Friday, June 15, 2018

Trump: America's Anti-Hero

Trump is demeaning and weakening America. He is undermining our country’s strongest values and institutions, in pursuit of ego trophies and personal victories. And the ugliest part of America, the entitled, spoiled, narrow-minded, self-centered and arrogant part of us has hailed him as its champion.

Trump is like the  action movie “Good Guy” who – in order to save his sweetheart – drives furiously through rush hour traffic, unconcerned about the trail of destruction in his wake. He’s the defiant rogue who breaks every law and thumbs his nose at every convention, because he knows best and cares least. He mows down dozens, or hundreds, of baddies; the body count doesn’t matter when measured against his precious. He wins the day, his model-gorgeous girlfriend, and the adulation of the masses. And he gets off without so much as a scratch or a traffic ticket.

Trump is like the bully we want to turn to when we’ve lost every logical argument and flip of the coin and just want to punch the other guy in the mouth. Trump is every irreverent anti-hero Hollywood has ever dreamt up, who kicks ass and asks questions later, or more likely, not at all. Because, forget the reasons and calculations of the snobs and the nerds, who look down on us, who don’t fear our God and love our truth. We know when we’re right! And anybody who tries to tell us different deserves a punch in the mouth too!

This is what’s happening to America. The self-righteous rage against the ‘other’ that reached a new level of simple-minded virulence when Obama came to power – no, it was not new; it’s as American as apple pie – found its focus and its symbol and its hero in a disrespectful, insecure, tell-it-like-it-isn’t egomaniac who unashamedly roars that he’s smarter than anyone else, more important than anyone else, and who puts his version of “winning” above all else.

I’ve never been so afraid for America as I am now. Because America, still a young nation in historical terms, is behaving like the brash adolescent it put in charge, big on brawn, short on wisdom and maturity, who wants what it wants and doesn’t have the patience to introspect, to see its own responsibility for its plight, and simply wants to attack anyone who has what it wants and knock down anyone who stands in the way of getting it.

Trump is undermining all of America’s international alliances, and dismantling the diplomatic service, and he doesn’t seem to care, or to even be aware of the potential long term consequences. He’s steadily working to undermine whatever faith Americans have left in its courts and investigative agencies, because they challenge his power and judgement. He isn’t concerned about how this erosion of trust could cripple the nation’s ability to reform and improve itself for decades to come. And he has been so relentless in his attack upon the media, and upon expertise and scientific judgement of all kinds, that he’s damaging the very ability of governments to act based on knowledge, and the ability of voters to choose based on fact.

The Republican party – which used to proclaim itself the party of values and standards – has been so beaten down by Trump's base that otherwise intelligent leaders have been reduced to Yes men and women, afraid to peep out of turn. Those who two years ago seemed determined to uphold some standards of character, professionalism and integrity have given up the fight. The very few who continue occasionally to call out Trump and his policies have announced their retirement, admitting their defeat. So Trump’s lies and distortions, his bullying, his over-reaching egotism and his chaotic style of governing, have all become the new normal.

I’m not a defender of the status quo. I want change too. By and large, I side with the progressives. To my view, and drastically oversimplifying it, the fundamental difference between them and the conservatives is that they choose a course based more on love and inclusion as opposed to fear and exclusion. It’s a matter of the kind of society we want to live in. But I am fearful of Trump, and of his base, and of the narrowing of the mind and the clogging of the heart that their brand of politics has brought us.

Anti-Heroes can be fun in the Cineplex. Not so much in the White House.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Me TOO ?

I’ve never been so glad that I’m not famous, or successful in any popular way. If I was, I think I’d be living in dread, waiting for my life to collapse around me. Because the evolving definition of sexual misconduct has expanded to the point of including behavior that was considered acceptable and normal not so long ago. And it now encompasses much of my own past behavior. And the climate of the time makes little allowance for defenses or explanations or for bygone standards.

I’m guilty of what is widely being termed sexual harassment, and in some cases sexual assault. I’ve touched women, looked at women, made comments to women in ways that are not unlike acts described in charges leveled against famous and once powerful men, and that have played a role in bringing them down.

I can see how some of my actions may have hurt and offended, and in some instances, though not most, I was aware of the potential of hurting or offending at the time. I’ve done a few things that I will not attempt to excuse. And I’ll think it’ll be understood that I have no intention of detailing them here. But I am guilty, I've been wrong, and I am ashamed. I’ve made a few personal apologies over the years and wish that I could make a few more. Certainly, the recent focus and furor about sexual misconduct has made me more aware of instances in my life for which apologies would be appropriate. It’s a time of what used to be referred to in the sixties as consciousness raising. And my consciousness is being raised.

But at the same time, I declare my innocence. Because intent matters. And social norms matter. Whether right or wrong, they play a part in shaping our behavior and who we are. And because sexual courtship is a very complex matter. It takes many years for individuals to learn and understand, to mature in this area. It takes even longer for cultures and societies to do the same.

I’m not making the argument that because something was once considered the norm, that it was acceptable, and that therefore past behavior should not be judged.

But I do feel that many of the accusations surfacing lately amount to over-reaching and take no reasonable account of the realities of human nature and sexual interactions. And that’s what I want to explore. Going there makes me uncomfortable, but one of the things I’m suggesting is greater ownership of one’s discomfort. I think that the situations I’m about to describe are shared widely, and that discussing them may contribute to a collective shift forward. We shall see.

Let me get specific: I have very often ‘touched’ women I found attractive, when I wasn’t sure whether or not they were attracted to me. I’ve prolonged a handshake, or taken the other’s hand in both of mine, and maybe caressed it. I’ve touched arms and shoulders, sometimes rubbing or massaging a bit. I’ve put an arm around a waist or shoulder. Even placed my hand on a leg or hip. And I've gone in for unannounced kisses.

These actions have usually been part of a flirtation, a way of exploring a possibility of intimacy. They’ve happened in the context of making a judgement about another’s interest, and about another’s boundaries. And my judgements haven’t always been good. Generally, I’ve tried to act with some finesse. So, for example, I don’t touch only women, and when I touch women, not only those I am sexually attracted to. My skill and level of confidence in the sexual pursuit game has never been very high. I’ve never been known for my boldness. So my touching has mostly been discrete (or so I thought – maybe it would be considered sneaky or creepy today) It was meant to be similar enough to non-sexual touches to not seem aggressive, but different enough to communicate my interest.

Very often, I’m glad to say, it was easy to tell if my interest was reciprocated. The touches were returned, I got a warm smile, the woman stayed close or moved closer if she was interested. If she wasn’t, she’d move away, maybe frown. That would be the end of it. But I know that these days, it might not be the end at all. It might be the beginning of a sexual assault charge, the start of a reputation as a sexual predator.

Sometimes, it was really difficult to tell what the reaction was. Maybe there was no clear reaction at all. What then? Sometimes, my physical closeness would make a woman nervous, uncomfortable. But that was a good sign. That usually meant some level of interest, I thought. If a woman didn’t get a little nervous around you, she wasn’t attracted. Today, alarm bells would go off. I’d retreat immediately, might even apologize. But in an earlier time, I might well have kept it up, slowly escalating the contact. Because through my teens, early adulthood and full adulthood (I’m a senior now), as I practiced and developed my sexual pursuit skills, that’s what I learned. That’s what worked. That’s what got desired results.

These tactics of mine got a full range of responses, from a woman becoming my lover, to her telling me that she wasn’t interested, with a bunch of reactions between the two, including: let’s just be friends, you’re nice…but, I’m flattered…but, you’re cute…but, I have a boyfriend…but, and – I don’t know. To my ears today, all of these reactions sound like ‘NO’. But what they used to sound like is “I don’t know; I’m not sure.” And what my experience through my thirties taught me was to keep on trying.

So sometimes I would keep on trying. And sometimes that led to a consensual, sexual interaction. Some of those women later told me that they’d wanted and/or expected sex from the start, but hadn’t wanted to show it. Because the way they’d been raised, the last thing a woman wanted was to be perceived as easy, or as eager for sex. At other times, my trying got me to a clear ‘No’, occasionally with surprise or annoyance that I had kept trying. I was guilty some of those times. Of being pushy and insensitive. But I don’t think anyone would have considered it sexual assault or sexual harassment, as they might now.

There were a few instances, upon ceasing a flirtation, when a woman later asked me why I’d given up, or told me that more assertiveness had been expected. Once, when I was giving a back massage in my bedroom – one that had been offered and accepted – I tried to turn my date over to kiss her, and she resisted. I stopped and things went no further. But when she left, she asked me why I hadn’t forced her. That time, it was me that was surprised.

The truth is that the lines between acceptable and unacceptable sexual conduct aren’t always sharp and clear, and they change under the influence of culture and over time. They can change in the middle of a date. Different men and women react to behaviors in very different ways. And getting signals wrong or confused in the social/sexual realm is a very common thing, as are embarrassment, uncertainty and discomfort. In face, a large part of what dating involves is sorting all of this out, one-on-one. Another reality is that, among all the things that sex is, it is also a game and a pursuit. This doesn’t mean that any or all behaviors are exempt from judgement. But it does mean that the presence of uncomfortable feelings doesn’t automatically mean that someone has been victimized.

I know enough about sexual aggression and abuse, from my professional as well as my personal life, to recognize that these are very serious problems. I can understand why lines defining the acceptable are being redrawn more clearly and less liberally. The “Me Too” movement is a very good thing. Education about dating and sexuality is very important. These things need to be talked about, especially with teenagers and young adults.

But it’s really troubling that we seem to be at a point where lives are turned upside down and careers ruined on the basis of people being made uncomfortable by comments and clumsy or assertive flirtations, by sexual jokes and innuendos, where no coercion has been involved and no force applied. It’s even more troubling if, at the time of an incident, the ‘victim’ accepted it, joked about it, actively participated in it, or made no effort to criticize it or escape it. I understand that there are very legitimate reasons why victims sometimes respond in these ways. This doesn’t mean that the offending comment or behavior wasn’t wrong. But if a victim can be excused for not recognizing or reacting when they’ve been wronged, isn’t there a reasonable possibility that the offender didn’t recognize it either? There are degrees to the errors we make, and degrees of guilt. It’s important that there be degrees to how actions are judged and to the consequences they generate, as well.

I’m glad that sexual abuses are being taken more seriously, that victims are being supported, and criminals prosecuted. But I hope this isn’t at the cost of due process. Alleged victims are just as capable of lying and exaggerating as anyone else. Intention does matter. And it isn’t ‘blaming victims’ to point out that the way people respond to and communicate with others in social and intimate situations matters. It matters a lot.