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


Five Pieces for January

shepardfaireyUsually, at the end of each month I compile links to stories and pieces I found thought-provoking in some way. But this past month has been an inundation of news, most of it bad, and I’m reluctant to feed into the chaos by recapping it all. Instead, here are five pieces that helped me understand something differently about the state of the world:

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Work With Your Hands

hands_viajuliaavilesDig your hands into the dirt. Run them along a smooth board. Reach down into the engine, through the grease and wiring. Use your hands stiffly in the cold, or damply in the sun, or dry in the dust. Use your hands with steadiness on the wheel, with certainty on the brush, with a slight tremor that disappears as you focus on the finer work. Use them with care, and strength, and intent, and work something you can touch and own.

This is common ground.

I wrote that we need common ground, that we have to find it and till it and protect it. That we cannot occupy it, and do not need to. That the only way through is to find places we have drawn lines and erase them. I think this is one of those places.

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Common Ground

notrespassing_viaterrylawsonFinding common ground is not just an ideal of democratic society; it is a task of monumental effort that requires us to reject our own ideas and hold them, in common, with ideas we do not agree with. There is such discomfort in this that we generally avoid it: villainy is a comfortable foe, but nuance unmasks it. Nuance transforms villainy into foolishness, and our righteous anger crumbles into confusion and pity.

I wrote not long ago that there is no common ground left—that we have occupied every inch of it with partisan certainty and left nothing in the middle. Perhaps this is why there is such an appetite for lies these days: there is no ground left to seize, unless it be wholly invented. There is no battle left to win, only scraps to scrabble over on the edges. But create a lie, and you can draw a new line down some imaginary patch of ground, and crow heartily as you defend it. Create a villain, and you can occupy new ground.

But I believe finding common ground is the only path forward, and that requires nuance. Yes, we need righteous anger and villains to motivate us. But they must be few and far between. If we want common ground, if we want a united states, that ground must be worked and planted, not occupied. Continue reading