What You Deserve

KeepOutThere is a moment when your brain pauses, almost imperceptibly, to come up with a rationalization. At that moment, you are balanced on a knife edge. On the one hand, there is something you know for certain. On the other, you don’t yet have a reason for knowing it. In that moment, the rational choice is uncertainty: to question whether what you know is actually true.

We are not rational.

In that moment, our brains do something else entirely: invent. They fill in the gaps with whatever is to hand. They paper over the holes with something thin and ill-considered. They make the hole invisible, and then they forget about it. This is rationalization: a veneer of rationale to hide the irrational.

But the hole is still there, hiding, and our brains move on to do something else unwise: they stake out a perimeter around the rationalization and defend it at all costs. They get angry when challenged. They refuse to consider the question directly. They throw up defenses and attacks.

This, of late, seems to be the whole scope of American public discourse.

There is a group of people who has decided that people like them (mostly white, mostly born in the United States, mostly churlish and unwilling to share) are deserving, while other people are not so deserving. They know this to be true. There is no reason, beyond tribalism and fear. There is no rationale.

Yet, they have no trouble coming up with rationalizations. They claim we need to secure our borders, and that this is an absolute charge. In framing it as such, they believe human rights are irrelevant for people unlike them: securing the border comes first. The fact that this means a class of people is singled out and denied basic rights seems incidental, but in reality that is the starting premise: they do not deserve those rights.

Or perhaps they claim crossing “their” border, being in “their” country, without “their” permission, means the people unlike them have committed a crime. Therefore, those people forfeit their human rights. But you cannot forfeit human rights: that is the entire point of such rights. And again, a group of people is singled out to be denied, and that seems incidental. It isn’t.

And I say “their” border, country, permission—because they are happy to single out anyone who challenges them as undeserving. Perhaps you have protested their haughty abuse of others; now you, too, are not deserving. Perhaps you voted against their petty and foolish leaders: now you are not deserving. Perhaps you told their most vicious and vitriolic liars that those lies were harm more than speech: now you do not deserve to speak.

The premise is always the same: they are deserving, you are not. They are American, you are treasonous. They are citizens, you are illegals. They are “real” America, and you are elitist cultural poison. Any act that preserves their power and reduces yours is reasonable; any act that restores balance or benefits the disenfranchised is a waste at best and unconstitutional whenever possible.

They are deserving, you are not. This is a lie, and it is a lie fundamentally at war with the American ideal. Yet, it is also a lie so old and deep that even the people who wrote the American ideal did so with that lie in their hearts. They thought they were writing that ideal for themselves, for the rich, white, landholding men. They didn’t know it would be extended to everyone. They didn’t want it extended to everyone.

They still do not, and still want the ideal for themselves and not for you. Free speech? For them, not you. Freedom of the press? For them, not you. Freedom of religion? For theirs, not yours. Freedom to live and work a pursue happiness? For them, not you. Never for you.

How do you combat such a deep premise, such a pernicious double-standard? For many of us, the double-standard is obvious and the justice of balancing it is clear. Yet, for the people who believe they are deserving and you are not, the premise is so deeply entrenched, so well-defended, that they barely know it is there—even, and especially, when they see it face-to-face.

When they see a child in a cage, an immigrant seeking a better life, a poor person in need of a job, a sick person in need of care, a meek person, a peacemaker: always they say “you are not deserving.” They claim a rationale, but all they have is rationalization.

This is America today: at war between egalitarianism and tribalism. And one side thinks everyone deserves the same rights, and the other side, under all its lies, thinks simply that they deserve rights, and you deserve nothing.

 

Image Credit: Russ Allison Loar

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(g)uncontrolled

emptyclassroomOh, the constitution, that immutable and unchangeable avatar of rights and righteousness. These rights shall not be infringed. These rights shall not be qualified or contained. These rights must remain immutable, and the alternative is unthinkable. Yet is not the death of school children equally unthinkable? Not, it seems, equally.

There are people who think tighter, more sensible gun control is one of many solutions to the death of children. At least 60% of America, as it happens. If you ask about specific policies, such as stricter background checks, even more of us agree: to possess weapons are a right, but it should be a well-regulated right, not a free-for-all.

Agreement does not lead to action. Agreement creates a great body of followers, willing to go along with a thing, but unlikely to champion it. By and large, Americans want more control over guns. The problem is not with the public unwillingness to agree, but with the champions.

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Interference

30280731562_5431c0e3a0_k.jpgRussia may have assumed its most central role in our discourse since the cold war, but the narratives now are not about well-matched adversaries—instead, they are about outrage. Superficially, the ongoing investigation into Trump’s campaign collusion or incompetence (so far, we don’t know which) is a juicy confirmation of what the more liberal media would still like to believe: morally bankrupt leadership can’t happen here without some dastardly plot. America is uniquely immune to systemic failure. And for the conservative media, the Russia investigation is a double-edged sword: a convenient out if Trump starts getting in the way of their priorities, but also an uncomfortable reminder of how much principal their party gave away to win.

During the cold war, the narratives were political but not partisan. Standing against Russia was a clash of titans, a dangerous but noble game played with an equally powerful opponent. Inside the cold war, the greatest threat was treason—but treason meant allegiance on the other side of the ocean, not the other side of the aisle.

Under the left/right rhetoric, there is a deep resentment of Putin’s Russia. The media paints him as a master manipulator, something he surely enjoys. Congress talks about him as a dangerous opponent, though he has given no confirmation of it. The media waits breathlessly for the proof of interference in our election, proof that may never come. Yet, we resent Russia as deeply as if it already had.

Our resentment of Russia now, I think, is tied to how we fought Russia before. During the cold war, America was free to topple governments and manipulate foreign affairs without self-reflection. We had an enemy and a righteous cause, and though our enemies were not so evil as we would have liked and our cause was not so justifiable when looked at closely, the rush of patriotism prevented us from discovering that.

After the cold war, America declared itself the victor by virtue, though in reality it was a war of attrition in which our resources were more decisive than our policies. The cold war was less a moral referendum on capitalism versus communism than it was a proof that the richer system has a longer lifespan. Yet, America has gone right on intervening internationally, declaring itself the world’s micro-managing police (secret and otherwise). When we play that role internationally, we bring all the same deep prejudice we bring to it domestically, and a deep ignorance of other cultures besides.

Absent the moral drive of a single enemy, the American public has lost some patience with the tangled discord we sow abroad. But only some. We take a little too long to realize that the people we are arming hate our heavy-handed haughtiness as much as the dictators we want them to fight. We take a little too long to realize our cardboard cutouts of other nations conceal interminable diversity, though it should be obvious if we think of anyone but ourselves. We take far, far too long to understand that interfering in another country’s governance may look like subtle gamesmanship on this side of the Atlantic, but it looks like condescension and hatred on the other. We have yet to admit that every enemy America has now is one we earned.

So now we hue and cry at the idea of Russia “interfering” in our election. And what did they do, exactly? Fake news? Sure, but we’re the ones who bought it. Enable an incompetent reality star with no capacity to govern, no understanding of the world around him, and no grasp on the nuanced needs of our country? Maybe, but our Republican party and our national media did that first. Spread lies? Certainly, but we’ve been selling lies to one another for so long that we can’t tell where any of them begin. There is no evidence that actual votes were changed—our deepest anger is that we may have been manipulated into breaking our own system.

This is new for Americans. We think we’re the strongest, smartest, and most righteous international actor. We think we dictate world policy, and lead others along in our wake. We don’t know how to be just another country, filled with misunderstanding and failure, filled with discord and disagreement, and subject to all the same flaws that afflict any group of human beings.

The idea of Russian intervention in our election bothers us, I think, because we thought we were the only ones allowed to do that. Under the partisan fights, we thought American Democracy was some sort of panacea for the evils of the world, and we thought no matter how bad things got, we would always be the best of the worst. We thought we were special—and to the extent that we still do, we will push the Russia investigation forward over and over until it becomes justified or farcical.

Whatever the outcome, I doubt we’ll confront the real cause of our outrage: our own ignorance.

 

Image Credit: GuyDeckerStudio

The Shape in the Fog

Fog_viaKevanI find, of late, that reading the news is like glimpsing some hulking form through the fog. I grow tense as my eyes trace the contours, what little of them I can make out. I cannot tell what the shape may be, nor if it is boulder or beast. Each time I begin to grasp its form, the fog rolls and settles, or a breeze remakes the outline. Perhaps it is not even one thing, but many. Is it a forest? I am not sure.

The fog, though readily seen, extends beyond any reckoning. Who can tell if the soup of opinion, condemnation, fear, pain, doubt, and anger in this place, obscuring my view, is the same as it is in any other place? Of necessity, the state of the fog elsewhere is unknown.

I, and we, strive for objectivity, for some kind of map of the view obscured, and thus for some better intuition about the shapes hiding behind the greyness. I see, and feel certain, that a kind of hate is growing in my country. Not a new kind, but an old kind that, for a time, we had denounced (with the tacit understanding that denunciation would not equate to elimination, and that we would not pursue the latter too closely). What is the shape of this hatred? I can’t say fully. It seems, on one hand, to be a bitter resentment of immigrants, and on another to be an unjustifiable claim of whiteness as superiority, and on another to be a comfortable disdain for black Americans, and on another to be an old package of prejudice whose yellowing edges and dusty patina have somehow rendered it more palatable to a few.

What I can tell, with some certainty, is that we have run two ideals against one another: we have said that you may believe what you wish, but you must act as society deems appropriate. And we have said also that as a society, we will accept a diversity of belief and be hesitant to judge. In so doing, in claiming both ideals and refusing to look at their opposition, we have outlawed the performance of racism, and let the actual practice settle comfortably into the fog. The practice confers privileges, and we are loathe to give that up.

Is it any surprise when the performance returns to mirror the practice? As a society, we claim economic and social justifications for the same vicious prejudice white supremacists embrace openly and, if I may say, more honestly. Is it any surprise when the whitest of our political parties and leaders embrace their whiteness as empowering, and insist their privilege is defensible? As a society, we have not taught our members otherwise. Instead, we have taught them that believing these things is acceptable, even if avowing them is not. We have taught them to practice racism without becoming, overtly, racists.

So the belief, which we have carefully tolerated, now spills back into performance. It spills into votes. It spills into self-justification, and violence, and hatred, and a shape reemerges in the fog.

The whitest of us wear their privilege itself as if it were defensible. They are used to being immune to the consequences of their actions and having those consequences fall on others. Is it any surprise when their condemnations of violence come in the same breath with blame for others? Our president says, when an avowed Nazi attacks and kills people whose only sin is to claim supposed American ideals, that the victims are the guilty. He invents a boogeyman, an “alt-left,” that is somehow more worthy of condemnation than white supremacists. Our parents and grandparents fought and died to stop Hitler’s Nazis. But Trump’s Nazis are white Americans, and white Americans do not see themselves. They have the privilege not to.

So, Trump’s white Americans look down at immigrants working for a pittance, and resent their work. White Americans are losing their jobs, but they lose them to their own policies and their own unwillingness to share—so a few of them take more and more, and ship jobs overseas, and automate, and the rest of them blame immigrants. The consequences of their actions cannot be their own. After all, they cannot see themselves.

And Trump’s white Americans see that the country is divided, and hate that it is so. But they claim a black man divided the country, when it was, truly, their refusal to be led by a black man. The division is not what they despise—it is that they now have half when they want the whole. They yell, “take our country back!” But the consequence of that greed cannot be their own, so they blame a black man. They cannot see themselves, only him.

And Trump’s white Americans say that costs are too high, and the government is too big, and that the faltering steps of America, tiring and divided that she is, are due to the inclusion of anyone different. They have had, until now, the privilege to harm others and be immune from the consequences. But the world is moving beyond them, and so they are feeling the discomfort of losing their immunity. And the whitest party of our government argues about who to blame and how to hurt them, never seeing the consequences of their own choices.

We have reached, I fear, a point of critical decision. There are people who have decided, without consulting the rest of us, that they deserve preference in policy, unequal representation in government, and the biggest share of American prosperity. They will not be content unless they get it, and because they had it before, they will not accept that they can have it no longer. What will the rest of us decide about how to deal with them? We are complicit, too, in ignoring them for so long. Is there any right decision left?

As the American system has lurched step by step towards greater justice, it has reached a strange place. For many—for women, black Americans, LGBTQ Americans, Muslims, immigrants, and so many more—the injustice is palpable, but changeable; there is a glimmer of hope and change. Yet for the privileged white Americans, even the slightest rebalancing of those scales feels like a massive loss. So white Americans declare that greater justice is fine, in abstract, but only if it comes at no cost to them.

So here we are, one half of our country seizing change and demanding it continue, and the other half refusing categorically to give up any more of their wealth, condemning anyone who asks for it, and pining for the time when injustice was overwhelmingly, rather than just mostly, in their favor.

And there are Nazis in the streets, and we have a white coward of a president who cannot even say no to them. Who slightly agrees with them. Whose supporters, in thoughts deeper than they can grasp, think the pain of losing some power is greater than the pain of racism and fascism, because those same supporters know the burden of the latter will fall on people who are different. Those same supporters know they are not the ones who pay.

This is the shape in the fog—it is not a forest of trees, but of white hoods. And just as it was before, the people hiding behind those hoods cannot see one another, and do not admit to their shameful greed. And just as it was before, the people cowering behind those hoods believe they are justified in their actions, or do not care. And just as it was before, prominent people in power say the words of condemnation, but deny that these events are the consequences they themselves inspire.

The shape in the fog is still with us, closer than we knew, and shifting, slowly, as the mist moves. It looks like hoods today. But it may look like the American flag tomorrow.

After all, it looked like the flag yesterday.

 

Image Credit: Kevan

Blowing Bubbles

Study #27 - Oil and WaterAfter the 2016 election, there was a proliferation of discussion around the idea of filter bubbles and ideological blinders. For my part, at least, I heard a lot of people applying the idea of a filter bubble to explain why the election didn’t make sense to so many Americans. We stayed in our own groups, the reasoning went, and so we underestimated how different other groups were from our own. It certainly seems like that was part of the problem.

Now, nine months after the election, we are pregnant with our dissatisfaction. Trump’s administration has systematically alienated so many people that even right-wing media questions his capacity to succeed. His administration is less popular at this point than any previous administration has been. Liberals and conservatives alike talk about retaking our country.

But we’re not popping our bubbles; we’re reinforcing them. The people who believe in Trump still believe in Trump, and now they also disbelieve any story that undermines him. The people who hate Trump hate him, and exaggerate any story that confirms his ineptitude. The people who are disgusted and checked out have decided it’s okay to check out, and they confirm that bias, too. The media who focused on every whim of our reality-show presidential candidate have expanded our entire political discourse into a will-they-won’t-they, what-did-Trump-tweet-now, who’s-on-top storm of sensationalism. Instead of seeing the consequence of our preconceptions before the election and changing our approaches, we’re doubling down.

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Crossing Political Divides

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“I can’t help but feel like, this is our last chance to get it right.”

It is Martin Luther King day, a day when we honor a man and a movement for civil rights unique in our nation’s history, and so it is appropriate that I am spending today contemplating the civil rights we so desperately need. The event, Crossing Political Divides, is an attempt by many of us in the area to find a way over the gulfs that seem wider every day. Some 45 of us have gathered in a classroom at the School for International Training to see if those divides are too great, or if we can still reach across.

As a beginning, we are watching a short clip of Van Jones, a black man with political power, discussing politics with a family on the opposite side. The man who says it is our last chance is white, and a Trump voter, and a man who, in that moment, I entirely agree with. This is our last chance to get it right. We are both patriots. We both see the needs of our country. We both feel, desperately, that things cannot go on as they have.

And yet, if we get any more specific than that, we cannot agree. What he feels is progress, to me, feels like loss. What I think is righteous, to him, feels like weakness. What we both think is patriotism, to the other, seems like treason.

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Political Fiction

libertystorm_viastaceybramhallAnd here we are, marking the passing of one era into another. I want to be optimistic, but I can’t. I can see how some people are, because for them, this was the last chance. They’ve been watching their jobs and communities withering away, and they blame regulation and government and outsiders. For them, this seems like a hopeful moment, when maybe something will change and the days will return when all you needed to get a good job was a high school degree and determination.

Those days will not return. It wasn’t government that took them, nor regulation, nor outsiders: the world has just changed, and it changed as a direct consequence of those days. America, as much as any nation, has insisted on a global role, and yet being an economic “leader” in the world doesn’t mean good jobs anymore—it means cheap jobs, and money concentrated in the hands of the powerful, and the rest of us are just grist.

Trump can’t fix this world any more than Obama could. Obama said “yes we can,” but his best wasn’t good enough. Trump says a bunch of vague things about how he will, and people believe him. They believe him because they want to. As a consequence of that deep and understandable yearning, an entire section of the country is embracing a great fiction. Here is the fiction:

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