I wrote a book recently called “Misery Bay” in which—spoiler alert—a character dies when he is struck by a car while riding a bike without a helmet.
This is ironic because I myself don’t usually wear a helmet while riding my bike.
I say this to communicate two things: I understand the arguments for wearing a helmet. And there are still many times when I don’t put mine on.
The following are three reasons why I don’t usually wear a bike helmet. And one reason why you should keep telling me to.
1) A little risk isn’t a bad thing
It’s been said that when humans stop being hungry they start being afraid. I expect that any objective look at Western culture would confirm this. For the most part, we’re pretty well fed. And for the most part, we’re obsessed with safety.
From the playground to the job site, “Safety First” is our driving doctrine, our singular prime directive. In fact, it’s my opinion that we’ve become so obsessed with preventing even the slightest risk and danger that fictional risk and danger have become our guilty pleasures.
Why? Because the truth is that we humans crave a little risk.
Why do kids climb trees? Why do adults parachute out of planes? Why do white suburban teens listen to gangsta rap? Why do stupid people film themselves performing the latest Internet “Challenge”?
Because some degree of danger and uncertainty is alluring. It’s hardwired into our psyche. It’s what makes us inventors, and explorers, and artists. There is no reward without risk.
Although, for the dumbest few, there is plenty of risk without reward.
This is why I reject the concept of “Safety First”, even when it takes the form of bicycle helmets.
I grew up riding a bike. We rode endless miles of country roads with no helmets and nobody blinked an eye. Was there some element of risk in that? Probably. In the same way that there was some risk in rope-swinging into a country pond or traversing a fallen tree over a storm-swollen creek (things that would also be verboten in today’s hissy-fit religion of worry).
Like climbing a tree, riding a bike simply wasn’t anyone’s idea of an extreme sport. It was just a slightly faster-than-walking-pace means of getting from here to there.
Which brings me to point #2:
2) I don’t do what helmet-wearers do
Like death and taxes, some things are absolutely axiomatic. Every single time the subject of bicycle helmets comes up, the nearest bicyclist tells me their horror story of the time their helmet saved their life. And every story starts something like this:
“I was with my riding group doing thirty-five through a construction site when…”
“I was mountain biking down a steep, muddy path when…”
“I was chasing a gang of bicycle ninjas through a monsoon along the hairpin turns of the Amalfi coast when…”
“Two hundred foot drop to jagged rocks? Good thing I’m wearing this plastic helmet!”
Look, people: I don’t ride like that.
When I’m riding, I’m not in Beast Mode. I’m in toodle-mode.
I’m not out to break any records, or test the frayed limits of human endurance, or swoop through heavy traffic like I’m being filmed for a Bond movie. I don’t go much faster than running pace. I don’t lock my shoes into my pedals as if me and my bike were some sort of steampunk man/machine hybrid. I don’t race down mountains, jump creeks, or dodge boulders at speeds measured in hundredths of a second.
I meander. Even when I am coasting down the quarter-mile hill to Presque Isle (my favorite ride), I keep to the bike lane and thread my brakes to stay below fifteen miles an hour. Why? Because I am aware that traveling any faster on a two-wheeled vehicle with no airbags, seat belts, or crumple-zones is an unwise and foolhardy exercise.
And I can hear some of you saying, “But what about the drivers!? What if some car swerves onto the path with its evil combustion engine!?”
I’d be in the exact same danger if I was walking, wouldn’t I? And yet no one ever suggests that I wear a helmet as a pedestrian.
“A Walking Helmet is a Good Helmet” — DAMMIT, irony!
I’m always tempted to respond to these cycling tales of the macabre with the story of Stephen King, who was struck and nearly killed by a van while merely walking alongside a Maine road near his home. Does his story make you want to wear a helmet every time you head out for an after dinner stroll? For some of you, it actually might.
For the rest of you, nor does the fear of rogue drivers keep me from riding the bike path without a helmet. I have a handlebar mirror to watch for traffic, I avoid riding my bike on busy roads wherever possible, and I keep on high alert whenever I do ride near cars and trucks.
Riders that wear helmets, however, seem to adopt a completely different mentality.
Recently, I was driving down onto Presque Isle for a picnic, following a steady stream of 25 MPH cars deep into the peninsula, when I encountered a guy on a recumbent bike. He came up behind my Subaru decked out in riding shorts, one of those tight shirts emblazoned with logos, and his omnipresent bike helmet. He swerved through the cars, cutting the centerline and swooping back and forth across the lanes like a ferret navigating a procession of cows. He got behind my car and started dodging back and forth, first seen in the passenger mirror, then the driver’s mirror. He was right on my bumper, looking for a break in the traffic so he could squirt through ahead of me.
Suddenly it was my job to watch out for him and his reckless riding. I felt like I couldn’t so much as tap my brakes lest he plow under my rear bumper.
Riders like that? They definitely need to wear a helmet.
Me, on the bike path, toodling along at a sedate twelve-and-a-half miles per hour? Nah. I’m good.
But that brings us, finally, to:
3) The Statistics Don’t Make Your Point
There’s a man named Mikael Colville-Andersen and he’s known as Copenhagen’s bicycle ambassador. He’s given Ted talks on the subject of bicycle helmets—why he doesn’t wear one, and why he thinks the messaging around bicycle helmets is counterproductive to healthy cities. I encourage you to watch the linked video, but if you’re in a big hurry, here’s the breakdown.
1) Statistically, pedestrians and vehicle occupants have a greater likelihood of experiencing head injuries than do bicyclists.
2) Studies done in cultures where bicycle helmets are the norm have shown that incidents of vehicle/cyclist accidents have actually increased rather than diminished. How can this possibly be? Some suggest that it’s because the helmet creates an inflated sense of safety for both the rider and nearby drivers, reducing vigilance and common sense.
3) In cities where bicycle helmet safety has been widely promoted, the result has not necessarily been more helmets; it’s been fewer cyclists. The reason for this is simple: the inadvertent message is that bicycle riding is inherently dangerous, thus scaring commuters away from their bikes and back into their cars and buses.
Colville-Anderson even suggests that this is an intentional effect sponsored by automobile manufacturers, who view urban cycling as a threat to their industry.
To put this in some perspective, however, I do own a bicycle helmet. I have worn it on occasion. I wear it when I know I will be riding near fast-moving vehicles on busier roads than my morning commute. I do it if I will be riding on unfamiliar terrain. I do it if I am in an area I don’t know very well.
I do it if I’m heading into a client-meeting with the marketing department.
But the fact is, I am a creature of routine. I don’t encounter those situations very often. In fact, I avoid them. And that’s why you won’t see me wearing my helmet most of the time.
But there’s one reason you should keep telling me to wear a helmet
And that’s simple: because you care. Thanks! Even if you’re the fat, sweaty, topless guy I passed on Grant’s Trail in St. Louis, who yelled at me from his bike “Put on a helmet!” and to whom I responded, “Put on a shirt!”—thanks for caring!
I feel about it the same way that atheist Penn Jillette feels about Christian proselytization: if you really believe that something might possibly save my life, what kind of jerk would you have to be not to share it with me? I like knowing that people care, even if I don’t agree with their concerns, so please continue to harangue me about wearing a bike helmet. I may try to explain myself, or I may not. Most cyclists are so utterly assured in their convictions that debating with them almost seems like an insult. So I’ll instead choose to just feel loved.
Even if, inwardly, I roll my eyes a little.
Nobody has any real ideas about how to address the racists marching– and killing– in VA. I’ve asked over and over, with no truly satisfying answers. I think it’s because we’re all doing what decent people do when confronted with the horrors in their backyard. We’re asking ourselves what we did wrong. How are we responsible?
But what if that’s the wrong question? What if “we” aren’t responsible at all? Not this time. What if the fault lies squarely, irrevocably at the feet of an inevitable, tiny, poisonous rat-core of evil humans? “Humans” in name only, completely immune to rationality, to empathy, individuals who have long since seceded from the brotherhood of humanity?
What if America doesn’t have a problem, but a parasite?
Before you suggest that I am washing our cultural hands of the evils of our past, denying our part in creating an untenable life for untold numbers of minority individuals and families, let me just say: you are absolutely right. These are conversations that have to be had. And they are happening, thankfully.
But what if that’s not what’s behind the racism we see in VA? What if Charlottesville represents another kind of human depravity entirely?
What if these racists are not “misunderstood and disenfranchised” white people, but are actually irredeemably poisoned lunatics, propagating hatred to their children like a cancer subverting healthy cells?
When a body contracts a cancer, it doesn’t guilt itself for being sick. The body attacks the cancer. Or a doctor removes it surgically.
What if there is nothing for it but to take drastic measures against the poison of blatantly race-hating communities: to isolate them, identify them, and ultimately make it impossible for them to spread their virus?
It’s extremely scary ground, I know. I can imagine the endless, terrible ways such a precedent could be abused. But what if we were extremely careful and deliberate? What if we could safeguard against the slippery slope by defining racial hatred by the most blatantly unambiguous terms: the loud and overt preaching that one skin color is superior/inferior to another, accompanied by verbal degradation, epithets, and mockery of those races. Like what we are seeing in VA.
For the sake of disambiguity, let’s call this Rabid Racism, as opposed to privilege, or unconscious prejudice, or whatever people think Trump is, or even the intellectual debate over racial differences.
What if we made Rabid Racism an outright mental illness? What if these people were institutionalized for their own good, and that of those around them?
What if their kids were rescued from their influence and put into homes with healthy, loving people who teach and exhibit sane and healthy attitudes toward diversity and other cultures?
What if by simply asking for a permit to march for “white power” they were automatically 1) denied the permit on the grounds of public safety and well-being, and 2) put on a watch-list and/or interviewed directly by psychologists to determine their fitness for public life?
What if such people were entered into an official database for employers to peruse before hiring decisions were made, particularly in education, banking, or law enforcement roles, where their poison would directly influence the lives of the people they hate?
What if their websites and online meeting places were outlawed, or at least strictly monitored, making it far harder for them to anonymously metastasize into actionable communities and hate-groups?
To be clear, I am not talking policing thought. These people are free to think whatever their ugly black hearts desire. But what if we policed everything else: their words and actions? What if we made it not merely socially unacceptable but outright illegal to preach and act on indefensible, irrational hatreds rooted in nothing more than base human evil (or actual psychoses)?
If we made racism a diagnosable mental illness (as proven by the person’s actual, incontrovertible words and actions, not mere ambiguous outside assertion), we could begin to excise the cancer. We can’t erase the sickness of hatred from individual human minds, but what if we made it much, much harder for that hatred to spread?
What if we quarantined it?
I am dissatisfied with the other answers I have found. The navel-gazing. The vigils. The “teach your children well”. Not because those things aren’t good and essential, but because most of us are already doing them, and they just aren’t enough.
They don’t address the parasite among us.
The rat-core of poison racism endures. It’s dying a slow, rabid death, but it’s far from dead. It’s cornered. And that may be why it’s erupting so viciously now, bursting to the surface like a long-festering boil.
I am bored and annoyed and frustrated with the hectoring on social media, as if a few “outraged” posts and some self-congratulating amens from the choir of our friends was going to make any difference whatsoever.
I keep asking: what do we really, actually, DO?
Maybe none of the ideas I’ve listed would work. Probably they are simply illegal, antithetical to everything we stand for as freedom-loving Americans. I’m just spit-balling here.
But what if we don’t have a “problem”? What if we have a cancer? Do we not, at some point, have to shift our gazes from our own bellies to the actual festering parasite on our culture? It can’t be allowed to be part of us, right?
So if what I’ve proposed is impossible and anathema to a liberty-based culture (as it surely probably is), then what do we do instead? How do we face the real ugliness directly and unambiguously?
How do we excise the cancer?
How do we remove the parasite
My FB friend Judith (name changed, clearly) is a hardcore liberal. Yesterday, she posted a “viral” video making the following (paraphrased) claims: “Think protesting doesn’t work? The resistance has accomplished a LOT in the past week. Nordstrom has pulled Ivanka Trump’s clothing line from their shelves. Harley Davidson was pressured to cancel their meeting with Trump. The president of UBER resigned from Trump’s advisory committee after 500,000 people deleted the UBER app. Protestors at the University of California successfully shut down a presentation by neo-nazi Milo…”
And I think several things: first, I hate having to defend Trump. He scares me, too, at least a little, with his seeming recklessness, “my way” mentality. But those who oppose him really seem so comically, preposterously extreme, so loose with their own wild propaganda, that I find myself uncomfortably in the position of looking like I’m pro-Trump simply because my concerns about him are more measured and, yes, based on an attempt at objective truth.
For example, the “neo-Nazi” Milo Yiannopoulis is nothing of the sort (assuming that the term “Nazi” has any official definition anymore and isn’t merely a categorical dismissal of all conservatives). While I’m hardly a fan, I’ve seen videos of the guy. He is an outspoken gay conservative who deliberately provokes, more out of snark than hatefulness. He seems merely to speak very unpopular opinions in a way that liberals find infuriating, in part because they are simply so disused to hearing confident dissent, but also because many find his points difficult to intellectually debate. Thus, they resort to shutting him down.
Which brings me to Judith’s post. I want to ask her: how do any of these “Resistance victories” amount to any sort of ideological win?
Because what they look like, I’m afraid, is mere petulant tantrums, bullying, and censorship.
Of course, I don’t actually ask her that. Because what I find when I do ask many of my liberal friends clarifying questions is a sort of speechless dismay. They know how to respond to defensive conservative shouting (i.e. with louder offensive shouting, and then shutting down the speaker), but most seem to have little idea how to respond to a reasonable query. Intellectually defending and/or respectfully debating their ideology is something that most of them have never, ever had to do, since they live in a media climate that constantly affirms the absolute rightness of their views, without ever actually explaining why they are right (or why the other side is wrong, for that matter, apart from the standard “they’re evil, stupid, racist,” etc).
It wasn’t always like this. A few decades ago, I seem to recall that it was the Christian right that had no idea how to respond to debate, being utterly coddled by their leaders and their media into the sort of intellectual weakness that comes from never being challenged. Now, the tables have turned, and I think I know why.
When one believes that the weight of the popular majority and mainstream media is already firmly on their side, there is NO POSSIBLE GAIN from debate. This is because it is statistically more likely that their side, being more numerous (and often quite sheltered from persuasive dissent) would lose more people to the other side than the other way around.
Being firmly in the (perceived) ideological majority, and having the nearly seamless backing of popular media, is, therefore, a lot like being an aging champion boxer. Why accept any challengers to the title if you already have the title? You stand to gain nothing you don’t already have, while risking it all for no benefit.
The boxer without the championship title, however, being hungry for victory and with nothing to lose, trains like a beast, itching for the opportunity to show his skill and strength. This, ironically, is where the mainstream Christian/conservative right is today.
Until recently. Until this last election.
Because they chose to represent themselves with someone who blatantly fails to exhibit the traits that the best of them have been cultivating in themselves: reasonableness, willingness to engage in discussion and debate, persuasion, moderation, respect. Instead, they built a leader out of all the more petty elements of their long ideological diaspora– impatience, anger, wounded pride, and revenge fantasies.
The Christian/conservative right sold their hard-won ideological birthright for a bowl of Trump-flavored revenge pottage. This, I deeply fear, was a major mistake, and one that will set back their better-selves for years. Maybe generations. Maybe forever.
And yet, for modern liberals, even after their shocking and devastating loss to Trump, asking most of them to defend their beliefs with reasonable debate results in, by my experience, merely a sort of embarrassing moment of awkwardness. They are still much more comfortable angrily shutting down voices of dissent, rather than wasting their time responding to respectful dialogue. Even after their recent nationwide defeat, and the reminder that approximately half of the country wildly disagrees with them (and has the power to overrule them, if desired) they still (with some notable exceptions) do not want to win by persuasion. They want to win only by shutting down debate and censoring opposition.
This is their major mistake, and one that is even now undermining and setting back their often noble agenda for years, and maybe generations, and perhaps forever.
So what are we left with?
Simple: currently, we are left with two broken halves of a broken political/ideological/social machine, running out of control against each other, destroying themselves without accomplishing any of the good the machine was originally designed for.
What I fear most mornings (like this one) when I wake up before dawn, is that the machine will eventually, inevitably, completely break down, and there won’t be anything to replace it with. Because most of us were too obsessed with destroying the parts we don’t like instead of figuring out how to make all the parts mesh their gears, grudgingly understand each other, and work together again for the good of the whole damn thing.
NOTE: I’ve taken to journaling my thoughts privately (via JRNL.com, which I highly recommend) because, as much as I like to hear the sound of my own voice, I am increasingly aware that I shouldn’t inflict my endlessly running social commentary on everyone else. With that in mind, I will immediately break that rule and post a section from today’s journal.
The reality that I increasingly observe is that the American two-party system is like a pair of powerful magnets ranged against each other, resisting each other’s polarities. We humans are like ball bearings attracted irreversibly to one of the two magnets, mostly based on our ideological proximity.
Most of us (partisans) are drawn inexorably and willingly into tight clusters around our chosen magnet, escaping the influence of the other entirely, and mocking its opposite power and force.
A few of us (moderates) attempt to find that middle ground between the influence of both magnets, seeing and feeling the attraction of both while never getting fully sucked in by either. But this is such a fine, nearly infinitesimal line that it requires constant, conscious work to maintain balance.
And only recently have I learned that an exceptionally rare few of us (independents– and by that I don’t just mean closet-liberals/conservatives, I mean people literally independent of any preset ideology) move out from between the polarities, get far enough away that we can still see them objectively while escaping their magnetic pull, and understand what I believe is the baseline reality: that both ideologies have some truth in them (although, at any given point in history, one is indeed more correct than the other in actual practice), both harbor a lot of crooks, lies, and distortions, and both cultivate extremism, division, and counter-productive self righteousness (especially in the age of social media, where both the speed of cultural trends and the feedback whine of confirmation bias is turned up to eleven).
And yet, this revelation– which is in equal parts both darkly comforting and deeply dismaying– is of no use to those clustered around their ideological magnet of choice. It isn’t that they can’t hear the potential truth of the outside observer. It’s that they can’t allow themselves to consider it. They have embraced the comfort of believing in– and nearly worshipping as a god– their chosen ideology. It provides them their noble fight, their arch-villain, their purposeful struggle, and most importantly of all, their affirming tribe.
It’s lonely outside the influence of those powerful political magnets. But as humans seeking truth and personal betterment, I, personally, don’t believe we need any counterfeit mission of imagined good-and-evil. There is a real battle of good and evil in my own heart and mind, a battle every day over how I spend my minutes, what I say to my wife, kids, co-workers, and friends, how I both seek out and erode (with the help of God and my diverse community) the forces of prejudice and judgment and condemnation in my own attitude and actions. This is my full time job– and I believe every human’s lifelong responsibility.
And I firmly believe that if we all attended to that personally, the world would conveniently take care of itself.
And this leads me to wonder: is the counterfeit battle of politics in actuality the greatest idol ever constructed by us humans? By worshipping it, are we not only manipulated to hate and oppose each other, but neatly distracted from the real battle that must occur inside our own hearts, souls, and minds?
I’ve been trying to figure out why, as a lifelong conservative, none of the arguments for voting Trump work for me.
At first, I admit, I liked his immunity to the partisan strong-arm tactics of the press. One thing about Trump: where other Republican candidates fold and cower and try pathetically to make friends with a media culture that will always hate them, Trump doesn’t back down. He doesn’t get intimidated. He even enjoys the necessary strong-arm push-back. A little too much, if anything.
It’s just a disappointment that the media-immunity conservatives have so long needed has come in such a Trump-shaped package.
So what makes him so undigestible to a remaining intractable core of us conservatives? Why do the increasingly urgent exhortations by my Republican friends (and even my own parents) continue to fall on deaf ears?
Here’s a list of the arguments in favor of Trump and why I think they’re flawed…
“We’ll never be able to elect a true conservative.”
This is meant to defuse the fact that, even according to good old Rush Limbaugh, Trump is not a conservative. He’s barely a Republican, which is no surprise, since he spent most of his life, apparently, as a liberal Democrat. Where he has voiced Republican ideology, it’s been the most divisive kinds—the kinds most easily branded racist (border walls), intolerant (banning Muslims), and fat-cat elitist (tax cuts for the rich). It isn’t that these labels are fair, it’s just that Trump makes them so easy.
But to the point: we can’t elect a true conservative anymore, they say. Sadly, at least for now, this is probably true.
So my question is: for true conservatives, why vote at all?
If it’s come down to two kinds of not-conservative, why cheapen ourselves by giving our electoral stamp of approval to either? The moment we agree to choke down a vote for the least awful not-conservative, that’s the moment we guarantee that not-conservatives are the only options we will ever have.
It’s like dating. You know how we always tell our kids to never settle? That’s good advice, because the moment your daughter settles for the jobless mouth-breather whose best quality is that he doesn’t actually beat her most nights, that’s the moment she begins to believe that that’s all she can get.
“But Trump’s the candidate now, and he’s our only option!”
He’s actually not. There are third parties. You can write-in a candidate of your choice.
“But a third party vote is a vote for Hillary Clinton!”
According to President Obama, a third party vote is actually a vote for Trump.
Personally, I don’t think either of these premises are right. A third party vote is a vote for another option, if not for this election, then for the long-term future. A third party vote is a conscientious choice not because it can lead to a win, but because it sends a message of no confidence in the current crop of candidates, and a threat of even less confidence (and fewer votes, and lost power) if the parties continue to offer similarly bad options.
A third party vote fosters a movement. The more bold people raise their hands and say “enough! We demand better candidates! People to vote FOR rather than merely AGAINST!”, the more other people will be persuaded that they don’t have to hold their noses for a candidate that doesn’t represent them. They don’t have to submit to having their vote extorted by threats of the worse candidate.
“But Trump is what the people clearly want.”
After all, they voted for him in the primaries. They put him there. He’s the will of the people.
But what if the will of the people is tainted in this instance?
As has been pointed out, Trump isn’t a conservative. So what do so many Republicans see in him?
A certain demographic of Americans– particularly older Republicans (or, in my father-in-law’s case, old-school Democrats) are deeply– and I might add understandably— angry. Enraged, even. For decades they’ve been mocked and belittled by the media. They’ve been deliberately ignored by politicians. They’ve been forced to choke down laws that they strongly disagree with– and had those laws flaunted in their faces by a snarky, nasty culture of ninnies.
The result is that what they want most right now is payback. They do not want a wise and measured leader to gently sway the country back to its roots. They want a Bully-in-Chief to kick sand in the faces of those that have ignored, mocked, bullied, and belittled them for the last few decades.
Trump may not be a conservative. He may have spent most of his life as a liberal Democrat. He may have waffled repeatedly on core conservative issues. He may shatter Republicans’ tenuous grip on the moral-majority high-ground with his debaucheries and sexist talk and casinos and affairs.
But he’s the big, looming, type-A, alpha-male bully that those unhappy, abused Americans want to sic on the people who’ve mocked and taunted them. Because:
“We have to take the country back!”
OK, let’s be blunt about something I think we all know deep down: there is no way to “take the country back”. There is no returning to the way things used to be.
Why? Because when we try to do it by force—which is really what so many are hoping for by rallying behind Trump—we are engaging in a battle that is already completely lost.
Conservatism isn’t dead, but it’s stuck in a terminal feedback loop of cultural irrelevance, and it’s partly our own fault. We’ve been trying to do it the same way, with the same actors, using the same words and tactics, for way too long. It simply no longer resonates with a majority of people today.
Trump is the best representation of this. He is, I believe, the last, flailing, desperate gasp of a once-great but now obsolete form of conservatism.
The mistake his supporters make is in not trusting any new iteration of their core values. But that’s exactly what we need: a rebirthed conservative method. A modern take. A more nuanced, necessarily revised approach that can win over people eager for an alternative to the stalemate of liberal values vs. liberal results.
Republicans have been trying to create a blockbuster sequel to Reagan. When what they really need is a reboot—a brand new, refreshed, inventive message showing the core truths of conservatism without the obsolete accoutrement that modern culture instinctively rejects.
There is no “taking the country back”. That battle is indeed totally over. But the future is unwritten. If we believe in the truest, deepest values of conservatism, then as much as we may resent the uphill climb, we must embrace the task of presenting those truths in a new and persuasive way to a culture that is, frankly, desperately in need of them.
“But the Supreme Court is what matters!”
This, it seems, is the most persuasive argument for many of my most conservative friends. As odious as Trump may be, all that matters is that the next president will be responsible for filling vacancies on the Supreme Court.
I admit, this is the only thing that gives me pause.
And yet it does not convince me.
Why? Partly because it feels like bribery.
Partly because I can’t help looking back on all the much, much better candidates that we steamrolled on the mob-like angry rush to Trump as Bully-in-chief.
Partly because I think that the precedent set by electing Trump—the precedent of cementing a future of only better-of-two-evils candidates—may actually be worse than the truly scary powers of a strongly partisan Supreme Court.
But mostly because I just don’t think that even a thoughtfully conservative justice (assuming Trump chooses one and succeeds in their placement) will make any real difference in the ongoing and much vaunted “culture war”.
To me, and many others, the threat of a Clinton-appointed justice is simply insignificant compared to the decades of eroded conservative influence and ineffectiveness we’ve already endured– an erosion that is sure to continue if we keep doing things the same way. Fighting over a Supreme Court justice is really just one more attempt to wage a battle that’s already lost: even if we succeed, it’s only to delay the inevitable.
It’s only inevitable if we continue to try to “take back the country” instead of embracing a new, persuasive, positive conservatism that might make the future even better than those halcyon “good old days”.
How can we do this? From the bottom up. By changing minds instead of changing regimes.
That, I think, is the biggest reason why I simply cannot vote Trump. He’s a bloated, irrelevant, top-down sequel, when what conservatism desperately needs is a reboot: the same message, but from the grass-roots up, with a new cast, a new feel, and a refreshed, persuasive, culturally relevant face.
Our face, every day, with our friends and neighbors and families and coworkers.
It starts with each of us being the best and truest examples of conservatism: reasonable, thoughtful, calm, not given to extremes, happy, in control. If we do that, I am absolutely convinced that, eventually, over time, those traits will trickle up to our leaders.
For my friends who are die-hard Trump supporters, I don’t intend for this to change your minds. Frankly, I sort of envy your certainty, your faith in your candidate, the camaraderie of being part of a sweeping movement.
I hope you won’t hate me for not backing your guy. My parents are backing Trump, and they still have to love me. Come on over and commiserate with them if you must.
This is simply my explanation of why I am not on the bandwagon. And what I hope for in a future bandwagon that we can all, even many of our currently liberal friends, happily join in and support.
And here, all these years, I thought I was a cynic. When apparently I’m a starry-eyed (but still hopeful) idealist! (:
We guys have been seeing a lot of them lately—lists of what a “real man” is and is not. If you’re a man and you’ve read any of them, you’ve likely responded with either smug vindication (a real man hunts ! I hunt! I’m a real man!) or angry defensiveness (a “real” man cries at the movies! I only cry at the end of every Browns playoffs bid!).
But here’s the thing: both responses are totally wrong. Here’s why.
It’s turned us into a generation of Pinocchios– mere male-shaped puppets hoping someday to be turned into real boys. Too many of us are waiting for a manhood fairy to float along and tap us with her all-too-symbolic wand.
We’ve been duped into asking the wrong question entirely.
It’s not what makes a man real. It’s what makes a man better.
This man. The man I am, and you are.
So, for the guys who stumble on this blog looking for updates on the newest James Potter book (it’s half-way done, keep your pants on) let’s try to make a different version of those stupid manhood checklists, but this time with the focus in the right place. And the first thing on the list is the most obvious one of all:
1) A better man isn’t concerned with being a “real” man.
He doesn’t ask if his manhood is “real” anymore than he asks if the fish he caught is a real fish. If he does a thing, and it is sound, and good, and true, then it’s real and plenty “man” enough for him. He simply does not give “real” manhood a second thought.
“If this fish has ever watched ‘Say Yes to the Dress’, it doesn’t count.”
2) A better man isn’t threatened by a different kind of manhood.
If you’re a mechanic with grimy fingernails and you belittle the banker who gets a monthly manicure, you’re only proving one thing: that his manhood makes you doubt your own. Maybe you’re jealous of his income, or his car, or his hot younger wife. And if you’re the banker who looks down his nose at the guy waist-deep in your Beemer, you’re broadcasting your own emasculation like a neon sign. A better man has confidence unshakable enough not to be cracked by encounters with a totally different kind of manhood.
The tools guy paid the desk guy to make this.
3) A better man doesn’t drift to political/social extremes.
Reality check: your self image is not defined by being a Republican, or a liberal, or pro-life, or against global warming. It can’t be. Because when we define ourselves by those things, we drift inevitably to extremes. We become caricatures of ourselves. We divide into camps and start treating important issues less like quests for truth and more like sports teams.
I spent more time Photoshopping this than I did writing the article.
The better man moderates between the extremes. He builds bridges instead of burning them. He can comprehend nuance. He is able to occupy the middle ground between issues not because he doesn’t know which one is right, but because he wants to understand both sides well enough to be an effective persuader.
4) A better man seeks friends who are different than him.
Have you ever seen (or posted) one of those popular memes about the frustrations of dealing with “stupid people”? Here’s an ugly truth: our culture thinks “stupid” means “anyone who disagrees with me”.
We have to stop that. A better man knows that people can have perfectly valid reasons for voting and believing differently than him. That doesn’t make them right, but neither does it make them stupid. By making friends with people who are different, the better man is constantly challenged, his own beliefs and opinions are honed, and most importantly, he avoids becoming the small-minded, confirmation-biased blowhard uncle that we all claim to hate.
5) A better man dresses for who he is.
This may mean a tailored suit and designer tie. Or it may mean cargo shorts and a hoodie. But what it doesn’t mean is “whatever was lying on the floor from last night”. One thing about guys and clothes: it’s way too easy for us to live down to our expectations. And when it comes to how we dress, the expectations our culture has created for us are extremely, embarrassingly low.
The better man puts thought into what he wears. He gives the rest of the world the compliment of making an effort. But more importantly, he dresses for who he is, not for who he wants the world to think he is.
6) A better man is deliberate about what matters.
It was two millennia ago that Socrates, one of the first better men, said “the unexamined life isn’t worth living”, and even though it’s a great rule of thumb, it still hasn’t really caught on.
Most guys just do whatever their friends and culture do. But that’s a crappy yardstick to measure a life by.
The better man is deliberate about what matters– the choices he makes about his mate, his kids, his job. He pays attention to how he spends his money, and his time, and his energy. He measures himself not against his culture, but against excellence. And that means he’s deliberate about being self-aware. He studies his own flaws, he gauges what works best, and he uses that information to constantly fine-tune who he is, always striving to be even better.
7) A better man shows respect wherever it’s deserved.
Not just to the people and issues and causes that he instinctively reveres, but to good qualities wherever he finds them. Example: the average guy mocks and dismisses the people who vote different than him. A better man sees that those people want good things, too, they just have a different idea of how to get it. He respects their intentions, even if he doesn’t agree with their methods.
8) A better man makes quiet sacrifices for others (even strangers).
Years ago, I was cutting through a mall parking lot at rush hour, following a long stream of other impatient drivers looking to shave half a minute off the commute. We all jockeyed for positions, tailgated each other, and cut each other off wherever we could. I got to one of those stupid little mall stop signs and angled to turn in front of a car coming the other direction. A woman was driving. She saw my intention, patiently stopped her car, and with a wry little smile, she waved me on in front of her.
With that tiny little sacrifice of her time, peppered with the patient bemusement in her smile, she completely shamed me.
Our culture trains us to be the most self-centered, me-first bastards imaginable. The better man knows this and goes the other way. He makes sacrifices, some big, some little, sometimes even for people he doesn’t even know. Sometimes he even sacrifices for the other self-centered, me-first bastards, and in so doing he shames them a little, just by being better than them.
9) A better man leads when leadership is welcome.
If you force authority on people who don’t want it, you’re not a leader; you’re a pissant tyrant. If you shrink from authority when it’s your duty, you’re not humble; you’re an insecure twit. The better man knows when it’s his time to lead, and he does it by being the sort of person people want to follow.
10) A better man doesn’t complain
This one’s simple. Complaining—whether it’s about your boss, or your wife, or your job, or the damn government—doesn’t make you the sober voice of truth. It makes you a whiny little wuss. The better man doesn’t bitch about his lot in life. He makes it better, or he shoulders it without complaint.
11) A better man can be wrong.
If you’ve lived your whole adult life without changing your worldview or opinion about anything important, you’re either the smartest man in the world, or you’re terrified of being wrong and have done everything you can to avoid it. Maybe you just surround yourself with people who agree with you. It’s easier now than it’s ever been.
Quit it. Being willing to be wrong means gaining ever stronger and better opinions. It inspires people to be less guarded and defensive. It makes you better in a way that surpasses mere rightness and approaches actual goodness.
People respect us for our strengths. But they relate to us for our imperfections. The better man seeks to be relatable more than to be simply right. It’s how he builds communities and friendships and, ultimately, more better men.
12) A better man respects his sex.
I don’t mean his gender. I mean his actual sexuality—his passions, his fantasies, his erotic intimacies. Let’s be totally blunt: porn may or may not be harmless (it’s not). It may or may not demean women (it does). But what we all know is this: it demeans you. Looking at two-dimensional honeys tells your subconscious brain that you’re not good enough for the real thing. And you know what? The more you do it, the more it’s true.
The better man respects his sex enough to save it for a real, live, complicated, feeling, mind-blowingly delightful woman. He doesn’t pay her for it. He doesn’t pressure her into it. He doesn’t have to. He knows he’s worth being wanted, and he works to earn her desire, without demands or expectations.
And that’s pretty much it.
Basically, we all have to quit buying into the notion of the “real” man. There’s no such thing. The “real” man is merely a checklist of superficials, written mostly by small men buried in their own insecurities. Obsessing about “real” manhood is ironically the least real way to be. Throw it out with the trash.
Instead, focus on becoming a better man. It’s a journey, not a checklist. It’s all yours. Own it.
(And maybe I’ll be able to do the same.)
So I heard a rumor that a teacher at a local school (I’m being deliberately vague) is making broad judgments, during class, about parents and people who vote for a particular presidential candidate. We all really like this teacher, and to some extent I don’t even disagree with their opinion. And yet I am very unsettled by this.
I’ve been asking myself why it bothers me so much.
I think it’s because it feels like updated McCarthyism.
And because, especially when it’s passed down from a teacher to students, it is a form of thought police, stifling disagreement, discouraging debate, exchanging critical thinking for mere intellectual fascism.
And because the pet error of our generation is the insistence that disagreement equals stupidity. More than that, disagreement may even represent a sort of dangerous, idiot evil that needs to be put down by force, if necessary.
We’ve all bought into it by degrees— the generation of generalization. We pride ourselves in holding two entirely contradictory ideas in our heads: “bigotry is bad” and “all X people are Y”.
It can manifest in endless ways:
All Trump voters are racist idiots.
Liberals are all intellectually-dishonest cowards.
White people ignore police brutality.
Black people riot and loot.
Christians are anti-science haters.
Nickelback listeners are tasteless rubes.
Did that last one make you smile? Does it seem OK to generalize based on musical taste? Like some generalizations are harmless?
That’s pretty sad. The ugliness of generalization– of bigotry– is fractal. It’s the same vicious shape no matter how small and seemingly harmless we reduce it.
It’s a rotten, invasive little seed of prejudice that can’t be planted in just one corner of our intellectual garden. It takes over. It taints, then becomes the entire garden, obliterating all other consideration.
We’ve grown accustomed to the idea that the easiest way to feel big is to stand on someone else. We think it’s OK, because we don’t make it a person, we make it some generalized group or demographic or voting block or sexual orientation or cultural category.
We think that judging a person is evil. But judging people– based entirely on superficial group affiliation– is just fine.
Maybe even our moral duty.
In our world, people aren’t different from us because they’ve had different life experiences that have formed alternate views and opinions.
They’re different because they’re stupid, and immoral, and dangerous. Period.
I don’t want to be misconstrued on one thing, however: People can be wrong. Their life experiences may have fostered perceptions and approaches and attitudes that may indeed be completely mistaken, inaccurate, and even destructive. But it’s the grand ego of our generation to insist, first and foremost, that difference equals stupidity. Nothing less, and absolutely, positively nothing more.
So that, I think, is what bothers me about a teacher making broad, categorical judgments about “everyone who votes for X”. Not because I like X, but because it perpetuates an ugliness that is already way too prevalent. Personally, I think this mentality— the generation of generalization, the doublethink that bigotry is only bad if it’s bigotry against the wrong people— is a much, much bigger threat to society than any presidential candidate could ever be.