Scrap the SAPs

I can’t read the news without getting angry these days, and no amount of unseasonably warm weather can make me ignore the dark clouds looming over Washington, D.C.

I haven’t looked at any statistics on this, but I would imagine that every therapist in the country has had a full schedule since Nov. 8. I think we need a new form of depression and/or anxiety for the DSM: Post-Trump Election Syndrome (PTES). Symptoms include irritability, mood swings, incontinence, upset stomach, shortness of breath, disillusionment, psychosis, trying to wake up while already awake, loss of appetite, loss of friends, and loss of human/civil/environmental/economic/political rights. It goes without saying that we are going to need a lot of over-priced pharmaceuticals.

I hope his supporters are happy that he’s doing all the bad things he promised (banning Muslims, restarting oil pipelines, and generally declaring himself an enemy to liberal democracy) but none of the good ones (promoting jobs, maintaining entitlement programs, ‘draining the swamp,’ etc.). Those of us who fought to keep him out of the White House are not surprised. But let’s all agree  at this  point that we do not have a change agent, business guru, or Robin Hood for president: We have, accept it or not, a self-important asshole with power. And, quite predictably, he’s filling his cabinet with his self-important asshole friends.

What’s more is that two of my dear friends have been systematically persecuted, dismissed from their jobs, and banned from travel by another self-important asshole with power, President Erdogan of Turkey (I call them SAPs for short). Their ‘crime’? Signing onto a peace declaration that I, and a lot of Americans I know, would have signed without hesitation. In fact, I signed a similar declaration in college during the Bush II administration and was dismissed from the school newspaper as a result — although the circumstances were very different.

So, yes, it can happen here. It should be obvious given Trump’s all-but-declared war on the press. Academics could be next. Give him time; he’s already alienated more groups in this country in less than a month than most presidents managed to do in four years. I should not have to list them, but I will: women, Muslims, Jews, Blacks, Latinos, the LGBTQ community, the press, teachers, liberals, far-leftists, civil libertarians, intellectuals, his own bureaucrats, and pretty much everyone else who is paying attention.

Don’t think he’s done yet. He won’t be done until we stop him.

Like Howard Beale said in the 1976 classic film Network: “I want you to get mad.” Even more importantly, I want you to put aside your petty differences with your friends, co-workers, and family members and unite against these assholes who think they can govern based on unadulterated self-interest and convince us that it’s for our benefit. To quote George Carlin: “They don’t give a fuck about you.” Thinking it won’t make it true. Hoping for it won’t make it true. The Great White Hope is a Great White Lie (and always has been).

My appeal for unity includes reluctant Trump supporters. We should work to convince the well meaning ones that they won’t benefit from Trump’s policies unless they are rich or SAPs like he is. We should also tell them that if they have no concern for the vulnerable members of society that are currently within Trump’s crosshairs, they are forgetting what this country stands for: liberty, justice, equality — not Muslim bans, “alternative facts,” or Twitter wars against celebrities.

Surely the country of Washington and Lincoln can do better.

 

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Thanks for Nothing

When I was growing up, I loved Thanksgiving. A lot of the best video games would come out around this time, and I would spend the entire holiday weekend glued to my virtual world — when I wasn’t gorging on Thanksgiving dinner and its leftovers. The only worry I had was that I would have to go back to school once Monday rolled around.

As an adult, I don’t play video games, and I try not to gorge as much. My association with Thanksgiving now has nothing to do with food or recreation. Now I am consumed with apprehension over seeing family members I do not often see and wondering where the conversation will turn (or, more likely, what will be avoided). This year the elephant in the room will undoubtedly be the Spectacle-Elect, as I prefer to call him due to the media’s obsession with everything he says and does.

It is no secret that I am the educated, progressive bastion in the family. I am also likely the most politically active in the sense that I don’t just talk and vote but canvas, write, and (at times) organize. This makes it harder to adhere to the prohibition “no politics.” I equate it to telling a clergyman upon his arrival at dinner that there will be no discussion of God or religion. No person of conviction can be muzzled for the sake of “keeping the peace.” And it’s not just about conviction — but entertainment.

Yet, I am not enthusiastic about discussing the dismal state of national affairs. I would just like to discuss something of interest and substance — and this is impossible when people are afraid to open up. Nothing creates uniformity like insular family culture that no one member controls or even fully understands. I loathe uniformity. My favorite family gatherings were the ones where people got so drunk and wild that I became the voice of restraint.

So when I read these pleasant little entries online about ‘how to talk to your racist uncle at Thanksgiving’ that include advice about compassion and patience I wonder why anyone would bother to spend a holiday with his or her family in the first place. If I can’t look my uncle in the eye, call him a stupid redneck, and throw a turkey leg in his face, it just isn’t worth it. I’d rather spend my holiday cursing at the football game alone. I don’t know why we stress at work 40+ hours per week just so that we can stress even more on our days off by continuing to succumb to abstract notions of duty and tradition that stymie the individual. Why keep your mouth shut all week only to do the same thing on the weekend? I, for one, like to blow off steam in my free time.

Reflections on 30

I have never heard of anyone declaring a resolution on his or her birthday, but I have decided that January 1 is not soon enough for one.

Now that I am 30 (although technically I already was, and there is no significance to this number other than that which society gives it) I am declaring my allegiance to authenticity and shunning conformity.

This means that I will no longer worry about what others, who do not have my best interests at heart, think of me or say of me. I will wait for them to say it to my face, if they are so bold. I am also not going to care about what others do unless it concerns me, or it is my responsibility to care — as in the case of a child or sickly elder. In short, I am freeing myself from the burden of social control.

The forces of social control also demand evidence of accomplishment from which I must also unburden myself. Where is my job? Where are my investments? Where is my girlfriend? Where are my children? These are not only generally agreed-upon indicators (or, perhaps, conditions) of success but also are generally agreed-upon indicators of happiness.

Yet, the truth is otherwise. When I had these things (except the children and investments), I was no happier than I am now. And society’s notion of success, for all the shiny, grandiose images it brings to mind, is meaningless without happiness. Tolstoy had more success as a writer than I can imagine, and he spent years ready to slit his wrists.

For a long time I thought my grapple with success was a tension between accepting mediocrity, given that I come from humble roots, and embracing sacrifice inherent in rising above one’s station in life. I have recently revised this: the real tension is between being what you are and what society thinks you should be.

I choose to be who I am on this day, which is a day like any other in the grand scheme of things. I choose to be brash at times, stubborn at times, shallow at times, deeper than an ancient well at other times. I choose to be compassionate, honest, sensitive, and, above all, self-reflective. If this leads to money, women, etc., then so be it. If it doesn’t, well, the words of Steven Biko from the movie Cry Freedom come to mind:

“I’m going to be as I am, and you can beat me or jail me or even kill me, but I’m not going to be what you want me to be.”

Given that my current situation is not as dire, I will substitute the ‘beat me’ with ostracize me, the ‘jail me’ with neglect or ignore me, and the ‘kill me’ with not have sex with me. The last one at times actually feels like a fate worse than death.

You may laugh, but this is not a joke for a lot of straight men. I used to think my raging desire for the opposite sex was natural, but then I remembered that from day one I was socialized into female obsession — even before I realized I was attracted to women. It was assumed that I was straight and that because I was healthy and handsome I would not only seek out and be sought after by women but also that there would be satisfaction in this game. The last assumption, I just discovered, was actually more damaging than the former. It is impossible to find satisfaction in another without finding it first in yourself (and I don’t mean learning how to masturbate).

I was taught to chase after things in life and let them chase me without the necessary education as to what was out there and whether it was even worth chasing. Moreover, I, like just about everyone else, was not given enough space for self-discovery free of the endless and empty echoing of someone else’s dream.

We say we live in a free society, but this is far from the truth. John Stuart Mill recognized this early — that even liberal democracies control the spectrum of human thought, emotion, and behavior despite their lofty ideals and rejection of traditional forms of tyranny. I do not need a boot on my neck to be forced to comply; I only need to be told that I am an “uneducated radical” for basing a scholarship proposal on the works of Noam Chomsky instead of drinking the proverbial Kool-Aid of an ‘acceptable’ scholar.

I do not need to be forced into a marriage to be oppressed like so many young women worldwide. It is enough to be forced into the role of a ‘man’ rather than be free to live the reality of a man — or, more accurately, of a person who is referred to as a ‘man’ based on physical characteristics. This role compels me to be things that I am not for the sole purpose of receiving things I am told I am supposed to want: sex, a wife, a family, a career, a house, etc. It reminds me so much of a television commercial, where the only thing authentic is your desire to look away and lock eyes with someone who loves and accepts you for who you are and is not trying to distract you from the truth of how vital it is to find that which does not come with any packaging.

I worry that we will reject the sun, the stars, and the moon for an artificial version of all three.

So I say on this day: let me remain incomplete and without the many comforts in so-called ‘life.’ Let me continue to suffer from all the pains and losses that even those who possess those many comforts still endure. But let me do so without shame, narcissism, or the illusion that things can be better if I just had _____ . Let me struggle and suffer through life with eyes wide open, a clear head, and a full heart.

Ignorance Strengthens ISIS

Dear family and friends:

Muslims and Islam are not the enemy of the West.

I wish this statement was without controversy, but with the rising tide of Islamophobia (i.e. irrational fear of Muslims) in the United States and elsewhere, it is clear that it is not. There are many out there who cling tightly to the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ propaganda or otherwise insist that there is a notable difference between Islam and other religions, Muslims and the rest of us, and so on. I deplore you to reject this falsehood in the spirit of the holidays and think beyond your immediate family to the human family, which includes more than a billion Muslims who are not going anywhere. In fact, the United States and its allies should allow more to come and seek refuge from the violence their policies helped create, which would in turn provide ISIS with fewer potential recruits.

This is not just my opinion. It is shared by a French journalist named Nicolas Henin, who spent almost a year in ISIS captivity in Syria, as well as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The best response to inhumanity is humanity. Shutting the door on Muslim refugees will only strengthen the so-called Islamic state itself, which needs more soldiers, clerics, and believers — if it is to be successful. There is no reason to fear a threat to Western values and civilization if those values are no longer deemed valuable and that civilization is no longer civilized.

For all the warranted condemnation of ISIS coming from the West, I am eager for the day when Westerners take a long, hard look at themselves and question why ignorance, fanaticism, and violence are wrong when the actors are Muslim but acceptable when they are Christian or Jewish or irreligious. Vile rhetoric that incites hatred and fear of all Muslims is no better than blanket condemnations of Western culture and values. As an insightful question posed by a college student in the recent Republican debate implied, it is dubious how a Donald Trump administration would set itself apart from ISIS or any like-minded extremists by seeking to murder noncombatant ISIS family members.

Remarks made at this debate make it seem as if the United States is at war with an entire civilization and that mass civilian deaths are inevitable. If I were not so concerned about NSA surveillance, I would carefully research the statements of ISIS leaders and likely find a similar sentiment. This is certainly how the Western media and policymakers portray ISIS. The important point is that there is little honest commentary on what makes us better than those we seek to destroy with our highly advanced weapons and even less on fighting terrorism without violence, which is not only possible but increasingly necessary. One idea is to fund, promote, and participate in exchange programs between Muslims and non-Muslims. Soliya is one shinning example.

While the war between ISIS and the West grabs the headlines, there is a different war buried in the middle of the broadsheet. Battle lines have been drawn in the United States, France, and elsewhere between those who hold fast to democracy, pluralism, and human rights while accepting that perfect security is impossible and that practicing self-control is far safer than attempting to control others — and those who lack mirrors and do not reflect on whether their actions match their values.

In short, all of us need a (metaphorical) mirror in our Christmas stocking.

Peace and love,

Matthew

 

 

 

Three Lessons in Statecraft I Learned in Cuba

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Despite the beautiful plants, animals, and people, there is something quite unnatural about Cuba. Imagine a country without billboard advertisements, television commercials, Starbucks, and McDonalds — no more golden arches of obesity — and if I want to buy something nonalcoholic to drink, my choice isn’t between a Coca Cola/Pepsi product or water, which is quite often bottled by the aforementioned companies and sold as a commodity.  Very strange indeed.

As soon as I entered Cuban airspace, I was delivered from the tyranny of the bottom line. (North) Americans tend lose their respect for life as their respect for capital grows.  Cubans are in a different boat (called the “Granma”), fighting through the storm, which came in the form of political, economic, and even military pressure from the United States ever since the island dared to chart an independent course more than a half century ago. With this year’s breakthrough diplomatic move that saw the Cuban flag raised at its embassy in Washington, D.C. for the first time since the Kennedy administration, the storm has seemingly subsided.

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Viva la revolucion!

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The modern Cuban “revolution,” which is invoked in just about every public speech or event as if it omnipresent, is not led by bearded guerillas with long rifles and fat cigars, but by doctors, professors, and civic leaders — some of whom I had the pleasure to meet (and argue with) prior to the rapprochement.  Their central message goes something like this: this revolution will not be commodified; it will not be bought to you by Xerox and/or the greedy Yankees.  It will not be co-opted by people unworthy.  It is the spirit of a nation, once viewed and treated as the footstool of the giant that is the United States, that would go on to become its greatest ideological adversary.  Despite overwhelming odds, Cuba has endured. It survived the Bay of Pigs invasion, several acts of Miami-based terrorism, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a still-existing economic blockade. Its values, while derided in the capitalist world, have stood the test of time.

Yet, Cuba is far from an anti-capitalist utopia. While attending a graduation ceremony for the Latin American School of Medicine, which trains doctors from all over the world to help the neediest members of their home countries, I met a Cuban actress who criticized the flagrant propagandizing throughout the island. Yes, there are few advertisements, but I am sick of seeing quotes from Fidel, Che, and José Marti telling me how to think, she said. I had also noticed that Che was presented as a Jesus-like figure throughout Havana — I did not have the opportunity to explore much beyond the capital — and Marti, the legendary poet, philosopher, and martyr of the Cuban war of independence against Spain, was the equivalent of Socrates.

The most annoying thing about Cuba for me, however, was the lengthy, nationalistic speeches that all seemed to hark back to Fidel’s famous 1953 “History Will Absolve Me” speech, which took five hours to deliver. I also had to wake up every morning in the (not forced) labor camp to the sound of Fidel reading Che’s 1965 farewell letter and Guantanamera. I learned to accept that hero worship, incessant anti-Yankee diatribes, and exultations of Cuban nationalism were par for the Cuban course — a national religion almost. This extended to the glorification of the tiny but noble Cuban military for its sacrifices in Africa in the fight against fascist regimes backed by (who else?) the United States.

I happened to be in Cuba on July 26, a significant day in Cuban lore.  I use the word “lore” instead of “history” because it was a foiled assault that did nothing to destabilize the Batista regime.  At best, it was a setback that set the grounds for later success.  It also gave a name to Fidel’s fledgling band of revolutionaries: “The 26 of July Movement.” A big rally, work-stoppage, and celebration mark the date each year in Cuba.  Perched in front of a barely functional television set, I saw highlights from President Raul Castro’s keynote and noticed that every one of the thousands of spectators had a miniature Cuban flag.  I want to re-emphasize that they were there in commemoration of a failed assault that left hundreds tortured, imprisoned, and dead.

Speaking of tortured and imprisoned, I had the bad luck of being one of only two people in my delegation to question the ethics and legitimacy of the so-called “Committees for Defense of the Revolution,” one of which we visited in Havana. The cold response I received was slightly terrifying as was the effusive welcome we received from said committee. Soon thereafter, I read that these committees were a Stalinist means of sniffing out potential counter-revolutionaries within Cuba. The assumption was that the Yankees were sponsoring said counter-revolutionaries all over the country. I do not recall an attempt to distinguish U.S.-sponsored subversion from genuine political opposition. They were treated as one in the same.

I could go on, but my intention is not to be critical of Cuba and repeat the tired rhetoric of the U.S. press and the Cuban émigré community. I am also not attempting to celebrate Cuba for its socialist ideals or advances in the way that many of my leftist friends do — sometimes one-sidedly. What I took away from my short time on the island — other than a newfound love for old Russian cars — is not that it was heaven or hell but that it was, somewhat disappointingly, of this earth. I will sum up my sobering revelations as follows:

1) At the backbone of every state (including a socialist state) is coercive power;

2) Power, in the context of statecraft, is exercised almost exclusively by men and usually by tyrannical men, despite high ideals and revolutionary rhetoric; and                                                                                                                                                3) The majority of people accept this status quo as standard, natural, or inevitable

Whether you agree with its particular goals or ideology, a state is a state is a state. Every honest traveler should beware.

A Long overdue Tribute to Sandra Bland

Sandy

You were too young
Too black to survive
In a white man’s jail cell
You should still be alive

Protesting in the streets
Fist raised high in the air
Affirming black beauty
In every strand of your hair

I hate those who hurt you
Or those who just don’t see
The cost of racist violence
You mean so much to me

May your power live on
Let the world see your worth
And your sisters be as safe and free
As a white girl is from birth

 

Why We Should (All) Struggle to Make Black Lives Matter

As a social justice activist and conflict resolution scholar-practitioner, I have always been particularly concerned with what motivates people to enter the theater of protest and civil resistance. It is a far more complicated question than what motivates people to start a career or a family because even the largest social movements are made up of a relative few, and the connection between activism and survival (or prosperity) are not always so clear, especially if one comes from a position of privilege.

Leaving aside the handful of saints whose selfless sacrifice for the downtrodden has inspired millions and whose motivations I will not attempt to elucidate or defame, I think that for many, especially those whose immediate interests are not necessarily served by the campaign they have chosen to join, the core motivation for activism is guilt. This is the feeling I get whenever I hear the term “white allies” in the struggle against racism or the term “male allies” in the struggle against gender oppression. However, this is not to say that all people who actively support a cause that does not immediately further their own interests are motivated by guilt alone or by guilt at all; I will return to this later. This is also not to say that being motivated by guilt is a negative thing. Guilt is a powerful social emotion that curbs sociopathic or otherwise reckless behavior. If guilt inspired white South Africans to vote for Nelson Mandela or the white clergy to support Martin Luther King, Jr. this is certainly better than if they had stayed blissfully apathetic or disdainfully opposed to black liberation.

While there is a selfish motivation behind any response to guilt, since what one ultimately wants is to relieve that sense of guilt, if the same activists are struggling solely to further their own interests, I believe the motivation is the same as that of the Wall Street banker who quietly hired lobbyists to counter the Occupy Movement: power. It does not matter whether the activists are black or white, male or female, privileged or marginalized. Yet power is not always built up as a means to bring others down.

This brings me to #BlackLivesMatter, which has the elements of a cultural movement, inspiring street artists and professional athletes alike. The backlash against it is a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of its true goals. It is interpreted by its critics as a myopic struggle for the empowerment of blacks at the expense of others when it is really claiming, uncontroversially to anyone who believes in basic human rights, that black lives (should) matter along with white lives, brown lives, or any other lives. Judith Butler states it more eloquently: “One reason the chant ‘Black Lives Matter’ is so important is that it states the obvious but the obvious has not yet been historically realized.” “All Lives Matter,” by contrast, lacks any real focus, historical or otherwise. Moreover, if the critics of #BlackLivesMatter could set aside the hashtag — along with the cynical and deceptive appeal to black-on-black crime as the real culprit — most of them would likely agree that an accountable police force is in the best interests of everyone.

Because this will likely take years to achieve on any massive scale, in the meantime, I am calling on those whose lives already “matter” to police and the society writ large to join the struggle out of solidarity. Support The Truth Telling Project in St. Louis and other efforts to seek truth and justice and unite black and white around common goals. Solidarity is not born of guilt or greed and can only increase the dividends for all participants in the struggle, should they be victorious, and is the proper role of the privileged in relation to the oppressed or victimized in a progressive movement. The privileged individual must understand that there is a system at work that manipulates the oppressed and the oppressor alike and that the liberation of one is irrevocably tied to the liberation of the other. As a white person, I cannot consider myself fully human until black lives truly matter.

Obamacare: No Cure for ‘Young Invincibles’

For starters, I am using the terms ‘Obamacare’ and ‘young invincibles’ only so that the average reader can immediately understand the subject matter. Both represent political speech rather than plain, honest speech, and I am a proponent of the latter and a critic of the former. It is the widespread mimicking of political speech, particularly Republican talking points, that has led many well meaning liberals to support the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate (since it’s all referred to under the term ‘Obamacare’), which was originally a Republican contribution to this mess of bureaucracy and corporate giveaways we refer to as the American health care system.

The mandate, in particular, is an egregious violation of consumer rights. Until health insurance is regarded as a human right in this country (which it clearly is not or everyone would be insured like in most of the developed world), it is in effect a product or service. In a typical capitalist economy, a consumer has the right to decide which products and services are useful to him or her and which are not. The consumer is generally not forced by fear of a tax penalty to buy a substandard product or service — this would be strange in any type of economy — but an exception is made in favor of one of the most substandard services of all.

I am not being hyperbolic: I spent some time looking through the fine print, and I discovered that the cheapest plan available to me as a 28-year-old professional who is ineligible for medicaid or a government subsidy is a ‘catastrophic’ plan that costs about $1,300 per year in premiums and an additional $6,600 deductible (I hate these somewhat Orwellian health care terms that try to make excessive and complicated types of payment sound less taxing) before it covers anything at all. In simple terms, this means that in exchange for CareFirst paying one cent in coverage, I have to pay nearly $8,000. This may not sound like much to someone who frequents hospitals, but I have not spent that much on health care in ten years — why doesn’t this qualify me for a subsidy? The only way any of the lower-end plans will provide any benefit at all is if I fall victim to an unlikely, expensive illness or injury, and the higher-end plans provide more than I need as a ‘young invincible’ and at a cost I have no incentive to pay.

It’s fair to say that this so-called service amounts to little more than a sense of security. Why drop $1,300 minimum for a sense of security in a First World nation that would actually save money by simply insuring everyone, thereby providing a real incentive for people like me, along with others who want or need access to health care but can’t afford it, to go for regular medical appointments, take the drugs they need, and preclude the kind of catastrophic payouts that the ‘young invincibles’ health care plans I mentioned are allegedly designed to provide?

Black and White

They shot Brown,
After a li’l fight,
Brought him down,
The cop was white.

They choked out Eric G,
Said he resisted arrest,
In this land of the unfree,
As any man can attest.

Tamir Rice was just a child,
With a harmless toy gun,
But a white cop went wild
And killed him just for fun.

Crawford was shot in a store,
In the back while on his cell,
Now he’ll never shop no more,
Those police can go to hell.

And why did Akai have to die?
At the bottom of a staircase
His girlfriend held him and cried
For this unjust nation of disgrace.

In Defense of Muslims AND Liberalism

It is no secret that despite the softening of rhetoric against Muslim terrorists since Sept. 11, 2001, the so-called West and the so-called Muslim world remain locked in an eternal battle over non-negotiable values that represent the foundation of both so-called civilizations — at least this is what many are led to believe.

I am not one of them.

While I cannot claim to be an expert on Islam or Muslims, I can claim to have more exposure to both than the average Westerner who holds to the aforementioned paradigm. Those who know me well know that I was raised Christian in a middle-class household in the suburbs of Maryland. I was in high school (chemistry class to be exact) when the planes hit the Twin Towers. At that time I had no clue who Osama bin Laden was, no political context in which to place the attacks, and no understanding of the tenets of Islam. Subsequently, I believed that Muslims were misguided and generally more dangerous than Jews and Christians, and I have mostly my former church and the news media to thank for these misconceptions.

This started to change one day when I made the mistake of presenting flawed arguments against Islam to some older and wiser high school friends who ended the debate by presenting me with the Complete Idiot’s Guide to World Religions, a gesture I took as an insult initially but nonetheless went on to read the chapter on Islam and keep the book on my shelf to this day as a reminder. This was the first step of my re-education, and I am grateful for it.

I am not grateful because there is a “right” way to view Islam and its adherents but because in almost all cases having an informed opinion is more beneficial than having a preliminary or prejudicial one in both the practical and psychological sense. If I maintained the opinion I had in early 2003 (I still regret I was not part of the initial wave of anti-war protests that were the largest in human history), I would never have organized beside American Muslims in opposition to the war against Iraq and the Israeli occupation of Palestine, which were my coming-of-age struggles as a peace and social justice activist; I would have missed out on dating no fewer than three beautiful and intelligent Muslim women, none of whom conformed to any kind of sophomoric stereotype; and I certainly would not have spent nearly ten months in predominately Muslim countries, including eight months as a student in Turkey, where I received not only a Master’s degree but also the warmest hospitality imaginable. Most importantly, many friends I hold dear today would not be friends but strangers — or worse.

“But that’s your life,” you might say. It is indeed my life and my path, and I don’t suggest that it should be the path of anyone else. However, think of how many Muslims like those who so ruthlessly murdered journalists in France never challenged their own prejudices and stereotypes of Westerners. Think of those in the United States who still think President Obama is an Arab, or a Muslim, or a socialist, or all three (not to mention the implication that these are negative identifiers). It is not just about the lives that are lost due to these falsehoods and misconceptions, it is also about the millions of missed opportunities for dialogue, friendship, and cultural exchange — opportunities that if I had not had the privilege to enjoy, I would have become a far different person as a result.

Based on my experience, Muslims are no more violent or intolerant than the average American. To speak of poll data showing otherwise is to ignore well known flaws in such data, which depend heavily on how the questions are framed and when they are asked, and to forget how hopelessly ignorant Americans appear if an outsider based his or her view on polling. This is my rebuttal to Bill Maher’s oft-repeated case against Islam.

On the subject of double standards, while there is no Christian equivalent of the Islamic State (IS), even though it is far more of a political organization than a religious one, and there have not been any highly publicized cases of murder committed against non-Christians for mocking Jesus (for example), instances of Islamic terrorism continue to be confined to and defined by a partial and politicized narrative. In the case of the IS, it is assumed by Westerners that IS aggression is the result of religious fanaticism whereas Western aggression in response is rational and more humane. It is as if Muslim militants are beyond reason and compassion and Western armies are beyond extremist ideology or the promotion of it to further a political agenda. I submit to you that the reality is far more complicated — just as it is far too simplistic to ascribe Muslim attacks on Western satirists to a disdain for free speech and liberal values.

On the subject of Charlie Hebdo, I continue to be baffled by the refusal of the opponents of political correctness to accept the legitimate double standard that the downtrodden should be spared from public ridicule while the powerful should be freely eviscerated. This is partly how progressive change occurs. To attack the powerless is to side with the forces of reaction — which should never be conflated with bolstering free speech and other liberal values given that even the most retrograde societies mobilize all media at their disposal to keep marginalized communities in their place. Charlie Hebdo is no bastion of liberalism and enlightenment for alienating the Muslim minority in France for the last 15 years. This is not to say that anyone at that magazine should have been murdered or harmed in any way, however, and it is beyond repugnant that they were.

If you take nothing away from this plea for critical thinking and rapprochement, remember that the same values invoked to accuse Muslims of despotism and intolerance without qualification lead me to argue otherwise. My detractors may say that I am one of the politically correct who continue to repress the hard truth about Muslims and Islam, but I say to them that they lack commitment to the very liberalism they claim to so courageously defend by offending those they do not fully understand. A truly enlightened Westerner would spend some time talking, eating, studying, working, and, yes, canoodling with Muslims before forming an opinion on the whole 1.6 billion of them.