The Argument Goes Something Like This

by Jane Devin on 01/21/2013

Whether the matter is social, political, or interpersonal, many arguments between fair-minded rational people and their meaner irrational counterparts goes something like this: Person A says something outrageous and/or patently false, such as “bullying is a problem made up by bleeding hearts to weaken our kids.” Person B rebuts their statement with sound logic and/or actual proof. Person A then claims that they are being bullied by Person B.

“See what a hypocrite you are?” Person A claims gleefully. “For all your talk of being tolerant and accepting, you aren’t tolerant of my beliefs or accepting of me.” By the standards of an imbalanced mind, it’s a “gotcha” — irrefutable evidence that behind any reasonable argument that’s contrary to their unfounded beliefs lurks a mind that’s as fishy, intractable, and unkind as their own.

Irrational people take simple concepts, like tolerance and respect for diversity, and stretch them in convoluted ways. Surely, if we call for acceptance of gays, then we have to accept organizations dedicated to hating them. If we stand for inclusion of minorities, then minorities must include white supremacists. If we promote religious freedom, then we must embrace those who use religion as a battering ram against others. If we hold truth as an ideal, then we must accommodate differing definitions of “truth” — as if facts are a malleable entity that really belongs in quotation marks.

What irrational people fail to understand is that the crux of progressive social concepts — like inclusion, like diversity, like tolerance — has never been about lowering the bar of evolutionary ideals, but about raising them. Progression is the rational response to regression — not its companion, and certainly not its protector. Progression sees a bloody past as reason to aim for peace in the future. It sees the vast human potential wasted by inequality as a logical reason to aim for a more level playing field. It sees how much needless pain and suffering is caused by ignorance, and champions well-reasoned, intelligent solutions.

The key words here: Reason, logic, intelligence. Those who hold progressive values do not owe those who consistently act against these ideals accommodations under their rational, humanistic umbrella. They have no philosophical obligation to respect the diversity of, or to tolerate the outrages of, bullies, racists, homophobes, rape-baiters, religious extremists, or the violent-minded. It is not hypocritical for a progressive to exclude regressive ideas and actions from their circle of tolerance, any more than it is hypocritical to denounce ignorance while advocating for education.


Footnote: today’s post was brought on by this bit of stupefying insanity :

Screen shot 2013-01-18 at 8.31.54 PM

Person A: Well, I think under this government anything is possible.
Person B: You are kidding, right?
Person A: You liberals are the ones that are supposed to be so open-minded, but you won’t even consider it. So much for being fair!

And then this (h/t to Kristen Howerton):

Screen shot 2013-01-21 at 8.01.53 PM

Banging my head against my desk twice in one day isn’t even close to a record, but some days it’s just too much.

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The latest thing trending on Facebook is a picture allegedly taken by a woman named Cynthia Marie Yorgason and then reposted by Girls of Fire, a group for female gun enthusiasts.


According to news reports, the assault rifle was unloaded, but the man, identified as Joseph Kelley, was also carrying a loaded Glock. In one report, Kelley said he was carrying the guns to prove that they were safe — a convoluted justification at best — and in another he said that he was carrying the guns to keep other people safe in the event of an attack.

There’s a staged feel to this whole story. Why does Yorgason stand so close to a fully armed stranger to take a photo? Why are the cashiers in the background seemingly blase? Why are there no 911 calls, or even a call to mall security? Why aren’t people running for the exits? Even in gun-friendly communities, it would seem reasonable that at least a handful of people would be concerned about the stranger’s intent.

If not totally staged for publicity, the larger story isn’t really that a man openly carried automatic weapons into a public place, but that no one seemed to care. It’s that apathy — even in an age of mass shootings — took the place of common sense.

I find it hard to believe that not one mother or father in JC Penney rushed for the exit, children in tow. That no store manager called for help, and no young cashier ducked for cover. If that’s truly the case, then the problem goes beyond a stranger walking into a mall armed for human battle. It speaks to a dangerous type of lethargy — a complete lack of vigilance in the face of a possibly lethal threat. Were people paralyzed by what they saw, or did they second-guess the man’s intentions? Were they relying solely on intuition to keep them safe, or is their own sense of immortality so great that not even a man with an AR-15 and a Glock could dissuade them from their “it could never happen to me” beliefs?


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My Love Is Hard To Bear

by Jane Devin on 01/12/2013

Years ago, when I was a teenager, I volunteered in a retirement home. One day, a family came in to visit a loved one and they had a three-year-old foster child with them. She was a very big girl for her age and she looked sad. I gravitated toward her, wanting to cheer her up. As the family busied themselves with their elderly relative, I played with the girl in the hallway. We warmed up to each other quickly, and as piano music played from a room nearby, I held her hands for a dance. After a couple of minutes, without thinking, I picked her up and began twirling with her in my arms. She looked at me with surprise.

“No one ever picks me up,” she said, “I’m too heavy.” Her expression fell.

“You’re not too heavy,” I told her.  ”You just need someone who’s strong enough to hold you.”

I ended up telling her a story about how nature tends to give us what we need in life, or at least gives us a clue. Big girls, I told her, need all that room for their unusually big hearts…but not everyone can handle a heart like that, so nature puts it in a heavy package so that only those who are strong enough to carry that kind of love can get close.

I was 14, and maybe I was trying to make a big child feel better about herself, but I still believe everything I said.

Years have passed since then, and I’m never more aware of the nature of love than when I look at my daughter.



She has been the only person in the world strong enough to hold my heart for the distance and, quite frankly, the only person who’s ever wanted to. For this, and so many other reasons that words can’t capture, I feel exquisitely tender when I look at her. Tears well up, sentimental strings get plucked, and I find myself smiling with a thank-you. Thank you for loving me. Thank you for letting me love you. You may never know what it has meant to me, but it has only been everything.


I know —

My love isn’t a feather or a wing.
It is not a root or a branch,
or a cloudless blue sky.

My love is not a blanket,
a shining sun, or a calm sea.

My love is a cosmic storm,
a magnetic atmosphere,
an aurora borealis

It is the eye of a hurricane
and a hot constellation of stars

It is Orion —
a hunter and a shield —

and it is Mother Nature,
fierce, tender, protective.

It is the Scales of Justice,
wanting to right all the wrongs

& it is the Child
with eternally-wide eyes
and infinite hopes.

My love is not quite human.

It is not a card, or a flower,
or a singular feeling.

It is not skin or bone,
or time or space,
and it is nowhere in the ancient scrolls
or on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

My love, I know, is not easy to bear.

One teaspoonful of a neutron star
can weigh a billion tons

& even one grain of my love
calls for a strong constitution.

That you have born it —
that you have given me the gift
of a willing heart & a solid spine —

That you weather my storms
and carry my grains as if they were wings —

That you have let me give you all that I am
without reservation —

For all of this,
and for being the only person in the world
who has traversed this galaxy with me
in any measure —

My love, not altogether human,
but forever and always.

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100 years or so from now, there will be another Les Miserables, and another audience that does not recognize its own social wrinkles in the distant folds of history. They will rail against injustices and cheer for another Jean Valjean — perhaps this one dogged by a 21st century three-strikes law that mindlessly, soullessly imprisons men for life. They will feel contempt for a petty character like Madame Victurnien — “the guardian and door-keeper” of everyone else’s virtue except her own — who stalked Fantine’s life in the hopes of doing her harm.

Madame Victurnien sometimes saw her passing, from her window, and noticed the distress of “that creature” who, “thanks to her,” had been “put back in her proper place,” and congratulated herself. The happiness of the evil-minded is black. – Victor Hugo

I have known many, many Madame Victurniens in my life, and what Hugo wrote in his novel is true. There are people who take delight in punishing others — who “spend more money, waste more time, take more trouble, than would be required for ten good actions.”  The reach and effect of today’s Victurniens has only grown. We are a culture steeped in gossip magazines and cults of bad personality. Many Victurniens become famous for little more than their ability to create miserable drama with an air of confidence — Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh are leading examples — while everyday others find nearly unlimited opportunities to spread malevolence on the internet.

But what of today’s Fantines? While it may be comforting to think that no such women exist, they do. Accidental pregnancies still happen, fathers still leave, and women the world over — even in progressive countries — still live in poverty, surrender children they can’t afford to raise, or sell their bodies and worldly possessions in order to pay rent and child care. They may be fired from their low-wage jobs for any number of reasons, including spotty daycare or a lack of reliable transportation. And much like Fantine, they may feel like they’re getting somewhere — they may buy furniture on credit and revel in the idea of a better tomorrow — only to have the short legs of hope broken before the race ends.

The Fantine of the 19th century, viewed through a cinematic and historically distant lens, stokes emotions of compassion and justice. Yet, how do we treat women in poverty and single mothers today? As recently as the last political season, the Fantines were dragged into the town square for a hostile public shaming. There are no excuses, they were told. You’re not trying hard enough. You’re a blight on society. Your children aren’t our problem. Get a job, get a better job, get a second job — and who do you think you are, buying furniture (or a tire, or a phone, or a birthday cake) when you’re poor? If you suffer, do it quietly and do it alone. Stay hidden, stay silent, or face our wrath.


I have often had the thought that all of life is like an interactive play. We are given a part on the day that we are conceived. We are the wanted, the cherished, the Godly duty, or the unfortunate accident. We are to become the heirs, the beloved, the invisible, or the black sheep. Later, through the magic of human theater, we learn that auditions are always open. The script ahead of us is not yet written. Anything is possible, we are told, and there are no limits.

We spend much of our youth learning our roles and trying on new ones. Over time, we process deeper and broader human plots, and have our characters tested, forged, and occasionally reborn. We memorize lines and lessons that hold meaning for us, and they are not all that different from those of thousands of years ago. What has always been beautiful is still beautiful, and what has always been ugly remains unfinished — perpetual lessons held out for the learning, but never quite absorbed, at least not fully. One ended horror — like the Holocaust — does not stop all similar horrors, although logically, in a world that was quicker and more willing to learn, it would. We ended slavery, at least on paper, but still buy diamonds and shirts made possible by child labor. And so it goes for nearly every injustice under the sun and the comfort is always the same: The stale but hopeful, “At least we’re making progress.”

Eventually, we find ways of being whether we land on Main, or somewhere on the off-off periphery. We gather our thoughts, our experiences, and our loves around us. We build families, passions, and legacies. We strive, we accomplish, and we struggle. And somewhere, always, there are protagonists — our own Victurniens, Javerts, or Thénardiers — who would like to see us broken, failed, or put back in our “proper place.”  Among all the noble causes a person can take up in life, the most fundamental one is self-preservation. You can’t change anything in the world at all if you allow the protagonists to silence you or break your spirit . . . which, like knowing when to fight and when to retreat, is another never-ending lesson.


Another lesson: What is the difference between a self-made man and a successful man who has been given a leg up? None, because they are one in the same —  they are always one in the same, because no man is, or can be, an island in reality. It is only the phrasing and the ensuing perception that creates the difference. One set of words denotes a hero, while the other calls up weaker visions of someone who has been saved. In the play of life, the painted hero is taken as is, flaws and all, but the saved will cause a miserly audience to question worthiness and deservedness. While there may be those who envy heroes for their strengths, it’s an envy that comes with admiration — unlike the kind of jealousy that’s reserved for those who’ve been given an obvious leg-up. The perceived saving of others, even those who have the least, tends to stoke the kind of animus that fumes, “Why him? Why not me? He doesn’t deserve it [insert reason], but I do [insert belief].”

Sometimes, the animus is understandable. We do live in an often nonsensical world where people are more likely to know the name Snooki than Hawking, but notoriety and fame is not the culture most of us live in day-by-day. The famous, whether of the noble or jester variety, don’t dictate our ethics, psyches, or our treatment of each other — they can only ever reflect a certain set of popular values.

But can fictions fuel centuries of delusions? I believe they can and do. The self-made man, the island, the rock — rugged, dependent on no one, and totally self-sustaining — is one such delusion. We live in an interdependent world, where our actions affect more than just ourselves. Which brings me back to Fantine, whose course in life was not solely her own doing (which is a terribly unpopular, but nonetheless true, thing to say in this age of everyone for themselves, by themselves). Fantines, in both reality and fiction, would not be possible without the life-altering actions of scoundrels. The parents who abandon, the lover who runs off, the extorters, the gossips, the bullies, the jailer, the unforgiving society. . .

What would it have taken for someone like Fantine — toothless, penniless, and without family — to rise above her circumstances? Could she have ever done it alone, or would she have needed a hero? If she needed a hero, would she herself be considered unworthy? Was death the only avenue of redemption open to her; the only way to pay for her sins in full? Is this why we cry for Fantine; because she is dead? Are we relieved that such trauma is no longer in our view? What would we have made of Fantine had she lived, and not been rescued by Valjean, or been given a death sentence by Hugo?

What Dickensian twist in the plot would cause a Madame Victurnien to reexamine her punitive heart? What kind of epiphany would it take for a Thénardier to check his greed?

The tragedy, I think, is not that we don’t know, but that we know very well. We have known for as long as the human play has been running — the stark differences between tragic/hopeful, true/false, help/hindrance — and yet we change so very little. We could promote reason, intelligence, potential, and compassion. We could positively alter the course, even by a few degrees, for every person living with poverty, abuse, oppression, or illness. We could, theoretically, toss out familiar scripts and invent new ones — but we can’t even come to an actionable consensus on something as basic as good and evil. I don’t think it’s because we don’t know, but because too many of us are comfortable, and comfort causes complacency as well as obstinance. (I’m reminded of too many memories in the 70s, when no one wanted to get up to manually change the channel, so they would just watch whatever was on, no matter how awful it was.) There are many people who want a new script — who can envision a world radically changed for the better, and who are willing to work and sacrifice for it — but just as throughout history, there are not enough.

I think it may take a shower of red-hot meteors or some other life-changing global event to shake us from our roots.

In the meantime, I’m reminded to stand up for the Fantines in my midst. To lend a hand to those who need it; to see the Victurniens for the vicious gossips they are; and to boycott any business run by a criminally greedy Thénardier.



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