One Year Later

One year ago, we witnessed something we may reasonably assume we never expected to see in our lifetimes. The attempt by a mob to seize the nation’s capitol. 

Characterize it any way you like—a demonstration that got out of hand, a planned assault, an aberration of mass hysteria—the salient feature is this: a large gathering, numbering in the thousands, attempted to break into, overwhelm security, and hunt down and intimidate members of our government who were in the process of conducting the legitimate work of the people.

The other salient feature is that this did not occur in a vacuum.

On these points I think most of us, on either side of the ideological field, can agree.

Where it begins to get tricky is whether or not one feels outraged or disappointed. Outraged that it happened, disappointed that it failed. Sorting through the morass of justifications, excuses, and lies will take years. 

Let me state up front that what happened on January 6th, 2021, was a violation of our character. Much as we might like to believe otherwise, only a handful of things separate us from other nations and traditions, one of the most important being the peaceful transition of power at the behest of the People via the plebiscite. (Certainly other countries have come to adopt this, but we were the first in modern times, with the longest continuous history of the practice, to the point that it has become a Given, at least till now.) There have been elections in the past that were questionable in terms of who actually won, but we have for a couple of centuries privileged process over momentary stumbles and frustrations and by so doing righted ourselves over time. What happened on January 6th was nothing less than an abrogation of that tradition, a denial of those principles, and a break with our common identity. There is no other way to see it. 

Whether you believe that rupture to have been necessary matters less than the fact that it put at risk the possibility of resolving differences and managing our common concerns as a civilization. I say that because for the last couple of decades of feverish rhetoric, it is clear that for many the point of the last administration was to repudiate common ground. That those who thought attempting to kidnap a governor, finding and restraining representatives, and threatening violence against civil servants were the only viable avenues for their message, common ground not only does not exist but cannot.

At least not with the system as it has been.

Ever since the war cry that the government is the problem, the debate has been less about what kind of government than whether there should be one at all. In many ways, all sides accept some of this. The Right wants to be rid of the government that seeks to redress social inequities and regulate financial matters, the Left wants to he rid of the government that defends corporatism and abets foreign wars, both trade and martial. Everyone has something to complain about and instead of trying to create methods for more responsive government, many have given up and decided that government by simply Being is an intractable problem.

This, however, is a species of petulance. This is angrily wiping the pieces from the game board because you’re losing or don’t understand the rules. 

The most dangerous aspect of the January 6th debacle is the rejection of fact in favor of a faux heroic narrative. And we’re seeing this play out in areas that are costing people their lives and their health. 

The rejection of fact is also a basic trait of American culture. If we don’t like what evidence shows us, we are adept at ignoring it or even violently suppressing it. It’s possible this is an aspect of our frontier days, to which we are closer than many other peoples. What you carry with you into the unknown may make the difference between resolve and despair. Manifest Destiny is little more than a rejection of reality in favor of a mythic narrative that justified genocide, theft, subsequent racism, and ideological colonialism. That even by our own founding principles we had no right to pursue it mattered not at all. We wanted what we wanted.

The 20th Century seemed like it would be different. Partly, as a nation, we’d already acquired what we wanted, so if here and there we started acting like the principled liberty-loving people we claimed to be, what harm? But we ran up against those lingering prejudices bolstered by a national narrative that now included the so-called “taming” of the West and learned that a lot of people cared nothing for truth and fact if it meant redefining who we were.

After World War II, another layer came into play, that of America as world leader. While there are many reasons for this, the primary one is that we were the only industrial power wholly intact when the smoke cleared, and had the resources to jump-start the rest of the world in rebuilding. This was not an altogether bad thing—many good ideas came out of the next couple of decades—but the fact that we had not revisited our own past shortcomings in any effective way led to a re-emergent nativism that then had the tools to dominate in ways it never had before.  After Vietnam and the repudiation by Movement Conservatives of everything from the Depression onward, the momentum shifted to feed a narrative that we had lost our way and that the government was the primary obstacle to returning to that “truer” Americanism. 

From the Eighties on, our national dialogue has been a tennis match of catch-phrases over issues too few realize are distractions. The massive tax cuts from Reagan onward have sapped our ability to address resource prejudice and alleviate economic and social disparities which are mostly the result of Side Picking, with the poor, the marginalized, the vulnerable overrun by interests seeking advantage over each other. We are and have been such a wealthy country that the effects of this did not overtake us in a politically meaningful way until—just to put a date to it for convenience—2008.

There is, in fact, a lot to be angry about across the political spectrum.

Which makes it all the more important to recognize those aspects of our polity that are vital to our common identity. 

There are no justifications for the attempt to overturn the election. If that were how we did things here, then if any election had deserved a reversal, it would have been Trump’s—he lost the popular election, and there was demonstrable interference in the campaigns. But as I said, we have had other elections that were questionable. We opted to remain committed to the process, because without that we could no longer, ever again, have relied on any election. Trump was installed despite problems because to do otherwise would have compromised our ability in future to conduct elections. The solution was the 2020 election. He lost. 

The attempt to overturn it—and as we are learning the attempt was many-layered and criminal on several levels—was a rejection of any standard of legitimacy. Success would have meant the end of the experiment, the loss of two-and-a-half centuries of democratic evolution, and the chaos of failed-state power-mongering. It would have meant the end. 

Arguing with people who reject anything but their own beliefs in the face of any and all counterargument or fact is a regrettably Sisyphean task. The more one argues, the more entrenched in their own take they seem to become. Those of us who are rightly alarmed must find a way to deal with this that doesn’t include ceding any legitimacy to their view. We have to do this, though, without ourselves becoming locked in an intractable adherence to a particular viewpoint. 

It has long been an open secret that one of the problems in our world is the collusion between government and private corporations. By and large, this has been a practical partnership, but it becomes toxic when people on the ground suffer under such systemic cooperation. Government makes it possible for private industry to make and distribute the goods and services we all need, but when that system fails to recognize that in the quest to become More it destroys, then we have the source of most social unrest. It is no wonder that people see government as a problem when it throws its support behind corporations that despoil. The Left wants to separate the two and make government responsive to ordinary people. The Right wants the government to disappear because it seems without government, private concerns could not roll over them at will. When we add the toxic ingredient of High Finance into the mix, people take second place to profit and the problem becomes confused. How do we maintain our civilization without one or the other?

I would be slightly more sympathetic to the Right if they actually had a proposal for going forward, but they do not. They have accepted the notion that Markets are “natural” and that just getting out of their way will solve many if not all problems. Their entire focus seems to be to minimize if not obliterate government regulation so this presumed utopia of free market innate genius can manifest.

Looked at this way, January 6th becomes an ill-conceived attempt to physically prevent the government from having any say in those Markets. The government is the problem, let’s destroy it, and then we’ll all be free!

In a way, I would feel better about it all if this were in fact underlying the insurrection. But this requires more consideration, something I sense few of them bothered with. Unfortunately, I think most of them are indifferent to such considerations. They have fed themselves for too long on the rants of people like Alex Jones and Sean Hannity, who have for their own aggrandizement spun a narrative of Orwellian proportions more akin to bad dystopian fiction than reality, and with Trump as cheerleader sought to be part of history. The teeth of misinformation have sunk into the throat of our country deeply and we may yet bleed out.

Long ago, I used to watch William F. Buckley. He was a masterful debater and his command of language exemplary. He argued conservative issues most eloquently, but there came a point at which it was obvious that he was no longer arguing from principle, but to win. He wanted to make his opponents look foolish, weak, he wanted to undermine their arguments and win the field, not to advance society or democracy or progress, but just to be the last intellectual standing. Some of the tortured positions he advanced became hard to follow because, ultimately, they had left the theater of reason. The world wasn’t like that and he wasn’t really a democrat but an elitist who thought a chosen few should be in charge. While he never quite came out and said that, it was implicit in his later stances. 

I thought then that perhaps Conservatism was over. It had lost its way. Rather than seeing his place taken by anyone of comparable intellectual heft, Buckley was superseded by a rogue’s gallery of lightweight demagogues, beginning with Rush Limbaugh. Today, all Conservatism seems in league with is global capital. It’s positions have shifted so far Right that centripetally it has dragged the Left with it so that even centrism looks Far Left compared to the mouthpieces of the Right.

January 6th marks, in my opinion, the stake through the heart of contemporary conservatism. Not because of what the rioters did but because in the intervening year only a few Republicans have stepped forward to repudiate it and advocate for justice. The rest are defending what happened, either openly or by attempting to thwart investigations. By silence and advocacy they have shown themselves in sympathy. Granted, many are looking at their base and trying to secure their office, but that is frankly no excuse. If holding office is more important than the reason the office is there, they do not deserve it. And I’m hearing no third way from any of them. That silence suggests they do not have one. As an ideology, they have nothing. 

I do not believe conservatism is dead, but it has left the field in any viable way. Unfortunately, it has done sufficient damage that we will be limping along for years before we learn how to walk again. If we do.

Proof? Well, if the widespread disenfranchisement in states by means of redistricting, voter purges, and curtailment of voting avenues is not sufficient to demonstrate a loss of faith on the part of the GOP in democracy, then the refusal to pass federal voter rights protections should be. There is no justification for this. None. This is an attempt to restrict access to the polls to secure positions otherwise untenable. It’s a cheat.

January 6th has made this evident, visible—and impossible to ignore. What we now do to address it will define us for decades to come.

Another Note On Whiteness

The last session of the Witnessing Whiteness workshop is coming up. We’ve read the last chapter in the book. While I have been somewhat ambivalent about much of this, I came across points in this final section that resonated strongly.

My ambivalence has to do with the idea of defining White Culture as a starting point for recognizing—and then witnessing—racism. Knowing who “we” are and where we come from sounds reasonable, but when you start trying to put that into concrete terms you realize that “culture” is such a slippery thing that getting a handle on it is tricky and can be exhausting. Like other subjects, we come face to face with the distinctions between tropes and foundations. So much of what we might casually name as aspects of culture are often little more than ephemeral occasions of fashion. What the fashions are built on, that’s another matter, and requires that we look more deeply than perhaps we know how. Or wish to.

Take, for instance, the naming of sports teams. On the surface, this is shallow ground. It’s a sports franchise, a game, an excuse to have a party. Fashion. Who cares what the team is called? (From my perspective, personally, this has always been the case because sports itself has always been, to me, ephemeral and trivial—my hometown baseball teams is the Cardinals. Named for a bird. How is that important to anything other than having a cute handle to identify a local club that plays a game which feeds a desire for public distraction? I am in the minority in this, recognizing that for many people this can be profoundly significant.) The name of a team is a handle. But we discover, sometimes to our surprise, how important such handles are to many people, especially when there is a move to change it. The reasons for the change matter. The backstory of the name, the associations, the pervasive impression made by the name…all these factors spring from underlying structures that usually go unremarked and unrecognized by most people, until challenged.

Knowing those deeper structures—the foundations of Culture—would seem necessary to, at a minimum, prevent difficult and often painful misunderstandings over what seem to be trivial matters. Why would anyone get violently upset over such things? Perhaps having the buried nerves of a less than pleasant past rubbed raw suggests that the upset is less to do with the name than with the historic details of what that name means to people outside the dominant culture—and what those inside that culture wish forgotten.

One argument in defense of offensive emblems—Indigenous mascots, in this instance—holds that these emblems are ideas attached to the subject and in no way are intended to imply anything about actual indigenous people.  They’re caricatures, based on (in this case) archaisms that no longer apply meaningfully to persons currently alive, intended to evoke nostalgia or media representations or isolated virtues associated with. It begins to sound silly. The idea that they are intended to honor the subjects also has sharp limits when you ask What about them is being honored? Basically, when you start questioning the whys of the emblems, you get to a point of diminishing defense and are left with the simple fact of appropriation. That at some point we felt entitled to appropriate those emblems for our own purposes, without meaningful consent, never occurs to the audiences at which they’re directed until the questions are raised.

And then you have what seems like an absurd debate. Absurd partly because the defenders of the emblems refuse to admit that there had never been any reason to do that other than the only thing of value in the emblem to them is that is was safely rendered powerless to be used to mean anything they felt like using it for.

An aspect of White Culture comes into play here:  white people are quite used to relegating to themselves the status of distinct individuals, but even in casual discourse tend to assign all members of any other ethnicity to a blanket definition and stripping the members of that group of their individuality.  Which means that the use of such emblems automatically defines the entire group according to the prejudices of the appropriators. Bluntly, all American Indians are the same and can be signified by a single emblem and no further effort need be taken to understand them as people.

We see this again and again. Pick any minority. All Jews are like this, the Irish are that, Blacks do this, Asians are—you get the idea.

It may be asked, with seeming reasonableness, why would any member of these groups agree to be so defined? They don’t have to participate in such categorization. Again, to put it bluntly, fair enough perhaps until a member of said group walks into a bank to do business the way anyone might expect business to be done, and the question has to be asked—how much of those emblematic definitions are in play on the part of the bank officer who will be determining the value and character of that person, whether or not they will allow business to be done according to the standards and rules that attach to the dealings they would have with a white customer?

Some definitions will not allow people to escape the preconceptions that follow them through the door by virtue of those caricatures so ardently defended by people who never have to worry about such things.

We know that by and large people think with heuristics. Rules of thumb, algorithms encapsulating complex ideas in largely automated responses, semi-conscious conceptual models that allow us to quickly move through life without having to stop and apply critical thinking to every decision. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman has presented findings that not only do people operate largely unselfconsciously, but that we can’t not operate that way. Our brains, evolved in conditions requiring responses to environments that will kill us for a moment’s inattention, are not actually capable of supporting fully conscious thought for more than a handful of minutes at a time. (Recently it has been determined that this period of conscious presence increases dramatically—when we’re in dialogue with someone else. The isolated individual suffers a deficit in this instance, something that will concern us later in this essay.) As we mature, the number of heuristics increases, and we rely on them to make quick judgments, respond to situations in minimal time, and navigate through a world of ritual, routine, and repetition.

But what it also means is that beliefs, points-of-view, prejudices, “received wisdom” and the like tend to operate on us the same way. We go with the “givens” rather than reconsider things with each situation. Such things reside just behind consciousness, often as part of our sense of self, and we tend to be unaware of them until challenged. This makes changing one’s mind difficult at best and changing other people’s minds Sisyphean. What does this mean with regards to racism? It is simply easier to treat members of out groups as all one thing rather than do the work of individuating them. And if that single group definition is negative, well.

(I have listened to racists try to redefine a black individual they happen to like in such a way as to preserve the group definition while recognizing there is something different about “this one.” The definition that always got to me was “He’s a white man in a black man’s body.”)

But wouldn’t white people represent All One Thing in the same way? Yes and no. This is where Witnessing Whiteness enters with an observation that triggered this entire line of thought.

…the individualistic perspective depends upon the conception of the self as autonomous, independent, self-determining, unique, separate, and free. Remember that this orientation matches the modern worldview, which is also associated with being Western and white for many people. 

The shift in self-identity which occurred during the Enlightenment and which enabled people to develop a sense of self-worth apart from institutions, many of which sought to oppress them, is reflected in this passage. The Western ideal of the Individual allows for the concepts of personal autonomy and freedom to acquire real meaning. But in the fraught reality of a frontier world alá the 18th Century North American landscape, it acquired the germ of a pathology which today has flowered into a number of toxic blooms.

Unfortunately, the suggestion that we need to challenge individualism can be easily misunderstood and resisted. This occurs because many confuse individualism with the job of becoming an individual. These are two completely different ways of relating to the world. The modern self who subscribes to rugged individualism risks becoming isolated, disconnected, and competitive. 

This problem—Individualism—is a pervasive issue bound up with our national myths as much as it is with the psychology of self-reliance.  And both those issues are bound up with what I am calling Pathological Ownership. The whole question of Individualism is problematic here, because it is in the end unachievable. No one can do everything in the claimed isolation of a bootstrapping autonomy. We have been having this argument for decades now with regards to big business and taxes and community obligations, but it begins with individuals who wish to see themselves as wholly independent, self-contained, and unalloyed in their will to be. You might ask, where did this idea come from? Among other sources, this flows from the fount of pseudo-wisdom penned by Ayn Rand, who has become a touchstone for the self-described indispensable man. There is no such thing, really, but there seems to be many people who wish to be, or at least be seen that way. The one trait that seems to bind them all together is a desire to be free of any obligation not entirely of their own choosing. To do that, however, one would have to cut oneself off from almost everyone else.

Rand is not really the problem. She wrote stories. The problem would seem to be in the American apprehension of Story.

There was a clue to this in the chapter under discussion, where Tochluk  makes an observation about a movie which I did not expect. Minority Report, the Steven Spielberg film based on a Philip K. Dick story, pops up, and she describes a scene concerned with a possible future in which everyone is watched, identified, and targeted for advertising. She claimed to be “horrified” by the very notion. How this related to her topic struck me as less important than her reaction, which is not new to me. I write science fiction and one of the things that always dismays me with people who are not especially familiar with it as a genre is how they see it as predictive—that the futures described are how the authors either think they are going to happen or, worse yet, what the author wishes to see happen.

Which led me to an observation about how Americans—some Americans—treat (or mistreat) stories. Science fiction quite didactically and all other genres less so presents scenarios of possibilities, for our entertainment certainly, but also, depending on the book, for discussion. The dialogue is what matters, not the prescriptive element, which with few exceptions is nonexistent. But I’m not at all sure Americans take stories this way. Many of us don’t seek the dialogue. We don’t want to learn from stories, we want to be the stories. Or at least the hero.

Now, this is a perfectly normal kind of process—for children. Role-playing, trying on different personas, looking for models. But this is learning. If we look at this in concert with the process of Individualism described above and in the book, this can lead some to very surreal and often destructive places. (I am minded here of conversations I’ve had over a movie like The Searchers. I’ve known people who identified John Wayne’s character, Ethan, as the Hero and even wished to be like him. When I pointed out that Ethan was a seriously flawed, even sociopathic character, they were dismayed, even angry. They did not see his character as instructive in the sense that “this is something you should not become” but as a role model to emulate. Because it was John Wayne. Because he was the Hero.)

We are raised with stories—nothing unique, all cultures have stories—but here the stories are taken as in some way biblical, certainly nationalistic. We can see part of this in the perennial argument over banned books. This is nothing more than an attempt to privilege “sacred” texts over those that may lead to other conclusions.

Look at the current state of politics and you can see how the three things are combining destructively. Individualism, Pathological Ownership, and Story As Law. (We hear analysts talking about seizing the Narrative. We should pay closer attention to that entire process.)

Now consider these things in relation to race.

The Individualist eschews recognition of community as something on which he or she is dependent, because that would obligate the individual; ignoring the internal elements of Being Human, a set of traits taken perhaps from stories is adopted in lieu of an openness of genuine self-knowledge and an embrace of what is common; and an assertion of primacy of possession so that these things are claimed as Owned, because sharing is seen as a zero-sum game. Other Individuals may also own things and be in some sense equal (but what does that actually mean in this formulation? Equal to what. since we are all unique?), but since all Individuals by definition are “like us” then those not like us cannot be Individuals and therefore can claim no privileges.

If we believe that racism is, in Shelly Tochluk’s phrasing, a dis-ease, a pathology, then it is by definition irrational. But the irrational is not causeless. It has components, attributes, defining features. Granted, these are perversions, and the things from which they spring may not be in themselves perverse. If we are going to examine Culture as a source, then we need to look at those aspects of it which have become distorted. I am here offering my conclusions on what the elements of White Culture are that have brought us here.

One more observation. It is not necessary that everyone or even a majority of a group believe a thing in order for that thing to affect the entire population. Beliefs can acquire momentum, and like gravity can bend the whole along an orbit even a majority may not approve. What can make it extremely difficult to correct is when those toxic elements are founded in things we all more or less approve, and which may have no intrinsically toxic effects.

 

Whiteness

I’ve been participating in a Witnessing Whiteness workshop. The program is through the YWCA and Left Bank Books has been the main supplier of the book for several years now. The Y program is ongoing and there are other reading groups using it. The book, by Shelly Tochluk, has a relatively narrow premise that expands over time to encompass the national (global?) debate over racism. Her jumping-off point is that a serious problem exists in that we have no clear definition of White Culture. As the dominant “race” in the West, at least, we collectively see no reason to self-identify as a specific group with common characteristics which set us apart from other groups, i.e African Americans, Asians, Hispanic/LatinX, etc. That we recognize such other groups as distinct cultures apart from our own, but we don’t possess a framework of our own culture that can let us know when we’re being White. As the euphemism goes, our culture “goes without saying.”

Admittedly, much of this felt off-base. The concentration on skin color, I felt, underappreciated all the other factors that go into questions of inequality. Everyone, to greater or lesser degrees, is pigeonholed within our society. Aware or not, most of us do not enjoy what we seem to mean by freedom, which is to say, a geographically, economically, politically, and socially open, porous commonweal. Most of us do not move freely between groups, communities, or classes. Many of us enjoy the semblance of such freedom—we can go anywhere (pretty much) we want for vacation or to visit friends, we can access festivals, shopping venues, theaters, we can (presumably) vote in any election for any candidate, and we believe we can change our economic situation more or less at will. (I acknowledge this is a presumption not always supported by ability, which is dependent on many things not equally distributed.) But for the most part, we remain in our local communities, we cannot be a real part of any community we want (we can only be tourists), and the economic mobility we tell ourselves we have does not exist if we look at larger demographic data. There seems to be just enough socioeconomic mobility to justify assumptions that anyone, from anywhere, can become wealthy. The reality is far more uncertain, with a substantial number of people remaining within class brackets and experiencing only small shifts.

When one factors in race (and poverty) the intractability appears to increase.

The difference is enough that it is impossible to accept the oft-stated popular belief that racism plays only a minor role in how our society functions.

The goal of Witnessing Whiteness is to define, as concretely as possible, the culture in which it plays out—namely, White Culture.

This is hard. At least, I’ve found it so, because first one must define what comprises Culture. After several weeks of this, I’ve come to the conclusion that Americans (mainly white Americans, but to some extent probably everyone) are culture-averse.

Culture has anthropological implications. It is, in this formulation, a box that contains the components of a community identity. Or, for the purposes of this argument, a set of constraints. In short, it is ostensibly everything Americans claim to reject.

It is very difficult to define something while simultaneously rejecting the tools for the task. When asked, as Shelly Tochluk is asking, for a definition and recognition of White Culture, we tend to avoid the methods, feeling that to use them—and then accept the answers—would limit us in ways we have already, sans proof, decided are unAmerican. We refuse to allow a forensic evaluation of what makes us who we are. Partly because we might not like the answers. Partly because we feel there’s something special about us that transcends categorization. And partly because we’re suspicious of anything that smacks of direction, control, and demythologizing our self-image.

America—specifically the United States, but I suspect a bit of this adheres to the entire hemisphere—is built on the ideal of the Self Made Man. The Individual. The Yeoman Farmer, the Frontiersman, the Mountain Man, we all like to see ourselves as the captains of our own destiny. From time to time we’ve been explicit about it. Manifest Destiny, the White Man’s Burden (although that spans the Atlantic). In some ways it’s an empowering idea, but it has been used to underpin suppressions of any movement to form useful communities for the redress of grievances. Union busting is born of a corrupted use of the ideal. (Of course, one could legitimately ask if the ideal is not already a corruption, but maybe for a later time.) We are the land of the Individual. Individual liberties, individual choice, individual dreams.

(Unless you’re a woman or Black, Asian, Latino, Hispanic, etc etc etc)

This ideal has been tragically wedded to another idea that turns it into a more destructive paradigm: the sacredness of ownership.

Two things informed the American Revolution that went on to both benefit and damage us. The Enlightenment and the migration of disenfranchised groups throughout the colonial period.

The Enlightenment informed the creation of the political template—the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the country-wide dialogue around them. The immigrants brought a desire to be free to direct their own lives, which became the basis of our concept of ownership. One of the transformational aspects of the early United States, predating it even, was the idea that anyone could own, without fear of arbitrary loss, property and by extension their lives. (I take as understood that none of these things was universal, but the ideas became geared into our national myths.) While the founders of the colonies were mostly moneyed, aristocratic, or both, the people they opened the country up to were decidedly neither. As the European presence here evolved, concessions, inducements, promises had to be made to get them to leave their homelands and come to a place where they might easily die in short order. The one that worked best was the promise of their own land. Ownership.

This evolved and you can track it obliquely by the changing requirements placed on indentured servants. Witnessing Whiteness has a chapter on this history and has its own interpretation. I do not dispute that interpretation, that as time passed a distinction was established between white servants and both indigenous slaves and African slaves, a process that developed along with a growing awareness of race differences in relation to rights and property. Add to this the inducements for the separate but related practice of convincing people to uproot and settle in the so-called New World.

As to the consequences of the Enlightenment, that may seem a bit esoteric but it had very tangible results. A significant aspect of the Enlightenment was a rejection on the part of the Philosophes of the hegemony of the Past. The Philosophes were convinced that the Past was a tremendous weight and set of chains on the human spirit. Europe, at least, had been looking backward for centuries. It was time to turn the collective gaze to the future, but to do that civilization had be set free of a dead, useless past. In 1783, the political flower of that conviction was a government without a king. Without an aristocracy, either. Without, presumably, heritable privilege. It was a profound break with the Past.  With the further innovation that government should be not only answerable to the People but by some mechanism come from the People, you have the basic components of the revolution.*

The unfolding reality of this, however, was an eventual rejection of tradition, a great turning away from the customs that bound people to a culture they had fled.

A people without a past will replace it with something.

What we did here depends on where you look, but in general the West became our past. The West in many forms, but essentially an ever-receding goal, a constant horizon, there to be found, conquered, and remade.

How this factored in to the parallel establishment of White Culture (here in the United States) is complex, but not hard to see in its effect. The Conquest of the West was transformed into epic theater and all the major players were White Men in conflict with non-white people. The success of the conquest was sold as justification for the kind of self-worth normally provided by communal affiliations, the kind which had been rejected when immigrants arrived here, and the supporting institutions of that conquest then embedded in the national psyché as necessary to the triumph of the revolutionary spirit in concert with a growing conviction that we are the beneficiaries of Divine Providence.

And what did that look like? A white man standing his ground, clearing land, making his way, with wife and children at hand to support him. (Before we have the tools to interpret the world around us in terms of systems, we use images, and some of those images persist well beyond their utility and distort our later ability to understand.)

What about all the others? The indigenous people? African slaves? Hispanics? Well, per the myth, none of them have legitimate claim to what has been wrested from them. The entire foundation of Manifest Destiny, which dominated a good part of the 19th Century and lingered on in various justifications was United States policy to this very day. was a simple notion that we owned all this, we just had to get the squatters out of the way.

If you are trying to find a basis on which to define White Culture, you can start with this.  An Enlightenment concept which has become entangled with colonialism and capitalism, personified by the Self-Made Man. Which is a false ambition because it cannot be achieved. No one is self made. It’s a fallacious formulation that takes an ideal result and then goes back through causes to determine how one got to that result. But the forensics are biased, rejecting anything that detracts from achievement done in isolation, unsupported and unhelped, entirely boot-strapped from nothing to success. We rejectthe contradictions under layers of tradition, custom, and system-rigging all redefined and edited out of the final result. Little Johnny’s community makes it possiblefor his parents to guide and direct him through every obstacle on the path to a successful future and when he gets there we tell him he did all of it himself. What was intended as a philosophy to liberate the individual from restrictions of systems and customs that defined and delimited what he or she could be irrespective of any personal dreams, desires, or ambitions mutated into a philosophy that built systems designed to produce that liberated man but then rejected the idea that he could not be that ideal outside of those systems. Rejected the idea that we are each of us only meaningful in relation to the community that nurtures us.

This has become an aspect of what I have begun to call Pathological Ownership—the practice of trying to exercise possession of everything that is determined to be important to us. Not important as inspiration but important as a kind of material object that can be owned.

How does this relate to racism? Well. The privileging of skin color as something owned, not as something one simply has. And as an object of possession it becomes part and parcel of all other defining possessions. A cache, if you will, to easily identify the meaning of all those other objects—like rights. Because an aspect of ownership is to exercise exclusiveness, to dictate distribution, and to hold a form of title. In this sense, ownership is implicit—ownership of space, the objects in it, and the assumption that everything is potentially there for one’s personal use. The stronger the sense of ownership, the wider the sphere of ownable objects. Until it includes people.

This is nothing new. Ownership of people is as old as civilization. The difference is that in times past this was as aspect of power not race. And those who had no power did not see themselves as entitled to it. The distorted apprehensions in which we live create an idea that the power involved has nothing to do with the entitlement assumed. That because we share a single trait—white skin—that we all have a de facto right to behave as if we have the power.

Naturally, this runs headlong into realities that would suggest otherwise, but it has become useful for those with the power to cultivate that attitude as universally as possible within the self-designated group—white people. All the myths and euphemisms and assumptions of our “culture” feed into a stew of presumption that ignores class (even as class is fully in play in other ways) and tells who rightfully may own.

Those who are not of that group are regarded, if not outright labeled, as thieves.

And you can tell them by the way they look.

Two observations before I close: one, it must be kept in mind that for something like this to maintain, it is not necessary that all or even most of a population subscribe to it. Most of us accept as given many other beliefs and philosophies which mitigate things like this. We are not homogeneous, ideologically or otherwise. But while it is likely true that most of us do not act this way, much less believe it necessarily, enough of our culture does to effect the rest. Without acknowledging it, the rest of us have no traction to suppress it, and the fact is we move through a world shaped by this kind of arrogance. We accept it without even trying to identify it because, for most of us, it seems to work. The difficulty with dialogues like this is the fact that so many people are relatively unaffected, at least in a material way.+  Actual slaveowners in the 19th Century were decidedly a minority, but their culture convinced the majority of their fellow countrymen to defend the practice, or at least the institutions that depended on slavery.

The other thing is that what I’m suggesting here is not intended as any kind of antidote to racism. I’m addressing here the specific aim of Witnessing Whiteness, at least as I understand it, which is to define White Culture. The idea is that we cannot address the conflicts associated with racism until we can know the culture that profits by it.++  It is annoyingly difficult to describe the contours and lineaments of one’s own culture—much like asking a fish to define wetness.   I’m suggesting here that this might be a useful place to start. A major aspect of American Culture is all about ownership. Ownership as a practice is not exclusive to us, but I believe the conditions of our founding and the history of our development have engineered a unique “take” on the idea, which has become, as I suggest, pathological. The ramifications are troublesome. If nothing else, it has rendered our concepts of freedom….ironic.

 

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*That was the American Revolution, not the war against England.  It is all too common to see the so-called Revolutionary War as the important thing, but it was not the Revolution. The Revolution was the establishment of a new political and ideological paradigm in the form of the Constitution.

+ I believe that is beginning to change. The aspect of Pathological Ownership we are all coming into conflict with is the growing wealth gap and now the economic shocks of a system that is trying to reject safety nets and the changes in economic structures needed to deal with the transforming nature of work and the looming problems of the environment.  More and more of us are now feeling the consequences of this situation.

++And we are so very much about profit, so much so that we cannot find our way to accepting in any practical way the reality that some things cannot, must not, be done for profit. For some people, such a suggestion is gibberish. The assault on rights is an example of this. If we can’t make money on it, what good is it? And if it stands in the way of making money, it should be eliminated.

The Look

We’ve all seen this, or something like it. There’s a look you get from someone who has expressed an opinion contrary to your view that you have countered. As the discussion continues and you keep presenting new facts and new formulations to show that what he/she is asserting is in error, occasionally you receive this Look. Almost a smile, a barely repressed glint of mischief in the eyes, a kind of smugness that says, “You just don’t get it, do you? You just can’t see that none of that matters and that I’m right.”

It is an infuriating look. But it is also the look of a true believer, perhaps a zealot, someone who has learned to rewrite reality so well that all the facts, truths, and ideas in the world fail to persuade.

What then becomes more infuriating is when you ask them to explain themselves, offer the whys and whereofs of their position, and tell you how what you have said is so wrong—they refuse. Perhaps it is because they believe the evidence for their position is so strong, so obvious that they do not need to explain it.

More likely, it is a combination of two primary factors: one, that what they believe is to them so right that evidence to the contrary, regardless how fact-based it may be, is by definition irrelevant, and two, like any faith-based assertion, explaining it is always a reduction.

Personally, I think a third factor renders the first two less important—a refusal to entertain the idea that you might have a point.

Because that would admit doubt. And doubt is kryptonite to zealotry.

We saw that look recently, on the face of Congressman Matt Gaetz when being schooled by the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff on the utility of learning, of understanding. Gaetz, smiling and slightly shaking his head, was trying to convey his astonishment at the general for holding opinions which Gaetz found incomprehensible. There is truth in this—Gaetz did find them incomprehensible, because he likely did not comprehend them. He certainly did not expect them. Rather than draw back and reconsider, that expression on his face suggests he would simply double-down on his expectations and disregard what he had heard. Given a little time, he will regroup and proceed as if the general had said nothing.

The philosopher David Hume established the groundwork for our apprehension of fact. It seems obvious today, but till Hume it was not, which is that all that we know or can know comes through our senses, and therefore absolute knowledge—about anything—is mediated by filters which are utterly subjective and by degrees unreliable. In other words, while we can make any number of accurate statements about the world, and can over time refine our observations so that they more and more accurately approximate reality, we can never know absolutely and with the kind of certainty which obliterates error. Because we are sensate creatures and our sense are tied to desires and a host of responses that mitigate objectivity to one degree or another, our conclusions must always be conditional.

This is not to say we cannot “know” anything in such a way that we cannot rely on our knowledge to navigate the world and even understand it to a very large degree. Those same senses tell us we’re on the right track and allow us to perceive the consequences of our learning in action in such away that we are justified in a high degree of confidence. Rather, it means we can never reach a final state of knowing anything, not to the extent that we can claim absolute comprehension.

We get along quite well with the margin left us. To claim that we can know nothing at all is the same error as claiming absolute certainty in anything. Knowledge, like experience, turns out to have a statistical valence, even as we may be caught up in the kind of illusion of certainty of which zealots dream.

We can even be certain at times. For the purposes of making the next decision, for choosing among options, for planning, we can rely on certainty. At least for a short while. It’s an impression, necessary for moving reliably through the world.

The problem is when we take hold of certainty and declare it absolute and never allow it to pass into the probabilistic stew from which our actions are determined. When we stop allowing for the possibility of error or misjudgment or change.

“Why would I doubt something I know to be true?”

For the sake of argument, let’s set that aside for a moment. It’s not so much the thing invested with absolute confidence that can be a problem, but the array of secondary ideas and next-steps that evolve from it. If you are so convinced of a then obviously b must follow. You can construct a causal chain of decisions which can lead to a profoundly dysfunctional place (the Crusades, anyone? Flat Earth? 6000 year-old-Earth?) Doubt is the necessary ingredient to keep our options open to the possibility of getting the logical conclusions of an idea wrong. Doubt, to return to my kryptonite statement, may not stop the zealot, but it may stop us from following him.  (The zealot may have several motivations and bases for belief and action apart from the immediate subject, most not amenable to reason.)

But if Hume is correct—and I believe he is—it doesn’t matter which part of the chain you look at, doubt is essential at every link because the source of knowledge can only ever be grasped by way of the senses, which are by no means open to all aspects of any subject.  (Knowing god, for instance, can only be an assertion of will on our part, because even according to our descriptions of god, it is an impossible thing to “know” because it exceeds the limits of our senses. We ought, if we’re going to adhere to that path, recognize that we can only ever know an idea of god, and that the doubt comes into play when attempting to determine right or wrong based on that incomplete knowledge, because a large part of that claim to “know” god is Expectation.)

The ability to usefully deploy doubt, though, is the flip side of the problem. Disciplined skepticism is a skill and requires learning. Otherwise you end up as ineffective as the zealot, doubting so automatically and universally that decisions can never be made, or at least not constructively.  Consequently, doubt can scare people. If they think by doubting everything they stand on is sand, their lives will be buffeted by a world in which they find no purchase. It would only be sensible for them to grab hold of the first certainty they feel they can rely on.

Those are two anchors of the curve. Most people utilize a combination. Investing their faith in certain things while dealing with everything else out of a utilitarian skepticism.

Unfortunately, there will be times their skepticism fails them simply because something appears to be part of the area of certainty in which they invest.

But about that “look” I mentioned at the beginning. That’s the look you get very often from someone who has decided on a posture of absolute certainty not because of any survey of options or counterarguments, but because a decision has been taken to ignore everything else, and then turn the responsibility for error on everyone else.

What seems to have been decided is that anyone speaking doubt to this person is engaging in either duplicity or is, in fact, unintelligent. (A third possibility is that they are holding said certainty in bad faith, because what they are actually after is control and power.) In either case, they’re regarding you with a self-satisfied smugness born of “knowing” they know better than you. They have to believe, on some level, that you’re stupid.  And if you ask them to explain it to you, to show you what you’re missing, often they won’t. They’ll give some version of “you wouldn’t understand” and move on.

The reason they do this is that they can’t explain it. Not in such a way to show you how you’ve erred. In order to do that, they would have to understand it themselves, deeply, in such a way that would allow them to engage in a dialogue about it. That willingness to engage indicates humility. Humility and absolute certainty have an uneasy relationship.

Now, let me state here that this is not always the case. Many people who live in certainty, especially about matters of faith, are genuinely humble. You can tell them from the zealots because they will engage. They’ll do their best to explain, they’ll discuss it. You may find yourselves in a bog eventually where the limits of engagement butt against that certainty, but there will be dialogue.

But you won’t ever get That Look from them.

That Look denotes someone who has finally substituted Absolute Certainty for the kind of openness that leads to understanding. The next step will be to silence criticism, denounce alternatives, and snuff out inquiry.

That look Matt Gaetz gave General Mark Milley. Gaetz possibly knows very well that Milley is right, but acknowledging that will not aid Gaetz in his agenda. So Milley has to be wrong or stupid. Regardless, Gaetz can’t explain.  He can only offer The Look.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Being Overwhelmed By

Too many things.

I’ve been on Facebook for years and I have a great many people on my friends list. I belong to a few interest groups, one of which was, till recently, a Science Fiction discussion page. Natural fit, yes? I left the group. I had two comments arbitrarily deleted by the admin.

I hasten to explain that this was not an arbitrary decision on my part, to leave, at least not as arbitrary as it sounds. Nor am I particularly thin-skinned. This was a question of how much time I’m willing to waste. It had entirely to do with the nature of the post to which I responded and the nature of my comment. Thinking it over, I realize that this sort of thing is indicative of a problem most of us are facing.

Now, to the post. It was about Nichele Nichols and her iconic role, Lt. Uhura. One of the responses quoted Whoopie Goldberg, who recalled seeing her first Star Trek episode and running into the other room to alert her family that there was a “black woman on the television and she ain’t a maid.” This led to someone demanding that “politics be kept off the board! This is for science fiction, not politics.”  Well, I had to scratch my head. “How,” I asked myself, “do you talk about SF without discussing politics?”

That was the nature of my response. Mainly, to point this out, and that in some 50 + years of reading the stuff, I cannot recall a single worthwhile work that did not, even if buried in layers of subtext, have something political about it. Because science fiction is inherently political. It’s all about change. Worldbuilding? Substitute the phrase “regime change.” You don’t get there without politics. Utopia? That’s a mode centered on political theory—outdated, perhaps, but nonetheless. Dystopia? That is about the collapse of one form of politics and the substitution of another. Interstellar travel? Hugely expensive, entire nations would have to vote for it. Politics. New technologies replacing old? Political ramifications from beginning to end.  And meeting aliens, well! We have actual experience with that on a cultural level. Major politics ensue.

There’s no getting away from it. Science fiction is fundamentally, inherently political. It can’t not be. As soon as you suggest the future will be different, somewhere in there is a political question, and if you then go ahead and describe how it got to be different, you’re up to your eyeballs in politics.

So the demand to keep politics out of a discussion of SF is prima facie ridiculous.

Now, really, I know what the poster meant. He didn’t want present-day, in-the-news politics interjected in what he regarded as his “safe” escape medium. But as soon as Nichele Nichols as Lt. Uhura came up, photograph and all, that was not possible, because she was all about equality, and that is an argument we are having.  At the time she was first cast in that part, it was for many people incendiary politics. The character of Uhura was a slap in the face to white supremacists, a statement that the status quo not only had to change but would change. Damn right it was political.

But this is an indication of something we may be in danger of losing, at least for a short time, and that is the ability to talk about such things without descending into a partisan mud wrestle. Not that we ever possessed this ability completely. I remember many a conversation that proceeded along on what one might describe as a theoretical basis, and it would be civil and interesting. But there was always a line, usually somewhere that a suggestion was made along the lines of “how come we don’t do this now?” Then ranks and minds closed.

But there was that space, for a short while, where issues could be discussed like adults…

That space has shrunk in recent years.

So we end up with the absurd demand from some who seem not to realize that what they ask is not possible, not if a real discussion is to be had. Keep politics out of science fiction?

Get real.

But people are overwhelmed lately. I know I am. It manifests in a brevity of response to stupidity. It manifests in my growing willingness to call certain things stupid rather than politely engage until some clue as to the source of said stupidity emerges. I have neither time or patience lately, because the stupid is threatening to destroy too much.

It may well be, though, that we should develop a new appreciation for science fiction. All things being equal, it may end up being the last “safe” place to discuss these things among people on opposite sides of an issue.

For the sake of the future, it would be worth a try.

Pathological Ownership

Beth Moore has left the Southern Baptist Conference. If you are unaware of her and what this means, you should look into it. Beth Moore has for many years occupied a special place within that community—a preacher without portfolio, one might say, as the SBC does not permit women to hold the title “pastor.” The straight-up “pure quill” fundamentalism they espouse holds the inferred Biblical injunctions inviolable in this instance, but she has been such a forceful speaker and operates such a large organization that they are loathe to relegate her to silence. So she held that special position.

Till now.

She has split with them over Trump. The schism is instructive. Ms. Moore cannot find common ground with the majority of her colleagues over Trump.

“He became the banner, the poster child for the great white hope of evangelicalism, the salvation of the church in America,” she said. “Nothing could have prepared me for that.”

Since 2016 she has been on the outside of the SBC over this issue. She identified Trump as an exemplar of everything they should stand against, and yet she was met with silence, then disapproval, then warnings, and finally with the loss of her publisher. She could not understand the attitude of her (male) colleagues in their support for this man she saw as a walking “poster child” for evil.

To be sure, this has puzzled those outside the evangelical camp all along. The slogans and protestations over perceived moral lapses in Democrats would seem to support a no-holds-barred moralism that should have found Trump utterly unacceptable. And yet we have been witness to very public campaigns of image rehabilitation all along. It has been with mixed incomprehension and horror that we have seen people who flew into paroxysms of condemnation over Clinton’s behavior make showings of almost servile support (bordering on worship) for a man who bragged about pussy-grabbing and attempted to pay off a porn star to keep her from talking about her paid services to him. The very public ridicule he heaped on anyone who did not fit a shallow model of Americanism that combined a host of clichés and segregated anyone who didn’t meet the standard—essentially the acts of a bully picking on the weak—seemed to gain favor with the very people who claim Jesus as their exemplar. Beth Moore saw this for what it was and tried to convince the SBC to abandon its support for him, and instead found herself more and more at odds with them, more and more isolated.

It is fair to ask what is going on with this enormous contradiction. How could the self-professed moral arbiters of the country, the Christian Right, support this?

Beth Moore’s ambiguous status holds much of the answer.

It is by now a convention that in many religions women are relegated to secondary (or lesser) status. One may puzzle about how this can still pertain in a time when the evidence for any rational justification for it has been shown to be nonexistent. Certainly it is an aspect of male privilege, but that does not satisfactorily explain the complicit acquiescence of so many women. Moore is a good example of the conundrum. (Just as with people like Michele Bachman, who espouses a paradoxical belief that women should be subservient yet she herself sees no problem with holding leadership positions.) In Moore’s case, she has been in accord with the evangelical attitudes toward women and accepted a lesser status even while she has risen to a commanding position in her community. She felt the larger message important and, no doubt, felt protected within the larger community.

But when Trump’s very public attitudes toward women became a very public issue, and she protested, that community seemed to withdraw its protection.

In my opinion, this apparent betrayal is due to a basic misunderstanding which is not only endemic to communities like the SBC, but to our society as a whole, and it has to do with Ownership.

The only reason to deny equality to women and then justify it, you have to understand who thinks who owns what.

In Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel, The Dispossessed, there is a scene early on which strikes the issue squarely. It is a flashback of the protagonist, Shevek, as a child in, basically, preschool:

…the fat infant was at this moment coming towards the knobby one rapidly…he approached out of boredom or sociability, but once in the square of sunlight he discovered it was warm there. He sat down heavily beside the knobby one, crowding him into the shade.

The knobby one’s blank rapture gave place at once to a scowl of rage. He pushed the fat one, shouting “Go ‘way!”

…The knobby one stood up. His face was a glare of sunlight and anger. His diapers were about to fall off. “Mine!” he said in a high, ringing voice. “Mine sun!”

“It is not yours,” the one-eyed woman said with the mildness of utter certainty. “Nothing is yours. It is to use.  It is to share. If you will not share it, you cannot use it.” And she picked the knobby baby up with gentle inexorable hands and set him aside, out of the square of sunlight.

The knobby one shook all over, screamed, “Mine sun!” and burst into tears of rage.

Baby Shevek has determined that things belong to him. Personally. Perfectly natural, to a degree. The world is centered on him, he feels he has a right to the patch of sunlight, that he can, in fact, own it. We read the passage with a mix of amusement and enlightenment. We recognize this to be an infant’s response to the reality of the world.

But.

Our culture is based, largely if not wholly, on an idea of ownership that was in the beginning a redress of imbalance. The idea that anyone, regardless of “station”, could own property was radical, especially in its unremarked egalitarianism. Communal ownership was more common, but this was not the aspect of ownership that captured the imagination—rather, it was the sole ownership, the possibility the individual, any individual, could own outright the equivalent of a kingdom that became the unquestioned ethos of the American experiment. This idea—so powerful, so very American in its expression if not its origins—fueled the growth of the United States and rocketed us to heights unparalleled in history.

And it underlies everything that is currently wrong with the republic. It has always had its dark side, it has never been free of abuse, but it has gone through cycles during which it was tempered—by circumstance, by public morality, by the very excesses of those most adept at acquisition. Boom and Bust cycles are the product of poorly controlled acquisition. Theodore Roosevelt knew it and attacked it. His relative, FDR, went further.

But it’s very difficult to regulate that which is an outgrowth of a cultural feature, part of our own mythology, our identity—our psychology. Any attempt to regulate it feels like theft.

This is not new, by any means, but it has become so dominant in our culture as to be like the very air we breathe, at least for some. Ownership has come to possess us as the only worthwhile aspect of anything and everything. If looked at from this perspective, all our present ethical and social conundrums clarify, from taxes to fashion, gun ownership to healthcare, voting rights to marriage, property to opinions, abortion to minimum wage.

What Trump has done for the membership of the SBC that puts them at odds with Beth Moore and seems so perverse to many of us is to reaffirm for them what they feel proprietary about, what they believe they rightfully own, that their claims of possession are legitimate. Beth Moore does not, for them, have a right to be shocked and repulsed by Trump because she is not an owner. They are. To put it as bluntly as possible, while perhaps most of them are dismayed and censorious about Trump’s pussy-grabbing, it remains a fact for them that the pussy is there for him to grab. His grabbing it makes it his, because the woman does not own it. Women’s sexuality is not theirs.

Beth Moore does not even have a right to her own voice—they have tried to take that away from her—but only has use of it because it serves the self-presumed owners.

Absurd? When you look back at the history of personal rights over the centuries, one thing becomes clear—it always revolves around some formulation of ownership. As the franchise expanded, those opposed railed against it out of a sense of privilege, that they are losing something which they act as if they owned. What we are seeing right now across the country is exactly that—people trying to limit voting rights, reduce them, take them away from those they see as a threat. (Because the consequences of such expanded voting might impinge on other things that self-styled elites feel are theirs.) Many reasons are given, but the presumption that such restrictions are even considered is based on a notion of proprietary civic ownership that goes back centuries.

Plato discussed communal space, where everyone in a polis “owned” things in common. Aristotle thought this was a bad idea since in his view (to simplify) common ownership like that would dis-incentivize care, that without the added encouragement of private ownership, no one would feel obligated to preserve, maintain, or build. Aristotle was the one “good pagan” that the Catholic Church used to build its own social ethics and so this idea came into the mainstream of thought through the dominant religions of the modern era. Plato and Aristotle approved of limited forms of democracy, but felt that not everyone was suited to participate equally and Aristotle made no bones about believing only elite males had a natural right to ownership, which meant the ability to participate in the politics of the polis. Hence the franchise came down to us from ideas of suitability and because so much history, property, conquest, and nation-building has accrued around these ideas since, it is difficult to tease them apart. They are the air we breathe, as I said.

There has always been a cycle of balances set against this. Simple ability to enforce, the reach of government and church, the situation on the ground at any given place and time—all have made a pure form of this hard to achieve and there has always been some push-back. But we cannot seem to be rid of it. One would have thought that by the Enlightenment, the categorical denials of agency necessary would have fallen by the wayside, and yet…

Henry Home, Lord Kames (1696 – 1792) was a major figure in the Scottish Enlightenment, a patron of David Hume and Adam Smith, among others. He, with others, established the Philosophical Society of Scotland. A precursor to the much more influential work of Adam Smith, he was concerned about the importance of property to society. The economics aside, when it came to the franchise, he wrote:

“Those who depend for food on bodily labor, are totally void of taste, of such taste at least as can be of use in the fine arts. This consideration bars the greater part of mankind; and for the remaining part, many by a corrupted taste are unqualified for voting.”

With some allowance for the passage of much history, this would have fit rather well with Aristotle (and even Plato). Specific justifications aside, the idea that it is not only permissible but desirable to exclude certain people from participation is clear.

The rest of the 18th Century, in terms of Enlightenment thinkers, wrestled with questions of nature, merit, innate value. Property emerged as a key concern and with the creation of the United States, the momentum of such concerns barreled on with increasing force until, today, property has become everything.

The United States, however, has an in-built conflict. The Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights are neither one based on such blatant exclusions and form the basis of a tension that has grown along with the self-conception of the country. Property, as it turns out, is only valuable when made exclusive. Politics, however, always intrudes on the uses of property, which brings in the concerns of those excluded. Rights occupy a special space that seem beholden to the ephemeral even as the exercise of Rights inevitably impacts the temporal. Because we have a love-hate relationship with ideas of property that transcend mere material objects, the inextricable dependence of one on the other creates a conception of property that seems to encompass Rights and treats them as a species of Things Which Can Be Owned. My Rights, My Land, My Freedom, My Things, My Self.

The most accessible way to conceive of all this is as property. Which means that when Rights are expanded, some people will see this as an encroachment because it depletes the value of their property. And so, the question at the center of modern conservatism, whether stated explicitly or not (or even acknowledged), is: What can I own? The next question, then, would have to be: how can I maintain the value of what I own?  This becomes the justification to deny ownership to others.

For most people, historically, the goal was autonomy. The freedom to be who you are, unapologetically, without having to justify yourself to authorities. But autonomy—agency—is not the same as ownership. Unlike property, agency should not be—cannot be—a contract or title to the claims of self possession. It must be a given, unbarterable, nonfungible, and universal. The American myth is that here, we have that. In practice, most of us do not. It is traded away every day by the fact that without money—the means of ownership—we have nothing anyone feels obligated to respect.

So alliances are made, groups are formed, coalitions emerge. Churches are ready-made for this, because by joining one the agency we seem unable to possess on our own can be “borrowed” from the cadre. But churches aren’t the only method for becoming something by allying with many. Political parties, certainly, but the principle works with businesses, charitable organizations, clubs, special interests, schools…

All these things, however, exist—here—within a framework that has promised agency.

But that’s a slippery idea to pin down. It’s the thing implicit in the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, in the enumeration of rights to be kept free of outside (government) interference (or any other), like speech, freedom of worship, privacy, assembly, legal redress, and equal access to public determination. Agency. Rather than that, we have come to regard ownership as primary, as established throughout our history by repeated referral to property as a qualification for common regard. As time marched on, the meaning of the franchise expanded, and in each expansion the issue has been centered on ownership. In the beginning, only property owners could vote. While not so explicit today, there is still a property qualification (permanent address).

In the advance toward a universal franchise, those opposed to the expansion have insisted on more and more qualifications—amounting to proof of ownership—to bear on the people they wish to exclude. After 250 years (here) of this, we have come to a point where almost everything has been, in some sense, transformed into a commodity.

Things that can be owned can be controlled.

How does this relate to the Religious Right’s support of Trump and their censure of Beth Moore?

Trump is all about ownership. His “brand” is everything. He is admired (by some) for having things. Having things is the hallmark of success in this country. Not “who you are” but “what you have” matters more to most people, because the former requires a sense of Self that is neither publicly evident or reliably fixed (people change).  (Also, who you are may be terrifying to other people, so it is easier to reduce the Self to a set of traits that you “have”—implying that you can trade them in, get new ones, swap them out, or just put them away.) Success at Having Things is understandable, accessible, universalizable. It also validates for others the presumed right to have things.

Trump is popular among certain groups because he does just that—he validates their view of what it means to be an American, which is entirely wrapped up in Having Things.

One of the things he “has” is the prerogative to deny agency to those he sees as inferiors or, at least, unworthy of consideration.

For evangelicals this includes many of the kinds of people of whom they disapprove. While Trump’s “manner” may offend their sensibilities, they do not find fault with his presumptions. In the case of the “pussygrabbing” it comes down to the fact that the pussies he is grabbing are attached to “fallen” women. After all, their wives would never be in a position to be so treated, because they are not “that kind” of woman. They know better than to put their pussies in such circumstances.

I phrase it that way because below all this, the reality for these men is that their wives’ pussies belong to them. Because this is a factor of our culture that underlies much of our disconnect over women’s rights and equity. For them, women don’t “own” their sexuality. They carry it around until a man claims it. Which is why so much of the anxiety and anger over gender equality remains a muddle for certain people.

And Beth Moore? She had the temerity to express the idea that Trump’s pussygrabbing was in all cases immoral, obscene, and deserving of censure. But she can only make that charge if women are their own persons, whole and worthy of regard as free agents.

And agency is the one thing evangelicals cannot grant outside the confining circle of their faith, which is a club of limited membership, very exclusive, and cannot admit to any kind of baseline equality. Doing so would require they change their message on so many fronts and accord respect to people and persons they a priori consider beyond the pale. Unredeemed. Damned.

Just the fact that Beth Moore has for all these years been disallowed from holding an equal position within her chosen conference demonstrates that the principle of ownership is in force to deny her agency, because she cannot own what her colleagues already claim for themselves. They see it as their prerogative to grant status and people outside their selective regard have no right to claim anything for themselves.

Consider their stance toward transgender persons: this is a threat to their purview because it is individuals taking possession of their Selves and claiming agency. That they would have to know that Self intimately enough to move beyond the reach of simple possession is a denial of the message of “salvation” through superior agency (Christ). And, on a more basic level, it frightens because gender orientation is one of those things that is “owned” and often regarded as a separate thing to be scorned (denial of the flesh). That it is fundamental to identity creates too many confusions and contradictions for the smooth apprehension of a theological proposition which is supposed to be Otherworldly.

But in practice it comes down to an ownership issue.

Consider an example outside of questions of Self. The rejection of government economic support for the poor. This would seem paradoxical. If the point is to alleviate poverty, what does it matter where the aide comes from?  But it matters if you consider the dispensation of that aid proprietary. They see it as charity and according to their own philosophy, charity comes from the heart. Governments render this moot, because it becomes a matter of economic systems. There is no “charity”—hence no Good Works, no affirmation of moral mission, no opportunity to demonstrate one’s christianity. Charity has become a wholly-owned trademark of religious expression and no one should take it away, least of all systems that might render the matter solved.

Beth Moore ran afoul of an unexamined aspect of American culture as expressed through a religious lens. Trump may be an immoral, foul, odious being, but he affirmed for them the basic right of ownership of so many issues, and hence condemning him and withdrawing support was not possible. It might have played out a little differently had a man in Beth Moore’s position done what she did, but it still would have intruded on the majority’s presumptive rights of ownership—in this case, the ownership of male privilege.

On an even more perverse level, Trump was also the proof of government corruption—he fit their idea of what the government already was. If the end game was to destroy the beast, why not support the one who best exemplifies everything they claim to hate? Putting a good man (or woman—unthinkable!) in that office would seem perverse, because what could a good man accomplish? It would only delay the advent of freedom from what they see as secular attempts at creating a baseline equality that denies their “right” to judge.

And here it generates endlessly stranger ideas of what may have been going on.

But Beth Moore turned on the juggernaut and was trampled by the unstated assumptions of the inner circle. That evangelicals can show a history of their own indulging in all the things she condemned Trump for doing ought to have been a signal that she misunderstood just what she was dealing with.

Agency, as I assume it here, is something beyond ownership. But it’s personal, and it’s malleable, and it is uncontained by convention. It actually cannot be owned, so it becomes necessary to prevent its manifestation.

I do not here claim everyone is so ensconced in this morass of what I’ve termed Pathological Ownership—but then it never requires many people to subscribe to an idea to have an impact on how the culture responds. Because we have a rather nebulous set of alternate models, the idea of Having Things being a substitute rather than an expression of Self can distort all out of proportion to the numbers involved. It helps if we know what it is we’re talking about, identify the issue at hand, instead of stumbling on assuming a different set of values at play.

Just about everything in the divisive cultural and politic mess we’ve experienced for the last few decades can be explained by this idea. The GOP won’t cooperate with the Democrats? Why? Because they seek to own the issues. If they cooperate, then they must share, and sharing is the road to ruin, because no one can own what is shared. The moment you share something it is no longer exclusively yours,.

Too many people just want to own everything.

 

 

Sifting Babel

Richard Nixon lost the 1960 election to John F. Kennedy by basically one vote per district across the country. Contrary to the popular myth that grew up around JFK, he was not even close to a landslide, and had Nixon challenged the outcome in court, which many of his advisors were urging him to do, history might have been different. Nixon demurred. He said he refused to be the cause of a constitutional crisis, took his loss, and congratulated Kennedy. Despite who he was and what he later did, he had a line he would not cross.  For the good of the country.

Nixon’s later administration set the conditions which eventually brought us to this year.

Nixon was still part of a culture that embraced common goals between adversaries. Simply put, both Democrats and Republicans believed in the same basic principles, they simply differed on the appropriate paths forward. Oh, certainly there were disconnects, but there had been a core of ideas and aims held as givens.

That no longer seems to be the case.  For large portions of the electorate, it would appear there are wildly different outcomes desired. The possibility for working across the aisle, compromise, and envisioning a common future has fractured. The exaggerations fueling the animosity are becoming more pronounced, to the point where at times it seems two completely separate languages are being spoken, languages which share vocabularies and even syntactical and conceptual similarities, which are becoming more and more unintelligible to each other. What the two sides mean by things like Progress, Patriotism, Tolerance, Law, and Rights require interpreters.

I have been wondering for years now just what some people want to see happen. What do they want their country to look like if they win?

With the era of Trump, I think I know what those who support him, even now, want. Partially anyway.  If I’m even close to correct, I can definitively say it is nothing I want. More than that, it is not something they’re likely to get even if they somehow get their way politically.

When one works through the rage, the foul language, the insults, the chants and slogans, it sounds like the goal is an American Empire that acts entirely by decree. But decree that is almost entirely directed outward, at the rest of the world. The Mexican border wall is exemplary of this. Keep the world out. Keep what is American in, at least in terms of ideology, wealth, and community. Tariffs go hand in hand with this.  Certainly much of this has to do with jobs.

Following upon this is some vague desire that the economy be one which supports a large middle class that is somehow self-sustaining. One based on high wages and low prices and rests upon the dominance of American manufacturing, which should be mostly if not entirely contained within the borders of the country. It should be robust enough that some version of the single-income household can re-emerge so the culture itself ceases to be whipsawed by questions of equity fueled by low wages which require segments of society to seek work when that same culture wishes them to labor inside the home.

And all of this is to be achieved without regulations or unions or systemic wealth redistribution.

There are pundits and ideologues aplenty telling us all this can be done, but for liberal influences which privilege multiculturalism, globalization, and a variety of individual empowerment programs that seek to hamper industry, destroy the family, and deny American Exceptionalism. Charts, graphs, power-points, and pedigreed lectures reinforce the belief that we have lost our way because some of us are at heart anti-American.

The possibility of achieving this utopia of nationalist privilege is unquestioned in this instance. Facts, theories, projections, and basic reason notwithstanding, the aesthetic triumphs because accepting anything else is terrifying.

The possibility of sitting down with those so frightened is small, because fear impedes the ability to reason, which is itself terrifying to those trying to reverse damages seen as suicidal in their unchecked eventualities.

The point, though, is that we are confronting less a set of principles than an aesthetic movement. I have suggested for years that a certain element of rightwing malcontent is not doing this for sound economic or political reasons so much as it hates what the country looks like. Momentum has been gained because opportunists have fed them on their own bile for a long time. So much so and so effectively that now some of them are all but apologizing for what they did because they didn’t think it would go this far. The manipulations are not, therefore, theoretical—the Kochs and the Murdochs have admitted it—and were done for simple greed and power.

The simple reality is that people make poor decisions when they’re afraid and buy all kinds of stuff along the way. Keeping the pipelines open has been the primary aim of these people. Pipelines? The ones the money flows through.

Wartime economies run hotter than peacetime economies. We have been operating on such a footing since Vietnam. Well, since WWII really, and that military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned us about is anxious to maintain the flow of capital.

It is an absurdity to suggest that someone, anyone—say, Jeff Bezos—“earns” seventy billion dollars in five months. It only goes to him because that is how the system is set up. This is hydraulic capitalism and it has nothing at all to do with “deserves” or “earn” or “make” or, really, fairness. But by keeping enough people frightened of the world more or less constantly, the political and social will to change it simply never coalesces.

And now add to that this aesthetic element fed to people about what America “ought” to be, and the confusion multiplies.

But wait. Such a machine cannot operate as well as it does without a certain truth to its claims.

Globalization has impacted our economy, in some ways negatively. When you are losing your business it is difficult to look at the so-called bigger picture. And both political parties have for a long time served the same masters at the expense of the middle and working class. And the poor? Individual politicians have cared, here and there and from time to time, but the poor have been disenfranchised as a matter of course and thus do not vote, at least not in sufficient numbers to be heard. This is the unfortunate legacy of those days when both parties shared broader goals and only argued over the details of how to Get There. It is easy to understand, if we care to, how someone like Trump can come along and persuade a lot of people to vote for him when he poses as their champion against a common enemy—Washington. We cannot forget that many who voted for Trump in 2016 would have readily voted for Sanders, who is about as opposite as one can get from Trump, but who represented the same possibility—overturning the D.C. applecart.

The utility of that possibility was and is debatable and we will discover in what ways in the coming months and years, but both were lightning rods for a basic frustration.

What we have now is a roiling mass of inarticulate dissatisfaction that has grown into a social movement, and social movements are often aesthetic as much (if not more so) as political.

Aesthetic?  Look at the targets. LGBTQ rights; separation of religion; the rage over immigration; the dichotomy between demanding one set of social conformities be put into place while others be rejected, often with extreme prejudice. And, as always in this country, issues of race. Any one of these can be demonstrated to be strawman issues, but appearances—ah, appearances, and what they say about who we want to be.  Or at least be seen as. Absent the concrete aspects arising from analysis and an understanding of the components of social dynamics, the aesthetics become the binding commonalities of what amount to tribal affiliations and roll onward as if all the rest needed for cogent response to civic policy were already part and parcel of the call to action.

Unfortunately, this makes it all the more difficult to address, because it is very like ( a perversion really, but still) of matters of taste.

For my part, I reject the basic aims of this mass of inappropriately-named conservative ends. They are illusory for one thing. Hollywood codifications of far more complex phenomena. For another, we long ago passed the point of comfortable isolation. We no longer live in a world where we can ignore each other. Globalization may have been poorly handled (although I defy anyone to explain how something that dynamic can ever be “handled”) but it is inevitable. We all live on a single planet, and we have run out of room to run away from the effects we have on each other. We can’t behave like lone gunmen anymore.  Too many people will get hurt, killed, and our own legacy will be one of ignominy and ruin. We here cannot close the borders, either physically or culturally, and hope to survive, and if we keep trying the world will abandon us and we will not be part of a better future.

We have for a long time been reversing the shambles of Babel, but recently it seems some of us are trying to reinstate the fear of that idea, when everyone was utterly alone and terrified because no one could speak to each other.

Reason and Intelligence

This will be brief.

The other day during a particularly fine conversation with a coworker, the subject of “true believers” came up, specifically with regards to Amy Coney Barrett. It is often said people of a certain religiously-inclined mindset, on certain topics, are, well, not that bright. “How can they not see?”

I realized then—or at least finally codified—the basic problem with this.  It conflates intelligence with religious belief and not in a flattering way. Any cursory glance at history will show this to be erroneous. One cannot look at people like Aquinas or Augustine or even Erasmus or Calvin and make an argument that these were not intelligent, indeed brilliant, people.  In conversation with our contemporaries, we find the whole spectrum.  Yes, some folks aren’t very bright, but then others are quite bright, even near the brilliant end of the scale. The question confronting those of us who are puzzled at their adherence to ideas and creeds and conclusions which to us seem obviously dubious, even absurd, has of late been couched in the wrong terms. It’s not intelligence, not even learning.

The factor I conclude that separates one from the other—say, the credulous from the critical (and I’ll stipulate that even that formulation is freighted with certain biases that make it inaccurate)—is a question of certainty.

The one barrier I have come up against time and again in discussions with people who hold opinions of debatable integrity is Certainty.

They are certain. Absolutely so. They have staked out a patch of intellectual or ideological ground and named it inviolable because here, they claim, is absolute truth, absolute reliability, absolute morality. In the face of that certainty, there is no purchase. Unless and until one can move them to entertain the possibility that they are in error, the argument is pointless.*

Certainty.

So here’s my thesis. It has nothing to do with intelligence. Arguing that people (and here we can insert a wide, wide range of belief and opinion, much of which is not even religious, but has the appearance of religious conviction) who hold certain beliefs do so because they are “not that smart” creates a secondary problem, because now you have made a fundamental error in judgment. We are not dealing with intelligence.

We are dealing with a question of Reason.

And by reason, I mean the ability to apply critical analysis.

We have to ask about an ability to reason. And one’s ability to do so is contingent upon many things, but I think it viable to contend that one loses that ability in direct proportion to a failure to suppress certainty.

The unreasonable is a hallmark of a failure to suppress, even for just the space of the dialogue, certainty.

I find myself automatically mistrusting someone who has no doubts. Doubt is necessary to the useful application of reason. Doubt even as a tool of modeling.

I think it might be useful to shift our perceptions in this. Attacking intelligence only entrenches. Fostering a positive capacity to intentionally doubt is conducive to reason.

Something to consider.

 

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* I will also stipulate that they may still retain their opinion and that is fine, but they will have engaged in a process whereby reason has a chance to allow other viewpoints, other conclusions, and perhaps create a more productive ground of mutual respect and consideration.

Corruption and Pathology

Aphorisms, like any good cliché, hold a grain of truth, which is why they can’t be easily dismissed.

“You can’t cheat an honest man.”

That one has haunted us for ages and it’s an instance of something that points in the right direction but fails to be sufficiently inclusive. Of course honest people can be cheated, it happens all the time. Because honesty isn’t enough if fear undermines it. One doesn’t have to be dishonest to be vulnerable to fraud, which was the point of the original saying—that only people “looking for a deal” are liable to be cheated, because their blindness to false promises that offer them unwarranted advantage makes them so. But we know it’s largely bullshit.

At least on its face. If you peel back a couple of layers, it actually suggests that no one is honest, that we all have an avaricious nature inside of us somewhere, one that under the right circumstances can emerge to trip us up. As you look deeper, the aphorism says much more than it seems to, but you have to be willing to go there to see it. The proof of the saying would be in finding an “honest man” and trying to cheat him. That may be harder than we like to admit.

Consequently, it’s more useful than at first glance. It says things about human nature, in such a way that we can avoid direct indictment. It’s the start of a conversation, though. The pairing of two conditions to examine a proposition:  cheating and honesty. What do they have to do with each other? Well, obviously they’re connected. Cheating is obviously a question of honesty. The phrase spreads the responsibility around. It suggests all parties play a part. It has come down to mean something perhaps narrower and it is an easily debunked warning.

But it cannot be ignored and, onion-like, the layers revealed in peeling expose how actually complex the proposition really is.

I’d like to try something similar with another such pairing. I’m not sure how to phrase it as neatly as the first, but something like:

You cannot corrupt an unprejudiced person.  Or perhaps, bigotry produces corruption.

Several things become apparent. The first and foremost is the use of corruption here can be misapprehended. By corruption I mean far more than the present-day definition of someone open to financial and monetary influence, one who profits by abandoning duty and responsibility, can be bought. There is certainly that, yes, but I think the greater range of meaning must be considered. The simplest being “the impairment of integrity, virtue, or moral principle.”  This can be achieved by means other than fiscal and therefore becomes harder to reduce to a simple material quid pro quo.

And the bigotry?

My proposition is that the only way to corrupt someone is if they are already convinced of (a) their own innate superiority, (b) the de facto inferiority of others, and (c) the fear resulting from those convictions when dealing with those they perceive as their natural inferiors. That fear—which can take the form of resentment, hatred, aversion, and the desire to limit or control the actions, behaviors, and mobility of those others—renders one vulnerable to corruption.  In fact, it’s probably more common to encounter corruption based on these things rather than with mere money, but also much harder to expose and understand and, therefore, to confront and overcome.

The feeling of threat underlies all this and the willingness to compromise in matters of ethics can lead to an erosion of principle. Any honest look at history reveals this.

But we have to come to an understanding of corruption that serves rather than merely blames.

In the context of our country, we can look at the big one, the issue that nearly ended the union. Slavery.

We declared that All Men Are Created Equal and then promptly subverted that idea by refusing to consider All Men (and women). To do this required that we embrace a belief in our innate superiority. Once embraced, it was not difficult at all to add people to the inferior categories for opportunistic reasons. Foreigners, Native Americans, Asians, the Poor, people of other religions, political opponents—all of it follows from the concession that our stated principle of equality was not to be applied as stated. And yet we touted that as our defining virtue.

But it did not end with the abolition of the institution. We fought a war finally to remove slavery from our country and yet…and yet…

The betrayal of principle continued, even among those who were on the front lines of ending slavery, because they ultimately could not acknowledge the perniciousness of their prejudice. That while slavery was odious, the presumed inequality of people of color remained an accepted norm, and every move to redress that condition was fought, consciously or unconsciously, by people willing to ignore and betray stated principles in order to guarantee a sinecure of superiority.

It becomes an easy thing to move from one betrayal to another when the basic hypocrisy is left unacknowledged and unaddressed. Because one sees oneself as innately superior, for whatever reason, and is therefore willing to see others as necessarily inferior, then anything that presents as an aid to maintaining that condition can appear acceptable, even if unethical. Because preserving status is vital to maintaining all other aspects of life. Yielding to monetary corruption is perhaps the simplest expression, because votes can be bought ultimately in service to the preservation of privilege.

Which can only be seen as acceptable, even good, because it goes to supporting a false structure of superior/inferior, relegating individuals, groups, and classes to lower status, which is acceptable in order to protect a status based on bigotry.

(And then the willing use of force to maintain the conditions that appear to demonstrate the presumed inferiority of groups who, because we cling to our assumptions, must be made to stay where they are.)

Why bigotry? Because in order to assume the correctness of one’s corruption, you have to believe others are simply less deserving. Innately, because it is impossible to know them well enough if at all to base your judgment on anything other than assumptions derived from cliché, stereotype, or the uncritical acceptance of assertions themselves based on assumptions of inequality. To accept these things is to be prejudiced and to act on these things to preserve status is, in my view, fundamentally corrupt.

It’s the believe in an unearned, intrinsic status based on assumptions of systemic inequality that makes one open to various forms of corruption. If we fail to recognize this, we will be continually blindsided by the choices and decisions of those in whom we wish to invest trust who then go against the desires and express wishes of others.

I am not suggesting that the abolition of bigotry is either possible or would solve all problems of corruption if it were. What I am suggesting is we will have no chance to resolve these matters without a better understanding of both bigotry and corruption and their, as far as I can see, natural relation to each other.  Corruption is, at base, an illicit means of gaining advantage over others by increasing the power and resources of those who instigate corruption. It works because on some level the people they corrupt want the same thing—a sinecure of advantage to keep perceived inferiors in check.

We focus almost exclusively on financial corruption. This is a mistake. While such examples are a problem, they tend to brush over the flaw that makes such corruption possible, namely the belief in special privilege, especially at the expense of others, and obviously extralegal privileges always come at the expense of others.

So my suggested aphorism—you cannot corrupt an unbigoted mind.  It is certainly, as all superlatives, flawed, but I feel that until we come to grips with the connection we will be forever fighting wars, both ideologically and militarily, to redress the inevitable imbalances attendant upon ignoring it.

Perhaps, after all, this does have something to do with honesty and cheating.

 

 

 

Detritus

Things pile up.

In 27-some years of living in my house, debris accumulates. Not dust, that can be swept up, wiped away—redistributed—but Stuff. Books, papers, nick-knacks, unquantifiable objets-d’art. A long list of “do you know what this is, where we got it, do we want/need/feel impotent to discard it?”

In my case, books, music, movies. Media. I am an art packrat. A “pack-art” or an art rat or some such. My shelves are full, the stacks are growing, and I find myself unwilling to part with any of it, because it all means something. I have a three foot shelf of books about the Napoleonic Age I am loathe to be rid of because they are research for a trilogy I have written but not sold and on the off-chance I need to do further work on that trilogy, I do not want to lose the books. (I have another, seven foot shelf, of books about the Civil War and Reconstruction Era for a novel which never got out of the note stage, but which I very much want to write, so I’m hanging on to the books.) I have piles of books I want to read, but have no idea when I’ll get to them, and some of them will be rather beside-the-point if I don’t get to them soon.

Then there are the sheaves of notes. Story ideas, phone numbers, websites, research comments, scribbles. Some of it goes back 30 years and I can look at the words and wonder just what that was all about.

The music and videos are another matter. I listen to music a lot. I love movies and television shows. But we now have Netflix, which adds to the obvious impossibility of “catching up.” I’m beginning to think about that during retirement, but then there are all the books…

It is my past and I am unwilling to bury it.

A bit of morbid darkness creeps in sometimes, looking at all this. Leaving it all behind for others to pick through, assuming they will. More likely it all just goes out the door. No one in particular will know the history of acquisition behind it all.

Which for the most part doesn’t bother me.

But I am an artist. I don’t mean that in any egoistical sense, only in that I have spent my waking life creating things, ostensibly beautiful things, for the pleasure of others. I have spent almost as long puzzled that no one really gets to see much of it. I am—have been, remain—terrible at self-marketing. I have tens of thousands of photographs going back to my adolescence. Most of it unremarkable, journeyman work, forgettable if not just bad. But there are some good images.

I have nothing in place to secure the future of that body of work.

The writing is different. I’ve managed to get it out there, in front of people, and I am modestly able to claim some kind of imprint on the public. Not much, but it won’t all just vanish.

My music is yet another matter still.

But it is there. All of it. Sitting beneath the surface of a life.

I wonder how other people anticipate the evidence of a life lived. I had every intention of being more or less orderly, with a place and a context for each important object. The filing system of my experience should have been like a gallery, through which one might stroll and see everything. Instead, it’s more or less a mess. A comfortable one, for the most part, but sometimes I see the need to impose order, just so it doesn’t look like it needs throwing out.

Purges can be therapeutic, though, never mind the freeing up of space.  There is the mental drag of always being reminded of what you haven’t done yet.

Maybe it’s the writer in me, but I wonder about the workers tasked with throwing things out of suddenly vacated houses or apartments. Are they aware that they are excavating lives? Not curating, though. That’s what concerns me now.

I had other plans for my ecology.

I think “ecology” is a useful way to look at one’s life, the furnishings, the rituals, the care. Healthy ecologies extend across the entire spectrum of possibility and desire. We assemble them over life. Early on, it’s a matter of adding things in, then arranging them, and finally some weeding becomes necessary.

But there’s some comfort in all that surround. Familiarity, at least. And throwing things out can sometimes feel like self-surgery.

It is true, though, that sentimentality can become a trap. It can feel better than the here and now, especially since it is so malleable. Sentiment (as well as a constantly reshuffled memory) rewrites history for us.  Not only pain, but everything acquires a temporal gloss. Like the speed of light, the closer we approach precision, the harder it becomes, and we can never quite get there. We assume record-keeping, memorabilia, scrapbooks, and the components we build to represent our lives (to us as well as to others) will make it easier.

I’m not sure what that means, though. As the past recedes, faster and faster, dopplering out of reach sometimes, the objects meant to remind become in themselves the thing of which we are reminded. Not the event or the people or the place, but the thing. At which point we have to question if it is worth keeping. If the memento no longer memorializes but, perhaps, just takes up space for something more valuable…

These are certainly personal considerations. But it may be that the same applies to larger matters. How much do we keep as a community? As a city? As a nation? At what point do the things meant to memorialize take on a self-importance that supplants the legitimate memory and thus become blockages, impediments, worse than useless? What might we learn or discover in their absence? What might we become if no longer encumbered by the distorted memorials of a past which may have no real relationship to what we were and certainly not to who we are?

If I finally get rid of that pile of old notes, will it change who I am? Probably not. But it might let me be who I am with a little more clarity.

Something to think about.