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Fred Mills: Why Greta Thunberg Is Also MY Person of the Year

Fred Mills is the editor of Blurt. He may or may not be named Time’s Person of the Year some day.

On December 11, Time magazine named young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg the publication’s 2019 Person of the Year. One cannot overstate the significance of the 16-year-old’s award, as over the past year and a half, Thunberg has become the proverbial “face of the youth climate movement,” inspiring sit-ins, protests, and marches among teens and young adults across the globe who, like her, refuse to put their blind trust in the adults of the world any longer.

You can find a huge trove of online coverage and videos of Thunberg, so I won’t worry about pushing out a bunch of easily-found links here, other than to share a clip from her iconic “How Dare You” speech at the United Nations this year in which she laid the blame/responsibility at the feet of word leaders and explicitly told them that they were guilty of stealing young people’s dreams and childhoods. It’s an incredibly powerful, riveting moment, and one cannot help but be caught up in the visceral, almost feral, emotion Thunberg is projecting.

Cue up the Time honor, and then, naturally, cue up President Trump’s jealous schoolyard response on Twitter, which we all knew would be coming since Trump himself was on the magazine’s shortlist this year. (Although that duly noted, a fun parlor game might be to guess whether Time would have categorized his award along the lines of how they characterized, say, Obama and Martin Luther King, Jr., or more like they did with Putin and the Ayatollah Khomeini. My money would have been on the latter “Fraternity of Dictators ’n’ Despots.” Recall that the award is simply “Person” of the year, as in “most impactful,” and not “Greatest Person.”)

So apparently in honor of Melania’s “Be Best” initiative, Trump decides to engage in some good old-fashioned cyberbullying of a teenager. He summarily tweets, “So ridiculous. Greta must work on her Anger Management problem, then go to a good old fashioned movie with a friend! Chill Greta, Chill!” What does the dutiful little 16-year old do? Yep – she claps back and changes her Twitter bio thusly: “A teenager working on her anger management problem. Currently chilling and watching a good old fashioned movie with a friend.”

I would call that one epic fucking burn. (I could die happy today if she would also recreate that UN address by interpolating Trump tweets and rhetoric with a call to arms.)

***

Greta Thunberg is MY person of the year for a lot of reasons, among them the fact that I believe it’s time to turn a lot of the heavy lifting over to the kids – the fact that I have chronic back trouble means that my heavy lifting days are done anyway – because she’s right: We ARE failing them, just like the generation that was in charge when I was her age back in the early ‘70s was failing ME and MY peers, leaving us no choice but to express our frustration via activism and, for many, grow that activism towards meaningful change.

See, I was 15, almost Greta’s age, in the spring of 1970 when the Vietnam War was fully raging, and when the Kent State Massacre occurred in which members of the Ohio National Guard descended upon Kent State University in response to a campus protest over the bombing of Cambodia, one of many Vietnam-related protests that took place that year on campuses across the US.  When the dust cleared, four students had been shot dead by the Guardsmen and nine others were wounded. For some reason, this hit home for me; I wasn’t even in college yet, but I found myself identifying with the horror and the fear those students must have experienced. The subsequent alienation from the mainstream world I would experience was profound.

That horror and fear gradually gave way to anger, and then to action. I was living in a small Southern textile mill town, far away from Kent State (or, for that matter, pretty much any college campus), so the odds of a spontaneous protest march materializing over on nearby Main Street were pretty much nil. There were some fellow hippies like me and would-be activists in my hometown, but at that point in time you could literally count us all on two hands – something the local rednecks apparently relished doing when they decided to go on their weekend evening harassment cruises of the local teen hangout spots. (Ask me sometime about getting grabbed and held down and then having my hair chopped up by a couple of those rednecks, guys I had actually gone to elementary and middle school school with, was in the Cub Scouts and on the Little League team together, etc.)

But while something on the order of a march or takeover of my high school campus wasn’t in the cards, a protest was still doable, even if on a relatively small scale. A few of my friends and I put our heads together and decided to fashion some black armbands, as we had heard that these and other types of protest armbands (such as one adorned with a white peace dove) in the wake of Kent State were suddenly a “thing.” I was already predisposed to telegraphing my stance on various cultural issues of the day, so I was definitely ready to rumble. (Ask me sometime about when I got called up to the principal’s office, where they wanted to know about the marijuana leaf patch that I’d gotten my girlfriend to sew on my jean jacket for me. “It’s not marijuana, it’s a pin oak,” was my indignant response, and as I was one of the officers in my high school’s Friends Of The Earth ecology club, they decided to let the matter slide.)

We wore our black armbands prominently and proudly the next day at school, prompting a fair share of funny looks and bemused queries from our classmates, some of whom belonged to the aforementioned redneck strata and therefore were not exactly chomping at the bit to join our cause, so to speak. But it did lead to a number of really informed conversations among some of us, because cultural change was in the air – there’s a reason why Jefferson Airplane’s Volunteers album was a constant presence on tons of car cassette and 8-track players back then – and because, in 1970, the Vietnam War wasn’t goin’ nowhere… it seemed to be everywhere in one form or another. The fact that the military draft was still in effect and breathing down the neck of some of my older friends ensured just that.

My peer group, in fact, largely comprised older kids; you could say I was a bit of an “early adopter,” culturally speaking, at least compared to the teenagers in my same grade, and I was eager to sample as much of the culture as I could grab and hold on to, from literature and film, to music both contemporary and older, to esoteric philosophies and chemical enhancers of those philosophies. I still remember the names of several of the older guys who tolerated my relative inexperience and were willing to mentor me and turn me on to that literature, film, music, philosophies, and enhancers I was so hungry for. Guys like Warren Webb, Jimmy Smith, Steve Martin, Jim Wheeler, John Register, Jim and Bill Cameron, Rick Robinson, even Cotton Tollison, the acknowledged loose cannon of our group but who, time after time, would patiently pull me aside in order to shove into my hands a record by some artist I’d never heard of, secure in his assumption that I would immediately hear what he could hear in the record’s grooves.

In our group, my best friend at the time was actually a guy a couple of years younger than me named Fred Covington – yeah, we were sometimes referred to as “the two Freds” – and we both sensed we were privy to a unique education that a lot of the kids in our town were not getting. Compared to most of our classmates, in fact, we were almost living a parallel existence. I know we had frequent conversations about Nixon and Vietnam, no doubt fantasizing about what we would be doing if we were already in college and actually able to become activists. Well, we decided, we’ll just work with the cards already dealt us, and figure out how we can still express ourselves in small, doable ways even if we are stuck in this little town full of rednecks and cotton mills. (Ask me sometime about returning to high school in the Fall of ’72, not long after news broke of the Watergate break-in. That semester I would go up to anybody I could and start yapping about the burglary, about how Nixon and his reelection campaign were somehow involved, blah blah blah – and most of those folks I went up to just dismissed the whole notion out of hand, that this could never happen in the American government. I doubt anyone directed the term “fake news” at me, but I got the distinct impression that my so-called “activism” didn’t particularly impress them.)

***

So I see parts of my younger self – the outrage tempered by idealism, the bloody-minded go-for-broke attitude in which you don’t care about pissing off the adults,  even a semi-naive sense that my very youth will keep me invulnerable – in Greta. I’ll never be able to turn back the clock and recapture my youth; both the misspent and well-spent parts of it are gone forever. But from afar, I sure can recapture my sense of hope and change through her and her peers – and of course through my son, still a teenager as I write this, and also very much one of my heroes.

So I would say to her, Greta, thank you for making me feel young again, if only for a moment, and I am sorry that we are failing you. You have my respect and my support. But promise me one thing: Please don’t fail YOUR children when they arrive on the stage.

Someone somewhere, in a generation far, far away, once proposed that “it takes a village to raise a child.” Nice bumper sticker and T-shirt slogan, but No K Boomer. Sometimes, instead, a takes a child to show a village the way it really needs to be done.

Fred Mills: Misogyny Mea Culpa in a Trumpian New Order

This is one man’s brain on offensive stereotypes, patriarchal entitlement, and reflexive ignorance. Time to make amends, and a pledge. Any questions?

By Fred Mills

Ed. note: The graphic I selected, above, is not intended to be humorous or ironic, so please don’t regard it that way. It was a bit difficult to arrive at an illustration that I felt was appropriate to the dialogue that follows, so I hope it will at least be viewed as relevant. If you agree, pass it along.

 No excuses: I fucked up supremely a week and a half ago, and I deeply regret it. I made an off-hand “joke” on Twitter that relied on a misogynist trope. The comment I made – since deleted; I announced I had done so in the interest of transparency – equated women with prizes to be won by men instead of full human beings in their own right. I know better. At least I thought I did. What I said was deeply offensive in any context, and for that I want to apologize to every woman, not simply to those I know (who rightfully asked WTF I was I thinking). I also want to apologize to men for perpetrating this stereotype amongst ourselves, because we have clearly reached a point where trying to pass off comments like that as “just” guy talk or locker room talk is not only ignorant, it is offensive in and of itself. And I want to apologize to LGBTQ and non-binary people because I see you and you matter; my joke erased your humanity too.

There’s no way to rationalize it or excuse my way out of it. I can see now, as some have pointed out, that my initial apologies were made from a place of defensiveness and woefully inadequate. (There’s an earlier post of mine, from the other weekend on the BLURT Facebook page, where you can read those comments and the subsequent responses.) I’m going to own my mistake.

This lengthy post is my attempt at a proper, more complete apology and my promise to be (and to do) better moving forward. I’m not here to make the conversation about me. But since women don’t have the option of avoiding misogyny, I can’t either. Especially when I’m guilty of perpetrating it.

That’s the truly frightening thing: how blithely I made the original Twitter post and in the process invoked a sexist idea and used misogynist term — in short: I didn’t even think about it. It was so reflexive, such a common shorthand, the fact that it is offensive didn’t even occur to me. And in that moment I confirmed my membership in this giant sprawling frathouse. Guys, think about how often you “don’t even think about it.” It might prove scary to you as well.

With that single, decidedly unfunny joke, I placed myself in league with a pervasive mindset I have previously claimed to hate, and I did so at a moment in time (post-November 8th) when sexists have been given a renewed license to roam and offend, and when women are marginalized and rightly enraged at this inequity of power. I didn’t think before I tweeted. But since then, I’ve discussed this with a lot of people, and it’s given me an opportunity to think and to get some genuine insight into how others – on both sides of the equation – think, and what goes into that thinking.

There have been some tough realizations, not the least of which involves confronting the fact that I didn’t know better. It never occurred to me that I might be part of this systemic patriarchy problem. I’ve always considered myself an egalitarian, one of the good guys who could be depended upon to know and to do the right thing – “doing the right thing,” even if swims against the tide I’m in, is how I was raised and how I’m trying to raise my own son. But in this instance I instead became “one of the good ol’ boys”.

I realize that talk is cheap, and apologies are just words, meaningless unless backed up by action. My challenge is not just to pledge to never let something like this happen again and to set a good example — for my son, my male peers, the readers, and more. It’s also to teach myself to recognize this toxic patriarchal mindset when I see it; to actively challenge it and call folks out on it rather than just coast along and accept it as “the way things are”; and to provide my unconditional support for everyone who find themselves being… I’m not quite sure what word I’m reaching for here… hurt, offended, repressed, patronized, abused, maybe? Those all work, somewhat, but I need to find a term more holistic and all-encompassing. My inability to express it properly here tells me that there’s a lot of growing up that’s gotta happen first. It’s the duty of those of us who are privileged to remove our own blinders.

I’ve spent a lot of time this week listening to the criticism I received for my poorly chosen words, and as I said, talking to friends about what lessons I can learn, and contemplating how to do better, and I want to share two observations in particular that struck a nerve.

The other day, after a lengthy exchange with a friend about all this, I was in my car while listening to a weekend repeat of “Fresh Air” on NPR. Terry Gross’ guest this episode was female lexicographer Kory Stamper and she was talking about the immense power of words, both positive and negative. What timing. This hit home, and hard. I’m a writer, I’m supposed to know that. I thought I did know that. But my actions had just proven otherwise. That’s a personal standard that I let fall by the wayside. In the future I will keep reminding myself of the importance of choosing my words carefully, and appropriately for the context — not to mention knowing when not to say anything in the first place.

Secondly, this past week I have also reflected a great deal on the recent Women’s March and the feelings of pride and inspiration the resistance it launched has evoked in me. The Women’s March stirred up the same passions that I felt decades ago as a young man attending Vietnam War protests. I was empowered and righteous fighting for change, fighting to make my voice heard, fighting to stand up for what’s right. I’m still committed to standing up for what’s right and I want to be the change, as they say.

There is a new intersectional resistance movement taking place in our culture right now, led by women, POC, and those less privileged than me. They insist on being heard and they are righteous. Once again, I’m reminded of what it felt like, during the Vietnam era, to be part of a resistance movement. Moving forward, I want to do my part amplify their voices rather than echo the sexist tropes of times past. I’m going to think before I speak. Sometimes I’m just going to listen instead of speaking.

I am on the side of equality and progress, but the devil is in the details. It’s one thing to believe these things; it’s altogether another thing to execute them in my daily interactions, to monitor what I say and do and not perpetuate or feed the mindset discussed above.

I might not always get it right, but systemic change starts with individual change – that’s a notion that my parents also instilled in me that I intend to pass on to the next generation. I intend to pull my weight, do my part to make things improve, and not just sit on the sidelines silently cheering the resistance on (another trap that, having blinders on, is very easy to fall into). To any of the men who read this, I’m sharing all the foregoing not simply to apologize, but to encourage you to do the same – I invite them to join me.

Fred Mills is the editor of BLURT magazine and Blurtonline.com.

James McMurtry: Wasteland Bait & Tackle “The Power of the Front Man”

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“Some people don’t get metaphor at all”: The acclaimed Texas rocker/songwriter/raconteur on the innate power of words, and what it means when someone like Donald Trump knows how to twist them to suit his own ends. 

BY JAMES MCMURTRY

Whatever the front man says or does gives license to those in the crowd. A certain band used to play at the Continental Club in Austin, where my band and I regularly play when we’re home. When they played, a woman danced naked, or very nearly naked, behind a screen on which a light threw her shadow to the full view of the audience. Some of the staff that worked those shows are still working at the club. They tell me that during those shows some of the men in the audience became unusually and uncomfortably aggressive toward the women in the audience. I thought that was terrible.

Years later, while touring through Utah, someone gave me a small sticker that read “I love Mormon pussy.” It actually employed the symbol for a heart, rather than the word “love.” I thought it was funny as hell. I put the sticker on my ESP Telecaster. My label thought it was funny as hell, and put a picture of it on my website. After we got home, we resumed our regular residency at the Continental Club. Some of the staff soon reported that some of the men in the audience were becoming unusually and uncomfortably aggressive toward the women in the audience at my shows. I took the sticker off the guitar and had the label take the picture off the website and that shit quit happening. I didn’t feel so morally superior to that certain band after that.

When Donald Trump said he’d like to punch someone in the mouth, he knew there was a good chance someone would get sucker punched at one of his rallies, and someone did. Donald said it was ok, so someone believed him and made it happen. When Trump said some of the Second Amendment people could do something about Hillary, he increased the odds of Clinton getting shot at and he knew it full well. He’s a front man and he knows the power of the front man. For Trump to deny that he’s inciting violence is beyond full of shit.

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But let’s just say, for the sake of devil’s advocacy, that Trump actually was speaking metaphorically, as his spinners say he was. Even if he was speaking metaphorically when calling for the assassination of his rival, he was still criminally negligent because he said those words from the podium. He said those words as a front man, speaking to his millions of followers, many of whom, statistically speaking, are unlikely to understand or even care that their Messiah was speaking metaphorically. Some people don’t get metaphor at all, so anything one says from the podium to an audience of millions must be taken at face value. Trump has crossed the line into unabashed thuggery and is dragging our electoral process down to the level of Augusto Pinochet, Idi Amin, and Joseph Stalin. He should share a room with them somewhere, metaphorically speaking of course.

James McMurtry blogs for Blurt with his “Wasteland Bait & Tackle” column. Find him on the web at JamesMcurtry.com.