Embracing Imperfection while Celebrating the Pursuit of Liberty

Celebration of American independence must always have been fraught with complexity and inner turmoil. Our forebears sought a response to the British tyranny of that era, but, having spent all their days as subjects of that crown, they could not have had much knowledge of what life without tyranny might mean*. Our forebears sought to create a “more perfect union,” but they did not create a perfect union, nor have we perfected it with any of the changes we made, in the more than 200 years of our nation.

Harper's Weekly Covering the triumph of the passage of the 13th Amendment. Source: LOC

Harper’s Weekly Covering the triumph of the passage of the 13th Amendment. Source: LOC

We have certainly tried. We have tried through giving voting rights to the landless, the abolition of slavery, reconstruction of the South following the Civil War, women’s suffrage, our many attempts to improve our immigration system, affirmative action, hate crime statutes, and other attempts to reduce the harms of racism, the granting of choice to women, our steps to make sure all may access health care, and most recently, marriage equality and other steps to enfranchise the LGBT community. These have all made our land a better and freer land. Sometimes, they were unalloyed good. More often, they were imperfect attempts.

It cannot - must not - be a sign of our patriotism that we pretend that our errors were right or justified, or that we fail to analyze the weaknesses in our values and actions that led us to commit injustice. Source: Wikimedia

It cannot – must not – be a sign of our patriotism that we pretend that our errors were right or justified, or that we fail to analyze the weaknesses in our values and actions that led us to commit injustice. Source: Wikimedia

Certainly, we have failed, too, and failed not just by doing too little, but failed by refusing to do what was good and just, and by actively pursuing what was and is wrong. Failed in our treatment of Native Americans. Failed, time and time again, in our response to hate crimes, even with all the statutes we’ve put in place. Failed the Tuskegee Airmen. Failed to guarantee equal rights to women. Failed in fighting unjust wars. Failed in our reckless pursuit of the imprisonment of vulnerable populations. Failed in our systemic and reckless increasing of economic disparity. Failed in our inability to lead the world in life expectancy, and not for want of throwing money at the challenge**. Failed in our approach to terrorism. Failed by creating classes of people whose rights we refuse to recognize and pretending that this is good or true.

Interestingly, when this video is shared on Facebook, where I originally saw it, the first minute or so is usually clipped. It’s good, but it’s actually way better with that additional context.

At times and in places, we have led, do lead, and most certainly will be leading the world. At times we have followed. At times we have not only not led or merely followed, but we have ignored the wisdom in proof of better ways embraced by other lands. I was at a wonderful party, last night. A friend mentioned in passing that she had, to her embarrassment, largely ceded the idea of patriotism to extreme conservativism. We talked about how this had come to happen – because I see it in so many people in the Sisterhood, and in other movements of which I am part. How did we come to think that wearing red, white, and blue is patriotic, shooting off loud fireworks is patriotic, but making this country a better place is not patriotic? I ask because so many of the people in my life, these days, are in the nonprofit sector (and in for-profit pursuits) that are actively focused on making the world a better place. I have friends who do this by making sure all Americans can have homes. I have friends who do this by making sure all women can be safe from domestic violence and that all women can have access to healthcare. I have more than a few friends who do this by trying to bring the Autism Revolution. And most of them are cautious about embracing the concept of patriotism.

I quipped that the situation is much like my relationship with organized Christianity, as an openly, proudly, authentically LGBT person. How did it come to be, that if I see a verse from the Bible – even, and often, Jesus proclaiming radical love for all, starting with the self – my mind instantly and rightly goes to fears that this person may be aggressive or even violent? When did Christianity*** become this vessel for hate and this bully pulpit for intolerance, instead of love? This situation is much the same about American patriotism – it is presumed now to be an attitude of haughty tyranny over the rest of the world, secured with our advanced army, our nuclear weapons, our economic might, and now even drones. It is predicated on the idea that we are perfect, that our union is perfect, and that it is our right to rule by force over others. It is, in short, and much as Christianity today is frequently striving to be everything Jesus exhorted against, modern American patriotism is, all too often, everything the dream of our forebears, to live in freedom, to be brave, was not.

We do not know full well the minds of early American heroes or heroines, like our sister Sybil Ludington, or even our even our sisters like Julia Ward Howe, who left behind a lot more of their thoughts in their words and speeches, but it does rather seem that they did not see bravery as something relegated only to soldiers, but rather, as a fundamental American virtue.

We do not know full well the minds of early American heroes or heroines, like our sister Sybil Ludington, or even our even our sisters like Julia Ward Howe, who left behind a lot more of their thoughts in their words and speeches, but it does rather seem that they did not see bravery as something relegated only to soldiers, but rather, as a fundamental American virtue.

And beyond just recognizing the tremendous injustice of this, how do we take back the night?

Certainly a great claim to patriotism lays at the feet of all the men and women who have fought, shown valor in combat, have risked and sometimes met death on the battlefield. Although I love peace, and I never myself served in this way, I recognize the need for their bravery, and I celebrate it. I do not see a contradiction between my love for peace and my love for our service-members. The two enhance each other. But I also recognize that, alongside these brave souls, countless other Americans are, everyday, fighting to make this country great, and even if they do not risk untimely death, in dedicating their entire lives to this country, they, too, ultimately die in service of it.

In this light, it seems, to me, deeply unpatriotic to me to recognize this day by mere waving of a flag, by engagement in braggadocio, to make idle claims that our country is the best in the world by birthright and as a privilege, and not a country that can be the best in the world because we make it so. In short, it seems deeply unpatriotic to me to recognize this day in any way other than to say that I love this country sufficiently well that I am willing to live and die to make it great, and that I do not merely offer this service as a hypothetical, but I engage in it, every day.

What I am asking you, today, is to consider changing your approach of shying away from the conversation around patriotism. To tell the truth, if you are one of us, in trenches or lofty estates, fighting every day to make this country great, patriotism will do no good to our mighty flag until you are an open and proud patriot. Your patriotism must not mean that you ignore the imperfections in our union, or that you do not fight to make this union more perfect, but rather precisely that you study and learn these imperfections, and you devote your life to righting them as best you know how.

And, although we can, should, must – always – be mindful of the sacrifices so many soldiers and others have made around and before us, so that we could live in the land of the free, we must recognize that living in the home of the brave is not a privilege granted to us by their sacrifice, but a sacrifice demanded of each of us, every day of our lives. In that recognition rises the great hope of this most unlikely of nations that we call home. In that way, declaration of independence becomes not a static event  some 239 years ago but a living call to arms to all of our people. And that is patriotism.

* I argue previously that this conception is much better than the currently widely accepted tradition of interpreting, for instance, Rousseau, as making a claim that freedom is innate and that we know how to be free, instinctually, but get tricked into chains. No, freedom is a technology, and is the most shining innovation humanity has created. There is also great danger in engaging in a presentist attitude that the “founding fathers” (or Jesus, or anybody) would think precisely like I do about freedom, or about anything. However, our forebears – not just Washington and Franklin, but many, many more of them – clearly did conceptualize governance as being a thing in which one actively participated, not a thing done to one. They saw freedom as a thing not just worth believing in, but worth thinking about, meditating on, advocating for, and yes, fighting and risking their lives for.

** We are, embarrassingly, not only not first, but thirty fourth in WHO’s ranking of some 200+ states.

*** Christianity as an organized entity, or as many organized entities. Not Jesus – I have commented on this in great detail, already.

You Gotta Have Principles

I love girl power, and I’m fine with most of the logos, but it’s time we have a feminism that gets back to fighting for “equality, period”

So… Rather than merely attaching myself to hooks’ intersectionalism or to Serano’s trans-feminism, to me, these are my guiding fourth wave feminist principles:

  1. Woman is born in chains, but we are everywhere making her free – to turn Rousseau’s famous quote on its head (although there are arguments that he meant closer to what I mean), rather than pretending that we are created equal, and that our differences are arbitrary constructs, we must recognize that we are born with many inequalities that give and take privilege before we even speak for ourselves and continue to operate in modified forms throughout and beyond our lives.
  2. Sex and gender are deeply rooted in the very existence of human social constructs, and the feminism that helps us will be every bit as radical as this, in an honest manner that understands what we can can and cannot change, today, about human biology. Like Serano and other scientists, and since I am a neuroscientist myself, I do reject the idea that sex/gender are purely socially constructed – although there is arbitrariness in what is perceived as masculine and feminine at a given time, that many people naturally congregate and compartmentalize behaviors into masculine and feminine, and that these are moderately to strongly correlated with karyotype, is a stable feature of humans across time and cultures, and evidence against either a purely socially constructed or a purely genetic (excluding epigenetic effects) notion of sex and gender makes both of these extremes implausible. The focus of fourth wave feminism must not be arguing with people about their gender identity or experiences, or arguing with people about the very existence of gender and sex, but must rather be on how we can use intellectual/philosophical, legal/moral, and scientific / technological innovations to create (not restore) equal playing fields, as we learn more and more about what we can and cannot change, and how we can and cannot change human beings.
  3. Only inclusion builds stronger society. We have ample evidence that segregation does not work. We must stop banging our head repeatedly against doors marked “separate but equal” when we know that this has failed us time and time again. Although she denies it, history generally credits Phyllis Schlafly with using the fright of unisex/gender inclusive bathrooms to stop the ERA, and almost 40 years later, we’re still scared enough of equality that we are frequently choosing segregation (Civil unions? Please…) when we know it is not “close enough.”
  4. The fights for every kind of freedom, for freedom from poverty, freedom from racial/ethnic marginalization, freedom from sexual oppression, freedom from unjust or inhumane incarceration, freedom from dominance by the ignorant – they are all the same fight, and every freedom fighter is our kin-in-arms, and I am in league with everyone who dreams of and yearns for the life beyond the bars. Whenever we start a conversation with “equality for xxx,” are we not implying that, even when we get what we want, some people will be equal-er than others? I’m not saying that we can’t be pragmatic, that we can’t implement equality piece-by-piece, but we have to be clear that the ultimate goal is an inclusive world that provides whatever we mean by equality (not homogenization) as something everyone can enjoy.
  5. No one ever truly became freer standing on the neck of another. Oppressing trans women will not make cis women free. Oppressing the poor does not make the rich free. Demonizing members for mere membership in the dominant ethnic minority is as wrong as demonizing someone for other factors not under their control such as their sex, race, sexual orientation, or gender identity. We are none of us safe until we are all of us safe, and we must build freedom for those who lack it without trying to destroy the freedom of others.

“And Govinda saw that this mask-like smile, this smile of unity over the flowing forms, this smile of simultaneousness over the thousands of births and deaths — this smile of Siddhartha — was exactly the same as the calm, delicate, impenetrable, perhaps gracious, perhaps mocking, wise, thousand-fold smile of Gautama, the Buddha, as he perceived it with awe a hundred times.” — From Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

To paraphrase Steinem, the advocates of the status quo, of ignoring all of these points, and of keeping one group or another bound in chains, they will do anything to make a woman like me seem ridiculous. They will argue with me about everything, from my hemline to my mascara to my genitals, from questionable translations of the Bible to non-credible histories of the founding fathers, in short with everything but what really matters, which is freedom for my people.

Trans-Inclusive Spirituality

I’ve got a blog related to this topic I’m going to post in a few days, but by way of teaser, I love H. Adam Ackley’s response to the situation with George Fox University (who?) refusing services to Jayce, a trans masculine student. Dr. Ackley gets mad props for the particular Proverbs quote he leads off with.


I’m deeply impressed when anyone starts a
blog with a quote like that.

In case the name sounds vaguely familiar, Dr. Ackley is the same gentleman who was kicked off faculty at Azusa Pacific University for his own transness. All us academics and quasi-academics (I have a PhD but work primarily outside the Tower) need to stand up against the monstrosity. Christian or not, it is unacceptable for any university to behave in this fashion. It defiles higher education and makes us all look bad.


To be frank, I held Azusa Pacific University in low
esteem prior to this news, but it didn’t help any

Much love to Jayce, hope you get all support you deserve, and not just a degree, but an education (won’t we all live in a better world if less people get degrees and more people get educated?). Please stay tuned, I’ve lots more to say about people who build exclusionary movements under the guise of religion.