Writing is a Moral Act: On the Challenges and Rewards of the Blogging Life

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I started my first blog when I was 21. I was in the process of more deeply converting toward the life of Catholicism at the time, having spent about a year or two studying theology.

Learning about Catholicism as a young man in 2007, 2008 was a little complicated. The papacy of Benedict XVI had emboldened quite a few traditionalist Catholics in the blogosphere whose approaches to life and faith were anything but humane. Without a degree of wisdom and intellectual maturity, it’s easy to fall down that ideological rabbit hole and reduce a complicated, nuanced, messy entity such as Catholicism to a series of platitudes, tribal markers, and shibboleths meant more to placate and exacerbate anxieties over modern life than anything truly substantial. The fact of the matter is, at age 21, I was too immature to handle the Catholic blogosphere. The way it reduces human persons into receptacles and consumers of ideology, the way it gleefully denies charity to those who don’t fit a particular type or mold, the way it dehumanizes even those who fit within it – the bitter irony is that Catholic blogging was more toxic to my soul than even pornography ever could be.

Emotionally and spiritually exhausted, I deleted my blog about a year and a half after starting it. In the time I was blogging, I’d become a target for far-right Catholic traditionalists, and my “conversion” story had gone viral and become reified by zealous Catholic conservatives. My introduction into the social world of the Catholic blogosphere revealed that the only writings that catch any sort of attention are those that eschew nuance, push a strict orthodoxy, and, more than anything, serve as a cheerleading chant for the conservative Catholic tribe. As any google search for “Nathan Kennedy Catholicism” will demonstrate, though my blog itself is gone, some of my more regrettable work is still out there. I’m reasonably certain that if I ever get to Purgatory, a significant portion of my penance will be to go back and read everything I wrote at this stage in my life. This community wasn’t authentic. It didn’t allow for, or really tolerate, authenticity in any real way.

Once I was in that world, I couldn’t write or explore the things I was most interested in. Though at the time I accepted a great deal of Catholic teaching on sexuality, I wanted to explore further the experience of being gay and Catholic, even as a celibate. I wanted to articulate the experience of putting my faith into interaction with my sexuality. I felt that there was a great deal of depth and insight that could come from this process, and I felt that this was crucial to my living out the faith and my sexuality. How do you write on something vitally important, for which there’s no real “market” in your blogging community?

In November 2011, during my very last months as an undergraduate, I sat in the campus Catholic Student Center and started a new blog. This one was under a pseudonym, Kevin Aimes, and had a vastly different feel and focus. Believing that the only demons we have are those that stay in darkness, my posts were more infrequent but much more thought out. The scope was more intellectual and less polemic. But mostly, it was a blog about integrating a gay sexuality with Catholic faith. It gradually grew a modest following, and spurred a great deal of very fruitful discussion.

As I changed, so did this blog. I eventually left Catholicism and become queer-affirming. I came out. As I started grad school in 2013, my blog posts became even more infrequent. I waffled in describing my relationship to Christianity. I grew as a thinker and scholar, but more importantly as a person.

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Existential, poetic: One of the many incarnations of my blogging life

Starting the Kevin Aimes blog was a radical shift for me. Instead of blogging about “faith” from a supposedly objective, detached point of view, I started from the ground up: blogging from my experience, from the depths of my own person. Now, I face a new era of my life, and blogging takes on a new kind of importance in what I’m doing and where I am.

Now, I’m blogging from the depths of my own person for the benefit of a community, to which I’m accountable but by which I’m not wholly determined. The responsibility of being a “public intellectual” (quotation marks used for a contested term) of any sort or magnitude, small as it may be, has changed dramatically from the time I started blogging eleven years ago. The world has changed. I have changed. The threats that marginalized communities such as the LGBTQ+ communities now face are serious, real, and terrifying. The job of a “public intellectual” in times such as this is to help articulate a compelling moral, intellectual, and theological vision for civic life, and it’s a job I take seriously and for which I believe I have been preparing.

I see my task as being that of navigating a tricky sort of triangulation: my own personal experience, the experience and traditions of my faith and LGBTQ+ communities, and the shared experience of being in this chaotic, confusing, threatening world in this time in history. The practical theologian in me recognizes that insight, to be valid and fruitful – true wisdom, and the sense of meaning arising out of it – depends on honest and thorough introspection at least as much as it does outer investigation. The human heart itself is one of the primary theological sources for us to explore. Every so often, I feel like I get that right. The world changes so fast, and I change so fast, that it’s hard to keep up and sometimes it’s difficult to write because of those constantly shifting grounds. But sometimes, I find the right footing and the right positionality and channel something fruitful, thought-provoking, and nourishing.

And like the words of John the Revelator, I see the things unfolding around me and within me and heed the command “Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this” (Rev. 1:19). I suppose that’s the imperative dimension of the old writer’s maxim “write what you know.” Writing is a participation in revelation. It is interpreting the signs, making sense of the world around us through the light of experience, faith, and who we ourselves are.

Writing is resistance.

Writing brings forth life.

Writing can turn a person and the world inside out.

Writing is a moral act.

Homophobes Aren’t Good Enough to be Called Gay

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Stop me if you’ve heard this joke: A raging homophobe with a clear history of animus and hatred toward gays really must be suppressing his own homosexual desires, because, apparently, the only “real” motive for homophobia must be self-hatred. I’ve heard this joke thousands of times. Mike Pence. Omar Mateen. Jerry Falwell. Tony Perkins. James Dobson. Vladimir Putin. Chris Cooper’s character in American Beauty. Backwoods Appalachian hillbillies raping grown men in Deliverance.

It’s an old one for sure, but this joke is total bullshit.

It’s also been around for longer than most of us have been alive: in reaction to the nonaggression pact agreed upon by Russia and Germany that year, a 1939 comic panel mockingly depicts Hitler and Stalin getting married with the caption “Wonder how long the honeymoon will last?” Yet, like any old, humorless joke, this one persists. In the wake of this week’s Helsinki Summit, the same tired imagery of two buffoonish leaders emerges calling upon homoerotic, Dom/sub imagery. The shaming of gay sex is alive and well, it being considered shameful enough to paint villainous world figures as repressed gays with kinky tastes.

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I can’t for the life of me figure out why gay men go along with these jokes. Somehow gay sex scandals such as those of Ted Haggard, Larry Craig, J. Edgar Hoover, Mark Foley, and their ilk remain an inexplicable source of vindication for gay men, who somehow believe that their repressed desires cast gays in a good light. These jokes often blur the line between homoerotic desire and child sexual abuse, subjecting abusive priests to the same punchline. This is not a good strategy in our public discourse, nor is it doing us any favors when it comes to learning how to deal with homophobia.

41000011The harsh reality these jokes seem to resist is that some people really, truly, thoroughly hate us. People really do want us gone, invisible, or even dead. This isn’t some pathology born out of repressed homoerotic desire but an honest, earnest, deadly serious belief that some people hold. Attempts to pathologize, displace, and distort the motives of homophobes in the end do us gays a disservice. It suggests that our own desires are capable of wrenching the soul into a murderous monstrosity. It performs the same logic as those who raise the specter of “black on black crime,” blaming gays for their own victimization. It deflects the responsibility of heteronormativity for the harm caused by its totalizing, violent, and insidious agenda.

Let’s instead put blame where it belongs, and call out the heteronormative bullshit that underwrites this rhetoric. Not only are homophobes not worthy to be called gay, they’re not worthy to unlace our boots. Being gay is magical. There are things that we know, things that we understand, things that we experience that these sentient bottles of Axe can never approach. Our sex is off limits to them – they’re not worthy of a fuck, not with us, and not even with each other in our jokes and our memes. They deserve the shame, isolation, celibacy, and fear that they’ve forced on us ever since they built us opposite their image. Calling Trump a fem sub bottom or a drag queen is blasphemy, because fem sub bottoms are the priests and drag queens are the prophets of our gay religion.

If we are to weaponize our sex, let us do it the right way. Let us take it back from those who gawk and gack about how “the parts don’t fit” and force them to approach it with the respect and reverence it deserves.

What’s funnier – anal sex, or not thoroughly wiping your own ass because you’re afraid it’s too gay?

Or, what’s funnier – sucking cocks, or telling your bros how you’re so straight, you eat your hot dogs from the middle?

And again, what’s funnier – being a sub in a BDSM relationship, or getting married and being so miserable you end up making endless, only half-joking references to your wife as your “warden” or “the old ball and chain”?

Our sex is not your punchline, but by God, your homophobic neuroses sure as hell are ours. And that’s exactly how it should be.

7 Reasons Why LGBTQ+ People Don’t Want to Go to Your LGBTQ+ Inclusive Church

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So your church is LGBTQ affirming. Congratulations, your denomination has most likely endured years of internal strife and division, and come out on the side of inclusivity. This isn’t something to be taken for granted – entire denominations have split over this question, and still others seem not at all willing to budge on their centuries-worth of LGBTQ intolerance. Yet, as you go to church week after week, you ask your gay or trans friends to join you and you receive a bewildering response. They’re just not interested.

They may seem blasé about it. They may feel a tinge of embarrassment, as if you’d asked them to lunch at Chuck E. Cheese’s. Still others may seem threatened, if not hostile to the idea altogether.

“We’re not those kinds of Christians!” you reassure them, in vain. “We welcome everybody!”

That may be the case, and your church may have made great strides attaining inclusivity and ally-ship. You might march in the Pride parade, and you might be versed in the contributions of queer theology. You might celebrate same-gender weddings regularly. But I speak as a queer person whose relationship with church communities has always been described as “it’s complicated:” at the end of the day, you’ll still find that many LGBTQ+ persons just aren’t interested in going to church, of any kind at all, and you probably won’t know why that is or what to do about it.

So let’s start with listing the reasons why LGBTQ+ individuals might not want to go to church at all. This isn’t to tell you in every case what to do about it, but to get you to understand and think a little deeper about the perspective of queer people in the face of religion, Christianity in particular. The more you understand that position, the more dialogue you can foster with us.

1. In general, people aren’t going to church anymore

It’s a simple number’s game: fewer people are attending church weekly now than they were even 10 years ago, while the number of people “seldom” or “never” going to church is rising. There are several reasons for this.

For one, the culture wars have turned off a great many people to church attendance altogether. People who don’t support the political agenda of social conservatism and the Christianity of those loudest in the public square will not align themselves with those causes. Who really wants to join organizations seen as filled with and run by moral hypocrites and judgmental bigots? Who wants to accept as an option for their life the superstitions, irrationalities, and magical thinking of religious belief? (Or so the thinking goes.)

But more profoundly, the very structure of society is changing before our eyes. Churches used to anchor communities, and were a space where people met outside of the routine of daily, commercial life. Parishes were determined by geography; Protestant churches were determined by denominational affiliation. Nowadays, people form their communities through other means. People develop their values more privately. People no longer go to church out of a social commitment, but out of a personal (some would argue consumptive) one. People go to churches where they feel like they’re being “fed.” Church is a commodity, and an optional one at that.

And for some people, that might mean not going to church at all, because nothing about religious devotion is going to “feed” them in their daily needs, concerns, or values.

No church can simply turn back the clock and return to old ways of building community and meeting the needs, concerns, and values of its people. Our world has changed too much to let the old ways remain effective. Instead, the church has to realize how people are building community, and meeting their needs, concerns, and values. Given the landscape of online communities, fandoms, social movements, and identities that people find meaningful and important, churches have to start taking these seriously as locations of encounter, even, spiritual encounter. By looking at what these spaces are doing, and how they’re doing it, churches can see what they’re called to be doing right now too.

2. As inclusive as yours may be, churches are overwhelmingly cisgender, heterosexual spaces

Your church may be doing well on the question of LGBTQ+ inclusivity, but two millennia of erasure, discrimination, violence, and outright hatred do not simply go away. Churches as organizations are not just filled with cisgender, heterosexual ways of thinking, but in history were specifically built and developed as cisgender, heterosexual spaces.

Imagine a developer who’s taken an old automotive garage and wants to turn it into a bistro. Think of the structural, aesthetic, and functional changes they’re going to have to make to the space. It’s not enough to move some tables in and start serving customers – all the old equipment, all the junk, the oil stains, the rusty tools, all of it are going to have to go, and habitable fixtures are going to have to take their place.

Likewise, if you take an institution that has structurally and theologically opposed LGBTQ+ inclusion for centuries, you’re going to have to do more than just change your theology. You’re going to have to change the very atmosphere of the church itself. You’re going to need to look at the language, preaching, unspoken yet strictly enforced social norms–practically every aspect of your church’s life–and address how they might exclude LGBTQ+ persons.

Do you overwhelmingly design your programming for families with children?

Do you have separate Bible studies for men and women?

Does your church’s social and devotional life presume marriage to be a goal of every person?

Does your church’s youth program have and enforce anti-bullying, safe space policies?

Does your church specifically address and discuss the “texts of terror” found in the Bible, Catechism, and/or institutional documents?

These are just a few of the questions that are important to discussing ways to make the church LGBTQ+ friendly, and dealing with the transformations needed for that process.

3. Many LGBTQ+ persons have experienced religious trauma, some of it profound

When I was 14 and my parents found out about my sexuality, my mother forced me to read out loud the passages in Leviticus and Romans condemning “homosexuality” (a term which never appeared in any biblical translation until 1946). In the same event, my stepfather threatened to kick me out of the house. That was a moment that profoundly affected the way I would come to relate to religion in the years to come.

Others had it worse, sometimes even way worse. Gay conversion therapy is still legal in the majority of U.S. states, and despite the deadly cost of these programs, many parents still force their LGBTQ+ children into such torture. As LGBTQ+ people, we are intimately familiar with the feeling of being condemned to hell from the pulpit, of having the name of Jesus brandished as a weapon against our very selves, of never being able to achieve a moment’s peace as our religious upbringing and our sexual selves fight bitterly, sometimes to the death. We are the targets of forced exorcisms, ostracism, and verbal, physical, and sexual abuse in very high percentages across denominational lines. For a great many of us, churches have left us with a legacy of varying degrees of trauma.

For some of us, this literally means coping with a traumatic illness. Religious Trauma Syndrome is a PTSD-like illness that affects people who have suffered chronic abuses in religious communities. Sometimes the impact of leaving such a community causes a deep, lasting trauma. In the same way that surviving an experience that threatens one’s physical integrity can leave a person with deep trauma, so can an experience of losing one’s sense of meaning, coherence, or sense in the world itself. 

For us, any religious setting or language has the potential for causing a triggering event. Their day-to-day functioning may suffer, and we may adopt maladaptive habits such as alcoholism. Yet, even for those of us not quite so severely affected by religious trauma, many simply do not have the ability to conceive of church as being anything remotely resembling a safe space.

The first Mass I went to years after I left the Catholic Church was a very painful experience. The liturgy itself brought back deep, long-held memories and habits of feeling I thought I’d left behind. It was so intense I zoned out, dissociating, realizing only after several minutes that I had tears on my face. I specifically refused Communion, and spent the better part of the rest of the day re-centering myself from what had happened.

I couldn’t even consider going to church again for another few years.

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4. Religious belief in general fundamentally disrupts the ways that many LGBTQ+ persons have learned to find meaning in their lives

One of the worst habits of Christianity is its tendency to assume that it and it alone is capable of providing meaning into the lives of those to whom it preaches. We LGBTQ+ persons, in fact, have been finding and creating meaning in our lives with and without Christianity throughout human history. If any church wishes to include us, it’s going to have to take seriously and be aware of our vehicles of meaning.

Most importantly, it’s going to have to be fundamentally non-judgmental about them.

We have for so long been excluded from churches and the spiritual lives of faith communities that for many, the idea of making meaning out of our experience is impossible through Christianity. Instead, we may look to New Age, Wicca, neo-Paganism, secular atheism and agnosticism, various “scenes” such as the leather or bear scenes, communities of gamers, intellectual pursuits, personal fitness, and so on. You will find it not uncommon for us to have developed full, rich, and deep mechanisms for living meaningfully in light of adversity, prejudice, and rejection. You will find deep and poignant understandings of what it means to be a family, to be in relationship, to be sexual, to be spiritual.

This is not to unrealistically idealize the inner lives of all of us. There is indeed emptiness and futility here, as there is anywhere. It is to say that the spiritual agency at work in our inner lives cannot be shortchanged or insulted by trite and scripted preaching. We need and deserve respect and recognition. We deserve to exist just as much as Christian spirituality does. We have our own integrity and our own experiences of ultimacy and divinity. To fail to recognize and respect this, even in dialogue with Christianity, is nothing short of the colonization of the LGBTQ+ soul.

5. Church institutions tend to submit everything and everybody to the “pastoral gaze”

Imagine for a second that you’re on an elevator, and halfway to your floor the elevator stops and a stern-looking man wearing a clerical collar gets on. After a few more floors the elevator stops and gets stuck. It’s just you and him. What’s going through your mind? What are you feeling?

Chances are you’re going to relate to this man far differently than you would to almost anyone else. Your emotions are going to be a tad more complex as you both consciously and unconsciously self-censor and subject your inner self to a kind of surveillance that is completely different from self-reflection and self-awareness. A priest or minister may not be judgmental per se, but their very presence incites a sort of self-judgment. It’s like a revered grandparent, phlegmatic schoolmarm, and police officer all in one, and you don’t know whether any given offense is going to offend them or offend yourself more in that moment.

This is the “pastoral gaze”: it contains a moral authority, a therapeutic soothingness, and an overarching totality that overtakes one’s whole sense of self in moral insecurity. All of a sudden, you’re no longer acting in the moment, but you’re self-conscious. You’ve moved from “is” to “should,” and your chief motivation in that moment is to be a “better” person.

Churches themselves are spaces defined by perpetual surveillance by the pastoral gaze. This is not to say that they are necessarily authoritarian or totalitarian, but that values and morals operate as the primary priority of thought. The challenge for any church is to channel the “pastoral gaze” into the “contemplative gaze,” one marked not by judgment of inadequacy but a peaceful resting in a spiritual centeredness.

No matter how progressive your church, such a pastoral gaze is exhausting. Some of us simply don’t want to subject ourselves to an environment with the subtle but constant pressure to be something or someone different. Churches are, quite simply, not particularly great spaces for LGBTQ+ persons to integrate their whole selves, and that self-surveillance can be toxic. We need, instead, spaces of love defined, not by some moralism, but on the contemplative grasping of the goodness of God and neighbor.

6. Churches tend to micromanage even healthy sexual expressions

Now that the entire U.S. has marriage equality, the general social expectation for all LGBTQ+ persons is that we will at some point get married. While not a bad thing in itself, this does not represent the full spectrum of options that we have for our relational lives. Marriage, in a sense, renders sex invisible–making of it a private act between spouses, in the privacy of the bedroom, apart from public eyes. The theologies and practices of marriage in churches tend to aid and abet that invisibility by micromanaging the sexual expressions of it members, even in LGBTQ+ affirming churches.

This doesn’t mean that such churches necessarily dictate the exact sexual positions and dates of acceptable sexual activity (though there’s certainly historical precedent for that). It means that, even among progressive Christians, the ground of ethical reflection isn’t on the sexual lives and desires people actually have, but on some script of how they should be. Very few churches have the conceptual, pastoral, or theological space necessary to support the non-monogamous, polyamorous, or BDSM aligned relationships, nor to explore the significance of non-platonic, non-romantic relationships.

We largely don’t go to church because church doesn’t allow us to articulate, explore, and deepen the meaning we find in our actual sex lives. Churches more often than not assume without any actual inquiry that our non-monogamous, non-vanilla, non-traditional sexual expressions are transitory at best or pathological at worst. Queer sex scares people in churches, and largely only allow it when hidden behind the veil of marriage. We want and need to integrate our sex lives with our religious lives. Moral prudishness tells us either we have to give up our sex lives, or go home.

7. Your church isn’t as LGBTQ+ inclusive as it thinks it is

It’s a little disconcerting the amount of times I’ve encountered a church that claims to be LGBTQ+ inclusive, but has no actual queer members. I’ve seen churches that claim to be LGBTQ+ inclusive, but through some theological sleight of hand, resist actually affirming LGBTQ+ identity or expression. Some will refuse to hold same-sex weddings in the sanctuary but allow them in the parish hall (I’m looking at you, UMC congregations), others will “welcome” LGBTQ+ persons but still expect them to be celibate or closeted.

Even actively affirming congregations stumble by hiring only straight, cisgender people for ministry positions. Some denominations will ordain LGBTQ+ persons, but those ministers will then struggle to find a job in any church within that denomination. Your denomination may profess inclusivity, but individual congregations may resist or reject it. Put quite simply, your ostensibly LGBTQ+ affirming church, may not be as inclusive as you think it is.

If LGBTQ+ persons express concerns to you about this, listen to us. It can be very difficult to understand where we’re coming from because you have such a different position, but in pretty much every case assume what we say is honest, valid, and legitimate. Only then can the church begin to have the necessary – and difficult – conversations about where it’s failing and how it can do better.

For further reading:

Cody J. Sanders, Queer Lessons for Churches on the Straight and Narrow: What All Christians Can Learn from LGBTQ Lives

David J. Kundtz & Bernard S. Schlager, Ministry Among God’s Queer Folk: LGBT Pastoral Care

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Michelle Wolf and the New Era of American Political Comedy

dd916420e08510c5430ac810627c268b_400x400In the year of our Lord two thousand eighteen, in the shadow of a now-infamous comedic performance given at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner less than 48 hours past, the internet and the U.S. new cycle seems to be catching up to the realization that we have moved into a new era of American political comedy. Recent years have shown us, not only a number of cultural and political changes that have profoundly affected the way comics do business, but changes within the comedy industry itself. Michelle Wolf represents the pinnacle of these changes: the new political comedy is sharp, it’s not afraid to be vulgar, it takes no prisoners, and is not here to fuck around. The new political comedy rejects the conventions of the polite (or at least more politic) white, male-driven comedy of years past, which, even when aiming to cause upset, targeted more the prudish and oversensitive than concrete power structures and person of influence. Now, comedy is a form of resistance. Comedy has a new face, and the conventions of the past are giving way to something new.

Michelle Wolf is, of course, not the first comedian to cause an upset at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. In 2006, Stephen Colbert gave a surprise, in-character performance that was highly critical of the Bush Administration. Like Wolf, Colbert received instant notoriety, a mix of praise and criticism. Questions of propriety arose, as well as the question of whether or not the Correspondent’s Dinner was a wise event to hold in the first place, but in the end, Colbert signaled a cultural agenda aimed at bringing down the pretenses of those who hold and misuse power. Later that year, the Democrats seized control of the House and Senate, essentially making Bush a lame-duck president.

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Since then, which is a relatively short amount of time, we’ve been through a lot. The onslaught of the Great Recession, the historic presidency of Barack Obama, the Occupy Wall Street Movement, the birth of the Black Lives Matter Movement out of collective traumas, and the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges decision, and the increasing visibility of trans persons sensitized us as a nation to questions of race, class, gender, and sexuality, while the chaos of the 2016 election including the candidacy and election of the current president exposed us to the emboldened brutal callousness of a huge portion of the U.S. populace. That callousness has shown up in the public realm, not merely as angry conservatives vying for cultural power and privilege, but also as literal Nazis, White Supremacists, and White Nationalists in public discourse. In this shift, what it means to be funny has rightfully been redefined.

Colbert went on to host late night television. Jon Stewart, his Comedy Central colleague who himself was the face of an entire generation of liberal political humor, retired and Trevor Noah, a South African man of mixed race, assumed the helm of his show. The old-guard of Comedy Central went into a diaspora of sorts, with Sarah Silverman hosting her brilliant, unusual show I Love You America on Hulu of all places, Inside Amy Schumer being cancelled after four seasons, Broad City being scheduled to end after its upcoming season, and The President Show doing little more than reenacting and mirroring the real-life shenanigans of a chaotic administration. John Oliver represents the evolution of white liberal male political humor from being front-and-center on the most popular comedy network in the world, to hosting funny long-form investigative reporting on a weekly show on paid cable. American political humor evolved from white men behind desks, and it’s also evolved from irreverent but ultimately politic takes on topical issues.

Michele Wolf herself comes out of this tradition, being a regular as a correspondent on The Daily Show With Trevor Noah. She represents the evolution American political comedy has undergone: it punches up, not down; it’s angry as hell but sensitive to the concerns of the marginalized; it refuses to be polite, respectable, or nice; it puts its racial, gender, class, and sexual differences front and center instead of hiding them behind the veil of proper decorum; it doesn’t take to elaborate performativity (a la Colbert’s overlong and complicated gag with the late Helen Thomas) but offers succinct, sharpened, concise, precision-guided and profanity-laced barbs. The controversy surrounding Kathy Griffin taught comedians a valuable lesson: in the age of Trump, there is no apologizing for yourself. Controversy is how this president came to power, and controversy is part of what will remove him from power. Comedy is no longer clowning. Comedy is simply effective truth-telling first and foremost. The needs of the moment demand it, and the spirits of American audiences thirst for that refreshing slap-in-the-face of plain-truth sanity.

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Sarah Huckabee Sanders holding a glass of water while Michelle Wolf eviscerates her live on national television

Ultimately, the controversy over Michelle Wolf’s performance reveals more than it’s aware of, and what it reveals in its hysterically self-evident contradictions is the spirit of the moment we inhabit. Simply telling the truth is a radical act (her most shocking statement of the night, I argue is her closing line: “Flint has no clean water”); calling out lies is seen as an attack on persons who happen to have excellent smoky-eye makeup. To the merchants who peddle invisible cloth – the 24-hour news cycle, the sophists of political punditry, the access-first journalists, etc. – saying that the emperor has no clothes is an existential threat.

What better way to deliver that threat than through crass one-liners mocking the naked emperor?

Treasures of the Stupid Ages, Vol. 1: “The Tac-Sac™”

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Inspired by the Fox show Futurama (we don’t talk about Comedy Central), Treasures of the Stupid Ages is a periodical series of posts featuring compilations of some of the most idiotic and absurd links from around the web. In the interests in fostering a diverse group of stories, great care is taken to keep references to the current administration to a minimum.

My good friends, stop where you are for a moment and listen. No matter where you are, I promise that whatever sound you hear is the sound of a thousand gender studies papers being written. In case you lack the ability to use the Force to hear the sound of a million voices crying out (before being silenced by mansplaining dude-bros with tenure), it falls to me to have to bring you this dreadful information.

Some company decided that it was a good idea to design, manufacture, and sell a set of testicles for long firearms.

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As if the conversation around gun culture hasn’t gotten bizarre enough, you can now purchase “The Tac-Sac*,” a “premier high-speed, low-hang novelty accessory for your firearm, paintball marker, or airsoft gun.” Occupying that precarious space between “macho” and “gay,” this piece of ammosexual fet gear serves no practical function except to show off at the range (it’s definitely not intended to be used a foregrip, which if you ask me, is either a serious oversight or a missed opportunity). You won’t even need a gun, because you’re gonna kill ’em laughing!

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When you couldn’t remember if you were supposed to call it “Tea Party” or “Tea Bag”

 

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Also available in blue! Because get it? Blue? Balls?

If you wanted to make a purchase, sadly, you’re out of luck because the company has sold out and must wait through its refractory period restock their supplies.

The connection between firearms and penises is so well known it’s become a pretty tired cliche. What we see here though is something that singlehandedly appears to prove Freud right about at least one thing. But to see it made so…explicit…and with such audacity skips over from self-parody to something a bit more pathetic. It’s not just immature. It’s not just irresponsible. It’s not just tacky and tasteless. It’s tragically, and explosively, stupid. There is no intelligent rationale for this.

So, here you are, oh fragile masculinity, for whom owning and operating a gun for fuck’s sake isn’t quite enough to prove you have the cojones to be a real man. You’ve fallen so far down the abyss of toxic masculinity that you’re literally attaching a vicarious pair of gonads to your piece. As you fire and fetishize your equipment intended for the ending of a life, let’s hope that your more natural set of equipment doesn’t anytime soon go and actually create a life. No kid would ever want to have to explain to his friends why daddy feels he needs to symbolically enact any scenario in which his own genitals fells a bull moose or ATF squad.

  • I will not post a link to this site, for fear of 1) giving them traffic, or 2) baiting trolls through pingbacks. You’ll have to Google this yourself.

Rethinking the Banality of Evil

15984617_303We live in a day and age in which we risk several lethal mistakes when it comes to the way we handle the question of evil and our response to it. We expect it to come from identifiable monsters, as we seem incapable and unwilling to find that kind of evil lurking in our own homes, churches, schools, and neighborhoods. “Normal” is a dangerous category in that it both incubates evil patterns and numbs us to their actions until it’s too late (I’ve already written about this). Because I want us to be able to fundamentally reassess our understanding and expectations of moral responsibility, and thus to increase our capacity and desire to choose what is good and resist what is evil, I want to examine the “banality of evil” as a warning to any modern society whose populace is seduced into “normality” of thought, habit, and feeling. I fear that we are so seduced, and that are so in increasingly violent ways. But in November 2017, the New York Times published an article describing the daily life white nationalist, focusing on (I would argue, fetishizing) the normality of his life. I believe this approach to understanding the banality of evil is wrong, and that we have to re-think what we mean by the banality of evil.

In the wake of the atrocities of World War II, one of the greatest insights into evil arose through the social philosophy of Hannah Arendt. She herself was a student of Martin Heidegger, a woman of Jewish heritage who found herself having to survive the Shoah by leaving Germany in 1933, before arriving in New York in 1941. In 1961, she reported on the trial Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Observing his milquetoast character defined by his lack of any depth of thought, his tendency merely to follow orders, and his crippling lack of communicational skills as evidenced by his overuse of officially-sanctioned language and ideological platitudes, Arendt courted a provocative idea, one that she called “the banality of evil.” [1]

To understand how provocative it is, first, we must understand that modernity has its own theodicy. I would argue that our entire understanding of the ontology of science and technology is the enactment of this theodicy, especially when enacted in the context of capitalist ideology. The science of biology, especially, does not exist as an apolitical cumulation of facts concerning the phenomenon of life, but exists itself as a power discourse meant to legitimate instances of evil found in both nature and the will. Early evolutionary theories provided a pathogenesis of the evil of particular illnesses, social problems, and geopolitical structures. Racial theories, eugenics, socio-sexual deviations, etc. came to be seen, not as theo-ethical issues, but as medical issues as biology and medical science promised a remedy. Even evil behaviors came to arise from a biological cause, as the racial pseudo-science of the 19th century and Nazi Germany proves. Biology, when used as a reductive ideological system meant to describe the entirety of human life and experience, functions as a theodicy. It literally provides the justification for evil.

We also can’t understand how provocative Arendt’s case is without understanding a little about Kantian ethics. The 18th-century Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant proposed the idea of “radical evil,” [2] that is, the notion that evil doesn’t exist out of an express desire to be or act in an evil manner, but in a fundamental perversion of the heart that makes human beings prefer evil out of self-love. Evil doesn’t really have a “cause” (a tenet that echoes Augustine, who taught that finding a cause of evil is vanity, as evil doesn’t have an “efficient cause,” but rather a “deficient cause.” Evil stems from a lack of ontology and intelligibility. There’s nothing “there.” It’s a void). We simply have the freedom to accept what is good, or to accept what is bad. The problem of evil doesn’t command an understanding – the problem of evil commands a choice.

Eichmann,_AdolfWhat perplexed Arendt when faced with Eichmann was that we was so goddamn normal. What haunted her mind was the way in which Eichmann, and so many like him in Nazi Germany, committed such great acts of evil precisely through a failure to meaningfully choose at all. Eichmann didn’t appear to have chosen evil, anymore than he appeared to have authentically chosen good. He lacked the critical capacity or desire to exercise any bit of his personal moral freedom. Since he was no psychopath, nor mentally ill, he had his freedom, but in the course of fulfilling his duties for the Nazi state, convinced himself that he bore no moral responsibility for what his country did. Like Pontius Pilate, he was able to mentally wash his hands of innocent blood while simultaneously spilling it.

This observation, that Eichmann was astonishingly and boringly normal, is what caused such great scandal to the proponents of the legal system tasked with prosecuting a man responsible for innumerable deaths. Her critics have accused her of diluting the moral weight of Eichmann’s character and actions, taken her to task for overstating his normality, and downplaying the darkness of his character and life.

That criticism is just as alive and well in the criticism of the New York Times article.

I argue that any close understanding of what Arendt meant by assessing evil as banal means that we must be on guard against normalizing forces that could easily sedate us into behaving as mundanely malicious mild-mannered moral monsters. That Eichmann was an insidious anti-Semite, an enthusiastic fanatic of Nazi ideology, and a man stewed in murderous hatred does not negate the normality undergirding the contours of his life and character. In the age of Trump, I’ve met too many “normal people” more than willing to enable a racist, sexist, xenophobic, neo-fascist, authoritarian figure to think that it takes a willful and knowing choosing of evil in order for people to act and commit evil. Normality doesn’t downplay evil. The truest evils committed are by our next door neighbors, not by psychopaths with bloodlust.

Does the insistence of showing evil people to be monsters not, after all, achieve a sort of social distancing? Are we not able to project and deflect our social, collective ills onto such individuals and wash our own hands of innocent blood, all while our systems of normality continue to spill that same innocent blood? Does not understanding the banality of evil help us to identify and disrupt the murderous machinations of normality?

The value that comes from exploring the banality of evil is that it enables us to critically and piercingly engage in theo-ethical reflection on the social, political, and cultural systems that surround us whose “normality” conceals their murderous foundations. What it does not – or should not – do is allow us to fetishize the normality of those who enact the latent murderousness of those systems. Such fetishization goes the opposite direction: instead of allowing us to critically reflect on lethal normality, it causes us to accept and accustom ourselves to the very lethality of normality.

SS-auxiliaries-poses-at-a-resort-for-Auschwitz-personnel.-From-laughing-at-Auschwitz-c.-1942

The photo above is one of the most chilling photographs I’ve ever seen. The individuals in it are the clerical and administrative staff at Auschwitz. There’s nothing monstrous about their appearance. They’re smiling, laughing, posing, playing the accordion, enjoying a sort of workplace bonhomie. But this photograph alone doesn’t tell me anything about evil. Once I know who they are, where they work, and what happened in that place, then the picture reveals its chilling disclosure. Yes, it’s normal. Where’s the evil? Within that very normality. But I don’t know this until I know about who they are and what they’ve done.

The New York Times article, and the narrative about social evils that we replay every damn day in our own communities and neighborhoods, suggest that only monsters act like monsters. Racism only exists in the bigoted hearts of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and their ilk, not in the very structure and structures of normality itself. Evil can only be evil if it’s apparent. We dilute, justify, and ignore evil that comes in the guise of the normal. The answer isn’t to look at someone we know to be a monster and, without moral or ethical context, show how normal they really are. We look at how normal they are, and use what we see to sharpen our moral and ethical abilities.

Reflecting on evil as “banal” encourages us to find the moral contagion within normality – not to find the normality within the moral contagion.

 

[1] Hannah Arendt. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Viking Press, 1963.

[2] Immanuel Kant, Religion Within the Bounds of Reason Alone and Critique of Practical Reason.

In the Immediate Aftermath of the Austin Bombings, What We Can See About Social Deflection and Murderous “Nice Kids”

0321-mark-anthony-conditt-facebook-1It’s only been a few hours since the young man responsible for the recent campaign of bombs in the Austin area has blown himself up as the SWAT team descended upon him. Already, the narrative developing around him has taken a familiar turn: neighbors describe him as a “nice kid,” whose parents are shocked at bewildered, and who showed no signs of radicalization prior to the violence he committed. We saw a bit of this with Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year old shooter who killed 17 people at a high school in the Parkland, Florida shooting several weeks ago. We saw it with Brock Turner, the Stanford swimming student caught in the act of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. The Las Vegas shooter received the grown-up form of this treatment. I could go on. In the end, the narrative emerges that the individual was deeply, troublingly human, and this somehow mitigates their culpability because we can identify with them. If we can identify them, that somehow de-radicalizes them: they weren’t beholden to a toxic or violence point of view – they were just troubled, and their actual beliefs don’t mean much.

We want to believe this, because their beliefs (and their identities) don’t seem so far off from our own. They’re not monsters. We identify with their parents and their grandmothers who don’t know what happened, where they went wrong, and now they’ve lost their child and that child’s innocence in one fell swoop. Exactly how social pathologies operate, however, isn’t exactly as dramatic as we expect it to be. We live in an age of mass shootings and domestic terrorism, but we’re clueless about how these things arise because of things we see around us every day. We’re painfully unable to understand the violence of our society, because we’re obstinately unwilling to probe the pathologies of our society.

That Conditt was white has everything to do with this. That Conditt was also male and of a Christian background also has everything to do with this. We can’t imagine him as a terrorist, because the category of “terrorist” itself has, socially and in jurisprudence, always been meant to be a deflective category for the Other. Mark Anthony Conditt cannot be a terrorist because he’s not “Other.” We can’t dehumanize him. And yet, we can’t possibly see how the way he thinks and the actions he’s taken has anything to do with the lives, beliefs, and reality that we ourselves inhabit. He was “mentally ill.” He was “disturbed.” He was “troubled.”

It’s precisely because I’ve known so many people like Mark Anthony Conditt that I want us to take a good look at the social pathologies that animated his murderous decisions over the last several weeks. How did his whiteness, his Christian faith, his maleness, all the things that made him “normal” contribute to his decision to end the lives of two people and attempt to end the lives of several more? There’s a clue in an old blog post he made in 2012 condemning homosexuality, calling it “unnatural.” That argument arises from the politics of normality. All these accounts, including childhood friends, describe him as painstakingly normal (never mind that in my world, survivalist communities teaching kids to use and carry knives, and recreationally shoot guns isn’t exactly normal). He was a “nice kid.”

Exploring the “banality of evil” isn’t a new phenomenon. The phrase itself comes from Hannah Arendt, a Jewish social theorist and philosopher who covered the war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1962. Disturbed by the “normality” he seemed to present, Arendt proposed that we radically reassess our assumptions about moral responsibility, and understand evil itself as an inability to “think” – which is an exercise of intentionality, deliberative agency, and theo-ethical reflection. Not thinking is what’s normal. Because so few people think, evil becomes banal. And despite his friend’s and acquaintance’s accounts of Conditt being a “deep thinker,” it’s very clear that at the very least theo-ethical reflection, as a form of thinking, is conspicuously absent in the proceedings of these murders.

Maybe it’s time that we stark taking stock of the insight that “normal” and “nice” are themselves violent categories. It’s not just that what’s normal happens to lack theo-ethical reflection, but that a lack of theo-ethical reflection is exactly what makes something normal to begin with. Conditt was “normal,” as was Stephen Haddock, Brock Turner, Elliott Rodger, Craig Stephen Hicks, and Michael David Dunn, to name a few. They all had in common their race, sex, and an orientation toward the Other based on hostility and a self-assumed privilege. Hostility toward the Other has emerged as the greatest social pathology of our time, based on the fear that the Other is an existential threat to ourselves and our world. We have not only rejected love of neighbor, we have rejected our neighbor itself in a nihilistic, murderous mindset that sees only those close to oneself worth loving, that finds no basis or concern for caring about other people. We can call these murderous men “normal” because we share that underlying hostility and fail to see how it lies at the foundation of this violence itself.

The mindset that compelled Conditt and other murderously “normal” people arose from a complex set of social, ethical, cultural, and political realities that can take armies of scholars, clinicians, and social professionals to unravel. But in the end, our response to it shows that we’re just as implicated in that same mindset. While few of us are going to go out and bomb, shoot, or rape our neighbor, we are still beholden to the imagination by which our neighbor threatens our identity, existence, and integrity. And until we can take ourselves to task for this as communities and individuals, “nice kids” are going to continue murdering their neighbors.