Saturday, November 29, 2008

Out of Balance

My thoughts are pretty random this Sunday morning. But if I reach for a theme, I think I can find one in the idea that so much in our world is out of balance.

My theme might not be apparent at first in this story. But I was struck by Bill Moyers' closing remarks on his show this week.



If this was anyone but Moyers, I'd be thinking it was someone who looks at the world through the eyes of American exceptionalism. But we all know that's not his take. Perhaps what we are seeing is a world out of balance when it comes to power...people all over the world who's fate is tied to what happens in the US. Of course ours is tied to theirs as well. Its just that too many in this country are unaware of that...hence the lack of balance.

Jackson Browne reminds us that there are lives in the balance.



And next, on this long holiday weekend as we hear stories of people getting trampled to death by shoppers on "Black Friday," I can't help but think of Annie Leonard's wonderful videos on The Story of Stuff. If you haven't watched these already, I can't think of a more productive way to spend an afternoon or evening. They'll change you. I know they did me. Here's the chapter on consumption.



And finally, this week Nezua wrote about the 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance. Here's what the director, Godfrey Reggio, said about it.

The greatest event in the history of mankind has occurred recently, and has been largely missed by both the media and academia. Beyond the headlines and every day crises of international events, a deeper shift in human affairs has occurred: Humanity no longer exists in the natural world, we are no longer connected to it. It is not that we are now users of technology, but rather that we exist within technology, we are part of it and it is part of us. The natural world now exists only to support the artificial one in which we live.


I had never seen the film, so last night I watched it. You can see the whole thing here (one hour, 25 minutes). But for a taste or a reminder, here's the trailer.



I certainly don't have the answers on how to right all that's out of balance in this world. Perhaps the first step is noticing and righting ourselves as much as we can. Toward that end, I can't think of anyone who helps balance my inner soul more than Mary Oliver. So I'll leave you with "The Sun."

Have you ever seen
anything
in your life
more wonderful

than the way the sun,
every evening,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon

and into the clouds or the hills,
or the rumpled sea,
and is gone--
and how it slides again

out of the blackness,
every morning,
on the other side of the world,
like a red flower

streaming upward on its heavenly oils,
say, on a morning in early summer,
at its perfect imperial distance--
and have you ever felt for anything
such wild love--
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure

that fills you,
as the sun
reaches out,
as it warms you

as you stand there,
empty-handed--
or have you too
turned from this world--

or have you too
gone crazy
for power,
for things?


Saturday, November 15, 2008

Forbidden Fruit

Every human being has a biological drive for 4 things...air, water, food, and sex. We've pretty much accepted the first two as givens, but ever since Eve took that bite out of an apple, we've struggled with our need for food and sex, coming up with all kinds of rules about who, what, when and how. I, for one, think its highly symbolic that such a powerful myth in our culture involves a woman eating a "forbidden fruit." After all, we know the long fixation we've had with who and when a woman has sex. Is it any surprise that we are also fixated on what she eats?

From Meer Images Photography

But just as with sex, these rules about eating get all tangled up in our psyches and come out a mish-mash of myths that are difficult to sort. And while we on the left have at least a bit more awareness about how seeing sex as a forbidden fruit is damaging, we seem to have bought in lock, stock, and barrel to the myths about eating. Of course, we've been aided in that process by alot of pseudo-science funded primarily by the $40 billion diet industry.

So what are these myths? The Center for Consumer Freedom has compiled a list of myths about obesity.

1. Obesity Kills 400,000 Americans a year
2. You Can't Be Overweight and Healthy
3. Obesity Is a Disease
4. Overeating Is the Primary Cause of Obesity
5. Soda Causes Childhood Obesity
6. 64 Percent of Americans Are Overweight or Obese
7. Obesity Costs the US Economy $117 Billion Annually


The Center has also published a 28 page report debunking each myth and you can find the pdf file on the report here. But I'd like to take up the one that is most embedded in our culture, the one that says "overeating is the primary cause of obesity." This one seems intuitive and has lodged itself so deep in our psyches that, even with evidence to the contrary, it's hard to uproot.

One of the people working on debunking these myths is Gina Kolata, science writer for the NYT and author of Rethinking Thin. In an article that is an excerpt from her book titled Genes Take Charge, and Diets Fall By the Wayside, she cites the work of Dr. Albert Stunkard of the University of Pennsylvania, who studied both adoptees and twins separated at birth. His conclusion:

The researchers concluded that 70 percent of the variation in peoples’ weights may be accounted for by inheritance, a figure that means that weight is more strongly inherited than nearly any other condition, including mental illness, breast cancer or heart disease.


Another person who writes regularly to debunk these myths is Susan Szwarc. In an article titled On Obesity, What the Researchers Didn't Find she concludes:

The GUTS (Growing Up Today Study) and DONALD (Dortmund Nutritional Anthropometric Longitudinally Designed Study) join a profusion of other studies, both clinical and epidemiological, over the past fifty years demonstrating that fat children and adults as a population normally eat exactly the same as thin people. And regardless of their diets, children will still naturally grow up to be a wide range of heights and body weights. "Multiple researchers, using a variety of methodologies, have failed to find any meaningful or replicable differences in the caloric intake or eating patterns of the obese compared to the non-obese to explain obesity," concluded David Garner, Ph.D. and Susan Wooley, Ph.D., for example, in their review of some 500 studies on weight in Clinical Psychology Review.


I imagine that most folks at this point would say that since obesity is a health problem, it doesn't matter what the cause is, the cure is eating less and loosing weight. While I'll leave the mixed reviews on the health risks for another day, the research is also quite clear that dieting is not only ineffective, it is a much bigger health risk than being overweight.

Kolata addresses the ineffectiveness of dieting in the article cited above by outlining research that demonstrates how genetics dictates weight...when you eat more, metabolism increases to limit weight gain and when you eat less, it slows. But the more serious health implications were actually found way back in the 1940's when Ancel Benjamin Keys, PhD. studied starvation.

Young male volunteers, all carefully selected for being especially psychologically and socially well-adjusted, good-humored, motivated, active and healthy, were put on diets meant to mimic what starving Europeans were enduring, of about 1,600 calorie/day -- but which included lots of fresh vegetables, complex carbohydrates and lean meats.


The "starvation" portion of the study lasted six months and they followed the subjects for a year afterwards. His findings were astounding - both physically and psychologically. In terms of the physical, as the men lost weight, they found that their physical endurance dropped by half, their strength by about 10%, their metabolic rates declined by 40% and their heart volume shrank by about 20%. Their sexual function and testes size were reduced and they lost all interest in sex. They had every physical indication of accelerated aging.

But the psychological effects were even more dramatic:

The men became nervous, anxious, apathetic, withdrawn, impatient, self-critical with distorted body images and even feeling overweight, moody, emotional and depressed...­They lost their ambition and feelings of adequacy, and their cultural and academic interests narrowed. They neglected their appearance, became loners and their social and family relationships suffered. They lost their senses of humor, love and compassion. Instead, they became obsessed with food, thinking, talking and reading about it constantly; developed weird eating rituals; began hoarding things...Binge eating episodes also became a problem as some of the men were unable to continue to restrict their eating.


In the year-long follow-up, here's what they observed:

When the men were allowed to eat ad libitum again, they had insatiable appetites and ate voraciously, some eating 8,000 to 10,000 calories a day, yet never felt full...On average, the men regained to their original weights plus 10%. But the weight regain was largely as fat and their lean body mass recovered much more slowly. Their weights then plateaued despite being given unlimited food, before finally, about 9 months later, most were near their initial weights -- giving scientists one of the first demonstrations that each body has a natural set point.


Dr. Keyes called the symptoms he observed "semistarvation neurosis." And when I read about this study, it had a huge and profound impact on me. I recognized that from the time I was 15 until I was in my 40's, I had lived this. Almost all of the symptoms were there as I bounced from one diet to the next, always gaining back the weight..and more. Not only living with these symptoms, but being told over and over again that if I just had enough will power, I could curb my eating and loose weight. It was my moral failure that kept me from being successful.

I lost 25 years of my life to this. And I'll never know how it might have been different if I hadn't had to battle back from all the depression, pain and shame. It took some grieving to get over that. But at least I'm grateful that I had the opportunity. And I'll be damned if anyone will ever sell me on the idea of forbidden fruit again! Instead, I'll follow the path that Mary Oliver spoke of in this excerpt from her poem "Wild Geese."

You do not have to be good
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Friday, November 14, 2008

On the Twoness of Being

Back in January, as the Democratic Primary heated up in an epic battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, there was a lot of what I would categorize as "silly talk" pitting women's issues against those of African Americans. I can't claim to have been untouched by that strain in our leftward attempts at coalition though. There were charges from both sides that were deeply painful and only occasionally a real discussion about how these systems of hierarchy and oppression are very much alive in our culture.

I remember that during those days, I found solace and guidance in the words of the one group who felt this tension deep in their souls...African American women. I traveled around the nets to find and listen to their voices and wrote an essay that attempted to capture some of it. At the time, these women were busy reacting to an op-ed by Gloria Steinem. But its these words that I remember most.

After reading Steinem's Op-Ed I felt invisible...as if black and woman can't exist in the same body. I felt undocumented...as if the history of blacks and the history of women have nothing to do with the history of black women.


Look, I'm not going to go head to head with Steinem and argue what is most pressing for womyn in America - race or gender. What I do know is that as a US womyn of color living in this country is that the two are so inexplicably interlaced that I resist ANY individual that pits once against the other.


Further, by casting the debate as between Black men and White women, Steinem renders the woman of colour invisible, reaffirms the binary Black-White paradigm of race, and demands we take a side in the epic battle between race and gender.


You may wonder why I am re-visiting these particular battles today. My answer is that I think with the election of Obama and the passage of prop 8 happening simultaneously, we are witnessing and feeling some of the same tensions now about the issues facing African Americans and the GLBT community.

I'm not sure we can make those tensions just disappear, it will take some work. But I think one of the places to look for that is to seek out the voices of African American GLBT folks. Perhaps the best in blogland can be found at The Republic of T. Here's how Terrance describes the same kind of experience I quoted from the women above.

It has been a strange couple of weeks. Just last week, I saw something that I never thought I’d see in my lifetime, and felt like I was witnessing it for all my ancestors who didn’t live to see a hope fulfilled. But — with a “twoness of being” that DuBois probably didn’t imagine when he coined the term — it was a deeply conflicted moment.

As a Black man, in that moment I felt like more of an American than I ever had before, like a barrier to full citizenship and belonging had been raised. As a gay man with a husband and a family, however, I ended up feeling like less of an American than I ever had before; divorced from the celebrating and even the historic significance of the moment by a barrier to citizenship and belonging that fell more firmly into place even as another one was lifted.

My response to the events of the past week have been informed by that “twoness of being,” and a conflict that demands I prioritize one part of my identity over another.


We know things are still f'd up in this country when people like Terrance feel the need to prioritize one part of their identity over another. Perhaps it we worked a little harder at seeing things through his eyes, we could start to see the whole.

One of my favorite op-ed writers, Leonard Pitts, went a long way in that direction with a piece titled Coming Out of the Closet to Declare My Humanity. Its a response to one of his readers who assumes that because he writes about gay rights, he must be gay.

The most concise answer I can give is cribbed from what a white kid said 40 or so years ago, as white college students were risking their lives to travel South and register black people to vote. Somebody asked why. He said he acted from an understanding that his freedom was bound up with the freedom of every other man...

See, I have yet to learn how to segregate my moral concerns. It seems to me if I abhor intolerance, discrimination and hatred when they affect people who look like me, I must also abhor them when they affect people who do not. For that matter, I must abhor them even when they benefit me. Otherwise, what I claim as moral authority is really just self-interest in disguise.

Among the things we seem to have lost in the years since that white kid made his stand is the ability, the imagination, the willingness to put ourselves into the skin of those who are not like us...

I believe in moral coherence. And Rule No. 1 is, you cannot assert your own humanity, then turn right around and deny someone else's.

If that makes me gay, fine.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Organizer-In-Chief

Throughout this most recent campaign I, like all of you, have been trying to get a handle on just who this man is that we have now elected as our next President. So many of us are projecting our hopes, fears, and cynicism onto who he is and what kind of President he will be, that it often gets confusing.



I continue to have lots of questions that will only be answered in the days to come. But the one thing I feel pretty certain about is that if you look at Obama's history and how he ran his campaign, this is a man who believes in community organizing. The question is, how will that affect how he governs?

My guess right now is that his commitment to organizing is one of the reasons Obama has become such a Rorschach for most of us. To be effective in that kind of work requires a different kind of leadership than what we have grown accustomed to in politics. One of Obama's mentors, Marshall Ganz, describes leadership this way:

Although we associate leaders with certain kinds of attributes (like power), a more useful way to look at leadership is as a kind of relationship. James McGregor Burns argues leadership can be under­stood as a relationship that emerges from repeated "exchanges" or "transactions" between leaders and followers or constituents. Leaders can provide resources constituents need to address their inter­ests and constituents can provide resources leaders need to address theirs...Effective leaders facilitate the interde­pendence or collaboration that can create more "power to" -- based on the interests of all parties.


As I mentioned in a previous essay, Ganz has a whole course on Organizing available on-line. Within that course is a chapter on leadership. One of the things you'll find there is a graph illustrating the role of leadership in community organizing.



He explains that leaders work with constituents to build coalitions and utilize their resources to reach goals. In running for President, Obama has laid out some goals. The thing is, he needs us (the constituency) to reach those goals. We are the holders of resources that he will need to accomplish anything. That's because we know that the powers that be are preparing to take him on as he tries to do things like get out of Iraq, provide universal health care, address climate change, and on and on. He will need us to "have his back" when those forces try to stop him.

And if we want to see some changes in those goals, we'll have to organize a broad enough coalition to convince him that it can be done. In other words, when we want to get a message to President Obama, we'll have to talk to each other and get organized. A few weeks ago, I went to hear Al Giordano, a long-time community organizer, talk about how to work for change after the election. One of the things he said (sorry, I'll have to paraphrase) is: given that Obama has so completely embraced the community organizing model, if we use it effectively, we're sure to get his attention.

With all of that in mind, I ask you to listen once again to Obama's now-famous "Yes We Can" speech and see if you can hear the community organizer building a coalition and motivating them to work with him to reach their goals (especially starting at about 8:00).



All of the candidates in this race share these goals. All have good ideas. And all are patriots who serve this country honorably.

But the reason our campaign has always been different is because it's not just about what I will do as President, it's also about what you, the people who love this country, can do to change it...

We know the battle ahead will be long, but always remember that no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change.

We have been told we cannot do this by a chorus of cynics who will only grow louder and more dissonant in the weeks to come. We've been asked to pause for a reality check. We've been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope.

But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope. For when we have faced down impossible odds; when we've been told that we're not ready, or that we shouldn't try, or that we can't, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people.

Yes we can.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

What they're saying

I originally got a "gig" on the front page here at DD because I made an attempt to write a weekly roundup of some of the discussions going on in the diversosphere called Blog Voices. Over the months, I've veered off that course, but I thought that the day after the United States elected the first Black President, it might be time to check in and see what folks are saying. This is definitely not an exhaustive look, but I checked in with some of the folks whose writing has had an impact on me and would like to share those with you.

First of all, Kai over at Zuky wrote an amazing piece before the election that he titled The Palin' Identity that captures the message of this campaign in a very powerful way. I'll give you a taste, but mostly encourage you to go take in the whole thing.

The reason why the McCain-Palin campaign has appeared erratic throughout the election season is that their strategic communications have been conceived and crafted according to the language of implicit cultural code rather than explicit thematic cohesion. On the surface, their messages appear scattershot, misaligned, contradictory and confusing; but that's because these messages are designed to appeal not to crisp logical consistency, but rather to murky socio-cultural undercurrents and subterranean sentiments which have fueled, informed, and warped white identity politics since the birth of this nation.

What's extraordinary is that this time around — at this particular crossroads, against this particular candidate — it's not working...

I think it's safe to say that two generations of steady anti-racist work in the wake of the Civil Rights movement have had a profound effect on mainstream attitudes. The stigmatization of racism, so often decried as mere "political correctness", has in some ways succeeded in driving the most toxic forms of racist hatred underground, resulting in a popular culture which at least tolerates a superficial modicum of racial diversity.


Tim Wise weighs in at Racialicious with an essay titled Good, and Now Back to Work: Avoiding Both Cynicism and Overconfidence in the Age of Obama.

Those who say it doesn’t matter weren’t with me on the south side of Chicago this past week, surrounded by a collection of amazing community organizers who go out and do the hard work every day of trying to help create a way out of no way for the marginalized. All of them know that an election is but a part of the solution, a tactic really, in a larger struggle of which they are a daily part; and none of them are so naive as to think that their jobs are now to become a cakewalk because of the election of Barack Obama. But all of them were looking forward to this moment...

It’s like this y’all: Jesse Jackson was weeping openly on national television. This is a man who was with Dr. King when he was murdered and he was bawling like a baby. So don’t tell me this doesn’t matter...

It was a victory for youth, and their social and political sensibilities. It was the young, casting away the politics of their parents and even grandparents, and turning the corner to a new day, perhaps naively, and too optimistic about the road from here, but nonetheless in a way that has historically almost always been good for the country. Much as youth were inspired by a relatively moderate John F. Kennedy (who was, on balance, far less progressive than Obama in many ways), and much as they then formed the frontline troops for so much of the social justice activism of the following fifteen years, so too can such a thing be forseen now. That Kennedy may have been quite restrained in his social justice sensibilities did not matter: the young people whose energy he helped unleash took things in their own direction and outgrew him rather quickly in their progression to the left.


There was a theme I saw in a couple of places. First of all, from Carmen D at All About Race.

It feels good to be in love with my country right now. Oh, I always love her. But sometimes we fight and we don’t get along as well as I’d like. Even though divorce is never an option for us, right now we’re like newlyweds.


And then from rikyrah at Jack and Jill Politics.

Our resident Chicken Little-NMP- said something during the primary season that I never forgot: she said watching Obama win like this made her feel like an American. Not a Black-American or an African-American, but an American. And, I knew what she meant, because it’s how I’ve felt too. I would watch Obama rallies and SEE the America that I wanted to live in, and I was willing to work for that.


The Field Negro shares a comment by one of his readers. I'll put the "spoiler" here, but go read the whole thing.

I wanted to vote for these people, who did not live to see a day where a Black man would appear on their ballots on a crisp November morning. In the end, though, I realized that I could not vote for them any more than I could vote for Obama himself. So who did I vote for? No one.I didn't vote...I stood there, and I thought about all of these people, who influenced my life so greatly. But I didn't vote for who would be the 44th President of the United States. When my ballot was complete, except for the top line, I finally decided who I was going to vote for - and then decided to let him vote for me. I reached down, picked him up, and told him to find Obama's name on the screen and touch it. And so it came to pass that Alexander Reed, age 5, read the voting screen, found the right candidate, touched his name, and actually cast a vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden. Oh, the vote will be recorded as mine. But I didn't cast it.

Then again, the person who actually pressed the Obama box and the red "vote" button was the person I was really voting for all along...So, no, I didn't vote for Barack Obama. I voted for a boy who now has every reason to believe he, too, can grow up to be anything he wants...even President.


Of course anyone who's ever read Blog Voices before will know that I can't complete a trip like this without a visit to Nezua at The Unapologetic Mexican.

I WEPT. And today, I am weeping. On and off. The smallest thought or image suddenly touches me again and I crack open with relief, hope, or gratitude. Excitement. Calm.

Nobody knows for certain what lies ahead. But I think we all can agree, nothing will be the same as it was. And not in a dour, scared, “9/11 changed everything” sort of way. For once.

Something has been righted. I don’t need now to wrestle over how large or exactly what “it” is...

I cannot hang this morning with people jumping immediately into negativity. Can’t do it quite yet. I understand the process and the points, but I can’t go there quite yet...You can choose a negative moment anytime. Go ahead. Right now, you can. Think any thought you want about me, him, yourself, the street, the sky, the body, the next moment. Paint it dim. Or don’t! Or think positive. And use that positive energy to get to the place the complaint pretends to desire...

I do think we have been traumatized in a collective sense. I do think we are afraid to hope, afraid we are being spied on, that martial rule is about to descend, that nothing good can happen here; afraid dark massive shapes are hulking under any patina of benevolence…I understand trauma. And societies can have it, too...

We have amazing stores of power in us, of energy, of psychic, spiritual, mental energy. That’s why we can heal ourselves and sicken ourselves and others around us. Obama is not perfect, but from what I see, he believes in orienting upon the restorative, constructive, and healing properties of that energy. And any people who do that in a day or a place have my attention.

Today, I am amazed. Today, I feel anything can happen. Today, I am alive with dreams.