Mind the Gap

Utne Reader Editor in Chief Christian Williams on finding common ground politically, spiritually and culturally.

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2/26/2013

tough guys

When I was growing up the boys in my neighborhood relished every opportunity to prove how “manly” we were. We shot fireworks at one another for fun, raced (and crashed) our bikes with reckless abandon, and played football in rocky lots. It’s almost as if we invited injury and looked forward to the chance to show off to the girls in the neighborhood that we could take the pain. We knew “real men” didn’t cry, no matter how much it hurt. Man, were we stupid.

Fortunately, I outgrew that adolescent bloodlust, but I’m still not immune to the trappings of traditional manliness. Hubris is my adulthood Achilles’ heel; I don’t normally read instructions and often find it more appealing to get lost than ask for directions. Somewhere along the line, stubbornness became baked into my psyche. How did that happen?

Take a look at the male icons of Western culture and you’ll see a pattern: tough and rugged like Clint Eastwood, charming and fearless like James Bond, overconfident and womanizing like Don Draper. Consciously or not, boys in this culture identify these traits as “manly,” and the result is a continuous cycle of boys becoming men who strive to show no weakness, whether it be physical, mental, or emotional. You might assume that tendency is just a natural male characteristic, but the truth is men aren’t wired that way—it’s something we learn.

Take mental health among men, for instance. For a man who’s been taught by his father and the culture he lives in that burying your feelings is the manly thing to do, stress becomes something you ignore and depression something you just learn to live with. It goes without saying that the end result of this emotional neglect isn’t usually a good one for the man or the people around him. Everyone has a breaking point, and some are more violent than others. To make matters worse, if a man does summon the courage to ask for help, our current mental health system is woefully underfunded and understaffed to provide adequate treatment.

The good news, though, is that more people are starting to recognize and rectify these damaging and potentially dangerous myths about masculinity. The call for better male role models signals the emergence of a mentor/mentee approach that’s sorely needed in our society today. Equally valuable are the lessons about masculinity we can learn from those experiencing it from a transgender perspective. Altogether, there’s hope that we’re breaking down yet another wall of ignorance.

Speaking of curing ignorance, you may have noticed something different on the top of the website; specifically, the tagline right beneath the Utne Reader logo.

The purpose of the tagline as we see it is to pique a reader’s interest into what we’re really about. While the previous tagline “The Best of the Alternative Press” did a great job identifying where the articles within came from, it didn’t do much to explain why we think they’re important enough for you to read. In this age of climate change, income inequality, and corporate influence on every facet of our lives, we think it’s necessary to emphasize the active role all of us need to play if we hope to leave this world better than we found it.

We recognize our duty to that end is to provide readers with the most interesting, surprising, cutting-edge, and thought-provoking information we can find on the issues that matter to you most (and some you didn’t even know about yet). You may not always agree with what you read, but we’re confident we’ll at least get you thinking and formulating your own opinions. It’s our mission to cure ignorance, and we figured we may as well say it loud and proud. We hope you like it, but more importantly, we hope you’ll join us.

Image courtesy , licensed under Creative Commons 



12/18/2012

Mayan Warning 

If you read this before December 21, good luck to you. Rest assured my wife and I will be preparing for the catastrophe of epic proportions predicted to unfold on that fateful day. In other words, we’ll probably be jockeying for position at the bathroom sink getting ready for work.

I’ve never been one to take end-of-the-world predictions very seriously, mostly because, well, they’ve only been unequivocally wrong 100 percent of the time. One thing I’ve always wondered is what’s the point of trying to be the person who correctly predicts the end of the world? If you’re right, who’s left to give you any credit?

When it comes to the Mayans, scholars much more familiar with their culture than conspiracy theorists and Hollywood writers are have long ago dispelled the notion that the now infamous Long Count Calendar predicts a sudden global demise. Unfortunately, it’s yet another example of conjecture making the news while actual science waits to be considered sexy enough to pay attention to.

While everyone has been distracted by mystical messages hidden in an ancient calendar, we’ve neglected a different Mayan warning that’s actually very real. As environmental analyst and 1995 Utne Visionary Lester Brown reminds us in his new book Full Planet, Empty Plates (read an excerpt) the Mayans precipitated their demise by undermining their food supply, specifically through activities that created catastrophic soil erosion. As Brown puts it, “they moved onto an agricultural path that was environmentally unsustainable.” He goes on to connect the dots to contemporary humankind, and—you guessed it—clearly shows that we’re headed down the same environmentally unsustainable path as the Mayans.

So right now, considering that we’re damaging our soil through factory farming and overdevelopment, misusing our natural resources by turning nearly half of the corn we grow into inefficient fuel for our cars, and all the while continuing to contribute in countless ways to climate change, I think it’s good to be reminded of the Mayans. Of course, whether or not we heed the warning their demise represents remains to be seen.

Take the loaded question, “can we feed the world?” The knee-jerk response to this is “no,” but that’s the wrong answer. In a traveling lecture that directly addresses the question, farmer/author Joel Salatin offers some surprising statistics to illustrate just how inefficient we’ve become with food and land use. Aside from the fact that for the first time in human history we’re not eating 50 percent of the food we produce, Salatin points out that a staggering 40 million acres in the United States are tied up in lawn turf, while another 36 million acres are devoted to recreational horses.

My takeaway is that we have the space and capacity to feed the world, but we simply choose not to. We’d rather consume, waste, and consume some more. The culprit, I believe, is a flat-out inhumane obsession with development and progress no matter what the cost. We continue to tolerate and encourage policies and practices that reward greed and neglect human decency. From paving over our world’s most fertile soil to the commoditization of food we’re simply not taking care of the planet, which ultimately means we’re not taking care of each other. 

While we’ll never know exactly what the details were regarding the ancient Mayan civilization’s collapse, the indication is that they weren’t responsible stewards of their natural resources, and the earth stopped giving them what they needed. Maybe they didn’t understand the limits of this planet and humankind’s role in maintaining it, but we do. Here’s hoping the real Mayan warning doesn’t fall on deaf ears.

Follow Utne Reader Editor in Chief Christian Williams on Twitter: @cwwilliams  

Image by cjuneau, licensed under Creative Commons.  



10/18/2012
anthropocene

 
I like it when a particular word gets stuck in my head, begging me to use it whenever I can. Past recipients of this distinction have been such words as “consequently” and “predilection.” I don’t know what it is exactly about those words, but I love using them. 

Lately, I’ve been knocking around a new word: Anthropocene. I’m guessing many of you have heard this word here or there, but for those that haven’t, it’s an informal term being used by some scientists to describe the new geological epoch.

The general consensus among scientists is that for the last 12,000 years or so, we’ve been living in a period of Earth’s history dubbed the Holocene. On the geological timeline, the end of the last Ice Age ushered in the Holocene, which for most of the last several thousand years has been marked by a fairly stable climate. 

But with the evolution and development of the human race over that same period of time, scientists have noticed some characteristics different from those traditionally used to describe the Holocene, specifically that the Earth is heating up. It’s heating up so much, that it seems necessary to mark the beginning of a new epoch. That new epoch has been dubbed the Anthropocene to signify that we’ve entered the Age of Man. It acknowledges the fact that humans are the likely culprits for the rapid warming of the Earth over the last few hundred years.

When environmentalist and Utne Visionary Bill McKibben wrote The End of Nature in 1989, it served as an introduction to most people that the climate was changing, and that man-made global warming was responsible for it. As a child, my understanding of global warming was simply that the colder places on Earth might be getting warmer. Living near Chicago in January, that didn’t sound so bad to me.

Fortunately, I have a better understanding of global warming now, and recognize that warming the Earth’s atmosphere can drastically change the climate across the world in numerous and immeasurable ways. More importantly, I believe now that this concept isn’t hypothetical—it’s really happening, and faster than many of us expected it to. Depending on where you call home, most of us experienced a taste of it last summer with heat waves, drought, wild fires, and flooding. If my “Holocene” was that period of my life where I spoke of climate change in terms of “ifs” and “maybes,” I’m in the Anthropocene now. And believe it or not, I’m optimistic for the future because of it. 

Humans are stubborn creatures, and usually only change when they’re forced to by circumstances outside of their control. We’re also resourceful and fully capable of adapting. The next 100 years will pose a lot of changes to the ways we live today on every level, from environmental to economic to political. My optimism stems from the notion that many of those changes will strip away our collective ego and allow us to reevaluate what’s really important to us as individuals and as members of the global community.

For all of the pain and suffering we cause ourselves and one another, I still believe in the inherent goodness of man. I lament that it usually takes disaster and tragedy to expose it, but find solace in the fact that when we need to, we step up to the plate. Perhaps then, we’ll finally be ready to listen to all of the brilliant minds of the past who not only warned us about the future, but also equipped us with amazing ideas and solutions to problems we weren’t ready to fix way back when.

It’s too late to save the world we live in today, but that’s OK: this world is unsustainable. Let’s consider the Anthropocene a clean slate, and look forward to making a world that benefits not only humanity, but the Earth, too.

Follow Utne Reader Editor in Chief Christian Williams on Twitter: @cwwilliams 

Image by dsearls, licensed under Creative Commons 



8/23/2012

obama speech 

Most everyone agrees that this upcoming presidential election will be one of the closest in history. But where’s all the enthusiasm we saw in 2008? Who popped the balloon? The answer is sitting in the White House and asking you for a second term.

In 2008, then-U.S. Senator Barack Obama rode a wave of unbridled enthusiasm and optimism into the Oval Office. His lofty rhetoric inspired hundreds of thousands of people who had previously felt alienated by the political process to knock on doors, work in phone banks, and, most importantly, show up to vote.

But ask many of those once enthusiastic Obama supporters what they think of the President four years later, and you’ll likely get a lukewarm opinion. The liberal base has a laundry list of complaints that range from his lackadaisical record on the environment to health care reform that doesn’t get close enough to the single-payer plan they really want. Many think that he’s spent the last three years falling short on a lot of things they were excited about electing him to accomplish.

Paul Glastris wrote about this phenomenon in the March/April 2012 issue of Washington Monthly, arguing that when you look at Obama’s stat sheet, he’s actually accomplished quite a bit in a short period of time. Glastris breaks down 50 of Obama’s top achievements, pointing out that many of them were accomplished despite contentious battles with a remarkably hostile and uncooperative GOP.  In summing up Obama’s first three years, Glastris writes, “Obama has gotten more done than any president since LBJ.”

So where’s the love?

It appears that Obama has an image problem on his hands—one that he helped create back in 2008. Simply put, when you posture yourself as a savior, people expect you to save them in dramatic fashion. Many liberals believed in 2008 that Obama was the second coming of FDR, and that his presidency would be the dawn of a great liberal age in American politics. The enthusiasm that image generated was exactly what Obama needed to energize a previously stagnant electorate and overcome the more experienced John McCain. You can’t blame Obama for taking advantage of that, even if he knew it was an image he had no intention of living up to. You win presidential elections by defining yourself as larger-than-life and capable of great things, not as a calculating pragmatist (which is what Obama really is). The risk, though, is that you paint yourself into a corner and potentially compromise your chances for a second term once the jig is up.

A perfect example of Obama’s pragmatic nature in practice is his predilection for using unmanned military drones against terrorists. He appeased antiwar activists by following through on his campaign promise to effectively end America’s full-time commitment in Iraq, and he continues to work toward a similar end in Afghanistan. But when it comes to the ubiquitous “War on Terror,” among other things, Obama has perpetuated that conflict by expanding the use of secret ops and tactics that arguably make him equally as hawkish as George W. Bush. He’s a Nobel Peace Prize winner and a warrior-president all rolled into one. How’s that for a Contradiction in Chief?

As far as it relates to the election, Obama’s defense-minded pragmatism is a twin-edged sword. While it’s likely that many of his supporters from 2008 won’t be motivated to actively support someone they see as two-faced, or worse—a liar, Obama has insulated himself from the classic Republican-on-Democrat attack of being weak on defense. For once, it’s the Democrat who can claim a defensive resume stronger than that of his Republican opponent. That, along with Mitt Romney’s selection of ultraconservative Paul Ryan as his running mate, might just pull independent voters into Obama’s column, but it remains to be seen if they will be enough to make up for the enthusiastic liberal support he’s stymied by showing his true pragmatic colors.

Follow Utne Reader Editor in Chief Christian Williams on Twitter: @cwwilliams

Image by jamesomalley, licensed under Creative Commons.

 

 



6/20/2012

the american dream 

Remember how it felt when you graduated college?

Perhaps you’re like me, and you grew up learning that a college degree was the key to a successful future. You knew you didn’t want to spend the rest of your life flipping burgers like you did every summer. So you did it: you graduated college, and you proudly walked across the auditorium stage with a big grin. As you shook the dean’s hand, all that was left to do was ask, “What’s next?”

Back then, a loaded question like that was easy to answer: entry level job in a chosen career, graduate school—the options were endless. It was a question that was exciting to answer because no matter what route you chose, the degree all but guaranteed you’d start higher on the ladder than you would have if you’d only finished high school like your older relatives. You could see and feel what had been promised if you applied yourself and got a degree: the American Dream was real, and you were ready to stake your claim.

It felt good to look back on the previous four years of balancing school and work, knowing now that it was all worth it. Soon, you’d be settling into your career, making a comfortable living, buying a house, and starting a family. Sure, there’d be bills to pay, but you’d rest easy at night knowing that you’d continue to work your way up to better paying jobs in your field, and that you’d comfortably pay back your student loans and meet your mortgage payments.

Eventually, the loans would become a distant memory, and you’d be saving your money for your kids’ future. They would share their goals of having a career and starting a family, and you’d be happy to do what you could to help them realize their version of the American Dream. You’d even pay off your house one day and still have enough money left to set aside for your retirement, ensuring you wouldn’t have to work the rest of your life.

In that life, “fair” was getting out what you put in, so you worked hard and were compensated appropriately. And you knew that if you ever found yourself being taken advantage of, your college degree was always in your pocket and able to open another door if need be. In that life, there were safeguards put in place to make sure that the greediest among us weren’t able to keep you under their thumbs. In that life, we celebrated on graduation day because it represented a gateway to opportunity for everyone who earned the right to walk through it.

But in this life, the concept of “fair vs. unfair” has disintegrated into an accusation of laziness by the advantaged toward the disadvantaged. In this life, greed has infiltrated every nook and cranny of our society to the point where we don’t know who to trust anymore. And in this life, insurmountable student debt and the lack of real opportunities to reach our potential have drained graduation day of its optimism and replaced it with the burden of concern. Soon, the event might be more appropriately symbolized by handcuffs than a handshake.

Perhaps there is no alternate reality to this life; an existence where everyone truly has the opportunity to realize their full potential, be successful, and find happiness. Perhaps the American Dream has always been an unattainable illusion created by the powers that be.

But if it is an illusion, the false hope it’s meant to sustain is quickly fading. While people will recognize the illusion for what it is, they’ll remember something important: it sure sounded pretty nice. And maybe then, with nothing left to lose, we’ll all stand together, ask “what’s next?” and do what it takes to make that life a reality.

Follow Utne Reader Editor in Chief Christian Williams on Twitter: @cwwilliams

Image by Insecto Perfecto, licensed under Creative Commons. 



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