occupying wall street and the failure of the ballot box

One time when I had to take my cat in for a checkup, my vet crawled out from behind her desk where she was filing stuff, slowly, as her knees were failing, and she said to me, “So, what do you think about the choice between two millionaires for president?”

And I laughed and said they both sucked.

Every time I vote in an election much bigger than school board, I have to choose between two millionaires. Two people, usually white, heterosexual men, who do not understand the first thing about my life or the lives of the overwhelming majority of the people who will be voting for them. And, let’s be real about this: these aren’t just millionaires. They’re multi-millionaires. They’re people with so much money they don’t necessarily even know how many houses they own, because this is an easy thing to lose track of.

It’s hard to feel that the ballot box is a legitimate place to raise your voice and say something more than “I like the puppet on the left” in an era when politicians’ lives are so divorced from the people they allegedly represent, and their careers are focused on catering to corporate donors who could spend my yearly budget on lunch and write it off.

This is not to say that I don’t vote. I vote every chance I get and write my reps constantly about measures designed to keep people from voting. But it is to say that with the choice between two asshole millionaires who can’t understand the lives of most Americans and whose priorities are focused elsewhere, it can’t come as a surprise that many people find it necessary to express their views in a more direct way than merely filing into the ballot box once every year or two and hoping they remembered to update their address on time.

It can’t come as a surprise when politicians have ignored the needs of their constituents, when jobs are fleeing overseas so corporate “job creators” can escape labor protections and pay lower wages while their former employees’ children go hungry, when people can’t pay their bills and can’t take their kids to the doctor, when students graduate to a world not only with no hope of paying their loans but to find their degrees qualify them to scramble for shitty part time cashier jobs, when people are being turned out of their homes by banks that can’t even prove ownership – it can’t come as a surprise that people are upset, and not contented to wait until the next election cycle to pin their hopes on the lesser evil and wait, wait, wait.

We don’t have time anymore.

I endorse voting. Vote early, vote often. Vote strategically. I’ll talk about what issues I care about when voting in various levels of elections as we get closer to that sort of thing. Vote and encourage other people to vote and push your district to support same-day registration.

But don’t stop there. Don’t pretend that voting is the only legitimate form of activism or the only way to have a voice. Voting is one tool in the box. It is one of many.


sex education

Recently I have come across two articles on sex ed, independently of each other.

The first is by Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood, How Parents Are Falling Short With the ‘Sex Talk’, which essentially says that parents need to be more comfortable talking about sex with their kids and actually give them more useful information. The link came through The Advocate‘s tweets.

The second is by Robert P. George and Melissa Moschella, Does Sex Ed Undermine Parental Rights?, in the New York Time’s op-ed section.

The first article is a short piece and not bad for what it is but falls a little short in that it is very heterosexually focused and some of us teenagers who need or have needed the sex talk are not heterosexual.

The second goes beyond falling short and argues that parents have the right not to have their children taught “moral choices” that they don’t agree with, like that people have sex and protection against pregnancy and disease is available. You know, a real-world curriculum that deals with the facts of living in reality and doesn’t just quietly sideline the issue and say “well I’m sure your parents have given you an adequate talk about these issues” and call it quits. This is failing children in a serious way.

In addition to being 100% heterosexually focused and not addressing that the needs of some children aren’t something their straight, conservative parents could even be aware of or how many parents are desperate not to get us information because of their moral and religious beliefs, this is in general yet another way to fail LGBT children, who I assure you do exist in the school system and in the six times I had sex ed (5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, and 11th grades) I got not so much as a whisper about LGBT issues other than that the increased AIDS transmission risk for gay men.

LGBT children are often isolated within their families. Even with accepting parents, I have never heard of anyone getting an effective sex talk. I know some parents manage an effective talk about some relationship issues, but straight parents usually do not understand what we are going through or some of the ongoing issues we have to deal with, not just with sex but with things like how to handle varying degrees of outness in a relationship, and where to draw lines between reasonable discretion and being a closet case, how to navigate the gay and lesbian scenes, how to deal with the pressures of the heterosexual world on queer people, how to handle with not just pressure for sex but pressure for sex from people who approach us fetishistically and voyeuristically, how to be safe.

Having real sex education in the schools could make a world of difference for us, and especially with the subject that the parental rights article in particular doesn’t want to approach: some parents hold values and beliefs that are toxic to their children, and having another adult or a support structure that says something positive rather than simply reinforcing a parent’s bigotry and the harmful attitudes it engenders by refusing to say anything. This is not the role of our school system, to remain silent. It is the role of our school system to educate and inform, to prepare young people for the real world, and part of that preparation is the acknowledgment that they exist and should not be left to fend for themselves with only the internet to turn to. Just as abstinence only education does not work, nor does pretending that having information is a moral issue and reinforcing completely inappropriate parental control over school curriculum. This approach to sex education is detrimental to teenagers. If parents want to instill moral values in their children, they can do that on their own time. School is a place for learning and being exposed to new ideas, not a place to reinforce conservative propaganda like abstinence-only or even conservative views where information is presented as somehow controversial.

What’s next, creationism in the science classroom? Oh, wait…

student loans and the future of availability of education

Over the course of my lifetime and doubtless prior, there’s been a push from the right to privatize everything in sight, to make everything the province of the individual rather than something we do as a group. Whether this is deregulating energy or cutting food stamps and programs like WIC, working against legislation to deal with global warming or pushing the costs of education, healthcare, and childcare onto individuals, it’s all about moving away from group solutions to letting each individual determine their own self-sufficient fate.

This all sounds good on paper in some ways, and it might work okay if everyone started from a genuinely level playing field and had access to the same resources and opportunities and was going to have the same needs and desires going forward. Maybe in that particular fantasyland everyone gets a pony, too, I’m not clear on that part. Here in reality, most wealth is inherited and the pretense of a level playing field creates a structure where the rich and powerful concentrate even more wealth and power. And they do, cutting everyone else’s wages and benefits while going on about how terrible the economy is and how everyone has to tighten their belts so that Megacorp can go on receiving record profits. They follow this up by demanding cuts in social programs, saying it’s not fair to ask them to subsidize other people’s lives and families while they spend what should have been someone else’s pension to buy a fifth house and another car for their teenager who crashed the first one.

This view of the world is working to create a future where there is a permanent underclass of people who are underemployed, unemployed, or unemployable, which ensures that they will be willing to work worse jobs for longer hours and less pay, fewer benefits, and fewer protections. It ensures a future where having children will be a financial burden and where having a medical problem will be a disaster, because there will be no help available when these things happen. It also ensures a future where education is increasingly the province of the wealthy, as the ruling class is working to create opportunities only for themselves and because the more educated the rest of us are, the more likely we are to resist their agendas and stand together in our own interests.

Education used to be totally the province of the wealthy. You didn’t go to school past a certain point if your parents couldn’t pay. This changed in the United States with James Conant, former president of Harvard University. Conant was all like Hey Harvard, we’re pretty awesome, right? But it would be even more awesome if we started taking students based on their academic merits rather than their social connections and their parents’ money. And he did, and now Harvard is known for academic excellence rather than just kids with rich parents who major in cocaine before taking over the family business. Other schools followed suit, and education started to be available to a wider range of people. Not wide enough, but wider than it was.

Having education be available to a wider range of people carries a lot of benefits. At a basic level, an educated populace is an informed populace. They are better able to tell when their leaders are screwing up or screwing them over and to act in their own interests. Literacy allowed people to read the news themselves instead of relying on someone to tell them, but now we need cultural literacy, the ability to understand contexts and trends and to separate out news from propaganda and to filter signal from noise, information from entertainment. Beyond daily living, a system where more people are educated means good things for our economy as a whole – more engineers, more scientists, more creative writers, lawyers, doctors, psychologists, policymakers, social workers, computer programmers, systems administrators, and teachers who bring more to the classroom for children and try to help them step up into their best futures rather than just turning out factory workers, call center employees, farm hands, cleaning staff, and other menial laborers who will live and die in poverty while the rich compile greater wealth and a greater divide between us and them.

It is easy to say that everyone should pay for their own education. It is easy to talk about scholarships. It is easy to talk about how people should be responsible for their student loans, which are essentially the only way to go to school for most of us.

It is not so easy to discuss the realities of access to education.

Paying out of pocket is difficult if your parents cannot do it.

Scholarships are wonderful for those that can get them, but they are not given out on the streetcorner. At the graduate level, there are some, mostly in the form of fellowships and teaching assistantships. At the professional level, they often do not exist because the loan companies have stepped in, and the school is dedicated to promoting promises of a future where all of their graduates do well and have the money to either live well or pay the banks back. Student loans are fairly horrific for undergraduates, but for graduate and professional school it’s common to finish in six figures of debt. Further, the rules about little things like truth in lending, full and accurate disclosure, and usury are suspended in this area – it is legal for banks to lie to students about how much they will be paying back, and short of becoming permanently disabled from working, there is no way to discharge this debt no matter how dire your financial circumstances.

Should the most prestigious schools be reserved for the wealthy and connected? I think not. I think that this is yet another effort to concentrate educational opportunities in the hands of the few. If the truly excellent work is only being done in a few schools and only the wealthy have access to them, then only the wealthy will have these opportunities and only they will go on to the best graduate and professional programs and from there to the best jobs, all the while insisting that this is somehow not a classist system that creates and recreates opportunities only for those who are already wealthy and powerful while excluding the rest of us.

And then, when the rest of us see good opportunities and want them to be distributed on the basis of something other than wealth, like academic excellence or whatever, the rich and their sycophants begin to scream about how we are too entitled, because entitlement is their new buzzword for wanting to force the rest of us further into penury, if not with student loans that further line banksters’ pockets, then with shitty call center jobs, medical bills, and the inability to own our own homes or afford children.

Does that call center job offer you a pension plan? Or is the owner talking about moving your job to Malaysia to cut costs?

I’d like to think we’re entitled to a better future than this.

We do better as a society if we educate everyone who wants it and is capable. Having parents with money seems like a pretty arbitrary way to select who gets educated. Further, to say that everyone can go but to require loans that are impossible to pay back is essentially to deny education to most of us.

But as with the mortgage crisis, and people who need assistance programs like WIC or TANF, or healthcare, the cry goes up: why should I pay for that?

Because it’s the right thing to do. Because it benefits you when your neighbors do better. Maybe it would be better to ask why you’re crying about helping your neighbors have decent lives when the federal government is bailing out billionaire companies who use the money for champagne, private jets, and extra bonuses for their millionaire boards of directors? Why not get mad that your money is being blown on a pointless war? This is especially bizarre coming from people who are in general in favor of education, who have used social services or support their existence, who need healthcare or know someone who does, who are on Social Security or will need it for retirement or just don’t want their mom moving in with them in a few years. Educating people helps build the kind of society I want to live in, a world where we build each other up instead of tearing each other down. Do you want education to be limited to the wealthy? Do you want your cardiologist to be the smartest science nerd in the class, or the kid with the richest parents? Do you want your lawyer to care about the pursuit of justice and understands the realities of your life, or just be someone whose parents insisted because everyone in the family goes to law school, darling?

Who do you want in positions of governance? More rich kids who have no idea what the average person’s life is like and what their concerns are, or people who care about the interests of the general population?

Do you want your kid’s teacher to teach to the test while trying to control 40 kids with various different educational and behavioral needs, turning out adults who would be well-suited to menial jobs that often don’t even exist here anymore, or do you want them to be excited about education and working with kids and helping them step into their best futures?

Those best futures don’t stop at the end of high school. In order to really create that best future, we have to fund education at every level. I do not want to pay for wars and nuclear weapons and private jets and bailouts for banksters, but I’d be thrilled to live in a world where it was generally accepted that education was available without regard to economic class.

So yeah, I think we should bail out student loanholders and dump money into the public schools and make college and grad school and professional school affordable, by which I mean as close to free as possible and with a particular focus on getting educational opportunities for the middle and working classes. I think it should be affordable to have children. I think we should have single payer healthcare. I think we should look out for those among us who are most vulnerable and try to raise everyone’s standard of living. I think we should put our money into building a better world for all of us. I think this is how to do it, and that we will all have better lives if we do. I want a future where we build each other up instead of tearing each other down. I want a future where we understand our interdependence and need for mutual aid. I want a future where everyone has a good life, instead of the rich and powerful setting the rest of us to fight each other for scraps and their amusement while they drink champagne.

We can have this.

But first, we need to stop sniping at each other about entitlement. Turning basic rights that everyone should have into privileges that only the wealthy can afford is the wrong way to go. “Why should you get that?” is the wrong question. The right question is “How do we make sure everyone gets that?”

The first step in ensuring that everyone gets a good life is to recognize that we are all entitled to it, and that we can collectively have a lot more if we work together than if we privatize everything and turn essential rights for everyone into privileges that only the few can pay for.

queerness is awesome

Twice a year we set aside days to be queer in public. Once in June and once today, October 11. In June we have the weekend to be ourselves in public for Pride, an event started at a bar in New York where the police harassed the patrons until they stood up and made a revolutionary statement: let us drink in our own bar.

National Coming Out Day is different, because it’s not exactly for us in the same way. Pride is a space for ourselves where we can be without heterosexual cultural demands, where we can wear what we want and not feel constrained by externally imposed norms, for us to celebrate our lives and culture. National Coming Out Day is to try to change the idea of normativity and make ourselves safe in the larger world.

The queer movement recently has focused on insisting to straight people that we should be acceptable to them because we are just like them, but I see no reason why we should push to be like them rather than like ourselves. I think acceptance is a sad goal to aim for, and betrays the discomforts of so many members of our own community and the ways that we are taught to crave the acceptance of straight people as though they should be in a position to pass judgment upon us. I will not be satisfied with mere acceptance. Queerness is not a flaw to be tolerated, but something beautiful in itself.

I think the next step in National Coming Out Day beyond being out and visible wherever this is safe and practical is to love ourselves and our queerness, and to not ever apologize for this or diminish it. We live in a culture that works to crush this out of us, to force us into traditional heteropatriarchal gender and social roles by any means possible, to beat the queer out of us if not physically then psychologically, and as part of coming out of the closet and into ourselves we must love ourselves, and reject the idea that we should care about heterosexual approval as it is based on the premise of their superiority. This is perhaps the most revolutionary act we can commit: to love ourselves in a world where we are deemed unworthy of love, and to love ourselves for our queerness rather than in spite of it.

Queerness is awesome. Happy national coming out day!

You lose

Steve Jobs made beautiful, amazing products. I use two Apple products daily and love them.

However, these products are not made by Americans. They are made in sweatshops in China, where wages and labor protections are less. Eighteen people have committed suicide because their lives making these products were so miserable, and because the payout to their families for their deaths would be more than they could ever hope to make.

Apple has been responsive to the issue of worker abuse, but their response has not been to try to move operations somewhere with greater protections for workers and they certainly have not tried to move things here to the US.

Despite his extreme personal wealth, Steve Jobs was not known for his charity work, unlike his most obvious counterpart, Bill Gates. There is no Jobs Foundation. Jobs’ attempt to create a better world was significantly limited to selling beautiful things made by miserable people who could not afford the products they made, while those of us who bought them did so at the cost of knowing our neighbors were out of work because manufacturing has made like Elvis and left the building.

So I’m declaring a new rule: if you die with a huge amount of money sitting around that you’re not dumping into building a better world, YOU LOSE.

Do not send prayers. Send SCIENCE.

Yesterday my wonderful, amazing feline companion died of feline infectious peritonitis, a horrible disease that caused neurological malfunction among other things.

There is no treatment and no cure for this condition. When your cat has it, you say your goodbyes and call the vet for a home visit before the seizures and other symptoms come on too badly and all the beautiful things about her succumb.

I started thinking about how a lot of the social response around me to various medical events is to think good thoughts or pray, and for me as an atheist and an activist, I find this offensive. Not because I don’t appreciate the good thoughts – I do! – but because they do not get us any closer to a cure, and what I want is to be sure that no other cat ever has to die the way mine did today.

Prayer does not get us this. Prayer relies on the hope of the existence of a compassionate god magically fixing my cat. Without arguing about the existence of god, it didn’t happen, not with her or with the last cat. And it’s cool if you want to pray and you feel that gives you something, but I feel that what I want is something more solid: what I want is more science.

I want more science education. I want women to feel like they can go into the sciences. I want kids to understand basic scientific principles.

I want this so one of them can grow up and find a cure for the horrible disease that took my sweet, loving cat’s life. And a cure for the horrible disease that took my previous cat’s life, and the disease that killed my mother, and the one that makes me queen of the sinus infections, and the one that keeps three of my friends on insulin, and many other unpleasant diseases.

Many others. If there were a god that allowed us to die like this, to lose each other like this when a mere whim or prayer could change that, heaven would be not having to wait in line to kick his ass.

Email your reps. Call them. Hell, you can tweet at them now – 140 characters isn’t too little room to say “please fund science so we have scientists and doctors” or “please fund science education, science is for everyone!”

I want my vet or my cardiologist or whoever to be the smartest kids in the room, not the kids with the richest parents. In order to get there, we must fund science at the lower levels and at every level.