Choosing to Work Toward Justice

Last year, I had what I can only describe as a crisis of faith (for this nonpracticing Jew-nitarian American history nerd), believing that the majority of Americans are either asleep or actively don’t care about democracy and that therefore the whole idea of America is doomed.  I wondered aloud — to anyone who would listen — whether any of this critical reflection and narrative theory makes any difference at all, whether putting on our power goggles actually works, whether, in short the Arc of the Moral Universe really does bend toward Justice.

My amazing Critical Theory students helped me remember that none of this is about me. They reminded me that whether or not we believe that the idea of America is salvageable — let alone whether it is worth salvaging — we choose to work toward Justice. We choose to work toward Justice because we – those of us who are writing this, reading this, speaking this, teaching this — believe that Justice is worth working toward.  We choose to live in furtherance of Justice because we believe it is the right way to live.  We choose to “live this way because it is the only way we know how to live” (with apologies and gratitude to Pablo Neruda).

Or, if you prefer magic to love poetry, we ask not to be placed in Slytherin.  In the first Harry Potter book, with the sorting hat on his head, Harry whispers “please not Slytherin,” and is placed in Gryffindor. Later in the series, it is revealed that the Sorting Hat placed Harry in Gryffindor precisely because of what he said. Although he did not know it at the time, in asking not to be placed in the house from which The Dark Lord had come, Harry chose to work toward Justice.

We have chosen — whether consciously or not — to work toward Justice.  I like how Bryan Stevenson guides us.  https://youtu.be/CoydTc-l4a4.

1. Be proximate to what you care about:  This to me begs the question: what do you care about? What is your great joy, your deep gladness?
2. Change narratives:  This requires first identifying and deconstructing the existing (dominant) narratives:  the characters, events, causal connections, master plots, attempts at normalization, closure. And then working to construct new ones, with our power goggles on, that support greater Justice.
3. Protect our hope:  This to me is about staying connected to your deep gladness: find, honor and protect your passion, what moves you.
4. Choose to do uncomfortable things: Not everything that brings you deep gladness meets the world’s great hunger; and we all need to cherish and celebrate those many moments when you are not uncomfortable (that is part of #3).  But in order to meet the world’s great hunger, you must step into it.  Being uncomfortable lets you know that you are there. (http://profgrose.com/2017/10/)

My work on this blog, and in my law school seminar and academic community, has been all about changing the narrative and protecting our hope.  Not surprisingly, those are the places I am most comfortable:  in my office, or the classroom, or — most likely — my sunny den, I work hard to deconstruct and question narratives about injustice and hierarchy; and to share what I learn with others.

What about the other two aspects of working toward Justice though? Am I as Proximate to injustice as I could be — even in my limited role as introvert law professor in the Twin Cities? And do I Choose to do uncomfortable things — again, even in my role as introvert law professor in the Twin Cities?  

With no judgment or shame, I say no. For me, continuing to work toward Justice means being more proximate and more uncomfortable; even as I continue to work to change narratives and protect hope.

My own journey into discomfort, it turns out, starts with showing up more authentically and honestly in my very own law school community, as we commit as an institution to work toward greater Justice. As we collectively push the edges of our comfort zones, I will continue to push my own edges; working to change narratives and protect hope, yes, but also to stay proximate and be uncomfortable.

That’s the plan for this semester’s blog.  I hope you’ll stay along for the ride.

Seeing the Trees

I stopped writing in early December; the “big picture” had become so infuriating and terrifying and depressing, that I could no longer see its edges.  So I stopped trying to.  And I found that as I lowered my gaze from the Forest, I could instead explore among the trees. And that is what I have been doing.  But more on that next week.

Just to make sure I am not shirking my duty as an awake citizen resister by sticking my head in the sand, I do keep vague tabs on what we are still euphemistically calling the “Federal Government,” noting in particular the repeated “unprecedented actions” taken by one branch that undermine the power and independence of the other two.

(Warning to some of my readers: what follows is a good old fashioned New York rant):

In the Executive Branch we have, of course, the “very stable genius” who is “like, really really smart.” So that’s under control.

And we have the Special Prosecutor getting closer to what we all know will be clear and convincing, uncontrovertible and iron clad evidence of, wait for it, obstruction of justice AND, wait another second, collusion with Putin and his Oligarchs. So that’s exciting.

And we have the President of the United States (aforementioned VSG) taunting and bullying deputy-level and lower members of the FBI who have been with the Agency since the 1990s to the point where those loyal civil servants are being transferred and/or actually resigning.  Why? Because the President seems to believe that the FBI, and its parent agency, the Justice Department (and all the Justice Department’s other agencies), are actually his own spy agency, army and police force, to be used at his will, for any reason he chooses.

Thank goodness there is the Legislative Branch to check all that executive overreach and undemocratic abuse of power.

Of course I kid.

The most action the Republicans are taking on the Russia “scandal” — and by the way, Stormy Daniels is a “scandal!”  The Russia sh*t is something else entirely — is to train their sites on the very same FBI the President is attacking! So it seems that the Republicans in the Legislative Branch are playing very nicely with the Executive Branch, all to the detriment of that whole checks and balances thing in the Constitution.

Oh but wait, we do have the Democrats, god love ‘em.  Still trying in good faith to have some semblance of legislative agenda, process, accountability.  Dealing with McConnell as if he is playing the same game they are.  A vote on Dreamers? Sure! We’ll get that resolved by February 8th. As Peter Sagel noted on this week’s “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me,” McConnell also has some magic beans to throw in if anyone’s interested.

Which leaves the Judicial Branch.  So far, judges are the only members of the Federal government who have effectively stood up for the U.S. Constitution and democratic process.  But how long do we think that is going to last? The hundreds of unfilled Federal Judicial seats will either remain empty or be filled with judges as qualified to sit in them as my drooling hound dog (and you know that dog won’t hunt).  And even if the lower courts continue to uphold the Constitution, it’s only a matter of time before His Honorable Justice Neil Gorsuch gets to be the deciding vote on whether to uphold or strike down attempts to limit executive power.

(Rant over)

All of which to say, nothing about the Forest has gotten miraculously saner or democratic or less terrifying.  And thank god for real that so many excellent and smart and talented people are working to address the crisis that has befallen and is befalling our economic, political and social system. Journalists and educators and lobbyists and lawyers and entertainers and billionaires and analysts and social workers are speaking up and trying to hold to account. They are doing the necessary work of bearing witness and paying attention, of keeping track and taking action, as needed.

And what I want to tell you – what I am desperately telling myself – is that the Forest, capital “F” (like “Federal”) isn’t the only dumpster fire in the city. Far from it.  By leaving the Federal dumpster Fire to my brave and brilliant fellow resisters, I can choose to focus instead on what’s going on closer to the forest floor. Once I finish this blog post, I am going to climb back down to the trees and groves and clearings I can see and feel myself, and get back to the work of tending to what’s smoldering down there.  Next week I’ll talk more about that.

So glad you all are staying on this journey with me.

Considering Revenge Porn with our Goggles On

Thanks to Grace Chanin for this essay, to start 2018 off with our goggles squarely ON.  (I’ll be back next week reflecting on the year that was and the year that will be)

Revenge porn is the nonconsensual distribution of sexual images, which can take many different forms. Scorned exes post intimate pictures of their former significant others on social media. Once trusted friends send revealing photos to anonymous webpages, where names and locations are often disclosed alongside. Hackers release nudes of female celebrities across the internet. All done to shame, humiliate, and torment those in the photos.  The effect is disturbing and profound.

Revenge porn ruins lives. It can destroy a person’s self-worth, relationships, career, and mental health. Victims whose contact information is posted face the danger of being stalked or threatened. Teenage girls have committed suicide after sexually explicit images of them were released without their permission. And according to a 2016 poll, one out of every twenty-five Americans has been a victim of revenge porn—and that number is even higher for young women (one out of every ten women between the ages of 15-29 has been a victim of revenge porn). https://datasociety.net/pubs/oh/Nonconsensual_Image_Sharing_2016.pdf

Despite these numbers, society in general tends to blame the victims, rather than the posters of the material. The message seems to be: “if you didn’t want your naked photos shared, you shouldn’t have taken them in the first place.” As if sharing an intimate photo with a trusted person is consenting to have your body plastered on anonymous webpages, sent to co-workers and friends, or exposed on social media.

Last fall, we learned to put on our “goggles” and scrutinize racism, patriarchy, capitalism, and other hierarchies that reinforce injustice. The more we wear these goggles, the harder it is to take them off.

When I first heard about revenge porn, I thought it was just about humiliation. But after wearing my goggles, I see it is about so much more than that. It is about power. It is a way to control another person’s body. It is oppression. But in order to see that deeper power structure, you need to have your goggles on.

Although men are not immune from revenge porn, women and the LGBTQ community constitute the majority of victims. Revenge porn is produced and consumed primarily by men. When we put on our gender goggles, we see that this is just a new way to restrict a woman’s (and LGBTQ folks’) freedom and control over her body. It punishes women for engaging in activity that men engage in regularly with few consequences.

Sound familiar? This is just another form of slut shaming. It is another reminder that being sexual or provocative has consequences, but only for women, queer and trans people. It is a way for those (straight, white males) with power to keep it. This crime is a reflection of the patriarchal society we are living in.

It has been very difficult to prosecute those disseminating revenge porn—only recently has this behavior been recognized as criminal. Thirty-eight states now have revenge porn laws, and soon there may be federal legislation as well. In November, members of the senate introduced the Ending Nonconsensual Online User Graphic Harassment (ENOUGH) Act of 2017, which would establish federal criminal liability for perpetrators of revenge porn. https://www.harris.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/The%20ENOUGH%20Act.pdf Anyone who violates the law is subject to a fine and up to five years in prison. Even though an earlier version of the bill, the Intimate Privacy Protection Act of 2016, never made it past the House of Representations, this new bill appears to have bi-partisan support.

If passed, this bill will be a huge win in the fight against revenge porn. However, even with legislation in place, victims face obstacles in obtaining justice. Advocates are subject to backlash. Getting images removed from the internet can be very challenging. And police are often reluctant to pursue such issues. Society needs to recognize revenge porn for what is it: a sex crime, perpetrated against those in already disadvantaged by society’s existing hierarchies.

Recently, I attended a seminar on revenge porn at the University of Minnesota. Leah Juliett, an “unapologetic non-binary queer performer, poet, and political activist,” shared her experience with revenge porn. https://www.leahjuliett.com/ It started with her spoken word poem. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JYR35jlQRsI. My eyes welled with tears as she shared her story. Even though my own story with revenge porn was different, the emotions we experienced were the same: afraid, ashamed, and violated.

It was inspiring to see someone who had been a victim of revenge porn speaking out. She did not sound like a victim. Her voice was strong. She spoke with confidence. She refused to let her perpetrator silence her. She is fighting to change the system that oppressed her.

In critical lawyering, we discussed narratives and the effect that they can have on society. We need to change the narrative of revenge porn. Revenge porn is not about provocative women. Revenge porn is about entitlement. Feeling so entitled to another person’s body that you think you have the right to share it without their permission. Revenge porn is exploitation.

Listening to Leah Juliett speak gave me hope. We do not have to accept revenge porn as the status quo. We need to stop shaming those that choose to take pictures of their own bodies. It is not wrong to take pictures of your body. It is not wrong to share pictures of yourself, even naked, with others. It is wrong to share another person’s private photos without their permission. The individuals that choose to perpetuate revenge porn are the ones that need to be judged, not the individuals in the photos

Deconstructing and Reconstructing the Apology (further thoughts from a law student)

Mitchell Hamline student, Matthew Yost, wrote these reflections on the complex process of apology, and the need, ultimately for redemption.

It’s difficult not to feel as if we are in the middle of a watershed moment for people—most often men—behaving badly. High profile instances of harassing and assaultive behavior have risen to the top of our collective consciousness, but a deeper and more pervasive culture of misbehavior has leached into all aspects of contemporary society. This phenomenon—dangerous, frustrating, consistent—sparks a social master plot that generally concludes with an apology.

Apologizing for bad behavior is a fundamental human supposition, so much so that it is one of the simplest concepts that children are taught and expected to replicate. Apologies are key to redemption, the process by which people who misbehave are socioculturally reset.

Despite their apparent simplicity, apologies are layered in their complexity—or at least, they ought to be. Apologies are meant to show contrition, that the person apologizing has recognized the way their behavior upset cultural norms and expectations and that they are acting to improve. Lately, though, the arc of the redemptive master plot has been eroded by ubiquity and a fundamental misunderstanding.

Take an example. A media figure is found to have engaged in a pattern of sexual harassment against colleagues in the recent past. The behavior is met with a mixed response, with some believing that the man’s actions were simply old-fashioned—unacceptable and gross, but harmless. Nevertheless, the man is spotlighted and criticized, though there is no legal response to his actions. Facing mounting pressure, the man publicly apologizes, the substance of the statement something like, “I regret if my behavior caused offense, it wasn’t my intention. I hope we can put this ugliness behind us and move forward from here.” The performance complete, the news cycle shifts, and the man continues forward with his life and career with little impact from this event.

Sound familiar? A generic apology, directed at no one, acknowledging no actual responsibility. Often, this is because a person is unwilling to accept or admit their wrongdoing. When there is no cultural recourse for a person’s poor apology, what incentive is there to hold oneself responsible? In fact, the reverse seems true: The weaker and less responsive the apology, the more a wrongdoer is rewarded and the faster their actions are forgotten.

How can we improve this situation? Forcing a person to accept responsibility is at best an uphill battle, at worst an exercise in futility. There remains, however an active cultural role in deconstructing and reconstructing this narrative.

To start, an apology should never be absolute. Its substance can’t be contained in a one-off statement at a press conference. Rather, an apology is a continually negotiated act requiring diligence and focus and reaffirmation. A person whose apology does not comport to this expectation should be corrected and pressured again and again until they understand this. If they still can’t change, their apology is simply unacceptable.

Second, it’s critical to recognize that “apologize” is a verb. By its nature, an apology requires action. Again, a statement of apology is a fine first step, but what comes after the statement is far more critical. Only in taking action is the extent of a person’s commitment to contrition truly put on display. There’s no prescribed action that needs to be taken for every apology; such actions should be guided and informed by whatever the apology stems from. Maybe it’s the simple act of listening; maybe it’s engagement with those who have been negatively impacted by the  actions; and maybe it’s working to address the damaging assumptions that inform and underlie bad behavior. Always, the action should involve a commitment to assure that whatever the person did never happens again.

Finally, a critical component of an apology is its acceptance. Too often, this is the beginning and end of the act. “I’m sorry” is followed reflexively by “it’s okay.” In instances where an apology is directed at a specific person, the instinct to accept immediately should be critically reexamined. If the previously-mentioned components of a “correct” apology are absent, what incentive is there to accept? Maybe acceptance is altogether inappropriate. Maybe acceptance should always be conditional. Like the accompanying action, it seems that there’s not one simple means or process for accepting an apology. Embracing the discomfort that comes with that uncertainty is useful for both the person apologizing and the people being apologized to. It acknowledges that an apology is a social construct, but one that is critical to our collective cultural evolution.

Is this setting up an impossible scenario? Am I asking too much? Critical engagement with the concept of the apology is certainly new and challenging, but is the status quo of the current Apology Industrial Complex really yielding positive results? Like most of our tired master plots, the apology seems ripe for revision.

There is an obvious and important disclaimer here: As a culture, it’s important that we don’t abandon redemption. If people are never redeemed, there would be no justification for apology. What are we going to do with all of the people in this world who have made a mistake, who have lied, who have harassed, who have assaulted if they become irredeemable? That may be difficult to hear and accept. (It’s difficult to write.) People act with selfish disregard and their actions have consequences that are visceral: sharp, painful, and lasting. But if we cannot somehow accept these people, we risk further eroding ourselves and our society. All this being said, redemption requires something far more than saying “I’m sorry.”

Having the Courage to Love Like Grown-Ups (thoughts from a former Franken staffer)

Emily Flesch is a third year law student at Mitchell Hamline.  I asked her to write something after the news broke on Thursday.

“For many of us, living under the Trump administration has cast everything into sharper relief: It’s as if we’ve all been given fancy polarized sunglasses with which to more clearly see the fault lines of the patriarchy. It’s no longer possible to ignore what was there all along.” – Lauren Duca,  https://www.teenvogue.com/story/sexism-remembered-and-forgotten

The goggles our class has been exploring this semester are difficult to wear, which is a hallmark of the privilege of the wearer, as we are forced to see what has been obvious all along to those without privilege. The other defining feature of these goggles is that, as Duca notes, above, once you have had them on, it is impossible not to see through them.  And with our gender goggles on, the landscape is pretty grim. Here, as Lindy West describes:

“Not only are women expected to weather sexual violence, intimate partner violence, workplace discrimination, institutional subordination, the expectation of free domestic labor, the blame for our own victimization, and all the subtler, invisible cuts that undermine us daily, we are not even allowed to be angry about it. Close your eyes and think of America. We are expected to keep quiet about the men who prey upon us, as though their predation was our choice, not theirs.https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/08/opinion/anger-women-weinstein-assault.html?_r=0

So I have spent these last several weeks shocked, but not surprised at the men being named for their predatory behavior. My experiences, and the experiences of countless other women (and men) have made it clear that even (and especially) the people we love, respect, trust, and admire are capable of horrific acts. If this post-Weinstein “reckoning” is to have any meaning, we must steel ourselves to hold accountable even (and especially) the people that we love, respect, trust, and admire.

This brings me to Senator Al Franken.

I first met Al at his book signing when I was 15. Yes, I was the weird kind of kid who read political satire. Neither of my parents was especially political, but I had always been fascinated by how our government works and the business of politics.

My dad drove me, and I remember waiting in the line. I remember meeting Al and I remember his smile. I remember what I said to him – that I hoped he decided to run for Senate. If he did, I promised I would work for him.

A few years later, Al officially announced his senate run. I made good on my promise and joined Team Franken as an intern. It was a dream come true for this nerd. I went to my first political convention, where I helped Al win the DFL endorsement. I got to introduce Al at an event in Duluth. Together, we told the story of meeting at the book signing. I loved talking with voters about the issues. Working on Al’s campaign is one of things I am most proud to have done.

When Al was finally elected as our Senator (by only 312 votes), I knew that my work had mattered. And I truly believed that Al was going to make a difference in Washington, not just for Minnesotans, but for all of us. I believed him when he told us that his crass jokes from SNL were “just jokes.” I believed him when he promised he was going to work hard and take his job as a Senator seriously.

Over his first two terms, I have continued to be impressed. His work on behalf of veterans, on behalf of women, on behalf of consumers, and on the judiciary committee has exceeded even my expectations. Senator Al Franken, I have told people many times over the years, is the one politician that I truly believe in 100%.

And then, the photograph of him groping Leeann Tweeden.

“He needs to resign,” I texted my parents, after the story broke. My father responded, “I don’t think there is a man our age who hasn’t acted inappropriately at some point.”  And that, I explained, is precisely the problem.  Look through your goggles, people!

The road forks now, in terms of what should come next. There is a political reality, and there is that reality that has existed in the shadows, without the benefit of the polarized sunglasses, for too long.  Hovering over both realities is this discussion of nuance, of degrees. Of whether what Al did was better than many, and worse than some.  I am not sure that it matters.

The political reality as I see it is that we cannot afford not to hold Al accountable. Any leniency will be used against us from the right, who, so far, has failed to hold credible allegations of child molestation against Roy Moore, and has elected Donald “grab them by the pussy” Trump as our president. Any wavering here will not be understood as the product of weighing the facts and circumstances and reaching a reasoned conclusion. It will be a cudgel to beat us with, and shield to hide behind the next time a Republican is accused of sexual misconduct.

The other reality, the “shadow realm” that is being dragged, flailing and screaming into the light, is the one illuminated by our “power vision” goggles,  In this reality too, Al, and the rest of us, must be held accountable. Not in an angry, vengeful way, but because we recognize that as humans, we hurt each other. Because we want to be better. Because we understand that we are all in this together.  And because we love the ugly and deeply flawed Democratic experiment that is America.

I have been thinking a lot about ‘love’ this semester.  For a long time, my concept of love in a political and social sense was informed by none other than Senator Al Franken. He wrote in Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: “Grown-up love means actually understanding what you love, taking the good with the bad, and helping your loved one grow. Love takes attention and work.” This framing of love has become one of the bedrock principles of my personal political ethos. But today, it falls short.

I love Al Franken. Not like a child, or a former staffer, or a constituent. I love him like a grown-up. But I am over just “taking the good with the bad.” And I am over “helping your loved one grow.” Women have been doing that since the dawn of time. We are not the only grown-ups in the room. Al is a grown-up too. It is time for him, and the rest of the men whose names we have heard, and whose names we have yet to hear, to do their own work — the hard work of taking responsibility for their bad behavior, of understanding the pain and hurt they have caused, and of accepting whatever consequences follow.

We have a foundational problem in this country, with racism, with sexism, with violence, and poverty and capitalism and war. We have a problem in the White House, at the highest levels of our government, and we have a problem in our states, our cities, and our small communities.

Loving America — ourselves and our society — means doing the difficult work of admitting that problem in all its complexity: it means being uncomfortable, being proximate, and owning our own complicity. To me, that means summoning the personal and political will to hold ourselves and each other accountable. It means there are no free passes.  It means wondering, constantly and publicly, how things would be different if the status quo were to really shift, foundationally:  where woman-identified voices, and the voices of people of color were truly elevated in our society, instead of relegated to the margins.

What if there had been more female voices in politics to inspire the younger version of myself, into whose campaigns I could have invested my time, my energy, my idealism? An oft-cited statistic is that women need to be asked an average of seven times to run for public office before agreeing. To all my woman-identified friends, consider this ask Number One: please run for office. I promise, when you do, I will come work for you.

Keeping Our Hope

Mitchell Hamline student, Laurel Blanchard, offers these reflections on hope and where she finds it. (And if you’re just joining us, check out http://profgrose.com/critical-lawyering-in-todays-world/ for a description of the class.)

In a recent class session, considering Bryan Stevenson’s work around on for justice, we discussed the difficulty of existing in our world today; and that in order to prevent living in complete despair (both as humans and as attorneys) we must hold on to our hope — to something which reassures us everything will be OK. This discussion later resurfaced for me in an unexpected way.

A couple evenings ago I was listening to the song “Someday at Christmas” by Stevie Wonder. As the song played I meditated on the lyrics. I was overwhelmed at the aspiration to one day live in a world where “all men are free.”

How hopeful these lyrics must have been 50 years ago when the song was released by Stevie Wonder. I imagine a glimmer of hope blooming in Stevie’s mind while these dreams danced about in the form of piano notes. Perhaps a fog of peace gently fills the air each time he plays this song. But, sadly, “Someday” has not arrived. Will it ever? “No hungry children, and no empty hand,” the song continues. I wouldn’t have to go far to be reminded that this ideal has not yet been realized.

Yet tucked inside this whirlwind of sweet aspiration that is “Someday at Christmas” is a confident assurance. Ah, yes, as the song continues I dare to dream that “maybe not in time for you and me, but someday at Christmas time” …our world will be a better place.

I’ve heard this song a dozen times. But never has it spoken to me as it did in this moment. If “Someday (fill in the blank)” is our hope, then how do we reconcile our human need for assurance that everything will be “OK” with the dark reality in which we live?

Honestly, I don’t think we do. And I don’t think we should try.

The fact of the matter is that humankind is self-destructive on its own. We just are. (Hello, the ice caps are actually melting.) So instead we ought to look to hope to bridge the gap between our needs as fragile humans and our reality.

To be sure, this is not to minimize our reality nor to satisfy our need for assurance. Instead this bridge serves as a way to live in between the two. To live in the tension. Why? Because we have no other choice. In this very moment nothing is getting better. And for now we will continue to live in this moment where the world perpetuates its own demise. It’s the human condition. We must find a way to live in the tension.

And you know what? Maybe that’s all right.

Maybe keeping our hope is not about “Someday” ever actually arriving. Perhaps in this world of incessant doom, hope is all about looking onward to “Someday” with faithful assurance that it will come, but never expecting to live in it.

If we expect otherwise I dare to say that we are lying to ourselves. For as long as we roam the earth I don’t believe that we will see world peace. If our world has existed for countless lifetimes and has yet to maintain a complete absence of evil, the odds of change are undeniably bleak. But in order to move from a place of despair, into the tension, we must recognize that on our own we are prone to chaos and destruction.

And this is why we need hope.

For me, my hope rests in the belief that I will one day live in peace – in heaven with Christ where there will be no more death, no crying, and no pain. This doesn’t have to be your hope. This is not a plug for Christianity. I’m simply expressing the place from which my relief comes. I live with hope. I live in the tension. I’ve not reconciled my need with my reality because the two are mutually exclusive. I’m merely living in between the two.

I encourage you to find a place of hope, in whatever season you’re currently living. We can’t hedge our bets on world peace, but we also can’t live with our feet in the sinking sand that is the chaos around us. We must find a way to live in the tension. And we must do our parts to sow seeds in contribution to “Someday,” whether or not we believe that it will ever come. Quite honestly, I’m OK with that . . . and I hope that you are too.

Wisdom and Hope from a Law Student

Third year Mitchell Hamline student, Thomas Dolan, reflects on the semester:

The past few weeks’ classes have felt particularly fraught—with anxiety, with dread, with the grim specter of hopelessness hanging over our every word, but in a strange way, these sessions have been productive in a way others were not.

After learning, over the past few months, how to don our various critical “goggles,” we had to reckon with the fact that, now that we have these goggles, what we see through them will likely take a real and devastating toll on us, both psychologically and emotionally.

To a straight, white male from a background of economic privilege, much of the appeal of this class lay in the opportunity to hear the experiences and perspectives of people whose lives have been very different from my own, and to confront within myself those aspects of privilege that can lead even the most well-intentioned people into serving and reproducing relationships of oppression.

Another point of interest to me was the prospect of really delving into the ways lawyers can recognize and help to dismantle the kinds of toxic, hierarchical systems that have long under-girded our society. If such systems were once invisible, hidden by layers of “tradition” or law, it seems they have grown weary of the shadows, now strutting about in our midst, handily personified by the shambling oafs and dead-eyed charlatans currently infesting the White House.

This course has delivered on both counts, and I’m deeply grateful to have this new set of analytical tools and emotional awarenesses.  But the last few weeks have involved the discussion of an utterly essential parallel skill. We have tried to answer the following questions:

Once awakened to the utter, all-encompassing subjugation, exploitation, and systemic dehumanization built into so much of our reality, how the hell is a person supposed to get out of bed in the morning?

And is it ever okay to take these goddamn goggles off?

Whether one is frozen by fear—as my trans cousin has been since the election; or by hopelessness—like many who thought a Clinton Presidency was as certain as the sun rising again tomorrow; or by guilt, rage, or the sense that there is JUST TOO MUCH [CRAP] GOING ON TO FOCUS ON ONE THING, FOR GOD’S SAKE; we must hold paralysis and resignation at bay. But how?

Our discussions here were difficult, but necessarily so. Thankfully, the group has developed enough trust in each other that we were able to get really vulnerable and specific about our fears and despairs, and nobody seemed to feel obligated to reflexively bright-side anyone else. As a result, what began as a very un-Midwestern baring of our deepest existential anxieties turned into something that—for me—took on a really cathartic tone, and, eventually, a discussion on the very nature, utility, and feasibility of what we might dare to call “hope” in times like these.

We discussed the deeply jarring cognitive dissonance provoked by an abiding faith in Dr. King’s “Long Arc of History Bending Toward Justice” metaphor on the one hand, and Everything Going On in the World Right Now on the other. After decades of being able to take some degree of incremental social progress as something of a given, the psychotically cruel and shockingly petty political revanchism of the Trumpenreich feels less like a political setback and more like watching a gang of feces-flinging baboons eating the Constitution and beating up our dad.

Personally, however, I don’t believe the “Long Arc” theory is refuted by recent events. In my mind, the metaphor describes not a law of nature—like gravity, say—but an observation about the nature of human beings. What I mean is that I don’t think Dr. King meant to imply that there’s some cosmic force compelling the world toward justice, and that if we just wait long enough, things will work themselves out. Obviously, this is not true; if there is any historic-gravitational force at work—that is, if there is a predictable direction in which modern societies drift when people of conscience stop paying attention—it is almost certainly in the opposite direction: toward feudalism, hierarchy, and rule by force. The long arc of history, when looked at from a distance, does bend toward justice, but a closer look reveals that it only does so when there are people bending it with all their might.

Finding Our Vocations

Class last week was about stepping back from the brink and regrouping — asking the questions, why are we doing this work? Can we be doing it better? How can we sustain ourselves as we do it? We also spent time acknowledging other voices we struggle with: Am I doing enough? Does what I do make a difference at all? How can I justify my choices, knowing what I know about how horrible the world is?

We have to step back and regroup like this in order to keep putting one foot in front of the other. We have come to know how hard this work is, how intractable and enormous and impossible to achieve it seems.  So we have to take breaks, to rest, and to gain new understanding and information about ourselves and our work.

I wrote back in May about vocation:  that place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger.  http://profgrose.com/2017/05/.   I asked Professor Jean Koh Peters (https://law.yale.edu/jean-koh-peters) about this idea of “deep gladness” and she explained that it is not happiness, exactly, but something like joy.  I was sitting next to my dear friend, colleague and co-author Professor Margaret Johnson (http://law.ubalt.edu/faculty/profiles/johnson.cfm) at the time, and Jean said, “when you’re talking to Margaret, you’re in your deep gladness.” Margaret and I looked at each other and at exactly the same time said, “it’s true!” (To which the universal response is “awwww.”) But as lovely as my friendship with Margaret is for a million reasons, I think Jean was referring to the work Margaret and I do together – the narrative theory and critical reflection work. And she’s absolutely right: my deep gladness, when I feel most at home and alive and authentic and three dimensional, happens when I am deconstructing systems and relationships and examining them for a greater understanding of power dynamics.

Finding and identifying my deep gladness has allowed me to move more deeply and intentionally into my work for justice, which I believe is where that deep gladness starts to meet some of the world’s deep hunger.  My students and I explored these ideas as we talked in class about Bryan Stevenson’s vision for making the world a more just place (https://youtu.be/CoydTc-l4a4):

1. Be proximate to what you care about:  This to me begs the question: what do you care about? What is your great joy, your deep gladness?
2. Change narratives:  This requires first identifying and deconstructing the existing (dominant) narratives:  the characters, events, causal connections, master plots, attempts at normalization, closure. And then working to construct new ones, with our power goggles on.
3. Protect our hope:  This to me is about staying connected to your deep gladness: find, honor and protect your passion, what moves you.
4. Choose to do uncomfortable things: Not everything that brings you deep gladness meets the world’s great hunger; and we all need to cherish and celebrate those many moments when you are not uncomfortable (that is part of #3).  But in order to meet the world’s great hunger, you must step into it.  Being uncomfortable lets you know that you are in your vocation.

My students’ task for next class is to figure out their deep gladness.  “How?” Some of them asked.  I thought back to Professor Peters’ guidance to me.  In the absence of a pair of collaborating best friends to point to, I suggested that students pay attention in the next week to what makes them cry — not in a bad way, but in that powerful, poignant way that usually happens for me when I’m driving. Pay attention to what makes you cry like that, I told them, and next week we’ll see what kind of deep gladness the world now has available for meeting its deep hunger.

There Are No [Easy] Answers

We also have dirty immigration lawyers who are encouraging their otherwise unlawfully present clients to make false claims of asylum providing them with the magic words needed to trigger the credible fear process. —  Jeff Sessions, Attorney General of the United States, October 12, 2017.  https://www.justice.gov/opa/speech/attorney-general-jeff-sessions-delivers-remarks-executive-office-immigration-review

Last night, I spoke to a group of public interest . . .  law students about being a good lawyer in these troubled times–using the Sessions speech as my starting point. In the lengthy Q&A, almost every single question was about how to keep going in this work, how to not normalize things, how to know which battles to fight, etc, etc. . . . I’ve seen it with my own students–they are learning the law at a time when the law itself is under attack. . . . Try as I might to spin it as being more important than ever, even heroic to gain the skills that will slow down and push back against the harm, it was obvious that it is just a really, really hard time to be a law student. Those of you out there teaching or mentoring law students or . . . new attorneys…please be extra mindful of how hard it is, and how uncertain some are that the work going to make a real difference.  https://www.facebook.com/Lizkeyes/posts/10156086133808115

Class was really tough last week.  We had read Michele Gilman’s “The Return of the Welfare Queen” and Lucie White’s “Notes on the Hearing of Mrs. G.”   http://home.ubalt.edu/ntlacbs/WHITE%20ART.pdf.  I had planned a good class using narrative theory to identify the characters, traits and masterplots embedded in the themes of these articles, and to construct a critical theory based on class and economic justice.  I will no doubt teach that class at some point.

Because as I reviewed the students’ journals (which they submit a couple of hours before class), and as the students themselves came in, chatting with each other and with me, I realized this class session was going to be different.  The students were revved up and frustrated and angry.  They were eager to talk about how bad things are and how hopeless they feel.  And they were hopeful that through our discussion, we would arrive at solutions — things that would really address the issues we have spent the semester exploring.

We have identified the systems, my students are saying.  We recognize the master plots and stereotypes and archetypal characters.  We recognize the different narratives – the white supremacist narrative of “still n—a;” the patriarchal narrative of the “Charmed Circle”; the classist narrative of the worthy poor and the Welfare Queen. We see it all. Now What?

Of course, there are no solutions.  Or at least no easy ones — not without dismantling our First World Capitalist White Supremacist Patriarchal Judeo-Christian society. (Which is seeming inevitable, actually, though not without a lot of devastation in the process.)

The fact is, my friends, we are in the middle of a slow burning (in some cases literally) social, cultural, and environmental apocalypse and I have been handing out special goggles so my students can see just how apocalyptic things really are.  That’s great except for the fact that the apocalypse is still burning all around us, and all we have to fight it are these special f-ing goggles! We are really tired of wearing them, but it’s really hard to take them off, now that we know what’s out there.

So I did not try to convince my revved up, frustrated and angry law students that “no really, this stuff works:  we can make a difference! Don’t forget what Margaret Mead said (http://profgrose.com/the-long-game/); or why Dick the Butcher wanted to “kill all the lawyers,” (http://profgrose.com/lets-kill-all-the-lawyers/).  Instead, we just talked about how hard and bad it all is, and how really it feels just awful a lot of the time.  And other than the fact that misery loves company, I don’t think any of us felt much better by the end of class.

This week is “Fall Break” so we don’t have class.  And I will take a week off from blogging too.

I am tired and discouraged, as are all of you, I know.  But I’m not done; none of us are.  Sometimes, we just need a break, to regroup and figure out what comes next:  what is my deep gladness, what is the world’s great hunger, and how can part of my deep gladness feed part of the world’s great hunger? I am working to figure that out.  And as the resister known simply as “Robert” reminded us all back in February:

“Take a breath. The rest of the chorus will sing. The rest of the band will play. Rejoin so others can breathe. Together, we can sustain a very long, beautiful song for a very, very long time. You don’t have to do it all, but you must add your voice to the song.” http://profgrose.com/take-a-breath-pass-it-on/

Let’s all take a breath.  And then, back to the music!

The Story of O.J., Peaches & Valerie Castile

I’ve been thinking a lot about the living prophets and other voices around me who describe aspects of what our country is going through right now. As I wrote last week, those voices help me stay grounded and awake in those moments when denial and oblivion beckon like sirens from the rocky shore. Sometimes those voices appear on my Facebook feed or on the Rachel Maddow show or from a pulpit somewhere. But sometimes those voices float from my son’s room as he is getting ready for school or practice: Chance the Rapper, Nick Cannon, and, my latest obsession (according to my son): Jay-Z.

I promised last week that I would write more about the class we had on Philando Castile and gender. So that’s what I’m going to do now. But first, please go listen to these two songs: Jay-Z’s “The Story of O.J.” https://youtu.be/RM7lw0Ovzq0 and Nina Simone’s “Four Women” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_dAQuf2sMYQ.(If you know these two songs, you will understand why I suggest you listen to them both together; if you don’t, you soon will.)  I’ll wait.

I’m not going to insult your intelligence by wondering if you understand what these two songs have to do with the current state of our society, government, world. But I am going to ask your indulgence in following my current (possibly obsessive) analysis of these two songs as tools to understand – and undermine – that current state of affairs.

Here are the lyrics of both (I’ve excluded the last verses of the O.J. song for space and focus reasons. Much there to analyze too, but not for today). I’ve highlighted the distinct characters – and their traits — in bold. :

The Story of O.J.:

Light n–a, dark n–a, faux n–a, real n–a
Rich n–a, poor n–a, house n–a, field n–a
Still n–a, still n–a
Light n–a, dark n–a, faux n–a, real n–a
Rich n–a, poor n–a, house n–a, field n–a
Still n–a, still n–a

O.J. like, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” …okay

House n–a, don’t fuck with me
I’m a field n–a, go shine cutlery
Go play the quarters where the butlers be
I’ma play the corners where the hustlers be
I told him, “Please don’t die over the neighborhood
That your mama rentin’
Take your drug money and buy the neighborhood
That’s how you rinse it”
. . . .

And Four Women:

My skin is black
My arms are long
My hair is woolly
My back is strong
Strong enough to take the pain
Inflicted again and again
What do they call me?
My name is Aunt Sarah
My name is Aunt Sarah
Aunt Sarah

My skin is yellow
My hair is long
Between two worlds
I do belong
But my father was rich and white
He forced my mother late one night
And what do they call me?
My name is Saffronia
My name is Saffronia

My skin is tan
My hair is fine
My hips invite you
My mouth like wine
Whose little girl am I?
Anyone who has money to buy
What do they call me?
My name is Sweet Thing
My name is Sweet Thing

My skin is brown
My manner is tough
I’ll kill the first mother I see!
My life has been rough
I’m awfully bitter these days
Because my parents were slaves
My name is Peaches!

These characters and traits are what narrative theory would describe as “stock” characters, or archetypes, the idea being that they describe kinds of people rather than individuals. So for black men, the stock characters used to be house slaves and field slaves; now they are rich n—s and poor n—s, butlers and hustlers. But all of the archetypes boil down to just one: still n—. Even O.J. Simpson can’t escape from that archetype – still n—, still n—.

And for black women, Simone describes four archetypes as well: Aunt Sarah, the “mammy” character who can handle whatever comes at her – with her strong back and long arms; Saffronia, the product of violence who might pass as white in some circles, but remains part of the world of “still n—;” Sweet Thing, the black temptress who, with her wide hips and wine-like lips can be bought by the highest bidder; and finally, Peaches – the epitome of black female rage, with her rough manner and language, who threatens violence against anyone who crosses her.

Okay, so these are two interesting songs telling interesting stories about being black in America. Why am I obsessed with them? Because they are not only describing stereotypes about African American men and women.  Rather, these songs are describing the processes of categorization and oppression. The characters identified by Jay-Z and Simone were not created by the artists or by the people populating the archetypes. They are created and maintained by the system of white supremacy itself, as a way to sort and control all blacks.

These songs are not about the stereotypes of the slavery or Jim Crow era, but of today’s American society. Every single black man and every single black woman is forced by today’s American society to fit in to one of these archetypes.  If an African American individual does not conform to the contours of one of the stock characters, chances are that White America will fill in gaps and build on assumptions to make them fit.  That is part of how a hierarchy based on “race” works:  the dominant “race” gets to sort and label the oppressed “race.”

I started our class last week by playing the Nina Simone song/video on a loop as the students walked in. (I had assigned both songs in a previous week) And then we talked about the issues involved in Philando Castile’s killing and its aftermath.  I didn’t even have to prompt my students to think in terms of characters, traits and archetypes.  They were right there with me.

Who is Philando Castile? Go look at the coverage of the shooting, look at the pictures of Mr. Castile, read what his family and friends have to say about it and about him. https://www.mprnews.org/story/2017/05/22/74-seconds-podcast-episode1-philando-castile.

Over and over again, we read after one of these police shootings of black men that he “wasn’t in a gang;” “he isn’t a criminal;” “he had a job;” “he was in school;” etc.  Why? Why is this what families and friends and communities of color stumble over themselves to say loud and clear to whoever will listen?  A loved one has just been killed and those most devastated by his death are desperate to tell a counter-narrative about him:  that he is NOT one of the typical black men America knows all about — the house n–a, the field n–a,  the butler or  the hustler.

And what about the women in Philando Castile’s life? We started with Valerie Castile — Philando Castile’s grieving mother who “stayed calm” and “dignified” throughout the events following her son’s death, all the way through the trial and beyond.  Who is she? “She is Aunt Sarah,” sighed one student.  And indeed, here she is, with her broad back and strong arms, embracing the grieving fiancee of Justine Ruszczyk in the days after Ruszczyk’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police:

Whether in news coverage of how quiet and dignified she was during the trial, or photos of her attending a private vigil for her son, Ms. Castile was the middle-aged black woman white America could root for; and be comforted by.

Until . . . . she became Peaches.  Every account I have read or seen or heard of the moments after Yanez’s “not guilty” verdict was read contains a sentence like this one: “After the verdict was read, Valerie Castile yelled an expletive and . . . left the courtroom in tears.”  https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2017/06/16/philando-castiles-mother-reacts-not-guilty-verdict/102936184/.

No stranger to the boxes white America tries to put black women in, Castile described her experience in her own Facebook Live video a few days after the verdict:

“I’m sure y’all seen this bullshit that happened today. Fuck what they talking about!. I’ve been holding myself, trying to be strong, and not say the wrong things because I already know how they get down. I’m 61 years old. I’ve seen it, I’ve smelled it, I’ve heard it. Now you see exactly what these motherfuckers think about us. They murdered my mother f*cking son with his seat belt on. So what does that say to you?” http://thejasminebrand.com/2017/06/19/philando-castiles-mom-fk-the-police/#ixzz4v2FADkVc

I could go on, and I’m sure you can do.  Where does Diamond Reynolds fit? Is she Sweet Thing and Peaches, or just Peaches? And what about Mohammed Noor? Is he a house n–a  as a cop; or a field n–a, as a Somali immigrant?

And then of course, we have to consider the two songs themselves, and the layering of Patriarchy over White Supremacy.  Where do Nina Simone’s “Four Women” fit in Jay-Z’s landscape? He samples the song throughout his, but doesn’t use the gender identifying language of the original song.  What does that do to the unique (and deeply intersectional) experience of a black woman, as opposed to a black man?

All of which to say, these songs and the tools they suggest are just that — voices and ideas.  What we do with those tools is up to us.  I propose using them to remind us to keep our race and gender and power goggles on; to challenge ourselves at every turn to identify hierarchies and interrogate our own participation in them.  I believe that is what makes these voices those of living (or recently deceased — RIP Nina Simone) prophets:  they remind us to look beyond and outside of ourselves and to keep paying attention to what we find there.