Sestina for California

I thought of California when the sky turned to snow yesterday,
in the still of whiteness, visions of hills all green and brown and gold.
They told me I would feel it deep within my bones,
that winter is a mental game played against our earth
and with their snow-chapped lips, they ask
how I am doing and what it was like there and why I left.

I try to explain that I haven’t left:
Home is a feeling we find within ourselves each day,
clinging to us even when we thought we’d shed it completely, we ask
it to forget us, but the sun always remembers to caress our hair and skin with gold.
We shake ourselves out like beach towels wedged with salt, sand, and earth,
but home holds us up as completely as our bones.

So California lives inside me with my nerves and muscles and bones,
flattening my vowels and turning my t’s into d’s, leaving
me to look back across all the earth
I crossed in some sort of backward manifest destiny. Today,
I remember the sweetness of sarsaparilla in the mountains where they found gold
and the classrooms where I brimmed with anticipation of knowledge to be asked.

Because when they inquire about California, it’s of this they ask:
How we painted our lips clown nose red, pulled spandex over our bones
and marched onto a battlefield of stage lights and sissonnes, glittering and golden,
that spring meant blooming wisteria and autumn tarnished leaves,
how we held our breath, fingers clasping noses, until we burst back into day
from the Caldecott Tunnel, into the fog that sat down uncaringly on the earth,

and the sound of waves banging, scraping, tearing at the earth
as we scrambled across tide pools, grabbing star fish and sea urchins, asking
why they named her Mars Pacifica when she was so fickle and mean in the daylight,
and all the multicultural, multilingual, mixed-race neighbors I left
tied up together like a bag of jellybeans, bumping their bones
against each other despite themselves, not quite golden,

how dusk reached out fingertips of peach and rose and gold,
stretching, sighing, curling up around the earth
and how we strode out into the dewy morning she had left,
exchanging smiles in Royce quad, in pursuit of someone to ask
to join our nights soaked with youth and euphoria, music filling our bones.
It’s all this I think of today—

But no, I’m not leaving, only searching, unfolding, asking
where else to strike gold, where else to rest my bones,
what other piece of earth will be mine one day.

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I Don’t Want to Offend You, But I Probably Will

When I started this blog, my intention was to publish this piece as my first major editorial. I also planned to post weekly (oops). At least I can say one of those two things is now occurring.

Weeks ago, I read The Atlantic’s September cover story “The Coddling of the American Mind,” a provocative piece about the overprotection of the Millennial generation and the surge of political correctness on college campuses. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt describe how students demand that their colleges be “safe spaces” that “shield [them] from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable.” They are critical of trigger warnings and microaggressions, suggesting we should teach our students to be thick-skinned and self-questioning, rather than allowing them to take offense at the smallest criticisms.

Around the time of this article’s publication, student activists were becoming more noticeable, likely inspired by the success of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. They mainly protested to focus attention on the systematic discrimination of minority students on college campuses. At the University of Missouri, one student announced he would go on a hunger strike until President Tim Wolfe resigned, and the school’s football team also went on strike. At Yale, students protested after an alleged “white girls only” fraternity party. My alma mater also experienced campus protests after a “Kanye Western” themed event spawned rumors of blackface.

I wanted to express my support of these students and their causes. But then Mizzou students and faculty tried to force the media to leave the site of a public protest in the name of preserving their safe space. Yale students became vocal about an email from Erika Christakis, associate master of Silliman College, which questioned the administration’s message about the potential offensiveness of Halloween costumes. Students demanded an apology from Christakis’s spouse and fellow Yale professor, argued that their university should be a home rather than an intellectual space, screamed expletives at him, and advised each other to “just walk away” when they failed to receive the apology they had demanded. Some also spat on attendants of a free speech conference.

It’s not just these recent protests. Last year, UC Berkeley students started a petition to remove Bill Maher as their winter commencement speaker. He is not the only commencement speaker who has triggered petitions and protests when students disagree with some aspect of the proposed guest’s opinions.

In fairness to the Concerned Student 1950 movement at Mizzou, they were quick to welcome media the next day. Yale’s administration announced their support of the Christakises, and a group of Yale professors released an open letter also affirming support of the couple. Still, both Erika and Nicholas Christakis canceled their classes for the spring semester.

To which I have to say, congrats, Yale students, you successfully forced a man with a thirty-five page curriculum vitae to take an unplanned sabbatical. How progressive of you. I hope you feel safer now.

So are Lukianoff and Haidt correct? Has my generation been irreparably coddled by our helicopter parents? Are we so oversensitive that our only response to a differing opinion is to walk away from it? Have we become a generation of cry babies, as this Cal Poly student suggests?

Many intellectuals seem to think so. Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz commented on Fox News that students only want “superficial diversity” and not a “diversity of ideas.” Dr. Everett Piper, the president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, posted a blog entitled “This is Not a Daycare! It’s a University” that accuses student of being self-absorbed and narcissistic. Even President Obama has warned that students should not be “coddled and protected from different points of view.”

A recent Pew Research Center survey confirms that Millennials are the most likely generation to believe the government should censor offensive speech. Specifically, you are more likely to call for government censorship if you are a young, female, non-white Democrat.

U.S. Millennials More Likely to Support Censoring Offensive Statements About Minorities

While this data is compelling, it’s worth noting that the demand for censorship decreases with higher levels of educational attainment. Though only twenty-two percent of college-educated individuals want censorship, somehow they’ve become the loudest voice.

Much as how a pattern of black deaths at the hands of police indicates systematic police militarization and racism or how a pattern of campus protests indicates systematic biases in our universities, a pattern of student protestors who demand compliance with their perspectives indicates systematic intolerance, disregard for free speech, and illiberal logic at the heart of their supposedly progressive campaigns.

Some of these student activists have become so radicalized in their opinions that they refuse to contemplate a new perspective. Furthermore, rather than engage in a discussion, they will accept nothing but their own speech as the correct speech. A movement aimed at fighting intolerance circles back around to become intolerant.

This “culture of compliance” is obvious from Nikolas Christakis’s engagement with students at Yale. Unfortunately, the original video has been removed by Youtube over copyright violation. I found a transcription by a Reddit user that is close to what I remember watching.

Christakis: So who gets to decide what’s offensive? Who gets to decide, guys?
Student 1: When it hurts me!
Student 2: When it’s offensive to me!
Christakis: What if everybody says, “I’m hurt”? Does that mean everyone else has to stop speaking?

The students faltered. They could not answer his question. He was right, but they were not willing to admit they were wrong.

Colleges are a microcosm of our country as a whole, so let’s expand Mizzou and Yale to be the entire country. College students are now the American population, and campus administrators are the federal government.

Do we demand that President Obama comment every time someone says something offensive? Do we demand that Congress pass a bill outlawing certain statements? Do we protest the choice of host for the White House Correspondents Dinner because of one viewpoint that comedian expressed? Do we give up altogether and immigrate to another country?

No, we wouldn’t. You probably found those questions to be ridiculous, as I do.

We cannot believe in free speech and only protect the speech of those stating an opinion we agree with. As Americans, we all have a right to say whatever we want, yes, even if that speech causes discomfort. Freedom of speech is why the ACLU represents group like the KKK and the Westboro Baptist Church—not because the ACLU endorses their opinions but because the ACLU endorses their right to have and express those opinions. It’s also the inspiration behind a popular quote, often mistakenly attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

We can say what we want, but we shouldn’t say certain things—It’s the “should” of it that comes from discretion, not law. Some college activists now demand that those should’s be censored. By their preferences, of course.

But deciding which speech is worthy of censorship is a slippery slope. Once one statement is deemed censorable, where do we stop? We can’t, and that’s the problem. While writing this piece, I was immediately, eerily reminded of the plot of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: The public labels certain books to be offensive until every book has been banned. It’s not actually a novel about book-burning; it’s a novel about censorship—no less censorship stemming from the general public.

I do not believe these student activists are consciously intending to be intolerant and illiberal. On the contrary, I think they genuinely believe they are right, so much so, that they cannot see when their methods are wrong.

Let’s say I have designed a utopia that would be the best, most equal, most free, most democratic society to have ever existed. I also tend to believe that my opinions are right. No matter how equal and safe and morally solid my society would be, if I were to take over the United States and force my utopia to exist in its place, my new society would be inherently flawed by the tyranny of its creation. My rightness would not matter if I had to force everyone to comply with it.

If student activists continue to operate under a culture of compliance, they will only alienate their supporters and permanently ostracize their opponents. People will disengage from their movements and dismiss them as being crazy SJW’s. I’ll save you the trip to urbandictionary.com—It stands for social justice warrior, and it is not a compliment.

We cannot force racism to disappear. We cannot force people to stop being offensive. We cannot force people to comply with our beliefs, no matter how right we are.

We can and should criticize the failings of our society. We can and should inform someone when something they do or say is offensive. We can and should support social movements. But we must do all of these things while adhering to liberal, democratic principles, otherwise our advocacy has as much moral superiority as authoritarianism and McCarthyism.

To student activists fighting racism and every other worthy cause on your campuses, I applaud you. We need people like you who dedicate themselves to illuminating problems that we still need to fix. But do not forget that your right to label a statement as racist or offensive or triggering does not preclude that person’s right to make that statement.

The world is not one giant safe space. You will never be protected from everything. The world is a big, messy, offensive space. That’s also what makes it so interesting.

Playing by the rules will take longer. It will be frustrating. You will not win over the entire American population. But if you respect free speech and liberal principles, when you do win your fights, you will know that both your motivations and your method were right.

Further reading:

Jonathan Chait of New York and Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic both have long bodies of work on political correctness and free speech on campuses.

I can hear the consternation—but they’re both white men!—so here’s another thoughtful piece by Kovie Biakolo, a black woman, on the same subject matter.

What We Say When We Try to Say Sorry

On Friday afternoon, I took a short scroll through my Twitter account to check the latest news. I was about to close my laptop and head to the gym when the headlines about the Paris attacks began to appear.

In the days following, I have scrolled past dozens of profile pictures overlaid with the French flag. Facebook notified me that a high school classmate now studying in Paris was unharmed via the “safety check” feature. I have seen countless repostings of the Eiffel Tower/peace sign graphic. I listened as President Obama and other world leaders denounced the attacks and watched as monuments around the world lit up in French colors. I went to check my bank account today, and the home page features the Eiffel Tower instead of its usual Bay Bridge or Golden Gate. I read friends’ sympathetic messages concluding in #PrayforParis and then other posts questioning why nobody had much to say the day before when Beirut had experienced a similarly horrific terrorist attack.

It‘s easy to blame our ignorance on the media. It’s not that we don’t care; it’s that we didn’t know we were supposed to care. Max Fisher of Vox questions if we can hold the media accountable for our lack of awareness when mainstream sources such as the New York Times, Washington Post, AP, CNN, and more covered the story in Beirut. I read the news every day, multiple times a day. It’s the first thing I do every morning after grumpily turning off my alarm. Somehow, I did not learn of the bombings in Beirut until after I had heard about Paris.

I was angry with myself for missing the story about Beirut. But as I monitored the TV screens in front of my treadmill on Friday, I watched various channels break the story about the attacks in Paris and track the death count. Most of the channels broadcast the same live camera from a Parisian street. Just one day earlier, I was on the same treadmill, and none of these channels mentioned Beirut. The question is not if our media reports on non-Western happenings, but to what depth and frequency.

Though commonly known as an economist, Adam Smith was also a moral philosopher. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he writes about the capacity of human beings to feel sympathy. A key parable from Moral Sentiments describes a European man’s hypothetical reaction to losing one of his own fingers versus his reaction to learning of an earthquake that kills millions in China. Smith concludes that the man would be devastated by the loss of his finger. However, while he might take a moment to contemplate the disaster in China and express his sorrow, ultimately the earthquake would fade from his thoughts, and he would return to his life “as if no such accident had happened.”

For Smith, sympathy is spatial. We will naturally care more for the people closer to us, be that closeness of relationship, closeness of distance, or closeness of history and culture. By his logic, the Western world will naturally react with more sympathy to an attack on another Western country. It doesn’t mean everyone posting #PrayforParis feels nothing for Beirut but that they cannot help feeling more for Paris.

I know a few people living in France currently. I know dozens more who have visited Paris. There are fifty-three students from my alma mater currently studying abroad in Paris, as did two of my college roommates during our junior year. Paris is one of the most visited cities on the planet, a city with international influence, and a city perceived to be safe. I have never been to Lebanon, though I have been within miles of the Israeli-Lebanese border, and I don’t know a single person currently living there. Paris hit me, too, a bit closer to home.

And maybe that’s okay, so long as we educate ourselves about the events in Beirut and elsewhere and that we invest ourselves in aiding all countries equally. Maybe that’s okay, so long as we do not blatantly overlook devastation in places that we value less. Whatever we feel, whatever our gut reaction, whatever our proclivities to sympathize more with people like us, we need to translate our thoughts into unbiased actions.

Did you change your profile picture to the French flag? Did you change it because you have been to Paris? Did you change it because Facebook said you could and you thought “sure, why not?” Did you change it because all your other friends seemed to be changing theirs?

Would you have changed your profile picture to the Lebanese flag? Did you wonder why there was no Lebanese flag option? Did you even know that Daesh had also attacked Beirut? Did you know that Beirut is the capital and largest city of Lebanon?

I wonder why I can’t find a Lebanese flag option or why we need a French flag option at all. I am unsure how a profile picture helps the people of France. It’s not spreading awareness, since with the media overload, I doubt anyone in the US remains unaware of the attacks at this point. In my case, it wouldn’t be for support, since I have no friends who are French natives to view my supposedly supportive gesture. I also don’t have the energy to change my profile picture every time something devastating happens. If that were the case, I would need a new picture every day. I won’t be adding the French flag to my profile picture because it strikes me as slacktivism and clicktivism, a way to pat ourselves on the back for being engaged, while simultaneously revealing how unengaged we actually are. I can feel solidarity without having to prove it online.

In Adam Smith’s parable, he also asks if this man would choose to sacrifice his finger if his action would save all of the Chinese earthquake victims. Now, I don’t expect anyone to start chopping off their fingers, but there are some steps we can take that go farther than profile pictures. Let’s request our governments to accept more of the refugees currently fleeing the region. So far, the United States has admitted under 2,200. Let’s complain when the media is blatant in its bias. Let’s acknowledge our own biases. Let’s not torture ourselves for not sympathizing enough or shame our friends for whatever sympathy they feel. And let’s make a commitment to educate ourselves about other attacks.

On Entering the Internet Slush Pile

In the publishing industry, the slush pile is the infamous, bottomless vat of manuscripts to which an aspiring writer sends off his or her query letter to be read and, most likely, quickly discarded by an over-caffeinated, underpaid assistant. The slush pile haunts me like an ever-present ghost laughing quietly in my ear as I stare at the pulsing black curser on the blank, white Word document. The pile is both the genie who just might grant my wish and the siren calling sweetly to give up more of my words, time, and sanity.

Ironically, I decided to start a blog and send my writing out into the even more immense, intangible slush pile called the Internet. Maintaining a blog feels a bit like speaking aloud in an open, empty expanse—until you realize that the hum you mistook for nothingness is actually the drone of millions of voices talking at and over and down and past one another.

The sheer immensity of the Internet is astounding, incomprehensible. According to one estimate, if we printed out all our online content, we would need as many as 305.5 billion sheets of paper. Even if that number is off, let’s not kid ourselves, the Internet is massive, and we’re never going to read all of it.

There is so much information out there, so many websites to discover, so many videos to watch, and so many other blogs to read. I know this, so it’s hard to decipher why I want to add my voice—no matter how honest and thoughtful and articulate I find it to be—to the noise that will quickly surround and muffle it.

As an American, I was raised on Cinderella stories, on the notion that with enough effort I could become whatever I wanted. While grown-up (sort of) Gelsey no longer aspires to be a ballerina, I still choose to believe that with enough perseverance I can shape myself into anything I want. At times, I find myself unable to write, cowering behind a fear that nothing I say will be enough to change anything or touch anyone. I’m not looking for world fame or a Nobel Prize in Literature. I just want to leave a few footprints on someone’s thoughts. Sometimes, even that seems impossible.

With the Internet and social media, we are now our own fairy godmothers. All it takes is a computer, and with relative ease, you too can become a blogger, Youtuber, or Instagram model. That only seems to make the fairy tale more insurmountable.

But it’s the 21st century, and I don’t believe in genies, ghosts, and fairy godmothers. I believe in words, and I’m going to try to leave behind some footprints.

Welcome to my little piece of the Internet slush pile.