Conflict(ed) Within

During my college application process, I toyed with the idea of applying to West Point.  Then, when I was in college, I took a Military Science class, and thought about making the commitment to sign a contract for Army Reserved Officer Training Corp (R.O.T.C.).  Years later, I eventually recognized that I was in search of control, discipline, family, organization, and clear purpose (read: aspects of normalcy mixed with feelings of rebelliousness).  I’ve since recognized how some of my attraction to my idealized military experience was about desires I could not yet name, but that’s a different blog post.  What actually kept me from signing a contract was that “don’t ask, don’t tell” was in practice.  I knew I could never stay closeted (I was an out lesbian in college) and I kind of bristled under certain commands – both clues it was unlikely I would successfully finish a term of service.  I share these memories to share my thinking about how, as a trans person, I am conflicted about the “policy dictate” via the very (un)presidential platform of Twitter to ban transgender people from serving in the military.  Let me explain a bit about my conflicted feelings…

To be sure, the tweet was a publicly malicious statement that denies the value and existence of transgender people who serve(d) in the military.  Once again, the message is clear that we do not belong, our lives are a distraction and disruption to “normal” people, and our transness makes us less than.  I cannot understand how personal choices about bio-medical transition options are a budget consideration and open for national debate; costs that are, based on actual empirical data, nominal.  I cannot understand how the goal of patriotic duty is not enough to overcome exclusion.

And here is where I get conflicted because I cannot even imagine the challenges that exist for openly (or stealth) transgender service people.  I cannot figure out how transness fits within a military paradigm of gender.  For some I think military service is about patriotism, but for others, I think military service is a form of economic necessity.

I am unconvinced about the positive role of the military in U.S. culture.  I admit that I am not as well-versed on the topics of militarism, nationalism, and imperialism.  Inclusion is an imperfect concept, and I struggle to determine whether inclusion of queer and trans people in the military is the kind of inclusion that demonstrates the liberatory future that could exist (see Barbara Love).  There is a homonormativity (see Kacere) about the argument for trans inclusion in the military; just another way to say we as trans people are “American” just like everyone else.  Violence is a reality for too many trans people, especially trans women of color (see Editors of Everyday Feminism), and let’s be clear: violence is a part of military tactics.  This is a complicated contradiction to manage, and certainly muddles my thinking.  There are people who write with far more nuance and sharp analysis of why the ban on transgender military personnel is problematic (see Dean Spade and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore), and I will not rehash their thinking here.

Instead what I offer is this: inclusion and exclusion are not a binary concept.  There are consequences to people for exclusion that interpersonally are difficult to reconcile.  Maybe because when I imagine liberation, I cannot figure out how we create a world where the military is unnecessary (this is my shortcoming).  So, if I can’t imagine a future without a military, then isn’t trans inclusion in the military necessary?  At the same time, I struggle to feel safe, comfortable, or empowered in the presence of those in uniform.  Might I feel less discomfort if I knew those in uniform were trans?  Honestly, I’m not sure that poses much influence on my feelings because the military is more complex than the individual in uniform; the armed forces are an institution built with rules, boundaries, and regulations that is only mildly influenced by individuals.

Was I surprised by the tweet?  No.  Maybe the most instructive thing relevant for me is to share is what I did feel.  The most acute feeling for me after the news of the tweet was resignation.  I felt resignation because the “travel ban” foreshadowed the isolationist, nationalist, and xenophobic policy decisions of the current administration.  I felt resignation because I expect these kind of institutional and cultural policies, as well as political decisions about the uneasy and contentious existence of transness.  I felt resignation because I knew this tweet energized the more normative queer and trans political organizations.  Military exclusion is the new thing to fire up the base in this “post-marriage” era (not all of us were interested in marriage to begin with, just like not all of us are interested in access to military service).  Is another non-discrimination policy going to really address this issue of institutional and systemic expectations that support trans exclusion?  (See Dean Spade for the limits of the law and Critical Trans Politics).  I felt resignation because where is the data about whether trans people would serve in the military if they had other options for employment, and access to healthcare and education?  I don’t know, but I think it would be a worthwhile research endeavor.  Why are queer and trans organizations supporting access to an institution that has stalled many (all?) attempts to address sexual violence, torture, hazing, and racism?

I felt resignation knowing the counter-story to this new “policy” highlights the “success” stories of trans people in the military – trans people who did not experience violence, harassment, or marginalization for being trans in the military (or who tell the story of persistence in the face of such experiences).  I also felt resignation because I am not willing tell a trans person that military service is inconsistent with the ideology of trans politics.  So, you see, I’m a bit conflicted, and maybe a bit of my resignation is turning into anger, and I have a lot of questions that are underneath the question of this false binary of trans exclusion/inclusion in military service.

Chase Catalano is a White trans* academic who focuses on higher education.  His scholarship focuses on trans* collegians (specifically, trans* men and trans* masculine students in higher education), social justice, and masculinities.  Prior to his role as an assistant professor he worked in student affairs as the director of an LGBT Resource Center.

The Public Face of the White Corporatocracy

While much has been made of Donald Trump’s bombastic style, his highly offensive commentary toward just about every identifiable group (strangely, sometimes even his own), and his irreverence for any type of “protocol” other than the one he happens to be proffering that day, I have been considering a slightly different aspect of his rise (and recent wins in state primaries). Since our nation’s inception, the corporate elites have been the shadow figures with respect to U.S. government, funding candidates and influencing policy via their economic power (e.g the Koch brothers today). Now however, via Trump’s candidacy, the White corporatocracy has brazenly stepped into the limelight. I was struck most by a sound bite of his I heard from South Carolina the day after he won New Hampshire where he was openly talking about his personal love of money and his unabashed greed, and that that is what has made him a success (hello Gordon Gecko). Apparently he has had his Scrooge awakening and now wants to turn all this into a means of serving this country – “I’m greedy. I love money. Now I want to be greedy for America.” Rather than be appalled, the folks at his rally stood and cheered.

Astonishing. Not because it’s the first time this has ever been said, (the White, imperial corporatocracy has been doing this all along) but rather for its public face. I wonder if this means that the corporatocracy has so much control as a result of Citizens United that they no longer think they need to pretend they are not running this country? Or, has the fact that they were bailed out with no repercussions after the 2008 crash while so many millions of Americans suffered made them feel invincible? Not sure, but something has changed such that the leaders and denizens of the White corporatocracy feel that they can unreservedly come out into the light. At one point several weeks ago Bloomberg said he would rush in and “save” us from the threat of Trump if it seemed he was winning. Again, astonishing – one corporate conglomerate is seemingly going to save us from another. Yes, a clash of the corporate titans has left the shadows and emerged as the WWF of politics right out in the open.

But my focus in this piece is not about Trump or Bloomberg. They have taken up too much ink, air and space already. I am more interested in and concerned about what Trump’s rise says about us. It’s less about the titans and far more about what this political moment reveals about the racial and economic underbelly of this country. More specifically, I’ve noticed four things.

“I’m rich…really rich”

When I was in my teens the television show “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” was a hit because it let the rest of us peek into the lives of the very rich and fantasize about being them some day. The presentation of the show was not merely a “reporting out” but was always tinted with the theme of aspiration. In Robin Leach’s droll British accent I heard high praise after high praise for the various class markers that indicated not only affluence, but also one’s importance to our society. Horatio Alger was indeed alive and well in the mythic notion that we all can rise to this elite status if we are smart, work hard, and dream big. And I think Trump holds this strange promise to many poor and working class Whites around this country. They have been screwed, no doubt about it, but not by “the government” and its taxes and legislative spending. They have been dismissed and their value as workers in this country has been deeply diminished, but not by those on Pennsylvania Avenue. No, the unions that have for so long protected poor and working class people, the social benefits that have served as nets to catch the most economically vulnerable, and the very jobs that so many poor and working class folks have worked over the years have been decimated and destroyed by the 1%, either directly or by their political proxies. Either way, it was the prompting of the 1% that led to the tax changes in the Reagan era and the decimation of welfare in the Clinton era. And yet, the myth of meritocracy and the belief in one’s “bootstraps”, ideas deeply steeped in the lies of manifest destiny and American exceptionalism and then wrapped up in the conflation of democracy and capitalism, seem to obfuscate the reality that the 1% has never, ever in the history of this society been a friend of the working class. Poor and working class Whites seem to be voting for Trump because they think he has pulled himself up by his bootstraps, forgetting of course that he started in a place they will likely never, ever reach in their lifetime, and then stepped on countless others as he climbed. I’m not singling him out as some sort of pariah, that’s simply how this current economic system works for folks like him.

And so the promise of wealth, of one’s rise, of some measure of comfort and safety brought about by hard work in an economic system that is completely and utterly rigged still holds sway for these poor and working class Whites, and in the process the fiction of the “American Dream” as being open to everyone persists, despite the fact that it is still really just open to White, middle-class men. Thus, the public face of the corporatocracy and of Trump’s success as a Republican candidate tells us that 8 years after the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the economic and racial myths of this country are greater than its reality. The desperation wrapped up in this is powerful and painful to watch, as is the inevitable devastation that will come to those White, working class folks when Trump destroys their access to health care, sells off their pubic lands for private development, lets the corporate sector take over even more of their “public” schools, continues the decimation of their unions, and further solidifies the barriers between the elites and the lives of these everyday folks.

“Make America Great Again”

Can you hear the strains of nostalgia as we start to harken back to the “good old days”? I can. In no uncertain terms this campaign slogan is about some very disconcerting racial dynamics and spells deep trouble for People of Color, Native peoples and White people working for racial justice. First, that language when coming from White folks with conservative leanings has always meant a reestablishment of the racial hierarchy in this country. Since Mr. Obama won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, we have seen the public vitriol toward People of Color and Native peoples increase exponentially. Far from being some sort of post-racial utopia, President Obama’s two terms have signaled a deep and palpable panic on the part of the White establishment regarding their “rightful” place in the world. This is demonstrated most sharply by the KKK controversy with respect to Trump. His desire to return to times of “America’s greatness” is contingent upon the second class citizenry of People of Color and Native peoples such that White folks can have easier access to resources, opportunities, and economic, social and political safety. A perfect puppet of Reagan’s promises of a shining city on the hill (just before he waged “war on drugs” aka war on Black and Brown men), but with the gloves off.

Second, this language has also always signaled an increase in the use of violence to enforce that racialized social order. As such, I think we can expect under Mr. Trump greater support for policing tactics that have inflamed racial tensions across the country, a greater acceptance of torture tactics for those deemed enemies of the state, and a rolling back of any institutional policies that seek to rectify this nation’s four centuries of racial oppression. The dismantling of Section IV of the Voting Rights Act will be nothing in comparison to what Mr. Trump, and more likely his appointees, will proffer in hopes of creating an America that looks decidedly Whiter in all the halls of power. Thus, we can see that the very notion of making this nation great again is contingent on the maintenance of the deeply racist and profoundly exploitative racialized policies of this nation’s history. As Trump calls upon his followers to remember what this nation used to be like, we who believe in racial justice must call out the deeply rooted racial oppression that those historic and current realities are based on. Far from making this nation great, our long-standing racist history has been a blight and ultimately will serve as one of the sources of the end of this great society, not its salvation.

“I want to be greedy for America”

In conjunction with the heightened centering of a White dominant hierarchy, Trump’s desire to be greedy for America also signals a period of U.S. imperialism and unilateral militarism abroad. Trump’s initial inflammatory comments about Mexicans coming into the U.S. were a harbinger of his overall ideology of U.S. entitlement. He is one step beyond the Bush doctrine (if there’s a 1% threat) and feels that there doesn’t even need to be a physical threat to take action against another nation, there simply needs to be an economic or political opportunity for the U.S., and that is sufficient grounds for a hostile takeover. Thus those who favor militaristic approaches over diplomacy of any kind will favor his bomb first and ask questions later approach. In the 2008 election John McCain made a problematic “joke” where he conflated the song “Barbara Ann” with the bombing of Iran. It was largely panned in the media but also created a bit of a distance with Republican voters. Now, 8 years later, throngs of White folks do not seem to mind Trump’s assertion of empire via military and economic imperialism. Again, as above, when fear drives a young nation such as ours, a nation with a lot of firepower, it can be a very dangerous equation for the rest of the world. Those who thought George W. Bush’s notions of U.S. unilateralism were extreme have not seen anything until Trump gets elected and ushers in an era of uber-neo-colonial foreign policy rooted in racist reactivity to what he deems (as do his followers) as a “weak” Obama and a tepid U.S. foreign policy. In particular, economically, politically and militarily vulnerable nations (often nations that have high numbers of poor folks or People of Color who have been run roughshod over due to Western colonialism) will be no obstacle to Trump if his administration deems them desirable to the United States’ interests. Again, this is not new in terms of U.S. foreign policy, what is new is the brazen way in which it is publicly stated and in which the White corporatocracy feels immune to its contestation. In a moment where the planet needs to come closer together to address global climate change, massive refugee issues, deep and heavily interconnected economic issues, and the threat of violence in a range of manifestations, it is striking that the Teddy-Roosevelt-on-steroids notion of “carry a big stick” appeals to the followers of Trump. In exactly the moment when we need to act like one among many, Trump’s message says “isolate and dominate.”

I’m a fighter

While I do not know if Trump has uttered these exact words, he certainly packages himself as a fighter for those who have been mistreated by our government, by other nations, by “terrorists”, and by “special interests” who are bringing America down. I was talking to my colleague, Marie, about this the other night and she noted how powerful that “fight” response is in terms of Trump’s words and actions and how it seems to resonate so deeply with folks who see themselves as having reason to fight. Through the combined lenses of racial justice and somatic experiencing, the response of the collective nervous system of Whiteness in this society could actually be an indicator that things are truly changing for us, albeit on some slow, tectonic level. After all, a fight response is not usually brought forth unless there is some powerful threat. In Marie’s words, brown folks are increasingly “here” and demanding change, change which threatens four centuries of White hegemony and power. It is possible, therefore, to see Trump’s rise as an indicator that the White power structure is not only being threatened as stated above, but that it perceives its entire life as coming to an end, perhaps because it is? Maybe the rise of Trump is the beginning of the end of the legacy of Whiteness? It seems less likely that it also signals the end of the corporatocracy, but it might mean that now that it is out in the light a bit more, it is more vulnerable. Before we celebrate, however, remember that when White people (and especially White rich people) get deeply scared good things rarely happen, which is perhaps one way to understand the blatant racism and violence that Trump’s followers often attach to his campaign, his message, and what they imagine his presidency to be. Nevertheless, if I understand the possible indicators of Trump’s rise and appeal, it can serve as a motivation to dig even deeper into the fight for racial and economic justice because we are, in fact, winning this long struggle.

Conclusion

Sadly, while I hear and see plenty of coverage of Donald Trump, I do not hear much in the way of conversation about the mirror Trump is holding up for us as a nation. Liberals (and progressives?) mock him on SNL, Colbert and Conan and yet at the same time we keep grabbing the popcorn and pulling up a chair to watch him and those who follow him. In true White liberal fashion we disparage those at his rallies and suggest that they are not as intelligent, or we simply dismiss them because they are “angry White people” (as if somehow dismissal has ever disarmed and disabused White people of their destructive capacity and power). But, what we are not doing is noticing that the Trump phenomenon is saying something critically important about us as a nation. One could say it is our last gasp as a young, immature, and power-hungry nation who is used to getting its way; or, that it is the final stand of the historic and current regime of conflated class, race and gender dynamics. This is an optimistic view, and one I would sign up for, if I saw that there were numbers, voices and wisdom back of them. Instead, what I see more of is the kind of twin reaction of disbelief that he made it this far and elitist cynicism that Trump will never make it to the presidency and so why worry. This, to me, seems like a substantial misunderstanding of what the private face of the White corporatocracy coming into the public eye actually means. For our sake, and for this nation’s sake, I hope that those of us who care about social justice take a much deeper look, enact a stronger stand, and launch a more vocal and relentless response to Trump and more importantly to his followers lest we find ourselves turning back the clock and wondering how we got here.

The Hope and Promise of Government

A few weeks ago I was in Washington, DC and while there I was able to take a tour of the nation’s Capitol building. While the guided tour itself was not overwhelmingly impressive (it was really just a tour of three rooms), I was struck by how choked up I got while touring the large exhibit area connected to the main entrance. Mind you, while I vacillated between being choked up by certain elements of the exhibit and choking on some of its content (most pointedly when the video describing the U.S. Senate said that “because U.S. Senators serve six-year terms, as opposed to the two-year terms of the House, the Senate is a more collegial body than the House”), there were certainly moments where I was absolutely captivated by the emotional tug I felt at the promise of democracy. Now, I have a feeling that my notion of what democracy looks like differs from many who were also touring the Capitol, nonetheless, the mere promise of such a enterprise kindled in me something I rarely feel about my nation’s leaders anymore: hope in the promise of government.

 

What is the “hope”?

In a nutshell, I hope for a government that is guided by wisdom and compassion instead of hubris and self-interest. I want a government that is concerned with the vulnerable more than it is bound to the purse strings of corporations and the owning class. I want a government that has not become its own professional class but instead is there to serve with humility and reason. I want a government that has not become a proxy for one religion or another and instead embodies pluralism along multiple lines of identity. I want a government that is brave enough to govern with a long-term vision even though it may not be politically expedient or “profitable” in the short term for their political careers. I want a government that safeguards OUR future (the “our” being all of humanity) above other political and personal interests.

 

The 5th century Greek origins of the word democracy, demos (people) and kratos (to govern, rule; power), suggest that the people are the heart of this system, not merely polling numbers to be assuaged or manipulated. And, in recent decades it seems that this notion has slipped further and further from the arena of U.S. democracy as “the people” have been steadily replaced by the power and rule of “the few”. To be sure, I’m not at all naïve enough to think that the U.S. ever had a full democracy in the most robust sense of the word – our history is too riddled with examples to the contrary for me to assume that race, class and gender have not been powerful mediators of one’s capacity to engage in this democracy. But, that does not mean that I cannot hold out for a democracy that can embody these principles; that we can someday have a political system that truly responds to the needs of the people.

 

I feel this most acutely at this historic moment when the inevitability of global climate change and the ever-increasing likelihood of a 4-degree Centigrade future is upon us. At no other time has there been a greater need for government to be grounded in our best attributes as people and our best values as a society. The cowardice shown by my government since James Hansen’s 1988 Congressional testimony has been unbelievable. Its tap roots have ranged from deep ignorance to the selfish protection of their power and the support from the fossil fuel industry to delusional notions that climate change is not even happening, and yet whatever the reason the result has been the same: political inaction that has led us to a truly dire situation. In the face of this, we cannot afford a government operating from a “business as usual” perspective and need our leaders to step up as never before in a true embodiment of the potential and promise of democracy.

 

What is my part?

Critiquing government these days is like shooting fish in a barrel and so it is only fair for me to question myself as a partner in this mess. For example, to the extent that corporations have reached more and more deeply into the political machine, in a small way I have allowed them to do so. I was upset about Citizens United, but I did not protest it. I educated students in my university classes about the political implications of it, I talked to colleagues and peers about how SuperPACs were impacting elections, I complained about it to my neighbors, but I did not actively participate in doing anything about it. In fact, I have never engaged in fighting for solid campaign finance reform laws. I am not saying this as a backhanded critique of others (I mentioned this as a problematic aspect of the “left” in a previous blog), but am earnestly noting that while I have my U.S. Senators’ and my U.S. Representative’s numbers in my phone and call them regularly about other issues, my response to Citizens United shows that I have not done enough to meet my responsibilities as a citizen in a democratic republic such as ours. Thus, it is not a fully honest assessment to critique my government without assessing my own levels of participation, making corrections when and where necessary, and then moving forward with even greater conviction and involvement. In this way the hope and promise of government also becomes the hope and promise of its citizenry. I have a close friend who just this week deactivated her Facebook page (no small feat for her) because she could see that it was more distraction than information. What happens to us when we are less distracted? There is room for more engagement. And so for those who have the time and capacity (recognizing that issues of class, race, gender, and the like are still mediating our ability to fully participate in this democracy) it is our responsibility to do so. A living, grassroots, radical democracy is within our grasp, but only if we are willing to engage as we are able and literally take it back.

 

Referring back to climate change for a moment, this is a crisis of unbelievable proportion and the response must be in equal measure, meaning that we as a human family must respond as a human family and our governments must be able to operate from that place of wisdom and collective human interest. This is not New World Order propaganda, nor Socialism, nor Communism, nor “weak-willed politics”, nor anti-U.S. sentiment, rather it is a clear recognition that we are one species and have one shot at addressing climate change. Government that holds this larger, human, connected vision will be a government that can lead us through the inevitable challenges with grace and dignity and an affirmation of the best of who we can be as people. But, that government will not come to the fore if we as people do not make it so. Standing in the Capitol building there was no shortage of fodder for critique. But there was also something else – ideals, values, and beliefs that within them still hold the hope and promise of government of, by and for the people.

Privacy Preference Center