Sunday, March 19, 2017

When a Member of Your Sandlot Passes Away

Folks who take classes I teach in which we talk about it know that I critique the film The Sandlot for its representations of gender. The film makes the exclusion of women rather explicit, and the implications of that exclusion are all the more significant when we recognize that the film is typically characterized as a “family film.” In fact, my own DVD copy of the film says “Family Feature” on the front cover.

Still, as a baseball fan, the film has appeal because it captures the joy of playing sandlot baseball with a group of other kids. That joy is important to me because I spent a significant amount of my time as a kid doing exactly that. My brothers and I, along with a collection of other friends, would go to the local park in my hometown that had a number of baseball diamonds, and we would play baseball for hours.

Among that collection of other friends, the most consistent participant was Jason, a classmate of my youngest brother, Nate, who shared with Nate and me a passion for baseball – a passion borne out in our shared interest in collecting baseball cards and, of course, in playing baseball together. Indeed, “consistent” is not strong enough of a word to convey Jason’s participation in our baseball games. “Constant” works much better. I think only Nate and I participated more.

Jason passed away Friday at the age of 39. I don’t know the cause. I do know he had experienced some health issues recently, but I don’t know if they contributed to his death or not.

I can’t say I know Jason well any longer. We were connected on Facebook, and there was a little interaction there, but I really hadn’t seen him in a couple decades. I remember that he won my NCAA men’s basketball pool in 1993, and I have specific memory of giving him the money when he won. I remember him working at my grandfather’s drugstore for a while in the 1990s. I remember trading baseball cards with him in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But most of all, I remember him as an integral part of my sandlot experience.

The Sandlot is about remembering childhood. As we get older, that which makes up our childhood slowly recedes. Our favorite television shows go off the air. Buildings we knew make way for newer structures. Our friends and family pass on, and so eventually do we. When these people and things are gone, it makes the process of remembering the joys of childhood more difficult … or at least it makes that process take less concrete form. Sometimes the process happens before it should, and that’s the case with Jason. Still, even though less concrete, that which has passed on remains with us. Jason will always be an important part of my youth, and he will always figure prominently in my memory of that youth.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

On the Benefits of Being Snowflakes

I don't live in the kind of bubble that popular opinion since November has suggested leftists and academics like me live in. Indeed, I think many of us don't fit that characterization. Rather, I am well aware of the kinds of things folks of different backgrounds and political perspectives say about folks like me. One of the latest trends I'm seeing is use of the word "snowflake" to disparage us. This is much preferable to other words that are used. "Libtard," for instance, may be the worst of the lot, given not only its implication that leftist and liberal perspectives are stupid, but also its marginalization  of people based on disability by invoking the word "retard" as an intended insult. While not as marginalizing, "snowflake" in these contexts is still meant to belittle leftists and academics as weak.

I would like, though, to reclaim "snowflake," given its potentially positive connotations. Consider that every snowflake is different. Claiming an identity as a snowflake is thus a celebration of diversity. Additionally, while an individual snowflake may be easily crushed, if you put a whole bunch of snowflakes together, you get something very strong that can make a tremendous impact -- a snowstorm. This, then, adds to the celebration of diversity as it recognizes the substantial power that can occur when a great number of diverse people work together even as they maintain their diversity. Indeed, as I write this, it occurs to me that snowstorm might work as a replacement metaphor for the problematic melting pot that has been used to symbolize the goal of U.S. democracy.

So, yes, I'm a proud snowflake.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Curt Schilling -- A Matter of Character

In September 2015 I wrote on this blog about applying the character argument to Lance Berkman when he becomes eligible for voting in elections for Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame. I had planned to write a similar post this winter about Curt Schilling, who both is currently on the ballot and has a much stronger case for election. Indeed, there’s a good likelihood Schilling will be elected at some point, and were I a Hall of Fame voter, the only thing that would keep Schilling off my ballot is that the ballot has a limit of ten names, and I might have ten names that go before him. Barring that, I would vote for him, and I consider Schilling a Hall of Famer.

I also would not apply the character guideline when voting for the Hall of Fame. To me, it’s a judgment I would not wish to make and that I would not see as something that should play an important role in my voting.

That said, I was prepared to write a post about how folks who can vote and who do apply the character criterion should consider applying it to Schilling. Based on inflammatory things Schilling has said in recent years, there ought to be questions about his character. Fortunately, though, I do not have to advance the argument, because people who are in much greater positions of visibility, including some voters, are already doing so.

Perhaps predictably, Schilling has responded to folks advancing that argument, claiming that they would vote for him if he had said "Lynch Trump" and that "There are some of the worst human beings I’ve ever known voting. There are scumbags all across." His response is exactly indicative of the problem. There seems to be little if any self-reflection and self-evaluation on Schilling's part. In the past, he has made disparaging remarks about various groups based in willful ignorance, and when called out on it he has relied on tired tropes about fictional bogeymen such as political correctness and people getting offended too easily. Now, as he faces legitimate questions about his character, Schilling continues his pattern of blaming others rather than taking responsibility for himself.

Two years ago Schilling claimed that he lost Hall of Fame votes because he is a Republican, a claim that does not appear to hold up when we consider the many other Republicans who have been elected. His current claims seem to echo that sentiment, suggesting that his political positions are at the heart of arguments about his character. Curt's politics do have something to do with this, bit it's not simply the expressing of particular political positions that constitutes the problem; rather, it's the way in which those positions are expressed, the kinds of sentiments through which they are expressed, and the kinds of demeaning and marginalizing assumptions that inform those positions (at least as they are expressed). Curt's losing votes not because he's a Republican, but ... well, frankly, because he appears to be a jerk. And that certainly is a matter of character.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Remembering Carrie Fisher

As news spread a couple days ago about the death of Carrie Fisher, like so many other folks I found myself thinking of Fisher in connection with her role as Leia in the Star Wars films. I’ve read a number of statements and accounts by heterosexual men relating how they had a crush on Fisher/Leia during the time period of the original Star Wars trilogy. I probably did, too. I was of the right age, sexual orientation, etc. to do so, and I certainly was a Star Wars fan. Yet, if I did, I don’t remember it, so it must not have been a particularly strong crush like the ones I do remember, such as Kim Richards in Escape to Witch Mountain or Nancy McKeon as Jo in The Facts of Life.

At the same time, I’ve read a number of statements and accounts that frame Fisher and Leia in terms of being a princess. Yet, while I called Fisher’s character Princess Leia without thinking about it, out of a sort of rote consciousness because that’s what Leia was called so often, I didn’t really think of her in terms of being a princess. Sure, I knew she was a princess, and there were times in the films that highlighted that. But as I’ve thought back on it the past couple days, that’s not what Leia signified to me.

Rather, the more I reflect on it, the more I think I saw Leia – and by association Carrie Fisher – as tough. Sure, she was the damsel in distress in the first film, but her interaction with Luke Skywalker begins with the sarcastic “Aren’t you a little short for a Stormtrooper?” and Leia was the one who blew a hole in the garbage chute so that she and her “rescuers” could escape the detention level. Additionally, the first time we see her in the film, she’s quite willing to stand up to Darth Vader. In The Empire Strikes Back, she’s in a leadership role from the beginning of the film, one she maintains through the next film and then, of course, decades later with The Force Awakens. Much has been written over the past four decades about the complexities of gender representation in Leia’s character, and I’m not going to rehash it all here but to summarize that it’s generally considered a mixed bag of reinforcing traditional images of women as an object of sexual/romantic desire for heterosexual men, yet also challenging those images through her leadership, strength, and courage.

In my life I’ve thought a lot about Star Wars, engaged with plenty of texts and artifacts from the Star Wars phenomenon, written about Star Wars, and even taught a class on Star Wars, but I had never really reflected so deeply on my own perceptions of Leia until now. After doing so, my most prevalent thought is to admire her toughness. Carrie Fisher has a tremendous legacy that includes advocating for mental health awareness and opening spaces for honest discussion about stardom. Her portrayal of toughness in the character of Leia Organa in one of the most significant phenomena in popular culture history should be considered a vital part of that legacy as well.

Monday, December 26, 2016

There Ain't No Point in Moving On Until You've Got Some Place to Go

In the fall of 1990, I was in my first semester of college, just a couple weeks in, when George Michael released Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1. Having loved his hugely successful previous album Faith, I walked to Finders Records in downtown Bowling Green, Ohio, to buy his new release on cassette tape as soon as it came out, and I made it back to my dorm room with just enough time to listen to the entire tape before heading off to the Introduction to Popular Culture class I was taking. I remember walking to class after listening to the album, completely enamored with what I had just heard. It was neither the first nor the last time I had responded like that to George Michael's work. In 1988, before "One More Try" was released as a single from Faith, I listened to the song so much that the first time I heard it on the radio and realized it had been released as a single, I told the first people I saw -- some classmates at my high school who likely couldn't have cared less -- how excited I was. Eight years later, in 1996, from the first time I heard it, I loved the feel of "Fastlove," and I still play it occasionally for no other reason than to groove to it. Still, my memory today returns to Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 because (a) it contains the song that a few years after its release I would come to view as Michael's best song ("Freedom") and (b) because news of his death takes me back to falling in love almost instantly to the last song on the album, "Waiting (Reprise)," and listening to it over and over again just after its release.

To borrow a line from "Waiting (Reprise)," George, "I guess there's a road without you." It's a road, though, that the world is walking much too soon.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Humanity of Donald Trump

I always try to remember that everyone was once a baby, new to the world, deserving of all of the love we can give. This goes for everyone, even Donald Trump. He’s a person, and I don’t want to forget his humanity, no matter what his presidential campaign has done or what his administration does.

I am concerned about what will happen in President Trump’s administration. The racism, sexism, ableism, Islamophobia, etc. of Trump’s campaign should be causes for concern. The history of Vice President-elect Mike Pence’s treatment of LGBTQ folks is very troubling. Trump has the public persona of a bully, and that is very worrying. Yet, one moment gives me hope. I watched the first season of The Apprentice, and I caught parts of the show over the next few seasons. At the end of Season 4, there seemed to be a good case for both of the finalists. Trump chose Randal Pinkett, but then he said he could be convinced to also hire the runner-up, Rebecca Jarvis. He gave Randal the choice, but Randal said there should only be one hiring that day. Now, maybe I’m giving too much credit it here, and of course this is ripe for critique of the gender and race implications when Trump asked a black man to share the win with a white woman. Still, this seems like a moment of humanity out of Trump. He was willing to say there doesn’t have to be just one winner. He was willing to put aside the way things were done to allow for a little more inclusion. Again, maybe I’m being too generous, and maybe I’m naive, but this is the moment I keep coming back to as a source of hope that maybe Trump’s administration will be okay. I’m still worried. There’s still much work to be done. But losing hope and losing humanity would be disastrous, and perhaps this moment in Trump’s life can remind us of both.

Monday, November 7, 2016

On Trump and the Culture of Racism

I remember the first time I heard the word "nigger." (I'll henceforth refer to it as "the n-word" because I do not feel comfortable saying the word, nor do I think I should say the word. I only used it in that first sentence for the sake of clarity.) I was on the school bus in my nearly all-white small Ohio town headed to Kindergarten. Yes, that's right -- Kindergarten. I was five years old, and another white kid who, if I remember correctly, was a year or two older than me said the word. The bus driver, thankfully and appropriately, told him he was not to say that word again. To be honest, I was so unfamiliar with the word that I didn't even hear it correctly. I thought he said "digger," and of course I had no clue why the word was inappropriate.

I figured it out very soon afterwards. I don't remember how long after that it was, maybe a couple weeks, maybe a few months. I was looking in a book at a map of countries in Africa and I saw Niger. I instantly blurted it out, mispronouncing it as the n-word, and I went to my mom repeating it several times. She must have been so embarrassed. She was sitting at our kitchen table talking to someone who was over at our house (I don't remember who), and her son came up loudly saying this racial slur. She told me not to say it anymore and why it was inappropriate. I said it was the word I had heard on the bus, and she reiterated her response, also correcting me on the pronunciation of Niger.

I also remember the first time I heard the word "jigaboo." I was a trainer for my school's eighth grade boys basketball team, and we were playing an away game at one of the city schools in Lima, Ohio. The school had a large African-American population, and that of course translated to a basketball team made up of mostly African-American players. Some of my team's players, huddled together out of earshot from the opposing team, were trash talking the opposing team among themselves, using the word rather loosely to refer to the opposition's players. At the time wanting to desperately to fit in, I laughed along with the comments, even though I could tell by context this word was inappropriate and I didn't like it being said.

Something must have changed in my attitude by a year later because I remember that as a freshman in high school, I told another boy in my class that he should not use the n-word after I heard him doing so. He physically threatened me for telling him that. At the time, I carried my books in a briefcase. He took it and started trying to damaging it. He went to my locker and started kicking it with his boots, trying to bust into it to damage some of my things. He added a warning that I should watch out for him, all because I told him not to say the n-word.

Later in high school I remember a girl in my grade -- she was white; more than 90% of us in my school were -- telling me that her father had told her if she ever went on a date with a boy who was black, she may as well never come home. I also remember shortly thereafter witnessing her dad being honored at our church -- the same church that was affiliated with the Catholic school we attended -- for his commitment to the faith.

Finally, I remember when the varsity boys basketball team from my high school -- the one that contained a number of boys who had been on the eighth grade basketball team from the incident above -- made the state semifinals during my senior year. The team played a school from Columbus whose basketball team was predominantly African American, and that team beat my high school's team to advance to the state finals. I remember sitting in the stands hearing a number of my classmates, many of whom I had been growing up with since before Kindergarten, saying and yelling out racial slurs, especially the n-word, directed at the opposing team during the game. I was so disgusted that I moved to a different seat, one near one of our parish priests, and I told him what I was hearing. I also told my principal about it a few days later.

I'm writing all of this because I've been thinking about it lately while witnessing what has happened in and around Donald Trump's presidential campaign. Donald Trump's campaign has drawn on and emboldened some of the most racist elements of our society. White supremacists feel very comfortable endorsing him because the things he says and advocates resonate with them. Just recently, someone wrote "Vote Trump" while vandalizing and setting on fire an African-American church. Also, a man who reportedly supported Trump and who had been known to have waved a Confederate flag at African-American folks at sporting events killed two police officers. Anti-Semites, some of whom have used Trump rallies as places to vocalize their anti-Semitism, have also felt empowered by Trump's campaign. Islamophobes have been egged on by the policy positions Trump has advocated, which have been based on damaging stereotypes of Muslims, Arabs, and basically anyone from the Middle East. Trump's comments on Mexicans have also incited anti-Latino/a sentiments around a number of issues.

In the midst of this I have seen people from the town in which I grew up -- both people I know and people I don't know -- voice support for Donald Trump for president. Now, I want to be clear here. This does not apply to everyone from that town. It is, as all places are, a place with diversity, including diversity of perspectives. Many folks from there will not vote for Donald Trump. Additionally, I suspect a fair number may vote for Donald Trump, but they will do so despite him. I can see, for instance, the dilemma of someone who identifies as Republican, who sees voting for the ticket as her or his interest, and thus votes for Trump hoping Trump can be contained. I find a lot wrong about the positions of the Republican party, and so I don't advocate this path anyway, but I can at least understand the rationale. I can also see how dislike of Hillary Clinton and/or how some aspects of Trump, such as his "outsider" status in relationship to government and his willingness to buck elements of the system, might seem appealing. I still find these appeals lacking, but I think I can understand those types of appeals.

Meanwhile, I see a fair amount of enthusiasm about Trump emanating from folks in the town I grew up in and places like it (as well as from, it should be noted, some places with substantial differences). It's easy to try to rationalize this as the kinds of votes for Trump I just talked about. After all, I think people often wish to think the best of the people they know. At least I've often found myself doing that. But then I think of those experiences with which I began this post, and I come to the conclusion that there's a very racist component to many of these folks' support of Trump. In some cases, it's pretty overt. In other cases, it's not so overt, and folks may believe that they are not racist, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, etc., yet they are products of racist culture -- the very racist culture in which I grew up, the one that produced the kinds of experiences I have narrated here.

I want to reiterate part of that. I grew up in it. At least since high school, I was the liberal one who talked about the Civil Rights Movement, who did things like tell my classmate not to use the n-word, and so on. Yet, even while I learned to speak up against overt racism, I still ended up with some inferentially racist ideas, many of which I didn't recognize until well into my twenties, after I moved across the country, exposed myself to new and different people and perspectives, and dove more fully into my education as I began working on my Ph.D. This is not to claim that I have rid myself of all racist ideas I learned. Anti-racism involves a dedication to being willing to reflect on oneself and one's own practices and perspectives for the rest of one's life. I am, though, suggesting that if one of the more anti-racist folks to come from such a culture has had work to do to overcome racist ideas and practices, then those who have not been so openly anti-racist surely have work to do. In the end, then, this is a call for all of us -- for folks from the town in which I grew up, but also more generally than that -- to commit to a willingness to reflect on the forms of racism that exist in our own perspectives and practices, and to commit to a willingness to change those perspectives and practices so that we do not continue to perpetuate racism. Hillary Clinton is not without fault here. There are plenty of examples of things she has said and done that have perpetuated racism. A similar case can be made for other candidates as well. Yet, Donald Trump's campaign has activated this in a much more overt and violent way. Again, among other things, his campaign has emboldened white supremacists in a way that we haven't seen for awhile. And if you like what Trump has to say, maybe you need to consider that much more fully. Perhaps you will consider that, and I thank you for that. Perhaps, though, you won't, and if that happens, then I suspect you are -- whether you know it or not -- a white supremacist.