The United States Cannot Be The World’s Superhero

There’s a natural urge to want something done when you see injustice. Human beings are wired for community, collaboration, and fairness. If someone or a whole group of people is wronged, we can feel in our gut that there’s a need for the wrong to be made right.

At a time when people around the world are as interconnected as they’ve ever been, with 24/7 media coverage of nearly every corner of the globe, we are constantly made aware of a multitude of conflicts, crimes, dysfunctions, and dehumanizing acts. Famine, war, oppression, poverty, and more.

Once you become aware, you feel the weight of the injustice and the longing for resolution.  

Who’s going to fix this stuff?

For some time now, there has been a widely held assumption that–as the world’s only true superpower–the United States will step in to right such wrongs. If there’s a brutal dictator, the US will remove them from power. If there’s a war, the US will show up with guns blazing to take over for the good guys. If there is famine or poverty, the US will provide essential resources.

That all sounds pretty hopeful and noble. Captain America will be there when things get bad! We all long for a force that can intervene no matter how dire and horrifying things get. That’s the appeal of superheroes. If only it were that simple.

With nearly 200 countries in the world, there’s no way that one of them–however powerful–can show up and rectify every act of injustice in the world. It would require an impossible amount of people, resources, and time. How much thinner can the United States stretch itself than it already has? How do you choose which international injustices get attention and which can be ignored?

Even if the United States or any other superpower could intervene anywhere and everywhere, countries are sovereign spaces. They have their own political systems, beliefs, identities, and goals. The US should not step in as it pleases–no matter how good the intentions. Millions of Americans were outraged at the slightest suggestion of foreign interference in our 2016 presidential election. How do other countries feel when the US barges in and imposes its will in much more drastic and consequential ways?

Frankly, the United States doesn’t have a great track record. There’s a long history of fragile and struggling states because the US intervened without a long-term plan for the prosperity and sustained independence of those places. Without a plan that meets those countries’ ideals and goals and respects their autonomy. More often than not, US intervention creates a vacuum, establishes what’s purely in America’s interests, or leaves things worse than they were before.

As often as possible, justice needs to emerge from within a country rather than heavily influenced by external forces. The United States and others may be able to provide support, guidance, or some resources from the outside. But they should definitely not be the primary actor and influencer within other countries. Too often it leads to destabilization and ruin.

And honestly, we have enough of our own injustices to rectify within the United States. A broken healthcare system. Voter suppression. Widespread unemployment, underemployment, and economic inequality. Various local environmental disasters and a transcendent climate crisis that’s constantly worsening. And much more.

How might things be different if we had used the amount spent on the deadly, failed wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria–something like 3.5 trillion dollars and counting–on the wrongs within the United States?

What effort has gone into establishing more fair and accountable police forces? Toward fair and equal voting? Toward employment and a robust social safety net? Toward a renewable energy system and environmental restoration?

The United States can’t do it all. It often makes injustices in other countries worse. And there are already millions in American neighborhoods who are suffering and forgotten. America needs to learn how to be just in our own communities instead of arrogantly and brashly trying to be the savior of the whole world. If we must lead, let’s lead by example in the way our own country’s wrongs are righted. That would be truly patriotic and powerful.

This Week in Upgrades: November 7

Take a deep breath. I’m sure trying to. It’s the last day of campaigning before Election Day. After tomorrow, we’ll know who the next president is going to be. We’ll know what state ballot initiatives have passed and failed. With the finality of the election season, we’ll have more clarity about what our future is going to look like. And hopefully there’ll be more clarity about the role each of us will play in shaping the future. No matter who becomes president, we all will have work to do.

For better or worse, the election seems to be what’s on most people’s mind. But here are some other things from the week you might want to check out:

Alton’s Brown Good Eats, perhaps the best cooking show ever made, is returning as an online series. Brilliant.

Watch humanity spread across the planet over the last 200,000 years.

As we take steps toward becoming an interplanetary species, we’ll have to figure out how to deal with spacephobia.

Can clickbait ever become more than just digital junk food?

Here’s precisely how bad smoking is for your lungs. Why is smoking still a thing?

Do you work or live with a psychopath? Here are some tips for dealing.

Current climate commitments have us locked into too much warming. Have to get more honest and ambitious.

Anthony Hopkins is a really good actor. (Also, are you watching Westworld?!)

Hope you have a fantastic week!

 

 

This Week in Upgrades: October 10

A very good Monday to you. How are things? Is October treating you well? I did not watch last night’s presidential debate, and I’m OK with that. Partly because I can’t take it anymore (lewd Trump video!, Clinton Wall Street speeches!, ???!!!), and partly because the Packers were playing.

I tried to take a bit of a break from the interwebs through the week, too, so the links are fewer than normal. That doesn’t mean they’re uninteresting though. Like…

Take a look at how many galaxies are in just a tiny bit of space!

One wonders with historic storms like Hurricane Matthew why climate change isn’t front and center in this election?

If you want to know what some sketchy politician-media coziness looks like, this is a rare peek behind the scenes. This kind of stuff makes me want to throw up, but I wish we were all more aware of what goes on behind the scenes so we could more directly fix our broken democracy.

Imagine what we could do with over $700 billion in uncollected taxes from overseas profits–healthcare, education, infrastructure…

Some researchers believe we have achieved the natural maximum lifespan of our species. What’s the quote again about the years in your life versus the life in your years?

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is larger than previously thought. Our non-renewable, throwaway culture covers the whole planet. Time to wake up, everyone!

We know how to eat healthy, so why is food labeling so complicated?

The legacy of forced Native American assimilation through the lens of one community. Hard to watch, but powerful.

How did we get the names of our months?

Have a fantastic week!

 

This Mess

How are you feeling? Are you managing your week OK?

How’s your job? Is it what you like to do? Do you get along with your boss? Do you make enough to pay for the things you need?

Are you getting enough sleep? Are you eating well? Are you spending quality time with the people you care about?

Did you watch the first presidential debate? How do you feel about the country’s future?

How do you feel about your future?

These are pretty crazy times we’re living in. The present often seems crazy because of the unpredictability of the near future. Things could go many different ways, and so that leaves a sort of unsettling, up-in-the-air feeling in our gut. Is it going to turn out OK? Am I going to be OK?

By all measures, we’re at one of the most significant crossroads in human history. The most recent climate math tells us that “if we’re serious about preventing catastrophic warming…we can’t dig any new coal mines, drill any new fields, build any more pipelines. Not a single one. We’re done expanding the fossil fuel frontier. Our only hope is a swift, managed decline in the production of all carbon-based energy from the fields we’ve already put in production.” If we want to maintain a hospitable planet, we have to end our failed fossil fuel experiment now.

Beyond our worsening environmental tragedy, the integrity of American society has been stretched thin and perforated with a number of other tragedies. Unlivable wages. Excessive use of force. Invasion of privacy. Expensive, endless, destabilizing warfare. Crumbling infrastructure. Disturbing immigration and profiling practices. And those are just the most obvious.

If you tuned into Monday’s debate to hear what the Republican and Democratic candidates are going to do about all of this you were probably deeply disappointed. Instead of 90 minutes of rigorous, nuanced policy discussion on even one of these tragedies–climate, wages, immigration, or otherwise–the American public was given a front-row seat to two adult human beings–one of whom will be the next president–relive their grade-school days with petty zingers and disdainful deflections.

It is the absolute lowest-hanging fruit to vent about Donald Trump’s vulgarity. A five-year-old could tell you he’s an absurd, self-centered blowhard who should never be president. The endless hot takes saying as much aren’t clever or engaging.

It’s not nearly as obvious to many people that Hillary Clinton is right there with Trump as a historically unfavorable presidential candidate. When given an opportunity to outline a compelling vision for America at the debates, Clinton directed the audience to her website and recently published book Stronger Together, which has struggled to sell more than a few thousand copies. This country is in need of something other than the status quo. Many anticipate she will maintain that status quo, and no one is buying into it–literally or figuratively.

When earlier this year Clinton went back-and-forth with Bernie Sanders in an illuminating centrism-versus-progressivism debate, she now spends most of her campaigning pointing out that she’s not Donald Trump. Is that supposed to be impressive? There are millions of people who would be a better president than Donald Trump. We know he’s prone to things like body-shaming women. We know he’s said climate change is a hoax. We know he has shady business practices.

What does Hillary Clinton have to say to the millions of people working low-wage service jobs with more to pay for than they can afford?

What will she do for young people who think the entire free market economic arrangement is bullshit and are wondering how they’re ever going to find a modicum of success and stability in their decades of adulthood?

If she becomes president, why should anyone trust that she’ll do what needs to be done to restore the climate when she sold fracking–one of the most environmentally destructive practices–to the rest of the world as Secretary of State?

Why should anyone trust she will bring about peace and an end to intervention in other countries when she has an established history of warmongering?

How does her longstanding belief in child deportations make her more fair and empathetic on immigration?

Clinton will probably win–merely on the incredibly weak basis that she isn’t Trump and that he may not even be trying to win. It will be an uninspiring end to an uninspiring election. Either way, we’re faced with terrible choices for our next president.

So what do we do?

Do we throw our arms up and cry? I definitely felt that way after about 20 minutes of this first debate. What a sad situation that these are the two plausible choices we’ve been left with. Disengagement feels like a natural route to take–though not one that can be expected to change anything.

Do we bite the bullet and cast a lukewarm vote for Clinton? After all, haven’t our presidential elections been mostly a lesser-of-two-evils choice for a while now? Clinton-Trump looks like the worst instance of it yet, with Clinton only slightly “less evil” than Trump on aggregate.

Do we look to third parties and cast a vote for a candidate possibly more suitable to the task at hand? Jill Stein and Gary Johnson are getting more attention than third party candidates typically do. Is one of them the least-of-several-evils? However appealing they or other third party candidates may be, the odds are near impossible that one of them will win. At most, they may siphon away a mandate from Clinton or Trump.

Whomever you choose to cast a vote for in November, I think there’s a longer trajectory to be mindful of. Neither of the two major party candidates can be trusted or believed to lead the kind of movement we need to improve the many tragedies we’re confronted with. It’s up to us. If this bewildering presidential election has made anything clear, it’s that we are in desperate need of a revitalized democracy that is truly of the people, by the people, and for the people. We need a mass movement of everyday Americans banding together and demanding what’s necessary for the common good.

A movement that holds the feet of politicians in office to the fire, and supports down-ballot candidates (senate, house, mayor, etc.) who understand what’s going on and what we need to do.

A movement that insists on fact-based, truth-telling journalism–as opposed to the post-truth, propagandistic media we’ve been stuck with over the last several months and longer. It shouldn’t be as hard as it is now to get down to the actual facts and significance of what’s happening.

A movement that Tweets, blogs, Instagrams, Snaps, and more, about where we’re at and what needs to go differently. Politics is one of the old untouchables with family and friends, but we have to move beyond avoiding mentioning how broken the world is and how we might be able to fix it because it’s not pleasant dinner conversation. We need ideas shared out loud. We need to keep bringing injustice, destruction, and inaction back into the spotlight. We need to have constructive disagreements out in the open so we can actually land on some mutual understanding.

A movement that doesn’t stop at social-media activism, but rather continues on to running for office, joining nonprofits, researching and educating, protesting and working toward reconciliation.

We may be stuck with a saddening mess for the months ahead. Nothing changes overnight. But if we can start building a movement that holds an unfavorable president accountable and steadily starts to shift the political tectonic plates, we may see things begin to heal. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” many have quoted. It only bends if we force it.

I refuse to throw in the towel. Do you? We need you and me and her and him and those guys and that journalist and this social-media-famous young woman and that up-and-coming politician and many, many more, building up a movement that demands a better future. It’s up to all of us to fix this mess.

Wherever You Start, It Ends Up in the Same Place

I had a little free time the other day, and I happened upon a very interesting interview with Andrew Zimmern. He’s perhaps best known for his show Bizarre Foods and some of the seemingly strange things he’s eaten on camera for it. The whole conversation is well worth a listen.

It was especially intriguing and thought-provoking because, ostensibly, this is an interview for a food website, with a former chef and current food television host, containing his thoughts on this or that bit of the current state of food. And yet, as the interview goes along, the conversation becomes about much more than just the latest ingredient fad or buzziest restaurant. It goes deeper into economics, creativity, globalization, class, history, relationships, politics, and more.

To be sure, the interview is not a one-hour retelling of all of human history through the lens of food. And it’s certainly not the first or even the best example of going beyond its immediate subject matter in a profound way. But I find it immensely fascinating and illuminating that an interview that starts out about one thing–food–quickly and regularly goes deep into many other things.

We live in a world that is incredibly specialized–perhaps even too specialized. We don’t just have athletes, doctors, and professors. We have wide receivers and punters; brain surgeons and orthopedic surgeons; professors of Western religions and professors of metaethics. Our entry points into the world–our personal areas of interest and expertise–are almost as numerous and unique as the number of people on this planet.

We each step out into the world and view it predominantly through the shaping and interpretive framework of those interests or fields of expertise. Andrew Zimmern’s entry point is food, and he can say and explain things about food and food culture that few others can. That alone makes for a compelling conversation. Food is awesome. Who doesn’t love finding out interesting things about it?

But as his Eater interview shows, you can’t really talk about food without talking about money and the exchange of value, globalization, human creativity, relationships, social structure, and the rest. Wherever we start, things eventually end up in the same place.

Where they end up is the core, essential humanity that exists behind every profession and area of interest. They end up at the heart of every person’s intentions, understanding, and experience.

You can start talking to an athlete about their career, their take on their sport, the business dealings of whatever league they’re in, their fan base, and the like. And sooner or later, things will either briefly or extensively broaden to dreams fulfilled and unfulfilled; the power of mentorship, teamwork, and dedicated effort; the strength and fragility of the human body, and dealing with the inevitability of physical decline and retirement.

You can start talking to a physician about the curiosities and intricacies of their medical expertise. And sooner or later, things will briefly or extensively broaden to the struggles of their work-life balance; the power and pride of healing; the agony and frustration of failed treatments and incurability; the daily encounters with patients at different stages of birth, life, and death, and supporting each person’s health to maximize their enjoyable time on earth.

You can start talking to a professor about the social construction of religion or morality in modern society. And sooner or later, things will briefly or extensively broaden to the nature of belief and one’s own worldview; what’s right and wrong in the world–and what to do about it; the finitude of life and how to live it; and if there’s more to all of this than what we can observe.

Wherever you start, it eventually ends up in the same place.

Not in every single interaction. And not always for an extended period or in great depth. But if there is enough time and openness, things will eventually arrive at the universally human that undergirds everything else.

So the next time you listen to a podcast, or watch a news segment or sports match, or read a book, or talk with a doctor, co-worker, lawyer, or anyone else–watch and listen for the way things start to veer toward the universally human. And think about how that humanity is acknowledged, or supported, or suppressed, or thwarted, or celebrated by the entry point you started from (food, sports, medicine, philosophy, etc.).

To ask just a few:

How should we feel about a fish that’s essentially commonplace bait in Namibia but an expensive seafood plate in fancy urban restaurants? 

What should be done about the head trauma NFL players experience and what that entails for their well-being later in life? 

Why are issues of religion so often plagued by othering and scapegoating, anti-intellectualism, and hypocrisy?

Everything is connected to everything else. Food to politics. Sports to relationships. Academia to meaning. Our conversations begin with each person seeing the world from a slightly different angle. We’ve separated things out in thorough specialization, but really it’s all meant to fit together. As we take time with others, with various interests and expertise, we see more clearly the breadth and depth of our shared humanity. And the better we see our universality, the better we can pursue the common good together from the entry point that intrigues each of us most.

 

This Week in Upgrades: July 25

Oh, hello! Here we are at the start of another week. How are you doing? Rested? Eager? Ready to keep the world new?

We’re in the midst of a fire-pocalypse in the LA area. Wildfires are common in California, but the Sand fire in Santa Clarita is uncommonly dire. Looks like the end of the world when the smoke-obscured sun glows an ominous red-orange, and ash is snowing down on you. Very unsettling.

What else happened this week?

Amazon is looking to use lampposts as part of their drone delivery network. Maybe drones are better than pooping pigeons?

We learned more about how wild birds and humans team up to get honey. Wonderful things happen when we work with nature instead of trying to subdue it.

Here’s everything you’d want to know about campfires. Just keep them contained, OK?

When we’re at ease, humans gravitate toward equality. In stress, hierarchy. Very interesting.

Do you remember what it was like to be small and the world seemed full of magic? We’re learning more about how kids understand fantasy, reality, and pretending.

Here’s Tesla’s “Masterplan Part Two”. Ambitious, but encouraging for society if they can make it happen. “The first time, possibly ever, that a green product with significant environmental credentials has been the thing everybody wanted.”

In the midst of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, members of the media try to explain why the media is failing us. This American presidential election has been a wild and depressing ride. Hopefully, a lot of beneficial change–media included–emerges out of the ashes.

Have a great week!

 

Humans and Nature: Safety Not Guaranteed

Marathon runner attacked by bear. Colorado woman rescues son from jaws of mountain lion. Alligator drowns child at Disney World.

These are just the most notable animal-human encounter headlines from the last few weeks. Google “hiker dies,” and you’ll find several more stories from recent days of people who tragically lost their lives in wild terrain.

Each of these stories is surprising and dismaying–difficult to comprehend. Things seem to be going just fine, and then suddenly nature strikes and someone’s life is in the balance. Social media and mainstream news bring these encounters front-and-center, and we collectively wonder how such a thing is possible in modern society.

Disney should have been patrolling the local waterways, relocating dangerous wildlife, monitoring children at the shore, and putting up signs everywhere warning guests about natural threats.

Lost in nearly all of the conversation about that particular incident is the fact that Disney has built a massive resort in the midst of a complex ecosystem that’s been present and evolving for countless years before humans artificially built their vacation village on top. Is it reasonable to think that with over a million alligators in Florida any human planning is going to be able to ensure a gator won’t be in a given area? When a business has already put up signage saying not to enter the water at the boundary of the resort, should they further have to explain that it’s because a predatory native species everyone should know about may be lurking there in the habitat it’s reigned in long before humans showed up?

Much of the world is now an artificial expanse of human civilization that blankets the existing wild environment. No one expects in suburban Colorado to find a mountain lion in their yard. No one expects to come across a bear and cub while running a marathon. No one expects a child wading into the resort lagoon to be pulled underwater by a gator.

No one expects these things because we believe that our modern society is one of total human domination, ingenuity, and control. We are the top predator, the hunter, the inventor, the architect. Wild predators and wild terrain are dangerous nuisances that should already be engineered out of our experience of the world.

There’s no question we are a dominant, controlling species today. We now alter the climate of the whole planet. We’ve caused many of the Earth’s animals to go extinct or become severely underpopulated. We explore high and low (and leave our mark with trash)–in the near space of our solar system and in the deepest depths of the ocean. No other animal on the planet has done or is doing this.

At the same time, things were not always this way for us. Before they went extinct, there were a number of animals that we were prey to–giant hyenas, cave bears and cave lions, snakes, saber-toothed cats, and others. We were not always at the top of everything, and no matter what we want to believe, we’re still not in control of everything. There remain predators and wild environmental features that can threaten, wound, and kill us.

So, yes, it is absolutely shocking and saddening when someone is severely hurt or even killed by the tooth and claw of nature. My heart breaks for anyone who’s lost a loved one to a violent storm, jagged terrain, or a deadly creature.

But the reason these stories are breaking news is the veil of civilization makes them less common and existential than they were for hundreds of thousands of years. Our faith in utter domination and control may one day be an all-encompassing reality as we continue to alter the planet: no more animal attacks, threatening storms, or fatal terrain. But for now, our existence is one of fragility and unpredictability. Our reality is that safety is not guaranteed. We are always wrestling with the elements and need to be vigilant–whether it’s at a resort or deep in the woods.

 

“Delete Your Account?” We Need to Demand Better

For weeks, major American media has been chomping at the bit for a Donald Trump–Hillary Clinton general election campaign to officially begin. With Clinton declared the Democratic Party nominee earlier this week (even though the superdelegates needed to put her over the delegate threshold do not vote until the Democratic National Convention at the end of July), and President Obama formally endorsing her Thursday, that general election matchup seems to have begun in earnest. How did it kick off? Bold insights about the state of the country? Hopeful policy proposals? Nope, this:

Which got this memed response:

And then the mainstream news media erupted:

%22Delete Your Account%22
via @adamjohnsonNYC

We are in the midst of (at least) two major crises: rampant economic inequality and man-made climate change. Each of them is a runaway, destructive force that requires immediate action and wise strategy. Instead, the only political issue receiving attention is the childish Twitter squabble between the two major candidates for president. Is this what the next five months has in store?

If either candidate has stated consistent, thought-out positions on economic inequality or climate change, you’d be hard-pressed to summarize what they are.

Clinton’s campaign has been dominated by the possibility that she would be the first woman to become President of the United States. That would absolutely be a historical achievement (for the US). But what happens the moment after she achieves that? I’m the first woman who’s President of the United States is not a platform–especially one that addresses the real needs of the country. #ImwithHer sounds more like the glorification of an individual than a movement for the benefit of the masses.

Trump has been so wildly all over the place demeaning and scapegoating different groups of people that it’s hard to interpret his Make America Great Again slogan as anything other than Make America Comfortable for Tribalistic White People Again. His recognizable policy proposals are about obstructing immigrants. Most of the time he’s shooting from the hip about the latest person or people that he can’t stand and how they’re losers or criminals.

You’re smart and so you already know this. You see Trump’s absurdity and demagoguery. You see the shallowness of Clinton running on simplistic identity politics and merely not being Donald Trump.

It’s a whole bunch of divisive fluff at a time when we need foresight, substance, and inclusiveness.

We need real policy that addresses the major crises we face. We need to move toward an election process that’s better than choosing the lesser of two (very objectionable) evils. We need news media that care more about spotlighting difficult truths than sensationalizing triviality. We need to demand better.

 

A Healthy Scrutiny of Authority

I’ve been on a bit of a Noam Chomsky kick lately. (I’m a nerd). First, I came across the recent documentary Requiem for the American Dream, which is essentially an extended Chomsky interview with infographics and historical film clips. It’s quite insightful about the current state of the American economy and the struggles of the middle class. I’ve also been reading through Chomsky’s most recent book, Who Rules the World?an unflinching examination of the notion of American exceptionalism. The thing that sticks with me the most about his overarching perspective and recurring critiques is the need to scrutinize people and institutions with power and authority.

Now, to be clear, I’m not an anarchist or pessimist. If you’ve read through some of the pieces I’ve written for Upgraded Humans thus far, I hope you have the sense I believe that for whatever problems we face there are interesting and plausible solutions worth trying, and that human nature can evolve toward the good and the just. We need many of the structures and habits that exist in society. They just need to be constantly examined and reshaped around what’s good for people.

And one of the things that’s quite good for people is a broadly egalitarian society. We’ve seen over the last few decades–especially in terms of income, wealth, and opportunity–a dramatic and devastating rise in inequality. It’s the root of many of our present ills. The average American has been hurt by the current socio-economic arrangement, while a minority elite has benefitted immensely. They’ve been able to build reputation, power, and wealth. From a self-interested and self-centered standpoint, it probably makes sense to them to maintain the status quo. But immense authority and influence in the hands of a few is not a natural social relationship and not one that usually benefits the rest of humanity.

Which is why it makes sense that no matter what socio-economic arrangement we find ourselves in, or how well or terribly it’s working out for the average person, it’s crucial that the general public constantly examines and critiques people and institutions of authority. To quote Spider-Man (which was quoting earlier and less cool sources): with great power comes great responsibility. Some people and institutions of authority truly have an elevated social consciousness and use their influence and resources for good. A philanthropic billionaire can do some great things to help large numbers of people. News media can bring difficult, hidden truths into the light. A coach can change the life trajectory of a child with a rocky upbringing. Fantastic.

But often, people and institutions of authority shouldn’t have the power they have, or abuse legitimate power and use it for manipulative or destructive ends. With any person or organization in power, we must ask: why do they deserve our attention, faith, or allegiance?

Do they have a lot of experience in the field they have authority in? If so, is it experience worth praising and embracing? Or are there serious questions about motive, expertise, judgment, and ethics?

Have they been consistent, or are they easily swayed and play favorites? Do they seem to be working from a thoughtful, moral center? Are they aware of the profound consequences of their actions?

Too often, we allow people and institutions of authority to carry on without critique. We look up to them with godlike reverence, taking their words and actions as infallible. We fail to consider that as human beings, authority figures–presidents, coaches, corporations, academics, scientists, news networks, judges, CEOs, bankers, and the rest–are always at the whim of our limited, sometimes misguided, sometimes egotistical human nature.

This week, President Barack Obama visited Hiroshima and gave a heartfelt speech about the bombing in 1945, the power of military technology, and the need for moral progress. There was moving rhetoric and symbolic gestures. At the same time, most media barely mentioned–if at all–that the Obama administration has actually moved to upgrade America’s nuclear arms rather than reduce them, and continues to carry out a dubious drone warfare program that has killed hundreds if not thousands of innocent people. The Hiroshima visit is literally historic in the sense that President Obama is the first sitting president to visit since it happened. And some real healing and reflection may have taken place. But actions are always more important than words. Americans need to hold the administration accountable if it truly believes in a “moral revolution” of military technology and diplomacy that will lead to greater peace in the world.

Or take another example. Through the course of this election, Donald Trump has received virtually wall-to-wall free coverage on almost every major media source. Instead of focusing on real policy conversations about what the United States needs right now, more often than not CNN, NBC, The New York Times, and other go-to media sources are filled up with the latest absurdity involving Trump on the campaign trail. Many have remarked about the reality-show nature the rise of Donald Trump has contributed to this election. Those major media outlets are just as responsible as anyone else for that happening. On many occasions throughout the presidential campaign, CNN may as well have been Access Hollywood–unhelpfully distracting the public with segments closer to entertainment gossip than substantive truth-telling. If these go-to sources are failing in their basic journalistic responsibilities, how can the average person be in tune with what’s actually going on in the world and what we need to talk about most?

Or this: without a doubt, coaches can have a profoundly positive influence on others’ lives. But at the same time, coaches are often fanatically turned into revered demigods with little or no accountability. Baylor University is now in recovery precisely because of this complex. While football players raped and beat other students for years, the coach and school president (and apparently the local police, on occasion) looked the other way. With great power comes great responsibility, and coaches have a responsibility to humanity, dignity, and justice–not just to winning.

Does power always corrupt? That’s a big question for another time. Because of our human nature, we all need the balancing effect of thoughtful observation and critique from others–whether we possess real authority ourselves or not.

For now, it seems clear that for every person or institution of authority, every other person needs to ask why they have that power and whether they’re using it responsibly. They should be working toward advancing equality, justice, and the common good. And we should maintain a healthy skepticism about whether they’re actually doing that.

 

What Does It Mean to “Be a Man”?

When I was in high school, there was a year that I needed to take a summer gym class to fulfill my physical education requirement. When I missed a couple days because of some other obligations, I had to work with school administration to figure out what could be done to finish out the requirement.

The compromise was to register in a workshop called Bigger, Faster, Stronger: a CrossFit-like boot camp for high school athletes, almost entirely male, preparing for the fall season of their sports. Even though I was a varsity soccer player, I got my butt kicked by the relentless weight training, field exercises, and agility tests. It was probably the most machismo thing I have been part of. Every guy in the room was comparing himself against the apparent strength and ability of the others. I’m sure some of the soreness I felt at home each night came from pushing myself to make sure I wasn’t too far behind other guys in weight and reps, times, and other measurables.

Using comparison to scrutinize our identity has probably been part of being human for as long as we’ve been here. We often look at others and archetypes as a way to figure out our own place in the world. But when it comes to gender, what we’re comparing ourselves against as the standard for “being a man” or “being a woman” are extreme and incomplete ideals.

As a man, I can only fully relate to the experience and norms of masculinity, which is why I was happy to discover that the makers of 2011’s Miss Representation, a documentary exploring hyperfemininity and its consequences, recently released a complementary film regarding hypermasculinity, The Mask You Live In.

Prevalent throughout much of American society (and perhaps elsewhere), what it means to “be a man” amounts to putting on a mask of athletic ability, financial success, and sexual conquest, while hiding and suppressing weakness, emotion, empathy, and intimacy. “He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it…,” opens the film–a quote from George Orwell.

As boys, males are handed this mask early and encouraged to grow into it often. From parents, especially fathers. From coaches. From all kinds of media. From peer groups.

Whichever of these guiding sources it comes from, boys are too often discouraged from crying, talking about their pain and weaknesses, and cultivating open relationships. Such things are perceived to be unmanly, and, therefore, subordinate. It leads to an implicit hierarchy. At the top are men who are fast, strong, steely, powerful, and rich. Everyone and everything else fall below.

This hierarchy perpetuates sexism and homophobia. As a man of the mask, you dehumanize people who are not at the top. A male who doesn’t embody the ideal is shunned as “gay.” Women are categorically inferior and seen to exist primarily for sexual objectification. Any woman who tries to be strong or rich or powerful is breaking rank. She’s a “bitch,” an “annoyance,” or a “lesbian.”

But time after time, when men and boys are given space for self-reflection and to speak freely without potential humiliation, they talk about pain and weaknesses; about a desire for honest closeness with other men and women; and about suppressed empathy. The vulnerability and longing behind the mask are essential to being a man.

They’re essential to being human.

Because, perhaps surprisingly to some, men and women are actually quite similar. As long as people are around, there will probably be endless debates about gender (as social construction) versus sex (as biology) and femininity versus masculinity. We’re good at getting caught up in differences. But women and men are far more the same–far more human–than they are different.

Emotion, empathy, and intimacy are vital whether you’re a woman or a man. These are not “inferior” traits of “inferior” people. They are crucial aspects of humanity that contribute to being a complete person, and, as The Mask You Live In concludes, “everyone deserves to feel whole.”

Men deserve to feel whole–free from the distorted view of masculinity they’re often given. Women deserve to feel whole–free from the sexism of that same skewed version of masculinity.

We are all human. Be human. Reject the mask.