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White Men Can’t Assimilate

In PeaceAble, Politics on January 16, 2021 at 4:55 pm

It’s been a problem right from the start. 

Before white men arrived on the shores of what they thought was India, the American continents had thriving, sophisticated, complex civilizations.  They had all the things that Europe had, albeit their own versions of those things.  They had agriculture, industry and commerce; they had art, literature, music, and dance; they had sports; they had religions; they had class structures.  They even had war.

But in an instance of irony of nearly cosmic scale, the white men who came to exploit and then to conquer, who brought deadly weapons and deadlier diseases, who raped and murdered, saw only savages. 

White men have, of course, never sought to assimilate with their inferiors.

Since then, white men have always insisted that the burden of assimilation is on the people we have tried to save from the curse of non-whiteness.  We have been successful at this rather bizarre insistence on our self-assigned superiority for hundreds of years across all the continents of the planet except Antarctica, which has escaped only because it had the good fortune not to be previously occupied by humans, though the penguins have not escaped unscathed.

This, of course, is because white men invented race, but exempted ourselves from the consequences which we assigned to it.  We even went so far as to remove the mention of our own whiteness as a qualifier of our accomplishments.  We were not so much a race ourselves as a default identity, referred to primarily when necessary to justify our behavior towards other races. 

The result was that we lost the ability to see ourselves as the other.

In fact, it may be that fundamental to everything else white men fear we will lose in a more diverse and equal world is the loss of the ability to ignore our own racial otherness and to never need to assimilate.  If white men should no longer be the center of the racial universe, but just one of the many races we have, ourselves, created, then we will have to accept the equal humanity of all people.  And we will have to learn to live among them, rather than assuming that they must always live among us.

The first step may be simply to acknowledge that there are more of them.  There always have been. 

In the past, we have been able to imagine that it didn’t matter, but as technology and information have shrunk the world, we can no longer pretend.  White men are a minority in the world, and we must acknowledge that and surrender our unearned privilege and our imagined superiority.

What we really fear, of course, is that we will reap what we have sown.  If we become the other, then we will be treated according to the rules we have made for how the “other” is to be treated.  This signifies two unspoken assumptions: first, that the others are just like us, not different at all; and then, that they may be just as angry with us as we imagine we would be had the shoe been on the other foot all that time, and they will be looking for revenge. 

Also, there is the sense that equality is ours to grant.  We hear that every time a white man complains that the other wants “special privileges,” and that’s not fair.  Why, goes the question, should we give them affirmative action, why should we give them equal pay, why should we give them the same access to the voting booth, that we have?  Why should we, white men, give the gift of being equally human to the others?

And then we ask, “why can’t we just start, fresh, OK?”  We promise to be “color blind” from now on.  Everyone’s the same.  That way, we don’t have to give you anything.  We’ll all start equal, starting today.  Of course, we’ll still have nearly all the wealth, nearly all the power, and all the existing social and cultural norms; but, hey, all the others have to do is work hard, and not cause any trouble, and they can earn their own stuff.

Except the norms, of course.  We’ll hold onto those, because, well, tradition and values and the American way, and God, you know.

What we don’t want to admit is that the problem isn’t what we have to give, it’s what we have to give up.

That’s what assimilation is, after all.  It’s giving up things, so that we can live harmoniously and peaceably with others who are, in fact, different from us.  We have to share our toys.  We have to stop whining about fairness when someone else gets something we wanted. 

We have to stop trying to control the conversation, and just listen for a while.

And we have to stop expecting the others to accommodate to our superiority and our privilege, to protect us from the consequences of our history.

It’s going to be difficult.  It will, especially if we continue to resist it, be painful at times.  We will not do it well; not at first, anyway.  We have no experience in it.  It’s foreign to us.  There’ll be a learning curve.  But if we work hard and try to stay out of trouble . . . well . . . you know.

One day at a time.  That’s what addicts are told when they’re trying to quit.  Superiority, privilege, and the invisibility of our own racial culpability are our addictions.  They are what we need to quit.

And so, let us begin, we white men.  One day at a time.  Every day, we need to give up a little more of our dependency on being white.  Acknowledge the problem, take responsibility for it, and actively seek solutions.

It’s been said recently that it’s not enough to strive to be non-racist.  We must become anti-racist.  We white men cannot simply take back race as though we’d never invented it, never practiced it, have not had our whole lives shaped by the reality of it.  We have to tear it down, brick, by brick.  We built it.  We own it.  And it will, ultimately be we who will have to give it up.  We will have to take an active part in the demolition. The only other choice is to have it torn down around us, and that will almost certainly mean the realization of our worst fears.

The world is no longer Euro-centrically male and white, and we will have to assimilate.

THE DISUNITED STATES

In PeaceAble, Politics on December 12, 2020 at 10:46 am

Perhaps we should have seen it coming.  Maybe it was always inevitable.  Possibly the plan was fatally flawed from the very beginning.

America.  No, wait.  The United States of America.  Sure, we regularly use the shorthand, but the 50 states and 5 unincorporated, permanently inhabited territories are not America.  They are, in fact, not even most of America, which refers properly to two continents that comprise nearly all of the western hemisphere.

I bring this up because the 2020 presidential election, following four years of a presidency that has ripped the sheets off deep and abiding divisions and enflamed them nearly to the breaking point, has led to what may seem impossible-to-heal polarization.  On the left there is talk of never forgiving those who have so egregiously wounded the fundamental bonds of democracy; and on the right there is talk of a new civil war, of secession.  Each side is throwing around charges against the other of sedition and treason. 

How very “American” of us.

We call ourselves the “United States,” but a degree of disunity has always been there, has always lingered in the shadows, waiting for its chance to break things apart.

Each of the “united” states has individual sovereignty.  We have always been a federation of sovereign states, not a nation with a unitarian identity.  Our differences and divisions have been part of who we are since before the revolution, and have been codified by the Constitution and the courts since the 18th century.

The most obvious manifestations of this have always centered around racism and slavery, but have expanded to include all kinds of arguments involving every kind of human characteristic that distinguishes white men as the natural ruling class; wealth as the equivalence of superior intelligence and ability; nominally Puritan ideas about sex, gender, matrimony and general morality as normative; protestant Christianity (itself rife with internal division) as the institution of authority for all things called god; and Manifest Destiny as the final word on the United States’ proper place in the world.

We are, in other words, not really designed to be a nation at peace with itself, with a singularity of purpose or vision.

In some ways, this has been our strength.  We gave ourselves permission, whether the founders knew it or not, to become incredibly diverse, to become a melting pot, to become a home to so many who found themselves homeless in other nations. It gave us a foundation on which to build arguments of justice and freedom and fairness for non-whites, for immigrants, for the differently-abled, for LGBTQ+ individuals, for followers of a broad range of religious beliefs and doctrines or none at all, and all kinds of educational, economic, and cultural classes, communities, practices and personal choices.

But it has also allowed us to hang onto deeply rooted prejudices, and normalized discrimination.  It has allowed us to abuse, disenfranchise, dehumanize our own citizens.  It has allowed us to make self-aggrandizing claims of freedom, equality and justice while maintaining embedded exploitation, inequality, and injustice.  Freedom has come to mean a measure of anarchy; equality has come to embrace the idea that the false is equal to the true and the harmful equal to the healthy; and justice has been reimagined as the rule of authoritarian law.

This is the great dilemma that must ultimately be resolved.  Are we to be a single nation?  Will we embrace in reality our idealistic pledge of indivisibility?  Can we at last find a way to reconcile and repair our violent, bloody past and the long-festering, unhealed wounds of intolerance, bigotry, and human exploitation?  Can we, in the 21st century, use this moment of open – even honest in its own way – polarization to become what we have fantasized ourselves to be?

Have we, at last, hit bottom?

For the moment, the ball is in the Progressives’ court.  If meaningful change, lasting change, substantive change, is to happen, it will be because Progressives are able to seize this moment without rancor, without vengeance, without exacerbating the divisions that plague us, but by finding intelligent and effective solutions and advocating tirelessly for their implementation.  It will require perseverance, patience, and genuine adherence and fidelity to our most important principles, even when we have to apply them to people we have heretofore denigrated as deplorable and dismissed as irredeemable.

I sincerely hope that we are up to the task.

Thanksgiving in the Year When Nothing Good Happened

In PeaceAble on November 26, 2020 at 4:22 pm

(In response to a friend who asked on FB, “what are you thankful for in the year when nothing good happened?”)

Andrew was . . .

Annoyed.

It was Thanksgiving and he had been reading all day about how he should be thankful.  All day.  On social media.

But this was the Year When Nothing Good Happened.  And Andrew didn’t feel thankful.

Be thankful, the internet was insisting.  We know that this is the Year When Nothing Good Happened, but you . . . Andrew . . . should find something to be thankful about.

Find something.

To be thankful about.

So, Andrew tried.  He really did.  He opened up a fresh page in his word processor.  He made himself a cup of coffee.  He would have made himself a glass of bourbon, but it was still morning and Andrew never drank in the morning.  That was a good thing, but Andrew considered it and thought that perhaps it was not enough to be actually thankful for on the occasion of Thanksgiving in the Year When Nothing Good Happened.

First, he tried all the usual things people say they are thankful for on Thanksgiving.  He had his health (though there was that suspicious cough earlier in the week, which might have been merely allergies, or the dryness of the seasonal air, but which could also have been the start of some dread disease or chronic condition – he’d have to pay attention to that).  He was financially secure (as long as they didn’t start screwing around with his pension or his social security).  He had the love of his family (at least he was pretty sure they still loved him – he hadn’t actually talked to any of them since August, and they all lived so far away these days, and with families one never really knows – people drift apart – he’d have to call them later, when he was finished being thankful).  He was going to contemplate the beauty of the world, but it was raining and a little chilly.

Then, grasping at straws, he thought, “This has been the Year When Nothing Good Happened, and I have survived it – I can be thankful for that!”  (But the year wasn’t quite over yet, so who knew what might still happen and whether he would survive that.)

That clearly wasn’t working.

Andrew realized that he needed something more.  It didn’t seem right to waste perfectly good Thanksgiving thankfulness on the ordinary day-to-day things for which one might be occasionally consciously thankful.  This was a holiday, after all.  A special occasion.  One should try to find something worthy of the moment for thankfulness.  One should find something for which he could be literally full of thanks, not just kind of lightly thank-y.

But what?

So, Andrew tried being thankful for big things.  But he couldn’t seem to think of any big things without sounding to himself like he was answering a question in a beauty pageant about how he wanted to bring about world peace.

It seemed that the more he tried to be thankful, the more he despaired that there might actually be nothing to be thankful for.  Especially in the Year When Nothing Good Happened.

He was getting desperate now.  Surely there was SOMETHING for him to be thankful for.  SOMETHING worthy of this solemn occasion must be able to fill him with appropriate gratitude!

So closed his word processor, shut off his computer and his phone, pulled his shades down and sat in silence and darkness in his most comfortable chair.

And, as he sat there, he found himself awash in all the bad things that had been happening in this Year When Nothing Good Happened.  And he began to cry.  At first, softly – just a bit of wetness around the rim of one eye.  Then, a tear escaped, a small gasp of breath came from deep within him, the gasp became a sob, more tears began to flow, his chest heaved, his nose ran, and he was full on crying.

And he realized that he wasn’t crying because this had been the Year When Nothing Good Happened, but because he could feel something shifting, not just within himself, but in the universe.  This, too, he thought, will pass.  And he felt a great release.  His tears were a reminder that he could choose to breathe again, to feel what he had been afraid to feel, to let the Year When Nothing Good Happened fade into the past.  And, he thought, this is how I know that my humanity is intact.  I have not, his mind raced on, simply survived, I am beginning to fight back.  The Year When Nothing Good Happened hasn’t defeated me.

Or us.  Because he could feel that he had a kinship with the rest of the human race who were also emerging from the recent troubles with new hope and new purpose.  There would be work to be done, the struggle wouldn’t simply go away, the wounds wouldn’t simply heal, but that’s what life is supposed to be about – doing the work.  There was hope, he saw; there was possibility.

His mind tried, then, to fall back on the gloomier thoughts, tried to tell him that this was all Pollyanna thinking, that he – and the rest of humanity – wasn’t up to the task.  But it was too late for that.  The thankfulness had taken hold.

Andrew had found that the human spirit, hope, empathy, purpose – love – when bundled together, even in the Year When Nothing Good Happened, were big enough to fill him to the brim with thankfulness.

And the Year When Nothing Good Happened was no longer.  The Year When Good Things Began Again had arrived.

COULD WE END RACISM IF WE STOPPED BEING WHITE?

In PeaceAble on June 12, 2020 at 4:44 pm

If any of my fair-skinned friends wants to begin to understand racism as a systemic problem in American culture, a good place to start is with Tanehisi Coates’ book “Between the World and Me.”  You will barely get started in the first section of the book before you will be confronted with two revelatory ideas.

The first of these is that “race is the child of racism, not the father.”

Think about that for a moment.  We know that race is a social construct, that there is no biological basis for separating humans into races based on external physical features.  Claiming that a dark skin is evidence of a separate race is no more based in fact than claiming that detached earlobes are.  But the implications of the statement are more profound than that.

The statement tells us that humans did not see color, decide that races existed, and then became racist.  Rather, we needed a reason to justify de-humanizing those we would dominate, and the invention of race gave us that reason.  And by “we” I mean white people, for who else has benefitted more than we have from the invention of race?  We have used it to justify conquering and subjugation, colonialism, genocide, rape, and more – a very long list of atrocities that were easier to commit as long as the victims were not as human as we were.

Which then brings Coates, and his readers, to the second idea.  Being “white” is a myth, an illusion, what Coates refers to throughout the book as a “dream.”

We aren’t, after all, actually white.  We’re varying shades of a sort of pink beige, turning more brown or red with exposure to the summer sun, and more pale and yellow in the winter.  But being white has become such an immutable part of our identity; so fundamental to how we see not just ourselves, but the whole world and our place in it, that it is the beginning of how we relate to everything else.  The whole structure of the canon of western civilization, its art, literature, science, history, religion, philosophy depend on it.  We measure human progress by its relationship to our own whiteness.

If we weren’t white, what would we then use to determine who the “others” are?  What other characteristics of humankind have the breadth, the scope of race?  If “white” did not exist, would black, brown, yellow, or red also disappear?  After all, those colors are as inaccurate in describing other races as white is in describing us.

We might still divide up humankind by ethnicity, by nationality, by language, by culture; but wouldn’t those things first require us to recognize the fundamental humanity at the heart of those differences?  Once we have identified race as the controlling factor, once we have determined the inherent inferiority of the other on the basis of race, then we can judge their accomplishments, their civilizations as inferior by default.  But if we had to start by dealing with all those things that humans create, it would be more difficult to dismiss their creators as less than human.

Calling our whiteness a dream has other implications as well. 

Dreams are more than just fantasies or illusions.  They are, first of all, associated with sleep.  If the core of our racial identity is a dream, then we are asleep in our reality.  And what happens to our dreams when we awaken?  To be “woke” is to have roused ourselves from the dream; to have left it behind in the darkness.

A dream is also either an aspiration or a fear.  When our dreams become nightmares, they express those things we most fear.  We may wake from them sweating, our hearts pounding, confused and terrified.  Leaving them behind is difficult, the fear remains.  When our dreams are desires, they give us goals, and light our way.  But if we dream too big, the aspirations can become traps.  If we cannot become all that we dream we are or could be, how do we reconcile that, if the dream is of our innate superiority?

We find that we need the dream, because without it, all our fears and aspirations are merely the consequence of being no more or less human than those the dream does not include.

So, I think that I need to try to stop being white.

But how does one, especially in one’s seventies, shed one’s race?  I’m certainly not going to dye my skin, get plastic surgery, alter my birth.  And those things would be lies, anyway.  If I am to be something other than white, it has to be real.  And it has to come to terms with all those decades of whiteness that already live inside my skin.

Baby steps.

If whiteness is an illusion, how do I step outside of it?  If it is a dream, how do I wake up?

Another point that Coates makes, one that I already knew but the context is important, is that naming is an act of power.  I would also call it an act of creation.  We cannot name a thing until we have knowledge of its existence.  And when we name it, we say how it is to be perceived, judged, related to.  We define it.  We say what its fundamental characteristics are, and what connotations we are to draw from it.  We say what is our power over it, or its power over us.

To define something is to limit it, to enclose it in our perceptions; and to try to imprison it there.  Our words for things are the first steps in creating and controlling our reality.

So, the first step in changing our reality is to change the names we use for it.  This is an idea that has long existed in therapy.  Reframe the experience, name the feeling.  We do not need to be the victims of our lexicons, we can take control.

I am becoming more aware every day now of how much of my perceptions of the world and my place in it have been founded in my whiteness.  Many of my successes have been made easier because I am white, have been expected because I am white, assumed because I am white.  And my failures, my fears, my shortcomings have been amplified by those same privileges, expectations and assumptions.

So, what happens if I reframe my whiteness.

I have, for most of my adult life, played with the idea of the mongrel.  I have often joked that we are all mongrels.  I have bemoaned, in my humor, the lack of cultural or group identifiers for mongrels.  We have no traditions, no flag, no songs, no creed, no signs of belonging or loyalty, no natural gathering places.

But it turns out that it’s not really a joke.  None of us has a singular ancestry beyond a few generations, insignificant in the span of human existence.  We’re all mutts.

I’ll start small on my way to mongrelization.  From now on, when faced with some official form that asks me to say my race, I will respond not white, but other.  If required to explain, I will say that I am mongrel, or perhaps “mixed-blood.”  Didn’t we create laws that claimed a single drop of black blood made one black?  So, I will embrace all the drops within me.  I will be them all.

I think we should start a movement – an awakening, if you will – toward the end of the white race; and the rise of the mongrel. 

Anyone can join.  Anyone who wishes to shed the skin that whiteness has trapped them in can become a mongrel.  But it is most important that white people go first, because as long as there are white people, there will also be the others.  And as long as we continue to dream our own whiteness, we will never awaken to the full possibility of being simply human.

Thugs with Grievances and Very Fine People With Guns

In PeaceAble on May 29, 2020 at 12:16 pm

The question being asked by a lot of white people on social media this morning:

Why do these rioters destroy their own neighborhoods, loot and burn, and risk a violent, perhaps deadly response from the police?  Don’t they know that just makes them look bad and hurts their cause?

Now, let’s set aside for the moment the fact that these people were not asking a similar question of armed white people storming state capitols and threatening violence, talking about lynching and assassination and so forth.  Don’t they know that just makes then look bad and hurts their cause?

Although the answers to these questions are related in two ways.

I’ll start with the question that is being asked, then show how that question and the other non-question are related.

And I’ll begin by asking another question.

Why do prisoners, when they riot, destroy their prison: looting and burning, risking a violent response from the guards?

Because they don’t have much to lose.

And don’t try to say, “Oh, but that’s different,” because it is only different in degree, not in kind.

We used to call them ghettos, but they were always prisons.

We now call it the inner city, but it’s a prison just the same.

We call them the projects, or the neighborhoods, but they’re still prisons.

And the chances for a kid growing up in the inner city ever escaping from the systemic poverty, the institutionalized racism, the disastrously inadequate education, the oppressive living conditions, and the constant threats of violence from within and without are just about as few and far between as the chances of escape or release from prison.

And the chance that people living under those conditions have always been and will always be treated by major segments of society as less-than-human, even if they try to follow all the rules, do the “right” things, and manage to get out are pretty substantial.

So why not burn it down?  Why not burn down the physical manifestation of your imprisonment?  And why not, while you’re at it, take whatever you can get away with?  You’re unlikely to get it any other way.  And it’s going to burn, anyway, if you don’t take it.  And it’s a way of saying to those outside that the longer you deny us not just the basic, but even the least more than that which would make life more than just survival, that would liberate us even a little bit from the prisons you have put us in; the more our anger, our fear, our grief and our need will fester and grow until it again explodes into what makes you ask the question and not see the answer, just as you don’t see us.

And why should we risk violence, even death, at the hands of the police?  Hell, we do that every day, sometimes without even getting out of bed!

And how is that related to the second question?  I mean aside from fairly obvious racial and other issues of prejudice?

They both have to do with fear.  There is reasonable fear and unreasonable fear; and as a society we have routinely, historically, gotten them confused.

The people asking the question are afraid of the people doing the rioting.  They are afraid of them even if they are merely demonstrating.  They are afraid of them even if they are doing nothing.  They are afraid of them because our culture, our society has spent hundreds of years and enormous amount of resources convincing them, teaching them, to fear those other people.  Not to fear them because of what they have done, but because of what we have done to them.  To fear them because of who they simply are, which is the other.

After centuries during which white people took whatever they wanted, by whatever means they could, from other people, they are afraid that the others will take what they have – or take back what was taken.

And the culture has also spent those centuries teaching us all, convincing us all that when you are afraid, the appropriate response is to arm yourself, and the people with the most dangerous weaponry are to be admired and respected.  Corollary to that, we have been taught that those with the most destructive power have the right to use that power to do whatever they want, because if you don’t let them then they will use that power against us – and it will be our own fault for not properly respecting the people with the power.

We have, in other words, been told that the people without power are to be feared, and the people with power are to be respected.  Until the moment when the others realize that they, too, have power; at which point they are to be put down because that realization is all the evidence needed to prove that fear of them was warranted.

We have also been taught that when groups of white people take up arms against the authorities, and people are injured or killed as a result, it is the authorities who are to blame, not the groups of armed white people.  But when the others do it, the authorities are praised, not blamed. 

You do see how backwards all that is, right?  And how obviously true?  Because if you don’t see it, then you will never find the truth you claim to be seeking when you ask the question.

“I’ve Changed!”: Why expecting forgiveness for past bigotry is just another form of privilege.

In PeaceAble, Politics on February 11, 2019 at 12:50 pm

If you are a white person over the age of 30 in America (I’m trying to be generous here.) you need to accept, understand, acknowledge and learn to deal with the fact that you were raised in a culture that supported, even promoted, racism and white superiority as normal. It was normal for real estate agents to direct people of color away from white communities. It was normal for businesses to reject black job applicants. It was normal for advertising and film to make their heroes and heroines white; their servants, their inferiors, their attackers, their enemies non-white; it was normal to see things like blackface as harmless remnants of minstrel shows and the memory of performers like Al Jolson, and Amos and Andy. It was normal to see native Americans portrayed as either villainous or noble savages. It was normal to assume that non-whites were less intelligent, more violent, poorer, and generally less civilized than whites.
If you are a male of the same age you need to also accept, understand, acknowledge and learn to deal with the fact that you were raised in a culture that supported, even promoted, misogyny and male superiority as normal. It was normal to assume that a man would get paid for his work and a woman would not. It was normal to assume that when a woman was paid, she would be paid less than a man. “The weaker sex” was a normal thing to say about women. It was normal to expect that strong, virile men would be sexually active and non-monogamous, but that only immoral, wicked women would be. It was normal to believe that women were less intelligent, less mechanically inclined, less interested or credible in matters of politics or the world in general, and more suited to domestic duties than men. It was normal to believe that women were intended to serve men, not compete with them.
Because of these things, if you have always been a normal, ordinary white person, it is quite possible that you have, sometime in your life behaved in ways that reflected what that culture was teaching you. Perhaps you went to a Halloween party dressed in blackface, saying “yesiree, boss” as you shuffled along in too-big clothes with patches. Perhaps you went as an “Indian,” with leather fringed clothing and a feather in a head band, saying “kemo sabe” or using “me” instead of “I,” giving out “war whoops” as you did a “war dance” around the room. Perhaps you found it funny to dress up as Charlie Chan and pronounce your Rs like Ls. Perhaps you thought you were not affected by racism because you had some non-white friends or co-workers that you liked. Perhaps you told yourself that it wasn’t Malcolm X’s, or Muhammed Ali’s, or Martin Luther King’s race that was the problem, but their politics.
Because of what the culture had been teaching you since your birth, as a normal, ordinary male, it is quite possible that have, sometime in your life, behaved in ways that reflect the culture’s misogyny and chauvinism. Perhaps you found it disturbing that a woman was put in a position of authority over you. Perhaps you thought that putting a woman on a pedestal was the same as respecting her. Perhaps you thought that being able to seduce a lot of women into sex meant that you “love women.” Perhaps you thought that getting a woman drunk and having sex with her was consensual. Perhaps you thought that a woman you met in a bar should have expected to have sex with you. But you wanted your wife to be a virgin the first time you took her to bed, and you vowed to “kill” any boy who tried anything with your daughter.
If any of this is true, perhaps you don’t see that it should be a big deal now. It’s unfair that there should be consequences now for how things were then. You’ve changed. Times have changed. All that was a long time ago. You apologize, explain, seek redemption and forgiveness, what else can you do?
The argument has always been that human beings are products of their time and their culture, so we should excuse their past behaviors and only judge them on who they are now. The problem with that is that who we are now are products of our own past, and that includes our past prejudices, our past behaviors, and our past privileges. And the people who were subjected to who we were then are also products of that past. Expecting forgiveness is just another expression of the normative privilege we have always enjoyed.
And here’s another thing. The normative rules haven’t really changed all that much. Racism persists. Misogyny persists. Religious bigotry persists. Xenophobia persists. Homophobia persists. Fascism persists. The class system persists. And we are still raising generations of white men who believe that they are the normative measure of all things, who are being taught that cultural change is an assault against them, not just culturally, but individually. They are being taught to fear the change, to see themselves as the victims.
So, what can we do?
We can embrace our own past and learn from it. We can learn to empathize with the other, to see our past in the context of the other’s experience of it, not just our own. We need to become who we say we are now not in spite of our past, but because of it. We need to take personal responsibility for cultural privilege.
We need to shift our focus from proclaiming that we support progressive change in spite of our past to understanding how and why we can support progressive change because of our past. It’s not enough to apologize for past sins and promise that you are a different person today. You need to be able to explain how those sins changed you then, are changing you still, and how they inform your actions today. And if you can’t do that, then expect neither forgiveness nor redemption.
The truth is, it will be difficult for white men to present themselves as the champions of changing cultural norms that have benefitted them for a very, very long time.
Is that unfair? Is it more unfair than the historic injustices suffered by people of color and women?

I’m a Democratic Socialist – but I repeat myself; Voting as a Socialist Act

In PeaceAble, Politics, Uncategorized on August 8, 2018 at 12:16 pm

In all societies, power moves upward, from the masses of people who individually hold little power to the powerful few who collect and hoard whatever power they can extract from the many.
The core misunderstanding a great many people have about socialism is that it is simply an economic system in which money is redistributed from the wealthy to the poor. But money is just one form of power, and socialism more broadly is a philosophical system that advocates for the redistribution of all forms of power from those who hoard it to those who need to use it for their survival, as a way to guarantee a more equitable distribution of resources.
Every time a democracy holds an election, it is a deliberate act of redistributing power.
When a voter enters the polling both, he brings with him all his power. When he chooses a candidate and casts a vote he gives a small amount of his power to the candidate. That power, combined with the power contained by all those who vote for the candidate becomes the candidate’s power. If the candidate loses the election she can use that collected power as credibility to continue to argue for the policies she supports (and for which people supported her). If she wins the election she can apply the collected power to directly seek to influence policy in her elective position.
It’s important to note that the power the elected official has collected through votes does not obligate her to use that power exactly as the individual voters might have hoped. Each voter is only transferring a small amount of power, and individual voters may have different and conflicting ideas and needs. And, just as spending a few bucks at your favorite store does not give you any ability to tell the store owner how to spend his money, your individual vote doesn’t give you any special power to control the actions of the elected official. When you voted, however, you didn’t give up all your power, only a small piece of it, and that piece will be coming back to you at the next election.
Also, you still retain significant power once you realize that it isn’t about you, but about all of us. You gave your power to a candidate during an election, now you can give it to a cause, a movement, or an idea. Every time you contribute to an organization working for something you believe in, you use your power. Every time you choose to shop at a particular business or to withhold your patronage, you use your power. Every time you get into a discussion with your friends and acquaintances about something happening in the world and find your own mind or someone else’s changing, even a bit, you have used your power. Every time you step up in defense of those who cannot defend themselves, to speak for those whose voices are not being heard, you use your power. If there is a blue wave in November, it won’t just be because a lot of people used their power at the polls, but because a lot of people have been using their power all along in both large and small ways.
Power, like every valuable thing, isn’t dependent on exactly how much one has of it, but how that compares to what others have. You are only as power rich as others are power poor. The powerful few do not, of course, want to give up their power. They will hoard whatever they can of it. Voter suppression is theft of power. Voter apathy is the squandering of power. Fewer people voting means there are fewer people to convince that they should give a candidate their power. If a party sees that a minority of voters agree with them on the issues, but can control which people don’t vote they can make it more likely that those who do vote will be those who will give them power. And if significant numbers of people voluntarily don’t vote, the party or candidate that wins assumes these non-voter’s power as well. It’s like a power tax. If you don’t vote for anything, then it’s assumed that you support those who won. After all, if you didn’t support them, you would have voted against them.
Polls show over and over again that when it comes to some of the most important and most party-line divisive issues this country is facing, issues like abortion and women’s health, income and wealth inequity, gun laws and regulation, health care, Social Security and Medicare, the social safety net, there is significant agreement about what needs to be done, if not how to do it. So, if the people who have been elected aren’t doing those things, then we need to exert our power to elect those who will.
Power is interchangeable, too. Those with a significant amount of one kind of power can use it to acquire and protect other forms power. Thus, political power can provide access to wealth and vice-versa. Someone like David Koch or Sheldon Adelson or, to be fair, George Soros, can exert enormous power all by himself, but the rest of us have to organize, we have to work together, we have to find common ground and common purpose.
We have to vote. Every time. No exceptions.
And we have to stay involved. All the time. In between elections, not just every two or four years, not just about who is going to be President, but who is going to sit on our school boards or decide our zoning or whether the town needs a new pickup truck or some new textbooks.
Doing that doesn’t start after the parties have decided who their candidates are going to be. It doesn’t start by deciding that your only choice is the lesser of two evils. It starts when you understand that you have power and that you are unconsciously giving away that power every day; and you decide to stop doing that.
If this is to be a government of, by, and for the people, then the people have to be involved. Those who represent us are spending our collective power. It is up to us, then, to keep letting them know how we want that power spent, and give our power to those who will listen.

The Learned Hypocrisy of Being Human

In No Particular Path, PeaceAble, Uncategorized on July 30, 2018 at 10:44 am

To be human is to live in contradiction.
Perfect consistency is impossible for us. We think too much; we feel too much; we believe too much. We invented philosophy and science, and art, and morality. And every time we think that these have given us an answer that is final, that is absolute, that we can rely on, that is true, the world changes and we change and the answers have to change as well.
But change is hard, so we cling as long as possible to the old truths, accepting only what in our pain and our grief and our fear we can no longer deny; and contorting ourselves to make everything fit. We shake our heads in disbelief at our own contradictions, and label others’ inconsistencies as hypocrisy.
But it’s really just all of us being human.
I just read something that asked the question, “How could we go so abruptly from Barack Obama to Donald Trump?” How could the same country elect an erudite, scholarly, compassionate and thoughtful leader, then replace him with a crude, anti-intellectual, self-aggrandizing, impulsive one? Which of these very opposite men really represents who we are?
The answer is, of course, that they both do.
We have evolved into creatures who deal with the natural conflicts and dangers of the world by contriving to make them more contentious and more dangerous. There are real solutions to the real problems of the world. There are more than sufficient resources. But we allow our worst traits, our basest instincts, our superstitions and prejudices and fear to rule us; we hoard our resources instead of using them, we reject comprehensive solutions to complex problems in favor of simplistic analyses and short-sighted solutions. We proclaim our desire for peace and understanding, we pray for the relief of suffering and ask why we can’t all just get along; but we refuse to do what is necessary to achieve those things. If we can’t see a way to fix something right now, for all time, without any sacrifice or compromise on our part, we tell ourselves that no solution exists at all.
We are simultaneously all that is good in the world and all that is evil. And every choice we make is a choice to turn in the direction of one or the other. Our moral compass is broken and we have lost our ability to find our way in the wilderness.
We are polarized because we have made a choice to declare ourselves only half of who we are, and to further assert that our chosen half of this bifurcated self is the only acceptable truth, the only reality.
The contradictions remain, of course, but rather than acknowledge them and try to understand how they make us whole, we either deny them or tie ourselves in knots trying to fit them into the incomplete self we cling to.
We do not live linear lives. Our stories are told first in stream of consciousness, and we try to understand who we are by rewriting the stories until they make sense; but each story needs to make sense on its own as well as finding a place in the whole anthology of our lives, and we need to forget so much to make that happen.
I am a man and a male. How can I change the normative misogyny and chauvinism of the culture unless I can acknowledge that it lives within me? I can’t remove it from my experience, from the teachings that shaped me. It’s there. It always will be. But when I allow myself to see it I am better able to see my way forward; so that there may come a time when we will have raised a generation that never learned it in the first place. I’m not a feminist because I have never seen the feminine as less, but because I have, and I am working to change that in me as well as in the society.
I come most directly from pink-skinned European ancestors. How can I change the normative xenophobia and racism of the culture unless I acknowledge that I carry within me the same learned fear of the other, of the different, that I wish to change? I don’t seek racial justice and equality because I have never felt afraid, but because I have, and I’m working to change that in me as well as in the society.
I am cisgender and heterosexual. How can I change the normative homophobia of the culture unless I acknowledge that I have feared and felt shamed by the feminine in myself, that I have questioned my own capacity for intimacy, both emotional and physical, with both women and men? I don’t fight for the humanity of those who are homosexual, or bisexual, or transgendered, or gender non-conforming, or to allow everyone to love whomever they love because I was never told that my feminine was weakness and abomination, but because I was; and I’m trying to change that in myself as well in the society.
If we are going to tell our stories authentically and honestly and make it possible for others to do the same, then we cannot forget, cannot leave out, the parts that make us contradictory, inconsistent, and even sometimes hypocritical.
There is no high road or low road; there is only the path we have walked thus far, with its hills and valleys, its twists and turns and detours, its dark passages and glorious vistas; for there is no way forward except from where we are right now.

What’s Holding You Back?

In PeaceAble, Politics on June 22, 2018 at 10:57 am

During the last election, there were people who said that if Donald Trump was elected they would leave the country. Others said that if Hillary Clinton was elected they would leave. Of course, very few of them intended to leave and even fewer made any effort to go.
Why would they? How would the election of either candidate have affected the comfort and privilege of their lives sufficiently to cause them to give any of it up.
So, I am going to ask you to step back from the current reality of your life for a moment and try to imagine a different life. How bad would things have to be for you?
What level of poverty or oppression would you have to endure?
How much would you need to fear for your own life or the lives of your children?
What level of violence on the part of criminals or your own government would cause you to flee?
Now imagine that you are a resident of Florida and the only place you could get to where you might be safe is Canada. But you can no longer just put your passport in your pocket and drive there, passing a charming border guard with a slight French accent who tells you to have a nice day and enjoy your visit. Instead, you have to save up, out of your meager salary, giving up some of the essentials of day-to-day survival, six months’ or a year’s salary or income in order to pay a smuggler to get you across the entire continent and over the border in secret.
And imagine that the smuggler might be just as dangerous, just as likely to rob or rape or kill you as any of the gangs or government thugs you are fleeing. Imagine that it means you will likely suffer extremes of heat or cold, of hunger, of lack of shelter, of illness; and there will be no relief or assistance. Imagine that the journey means risking your life.
Finally, imagine that you have heard that when you get to the border you will be treated as a dangerous criminal rather than as a refugee. You may be arrested and your children taken away by force or deception, and you might never see them again nor know what fate you have brought them to. You may be sent home, to the place you have fled, into the clutches of your worst fears, your ugliest nightmares.
Now go back to the questions we began with. Knowing these things, how much worse, how much more dangerous, more oppressed, more unbearable would your life have to be to get you on the move?
Our government would have you believe that cages are summer camp; that it is a simple matter of law and these people are, by definition, criminals; that the issue is not their humanity, not what they have suffered; they would have you believe that we are the real victims here, that we must protect ourselves from the other.
If compassion for the human beings at our border, and disgust or outrage at the way our government is treating them is not enough; then perhaps you need to move to empathy. Put yourself, just for a moment, into their lives. Step away from the assumptions and expectations of your current reality and imagine one that would lead you to do what they have done.
And while you’re at it, step back from your assumptions and expectations of the rights and privileges of our constitutional government and imagine that you have become the Jew in pre-war Germany. Imagine that we have seen the rise of a fascist, dictatorial, white-nationalist government. And imagine, because you must, that we are almost there. What do you imagine you will be able and willing to do about that?

Media and Murder: Why “fixing” violence in popular entertainment won’t stop mass shootings, but we may want to do it anyway.

In No Particular Path, PeaceAble, Politics on February 28, 2018 at 12:39 pm

 

In the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting there has been a new round of discussions about how to prevent such tragedies.  And one of the ideas being pressed by people who really don’t want to talk about things like gun control is the old claim that we need to do something about violent video games and movies.

 

The available evidence, however suggests two seemingly contradictory ideas: first, violence in video games and movies (or any other media) does not cause people to commit mass murder; second, we should nonetheless work to reduce the amount of graphic violence in entertainment media.

 

The idea that video games or movies are to blame seems to surface only when the killer is a teenager or very young adult.  The average age of U.S. mass shooters, however, is 35.  And, although the average age of video game users is around 31, the largest number (29%) of users are under 18; but that percentage is not significantly higher than 18-35 (27%) or 50+ (26%).  In addition, only 20% of video games are “shooter” games, and as video game sales have increased significantly, violent crime rates have remained steady or shown decreases.  And even in individual cases, there has never been any clear link between the actions of any mass shooter and his consumption of violent media.  In other words, there is no evidence that suggests the use of violent video games or watching violence in films or on TV has any causative relationship to mass shootings.

 

Most media studies seem to suggest that entertainment reflects popular attitudes and serves to reinforce them, but does not directly cause them. Think of it this way: if you are going to make a movie or design a game that will appeal to as large a segment of the population as possible, you won’t try to change what they want, you will try to discover what they already want and give them more of it.  In other words, people aren’t expressing themselves violently because popular entertainment is violent; popular entertainment is violent because people are expressing themselves that way.  And there are a great many social and cultural factors involved in that. 

 

It has long been observed that movies, in particular, reflect the times in which they are made.  During World War II, for example, Hollywood made a lot of movies showing the heroism of our fighting forces, the evils of our enemies, and the courage of Americans on the home front.  Following the Vietnam conflict, an unpopular war, there were a lot of films that showed the horrors of war, the physical and psychological effects of war on both troops and the general populace.  When Ronald Reagan was elected and the country seemed to be shifting back in a more conservative direction, we saw more movies about the cold war and home-town heroes rising up to defend against Soviet invasion, and movies that revised the Vietnam narrative and the idea of the super-soldier.  As things improved and the cold war ended, film began to reflect more positively on human relationships.  But since 9/11 amid renewed fears of terrorism and attack, we have seen a great many more movies about superheroes and the military, with ever increasing amounts of violence.  When people are afraid, Hollywood gives them superheroes of all kinds.

 

But there is in that realization cause for concern.  If the violence of our entertainments is a reflection of who we are, is this who we want to be?  And what is the danger in that?

 

One lesson of the women’s movement and its attempts to deal with misogyny in American culture has been that media is extremely important in the reinforcement of cultural norms, and that culture changes much more slowly than social awareness or changes in law or individual behavior.  Much has changed with respect to the role of women in the workplace, but events of the last two years have shown that the culturally normative idea that women exist subservient to the power and fantasies and physical needs of men remains firmly in place.  And just as the cultural norms cling to archaic views of men and women, it also clings to normative fantasies about the military, American exceptionalism, white supremacy, and violence as a solution to problems of violence.

 

American culture continues to tell us two things of relevance here.  First, it tells white, heterosexual, Christian, American males that they have reason to be afraid, primarily of the “other.”  And, second, it continues to try to frame the solutions to that fear in fantasies of superheroes and militaristic violence, weapons of enormous destruction, and personal heroism.  Notice, as something of an aside, that greater awareness of the ubiquity of violence against women has coincided with an increase in the number of movies involving female superheroes, females in the military, and female characters equal to men in their capacity for violence.  Our culture, as reflected in our popular entertainment, values the capacity for violence as a measure of our ability to respond to our fears.

 

The graphic and excessive violence of popular media shows us, in other words, that we have a much deeper problem of violence embedded in The American culture, and we need to address that.  So, what can we do?  How do we change the culture?

 

Media in America are profit driven.  They respond to what media consumers tell them they want.  If we tell them, through our purchase of video games, our attendance at movies, our TV habits, that we want more militarism, more police action, more superheroes, more personal heroism, more graphic depictions of more violent responses to conflict, more reinforcement of our fears about those who are different from us; then that is what  we will get, and we can expect that there will be more and more incidents of people trying to solve their problems by taking large, extremely deadly weapons to places where they can kill as many people as possible.  There is no reason, except the public’s appetite for it, that superhero films, or vigilante films, or action video games need to show scenes of extremely graphic, extremely destructive violence.  If the public were to decide, in large enough numbers, that they no longer want to be told that the solution to violence is more and greater violence; if they were to stop paying good money to go to the latest big-budget superhero blockbuster; if they were to not go out to get the latest version of Grand Theft Auto; then the media would stop making those things.

 

But that’s a hard thing to do.  Most of the people I know really love the latest dark manifestations of Marvel fantasy characters.  They like a good action movie with lots of enormous guns being fired, lots of big explosions going off, and lots of hugely muscled heroes killing lots of ugly, despicable villains.  And real cultural change would require us to give some of that up.  We would have to dial it down.  We would have to start playing games that require more nuanced solutions, we would have to start patronizing films, even superhero and military films, that require less graphic on-screen violence to arrive at a climax.

 

It is a myth that watching violence purges us of violent feelings.  Do you leave a violent game or a violent movie thinking, “wow, that’s great; now I don’t feel like I need to do that in real life,” or do you leave thinking, “I am so energized, so pumped up, that I think I could (or wish I could) be a hero like that in real life”? 

 

There is no single solution to the problem of violence and the increase in the kind of mass murder we have witnessed in Parkland, in Las Vegas, and in so many other of our schools, our malls, our concert venues, our churches and our public spaces.  We need a comprehensive approach that combines a variety of strategies.  Most of those strategies are well known, but cannot work in isolation from one another.  Certainly, passing a lot of new laws and regulations about violence in entertainment won’t make a huge difference by itself.  But all of these things can make a difference if we begin to take a hard look at how our culture, through it’s entertainment, its other public media, its politics and its policies, reinforces the idea that our problems can be solved by more and greater violence.

 

As consumers of public media and popular entertainment we can change the culture if we have the will to do it.  It won’t be quick and it won’t be easy, but long term effective solutions rarely are.  What ideas about violence are you helping to reinforce by how you spend your entertainment dollar and your leisure time?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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