to let their hunger slowly eat them out of existence, and it is an honor and a demonstration of the power over her beauty when a woman is already flickering in and out of being on her most prized day: her wedding. And it is a spectacular thing, seeing a woman flicker. She is present, but as you blink, she vanishes briefly before your eyes, haunting you, tantalizing you, like a specter of light and glory that knows its own brevity and is willing to live in such a half-state of human existence in order to be divine.

When a woman is flickering, she is most revered by other women, and you can see in her face a sense of deep, abiding accomplishment for that; it calms her features and gives a sort of peaceful weariness the corners of her eyes and the tired smile she wears on her hungry lips. To flicker is to achieve the epitome of perfection. You exist, but you are also actively disappearing. This, Leila tells me, is what it is to be a woman. Men grow rounder and larger and fuller as the years weigh on their belts, but women begin to vanish in their own hunger. The glory of a woman is that she disappears before her beauty does, that her waistline is ever-shrinking, her weight becoming weightlessness, her very being becoming more of an idea than a physical reality.

I proposed to Leila when she was sitting in my lap on a bench in Grant Park. I remember the smell of her hair that day– a little smoky from the bar last night but also of rainy days and morning dew. She was laughing at something on her phone and showing it to me and her cheek was just close enough to kiss, and I could feel her weight on my lap, holding me down in the Chicago wind, so wonderfully solid, so perfectly there.

You should understand, we men don’t know what to do about the disappearances of our women. We’ve tried convincing women against trying to flicker, but — it’s so odd– it doesn’t work. They can’t seem to hear us, and we men look at each other in bewilderment as they keep on their conversations, ignoring us in a selective deafness that is nothing less than fantastical.

“You are beautiful! You are beautiful! You are beautiful as you are!” I remember screaming at a sleeping, hollowed-thin Leila one night. Or maybe I just imagined it. But she kept sleeping like a baby, unaware that my words were beating off a bewildering water-heavy wall of silence. I have never felt so powerless, but Leila always said that men should try to understand more how powerless women feel around men. I didn’t get it. So I told her I loved her instead, and kissed her again.

Of course, the danger of flickering is that it is addictive, and it is risky.

There are so many men like me who come to our wedding beds only to find our brides have vanished into their own last breaths, babies who have held their open arms to their mothers and suddenly the mom is nowhere to be found.

Mine was the worst I knew. I suppose Leila simply forgot to eat her allotted breakfast that morning– and a single mistake, when one is flickering– can be fatal. I found a neatly packed half-granola bar in her bag later. She was coming down the aisle toward me, and I couldn’t tell if I kept blinking because she was flickering an awful lot or because I couldn’t wait to hold her and my eyes were tearing up, but as she came closer and closer, I looked quickly over to the maid of honor to see if she shared my concern, but she was just in wide-eyed awe and I wanted to shake her and tell her that this cannot be what women were for! And I turned back just as her father passed her to me, our fingertips brushed, and the shadow of a smile crossed her face underneath her veil, but then it was gone along with every other part of her. All I my hands grasped was thin air. I was looking painfully eye to eye with a flower arrangement eight feet away, no bride to be seen.

When a flickering woman vanishes, that’s it. She cannot be brought back; that is the risk in flickering. She plays with life and death. Hunger is a statement of immortality, but I would have loved Leila in all her humanness if she had stayed.

The worst part of Leila’s vanishing was how inconclusive it felt. I felt cheated of an ending to our story, cheated of some rite of passage that goes with death and with life– cheated of my own widowerhood because we weren’t even allowed to say ‘I do’ and ‘I do’ and ‘I now pronounce you husband and wife’ and I never got to kiss my bride.

When I realized what happened, I felt an overwhelming homesickness in my gut for her whole, solid self on top of me again. I gasped out my sudden grief, slowly crumpling to my knees at the altar. She had been home to me, and now she had been sliced out of existence and into thin air, whisked away like a single thread in a tornado.

Leila once told me that the strength we have exists in our spirits. I brush the fallen leaves off the etchings on her gravestone and sit back into the damp dark earth, crossing my legs underneath my knees. I clasp my solid fingers around each other and rest my hand into the net they create, closing my eyes, feeling my thumbs press into my temples and the pressure of my knuckles on my forehead.

No, Leila. The strength of our spirits deserves a home in our bodies too, I say to her softly. The words taste gritty, like the earth but full of bitter regret, and only the breeze answers.

I wonder if she thinks so too now. I wonder if she misses me. I wonder if she’d stay now.

I wonder.