Monday, February 19, 2018

Pulling the Trigger on Innocence and Stupidity - Part II

            In the almost 20 years since the killings at Columbine High School in April 1999, we have learned a few things. We have learned that the rhetoric around shootings and gun control has remained the same. In the immediate aftermath of the carnage, it has always been “too soon” to bring up gun control. “Thoughts and prayers” have been distributed in abundance, and any efforts to steer the conversation towards legislative measures to prevent future massacres have been met with accusations of “politicizing a tragedy.” Columbine was a watershed moment in the history of guns and schools in America. Yet, two of America’s worst school shootings, Virginia Tech in 2007, and Sandy Hook in 2012, happened after Columbine. In the 20 years since the worst mass shooting in UK history in Dunblane, Scottland in 1996, where 16 children and their teacher were killed, there have been zero school shootings in the UK. In Australia, after 35 people were killed with a semi-automatic weapon in a popular tourist area in Port Arthur, Tasmania, rapid-fire guns were banned. Since that incident, Australia has had zero mass shootings, where a mass shooting is one in which 5 or more people are killed. Assault weapons, whose only purpose is to decimate, are legal in the US, and appear to be the weapon of choice in the majority of recent mass shootings. We have learned, in the almost 20 years since Columbine, that a powerful organization run by entitled white men can buy over politicians, year after year, to squash common sense gun laws protecting citizens. We have learned that year after year, after Sandy Hook and San Bernadino, and Isla Vista and Orlando and Las Vegas and Charleston and Sutherland, Texas, gun control advocates have been silenced by the GOP minions of the NRA. The massacre at Parkland, Florida, however, is somehow different. A tipping point has been reached; there is a new perspective, and it is gaining momentum.
            In addition to the blood on its hands for all the youth killed in schools and colleges, the NRA, along with the GOP in its pocket, has been subjecting children to trauma that is akin to what combat veterans on the front lines of a war might face: running for their lives, seeing peers mowed down by high-velocity bullets geared to annihilate, cowering inside closets or behind furniture for hours, not knowing if they will ever get out of there alive. Having grown up in the backdrop of the carnage at Sandy Hook and a culture that takes gun safety in school very seriously, but not gun reform seriously, these children- the survivors of the massacre at Stoneman Douglas in Parkland- are aware that the adults in power have done nothing to mitigate decades of school shootings. They realize that they have to advocate for themselves. The NRA’s ploy to divert attention from the real problem with cries of “too soon” isn’t going to work on these children who thrive on instant communication. The GOP’s holier-than-thou stance of offering “thoughts and prayers” because they have nothing of substance to say in defense of normalizing the presence of assault weapons in civilians’ hands will not hold these children back: When Trump offered, in a tweet, his "prayers and condolences to the families of the victims of the terrible Florida shooting. No child, teacher or anyone else should ever feel unsafe in an American school," Sarah Chadwick, a survivor from Parkland responded:
            “I don’t want your condolences you fucking piece of shit, my friends and teachers were shot. Multiple of my fellow classmates are dead. Do something instead of sending prayers. Prayers won’t fix this. But Gun control will prevent it from happening again.”
Later, this same girl reached out again:
            “Dear Donald Trump, I’m the 16 year old girl who tweeted you and told you i didn’t want your condolences, I wanted gun control, and went viral because of it. I heard you’re coming to my community soon and I would like to express my opinions on gun control to you face to face.”
           Three days after the killings, at a rally outside the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale where students and teachers of Stoneman Douglas had gathered to make their voices heard, Emma Gonzales, a senior at Douglas spoke about “calling B.S” on all the lies preventing common sense gun laws from being adopted. She said: “If all our government and president can do is send ‘thoughts and prayers,’ then it’s time for victims to be the change that we need to see.” She added: “To every politician taking donations from the NRA- Shame. On. You,” at which point the crowd erupted into chants of “shame on you.” She reminded the audience that in February 2017, Trump repealed an Obama-era regulation that “would have made it easier to block the sale of firearms to people with certain mental illnesses.” She pointed out that “we need to pay attention to the fact that this isn’t just a mental health issue.” Then emotionally she added that “he wouldn’t have hurt that many students with a knife.” Emma Gonzales then went on to attacking the government and the NRA for its bullshit, with the crowd responding in refrain- “we call B.S”:
“The people in the government who were voted into power are lying to us. And us kids seem to be the only ones who notice and are prepared to call B.S.
Politicians who sit in their gilded House and Senate seats funded by the N.R.A., telling us nothing could ever be done to prevent this: we call B.S….
They say that tougher gun laws do not prevent gun violence: we call B.S.”
            In her rousing speech outside the Fort Lauderdale courthouse, Emma Gonzales declared that “we are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks not because we are going to be another statistic about mass shootings in America but because….we are going to be the last mass shooting.”
            In the four days since the shooting, groups of students from across the country have already organized efforts to make their personal tragedy their political quest. On Saturday, March 24th, the March For Our Lives will take place in Washington DC and other major cities where school children and their families will march “to demand that their lives and safety become a priority and that we end gun violence and mass shootings in our schools today.” The mission statement of this event further targets the non-action of politicians: “In the tragic wake of the 17 lives brutally cut short in Florida, politicians are telling us that now is not the time to talk about guns. March For Our Lives believes the time is now.” Cameron Kasky, a junior from Stoneman Douglas, and one the students behind the march has given several news interviews about the online movement that fellow students are organizing called #NEVERAGAIN MSD. In an interview on NPR, Kasky held Florida’s governor and senator accountable for the shooting: “And our lawmakers Rick Scott and Marco Rubio - they have the blood of 17 people on their hands, and we are not apologizing for telling them that they're gone. It’s over with them.” Kasky elaborated in another interview along with a panel of 4 other student organizers including Emma Gonzales that their aim is to "create a new normal where there’s a badge of shame on any politician who’s accepting money from the NRA, no matter where they are. Because at the end of the day, the NRA is promoting and fostering this gun culture….” In an interview with Anderson Cooper on CNN, Kasky aimed again at the NRA – “I think that after every shooting, the NRA sends them (the GOP) a memo saying ‘send your thoughts and prayers,’ let’s not talk about it now….” The students from Parkland have taken matters into their own hands because “the adults in office have let us down.” To Trump they said: “You haven’t taken a single bill for mental health care or gun control and passed it. And that’s pathetic. We’ve seen a government shutdown. We’ve seen tax reform but nothing to save our children’s lives.”
            April 20, 2018 will be the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shooting. Most of the children organizing this new movement towards gun reform hadn’t even been born when Columbine happened. Yet, they are the ones who are now leading the way, and the adults are following: In “An open letter to the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School,” Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee and Yasmine Taeb, DNC committeewoman from Virginia who attended Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School said: 
“We give you our word that the Democratic Party will work to prevent anything like what happened at your school from happening again.” 
It’s now time for the Republicans to follow suit. To cut their purse strings with the NRA and support common sense gun laws. If they don’t, they will be voted out of office, because, as Cameron Kasky pointed out in an op-ed on CNN “my generation won’t stand for this.”
            In less than a week after the tragedy at Parkland, the children of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have inspired a national following to revisit gun control. Imagine what they will do in the months to come. The tide is changing. Spread the word. Join and support their movement.
#Never Again

March for our Lives

Emma Gonzales' speech

Parkland students on Face the Nation

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Anger Miss-Management: The Denial of Women’s Outrage

Forgiveness is a prominent theme in the world’s religions. From Hinduism to Buddhism to Christianity there is a uniform belief that anger is an emotion detrimental to well-being. Christianity promotes forgiveness as a virtue, stating in Matthew 6:14-15 that “...if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” Buddhism looks upon anger as one of the toxins that perpetuates the cycle of samsara. Modern day counseling and mindfulness practices, too, encourage “letting go” of feelings of anger. While it is appropriate in certain contexts to promote forgiveness and the elimination of anger from our emotional make-up, there is a dark underbelly to this mindset when it is taken outside the context of spirituality and mental health.

            In its most extreme form, toxic forgiveness manifests as practices such as female feticide/infanticide and honor killings. These acts are not considered murders by perpetrators, but are imagined to be acts that uphold the sanctity of the family, a virtue held higher than the sanctity of female life. Non-terminal expressions of toxic forgiveness are more common, such as when there’s forced forgiveness of inappropriate behavior, when the blatant disrespect of women is taken in the context of “locker room talk” and excused, and when misconduct is condoned because “boys will be boys.”

            When toxic forgiveness is left unchecked, it leads to a disease called Male Entitlement. When video evidence of talk claiming privilege over women- “They let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ‘em by the p*ssy” doesn’t prevent a man from occupying the White House and living in it as Predator of the United States, it’s time to acknowledge that male entitlement has reached monstrous proportions. Male entitlement comes in many forms. The Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Clinton debacles are examples of sexual entitlement. But entitlement can also be over resources: Your time. The family income. Your energy. When men control the lion’s share of the family income even though women put in as much work into the home, when women who hold jobs outside of the house come home to work the “second shift” taking care of housework and childcare while men put their feet up and expect to relax, that’s the common-cold variety of male entitlement. It doesn’t kill. It only makes you stronger. Don’t express your discontent at this disease with the supreme male in your life and expect to be heard. Male entitlement erodes decency, reason and fairness and gives rise to a Male Pattern Deafness of not being able to hear female anger, also called Silencing the Less Powerful.

            The largest homogenous group of the ‘less powerful’ are women. The expression of anger is therefore not for half the population of planet earth. In her essay Facing the Furies in the May 2017 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Rebecca Solnit asks:

“Who has the right to be angry? Anger is considered justified if it is a reaction to outrageous circumstance, so denying the grounds for anger denies its legitimacy. And behind the question of who has the right to be angry is the question of who is allowed to act on his anger.

Clearly, the expression of anger is solely the privilege of a chosen few. If you have female body parts, count yourself out. Solnit writes:

"For decades people have stereotyped feminists as angry, and in doing so have denied aspects of women's experience that it is reasonable to be angry about.....Women's relationship to power will remain uneasy as long as the right to be angry is seen as a masculine prerogative."

            If you’re a woman, you have no right to challenge male power; your anger is never legitimate.  If you dare to undermine male authority by expressing discontent about something in your own life, be prepared for pushback. If you’re sexually assaulted, don’t be angry. You asked for it! It was the way you dressed that caused your violation, or the time of night that you were out. Your character will be on the docket with all courtroom guns turned in your direction and poised for Ready, Aim, Fire! Complaints of a non-sexual nature automatically put you in the category of the insane. “Bat-shit crazy” is currently trending as the most popular term of choice for those who dare to upset the status quo of male entitlement.

                        Audre Lorde wrote in The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism:

“Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being. Focused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change. And when I speak of change, I do not mean a simple switch of positions or a temporary lessening of tensions, nor the ability to smile or feel good. I am speaking of a basic and radical alteration in those assumptions underlining our lives.”

          No single emotion has brought about as much “radical alteration” in our lives as anger has. If it weren’t for anger, we would still have segregated schools, restrooms and water-fountains. If it weren’t for anger, women wouldn’t be voting today. Embrace your anger and express it. The American Psychological Association endorses it. The APA’s March 2003 publication Monitor on Psychology outlines the benefits of anger:

Anger gets a bad rap partly because it is often erroneously associated with violence, experts note. "In fact, anger seems to be followed by aggression only about 10 percent of the time, and lots of aggression occurs without any anger," notes Howard Kassinove, PhD…. But a number of studies show that in the places where anger is usually played out--especially on the domestic front--it is often beneficial. "When you look at everyday episodes of anger as opposed to more dramatic ones, the results are usually positive," says James Averill, PhD.

Anger is a useful tool for negotiating fairness and establishing healthy boundaries. It becomes a “problem” only when there is an abuse of power. Where there’s an attempt to suppress anger, there’s a power struggle. Where there's an attempt to suppress women's anger, there's male entitlement. Ignore it, and be outraged.
            If the women who endured the prurient gaze and pornographic greed of the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby have anything to teach us, it is that there is a turning point for even the most omnipotent, entitled ogre. For some men that may come after the complaints of several dozen women, but it will arrive – posthumously sometimes, as was in the case of British TV host Jimmy Savile who molested innumerable children over a 60-year career of sexual predation. The tipping point exists. Aim for it. Get your voice heard no matter the outcome. Those who will speak after you depend on it.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

In Search of Lost Identity - A Response to Lion

Dev Patel (of Slumdog Millionaire fame) once again stars in a tale of transformation and miracles. He goes from a life of unmitigated poverty in central India to a privileged upper middle class existence in Australia, and then makes an incredulous return to his roots decades later. Lion is a film based on the book The Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley on the true story of his life. The arc of the story is simple, and the viewer is aware all along that Saroo Khan comes full circle, back to his dusty hometown in Khandwa, India, twenty-five years after his adoption.

Saroo is a childhood mispronunciation of “Sheru” (meaning lion). The movie begins with Saroo and his older brother Guddu stealing coal from a moving train, a foreshadowing of the pivotal role a train-ride has in the life of this lion cub. We get a glimpse of the harsh life the brothers lead, eking out a living through pilfering and odd jobs, interspersed by the warmth of their fraternal bond and the love of their mother, an illiterate laborer whose meager livelihood earned by carrying rocks in the sandy plains of Khandwa is supplemented by the proceeds of her enterprising sons. Saroo’s enthusiasm for helping makes him insist that he accompany his teenage brother on his night job. This ill-fated decision leads to him being stranded on a decommissioned train carrying him a thousand miles away from his hometown to India’s third largest city.

Saroo’s weeks in Kolkata are by themselves a harrowing tale of grit and survival. Forced to experience a range of hardships from scavenging for food to escaping the hold of predatory adults, 5-year old Saroo miraculously survives alone as a street child, eventually ending up in an orphanage. An inability to give specifics about where he is from keeps him from locating his mother and returning home even when genuine help is at hand. In 1987, he is adopted by a well-to-do Australian couple, and begins life in Hobart, Tasmania.

The movie is directed by Garth Davis, a TV and commercial director for whom this is a first feature length film, and a strong contender for his first Oscar. Nicole Kidman and David Wenham star as Saroo’s adoptive parents. The 5-year old Saroo, portrayed brilliantly by Sunny Pawar captures with equal skill the adoration Saroo has for his older brother, the anguish and desperation of finding himself alone on a runaway train, and the endurance of a street-savvy homeless child tempered by innocence. Although still a cub, Sunny Pawar is the true star of this film. The Lion, played by Dev Patel, enters the story after a gap of 20 years from where the cub leaves off. It is a role for which Patel underwent considerable preparation in accent and physique, and which he delivers with roaring success. In an artistic deviation from the appearance of the real Saroo Brierley, Patel sports a mane of shoulder-length wavy black hair that grows progressively more unkempt and disheveled as his obsession to find his hometown through Google Earth grows. In contrast, Kidman’s appearance as Saroo’s adoptive mother is fashioned after the real Su Brierley. The most poignant scene with Kidman is one where mother and son discuss the circumstances of their relationship, and Su Brierley reveals the true depth of her love for her children.

Sunny Pawer as Saroo

Lion is a tale of survival, loss, and yearning set in the backdrop of two worlds that could not be more different. It is a story about the power of memory in shaping our identities - images that are projected silently for decades provoking no action until years later when the time is right and the ally of technology willing. Old memories are unearthed by an accidental sense trigger which then unleash in Saroo the unrestrainable desire to find his mother and brother. This insuppressible urge is a testament to the idea that we are who we were. We are what we have been.

The Saroo Brierley story is an incredible tale of a search for lost identity. It illustrates the point that the existential verb “to be” is always used in the present tense when talking about one’s origins. We say “I am from India,” and not “I was from India” because you can never take back where you are from.

In 2013, twenty-six years after he was adopted, Saroo Brierley returns again to India, this time with his adoptive mother, Su Brierley, to meet Fatima Munshi. 

The story of Saroo Brierley is a life-affirming narrative playing out in the context of a harsh reality. As the movie website projects, there are over 80,000 children who go missing in India every year. The UN estimates that there are 150 million street children in the world today.

Lion is scheduled to be released by The Weinstein Company on November 25th 2016.

Sheru Munshi Khan with Fatima Munshi

Mothers and Son