In defense of the Ferguson rioters

Published: Daily Dot (November 28, 2014)

In Ferguson, the streets are on fire, and so are the media as they follow rioters through clouds of tear gas and across lines of National Guard troops. Months after the death of Michael Brown at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson, the people of Ferguson have yet to see justice;

But the unrest is bigger than either Wilson or Brown. Here are the nationwide issues underlying the Ferguson riots.

1) We need to fight the overgrowth of our prison system.

We can start with the excessive use of force displayed against the Ferguson protesters. From liberal media outlets like the Huffington Post to conservative pundits like Rand Paul discussing the militarization of our police to Governor Jay Nixon’s decision to use the National Guard instead of ordinary police, the message is the same: Citizens who protest their government’s actions are too often viewed as enemies.

As of this year, America has more than 1.5 million people incarcerated in prisons throughout the country. Although the U.S. only has 5 percent of the world’s population, we hold 25 percent of its prisoners. As the Prison Policy Initiative explains, there is an undeniable racial bias in the demographics of who winds up behind bars:

Racial disparities continue to constitute the defining characteristic of the prison system. For example, 3 percent of black males of all ages are currently incarcerated in state or federal prisons. This is a rate six times higher than white males.

As of 2008, African-Americans and Hispanics comprised 58 percent of the total prison population despite making up only 25 percent of the American population. As the NAACP states in its Criminal Justice Fact Sheet: “[If] African-Americans and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates of whites, today’s prison and jail populations would decline by approximately 50 percent.” Racial minorities are more likely to go to prison than whites, receive harsher penalties for the same crimes as whites, and are being incarcerated at an unprecedented scale today.

2) There is a racial double-standard in who gets labeled as a “rioter”—as well as a misunderstanding of why political riots occur at all.

As CNN observed in a piece about Pumpkin Fest riots last month, the comparisons being made at the time between the whites throwing beer bottles and destroying property in New Hampshire and the demonstrators in Ferguson, Mo., were grossly unfair—to the Ferguson protesters. “It demeans Ferguson and St. Louis to compare them to Pumpkin Fest,” said Donna Murch, associated professor of history at Rutgers University, an interview with CNN. “While the use of tear gas reflects how normative these militarized population control measures have become, Ferguson is a political movement, and looting (in Keene) is quite different from the civil disobedience we’re seeing in Ferguson.” New York Magazine went a step further and collected various examples posted on Twitter of white people rioting for reasons far less valid than political injustices, from sports to disco.

Perhaps the best way of explaining the importance of the Ferguson riot is to review a conversation on Democracy Now! shortly after the grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson. It began when host Amy Goodman shared a famous quote from Martin Luther King (one that has been circulating online all week) that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” As the Reverend Osagyefo Sekou explained in response to this, the riot in Ferguson came about precisely because the failure to indict Darren Wilson demonstrated the depth of anger felt by African-Americans whose problems were being ignored.

“School systems have betrayed them. The president has betrayed them. Eric Holder has betrayed them. Governor Nixon has betrayed them. Chief Jackson has betrayed them. The electoral system has betrayed them,” he explained. “They have extremely limited options, school systems decrepit, no economic opportunity. … Then on top of that, to see their brother, their son laid in the street for 4.5 hours … they are in a situation where the destruction of property seems the only way that they can vent their rage because they have been given no recourse.”

In other words, while rioting should always be avoided, there is a considerable difference between white people rioting over pumpkin spice and athletic events and African-Americans rioting because police officers murder their young men with impunity.

3) Racial profiling is a proven fact.

As the ACLU writes on its page dedicated to racial profiling, racial profiling “occurs every day, in cities and towns across the country, when law enforcement and private security target people of color for humiliating and often frightening detentions, interrogations, and searches without evidence of criminal activity and based on perceived race, ethnicity, national origin or religion.”

“What’s striking is just how constant these attitudes have been,” observed Carroll Doherty from the Pew Research center in an interview with the New York Times. “I have literally lost count the number of times I have been stopped by police, but I remember the first time one drew his gun and pointed it at me,” recalled LZ Granderson of CNN as he summarized his own experiences with racial profiling. “I was 12, walking home from the store with a gallon of milk. He said I looked like someone they were looking for. I’ve looked like that person ever since.”

It should come as no surprise that the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of of Justice Statistics reported in 2005 (the most recent year with available data) that “black drivers (4.5 percent) were twice as likely as white drivers (2.1 percent) to be arrested during a traffic stop, while Hispanic drivers (65 percent) were more likely than white (56.2 percent) or black (55.8 percent) drivers to receive a ticket.” In Ferguson, these statistics are even more stark. According to the Vehicle Stop Report released for the community last year, black drivers accounted for 93 percent of the road-based arrests in the city even though contraband was only found on one-fifth of the black targets—as compared to one-third of the white ones. The New York Times reported that African-Americans nationwide are four times more likely to be arrested for drug possession than whites, even though they are no more likely (and may even be less so) to actually use illicit substances. As former Attorney General Eric Holder explained, half of black men will have been arrested before the age of 23 and are six times more likely to be incarcerated for a given crime than whites.

4) We still blame the victim.

To quote Malcolm X:

They’ll take a person who’s a victim of the crime, and make it appear he’s the criminal, and they’ll take the criminal and make it appear that he’s the victim of the crime. … No matter how many bills pass, black people in that country, where I’m from, still our lives are not worth two cents.

When hearing about the Michael Brown shooting, one is struck with the proliferation of sources which describe Wilson as the aggressor—Dorian Johnson (Michael Brown’s friend who was present at the time), Philip Walker, Michael Brady, Piaget Crenshaw and Tiffany Mitchell (who lived nearby and witnessed the shooting), a group of local construction workers. Even though other eyewitnesses contradicted their accounts, at the very least the presence of so many unrelated individuals who insist that Brown was shot after surrendering is sufficient cause for pausing before immediately assuming Brown was the aggressor in this scenario (to say nothing of sufficient cause for indicting Officer Darren Wilson).

At the same time, as the National Journal reported, both mainstream media outlets and Internet users have popularized visual content that makes Brown seem like a thug, focused on the footage of Brown stealing cigars (even though theft isn’t a capital offense), or drew attention to the fact that there was marijuana in his system when he was shot (even though the drug isn’t linked to violence). “Obama doesn’t need to worry about putting a ‘thumb on the scales,’” concluded Emma Roller. “Other public officials and public voices have already done that work for him.”

5) Police officers have a long history of shooting racial minorities.

Seven years ago, ColorLines and the Chicago Reporter conducted a joint investigation of fatal police shootings that had occurred in ten major cities throughout America from 2000 to 2007. It found that there was a disproportionately higher number of African-American victims in every single city. “We need not look for individual racists to say that we have a culture of policing that is really rubbing salt into longstanding racial wounds,” NAACP president Cornell Williams Brooks told Mother Jones. “It’s a culture in which people suspected of minor crimes are met with ‘overwhelmingly major, often lethal, use of force.” The authors of the study also noted that “about 9,500 people nationally were killed by police during the years 1980 to 2005—an average of nearly one fatal shooting per day.”

USA Today recently covered an even more sobering statistic—namely, that there were an average of 96 cases of a white police officer killing a black person each year between 2006 and 2012. Although these incidents were labeled “justifiable homicides,” they still leave us with the unsettling reality that an average of eight African-Americans are shot every month by white cops—an average of one less than every four days.

It must be emphasized that the point of this article is not to justify acts of violence, whether they’re perpetrated by looters or a white police officer against a black teenager. That said, if we want to have a truly honest discussion about violence, it’s necessary to start by identifying the root causes. In the case of the outrage in Ferguson, this requires us to accept that we cannot sit silently as an American community with millions of people continues to be oppressed and expect them to simply take it.

3 Reasons Obama’s Immigration Order Will Prove The Haters Wrong

Published: Daily Dot (November 26, 2014)

Last week, presidential historian Douglas Brinkley boldly claimed that Barack Obama’s executive order on immigration would cause him to be remembered as “a folk hero to Latino Americans.” While I can’t speak for the collective cultural memory of another ethnic group, Brinkley is right about one thing—President Obama has put himself on the right side of history. While Americans are more divided on the controversial move, a wide majority of Latinos (90 percent) and young voters (73 percent) supported the executive order, according to poll data released Monday.

Advocates calling for immigration reform on Twitter were equally supportive:

It’s important to remember that, when Obama became the first sitting president to publicly support marriage equality, Newsweek ran an iconic cover deeming him “The First Gay President.” Even though his stance was controversial when he took it in 2012, today 35 states and a clear majority of Americans recognize the freedom to marry, not only vindicating Obama’s immediate political instincts but cementing his place as a champion of the right cause in one of the most significant civil rights struggles of his time.

While there are major differences between the issues of LGBTQ equality and the plight of America’s roughly 11.4 million illegal immigrants, it’s necessary to identify the three main reasons why Obama will also be remembered hero on this humanitarian issue.

1) He’s helping millions of people.

As Obama explained in his November 20th speech on immigration, his offer to illegal immigrants is as follows:

If you’ve with been in America more than five years, if you have children who are American citizens or illegal residents, if you register, pass a criminal background check and you’re willing to pay your fair share of taxes, you’ll be able to apply to stay in this country temporarily without fear of deportation.

Although this plan excludes both recent illegal immigrants and any who might arrive in the future, nearly 5 million people are expected to benefit from this plan. As the White House fact sheet further clarifies, “those undocumented immigrants who have lived in the US for more than five years and are parents of U.S. citizens or Lawful permanent residents” will be able to stave off deportation for three years at a time “if they come forward and register, submit biometric data, pass background checks, pay fees, and show that their child was born before the date of this announcement.”

While relieving the threat of deportation facing DREAMers, the young undocumented immigrants who lacked the adult agency to be responsible for their illegal status, it also diverts resources and attention to truly dangerous aliens, like convicted felons. And the plan will make it easier for the more than 1 million highly-skilled immigrants needed for sectors of the economy like the biomedical industry and tech sector to obtain permanent resident visas.

While alleviating the daily existential anxiety previously facing its beneficiaries, the executive order will also help the economy. In its report on the impact of his 2013 immigration reform bill, the Congressional Budget Office found that it would stimulate the economy by expanding the labor force, reducing unemployment, and increasing average wages and worker productivity. Additionally, undocumented workers will have more legal protections for their rights as workers and, consequently, see an increase in their overall standard of living.

While some experts are less optimistic about the executive order (it is, after all, more limited in scope because it isn’t a legislative measure), the consensus is that it will still have a positive effect.

2) He’s finally standing up to Republican bullying.

Saturday Night Live may have picked up headlines with its “Schoolhouse Rock” parody attacking Obama for bypassing Congress, but it also forgot recent American history (including events through which it lived). Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush were both able to shield undocumented immigrants from deportation through unilateral executive action without controversy and Obama was not, because they lived in the era before Republicans killed bipartisanship.

While it’s easy to rest on the cliche assumption that both parties are equally responsible for the gridlock and partisan bickering currently infecting Washington, the hard data clearly demonstrate that Republicans have been abnormally unyielding in their refusal to work with President Obama. Michael Tomasky of The Daily Beast demonstrated as such. Tomasky compared Democratic support for four of President Bush’s more controversial bills (the tax cut, the Iraq War bill, No Child Left Behind, and Medicare reform) with Republican willingness to work with President Obama on four of his own signature measures (health care reform, Dodd-Frank, the stimulus, and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal). He found that a GOP legislator today “opposes the major proposals of the president from the other party seven times more intensely” than his or her Democratic counterpart did during the Bush administration.

Senator Mitch McConnell actually admitted to the National Journal in 2010 that the priority for Republicans was “for President Obama to be a one-term president.” After Obama’s reelection in 2012 dashed that goal, Republicans still refused to work with the president to an unprecedented degree, resulting in the 113th Congress (the one currently in session) being the most unproductive legislature in modern American history.

This is more than a partisan gripe; from deliberately forcing a debt default and shutting down the government to stymying necessary and popular measures on issues from gun control to, yes, immigration reform, this Republican obstructionism poses a grave threat to our government’s ability to fulfill its most basic responsibilities.

Fortunately, as Marc A. Thiessen of The Washington Post recently wrote, Obama’s actions on immigration are calculated to “to elicit a self-destructive response from the GOP,” be it racist comments that will alienate Hispanic voters or shining a light on the extent of their culpability for the gridlock in Washington.

Thiessen, however, mentioned all this as a way of criticizing Obama. This not only ignores that immigration reform would have been impossible any other way with a Congress that refuses to work with the president, but also that the president’s plan to whip up Republican histrionics only works precisely because they have become so predictably hyperpartisan. But his overall point is very insightful. Much has already been written about the fundamentally racist reasons for this Republican obstructionism, and regardless of its origins, it needs to be exposed and arrested.

3) He’s reading the electoral tea leaves.

Even though President Obama’s immigration reform bill couldn’t get past the Senate, the online movement that mobilized to push it through might ultimately leave an impact on this country despite that loss. In an interview with Politico, LATISM.org founder Elianne Ramos talked about how Hispanic activists learned how to “move the needle [of public opinion] through social media and that is the measure of success” (her hashtag #LATISM was used more than 1 million times a week as of spring 2013).

“The fight for comprehensive immigration reform is a prime example of building a movement on our terms by real people,” wrote two other immigration reform activists (Olivia Chow from the Center for Community Change and Emilia Gutierrez of Reform Immigration FOR America) in an interview with Netrootsfoundation, going on to describe how “immigration reform activists have rallied community members to action and changed the way we talk about immigration in this country.”

Indeed, earlier that same year, the progressive Evangelical Immigration Table launched a successful online campaign for 100,000 evangelical churches to set aside 40 days of praying for undocumented immigrants.

In a similar vein, although Republicans celebrated their gains in the midterm elections of 2010 and 2014, the reality is that those results were primarily caused by low turnout rather than a sudden outburst of GOP love. When it comes to presidential elections, which traditionally inspire higher turnout, the demographic math is inescapable: If Republicans want to win, they’ll need to do much, much better among Hispanic voters (the goal for Democrats, of course, is to keep them turning out for their party instead of staying home or becoming a swing block).

It’s easy to forget that, in the six presidential elections between 1992 and 2012, Republicans only won the popular vote in one—the 2004 contest between George W. Bush and John Kerry. Not coincidentally, Bush also made a better showing among Hispanics than any Republican before or after him, netting more than 40 percent of their vote. That’s why this observation from Eileen Patten and Jeffrey S. Passel of Pew Research is so important:

While President Obama’s executive action expanding deportation relief to almost half (48 percent) of the total unauthorized immigrant population will cover people from countries around the world, those born in Mexico will feel the most impact under existing and new guidelines, followed by Central Americans.

I’ve written before about the media’s failure to place as much emphasis on the online grassroots movement that mobilized behind immigration reform in 2013. While the story didn’t receive as much coverage as other politically influential online movements (most notably the Tea Party), the boldness of Obama’s actions is forcing the issue back into the headlines.

In terms of historical parallels, Obama’s executive order is a spiritual successor to Richard Nixon’s national address appealing to the “Silent Majority” in 1969. Just as Nixon used that speech to galvanize culturally conservative white voters—whose extensive grassroots campaigning was also being ignored by the media in the 1960s—and ultimately bring them into the Republican coalition, so too is Obama using his speech to persuade Hispanics and online immigration reform activists to become a stronger force in the Democratic Party.

When future scholars study this moment in American history, they will likely recall a parallel moment from nearly fifty years earlier. As President Lyndon Johnson worked to pass the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which ended the racist quotas that had governed American immigration policy for the previous forty-one years, he explained, “The land flourished because it was fed from so many sources—because it was nourished by so many cultures and traditions and peoples.”

Thanks to last week’s executive order, this nourishment can continue. Perhaps it is appropriate that in addition to being America’s first black president, Obama is also the first president with an immigrant parent since Herbert Hoover. His legacy on immigration reform will likely rank alongside the economic stimulus and health care reform among his most significant legacies.

Stop comparing the Ferguson riots to the O. J. case

Published: Daily Dot (November 26, 2014)

The Internet has the potential to communicate empathy unlike any other form of media in history. Unfortunately, as much of the online response to the Michael Brown shooting and Ferguson riots makes clear, it can also push us in the opposite direction.

In a recent article on the role of online activism in mobilizing African-Americans against racial oppression, Sarah Seltzer of Flavorwire compared the approach of the Social Justice Internet with the grassroots anti-lynching campaigns of Ida B. Wells. Just as Wells became the “patron saint of muckraking journalism and anti-racist activism” by “[not] trying to maintain a face of ‘objectivity’ or bogus neutrality” but instead “using statistics, facts, and research to aid argumentative activism,” so too are social media users and bloggers using the Internet to challenge “the usual patriarchal and white-supremacist narratives that both the state and the mainstream media adopt unthinkingly.”

While the topics of social justice activism and the political use of social media have already been covered by ThinkProgress and the New York Times, insufficient attention has been paid to how racially reactionary arguments can be widely disseminated online just as much as stronger ones.

We can start with an argument that has become particularly trend—namely, comparing black outrage over Darren Wilson not being indicted with the white community’s response to O.J. Simpson’s acquittal. One viral meme seems to capture this sentiment perfectly: “Remember how white people rioted after O. J.’s acquittal? Me neither.”

The Daily Paul
The Daily Paul

It’s appeared on The Daily Paul, a forum for libertarian political debate, on Twitter accounts, and even on our own message boards. The implication, clearly, is that if white people (a majority of whom believed Simpson should have been convicted, in contrast to most black who felt otherwise) didn’t riot then, black people shouldn’t now.

The logical flaws in this analogy are myriad. For one thing, O. J. Simpson didn’t allegedly kill Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman because they were white but over matters related to his personal life. Indeed, in terms of underlying social issues, the alleged Simpson murders—heinous though they were—had far more to do with misogyny (Simpson had reportedly abused Nicole Brown when they were married) than racism.

By contrast, the underlying social issue epitomized by the shooting of Michael Brown is the systematic oppression of racial minorities in the American criminal justice system. It was evident in Darren Wilson’s testimony in which he attributed grotesquely fearsome physical traits to Brown—even comparing him to Hulk Hogan and a demon—that are consistent with what psychologists have identified as the subconscious tendency we absorb through our culture to subscribe to “stereotypes of blacks and Latinos as being prone to certain kinds of crimes.”

Perhaps more troublingly, it also appeared in the various logical fallacies promoted by Wilson’s defenders, assassinating Brown’s character by pointing to how he had stolen cigars (which isn’t a capital offense) or insisting he had reached for Wilson’s gun even though numerous eyewitnesses claimed to have seen Brown raise his hands and announce that he was unarmed (which, though perhaps not enough to convict Wilson in a trial, more than passes the minimum standard for indictment).

On a wider scale, it can be seen in the fact that America has 25 percent of the world’s prison population (despite only containing 5 percent of its actual population), thanks both to how private prison companies influence politicians and bureaucrats to implement policies that will increase the prisoner population and to the militarization of our police forces. This is a point that has been made not only in left-leaning outlets like The Huffington Post but by libertarian-minded conservatives like Rand Paul. Due to the well-documented prevalence of racial profiling (defined on CivilRights.org as “the erroneous assumption that any particular individual of one race or ethnicity is more likely to engage in misconduct than any particular individual of another race or ethnicity”) among police officers and in our legal system, a grossly disproportionate number of these inmates are African-American or Hispanic (58 percent as of 2008).

Of course, the real reason for citing the Simpson trial isn’t to paw through the fine points of a 20-year-old murder case, but to implicitly argue that the Ferguson riots can be explained by flaws in black culture rather than the racial injustices they’re opposing. As Colin Flaherty of American Thinker put it, “Violent crime in America is a black thing.” Citing everything from random crime anecdotes to the opinions of Melissa Harris-Perry before moving on to Ferguson, he concludes that “black hostility and racial resentment towards white and Asian people are now mainstream.”

This likely goes a long way toward explaining why polls found that only 23 percent of whites wanted Darren Wilson indicted compared to 54 percent of non-whites. As Professor Saladin Ambar, a political science professor at Lehigh University and author of “Malcolm X at Oxford Union,” explained to the Daily Dot, whites can better understand the non-white response by looking at examples in history with which they might be more familiar, like the Hungarian uprising in 1956 or the Czechoslovakian uprising in 1968, in which “there were Europeans taking to the streets in sometimes violent protest against their conditions, against a government that had little regard for their well-being or justice.” In their case, this was the Iron Curtain, but for Ferguson rioters, it’s “the racial curtain that is life in black America.”

This isn’t to say that the experiences of police officers who feel threatened aren’t also valid—or that the Internet can’t be used to amplify their voices as well. As Safiya Jafari Simmons, a public relations consultant, discussed in a CNN editorial about being the black wife of a Washington D.C. police officer, “I dreaded the Ferguson grand jury response for weeks. Not simply because I knew it was likely to lead to more heartache and unrest for the black community—my community—but because it would most certainly dredge up deep internal conflict for me.”

This mirrored the observations of police officers with whom I spoke for this piece, from a family member who explained how cops become jaded because they “see the worst humanity has to offer” and the childhood friend who told me that “as a police officer who has been in a physical altercation” that required “corrective surgery,” he had been in situations where “the thing that goes through your mind is survival.”

At the same time that we maintain a balanced perspective, however, progressives need to aggressively confront the factual errors and racial privilege that continues to impede the cause of social justice. In the case of the Michael Brown shooting, it has been used to present arguments that perpetuate racist social theories (such as blaming the black community for the Ferguson riots) or engage in victim-blaming (in this case by assassinating Michael Brown’s character). Since unsound ideological currency can have as much of an effect on the political marketplace as legitimate tender, progressives need to identify and aggressively confront the common themes in the racially insensitive rhetoric and memes.

Why can’t America control its gun violence epidemic?

Published: Daily Dot (November 25, 2014)

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Liskula Cohen and Matt Rozsa

co-author: Liskula Cohen

 

 

 

 

There were at least 12 school shootings since December 2012, from Newtown, Conn., to Marysville, Wash. Last week’s attack on Florida State University has made that number even larger. The American fear of guns is real and justifiable.

Although I’m best known as a former model, I’m writing about this issue as a Canadian living in the United States, and as a mother witnessing the influence of the Internet on gun culture. The fact that it’s 2014 and parents still have to worry about the kind of violence that we saw in Florida is ridiculous (the Canadian parliament shooting earlier this year, though terrible, wasn’t a school shooting). Perhaps because I wasn’t raised in America, I have a hard time understanding why more isn’t being done to prevent these acts. It’s sickening to even think about having to talk about these things in front of my child. I don’t want her to know about them, but if she continues to live in the United States, I know she’ll have no choice.

Even as the Internet hypes up Ebola as an American epidemic (as one accurate joke puts it, you are more likely to marry Rush Limbaugh than contract the disease in the United States—and would probably suffer more too), school shootings are a real epidemic in this country. Despite overwhelming support for laws requiring background checks on all gun buyers and preventing people with violent mental illness from buying guns, the gun control bill President Obama attempted to pass last year was thwarted by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and other pro-gun lobbies.

In many ways, this is a story of how influential lobbying groups can use the Internet to further entrench themselves into our power structure. After all, it was the massive online mobilizing conducted by the NRA in 2012 and 2013 that allowed the industry to avoid any major regulation after the Sandy Hook shooting. When New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg vowed to create a political counterweight to the gun lobby, he naturally sank his money into an aggressive social media campaign to create solidarity and instill a sense of purpose in pro-gun control groups, attempting to wrest control of the Internet back from gun groups.

Even when it wasn’t the organizations at the top using cyberspace to promote firearms, the cause is still popular at the grassroots level, with bloggers disseminating conspiracy theories about the gun control movement to providing a one-sided account of the Second Amendment.

The media also play a large role in exacerbating the problem of gun violence—and I’m not just talking about the usual culprits, like violent movies and video games. As the contrast between the CBC’s coverage of the Ottawa shooting and the reporting of major American networks on the regular mass shootings that occur here makes clear, there is a notoriety associated with real-life violence in the U.S. that is deeply troubling. A school shooter in America is guaranteed not only 24/7 news coverage, but weeks of subsequent psychoanalysis. As Psychology Today explains, the groundbreaking work of sociologist David Phillips in 1974 showed that “highly publicized stories of deviant and dangerous behavior influences copycat incidents.”

Although Phillips focused specifically on suicides, the same trend is clear with mass murder events like school shootings. In the words of renowned forensic psychiatrist Dr. Park Dietz, “We’ve had 20 years of mass murders throughout which I have repeatedly told CNN and our other media, if you don’t want to propagate more mass murders, don’t start the story with sirens blaring. Don’t have photographs of the killer. Don’t make this 24/7 coverage. Do everything you can not to make the body count the lead story, not to make the killer some kind of anti-hero.”

A plethora of other scholarly studies on school shootings reinforce this point—by turning school shooters into cultural icons, the media inadvertently creates an appealing archetype attractive to those desperate enough to pursue homicidal methods to gain attention.

While the media, which saturates youth culture thanks to the ubiquity of the Web, provides reinforcement by offering potential school shooters an appealing narrative context for their personal struggles, the Internet can actually offer support from like-minded people. In 2013, Frank J. Robertz wrote in his essay “On the Relevance of Phantasy for the Genesis of School Shootings” that “print media and Internet searches provide easy sources for susceptible adolescents to find out how to carry out a school shooting in order to get into the international headlines, how to inspire fan pages on the Internet, etc.”

Martha J. Markward, Stephanne Cline, and Nathan J. Markward concluded twelve years earlier that “the Internet probably provided several school shooters who have felt victimized over time with the support they needed to murder those they perceived to be their perpetrators.” Indeed, as investigators learned more about the motives for the Elliot Rodger shooting at UC Santa Barbara, they discovered that the culture of online misogyny bred in Men’s Rights Activists forums played a large role.

There are other cultural factors which need to be confronted if we are to effectively face this issue. There is the popular misconception that buying guns will somehow make you more likely to protect yourself or others in the event of a crime (which is questionable at best), for example. Others argue that guns will help you overthrow the government in the event of tyranny—a notion that, despite leading to a proliferation in right-wing militias during Obama’s presidency, is absurd when you consider that the state has nuclear weapons, drones, and countless other weapons that would make every legal firearm seem like a peashooter by comparison.

America is different from Canada for a lot of reasons. It has a lot of wonderful things going for it, but its gun issue needs to be addressed. The point here isn’t that government should be automatically trusted, but that a disproportionately high rate of firearm-related homicides indicates a very serious problem of its own. I love this country and wish to stay here, but whenever I see these stories in Newtown or Florida, it makes me afraid for the nation I now call my home. This is a tragedy, both because I love America and I hate to see the parents and children of my countrymen suffer so needlessly.

While raising children in Canada, you worry about your kids’ socks getting wet walking to school in the snow or not getting good grades on their report cards. Bullying still occurs, the economy isn’t always great (its six-year low in unemployment is still nearly seven percent), and there are plenty of childhood and teenage hardships that one experiences regardless of nation or culture. Then again, you know your child is going to get a good education regardless of their gender, receive easily-accessible and quality health care, and that his or her peers aren’t likely to have such easy access to firearms that they’ll be able to go around popping off people for no reason.

Wouldn’t it be great to live in a country where, instead of being terrified of the next school shooter, we could go back to worrying about our children’s wet socks and bad grades?

Why the Bill Clinton Rape Allegations Still Matter

Published: Daily Dot (November 24, 2014)

As the number of rape allegations against Bill Cosby continues to rise, many conservative pundits are criticizing progressives for ignoring the sketchy sexual history of one of the Democratic Party’s greatest living icons: former President Bill Clinton.

“When it comes to these kinds of allegations some powerful men like Bill Cosby are taunted and hunted, while other powerful men with the first name Bill, who have faced similar allegations, are protected,” writes John Nolte of Breitbart, citing partisanship and race as among the main factors protecting Clinton. “[Clinton] still dominates Democratic politics, commanding an average $195,000 per speech imparting his wisdom and insights,” observes Ethel C. Fenig of The American Thinker. “Past allegations of rape and groping and using his power and charm to seduce women are ignored—or secretly admired.”

Even a liberal like Joan Vennochi of The Boston Globe notes that while “Bill Cosby’s career as a beloved comedian is in shambles… Bill Clinton’s career as revered statesman soars.” As Matt Walsh of Glenn Beck’s website The Blaze summed it up, “If we are dredging up rape accusations against formerly famous old man, why not talk about the ones surrounding a former president who still wields considerable influence and who might, God help us, end up in the White House again in two years?”

These are serious concerns—and not entirely without validity. However, to effectively confront them, liberals must do two things. First, they firmly establish the facts, at least insofar as we can know them. Then they must assess that information with a perspective that balances the ongoing struggle for gender equality—which can only be achieved by directly confronting rape culture—and maintaining the vital presumption of innocence until proven guilty.

What are the facts? Although Clinton’s philandering reputation has caused him grief throughout his political career, it’s important to distinguish between consensual infidelities—such as Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky, who has vehemently denied claims that her relationship had been coercive—and allegations of non-consensual acts like sexual harassment or assault.

The most famous woman to accuse Clinton of the latter was Paula Jones, who sued the president for sexual harassment after she claimed he had exposed himself to and propositioned her in a hotel room. Not only did Clinton’s perjuring of himself in response to a question about this case lead to his impeachment trial, but the case ended with an out-of-court settlement of $850,000, even as Clinton continued to deny Jones’ story.

As the Jones lawsuit and Lewinsky scandal riveted America’s attention, three women emerged to accuse Clinton of assault: Juanita Brodderick, who accused Clinton of biting her lip and forcing himself on her in a hotel room in the late 1970s; Kathleen Willey, who claimed Clinton groped her in a hallway in 1993; and Elizabeth Ward Gracen, who alleged that Clinton had forced himself on her in the backseat of a limousine in 1983.

Brodderick later withdrew her allegations due to anxiety over needing to testify over “the most horrific event in my life,” Willey was determined to have given “false information” by an independent counsel but granted immunity in exchange for her testimony during Clinton’s impeachment, and Gracen recanted her story and apologized to Hillary Clinton for participating in what is now alleged to be a one night stand.

Other stories stretching back to Clinton’s college days continue to abound among right-wingers bloggers but have yet to receive scrutiny from reputable journalists.

As liberals look at this material, it’s important for them to bear in mind just how rarely rape cases are reported. The problem begins with the misogynistic undercurrents in our culture that put alleged victims on the defensive instead of the possible perpetrators; former Republican political hatchet man David Brock admitted as much when he wrote that the best way to discredit the woman accusing Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment was to paint her as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.”

A panel study by the National Research Council noted massive discrepancies in the sex crimes data reported through agencies ranging from the Census Bureau and the Center for Disease Control to the FBI. “We all know that rape and sexual assault are the most underreported crimes in the world,” explains Christopher Krebs, a sexual violence researcher at RTI International. Police officers are notorious for dismissing rape claims presented to them based on a misunderstanding of the cues and signs that someone has just been traumatized.

This carries over to our judicial system; as Nancy Schwartzmen of The Line Campaign told Jezebel, “we have juries who rely on CSI and SVU to dictate to them how rape ‘really’ works, what victims and perpetrators look like, and how cases should play out in a courtroom” instead of having social workers and trauma experts “explain the complexities of PTSD and what are normal and common ways that victims respond to rape.” In light of this, it’s hardly a surprise that only 3 percent of rapists will ever serve jail time for their actions.

At the same time, liberals need to exercise caution in prematurely rendering judgment. Although Hillary Clinton was mocked by conservatives for insisting her husband was the target of a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” considerable evidence has emerged that Clinton (like Obama after him) was endlessly assailed with exaggerated and fabricated stories generated by a hostile Republican apparatus in Congress and the well-funded conservative press. These culminated in an impeachment so unpopular with the public that it cost Republicans five House seats and allowed the Democrats to break even in the Senate in the 1998 midterm elections.

Even if one casts aside this unusual and important variable in the Clinton allegations (which automatically puts him in a very different category than non-presidents like Bill Cosby), there is also the fact that experts estimate that 2 percent to 8 percent of rape claims are false. This means that while the overwhelming majority of rape claims are credible, a small fraction are flat-out lies, including high profile incidents like the Duke lacrosse team case and a woman who allegedly lied about being raped by an indie rock singer “to get attention.”

When this is pointed out, the goal is not to cast aspersions on all rape victims, but rather to observe that the right to be presumed innocent barring evidence of guilt needs to be maintained. Whether it’s in a literal legal proceeding or the court of public opinion, everyone deserves this protection.

For most of the conservative writers, the primary culprit for the double-standard between Cosby and Clinton was politics—namely, the liberal dissatisfaction with Cosby’s culturally conservative criticisms of the black community in his controversial “Pound Cake speech” in 2004. “Liberals have seized on the opportunity not to discuss rape itself,” Walsh mused, “but to prove that Cosby’s thoughts on race are illegitimate because some women accused him of it.”

While it’s true that comedian Hannibal Buress did in fact frame his criticism of Cosby’s rape allegations as a way of attacking that speech, the extensive discussion of rape culture among online feminists in recent years undermines the idea that the left only took interest in the Cosby case out of a collective spasm of ideological vindictiveness. What’s more, conservatives have been just as willing to turn a blind eye to the sketchy pasts of their own modern champions (see: Ronald Reagan’s racism), so there is more than a smack of hypocrisy in their tone of self-righteous indignation.

It’s understandable why liberals want to protect Clinton: Not only is he an incredibly popular former president, but the impressive economic growth cultivated during his presidency remains a cherished memory for Americans mired in the stagnation and recession that have marred the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.

More importantly, as Hillary Clinton continues to be the presumptive frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016—a status that makes it quite possible she’ll become America’s first female president—the impulse to protect the Clintons’ political brand—and, thus, this historic opportunity—is even more acute. Then again, if liberals allow their desire to achieve one milestone obscure the larger cause that milestone is meant to serve, we will have sacrificed the war in the name of an (admittedly very important) battle.

Our best hope remains that the truth ultimately prevails, whatever it may be.

3 Reasons I’m Not #ReadyForHillary Just Yet

Published: Daily Dot (November 20, 2014)

As a progressive millennial who actively volunteered for and supported Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, I am ready to make public an opinion I’ve only expressed in private until now:

In retrospect, I wish we’d nominated Hillary Clinton.

This statement isn’t intended as a slight against Obama (who I actually ranked pretty highly in the presidential pantheon just last week), and it must seem like a bizarre way to open an article about Clinton’s shortcomings as a potential presidential candidate. That said, even if one thinks she’d be a strong presidential candidate in 2016, the three main concerns that caused me to vote for Obama instead of her—namely, that she represents the political and economic establishment, supports hawkish foreign policies, and would risk creating a dynastic trend in the American presidency—are still relevant today.

Are we #ReadyForHillary, as those who advocate on her behalf suggest? Maybe, but there are three big reasons to exercise caution.

1) Her foreign policy views are too militarist.

This concept may seem strange to Tea Partiers, who want to think all liberals are exactly the same (i.e., socialists), but there are many factions within the liberal movement. One of them, the Third Way or DLC faction (short for the Democratic Leadership Council), is known for adhering to a centrist economic policy and hawkish ideology, at least in part due to its close alliance with big business interests.

Not only was Bill Clinton their first president, but he captured the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992 due largely to their backing (after three unsuccessful White House bids in a row, a candidate who accommodated Reagan era conservatism seemed necessary).

We can start with how this has impacted her foreign policy views. Back in 2008, her votes in the Senate for the Patriot Act and Iraq War Resolution condemned her in the eyes of foreign policy progressives. As a recent article in The Nation illustrated, this hawkishness didn’t change when she was Secretary of State. “Both before her appointment and during her service, she consistently came down on the hawkish side of debates inside the administration, from Afghanistan to Libya and Syria,” wrote Bob and Barbara Dreyfuss. “She’s also taken a more hawkish line than Obama on Ukraine and the confrontation with Russia.”

While the hollowness of the Republican claims about Benghazi may very well be a “scam,” as Joe Klein aptly put it in a Time magazine article last year, Clinton’s militarism on foreign policy issues is not.

2) She is too close to Wall Street.

As Elias Isquith of Salon correctly wrote earlier this week, being viewed as the frontrunner “locks its victims into the mold of representing the establishment,” which in its own right could work to Clinton’s disadvantage in 2016.

That said, the notion that Clinton is too cozy with party and business leaders has some merit. “The big bankers love Clinton, and by and large they badly want her to be president,” reported Willard D. Cohan of Politico, “Many of the rich and powerful in the financial industry—among them, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman, Tom Nides, a powerful vice chairman at Morgan Stanley, and the heads of JPMorganChase and Bank of America—consider Clinton a pragmatic problem-solver not prone to populist rhetoric.”

Unfortunately for Hillary, the political conditions which spawned the DLC takeover no longer exist. “It’s tough to be a ‘Third Way’ corporatist in today’s Democratic Party,” said Markos Moulistas, founder of the Daily Kos and among Clinton’s leading progressive critics. He further explained that “all the hedge-fund money in the world can’t change the fact that the party is in the midst of a dramatic reorientation toward a new progressive populism.”

Indeed, this progressive populism provided Obama with the edge he needed over Clinton in the 2008 primaries and, despite a flagging economy, helped him use Mitt Romney’s Wall Street background against him to win reelection in 2012. That’s why, when Sen. Bernie Sanders (a prospective 2016 candidate himself) was asked about her qualifications for the presidency in an interview with Salon, he inevitably replied that “based on the kind of centrist positions that we have seen her take in the past” there was concern “whether she will be a forceful advocate for working families.”

3) It would create an unprecedented dynasty.

All of this is exacerbated by the potential danger in creating a dynastic presidency. Back when I had to choose between Clinton and Obama in 2008 (a contest in which, it must be remembered, she was considered the heavy favorite), I remember thinking it would be bizarre for the litany of presidents to include a list that went “Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton.”

Eight years later, the prospect of having it read “Bush-Clinton-Bush-Obama-Clinton” seems only marginally better, especially since Jeb Bush is also said to be considering a run that year, meaning the 2016 election could very well be a match between the wife and son of the 1992 major party candidates (as well as end in “Bush-Clinton-Bush-Obama-Bush”).

Considering that, before the 21st century, there had only been two pairs of immediate family members to reach the presidency (father-son John Adams and John Q. Adams and grandfather-grandson William H. Harrison and Benjamin Harrison; Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt were fifth cousins), it would be unsettling to have two nuclear families control the White House for all but eight years out of thirty-six.

Making matters worse is the fact that the Bushes and Clintons have become very close recently, with George W. Bush referring to Bill Clinton as “my brother from another mother,” talking about how George H. W. Bush is a father figure to him, and waxing fondly about exchanging advice on becoming grandparents. While all of this may be endearing from a strictly human perspective, it does little to remove the pall of incestuousness from these proceedings.

Despite all of this, how can I say I wish Clinton had been nominated in 2008? Do I hope she gets nominated in 2016?

The answer to the first question is actually pretty easy: Obama was nominated at a time when the Iraq War electrified American politics, but after the stock market crash in September 2008, the focus quickly shifted back toward economics. Given her husband’s impressive economic stewardship in the 1990s, I’ve always believed that Hillary could have been elected over John McCain by an even larger margin than the one that carried Obama to victory (the rest would have been done by the unpopularity of the Republican brand during the last years of Bush’s presidency).

More importantly, I felt that the vast network of connections Clinton had established during her sixteen years as a top presidential adviser and United States Senator, would have enabled her to pass sweeping economic and social legislation to match the prodigious output of the last great Democratic leader on domestic issues, Lyndon Johnson (who, like Clinton, was also distrusted as a tool for moneyed interests before he actually became president).

While I still argue that Obama achieved quite a bit during this time, the Clinton family’s association with prosperity and political connections could have given her the tools to do even more. Had the economic crash occurred only six months earlier, Clinton may have very well gotten my vote.

Of course, the fact remains that we aren’t living in late 2008 anymore. On the one hand, Clinton has major advantages as the next election approaches, from her commanding lead in early polls and extensive experience to the powerful hashtag feminist base she can tap for grassroots support. That said, she has yet to dispel the same reservations that stopped me from supporting her in the last set primaries. Because I voted against her once and have since come to believe that was a mistake, I’m willing to keep an open mind. My sense is that I speak for other progressives when I say that—and, likewise, when I point out that she still needs to win me over.

 

Why no one noticed when a male TV host where the same suit every day for a year

Published: Daily Dot (November 19, 2014)

If you’ve been following the news over the past few days, you’ve probably heard about recent social experiment from Karl Stefanovic. After witnessing the constant nitpicking and harassment experienced by his female co-host, Lisa Wilkinson, the Australian TV personality decided to test how both the network and ordinary viewers would react if he wore the same suit every day (with a handful of necessary exceptions) for a full year.

There was no reaction.

The Internet is largely praising Stefanovic’s experiment—and rightly so. “It’s obviously no secret that there is a huge gender gap (in general but also) in how we respond to what celebrities wear,” wrote Isha Aran in Jezebel. “Women’s appearances are always subject to critique while men’s wardrobes are hardly judged in comparison.” Michael Lallo of the Sydney Morning Herald elaborated on this by reflecting on the genesis of Stefanovic’s idea. “Earlier this year, News Corp tabloid the Daily Telegraph dredged up old photographs of [Samantha] Armytage [Stefanovic’s friend and a fellow Australian TV personality] running errands in comfortable clothes.” They chose to publish them “because… well, the purpose of the story was never entirely clear.”

That said, several details about this story merit further attention. For one thing, it’s notable that we seem less likely to take a feminist complaint seriously unless it comes from a man. Much as it took a male comedian to convince the public to take the Bill Cosby rape allegations seriously, so too has the public not been nearly as stirred up when women in the entertainment industry have commented on this problem.

Mindy Kaling of The Mindy Project spoke with Lena Dunham earlier this year about how “more than half the questions I am asked are about the politics of the way I look.” Ellen Page echoed this in an interview with the Guardian. “It’s constant!” she said. “It’s how you’re treated, it’s how you’re looked at, how you’re expected to look in a photoshoot, it’s how you’re expected to shut up and not have an opinion.”

I spoke with Liskula Cohen, a social pundit, buyer at FrontRowEyewear, and former model about this double standard. “There is obvious sexism here [for women in media],” Cohen explained to me. “Women are supposed to look gorgeous, sexy yet attainable and not intimidating, their hair always perfectly coiffed, with a lot of makeup… and the men have to be clean shaven.” Yet even though Wilkinson has extensively discussed being harassed based on her looks, it wasn’t until a man stepped up to the plate that we started paying attention.

To be fair, it’s worth noting that he technically didn’t wear the same suit the entire time; by changing his tie every day, he did significantly alter his appearance. “That right there changes the outfit,” explained Tillie Adelson, a contributor at StyleList and creator of the blog My Stiletto Life. In an interview with the Daily Dot, Adelson pointed out that altering neckties and other prominent accessories on an outfit can significantly alter its appearance. Cohen agreed. “Many men have many suits that look exactly the same,” she said, “so the change makes it harder to prove his point.”

Of course, even this revelation doesn’t negate Stefanovic’s larger point. “It’s about the fact that the guy changed his [tie] and that’s why no one noticed,” Adelson observed. As Stefanovic put it in an interview with Fairfax Media, “No one has noticed; no one gives a shit. But women, they wear the wrong color and they get [criticized]. They say the wrong thing and there’s thousands of tweets written about them.” If a woman had chosen to stick with the same outfit for a full year and simply change one very noticeable item—say, a scarf or a necklace—it would have been the subject of enormous commentary. Not so, Stefanovic has made clear, when a man does so.

Finally, it must be understood that this story is occurring at a very important moment in the history of online feminism. With Gamergate mounting a reactionary challenge to women seeking equality and the reduction of cultural misogyny in the video game industry, a Men’s Rights Activist shooting up a college campus earlier this year, and Time magazine sparking controversy for listing “feminism” in their 2014 poll of words that ought to be banned, it’s clear that a real anti-feminist backlash exists. In light of this climate, bold and clever PR moves like Stefanovic’s provide a valuable public service by giving those who care about sexism a rallying point which they can use to better illustrate the validity of their arguments.

Years from now, the Stefanovic narrative will likely be remembered by social historians in the same way we remember a moment from American political history that drew attention to the same basic point. When Rep. Geraldine Ferraro (D-NY) became the first woman to appear as a vice presidential candidate on a major party ticket in 1984, she memorably delivered an ultimatum to the network producers that they could only hire a fashion analyst to comment on her wardrobe if he also deconstructed what Vice President George H. W. Bush was wearing (they didn’t).

Things haven’t changed as much as they need to since the days a New York Congresswoman was forced to convince TV producers that she should be treated like Walter Mondale’s hypothetical vice president instead of a pretty ornament to be scrutinized, and until they do, we will need voices like Ferraro’s and Stefanovic’s trying to call out these prejudices.

3 Things I Want You To Know Asperger’s Syndrome

Published: Good Men Project (November 19, 2014)

Matthew Rozsa shares his experience and perspective to help ‘neurotypicals’ understand high-functioning autism.

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More than a decade ago, when I was still a teenager and almost no one I knew had even heard of it, I was officially diagnosed with high-functioning autism. Over the years, as awareness has spread, I’ve periodically taken stabs at writing articles about what it’s like to experience life as a person with Asperger’s Syndrome (known as high-functioning autism ever since the “Asperger” term was excised from official medical terminology in 2012), including pieces that have been published in Mic, Salon, and The Daily Dot. Even months after I’ve published them, they usually net me an email or two every few weeks. The worst are just annoying, usually people trying to indoctrinate me with the anti-vaccination pseudoscience (which prompted me to write this article with social pundit Liskula Cohen) or attempting to diagnose themselves with autism (which only a qualified medical professional can actually do—even though it’s considered a medical condition). Quite a few are interesting and helpful, though, particularly those from NTs (short for neurotypicals, a tongue-in-cheek term for people who aren’t on the autistic spectrum) who want to better understand Asperger’s Syndrome and other autistics curious about how their experiences compare to my own.

I decided it would be interesting to synthesize some common themes found in my conversations with others on the autism spectrum and further explore them. Since I always maintain the confidentiality of readers who contact me, I felt the best way to do this would be to talk to important people in my life and contextualize their observations about my behavior with my own memories. These are the kinds of things people with Asperger’s are often inclined to not discuss with other people, in large part because responses run the gamut from epistemological dismissal of psychology to incredibly awkward effusions of sympathy. After taking into account the unavoidable subjectivity and fallibility of everyone’s memories—friends, family members, ex-girlfriends, professional colleagues, and especially myself—I distilled the following:

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1. Being on the spectrum completely defines our relationships with other human beings.

One email—from my mother, of course, given the notorious parental penchant for dislodging uncomfortable childhood memories for their offspring (in her defense, I’d broached the subject for this article)—focused on an anecdote that epitomized the frustration of autism. “When Ed Rendell was running for governor in 2002,” she recalled, “he came to an event in downtown Easton … You were introduced to a number of people in the campaign and began a conversation with a young man who was working the venue for the campaign. After a few minutes it became clear from his body language that he had to move on but you just kept talking.” Later, when she pointed out that I’d been annoying the man, I responded with exasperation about having to be reminded yet again that “everyone else knows these rules of etiquette and how to socialize in these situations and I don’t.”

Apparently it had never occurred to her that, although everyone makes these kinds of mistakes, it’s particularly scarring to have it pointed out when you have Asperger’s Syndrome, because you do so far more often—and thus hear about it all the time (more on that in a moment). I can remember being rejected, encountering hostility, and constantly miscommunicating with others for as long as I’ve been forming memories. While these things happen to everyone, the difference for people with high-functioning autism is that we aren’t simply missing occasional interpersonal cues or finding ourselves unaware of (or forgetting) certain unspoken social rules; we genuinely lack any intuitive understanding of nonverbal communication. This makes it extremely difficult for us to ascertain what emotions and messages others try to relate to us—or, for that matter, how other people think and feel about us in general whenever that information is conveyed through facial expressions, body language, or tone of voice. Although many are able to compensate by developing exceptionally strong verbal skills, the other ways human beings send information and connect with each other are never natural for us … and it shapes every aspect of how we interact with other people.

 2. We are constantly self-aware of what we know—and don’t know—during social interactions.

There are plenty of neurotypicals with social anxiety; anything from childhood trauma to a range of mental illnesses can cause it. No two cases of social anxiety are ever exactly alike, but for almost everyone with Asperger’s, a key component to our social anxiety is the sense of isolation and uncertainty that comes with knowing we lack many of the tools for socialization others take for granted and will expect us to have.

As my friend Rosalia observed, “sometimes you miss connections that other people see,” which can lead to serious misunderstandings that other people will interpret as insensitive, inappropriate, or even just abrasive and off-putting. One coping mechanism for dealing with this is to preemptively and directly address it from the beginning, which can come across as overly cautious. “My high school friend Jen H. made a similar point, noting in particular my tendency to “apologize a lot for things you shouldn’t be sorry for and worrying a lot about whether or not your actions or words among friends in casual social gatherings will be taken as offensive.” Another friend, Patrick, recalled that when I approached him about sharing a suite during our junior years as undergraduate at Bard College, “you prefaced your proposal by explaining what Asperger’s Syndrome was” so he could metabolize how I behaved. Alice, another friend from Bard College, echoed this in saying she was struck that I seemed diligent to be aware of having Asperger’s as a way of “ensuring other people felt comfortable with you.”

One trick we employ is to learn these social skills through study. Therapy definitely helps – particularly the tests you’re given that focus on recognizing facial expressions and sessions that focus on identifying patterns in common social gaffes—as does simple trial and error. Lessons that are initially implemented through constant internal reminders (maintaining eye contact, paying attention to specific facial muscles to gauge another party’s interest, recalling which specific subjects are considered taboo) can eventually become habitual. Over time, constructive criticism (or even the less benevolent kind) becomes not only palatable, but an eagerly sought translator for a foreign language in which you need to become, if not fluent, then at least proficient.

3. There are advantages.

One word that’s often used to describe high-functioning autistics—intense—is as much a positive as a negative. “I see a lot of knowledge in great detail in what you know,” Jonathan, a friend from high school, pointed out, “I don’t want to compare it to ADD, but there is a lot of learning from both ends.” When you have Asperger’s, it’s like being clinically guaranteed to fit Simon Pegg’s definition of geek:

Being a geek is all about being honest about what you enjoy and not being afraid to demonstrate that affection. It means never having to play it cool about how much you like something. It’s basically a license to proudly emote on a somewhat childish level rather than behave like a supposed adult. Being a geek is extremely liberating.

Needless to say, this gives you amazing opportunities to forge deeply meaningful relationships with others who share your passion. For all the memories that sting—having no one to talk to in elementary school because of my esoteric interests, getting fired from job after job in high school because customers complained that I was “odd,” the ex-girlfriend who broke up with me because she found my need for a structured daily routine and active work schedule “unnerving”—there have been plenty of special friendships and romantic relationships that were forged because of those exact same qualities.

There is also the convenient fact that we live in a “geek is chic” culture, one in which you can make a career out of extremely specialized areas of interest. In my case, a lifelong fascination with history and politics has landed me in a PhD program with side careers in local politics and as a freelance writer (hence why you’re reading this article now). Even if one doesn’t agree with the scholars who try to retroactively diagnose men like Thomas Jefferson and Bill Gates with Asperger’s Syndrome, the fact is that the intellectual passions that helped them succeed are assets in the information age, regardless of whether they stem from Asperger’s Syndrome or other cognitive soil.

If nothing else, Asperger’s gave me one extra advantage: Twelve years after the incident with the Rendell campaign, when I worked as a county organizer for Tom Wolf’s campaign for governor of Pennsylvania, my boss Julie observed that I “had an incredible awareness of your challenges and tried very hard to compensate for them.” Sometimes starting out a little farther behind teaches you how to work as hard as you need to get where you need to go.

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So where does this all lead? If you’re a neurotypical, the best way of dealing with a high-functioning autistic person is to verbalize as much as possible in a clear and straightforward manner. Imagine all the social interactions you perform every day through body language or facial expression and, when you want to communicate to someone with Asperger’s Syndrome in a way that would normally require interpreting those signals, find ways to articulate your thoughts and feelings instead. Also remember that what might seem arrogant, inconsiderate, or annoying may simply be social tics and not what they’re actually intending to say.

For other high-functioning autistics like me, the main struggle is to learn through study and practice what other people know instinctively. At the same time, we should be encouraged by the increasing attention being given to autism in popular culture through celebrities relating to the condition (whether diagnostically accurate or otherwise) and TV shows like Parenthood and Sherlock, as well as the obvious strides that have been made in how our education and health care systems assist those who have it. In a sense, it is the same basic lesson that applies to anybody who feels inescapably different from the rest of the world: Own the things that make you different instead of letting them own you.