Sunday, September 11, 2016

Fear and Free-Speech: A 9/11 Reflection

"I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear.I will permit it to pass over me and through me.And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain." - Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear, Dune
“Fear is the path to the dark side...fear leads to anger…anger leads to hate…hate leads to suffering.” - YodaThe Phantom Menace
"Fear not." - God's message to humankind, as recorded over and over in the Bible

The the phone woke me up on September 11, 2001. I had worked a closing shift at Freebirds the night before and groggily picked up the phone beside my bed. On the other end of the line, I heard my dad's voice and did my best to sound as awake as possible.

"Happy birthday Pop!" I said, doing my best to not mumble.

"It's not very happy," he said. "Turn on the tv, buddy." I switched the set on in time to see the second plane hit. 

I don't remember if we exchanged any more words, but I do remember walking down my hallway to stand in front of our icon corner, weeping. My prayer was, "please don't let us respond in hate."

I'm gathering with my family today to celebrate my dad's 60th birthday. He died just a month ago, after battling cancer for about eight months. His co-workers at American Airlines put on a wonderful memorial service for him. Through the recollections of the people that he worked with in his role as a union steward for TWU Local 513, we learned about how my father had worked to represent his co-workers over the last 20+ years though his meticulous organization, thorough writing, and personal connections. I'm just six years younger now than my dad was in 2001. I'm trying not to let that scare me. 

The world has changed dramatically in the last 15 years, not only objectively for all of us, but subjectively for each of us. We've seen stories of courage and patriotism that inspire. We've seen examples of fear and hate that shake one's faith in humanity. If the object of terrorism is to change our way of life, I'm sorry to say that I think it's been successful. So far. Don't agree? When was the last time you waved at a plane as it pulled away from the gate with someone you loved on board?

To distill a lesson on how we reverse this course from thinkers such as Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Salman Rushdie: we need to stop feeding the terror through our participation. The erosion of our civil liberties thanks to the PATRIOT Act has, I think, coincided with an erosion of social civility. The social and political conversation has become more strident and polarized in the last fifteen years. This kind of binary thinking was effectively articulated by Bush43 addressing Congress on September 20, 2001 when he said "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." This logical fallacy, known as a false dilemma, precludes the multitudinal positions that might be taken and-if accepted uncritically-removes the agency involved in choosing a position. Interestingly enough, Hillary Clinton used almost the exact same phrase a week earlier. 

I reject the notion that there is a single way to appreciate the freedoms afforded to us as Americans, and I think we do a disservice to those who have laid down their lives for those freedoms to suggest that only those who agree with us deserve to have them. I believe that the principled exercise of dissent in the service of making the promise of American freedoms more true and justly distributed is a true exercise of patriotism. 

A lot of political hay has been made over the last week about Colin Kaepernick's national anthem protest and those that he has inspired. While I may not choose to express my dissent in the same way, I fully support those that choose to do so. 

Justice Louis Brandeis articulated this is a particularly seminal way in his concurring decision in Whitney v. California (1927):
"Those who won our independence by revolution were not cowards. They did not fear political change. They did not exalt order at the cost of liberty. To courageous, self-reliant men, with confidence in the power of free and fearless reasoning applied through the processes of popular government, no danger flowing from speech can be deemed clear and present, unless the incidence of the evil apprehended is so imminent that it may befall before there is opportunity for full discussion. If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence."

The Seattle Seahawks had hinted at some kind of collective action during their game today. The Root published a story today suggesting that the collective action does not appear to be particularly progressive (and perhaps will be regressive). This comment seems particularly on-point:
"[I]f social protest has to be scheduled based on what makes people comfortable, those aren’t really rights, they’re more like frequent flier miles."

I'm hopeful that, whatever exercise of speech we see today, it will be a reminder that there is not a single narrative about what it means to be an American, and those of us that are interested in seeing justice for all Americans should understand that the best way forward will be one in which all of those perspectives are included in making decisions about and building the future. And, as my dad demonstrated in bridging gaps in his work, this will take effort, organization, depth, and personal connections. 

Monday, July 25, 2016

Considering the Language of Privilege

Anna Kegler's (@annakegler) HuffPost piece "The Sugarcoated Language of White Fragility" ( has produced good dialogue among my friends this week. I was particularly happy to see it because her discussion of how the language of social-justice movements lose efficacy over time was a perfect counter-point to another conversation I'd been having in which a self-described "conservative who is sort of on the BLM side" told me I was making a "tactical error" in using language such as "white privilege" because that causes conservatives to tune-out who might otherwise be allies against injustice. 

My incredulous response was to assert that it is a reification of white privilege to insist that the conversation be had in terms that wouldn't offend. Kegler's piece, had I been able to share it in that moment, would have provided me better language to explain that "white privilege" is already sugarcoated. Like Aslan peeling Eustace's dragon skin in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, I think that addressing our complicity in racial injustice is an issue that requires more force of will than most of us can muster on our own. 

Kegler describes the linguistic gymnastics that white america performs to distance, deflect, and dismiss our responsibility for racial injustice. She makes the point that her article is not proposing new language, but instead seeks to address underlying causes. Like Kegler, I think that the issue is deeper than the language we use to talk about privilege, and a true solution needs to address underlying white fragility. I think that language can be one avenue to call attention to and galvanize peoples' will against injustice. 

A familiar refrain in discussions of white privilege is the counter-example: in this-or-that situation, I do not enjoy privilege; or, such-and-such is white and also poor and disenfranchised. To me, what these counter-examples lay bare is the fact that privilege, like identity, is intersectional, and requires a language that is flexible enough to account for power-shifts between and among facets of identity. 

Unlike Kegler, I do want to propose language. The term I'd like to propose is "prerogative from power." The term "white privilege," as proposed by Peggy McIntosh describes a set of "unearned assets" that a white person could more-or-less count on having at her/his disposal. Recent discussions of racial injustice with white friends has reinforced for me that using privilege to point out injustice is a prerogative; a white person may choose to actively take advantage of their power to ignore injustice, be tacitly complicit with that power to ignore injustice, or use their privilege to actively work against injustice. The point is that they have that choice-or prerogative-as an asset, where a person of color cannot escape the additional stress and complexity of racial injustice. What I think works particularly well about "prerogative from power" is that the same idea and term can be applied to privilege related to religion, class, ethnicity, gender, ability, etc., as well as the intersections of these identities. I also think "prerogative from power" addresses Kegler's criticism that "white privilege" is too soft. Moreover, I think "prerogative from power" provides a way to call attention to choices that people make (or don't) based on their privilege.  

What are your thoughts on the term "prerogative from power?" Does it capture the meaning of "white privilege" for you? Where does it fall short?

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Things I learned from running an ultramarathon (in which I admit my hubris)

On Saturday, I ran 50 miles in the woods at Millican Reserve; first a 10K loop followed by three 25K loops. This was the inaugural ultramarathon put on by the folks at the BCS Marathon Series benefitting Mercy Project. The almost-thirteen hours I spent running, and the time I’ve spent hobbling around since, have given me the opportunity to reflect on several lessons this experience has taught me.

1.      Give yourself time/training is good
2.      Trail races are very different from street races
3.      Running is a team sport
4.      Dill pickles taste great

1. Give yourself time/training is good – I had been sort-of contemplating registering for this race since its announcement several months ago. Several personal reasons had kept me from registering until about two weeks ago at the weekly Brazos Valley Whisker Club social, a friend announced that he would be running the 25k race with mutual friend of ours. I immediately opened up my phone browser and registered for the 50 mile. Why not?

It did not occur to me in that moment that these friends had gratis registration since their employer,   New Republic Brewing Company, is a race sponsor. Time is your friend when race registration costs get higher the closer you get to race day. My consolation is that the race proceeds fund a charity that I care about deeply.

Registering for a long race two weeks ahead of time also does not give you much time to train. I have good friends that have trained relentlessly for ultramarathons and given the race and themselves that each deserve. I feel like a dilettante because I had two double-digit runs between my December marathon and this race. I’m truly lucky to have finished, and without (permanent) injury.

 2. Trail races are very different from road races – I have previously run the BCS Marathon Series Night Time Trail run twice, and the Honored Hero run, which had some off-pavement portions. Neither were true technical trails and could not have prepared me for the terrain and how this would affect my pace. The Night Time trail run was on a wide, fairly flat, path that (while dusty) was like running on a cushion. Similarly, the trail portion of the Honored Hero Run is on a flat gravel path along the Trinity River. 

   A true technical trail has significant elevation changes, sometimes in very short distance (at one point in this race we pulled ourselves up a steep creek bank on a knotted rope) and many trip hazards. Technical trail races are especially unkind to minimalist runners since you’ll feel every twig, stump, and rock in the path. This can be an advantage to those behind you.
My rationalization when signing up for the race was that the 15-hour course limit was plenty sufficient for me to take it easy on the course. I estimated that my typical long-distance pace is between 10-12 minutes per mile, which meant I might expect a 10ish hour race. My normal walking pace is 18 minutes per mile, and I figured that even if I walked the course I could finish 50 miles in 15 hours. These estimates were based on my experience running on road races, however. Trail running means significantly slowing down your pace for obstacles and taking more time at aid stations.

While I made it through about half the race in fairly good shape, my lack of training started to show by the end of our second 25k loop. My hip flexors threatened to give out with every up- or down-hill step and my left foot felt so swollen that it might burst the seams of my Vibram Fivefingers. This might have been the case even in a road race, but my feeling is that the terrain played a large part in how beat up I felt. On the bright side, the scenery was gorgeous!

3. Running is a team sport – I usually run alone. As I’ve described before, I began running because my spouse was running, then I kept it up because of the charities being supported, and in order to be healthy enough to keep up with my kids. As I’ve continued to run, I have found that it is my contemplative time—the time I get alone with my thoughts. I often use the time to say my daily prayers. As a personal meditative exercise, running is a solitary activity for me.

As an athlete, though, I am a team player. I find motivation in encouraging others. This is especially true in long races, where my encouraging someone else is also keeping me going (however annoying I may be—apologies N. & E.!). I was fortunate to find someone to train with and have shared contemplative time with for my marathon this year, but did not plan for this kind of companionship for the ultramarathon (see #2 above). Fortunately, a friend was running the ultra, too, and had come to the race with similar naïveté. He was better trained than I was, however, and I encouraged him to go on ahead in our final 25K loop and not be dragged down by my slowing pace. That final lap, in which the sun finally set and I was making my way through pitch dark and finding the trip hazards that were hard to see even in the sunlight, I was finally mentally beat.

As I made it through the stretch of woods just before the final aid station, I was playing through my options mentally. I rationalized that 46 miles was still something to be proud of, and that I shouldn’t expect to be able to finish without proper training and preparation. I emerged from the woods to find the race director and one of his staff at the table. They had sent the volunteers home; I was the last runner through. They took my water bottle from me, asked if I needed any food, and said I could rest—but only for a couple of minutes. Chris, the race director, asked me what my motivation was. In the moment, I couldn’t think of anything except to just finish. He then reminded me of something he had said at the previous BCS trail run (and which we had discussed briefly since then): that we are very fortunate to have the freedom and means to pay money to run. Chris reminded me that I wasn’t running just for myself, and he also reminded me why running is a team—really a family—sport. You need perspective, and sometimes that perspective has to be loving but firm.

Chris told me there were just 3.5 miles left, and that if I pushed myself I could catch up with the rest of the group. I don’t know where it came from, but I did run most of the rest of the way, passing a couple of guys who were part of the 50 States Marathon Club (and who were headed to Lafayette, LA the next day for a marathon) and finishing about 15 minutes behind my friend.

4. Dill pickles taste great – Besides the encouragement of others, the other thing that truly sustained me on the race was the food. I typically cannot eat before running; I get bad indigestion. However, in order to keep up this kind of activity, you have to keep fueling yourself. The first aid station we came up to had things you might expect: water, electrolytes, pretzels, cookies. But what I was immediately drawn to was the pickles. Tiny kosher dill pickles must have been exactly the salt source I needed. I picked up some M&Ms, too, but it was the pickles that I really wanted (I even drank pickle juice later when the pickles were all gone). Other sources of food included peanut butter & jelly sandwiches (to which I added potato chips) and quesadillas. The beer proffered by New Republic as we finished each lap was heartening, too!

Against what seems to be incredible odds, I was able to finish this race with nothing worse than some chafing and serious stiffness the following couple of days. I went out for a 3 mile recovery run (in the rain) yesterday. I commented to a friend that I couldn’t bear the thought of rolling my muscles as I knew I should, but I wanted to go for a run. That is a kind of sickness, I guess.
Another friend sent an email to congratulate me and see how I feel. I’m still not sure how to answer. It feels kind of like finishing another marathon. Not much has changed, except that my legs have carried me 50 miles in about half a day. And I survived.

Part of my desire to run this race in the first place is that I’m planning to apply to the Unogwaja Challenge for 2016, which includes the 56-mile Comrades Ultramarathon. Since I’d never run anything close to that distance, I wanted to test myself to see what is possible. My friend John, who started the Unogwaja Foundation as an homage to the indomitable power of the human spirit, did a nice job with that teachable moment. He said, “if the heart is in the right place it won’t matter what surface or how long.”


Thursday, October 23, 2014


Today's news item describing PETA's request that Texas A&M stop using live elephants for the annual Elephant Walk tradition reminded me of details of a pet project I've been mulling for a number of years: A zoo at Texas A&M University.

In my notes, I have dubbed this dream project "The Texas A&M University Wildlife Habitat and Center for Conservation Science," but I should note that I have neither sought nor received any official buy-in.

This is a very rough sketch, and I'm mostly posting it now for posterity, and on the off-chance that an angel investor might read this and decide to bankroll the project. If that happens, I'd at least like to get a season pass.

The broad strokes:
  • We are a land-rich campus and have the opportunity to pick up farmland in the area to make natural habitats.
  •  Augment Elephant Walk tradition by having a (secondary?) mascot elephant(s)…these wouldn’t be carted in for a performance, but would be friends with whom we would develop a relationship
    • *Bonus: "Ol' Sarge" the elephant helps build the first on-campus bonfire after we are allowed to have them again.
  •  Opportunity for cheap labor by utilizing undergrad and grad students in related majors for labor.
    • Bonus: Enhances the Vet School’s offerings by allowing specialization in zoo exotics.
  •  Attract top notch scientists to work on an interdisciplinary endeavor.
  •  Adds value to the community…provides a source of revenue as a family/tourist attraction.

The potential shareholders (again, these are my thoughts, and this should not be taken to represent buy-in from any entity named below):

  • TAMU Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences – Conservation Biology and Biodiversity (CBB)
  • TAMU Bioenvironmental Science
  • TAMU College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Science
  • Dr. Mark Holtzapple, TAMU Chemical Engineering – Biomass Fuel
  • Whoever is working on solar power
  • Whoever has the land
  • Whoever is working on cleaning up river water
  • Cities of Bryan & College Station
  • American Zoological Association
  • International Zoo Educators Association
  • Stephanie Boyles (Wildlife Biologist at PETA when I first dreamt this up)

I've noticed that there is roughly 700 acres of land along the Brazos River where TX-60 crosses it heading southwest out of town. The Cameron Park Zoo in Waco (the closest zoo to Bryan/College Station at about 100 miles) is similarly situated on a river. It seems to work well for them!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Injustice Anywhere

I am still trying to process and respond to the news that Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, was shot multiple times and killed Saturday in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, MO. 

I was in St. Louis at the time and didn't hear about the issue until I saw militarized police responding to unrest on the news while traveling home on Sunday. Truly, there are two Americas. 

Watching and reading the news of response to this latest atrocity, especially the rioting in Missouri, I was reminded of Frantz Fanon's assertion that violent subjugation leads to violent freedom. I'm not content to leave the issue here though, because to do so seems to remove other options for agency, especially nonviolent response such as was advocated by Dr. Martin Lither King, Jr. 

The essence of waging nonviolence, or satyagraha as Ghandi called it, depends on a moral consciousness that can be shocked into action. I am not convinced that the fourth estate is robust enough or its American audience sensitive and attentive enough to be moved. I hope I'm wrong, but even Dr. King recognized the limits of his tactics:

"And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I'm absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard."

Excerpted from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's speech "The Other America" delivered at Grosse Point High School March 14, 1968. Read the entire speech at

Merely condemning riots or condemning systematic violence against black and brown bodies is not enough. Are we willing to be personally invested (and then stand to be personally divested of comfort and freedom) in the hardship we don't yet face ourselves?

Monday, August 04, 2014

Some of us are still here

Some of us are still here
Sitting, no longer expectantly,
Behind grey windows and brown walls
Whose vacant stare we’ve adopted
As defense against the loss of hope

We sit, whiling the hours till it is time to leave for work
Or not.
Work that pays just enough to pay rent, and food, and transportation
To get to work and back
Or not.

Sometimes, when we forget ourselves,
We hate you, just a little bit, for making it out
We are jealous of your successes large and small
But only when we forget ourselves
When we return to sense
Your success is our pride

We love you because you made it out

We don’t want anything from you
Except that you remember,
In the midst of that money, and power,
And bright life
That some of us are still here.

March 2009

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Orthodox Localism

The following advice is transcripted from Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick's The Transfiguration of Place: An Orthodox Christian Vision of Localism (Part 1  & Part 2).

In this two-part talk, Fr. Andrew describes how consumer-oriented society is at odds with traditional Christian faith. Orthodox localism, then, is a kind of corrective, an ascetic practice which though prayer and stewardship can sanctify a place. (See Fr. Andrew's series "The Transfiguration of Place," as well as his discussion of "thin places").

In the second part I this talk, Fr. Andrew provides some concrete suggestions for Orthodox Localism:

1. Buy local, especially food
2. Attend the (canonical Orthodox) church closest to you
3. Don't worry about having to "maintain" friendships 
4. Walk around your neighborhood and town
5. Take pictures of your town
6. Try to do all of your shopping and banking within two miles of your house
7. Move out of the suburbs or make your suburban area more of an urban center
8. Try to make new buildings reminiscent of the historical architecture in the area
9. Put a front porch on your house
10. Learn how to garden
11. Think up a name for your house
12. Give up the idea that privacy is an inherent good
13. Learn the history of your town
14. Get involved in local politics
15. Figure out ways to involve your parish in the immediate neighborhood and town
16. Give to local charities and help local people in need
17. Have your parish start a non-profit small business

If you are interested in discussing ideas like localism (not necessarily Orthodox) and the related economic concept of Distributism, check out the "Party of the Shires" group on Facebook. 

Curators of the Particular

This was originally posted to the "The Best Thing This Year" (TBTTY) list, but I wanted to share it more broadly, too. There's a nice write-up on the TBTTY project at Mother Jones ( and you can sign up for the list at

Since being introduced to TBTTY by Dan Shapiro (through the Robot Turtles Kickstarter), I've wondered what I might use this virtual soapbox to talk about. 

I thought about using it to promote the work done by my friend Brad Blauser, who provides pediatric wheelchairs for children in poor an war-torn regions. Brad was a finalist for the 2009 CNN Heroes program, and has provided wheelchairs for children in Iraq, Haiti*, and South America (

I've also thought about using TBTTY to promote Mercy Project (, a program started by my friend Chris Field to help rescue children from slavery in Ghana and help address the underlying economic problems that contribute to a culture of child slavery. Chris is a runner and started a marathon in my hometown to benefit Mercy Project. This proved pivotal I. My life because--while I am not naturally a runner--running for a cause has helped me learn discipline and improve my health. Chris is currently in the running (pun intended) to be featured on the cover of Runner's World and share the work of Mercy Project with the 3 million readers of the magazine (if you'd like to help, vote at

Instead of focusing on either friend (see what I did there?), I decided to talk about something they've both helped me to realize: true success and making a difference in the world depends on figuring out my unique set of interests and abilities, and focusing my time, energy, and resources in that space. 

This advice comports with what I've heard from successful entrepreneurs so all stripes. Find what you love and pursue it. 

The way I think about it is that we're each curators of the particular. We all have an overlapping set of interests and abilities that lend themselves
To a niche product. The trick is to become an expert in that niche and learn how to talk about it intelligibly to the rest of the world. And, it helps to remember that you don't have to catch everyone's interest. Roughly paraphrasing Derek Sivers, even if you only capture 1% of the population, that's still a huge number of people (

My own intersecting set of interests and abilities seems to deal with art, food, and education at human-scale. That is, supporting local artists, farmers and restauranteurs, and figuring out how best to engage learners' curiosity to ignite a life-long love of learning. 

I'm not in the same league as the friends I mentioned, but I'm still working on curating my cause. If be interested I hearing about your cause. Hit me up on Twitter @jkotinek. 

* My original post to TBTTY incorrectly listed Cuba instead of Haiti.