Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Suzie Cherry Blossom (Defense of Porn: Part 2)

I spent the weekend trying to think about how I was going to approach the rest of this arc. Unlike Mike the Broken GI Joe, I hadn't done much planning.  I had come up with a couple of posts that would work, and address what it was I wanted to talk about, but they weren't really as interesting as I like my posts to be, so I scrapped.  I came to the conclusion that the point I was trying to make couldn't really be made without speaking about my past, and in particular two characters from that past leap to mind: Suzy Cherry Blossom, and Emily the Rock Star.  Today's post will be about the former; tomorrow's the latter.

Something about being young and hysterical leads one--male or female--to anime.  I can't say for certain what about it is so appealing, only that to the shy, awkward and emotional, it seems to speak to something very deep and primal.  It could be its emphasis on invariably shy, awkward lead character (typically male, but not necessarily) and the way they are invariably rewarded in life for being who they are.  I used to write entire essays on the social dynamics of Sailor Moon for college classes.  But that's not necessarily relevant to what I want to talk about it.  Suzie Cherry Blossom was anime.

We met when we were both fourteen, at a day camp for learning Japanese language and culture.  Suzie and her friend Autumn were the only other two camp-goers that were my age, and we talked a lot during our free time.  I met her when I asked if the anime-style girl she was drawing in her notebook was Sailor Moon, and she corrected me that it was someone else.  I developed a stupid, childish crush on her on the spot.  We got to talking; our parents met and took us out with our exchange students for sushi.  But Suzie never completely liked me back, and the more I persisted (as 14-year-old boys do), the more she rebuffed me.  Camp came and went, and we managed to stay in touch.  I never really lost interest: she was physically attractive, outwardly intelligent, and by introducing me to the wide world of anime, the coolest person alive.  But she was also unstable in a way I couldn't ever quiet perceive.  My continued advances weren't just being rebuffed.  Again, anime and hysteria seem to go hand in hand.  So it was that the following March, I received a rejection letter as it were, in the form of an email, telling me never to speak to her again.

I was of course as devastated as I was confused.  Suzie was my first real crush, the first attempt I had ever made to reach out to the opposite sex.  She was, oddly, very feminine and yet very assertive--aggressive even, almost.  What I remember the most about her was how juvenile she seemed to be--more comfortable her mannerisms and style if she was nine or ten rather than fourteen.  But she had energy and spunk and all of the things I liked, and I being a fourteen-year-old boy who had never done this before, had no good way of expressing those things.  It was bad.  I reached out, she closed up.  I did it again, and harder this time, she closed up even more.  But I never saw the end coming, not like that.  For it to be so cruel, so final, and so impersonal, that we couldn't even be friends.  A part of me broke that night, and splintered off, and it hasn't really been fixed or reintegrated until this past year.

I became obsessed over the years, worming my way through the internet until I'd stumbled upon her LiveJournal.  Minori, my Japanese and Buddhist teacher, also taught Suzie, and so I kept up with the latest news about her for a while.  As my problems at school grew worse, apparently so did hers.  Eventually, we both dropped out of high school in our senior year for approximately the same reason: difficulty socially, a bad match-up academically, and the stress of it all making us wilt.

Then I started acting weird.  I became obsessed with doing to others what she had done to me, even though I myself was barely aware of it.  I destroyed my relationship with what had otherwise been my greatest, most loyal friend, someone who deserved nothing of what I did to him.  It was as if Suzie had hurt me, and I believed that the way to nullify the hurt I felt was to in turn hurt someone else I cared about.  It was, in no minced words, incredibly fucked up.

What does this have to do with porn, you ask?  Everything, at least for me, and I will explain why now.  Herein lies a struggle at the core of who I am, and a frightening double-standard of gender.

At the heart of my struggles with my illness lies two basic and diametrically opposed identities.  I am, in some sense, as I was up to the age of eleven: a relatively well-behaved goodie two-shoes, feminine in appearance, interests, and skills.  I've talked a little bit about that part of my life.  I had trouble with my emotions, but that was overshadowed by my raw academic, creative, and musical talents.  I may have had trouble with the other kids, but I was liked and respected by my teachers.  I was, for the most part, passive and accepting.  My anger had little sway in the big picture.  Then I came to middle school.  The kids were brutal to me; the teachers even more so.  That feminine golden child had disappeared, and what had replaced it was a hideous hulking monstrosity who couldn't do anything right.  Anger.  Hate.  Bitterness.  Frustration.  This was what he embodied.

But the sweet feminine golden child wasn't truly gone.  She was just having an increasingly difficult time reconciling herself with the fuckup.  In time I came to know the golden child as Haley, and the fuckup as AK.  For years I wondered why it was that Suzy affected me so strongly, and so bizarrely.  I think I understand now.  Suzie was the one who sealed Haley away.  Cut off from that part of me, I could only access her through bizarre ritualistic pornography, most of which wouldn't even be considered porn by the rest of us, connected through equally strange stories I wrote to explain them.  From there, Haley broke apart into a collection of feminine identities, each a step closer to AK: Jennifer and Emma, whom I've mentioned, Rebecca (who was tamed and starred in The Academy), and Jennifer Angel (a separate entity from Jennifer the robot: rather, a combination of several of them).  That was when I truly began to dissociate.  I am still trying to reconcile these things today.

What is it about society that makes it so difficult to express these things?  This to me is where porn offers one of its greatest gifts: a (somewhat) socially acceptable context of breaking the gender norms.  Beyond just pornography, and into the realm of female dominatrices and BDSM, it is astonishing just how many people--particularly men--seem to feel the need for a service like that.  Feminism gave us something valuable: it broke the gender binary--for women.  This is what feminists mean when they talk about rejecting the Patriarchy.  But that only goes halfway, and it is feminism's failure to recognize the counterpart to that argument that I hold partly responsible for many of our society's current failures.  As virtually every feminist I talk to who makes mention of the patriarchy as she rants about how it puts women down, in the same breath makes a natural-sounding counterargument that the men all love this, because it gives them power.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Gender norms are every bit still as restrictive, self-contradictory, and harmful to men as they were to women before the sexual revolution. What makes my case unusual is that I wasn't taught to reject my femininity at an early age.  What makes it difficult is that I was given utterly no instruction or assistance in reconciling and integrating it with my masculinity.

Suzy Cherry Blossom was in many ways a highly pure manifestation of what I perceived Haley to be.  I know this, because she stood in for Haley, Jennifer, and Emma in early versions of the stories I told myself.  Her assertiveness notwithstanding, she was infantilized by her family into a perpetual 12-year-old girl, even today, and it is that image that has stuck with me the longest--about her and about Haley.  It's both difficult and sobering to talk about this all these years later (it has in fact been just over twelve years since it happened).  The ramifications of this are too long for this one post, and so I'll return to it tomorrow.  This is only one half of my point, but the post has gone on too long already.  There is a part of me that will never fully be over that email in March.  It was incredibly destructive.  But I can be at peace with it.  This is my challenge.  This is my effort.

Friday, July 22, 2011

In Defense of Porn Part 1: The Introduction

Yes, but does porn love you back?
I'd like to do a new arc now, one about sex, pornography, and gender, building off what I thought was the best post of the Mike the Broken GI Joe arc, which was about masculinity.  Talking about sex is kind of a paradox for me, because while I am disabled now, I am planning on seeking employment in the future and these are the sorts of materials online that come back to haunt people on graduate school and job applications.  So, let's start with a few ground rules.  I do not want to talk about the specifics of my sex life or my sexuality if I don't have to.  Therefore, as a general disclaimer, you can safely assume that everything I talk about here is in the hypothetical.  Second, we need to draw a couple of important distinctions.  The most important of these distinctions comes in paying for sex.  I draw a huge distinction between downloading a pornographic picture from the internet and even paying for a lap dance, and so should you.  The key difference is that there is no personal, face-to-face interaction, and thus the opportunity for harm is somewhat limited.  The second distinction has to do with legality.  This should almost go without saying, but the exploitation of minors is not just wrong, it's illegal.  So even if I talk about men being say attracted to teenage girls, there is a very big distinction between thinking this and actually acting upon it.  The former is a commonplace occurrence, the latter is a crime depending on each state's statutory rape laws.

Okay, I think that covers the ground rules.  Now let's get into the meat of this post, where I defend pornography from would-be foes on both the right and the left.

Porn has long been scorned as a moral and cultural abomination, yet few people ever stop to think about where contemporary society would be without it.  There is certainly the classic argument that it's exploitative of women, but it an age of celebrity glamour and fetish models and practicing "lifestyles" I don't know how necessarily true that is.  True, there will always be exploitation in the sex industry.  But a simple Google search for several fetishes (e.g. "schoolgirl," or "maid," or "latex"), or even simply "nude," draws up at least as many well-fed, healthy-looking women who have neither tired eyes nor dark circles and seem genuinely willing to be there.  This is not to say that every model is there entirely of their own free will, but certainly neither is pornography some universally degrading and exploitative experience for women.  In fact, it's essential that it not be.  The reason is two-fold, and has to do with two technologies that pornography helped to bring into the mainstream (as it were): home video, and the Internet.

Back in the late 70s, seeing something pornographic typically involved trekking to a seedy theater in a disreputable part of town, sitting down with your feet on a disgusting floor, and being surrounded by sketchy perverted men.  That all began to change with the invention of Betamax and VHS.  Much as we have a copyright controversy today with digital music, the home video era began with a similar public battle over whether or not it was okay to tape shows and songs on the radio.  For a while, there was a real possibility that home video may never have caught on.  Enter the pornography industry, who knew a good thing when they saw it.  By vociferously defending the right of the public to watch movies in their own home, they not only brought us the video store and the concept of movie rental, they also revolutionized our sexuality.  So many conventions about society seem held together only be collective pretense--if we don't see others doing it, we assume that they don't do it, and if nobody does something, it must be wrong.  How many times has there been bubbling weirdness simmering just beneath the facade of normality in modern American society, only to be released at the first available opportunity of free expression?  Home video did that for sex and in particular fetishism in a big way.  But that was to be eclipsed a little more than a decade later by an even greater revolution.

This was exactly what Al Gore had in mind.
Big ideas seldom work as intended.  The phonograph was originally envisioned by Thomas Edison as a means of secretaries to keep records for their bosses.  In fact, he fought against using phonographic records for music.  But his only part was to bring his invention to the market.  The market ultimately decided what the most profitable use of it was.  The internet started out as a way for academics to talk to other academics, and rapidly became the most powerful tool of self-expression ever invented.  I was on the internet since about 1990.  I remember what it was like.  And I remember what society was like, even though I was only six years old.  Over the course of my life, I've watched that completely change.

What pornography did was give the average person on the street a reason to be online.  I highly doubt eCommerce would have been the resounding success it was without it.  Here at last, gays, lesbians, and the transgendered, many of whom were isolated, had a way of connecting with other like-minded individuals, overcoming geography and local hostility.  Fetishists too could for the first time connect with other fetishists.  Internet porn's effect on our sexuality was as total as it was rapid.  I hold it largely responsible for taking LGBT rights mainstream.  Every weird kink and quirk now had its own community, and people could see for the first time that they were not alone.  Porn had become mainstream almost overnight, taking with it acceptance of sexual orientation and alternative lifestyles such as BDSM.  We were, as we discovered an incredibly kinky nation of small-scale closet perverts.  And because of porn's early investment, the Internet took off, and brings us everything we take for granted today such as Google, Facebook, and smartphones.

I haven't met someone who was opposed to pornography who wasn't also opposed to sex in principle. This position is more common among feminists than conservatives (many of whom research shows oppose it publicly but privately are some of porn's greatest consumers).  Acceptance of sexuality has become in this era an acceptance of pornography as an expression of said sexuality.  There is, however, a frightening double-standard in place, particularly in the way women view men.  I will fully admit that I both own and view porn on a regular basis, even in my relationship with Kari.  Porn was, like for many people, among my sole means of expressing myself sexually for a long time in my life, and that has simply become a rite of passage for males in this society.  Moreover, porn was educational, and helped clarify many things about sex for me.  But there is still a stigma attached to this, and it has come into play in my life more than once.  This post has gone on long enough already.  There are so many things I want to talk about on this subject, and it's fully deserving of its own arc.  Let this post serve as an introduction, then.  I will leave no stone unturned, no kink left out, and no popularly-held conception erm, unconceived.  Sex is an important part of life, and porn is an important part of sex.  So let it all be said--in defense of porn.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Quickie on Casey Anthony and Public Tragedies

The number one threat to America
(After bears, of course).
Casey Anthony is going to be released from jail tomorrow, and public hysteria shows no signs of abating over her acquittal.  I have no particular vested stake in her innocence or guilt; my gut says she's guilty, but in a court of law, particularly when the death penalty is on the table, it is imperative that the defendant's guilt be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and the prosecution in this case failed to do that.  There has been a lot of disgust directed towards Ms. Anthony, and not necessarily without reason.  She certainly didn't come out looking good.  But longtime readers know I am always skeptical of public hysteria, and as the article linked above cites, threats are beginning to be leveled against the jurors who acquitted her, which to me crosses an important line.  This will be a short post, but here are my observations.

I paid careful attention to who among my social networks was following the case.  Overwhelmingly, they were politically conservative females, many of whom were also either overweight or grossly out of shape, and many of whom were also young mothers whose pregnancies were not planned.  Indeed, most of the public commentary journalists have managed to acquire would seem to come from this particular demographic, though without hard data (like a poll or a survey), I can't say that conclusively.  The people who seemed to be the most moved and/or agitated by the case also tended to watch a lot of television, in particular partisan cable news and highly emotional crime shows (such as the ubiquitous Nancy Grace and networks like TruTV).  These shows and networks overwhelmingly appeal to viewer's emotions and gut instincts, and should Ms. Anthony's safety be challenged (either by physical violence or credible threats of such), it will be these media outlets and television personalities who I hold responsible.

The Casey Anthony trial is a curious case where what we think and feel give us two different answers.  Again, the gut instinct and a cursory look at the case practically scream that she's guilty.  However a closer examination of the evidence shows that it's largely circumstantial and somewhat underwhelming as evidence in a court of law, particularly in a death penalty case.  But that wasn't what we were told by the media.  We were given a highly hysterical, highly emotional zeitgeist that told us what we felt was more important than what we thought or even what we saw.  The trial did not have to be framed this way.  The media abdicated its responsibility to inform the public once again in exchange for the publicity highly histrionic sensationalism would produce.  Whether we would still have credible death threats against the jurors in the case without it, I don't know, but the media and opinion-makers, particularly the partisan ones, certainly did nothing to dissuade the behavior, and in many cases (such as Ms. Grace), openly encouraged it.  Thus, though the individuals who may make threats and/or potentially carry them out in the future should be held accountable for their individual actions, the people responsible for framing the argument and the reaction must also share the blame.

Lest you think that I believe this is anything new, I don't, but that doesn't make it any less true or any less wrong.  Implementing any change would take time (at least a generation) to work, and while that may or may not happen, I don't exactly see us starting tomorrow.  Of more interest to me is what leads someone to feel this way, and for that feeling to override their ability to reason.  We live in a society that affords us little opportunity to seek meaning in our lives, and so we try to replace it by acquiring physical possessions and following the lives of others who seem to be more meaningful than ours.  We use celebrities to build ourselves up, both by drama of their lives that ours may lack and by how we feel better in comparison when the public figures we idolize prove to be just as fallible, imperfect, and human as us.  Televised sports provide excitement where we'd otherwise have none; a surrogate for the human connection we crave.  Yet we have no control over these things, and so it only reinforces our feeling of emptiness, which to me seems like one of the reasons why the public backlash against Ms. Anthony's acquittal has been so fierce.  I have no doubt that a conviction would have been very cathartic for those OCFs (overweight conservative females) in my social networks and throughout the media--a validation of themselves and the choices they made.  But we didn't get that, and so we're left feeling angry and empty.

In many ways, then, this is a tragedy beyond just Ms. Anthony, her life, and the death of her child.  It's a reminder to all of us of just how little we seem to have.  I would hope that if there is a silver lining to this case, that it provokes in someone, somewhere, some kind of serious introspection, and that introspection can lead to awareness and some form of acceptance.  Maybe then some good will come of it.  Until then, a tragedy it will remain, for everyone involved.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Broken Action Figures

So here I come to the conclusion of Mike the Broken GI Joe.  There is just one last part of him I have yet to fully account for, and it's not only the most important, it ties the rest of his arc together.  Mike is in many ways a reflection of people I see every day, and things that we all experience but could never fully understand.  It has to do with empathy and compassion, the conditions we place on both, and even the lack thereof.  Because compassion was the puzzle piece missing from Mike.  Whether he once had it and lost it or never knew it to begin with, I don't know.  But he was as sick as our society for want of it, and if there is one thing that can cure the problems that we face, it's that.

In one of the last conversations I ever had with Mike, he explained to me the reasoning behind his complete and utter lack of empathy towards anyone who was not either exactly like him or a direct relation.  The world had been ruined by others, he had been wronged by others, he could never go back to the way things were when he was younger and more innocent, and he bore utterly no responsibility for any of it.  I had thought it was purely and simply hate, but hate has never been an emotion that ever existed by itself.  Hate requires something to precede it--more often than not anger or fear.  What every self-proclaimed liberal or Democrat I talked to since Obama was elected failed to grasp was that it was the fear of those not like oneself that powered the Tea Party.  Fear of Muslims, fear of gays, fear of liberals, fear of Latinos, hipsters, atheists, China, whatever else you want to throw at it.  It was class resentment, from people like Mike who came from working class backgrounds and never got a fair chance in life, who were conditioned from birth never to ask for help, and to look down on those who do, and because of this have concluded that it's every man for themselves.  Mike's way out of poverty was the Marines, which took a violent, vicious, brutal man and by way of ending his innocence hammered him into a productive member of the economy, if not society.  All Mike ever knew was pain, misery, fear, and insecurity.  I can't hate him.  I pity him.  He was scared of his own shadow, and not necessarily without good reason.

What Mike feared most of all, however, was change.  Change for Mike almost always meant change for the worse.  Think about what that does to a person over the course of 30-40 years.  From promise to disappointment to bitterness to just struggling to survive.  Mike never found love, he hardly ever dated, and sex meant whatever he could get taking someone home from a club.  He was, for all intents and purposes, all alone in the world.  Whether or not that was his own damn fault is irrelevant to the point.  The effect of all this on a person is what matters, and over the ten years I knew him, I watched it devastate him.

If there has been any one theme in postwar America, it has been the urge to run away.  Run away first from poverty, crime, and dirtiness, and when that failed run away from responsibility.  It's hard to blame us: when you have access to wealth and means to rid yourself of unsightliness largely free of consequence, you'll take it every time no matter however you justify it.  Please try to understand that I am not faulting suburbs and malls here.  They are a product of circumstances, an efficient solution to a complex problem of transportation and economics, and have produced a great deal of wealth.  But rushing off to the suburban dream comes with unintended consequences, and it is largely those consequences that we are dealing with now, for a very specific reason.  I am talking about fear, and specifically the fear of those unlike yourself.  I have heard this called Blogger Syndrome, groupthink, and many other names, but for the purposes of this post, let's define it.  Whenever you are surrounded by people with whom you agree, you will become very resentful of those who do not.  That's one component.  The other--functional illiteracy--I have already talked about copiously in previous Mike the Broken GI Joe posts.  Combined, they are a recipe for disaster.  The truth of the matter is, affluent middle class liberals and Democrats have hardly ever met working-class conservatives, and when they do, it is often in the form of the latter performing a service for the former.  The only people willing to talk to these people and listen to them are wealthy conservatives, who arrive with an agenda and have discovered they can gain a lot of power by manipulating and misinforming them and playing to their fear and resentment.  What else was Glenn Beck but the ultimate huckster of fear?  That is the dilemma.

I have until now listed a lot of problems with society at large that I felt Mike embodied.  These are not simple issues, and these posts have a been a welcome meditation on them.  There is a solution, but I don't know how practical or likely it is, and there's always a problem of scaling.  I don't hate Mike.  I regret that I had to cut ties with him, because in the end, he's taught me so much.  I'm not going to sit here and pretend that we never had these problems at some point in the past, and that things used to be better.  Things are, as bleak as they seem right now, better than they've ever been.  I truly believe that.  Many accuse me of being naive when I say this, but I also truly believe in the innate goodness of mankind.  We live in a time when those who scream the loudest are awarded the power.  The internet has given us a wealth of knowledge and conveniences, but also a wealth of misinformation and competing realities.  Television in this day and age is much the same.  We're not listening to each other.  We're all just shouting over one another.  We have no interest in the people who fix our cars, check us out at the grocery store, and clean our homes.  The people who do these things fear and resent us for it.  But it doesn't have to be this way.

My fiancee's parents' downstairs bathroom is wallpapered in a repeating set of catch phrases and cliches.  Most of them I find I can agree with, but there is one I simply cannot abide.  It reads: "Don't tell others about your indigestion.  'How are you?' is a greeting, not a question."  I think the phrase "How are you?" can and must be a question.  It's the only way we'll ever be able to find any empathy for strangers, people who may or may not be like us.  We pass strangers on the street and in the supermarket and the drug store and the bank, the mall, the movie theater, our waiter in a restaurant, the girl who serves us coffee and we never give them a second thought.  They are functionally objects to us.  But each one of those myriad faces you see, judge, and subsequently forget about day in and day out is a person just like you, with their own hopes, dreams, crushing disappointments, anger, fear, and hope.  Mike was broken because he either could not or would not see it that way.  Because his reaction to that was so extreme, he is a useful example of what can go wrong when we give up on humanity.  Luckily, the solution is not hard.  I have won over fans of my work and friends alike simply by wanting to know something more about the person who waits on me or the clerk who checks me out buying groceries or medicine or both.  More importantly, it makes doing these things fun.  It literally takes so little effort, and it brightens both their day and yours.

I'm not asking that we give up our basic human nature.  In fact, I would say that I've argued just the opposite.  But if we're stuck with it, we may as well understand it and use it to help ourselves--and others.  It would be a terrible waste to ignore it, or worse, use it to destructive ends.  We lost when we turned away from each other.  I have much more to say on this, but this post is already long enough, so I'll leave it at this for now.  This is the core of what I've come to realize over my struggles in the past two years, and I want to return to it again and again.  Mike to me is a tragedy that's everybody's fault.  I have done all these things that Mike did myself, and so has everyone else.  No one asks us to deny ourselves these feelings, but we should at least be aware of them and act accordingly.  Doing so is so simple, it's often overlooked in favor of far more arduous and complicated alternatives.  But doing so also forces us to acknowledge who we are, good and bad, and that is very difficult.  I don't count myself lucky or consider myself special that I've been able to come as far as I had this way.  That's just how things have worked out.  If any part of the process changed, the outcome would have been different.  Mike was another way it could have ended.

I don't know what happened to Mike.  I wonder what he'll do with himself a year from now, two, ten.  Things weren't looking good the last I heard from him.  I hope that he finds some kind of peace and release from his fear, but the truth is I just don't know.  Part of me doesn't want to know, either.  If that's the way it is, so be it.  I'm at peace with it.  He was a good friend and a troubled man, whose influence over me was seldom eclipsed.  He's neither good nor bad, he's just Mike, a broken GI Joe of a man.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Is That Porn In Your Congress? That's So Hot

It's time we were frank about porn.  When I get down to it, pornography has a lot to do with Mike, America, and everything I've talked about over the past week and a half.  I am an avid defender of porn.  The pornography industry single-handedly blazed the trail for us to watch home videos and surf the web, it's one of the only things standing between us and the trampling of our first amendment rights, and it made fetishism okay in society at large.  But what is porn, really?  Sexually explicit photographs and video?  Or is it something more?  This herein is an important caveat I have to make when I talk about porn.  Because there is far more to porn than just Bianca Beauchamp in latex or Ron Jeremy doing it to a bass solo.  Still reading this?  Haven't run away screaming?  Good.  This is the story of a very interesting realization.

I am obsessed with fetishism.  I don't mean this necessarily that I'm a big fetishist--like most men, I do have fetishes, but to think of it solely in a sexual context is to miss the big picture.  As strange as it sounds, whenever I read the news, especially about politics, what I see is fetish porn.

I think it would help for me to define pornography before I continue, and this is a trickier thing to do than you might think.  There is no real legal definition, just as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said "I know it when I see it."  It is indeed a very blurry line.  To me, however, porn has always been about the glorification of something for its own sake. This is a pretty broad definition, and it manages to encompass really any idea you can think of, not just sex.  Under this definition, something like Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ could qualify, or really any of the movies he produced, such as The Patriot, Braveheart, or Apocalypto.  In fact, this may be a useful example, because when I read Mike's self-published book, I was instantly reminded of a Mel Gibson movie.  I draw heavily here from a chapter in Max Blumenthal's Republican Gommorah (one of the very few examples of quality and informative partisan non-fiction), which details the rise and fall for the Christian Conservative movement, along with the rise of the Tea Party.  The general thesis of the book is that the dysfunction of conservative Christian politicians reflects a personal dysfunction of the Christian Right in general, especially as it regards to personal repression, denialism, and unwitting hypocrisy and self-contradiction.  Like with any partisan book, it's important to take its more political statements with a grain of salt and focus on the reporting, but a large section on the Evangelical Men's Movement of the 2000s, and in particular the works of Mel Gibson and Ted Haggard struck a chord with me, which directly influences my post here.  The important takeaway is that both offered a particularly rigid and self-contradictary definition of masculinity, one that glorified self-annihilation, violence, and dominance for its own sake, and in the process unwittingly glorified male homosexuality.  Anybody who has seen any of these Mel Gibson movies should have a fair idea of what Mr. Blumenthal and I mean.

The key point of the key point, then, is glorification for its own sake.  Particularly that last part: for its own sake.  This is what I think of when I think of Mike, and when I think of conservatives and a good deal of the issues currently being bandied about in Congress and in the news media.  Conservative Christians are very obviously fixated on the opposition to homosexuality, abortion, evolution, and science in general.  I've spoken with a number of Evangelicals both old and young about this.  It's almost as if voting a certain way has superceded Christ.  But think about that for a second.  It actually seems kind of odd, doesn't it?  In the whole wide world of Christendom, with such a rich body of history, tradition, theology, practice, and even emotion, why those very oddly specific issues?  Or take the fiscal conservative fixation on marginal tax rates.  By any definition it's a relatively narrow issue, and part of a much larger picture.  Climate change denialism, too.  And if you add them up, the pieces don't really fit together all that well.  In the Christian case, the emphasis on the traditional family takes us back to the cultural values of a papered-over and imaginary version of the 1950s, whereas the fiscal position fits very well with someone interested in short-term profits and making a quick buck.  But again, that seems very narrowly specific--unnecessarily so.  More importantly, each belief becomes self-reinforcing for its own sake, and largely to the exclusion of anything else.  By my definition, that would seem to be a fetish.  More than that, it's a fetishistic obsession.

Before you make any prejudgments, however, I shoulds say that I am no stranger to fetishistic obsession.  I have gotten lost in the details of both my own sexuality before, not to mention the details of many other things, like politics, anger, even my own religion.  It's interesting to see how much of that rigid, dysfunctional male ideal Mike embodied, despite not being Christian.  Scientists now say that cognitive dissonance isn't real--that would imply that the human mind is integrated in the first place.  I don't think one needs to eliminate the concept just because the mind is compartmentalized.  In fact, that compartmentalization may in fact lead to the dysfunction.  It's sort of like the character Dr. Strangelove from the Stanley Kubrick movie of the same name.  His hand has a mind of its own, and doesn't always do what he (his brain) wants.  We may be made up of modules, but those modules interact with the outside world as one body and one mind.  If anything, that makes the suffering of misinformation greater, not less.  Mike truly could not cope with the world in which he lived, and it created in him a specific combination of fetishistic fixations.

To conclude my point, there is nothing inherently wrong with this, but it does come with a downside.  The inability to distinguish between your fetish (be it sexual, political, religious, or otherwise) and your beliefs can leave you very vulnerable to misinformation and cause you to draw disastrously wrong conclusions.  If you're fitting your observations to your beliefs and not vice-versa, you're going to miss the truth.  This is a real problem, and not one with a ready solution.  Thanks to the internet, you can have whatever you believe validated with the click of a mouse, no matter how extreme.  We surround ourselves with people who think and act exactly like we do and agree with everything that we say, and make no effort to challenge ourselves and our ideas with outsiders, all while complaining viciously about vaguely personal forces that oppose us, even though we've probably never encountered one of those in person before.  But this way--the pornographic way--is easier, and so we'll choose it every time.  It sucks, but we haven't developed the mechanism to discriminate just yet, let alone teach it to our children.  However, as bad as things are now, I have no doubt that we'll get there.  I can already see the beginnings of it.  We can all do our part by simply stopping to think about what it is we're consuming, what it means to us, and how it fits in the big picture.  It's not hard to do, it just doesn't come naturally to most people.  But we can do it.  I have faith.  We just need a little practice.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Label Me

If there was one thing Mike loved to do, it was label things.  Even before his descent into paranoid quasi-madness, he was always quick to identify the good guys and the bad guys, and everybody was either one or the other.  I haven't met a man or woman alive who didn't in some way use labels to identify themselves: introvert, extrovert, feeler, thinker, progressive, conservative, goth, punk, jock, prep, vegan, anarchist, Christian, lesbian...the list goes on.  In the concluding chapter of his rather apocalyptic book of cultural and political commentary Deer Hunting With Jesus, Joe Bageant laments the fact that we have all these props at our disposal with which to construct our identity as limiters upon them.  I don't know if that's true or not, but it's certain that if there are advantages conferred by them, there are also unintended consequences.  This post is an attempt to in some way explain the way these labels work, for better or worse.

I should start by talking a little bit about myself.  I have never dealt well with labels.  This is not me proclaiming myself a unique snowflake; being unique is unimportant to me.  Nor is this post in any way an attempt to claim any moral superiority.  I am the way I am because I am the product of my experiences.  That confers neither superiority nor inferiority.  It simply is what it is.  I have, however, struggled with this, mostly in my relationship to other people.  It is true that in the past 100 years, our society has grown exponentially more complex, and the amount of information available to us today is so much greater than to someone 100 years ago that I doubt an adult from that era could even make sense of our world as it is now.  Joe Bageant speaks of a time before all this as some sort of utopian ideal, when we were free to be whoever we want, but I don't know if that's really accurate.  Looking historically, if anything, the lack of access to these identifier props seems to have been a limiting factor, not a helpful one.  What were my options in 1910s New Hampshire?  Not many.  But today when I walk down the street with my hair down in a t-shirt and jeans, I am more or less identified for what I am (though of course a quick visual observation will miss the nuances), rather than some sort of deviant.  Every Christian I know certainly draws a lot of security from that label: at least as much as from their faith itself.  There is nothing wrong or illegitimate about it.  In fact, I think one could even make the argument that it's necessary.  Bombarded as we are with advertising, news, and entertainment, how could we even make sense of what we perceive without in some way labeling ourselves?  We couldn't.  No, labels themselves aren't the problem.  But there is a definite downside, and this is really the heart of the matter.

Mike is not alone in his dichotomous thinking.  In fact, I'm hard pressed to name even a single friend or acquaintance who doesn't in some way engage in this.  My Buddhist religion teaches that this dichotomy is an illusion -- a form of ignorance that prevents me from becoming enlightened.  But that simple statement belies just how difficult it is to break free from that mode of thought.  So let's examine that way of thinking a little bit closer and see just where the problem lies.

Whenever I talk philosophy, or even really politics, one particular dichotomy always seems to come up: thoughts versus feelings.  Time and again I've been told that someone is a feeler and not a thinker, as if that somehow made them any different from me or any other human.  I've heard many times that feeling things is better than thinking them.  Jon Stewart likes to lament this when talking with scientists and other skeptics on The Daily Show.  It does indeed seem to be a difficlut conundrum.  But how true is it really: that feeling things is better than thinking them, or that there is even necessarily a difference between the two?

I think it's no secret that I feel things very strongly.  My capacity to feel emotions is every bit as great as my struggles with them, and if that were the end of it, I wouldn't be writing this post.  Emotions by themselves are largely useless without an ability to understand them.  After all, if you can't explain why you feel a certain way, what hope do you have of controlling your life?  Which is not to say that most people do this--they don't.  I certainly was beholden to my feelings for most of my life, cripplingly so.  The way out was to see them for what they really were--in all their subtlety, nuance, and complexity, and think about them.  We believe that thinking and feeling are two diametrically opposed philosophies.  In fact, one cannot exist without the other.  It's like chemistry: certain combinations produce certain reactions and results.  Thoughts and feelings are two sides of the same coin.  Trusting one to the exclusion of the other is not only dangerous, it's an outright recipe for disaster.  And that is part of what makes politics and religion so maddening in this country sometimes.  There is great precedent for this dilemma throughout American history, going all the way back to the Second Great Awakening of the 1800s and even earlier.  After all what were the New Deal, the paranoia of the 1950s, the culture shocks of the 60s and 70s, the modern conservative movement, the so-called culture wars of the past thirty years, and the Tea Party but visceral emotional reactions to changing circumstances in the world at large?  At the same time, the rational skeptics, the intellectuals, and the scientists grow further disconnected from the seething masses, and that vital line of communication begins to break down, making public policy more and more dysfunctional.  We believe anything that feels right to us, especially if the rational evidence is counterintuitive.  To that end, our illiteracy is killing us--figuratively in our dysfunctional social policy, and literally in the case of vaccine denialism and wholistic medicine.

I don't have a ready solution to this.  I only attained the level of understanding that I did because of a very specific set of circumstances.  Mike was emblematic of a very typical kind of American: emotionally adolescent, not quite self-aware enough to recognize the cause of his problems, publicly immature, and much more keen to trust his gut instinct than his intellect regardless of what he may have believed.  At the same time, swinging all the way over to the other side and trusting your thoughts to the exclusion of your emotions like Nick the Magic Unicorn does doesn't work either.  Sure, you may have a more accurate picture of what's going on in a broad sense, but you're still missing the details, and forget about trying to connect and communicate with someone who isn't exactly like you.  It's up to us as individuals to find the balance and discover our own particular formulas for looking at things the way they are, rather than how they feel to us or what we think alone.  This is not a problem endemic to any one gender, subculture, religion, or group.  We need to grow up, and quickly.

You might be wondering now if I'm predicting doom and despair for America as a result of all this.  I am not one of those people.  We humans almost always rise to the occasion when faced with these sorts of dilemmas, and modernity removes most of the restrictions on recovering from such crises.  We have solutions in hand, but putting them into practice is risky and takes what we perceive to be a leap of faith.  I'll end this post with a note of hope, in that as I see it, we're already starting to make that leap.  This is a difficult problem, but not an insurmountable one.

There is a lot more that I want to say on this subject, more than I can fit into one post.  This narrative is far from finished, and so I'll save the rest for another day.  But the next time you're upset about politics, try and stop and think about what you're feeling.  You may not learn anything new and keep right on feeling what you were before.  But you might not.  The chance, however slim, is more than worth it.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Feeling Special

When I get right down to it, all Mike ever wanted was to feel special.  Special is a very, well, special word in our society these days.  From pop songs to self-help books, individual conversations I've had, and my own introspection, it's a very charged subject, and a very emotional one as well.  This guy certainly seems to think so.  I had originally planned this post to talk about Mike and his relationship with partisan talk shows, but as my week has progressed, I find this post has evolved into something a little bit more.  I had a friend link me that particular video, very excited about its message.  There is nothing illegitimate about it, certainly.  However, if self-esteem is limited to feel-good catchphrases and mix-and-match prepackaged identifiers, it is also missing the point.  Self-acceptance without introspection and self-reflection is ultimately meaningless, and potentially dangerous.  So consider this post to be about two things: a post about self-esteem, and a response to how Mike formed his identity.

I dislike any and all philosophies and intellectual movements that were born out of the 1960s for a very specific reason.  In the 1960s, it was very popular to believe that mankind had no inherent nature: that we were all essentially blank slates that life could mold into whatever we wanted.  I believe that that concept is fundamentally flawed.  As any keen observer would note from the past 30 years of our history, mankind does have a very definite innate nature, and that nature often comes into conflict with the civilization we have built.  Certainly, though, it would also be unfair to dismiss this belief outright without first putting it into context.  The previous model had been the other extreme: biological determinism, which gaves rise to eugenics and such horrors as the Holocaust.  The 1950s and early 60s were also the era of Dr. Spock and Carl Rogers, who emphasized nurture over nature, and it was perfectly reasonable to theorize about the other end of the nature/nurture continuum.  The only mistake was to take it too far.  Reality is very seldom one extreme or the other.  It's almost always somewhere in-between or failing that some combination of the two.  But the idea that man is without an inherent nature is also a very dangerous concept -- equally dangerous to the model that it replaced.  Here's why.  If man has no nature, then fact becomes completely subjective.  No one piece of evidence can ever be considered "truth" to the eye of a believer, because there is no basis of measuring it against anything else.  If that's the case, then evidence and proof themselves become meaningless as concepts: it is simply whatever you believe.  And if we humans are good at anything, we'll believe anything we like so long as it validates us and feels good if we get the chance.

Hopefully you can see where I'm going with this.  Despite initially conferring some significant benefits (civil rights, the sexual revolution, women's rights, etc), it also created many of the forms of denialism we now suffer from in our society (science denialism -- specifically climate change denial, vaccine denial, the organic food movement; economic denialism -- modern conservatism's fetishistic obsession with marginal tax rates over all else; and social denialism -- the Evangelical obsession with sexual morality).  And before you accuse me of making this a political argument, this is a problem that cuts across all spheres of political orientation, though I will concede that I believe it is stronger in some than in others.

This makes Mike a fascinating case study.  Mike wore the mantle of "conservative" like a magic cloak: at once a suit of armor and a protective sword with which he could face the world.  Mike however was not a Christian.  Far from it, in fact.  He was an avowed atheist and a self-proclaimed proponent of science.  The science he believed in, however, was completely beholden to the ideology of his conservatism.  Thus, while he blogged on Facebook about Mars rovers and astronomy, homosexuality was a lifestyle choice, and carbon dioxide was not a greenhouse gas.  If humans are good at another thing, it's selectively ignoring the evidence that faces them to support their beliefs.  This is a real problem.  In order to fully explain it, let's turn our attention back to that video at the top of the post.

I am often praised as being "special" or "unique" or "gifted," etc.  However, I try to take all of these labels with a grain of salt.  I did not always, and I wrapped myself up in them just as Mike wore his conservatism.  So let's follow that logic to its conclusion.  I'm special.  All throughout my childhood I was told that I was going to go on and do great things, like cure cancer or invent a quantum computer.  I still might, but sufficed to say, it hasn't happened yet.  But I'm special.  I just have to cure cancer or invent a quantum computer.  I just have to write a book and get it published.  So what happens when I don't?  Mike was very concerned about this, at least as concerned as I have been at various stages in my life.  But what exactly is success?  Can we even quantify it?  Or define it, for that matter?  If it's a subjective measure, one of two things will happen: either we'll meet our goal (however realistic or unrealistic) and then after the initial high wears off we'll go right back to wanting bigger or brighter things.  That is, unless we fail, in which case we feel incredibly disappointed.  Our disappointment either leaves us bitter, or we counter it by coming up with reasons why, all of which seem only to self-validate us and miss the point.  After all, we deserved it.  The logic begins to break down.  The truth of the matter is, there is nothing that dictates something HAS to happen, at least as far as human life is concerned.  We're born, we grow old, we get sick, and we die.  These are the only certainties in life.  We are beholden to a biological body and a brain that was designed to be a hunter-gatherer, and it trips us up.  So you can call yourself special.  What does it get you?  Just a false expectation.

Now you're probably saying to yourself "Oh, now he's being one of those negative 'get over yourselves' cynics."  That would be true if I were then going on to say that that meant we shouldn't have hopes and dreams, and aspire to greatness.  You'll notice I very carefully did not.  I might become world-famous.  I might not.  Disconnecting yourself from the need allows you to want all you desire.  But there's no expectation or subsequent disappointment or letdown.  Things are what they are, for better or worse.  Really whether you're a conservative, a Christian, a hippie, a Buddhist, old, young, one or more or all of these things, the principle is the same.  Self-acceptance is perhaps the most deceptively simple idea mankind ever came up with.  What good is belief if you can't question it?  What good is self-esteem if you don't truly know yourself?  You'll fall right back into those two traps again and again.

I suppose then that this was Mike's truly fatal flaw.  He couldn't question himself.  There is a lot of talk of people being irrational these days.  I don't think that's entirely accurate.  Most people are perfectly rational on a functional level given what they know.  However, many people are either uninformed or worse yet, misinformed.  Logic and reason are only as good as the evidence that supports them.  But neither is the solution to throw logic out the window.  We make the best decisions we can based upon the information available to us.  Humans crave certainty, but there is very little to go around, save for birth, ageing, sickness, and death.  These are not very palatable for most of us.  So we search for deep and concrete meaning everywhere we look.  This produces both tremendous good and tremendous damage.  I can't label it wrong, because the good and the bad are two sides of the same coin.  One could not exist without the other.  So it becomes the central paradox of life: we were meant to search, but the end of the search is the realization and acceptance that there's nothing to search for.  Most people die still desperately searching.  We do great things in the name of this search, and commit terrible crimes.  The search is who we are.  But like with everything, there's an upside and a downside.

So to bring this back to the beginning, are we special?  Well, if we are, so is everyone else.  But if everyone is special, what does special mean, exactly?  We wear our identities as a way of feeling unique, but if everyone is unique, then we're essentially all the same.  I personally prefer to avoid the argument altogether.  I am what I am.  Trying to assign a label or an expectation to myself only hurt me in the end, and hurt a lot of other people too in the process.  You have to search for a very long time to figure that out.  It can't be taught.  So in conclusion, I'd say keep searching.  It's the journey that makes our lives meaningful.  But try to remember how the search ends, and keep it in mind.  Maybe you won't get what you want, but you'll feel better in the end.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Manly Man is Manly

Perhaps nothing about Mike the Broken GI Joe was so noticeable as his masculinity.  Mike was in many ways the masculine ideal put forth by our society.  Before I go on, a few disclaimers about this post.  One, this post isn't really about him so much as it is about me.  Two, (and I really hope you haven't closed the window in disgust yet at the words "masculine ideal") this isn't some sort of horseshit gender theory treatise.  If you want gender theory, you can read a book by CJ Wilson any day of the week (who incidentally isn't bad, if a little biased towards feminism).  Three, I have yet to meet a single guy (myself included) who was very comfortable talking about this.  Clearly this is a sensitive topic, but one that must be addressed for my narrative to continue.

Still reading?  Good.

I have long had a difficult relationship with my manliness.  My mother was a sex-negative radical feminist who really wanted a daughter, and when I turned out to be a boy, she intentionally tried to raise me without gender roles.  At the same time, she often refused to socialize me at a young age, and following a series of coincidences, I wound up thrust into a predominantly blue-collar Italian-American neighborhood on Long Island to start kindergarten.  My relationship with my mother deserves an arc of its own, and so I'm not really going to comment on it beyond what I've already said.  More important to this post is how I got along at school, which was not very well.

I have always struggled with my emotions.  I have Bipolar Disorder and a long history of both Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and dissociative phenomena.  I feel things very strongly, often overwhelmingly so.  Compounding this, my parents made little or no effort to teach me how to regulate my emotions as part of their raising me.  This was not without benefits, by the way, and I can't exactly fault them for it because it is an important part of who I am now, but it also did come with significant drawbacks.  Crying was rewarded in my home.  This is a real problem in a rough-and-tumble school system.  Again, don't get the impression that I think this was wrong or even really disagree with it, at least not totally.  It solved a lot of problems, but caused a lot of others.  This is not really the skillset one needs to grow and adapt socially through childhood and going into adolescence.  I fell behind.  I was a wuss.  I cried in public over bullying and teasing.  I could be pushed, and I'd snap and lose control.  It was actually a testament to my classmates and friends that it didn't go further than it did, at least until I graduated to middle school.  By the time I was in the sixth grade, however, I was not just a faggot, I was THE faggot.  The word was carved into my locker repeatedly.  I was spat on.  Every time I was punched or thrown against a locker served to further disconnect me from reality.  I grew paranoid.  I grew suicidal.  There was talk of pulling me out of school.  Then, just as it was all entering its crest, we moved out of state the following summer.  But the damage had largely been done.  I don't think I fully recovered from it until my twenties.

Whether it was the dissociation, my mother's influence, some other part of my illness or experience, it was hard to consider myself masculine after that.  Then my body began to change.  I was freakishly skinny and effeminate as a child.  I was frequently mistaken for a girl, even with short hair.  Then, in the summer before the eighth grade, my body very suddenly became very broad.  Compounding this, I was put on a medication that caused me to gain a lot of weight.  I went from 86 lbs to 195 in only two years.  Since I got so little exercise, it was almost entirely fat, not to mention that it was all out of proportion given my pubescence.  In my mind, however, I still felt like I should be skinny and effeminate.  This was about when Jennifer and the alter who would become Emma started to separate from me, which only made things worse.  I had been raised to be an intellectual; brainy, and now my illness was taking even that away from me.  I'd lock myself in my room all day and live my life through my computer.  It was really only when I started writing in earnest when I was sixteen that I finally found an outlet, and even that was an expression of my femininity far more than it was my masculinity.

All of this sort of makes me wonder what exactly it is that men are trying to be.  The boys I grew up with, and most boys in general, I've gathered, were very focused on destruction.  It's a compulsion towards violence, something very primal, and reinforced by society.  Whether it was nature or nurture, I never shared it.  This actually caused a noticeable change in the way my teachers treated me, consistently lumping me in with the girls instead.  The girls policed this too.  So this is not just limited to men.  Where I grew up, physicality was everything.  You were masculine based upon what your body could do, and how dirty you got in the process.  The dumber you were, the cooler you'd be, it seemed.  In their documentary The Merchants of Cool, Frontline labeled this character the Mook.  They cited Tom Green of turn-of-the-century MTV fame as a shining example.  My friends' favorites were Opie and Anthony on the radio (first  on WAAF in Boston and later on Sirius Satellite Radio).  For girls, the same documentary offered The Midriff (epitomized by Britney Spears), but girls always seemed to have an easier time breaking that mold than boys did theirs.  Give modern feminism a lot of credit: it works.  It is regrettable that what few attempts there have been to do this for boys (such as my mother's) garnered mixed results at best, if not an abject failure.

I never really grew comfortable with my body until very recently.  Going from so skinny to so overweight (and ballooning back and forth a few more times similarly, first because of medication again and later due to an eating disorder) made it very difficult for me to be aware of my own body.  Part of my walking meditation has evolved into teaching myself about my body and what it can do.  As my relationship with my body changes, my sense of masculinity changes as well.  But there's more to it than that, of course.

There is also a requisite rigidity that I notice in all my more masculine friends, this kind of self-reinforcing refusal to compromise.  A harsh and highly compartmentalized system of judging others, as well.  The only thing that can seem to truly overcome it is shyness.  In the media, and even in books, heterosexual men are so often portrayed with these strictly hierarchical world views, and the more egalitarian men are almost always portrayed as homosexual, submissive, or in some other way not masculine.  These concepts become as self-reinforcing as the rigidity, especially in group situations.   I highly dislike hanging out in large groups of other men for that very reason.  Yet there has seemingly been little or no attempt to study this phenomenon, let alone make an effort to change it.  Male college attendance lags far behind females, and boys' high school grades are very often much lower than their female counterparts.  The male response in government and in society seems to be to try and subjugate women as much as possible in order to force things back to the way they used to be, but that's no more of a solution than throwing a hissy fit: the legislative equivalent of running around with your hair on fire. There can be no self-reflection, because self-reflection is a supposedly feminine trait.  Emotions are the enemy: a sign of weakness.  Not only that, society's expectations of men haven't changed.  In fact, there exists a frightening double-standard these days.  Men are supposed to provide and be mature and all of these things they used to be, but women seem to want to have it both ways: the benefits of this system without the responsibilities.  One of feminism's great failings is its failure to address this.  If you ever wondered why men feel so threatened by homosexuality, this paragraph contains all the answers you'll need.

So where does that leave me?  To be honest, I'm not sure.  Emotional mastery should be the goal in life, not emotional denial.  To that end, I think I've succeeded.  I can see my body for what it is now, and it can do lots of things I would have been far too afraid to try even a year ago.  The more confident I feel about my body, the more confident I feel socially, and that's really where the conflict ultimately lay.  And what about Mike?  Mike ran away from his anger and fear, which only allowed it to dominate him.  I take this as a cruel lesson in self-awareness.  Acceptance is impossible without awareness. That's just as true of oneself as it is one's relationship with the world.  This at least is my goal.  The consequences of failure are immense.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Mike the Broken GI Joe

After a week and a half-long absence, I'm back.  I'd put the blog on hold while I finished up my latest manuscript, which commanded my full attention for the past ten to twelve days.  I have a new arc of posts that I'd like to do here, building off what I've written in the past few months.  I'm going to start by talking about someone specific: a friendship that went terribly, terribly wrong.  But this story, and its moral, are bigger than any one post.  To truly do it justice will take an entire week of blogging.  It covers a lot of ground, and brings up a lot of the themes I've written about thus far.  So, without further ado, I give you Mike the Broken GI Joe.

Mike could have been a great man if his life hadn't intervened.  He was attractive, charismatic, intelligent, articulate, and imaginative.  Some of the most tragic people are the ones who seemed to have all the elements of greatness but for a fatal flaw.  In that sense Mike is an incredible tragedy, the story of a would-be genius done in by insecurity and fear.  For if anybody I ever knew embodied fear and a hopeless insecurity of oneself, it would be Mike.  Mike and I were destined to be great friends for a very long time -- ten years -- but that friendship was ultimately doomed.

Back in 2000 and 2001, Mike ran a music review website that specialized in obscure and underground metal -- the kind you don't hear on the radio, and exactly the kind that I had just begun to listen to en masse.  The number of bands he introduced me to that I still listen to even now is almost too big to list: Opeth, Katatonia, Agalloch, Mercenary, Soilwork, Dark Tranquillity, Evergrey, Sentenced, Theory in Practice, to say nothing of the Children of Bodom and In Flames mix CDs we traded a full decade before they became popular.  It was a prodigious time for me: I was seventeen and coming of age, just starting to figure out my identity.  Mike was in many ways a mentor to that identity: an older brother figure I'd lacked.  Mike embodied a certain kind of machismo and masculinity I still struggle with to this day: aggressive, cynical, and wholly unaware of itself.  He was cool in the way that adolescent boys aspire to be.  Here was one of the cools kids from high school taking me under his wing.  I lacked any self-awareness to perceive his flaws.

Mike was a former Marine, an aggressive clubber and womanizer, and an ardent opponent of illegal immigration despite being a quarter Mexican.  He was tough and mean because he perceived himself to be constantly under attack, whether by real or imagined foe alike.  He worried constantly that he was a failure, a weakling, or socially compromised, even though this was almost never reflected in what he said.  It's always the people whose actions are inconsistent with their words that are the most dangerous, and Mike's thoughts always seemed to reflect his words, not his actions.

Even still, our relationship, though sometimes distant and sometimes more intimate, remained steady.  I wanted his approval.  He was a validator: he told me I was all right.  Two things changed, though as the years went on.  The first was me.  The other was him.  It was to be our undoing.

I have written extensively about a certain kind of cynicism I notice in people who feel insecure and threatened.  I know others like this: uncompromising, rigid, perenially disappointed.  In fact, as far as heterosexual male friends go, I seem irresistably attracted to them.  It's at once a strict form of idealism, and the experience of being crushed under the weight of one's beliefs.  Mike was the living embodiment of that type.  I knew what he wanted to be.  He wanted to be an intellectual.  He wanted to feel smart and respected for his intellect.  But during the critical years when that part of one's identity forms, he lacked the discipline or the financial means.  I've seen so many like him.  The failed intellectual is the most dangerous kind of all.  Without a requisite self-awareness, reason always devolves into misinformation and the worst kinds of self-righteousness.  One need only look to many of history's great revolutions (French, Soviet) for exmaples of this kind of thinking put into practice.  One of my favorite authors, the great religion scholar Stephen Prothero, likes to describe this as the following: "The most dangerous game man ever plays is dividing people into the good guys and bad guys and suggesting that the bad guys be punished."

At some point between 2008 and 2010, the weight of Mike's disappiontment began to finally crush him once and for all.  I saw warning signs: frequent links to Glenn Beck and his radio and television shows; conspiracy theories; paranoid delusions of the government and groups of designated "others" out to get him.  But I still needed him to validate me, so I ignored them.  It was, however, also around this time -- 2010 especially -- that I began to change.  I had gained a level of self-awareness and inner peace that I finally felt comfortable expressing myself outwardly to the greater world, for all my virtues and flaws.  And I was not like Mike at all.  There was a time when Mike and I could share that certain cynicism about the world.  But as I've grown older and up, my own cynicism and disappointment seems only to be diminishing, not increasing.  I was never a pessimist.  A realist, yes, but an optimist to my core.  I do genuinely believe that human beings are basically good.  I don't know when I began publicly asserting this, but it marked the beginning of the end for our friendship.  Neither of us are very good at shutting up, and at least until recent months, I wasn't particularly good at letting go of a fight.  Mike made certain assumptions about the way the world worked.  I made others, and we disagreed.  Our clashes grew more intense by the week, and started getting personal.  As I came to realize, Mike lacked the ability to distinguish attacks on his words and actions, and attacks on his person.  I still do believe that at his core he's a genuinely good person, just terribly misguided.  In many ways, people like him are far more dangerous than the truly malicious and evil.

There was no ultimate confrontation between us.  I simply unfriended him from Facebook and removed any means for him to contact me otherwise.  I think that was for the best.  I don't hate him.  Quite the opposite, actually.  I pity him.  He was in many ways pathetic and broken; a failed person.  Understanding Mike has allowed me to understand so much more about the world.  He was in some respect one of the catalysts to my own self-realization.  And for the better part of a decade, he was a good friend to me.  People have called him a douchebag, and he may have been nasty and tone-deaf to others sensitivies, but that doesn't make him a bad person.  He may have been in the process of flaming out when I knew him, but that doesn't mean I can't learn from him.  The lessons his example has taught me will form the next several parts to this story.  For now, though, I think I'll leave it at Mike the person.  Destruction always saddens me, particularly destruction seemingly without a purpose, and Mike is no different.  It didn't have to be this way.  So I mourn, not only for our friendship, but for his own inability to be happy.  As for me, however, the end of my relationship with Mike would come to be the beginning of a realization on my part of just how wonderful the world truly is.  Stay tuned for the sequel tomorrow.