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


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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The Use of Force

nodapl_viaocetisakowincampWhenever the state yields to a smaller, less powerful group, we are tempted to cry “victory.” And this is what many of us are doing now that the state has declined to permit the current route for the Dakota Access Pipeline. To some extent, it is a victory; it is, at least, a short respite in a conflict that has been escalating for months. So, in this moment to breathe, I think it worthwhile to discuss what this moment tells us about violence and the use of force.

The use of force is held in monopoly by the state and by the powerful. Where the powerful conflict with the state, the use of force is accepted on both sides and moderated by the state. Where the interests of the powerful and the state overlap, their use of force is ignored. Where the weak and the powerful conflict, the use of force by the powerful is ignored, and the use of force by the weak is considered heinous.

It thus is clear that the use of force is a privilege of the powerful.

Consider another case: we claim, in our constitution, that the right to bear arms is a right of all people, yet the constitution was written for white men. If you are a black man, your supposed right to bear arms is supplanted by the state’s right to kill you for doing so. And even if you are a sovereign nation, like the Standing Rock Sioux, your right to the most basic exercise of force (in this case, non-violent blockade is treated as a use of force) is supplanted by the state’s right to use force against you.

So I would like to consider, for a moment, what a temporary victory like this costs in our society.

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Hitting the Wrong Note

wrontnote_viamarimaThere are things you can say in polite company, and things you can say in private; we all know this, and yet we profess shock upon hearing publically those things we deem for limited specific company only. But it isn’t the sentiment we reject, it’s the form: we have an entire structure of polite register that allows us to express private sentiments publically, but less directly. That is, after all, the structure of formal English—to say with euphemism and evasion those things we could say bluntly with a more limited audience.

So there are really two kinds of shock to pick from when someone breaks these rules. One kind is shock at whatever private thing has been laid bare, no matter how it was said. The other kind is shock at the breaking of convention, and cares very little about the sentiment involved. For politicians, masters of gaming the rules, it is the breaking of those rules that requires response. For the rest of us, as decent human beings, it is the sentiment that requires response.

Thus we have now two kinds of shock that occur in concert, and thus also we have the strange discord inspired by dissonance: these two notes seem to ring together, and yet they ring false. Continue reading

Neglecting Hate

monkeys_viaNams82It hasn’t been a good week. You wouldn’t think much could be worse than a hate-motivated mass shooting against LGBTQ people who had gathered just to be themselves; but the killer also claimed to have been driven by an ideology of hate, inspired by a small segment of religion that hates people for not thinking the same things they do. And it isn’t just ISIS that does that, because there are large swathes of American Christianity and American Politics that say the same thing. So it was a bad start to the week.

And then something worse happened: while many people were still wrestling with how to think and feel and support each other and understand this attack, while many people were wondering if they were safe or if their friends were safe, a lot of people started saying horrible things. These people started saying things steeped in judgment, scorn, and self-righteousness. They buried the dead under a series of disproven talking points, and they buried the living right along with them.

They responded to hate by normalizing it.

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Well-Intentioned People and Activist Communities

group_via_AstridWestvangDespite being someone who cares deeply about community and social justice, I often find myself taking a position on the fringes of social justice communities. I do want to change things around me, but I sometimes find some of the people I encounter in those communities… exhausting.

I’ve never quite put the reasons for that into words, but recently I was discussing “good people” with my closest friend, who is a bit closer to some of these communities than I am. In our discussion, we identified some of the prototypical people involved, and it led me to realize that the reason social justice communities sometimes exhaust me is that, despite sharing some of my values, they usually contain, mixed in with the people I admire, some flawed roles that I find very difficult to work with—and to avoid becoming.

Our imperfect list of well-intentioned people includes:

#1 – The Young Idealist. These are people who get fired up by lots of things, but still hold out hope for quicker fixes and simpler problems. They haven’t yet reached a sobering awareness of the interconnectedness of systemic problems, the grinding slowness of societal change, or the difficulty of actually changing people’s minds. Young Idealists may not actually be young, just young in their activism or young in their approach to a given problem. Their energy is great, but their strategy is often lacking.

#2 – The Lifestyle Rebel. These people fly off the handle at the slightest hint of injustice, but mostly their tactics are ineffective, their reasoning is emotional, and passing judgment is their go-to response to things and people. They may latch on to One Right Way to be or think, and then harshly criticize anyone who disagrees. When they are focused on a cause, nothing you can do in support will be Enough, and they will suck away all your energy if you let them—but they’ll shortly be moving on to something else.

#3 – The Stoic. These are people who believe abstractly in improving society, but it doesn’t sway their behavior one way or another outside of a group. They will agree with you on most any issue of injustice, but their interest takes a back seat to the other concerns of their lives.

#4 – The Hypocrite. These terribly frustrating people only care because they think other people care, and they are only around for the feel-good points of being involved. They are mainly invested in their own self-image, so they mostly manage lip service while being quick to call out others for not trying hard enough.

#5 – The Martyr. These people care very much, work very hard, and really want to make change, but they also view change as a Sacred Calling. The change they seek is more important than their own well being, although they do have the foresight to tell others not to make the same mistake. Martyrs nevertheless throw themselves wholeheartedly into their efforts, self-care be damned. Very few can maintain their energy, though, and they may become:

#5b – The Grudging Idealist. These are people who still care because caring is a part of their identity, and still want to make change, but have been worn down. They still follow their ideals, but have begun to resent them and feel trapped by their own values. They are beginning to think people, on the whole, are not worth saving.

#6 – The Leader. These people care deeply, but they know their limits. Within their limits they are passionate about what they want to change. For them, making change is a Civic Duty, not a Sacred Calling. Because their passion is real and focused, they bring other people along with them. They will support people outside their realm, but take for granted that that is not their primary work.

#7 – The Moral Compass. These are people who do lead on occasion, especially with friends and colleagues and by example, but mostly they invest their morality in their work and lives and relationships. They choose careers that they personally value and that they believe have objective value. They put their time and energy into doing those well and making change wherever possible. They notice and care about the things they aren’t doing, and it may bother them sometimes, but it doesn’t make them spin; they measure their personal value by what they do, not but what they don’t have time or energy for.

There are possibly more, but these seem the broad strokes to me. My ideal community would contain no Lifestyle Rebels or Hypocrites, but I think there is a role for all the others. Young Idealists and Martyrs provide the energy for change, Stoics provide steady support, and even the Grudging Idealist provides a realist check on the ambitions of a group too weighted towards naiveté. I think, though, that the balance lies with the last two. Leaders overtly steer a group, and Moral Compasses do the internal legwork of keeping course.

I think I have omitted something from the discussion, though, which is how to get people to change roles. An effective community of activists aims to change minds outside their group, but I am more and more convinced that they must equally change minds within. Some number of the more negative roles may be inevitable, in which case redirecting those individuals becomes essential to the effectiveness of the whole.

Unfortunately, when it comes to this last, I have no solution. So there this discussion must rest, until the insight of others reawakens it.

The Rich Man’s Burden

via Flickr user David ShankboneThe argument that the poor are happily “sucking [the American] teat” evokes a self-satisfied group of freeloaders living like parasites on the stolen wealth of hard-working Americans—so it’s no wonder that it generates deep resentment of social programs. But the more I encounter this entrenched idea, the more I begin to realize that it is not just classist rhetoric; it is a the edge of an ideological statement about the role of the powerful in our society.

Consider the assumptions required to support this view. First we must assume that wealth from a growing economy is available to all and apportioned only by effort: that the son of a white multi-millionaire and the daughter of a poor black family have equal access to potential wealth. With that reckless presumption in place we can also conclude that those who have more have worked harder than those who have less. Finally we can assume that those hard-working folks who have more are the key to the health of the whole economy—that more given to the top will magnify and benefit the bottom, while anything given to the bottom will be squandered.

This is the Rich Man’s Burden: the idea that it is the inherent right and duty of the rich to guide and control society, for the benefit of everyone. The lazy poor should accept their lot and strive to work hard like the rest of us, not weigh America down with their basic needs. The Rich Man’s Burden carries with it all the old prejudices of the civilized over uncivilized, the manifest destiny of the powerful, and the duty of those blessed with more to take from the poor what little they have.

That naked classism might not stand, but fortunately there is a very old argument to prop it up—“it’s for their own good.”

The idea of trickle-down benefits crops up time and time again, and “job creators” is the latest incarnation, a reframing of the assumption that benefits given to the top inevitably magnify and support everyone. The phrase is bandied about on cable news, in political debates, in presidential races, and in the halls of government. Those who espouse this view do not argue that social well-being is unimportant, but rather that social well-being is not the business of government. “Market forces,” they claim, will translate the privilege of a few into the well-being of the many, and therefore one of the main available engines of equality—the government—should keep out.

This argument appeals to economics for justification, but it is merely an ideological claim couched in economic terms. Economist Thomas Sowell wrote with some irritation: “as someone who spent the first decade of his career researching, teaching and writing about the history of economic thought, I can say that no economist of the past two centuries had any such theory.”

The facts bear him out. If trickle-down ever had been an economic hypothesis it would have been long-since debunked. Emmanuel Saez, economist at the University of California, found that in the recovery from the 2008 financial crisis, 93% of the income generated went to the top 1% of earners. Richard Michel, who analyzed income data from 1982-1987 to determine if trickle-down theory had ever worked, concluded that “the rising tide may have lifted all yachts, but it has not lifted all boats.” Disturbingly, Michel also found that households headed by Hispanics, African-Americans, and single women—demographics often subject to prejudice-driven inequality—actually saw their income growth slowing when wealth was supposedly trickling down from the upper classes.

The evidence shows us that trickle-down economics has never accomplished its stated ends, but people are wedded to ideologies, and facts look fuzzy if you squint hard enough, and old ideas do not die easily or quietly.

The roles of the powerful and the powerless have been in contention in our society for some time, and possibly for as long as societies have existed. The White Man’s Burden bolstered the Western colonialism of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, helped maintain the ruling class of Europe, and led to some of history’s most famous uprisings, the French Revolution among them. In the past it was the supposed duty of the White to civilize the Brown through religion and culture—and to take their resources along the way. Now, it is the supposed duty of the rich to civilize the poor through job creation—and to make money off their backs while they do it.

Consider the rhetoric that accompanied that old idea, itself a justification for imperialism, exploitation, and the enslavement of others. Powerful white men would speak unselfconsciously about the need to civilize the savages, to teach the less intelligent classes how to contribute to society, and to put to good use the resources squandered by dumb, lazy natives.

Consider in parallel this statement made by Newt Gingrich, 2012 Presidential candidate, on the work ethic of the poor: “Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works. So they literally have no habit of showing up on Monday. They have no habit of staying all day. They have no habit of ‘I do this and you give me cash’ unless it’s illegal.”

Or this, even more explicit, from South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, who spoke against public assistance for the poor because: “[my Grandmother] told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You’re facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don’t think too much further than that. And so what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to curtail that type of behavior. They don’t know any better.”

If we abandon the debunked economic arguments and look at these statements for themselves, it is hard not to see the echoes of what has come before. The Rich Man’s Burden enshrines selfish decision-making as beneficial to all, and justifies old prejudices by couching them in economic rather than overtly racial or cultural terms. And we naively accept the new forms, and repeat them, and encourage them; through some alarming rhetorical alchemy, those who take have come to be known as those who give. And yet, we keep waiting.