3000 Words About Bad Faith

We compartmentalize. All the time. We divide things up so they don’t inhibit our ability to act, to judge, to feel. We don’t even seem to have to learn how, it just develops as life unfolds. The walls, though, are porous, and occasionally they collapse altogether. But they re-establish given opportunity. 

But sometimes the divide between one part of ourselves and another can become toxically entangled. It can cause a lot of pain, confusion. When challenged, there’s a kind of panic that attends to our desperate attempt to put those walls back up, to find a way back to the comforting areas where one thing did not conflict—violently at times—with another. 

The old jokes about never discussing religion or politics at dinner or with strangers indicates an awareness of this phenomena that goes way back. Because established beliefs can run afoul of new evidence or personal feelings or even with other established beliefs. They exist in balance, precariously at times, and we have rules of engagement to prevent the explosion that may occur when one is shoved against the other. Why we don’t do something about the contradictions is one of the great conundrums of life, but most of us discard old ideas with difficulty. As I say, they are comfortable. We’ve been living with them a long time.

But sometimes resolving the conflict is vital. Life or death. 

“My body, my choice.”

On the surface, not a difficult concept, and likely for most people in most circumstances, an automatic “of course.”

Until it comes to sex. (I will stipulate here some muddle when it comes to drugs and such, but we do not so much dictate what can be done with someone’s body but only what may be legally possessed. Drugs are not, generally speaking, Of The Body; they are foreign substances. Even so, regulations regulate possession—we tend not to criminalize using drugs, but having them. Sex, by comparison, is Of The Body.) Then we encounter all the rooms into which people have shoved conflicts, embarrassments, unresolved questions, religion, desire, fantasy, ambition, guilt…a stew of unexamined reactions and complications that remain so because so many of us just don’t want to think about them. Because the vagaries of the act and the desire conflict with social issues and other beliefs which we may not have examined, at least not deeply enough to find the fulcrum of our dis-ease. 

And then there’s the fact that so much of what we feel about it changes over time. It is intrinsically part of our body—all the unmitigated hormonal things we seem mostly unable to control, that once we survive puberty we wish to be done with—and it is often in conflict with the dogmas of our upbringing. No wonder people want to put it in a cage and ignore it.

Until we can’t. 

Now, many people figure all this out well enough to avoid lifelong neuroses, therapy, or self-loathing and live lives wherein sex is an organic part of who they are. Most of them do this well enough that quite often the struggles and conflicts may be forgotten. So much so that when they pop up in others and lead to erratic or irrational behavior, we’re surprised and unsure how to deal with the results. And if these conflicts erupt into the public forum, we find ourselves in the awkward position of defending positions with which we are only tenuously familiar.

But suddenly we find our lives being intruded upon and our own sense of what we presume to be our rights challenged in ways that catch us off-balance. Because—compartmentalization being what it is—the challenges do not always come at us straightforward. They are often couched in terms designed to mask deeper issues.

“My body, my choice.” We have, at least in this country, and more generally in the religious traditions to which we are heir, treated sex like a thing apart, a separate something that is not to be admitted as part of who we are. In popular culture it is often portrayed as a sort of prize, to be won, a reward in certain circumstances, but in too many instances as property, a commodity, a thing that can be owned. It is a thing that happens to us, a thing that takes control of the aspect of ourselves we do consider as who we are. We make excuses for it, treat it like a lapse, a mistake, we hide it, we use it to extort, intimidate, smear, manipulate, like it’s a drug or a demon or anything other than an intrinsic part of our own identity. 

You can trace this all in the hypocrisies on exhibit. People who believe contraception is “wrong” and yet, after fifteen years of marriage have only one or two children; those who publicly decry infidelity, yet carry on affairs which they pretend don’t happen; women who picket clinics and then avail themselves of those very services when they are “caught.”

“Caught.” An archaic but telling euphemism describing an unwanted pregnancy. It encapsulates the issue nicely. Unpacking it reveals all the incommensurable elements, the contradictions, false assumptions, and judgements that permeate this matter. She did something she should not have and got “caught.” Meaning becoming pregnant. Which of course makes pregnancy a punishment. Combined with the attitude expressed by many who condemn abortion—or birth control of any kind—that such things are “letting them get away with it.” Get away with what? Having sex? Being sexual? Why should that be something about which anyone other than the consenting participants have any say?

A man I worked with when I was 20 took pains once to describe to me how at one time he suspected his wife of cheating on him. It was a fraught period in his marriage but he found out his suspicions were groundless. “I didn’t have to kill her,” he concluded. A few months later he had to go on a business trip with the company owner and he gleefully looked forward to it, that he would have the opportunity to “grab a piece of ass” while he was away. I looked at him in some dismay. I reminded him of what he had said about his wife’s fidelity. He dismissed it by claiming this was different. When I asked how, all I got was a puzzled stare, like I should just know.

“Grab a piece of ass” is another one those euphemisms that explains so much when you unpack it. Firstly, it reduces an essential element of another person to an object. It abstracts out the “thing” from the person who has it. It turns that thing into an object that the woman only seems to carry around. He wasn’t going to find a person to make love with, he was going to make use of her genitals, which are somehow Not Her, or perhaps simply not hers. There are many of these turns of phrase, which do the work of rendering the components of sex isolated from the person who has them. Some of this attaches to the male sexual apparatus (“my dick has a will of its own”), but not nearly as much and not to the degree that women’s sex organs are so rendered.

By so doing, though, possession is established as the essential element in what amounts to a kind of third party transaction. To underscore what I’m suggesting, the history of prostitution, especially in the modern era, reinforces the assertion that women have only provisional ownership of their genitalia. 

Which does make the whole thing a kind of property rights issue, based on an inability to see ourselves as whole beings that are, as part of that wholeness, sexual.

Why is this important in the current climate?

Because it also, by extension, sets pregnancy apart from the woman, defines it as a thing separate from her Self, that once that condition is established she no longer is meaningfully in possession of either her body or her pregnancy. 

There is a pathology to this which seems pernicious. It is bound up with a resistance in our culture to not “own” our sexuality. Since the Sixties and the so-called Sexual Revolution, there has been a reaction to perceived obscenity, lewdness, promiscuity, and permissiveness that saturates the Culture Wars. This is where it manifests. It reduces sex to the social equivalent of taking drugs, making it a separate practice from what is “normal.” When the practical distribution of contraception for women became common, the discussion came closer to what was really at issue. The insistence by social conservatives that contraception be banned, returning sex to something fraught with the risk of “getting caught” tells us what is really going on. Sex must not be normalized as something innate to what it means to be human. 

(But marriage! Well, yes, but that’s an arrangement. Sex is implicitly offered as both reward and excuse for getting married.)

The fact that the anti-choice movements feel they have a moral right to impose their objections on everyone undercuts any legitimate moral rationale. This is not about morality but about ownership.

The fact that many anti-choice advocates are willing to make exceptions in the case of rape or incest underscores this even further. Sex, in this formulation, is something that “happens to” a woman. Therefore the unwanted product of it can be seen as a separate, utterly alien manifestation ruled by “special conditions.” The idea that sex is an organic expression of a woman’s sense of self is, in this formulation, incommensurable with the “happens to” concept. (In rape trials, the fact that a woman’s manner, history, apparel, so forth are used as defense of the rape underlines this attitude. In order to be found “innocent” she must be seen as without her own sexual identity.)

Bringing this to the whole abortion issue, wherein a fetus is argued to be fully human, we can see how it plays out. In this, the woman does not—cannot—be entirely self-possessed. If she is, then the pregnancy is inseparable from her. It is something of herself. It is her body, producing a condition. It is, in a way, Her. Which gives her agency over it. 

It is not a separate thing which can be granted agency by social decree. Which is what the anti-choice crowd would assert, going directly back to the initial assumption that her sexuality is not intrinsic to her identity—it is this Other Thing which by custom, tradition, and even legal precedent is given special acknowledgement defining it as an object that can be owned.

And traditionally, owned by someone other than herself, either her father, her husband, or in the current assertion Society. Anyone but herself. This can only be asserted by denying that it is an inextricable part of her.

If pregnancy is an emergent condition, with a potential if carried through, but primarily an expression of a woman’s Self, then there is no moral or ethical basis for denying her the choice to either proceed or terminate. It is as much Her as her lungs, stomach, heart, bones, and we grant her agency over those by implication in the instances of organ donation or elective surgery or DNR mandates.

If pregnancy is a separate object, something other than and outside her, then she does not “own” it and can claim no agency over it.*

But we can only assert that if we strip away her right to Self entirely, effectively reducing her to slavery, indeed all way to machine-hood.

If we agree a Woman is an individual with rights to self-determination and agency, then it is impossible to morally assert the kind of authority over her that would deny her the right to her sexuality and all that attaches to it.

Which means that this issue is not wholly, possibly not even initially, about the so-called unborn.

Which of course is now being demonstrated in the raft of anti-choice laws being touted to constrain us on several fronts directly to do with personhood and matters of self-determination emergent from an acknowledgment that sexuality is an irreducible aspect of identity. Of Selfhood.

What this comes down to is a recognition that the separation of primary aspects of ourselves is a form of distancing that allows for the intrusion of third-party control, which cannot remain isolated to only that aspect but eventually expands to become control over the whole Self. That in this instance, the feelings, desires, thoughts, and apparatus of a woman’s sexuality must be seen to belong entirely and only to her, as essential elements of her sense of agency; that all of this cannot be possessed and therefore controlled by third-party forces. And if that is the case, the use and condition of those components cannot be selectively determined by anyone else because to do so necessarily leads to such intrusive determination of her entire Self. That such autonomy being necessary as both precondition and purpose of free will within any legal context seeking to hold as a necessary part of democracy, with personal liberty as its intent and justification, then it cannot be tolerated that such autonomy and agency be selectively restricted by common law, regardless of the condition or use to which the individual defines as personal prerogative.

We may not therefore seek to dictate personal choice in matters of sexuality or its concomitant aspects by selective legislation beyond the commonly understood social limits regarding assault if we wish to maintain the image of a free society with guarantees of individual liberty.

The current threat to outlaw abortion and the associated attempts at controlling and/or outlawing contraception and all other movements to bar a host of sexual/gender freedoms (trans rights, same sex marriage, etc) are fundamentally anti-democratic, authoritarian, and unsupportable by any legitimate theory of liberty.

Finally, to put this in an even larger context, we must look at the broad goal of the entirety of the Civil Rights movements of the last…well, for the sake of definitional efficiency, since the end of WWII. What all such movements share in common is an assumption of the freedom of association. The self-evident freedom to associate with whom and how we choose. That segregation, either by race, class, or sex, are anti-democratic and a denial of any concept of individual liberty. The upheavals of the last 70 years all come down to this fundamental freedom, and the current struggle over individual autonomy and the self-definition of the individual and the agency accorded to each of us, here exemplified by the anti-choice movement, is axiomatically autocratic and authoritarian and cannot be isolated in its effect to a narrow aspect of our individual Self.+

Lastly, it is evident from the wider context that all of these limiting attempts are being done in bad faith. Laws are being advocated on the basis of a single thing that have as their ultimate goal several other consequences having little to do with the primary justification. The “innocent” are not being protected by any of this. “Innocence” in this case refers only to a condition wherein all other aspects of individual autonomy and agency are absent. It is, rather, an idealized concept that is being imposed exclusively for the purposes of control. Clearly, based on the general lack of advocacy and support for most childcare proposals, “innocence” here refers to that which does not have a presence in the world. In other words, that which is not an individual. Bad faith. **

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*Of course, if that is the case, that we are defining the pregnancy as a separate thing, like an infection or a disease or a surgical implant, then bodily autonomy enters into the discussion from a different direction, namely that no one has the right to “implant” a foreign object into anyone without permission. And then we are right back to realizing that this is in no way about protecting the unborn but about denying women autonomy and agency—because we would have to make a special case for this particular “foreign object” to override her ability to say what can be done with and in her body.

+ In the attempt to define a fetus as a separate individual for the purpose of legislating restrictions on the autonomy of a woman, the argument fails on its face, firstly because it is not a separate individual but until born it is an expression of her body and her self, but secondly because in order to assert such restrictions you must first strip her of autonomy—her freedom—by limiting the definitional parameters of liberty for her and removing agency from her as an individual. It is functionally illogical to base presumed liberties on the constraint of liberty of someone else. And by liberty I refer to matters of self identity and freedom of association. There may well be attempts to example other forms of action which can be construed as expressions of autonomy—for instance, theft, assault, murder—and therefore be protected as such, but this fails by the simple metric that these actions and expressions also require the stripping of someone else’s liberties in order to occur and by definition cannot be confused with legitimate and moral expressions of individual agency within a free society.

**A clearer statement on this could not have been made than that by the Alabama state senator Clyde Chambliss who said at a hearing “The egg in the lab doesn’t apply. It’s not in a woman. She’s not pregnant.” His concern is not for “life”—in this case fertilized eggs in vitro—but for pregnant women. He expressed no concern here for the loss of “innocent life” but for the idea that a woman might do something about her pregnancy. Which is pretty much tacit admission that the fetus and the woman are not independent entities, but a holistic organic system. Which means that the only rights at issue are the woman’s and in this formulation they are being specifically targeted. Senator Chambliss exhibits no deep philosophical position in this statement but a naked rejection of individual—female—agency.

Trekness

I sometimes marvel at my own inability to apprehend the cluelessness of my fellow beings. Some positions come out of the zeitgeist that leave me gobsmacked at the utter feckless density of people.

And then I recover and reconsider and realize, no, I’ve been hearing this kind of nonsense my entire life. One just never expects it from those one considers allies. It calls into question all assumptions, then, about what one considers an ally, and the realization (which has always been there, really) clarifies that it’s all surface.

There are fans of Star Trek who have apparently only ever cared about the ship, the uniforms, the phasers, and the astronomy (such as it is). When it comes to the message? Not so much. They groove on the coolness of the æsthetics and manage never to quite grasp the underlying themes. Their favorite episodes, no doubt, are those with the maximum number of phaser blasts. Stand-offs between the Federation and the Klingons/Romulans/Cardasians/etc are held up as the whole point of the show. Somehow, they have reduced the entirety of the universe to a military SF genre.*

Fair enough. There has been a great deal of that. It’s exciting, it pulls in eyeballs, it offers a kind of astropolitical board game view of the future interstellar gestalt. But after 50-plus years of an expanding milieu, I can’t say that those have been the episodes or arcs that have stayed with me or had the deepest impact or resonance with me.

I do not see those as the soul of Trek.

They’re aberrations. They are presented as the thing to be solved so they stop happening. And the thing being defended is the vast, peaceful diversity of a polity steeped in nurturing the best of what is possible. The motto that started the whole thing and continues to be the basis for each new series—seek out new life and new civilizations—is the heart and soul of it, but that seeking and finding comes with a commitment to learn, grow, adapt, and remake ourselves in the face of the new.

In other words, it’s not about conquest, it’s about mutuality.

To be perfectly clear, Star Trek has been “woke” since the very beginning, when that multi-ethnic bridge crew appeared in living rooms all across a white-dominated United States. Equality and diversity have been the underlying given throughout the whole franchise. Poorly handled at times, muffled at others, occasionally embarrassingly unaware, but all through it.

Here’s the thing about aliens in science fiction. They have always, for the most part, been stand-ins for humans who are different. They have always been there as something against which to react and learn about differences. They have always been there as challenges to assumptions.

The conflicts? In the best and most memorable examples, breakdowns in communications, understanding, or intolerance unmitigated.

Oh, sure, there has been a great deal of war-fueled SF born out of recasting our own conflicts. More than a few based on WWII, the Cold War, Vietnam. But even among the best of these, there is the message, to be read if willing, that the whole thing is a mindless, stupid mistake that brings all parties down in the end. “Winning” is a lesson in irony.

The lesser material revels in the glory of conflict and the “honor” of coming out on top.

I can see no instance of Star Trek in which this has ever been a laudable scenario. Even Kirk, cowboy that he was, almost always did everything he could to avoid conflict. His worst moments were those in which he gave in to the easy solutions and wore the mantle of revenge.

For the rest of it, everywhere you looked the show extolled the virtues of cooperation, of dignity, of equality, of diversity. It was just there.

So the complainers, those who have somehow been taken by surprise that there is a core of empathy and acceptance and tolerance and an examination of difference and an exaltation of plurality and discussions of what it means to live in a society where everyone by right is accorded the agency of self-worth and the benefits of choice and that, yes, these are the bases of political discourse, have frankly not been paying attention.

Maybe their filters have been set too high and now that we have a few recent examples where the continual, ever-present message has been a bit more foregrounded than in past examples, they are shocked that what they saw as one thing, is actually much, much more. Star Trek has not become Woke (and I find it fascinating that a term intended to signify a state of awareness, of people paying attention, of recognizing what is around you has been repurposed as a pejorative by those who clearly would rather not be challenged by any of that, much the same as all past slurs of the anti-intellectual, the empathetically-stunted, the self-satisfied, the privileged ignorant) it has always been.

Just what do you think all the controversy over Kirk and Uhura kissing was about if not a bunch of unself-conscious racists reacting against an example of what we term miscegenation? Maybe go look up Loving v Virginia for a bit of then-current background. This was Trek saying “this should not be an issue!” But it was and it offended and had the term been current then, people would have been calling the show Woke.

Certain people have a deep investment in not seeing what they find challenging to attitudes with which they are comfortable. In this case, I’m quite pleased they are being unsettled. Squirm.

What I challenge here is the a-historical nonsense being touted that SF has never been political. SF by suggesting the future will be different is fundamentally political. SF by suggesting that change is essential is  fundamentally political. SF by suggesting that we still do not know what Being Human means is fundamentally political.

And SF that actively seeks to deny all this and puts forth a philosophy that such matters are settled and all that remains is for us to assert an end to self-discovery…well, that kind of SF comes in two forms: dystopia and crap. (The dystopic form is aware that this is merely an assertion of power and is basically wrong. The other form is philosophical onanism and is essentially anti-science fiction.)

I find it sad that these things need to be said. I grew up with Star Trek and from the very beginning it was the most positive piece of science fiction on television. It offered a future free of things like poverty, the KKK, anti-intellectualism, tribalism. Those are the aspects of it that sank in, made it a narrative that could not be denied, and has led to what it became today. Not the guns, not the wars—the aspirations of a future worth living in, for everyone.

If that’s being Woke, I’ll take it. Better than staggering through life asleep and destructive.

 

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*”But I don’t wanna see stuff about LGBTQ+ or compromise or learning about alien life forms so I can live with them or about empathy or how flawed humans are or any of that gooey touchy-feelie let’s-all-love-each-other shit!” Then all I can ask is, “Why in the Verse are you reading or watching science fiction in the first place? Just for the SFX? How sad.”

Choosing

Given my previous post, this is not what you may think. But it’s related. Intimately.

When campaign season is in full flower and the claims and counterclaims of politicians mingle in the air like pollen or murmurations or dogfights, it can be understandably difficult to know how to choose. Trying to sort them by policy is occasionally maddeningly fraught. What is best for the country as opposed to what is best for you personally; what may have long term consequences which in the short-run may seem perfectly fine but ten or thirty years down the road leads to disaster; how to tease through the statistics and understand how they relate to anything that might be addressable. To be sure, it is possible to wend a path through all this and fine merit in the various positions, but often reliable information is think on the ground and the epic nature of some issues can make you feel insignificant.

What can be most difficult is choices made on ideology. Having a set of abstract convictions about national identity tied to a fixed notion of civic morality can become problematic when faced with circumstances requiring a change in approach that seems to run counter to those convictions. (Capitalism in its present form produces this disconnect all the time.)

People wish to have a heuristic by which to make a choice in as clear and uncomplicated a manner as possible. But how do you know? Listening to the blind mouths and talking heads, how can you tell the candidates apart in any meaningful way?

For myself, the devil is in the details. Knowing the issues, understanding history, and having at least a passing acquaintance with moral philosophy are my most useful tools. Admittedly, they do not always work. Politicians lie. There is little defense against that unless they lie about demonstrable fact. Lying about intent, principles, lying about their platform…difficult to parse. For people with little time and insufficient training in how to not be fooled, the emotions lead the way. Probably for most people this is the case. Emotions need to be tempered.

So I offer for these heady times a simple rule-of-thumb that in the last several elections has served better than others.

If a candidate says (basically) vote for me and I’ll do something about those people over there, the ones you believe are a problem—that’s toxic from the get-go. That politician is betting on your intolerance, your fear, your ignorance, and giving you something to hate. I will not vote for that candidate (even if they have ideas I might otherwise support—good ideas do not depend on individual candidates).

If a candidate says (again, basically) we have challenges to face, problems to solve, and we must do so together—I will listen and, quite possibly, vote for them.

The first is divisive and creates more problems than it can possibly solve.  The second is healing, and if followed through will solve more problems than it will create. That’s fairly clear. Especially today, in this raging pool of fingerpointing and frustration.  Don’t vote for the dividers. (Now, you may think the one asking that we work together is a divider because they won’t acknowledge what you consider a problem with Those People Over There, but what you really need to do is examine your premises. Even if there might be a real issue, why would you support anyone who would gain political traction by making it worse? There is no solution in that.)

For those continually claiming that there is no real difference between the sides, well, in this instance there is a huge difference.

Something to consider. Hope it helps.

Backlash

I’m seeing a lot of comments that This Is The Beginning. Referring of course to the leaked SCOTUS opinion to overturn Roe.

No, this is not the beginning. The beginning was the first time we allowed the so-called Pro-Life movement to derail state services to protest something that ought to be considered a basic right. It has grown from that seed. This is not the beginning, this is somewhere along just past the middle.

The mistakes—only in hindsight in some instances, but not all—began when we allowed the notion that one person’s idea of proper behavior merited their intrusion into another person’s life choices. We can air all that time and again and gain no traction because for the committed anti-choice advocate there seems to be no compromise. They come from a deep background that does not allow for a conception of sex as a matter of individual choice. Which is why we see so many of them not only on the front lines of the anti-abortion movement, but also advocates for limiting access to contraception, anti-LGBTQ rights, and among the loudest in opposition to Trans rights. We can try to psychoanalyze motives all we want, but clearly they have some belief that sex should only ever be conducted within the strict limits of a presumably biblical model, because evidently sex is not a right shared by humans but a reward for Good Behavior (gifted primarily if not exclusively to heterosexual men) and grounds for punishment if indulged by anyone outside those limits.

The emphasis on those limits tells us what is at stake politically. All the posturing and rhetorical sleight-of-hand aside, what this says to women as a group is:  how dare you have aspirations.

All personal aspirations—goals, dreams, ambitions, preferences—begin in a recognition of choice. And all choice—the “reward” of growing from child to adult—is grounded in the ability to say No.

When you say to a woman that she may not control her life based on her own aspirations, you are telling her she may not say No.

You are telling her that she has no choice.

And before you object that men are likewise bound, very simply we are not. In this particular part of life, we have one freedom women have for millennia been denied: we can walk away.

All the rest follows from that basic distinction.

Now, of course this limitation of choice is useful for any dominant group in relation to those not in that group. But it all comes down to that one thing—a denial of the freedom to have aspirations and act on them.

This has been pointed out and argued for five decades—longer—and yet those who would gleefully overturn Roe are unmoved. They know what they want and the longer we ignore the fact that what they want has nothing to do with the ostensible focus of their cause and try to litigate what is or is not “human” in the context of what happens within a uterus, the more we lose ground. It is an intractable argument in those terms because it is not based on fact, evidence, or logic, but on sentiment and resentment. The kind of sentiment, I might add, that rejects all other sentiment if it does not align with theirs.

A woman’s ability to determine her own reproductive destiny, regardless of circumstance, is fundamental to any concept of equality.

And as we have seen since the Phyllis Schlafly campaign to derail the ERA, that is the thing at the heart of the matter. One group saying to the other, you may not have aspirations. We want you to fill a subordinate role.

Equality begins with the freedom to say no. No, I will not surrender my autonomy to meet your expectations of who I should be.

And boys, if you don’t think this applies to you, too, I think you have a surprise coming.

Patriots

I want to be precise here, so there is no misunderstanding. There will be, because the moment it becomes clear that I’m being critical of a certain posture, some will stop understanding what I’ve written (many would stop reading) and will fall back to automatic reactions that are designed to shield them from any meaningful reassessment. It can’t be helped. People live by heuristics, build walls of rhetorical shielding behind which they can feel secure, and doubt is anathema. Questioning becomes a threat. Just by bringing up the idea of an alternative point of view, the defenses come into play to shunt these ideas and their purveyors into a predetermined category, one which says that they need not be listened to, in fact, must not be.

So when I say that I am tired of people throwing their patriotism around like a glove in the face of others like a challenge to duel, I know there will be those who will immediately see the threat to their so-called principles and stop hearing what might come next. They append it to their introductions, like some kind of degree, both personally and on their social media pages, any chance they get. “I am So-n-So, patriot.”

To me, this is nothing but a red flag waved to attract attention, a goad, like saying “So what are you going to do about?” It’s a dare to question, to disagree, to argue, to fight. It’s a method for slotting people into Us And Them categories, and as such it is laziness incarnate, because it is designed to prevent meaningful engagement with any viewpoint that may differ. It is, as I said, a shield—and a whip. Using it that way is intended to cause reaction, to establish a set of rules for engagement.

However, it says far more about the insecurities of the one using it than it does of any presumed opponents.

Most people I doubt consciously do this, but it has the semblance of community. Like putting a flag out on Memorial Day or the Fourth of July. Celebratory examples abound. But they are special occasions and people not so insecure in how they may feel about their neighbors, their community, their country then put them away for the next holiday. It’s not necessary to prove who you are to everyone all the time.

Of course people do use labels all the time. Religious affiliations, degrees, business titles, political parties, fraternal associations. Shorthand, mostly, a way of signaling who they are, what they find important, where they come from. But for most people, these are open doorways, the start of interaction, a place to begin understanding. The common utilization of such indicators aids quick connection, suggests interests in common, avoids certain misapprehensions, and smooths the way for people to know each other.

That’s not what I’m addressing here.

I’m talking about those who use the label Patriot to validate and justify hatred, intolerance, and a kind of chauvinism that admits to no other possible way to see the world. A refusal to see alternatives. And, at all costs, a rejection of the possibility of being wrong.

More than that, the belligerent claim implies—strongly—that others are not. Patriots, that is. That even the discomfort of being challenged by the claim is an indication that one lacks “proper” patriotism. It is an insult designed to make the one insulted appear in the wrong. That anyone who is willing to consider the idea that the United States of America could be wrong about something is not to be trusted because—well, might be unpatriotic, possibly treasonous.

I’ve been personally confronted with this kind of thing. “Not much of an American, are you?” It’s an absurd charge. For one, it reduces what it means to be “an American” to nothing but a set of litmus tests based on personal prejudice. For another, it attempts to make ignorance a sign of righteousness. But more corrosively, it rejects dialogue.

More than that, it rejects any position that does not align with a personal conviction of How Things Should Be. “I’m a Patriot, my mind is made up.”

Wishing your country to validate and support your prejudices is not patriotism. You aren’t defending the country, then, you’re using it. And yes, when you insist that others conform to your conception of what constitutes a “proper” citizen of your country, that is an expression of prejudice. When you tell them because they do not think the way you do they are not—cannot be—patriots, that is prejudice. Because to admit that anyone can be a patriot and see things differently, calls your own conception of patriotism into question, and that means changing, and that—well, it would seem to be inconceivable.

What this sort of braggard seems incapable of is any kind of humility of the sort that is contributive and supportive. Staking out an ideological ground and then subjecting everyone else to tests to see who fits and who doesn’t is neither. Doing so is not patriotic, it’s pathological. True strength is not paranoid. Claiming your intolerance is from a sense of patriotism is to confuse love of country with fear of others.

The problem this makes for all of us is the very use of the label, because this practice requires a degree of mimicry. Many of the stated sentiments of the false patriot (or perhaps I should say the Shallow Patriot? Just because the sentiment is misused, co-opted, doesn’t mean the abuser doesn’t actually love his/her country) sound just like what one would expect to hear from a genuine patriot. It’s not, therefore, so much what they say so often as how it is said and the context in which it is said. If you hold a morally or ethically tenuous or indefensible position and your primary or only defense of it is that you are a patriot, then some question is legitimate. Arguing an issue on its merits is quite different from arguing something on its allegiances. It is a peculiarly slippery appeal to authority.

Someone followed me on Twitter the other day and when I looked at their profile, the second identifier was Patriot. I then scrolled through their posts and found a list of chest-pounding, aphoristic belligerencies consistent with the Shallow Patriot movements that inform efforts to undermine many of the aspects of this country I most appreciate. It prompted me to write this and to state that I find people who do this—what I used to call Lapel-Pin Patriots—pitiable. Dangerous, too, but more simply offensive in their assertion that anything which threatens their insular understanding of what this country is must be countered, even, apparently, by force if they think it necessary.

I’ve known real patriots. They don’t brag about it. They never refer to themselves that way. They are, in fact, empathetic, generous, and open-hearted. More than that, I believe they understand love quite well.

 

The Other Country

Two things prompt me to write this: the first is the number of Trump-aligned members of the GOP who are praising Putin’s incursion into and threat against Ukraine. The second is the verdict in the federal hate crimes trial against the three men who murdered Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia.

Bear with me.

With the ratification of the Constitution of the United States and the general agreement about what it suggested for the country then newly-formed, a divide opened between Ideals and Aspirations. That divide has widened and diminished over the years, but never gone away completely, and today it is a massive canyon.

The problem is buried in crossed purposes, unanticipated expectations, and simple human nature.

The declarations which accompanied the Founding, the philosophy embedded in the Declaration of Independence and, more importantly, in the Constitution, are of a rarefied idealism, statements of goals and ambitions, promises of intent that here shall be a place where the concepts of liberty and justice would triumph over the pettiness of ordinary daily existence, especially as opposed to what passed for these things in Europe. Here people would be treated equally before the law, would be given opportunity to pursue dreams, would enjoy property protections and permitted the unencumbered expression of their sentiments. We would have no classes, no aristocracy. Merit, expertise, ability would matter instead of birth and provenance.

The idea, emerging from Enlightenment ruminations, was that human nature possesses a natural…”rightness”…and that given opportunity it would emerge, more or less equally in everyone. And that with the proper political framework human beings would somehow coexist peacefully and look to their own abilities and expressions to be happy and productive, free to manage their own lives.

And of course, immediately this proved untenable. Because people have different ideas about what liberty means, what its expression looks like, and what constitutes oppression. The simple overwhelming fact that so many of the newly-minted citizens of a professed “free” nation believed it acceptable to enslave others serves to demonstrate this disconnect. The ideal of equity was an ideal many people simply did not understand.

The Anglo population had a rough sense of the outlines. Britain had been on a path toward a form of populist equality for centuries, although they were far from there at the time. The French Enlightenment thinkers embraced some of this, modified by their apprehension of New World sociopolitical concepts as gleaned from various encounters through the 17th and early 18th Centuries with native Americans, who represented an alternative to the hierarchical structures Europe embodied. But it was in the end framed by Eurocentric considerations born of a long history of social Place. Everyone had a slot in the social structure and as long as they stayed there, content, and tended the responsibilities and duties inherent in these structures, things ought to have been fine. Of course, they weren’t, for many reasons (wars, plagues, migrations, discoveries), but that was the problem with people who refused to accept their Place.

Much of this was in the process of eroding when the American split happened, but not enough that too many people did not still carry these ideas of Place and Position inside them, down in their psychés where the Givens of How Things Ought To Be reside in unexamined stews. So unfolded the piecemeal journey of coming to terms with the difference between what was expected and what was intended over the course of our entire existence as a country, of people step by step coming to be made to accept that Equality really does mean Everyone.

But then we run into the problem of defining Equality. Everyone has some notion about it, what it means, but generally I think it’s imprecise and muzzy, a “sense” of something that, the more we try to concretize it, the more it disintegrates in the attempt to lock it down.

Worse, for some people it seems to be at odds with concepts of liberty.

The westward expansion in this country was fueled as much by rejections of equality as by a desire for liberty. In fact, I would suggest that “liberty” for many people then was at least in part of desire to be apart from those with whom they did not wish to share equality.  Not, I think, in any pernicious sense. Only in the sense of seeking self-fulfillment without owing it to anyone not of their choosing.

This was a newish idea. Groups had embraced something like this over history. But here, then, it became an individual aspiration of people who took the claim of Liberty as personal in a way that had not manifested in quite this way before.

Small proto-countries developed within the boundaries of The Country. Enormous ranches, religious enclaves, company-owned towns and counties, plantations…I call them proto-countries because in many instances they exercised the kind of internal autonomy usually only found in nation-states. (The geographic boundaries of these agglomerations have become less defined, dissolving, so that they more and more overlap the country at large.) Our history is rife with attempts at establishing separatist communities. The one thing they all share is a claim to independence of action and a desire for liberty. Often the liberty of one person, defining the parameters of liberty for everyone following. And that definition, while claiming consanguinity with the claims established in our Founding documents, almost always missed a primary element, namely a guarantee of personal equity across all class, racial, and ideological lines.

The point being that throughout our history there has been a functional disconnect between manifestations of equality and liberty, that the rallying cry of freedom and liberty have more often than not jettisoned embrace of equality at some critical juncture where the achievement of liberty, in the view of those close to self-defined success, was within reach. A realization that genuine equality would threaten that concept of liberty, while unspoken, came into play. Looking at the roster of “heroes” of our republic down the centuries, it seems obvious that Liberty means unrestrained action and freedom from ideological constraint. Obviously unachievable in whole, but that never stopped some from trying. Seldom is there any real acknowledgment of the need to conform to general embodiments of equality. If equality happens, it would be fine as long as it does not impede the personal struggle for liberty. Given the vicissitudes of human nature, this is obviously a conflicted arrangement. Equality and liberty cannot, in this formulation, coexist.

Basically, the people living here, while reveling in the lofty ideals of our stated principles, have rarely had the intention of living up to them if doing so meant abandoning a personal concept of freedom and liberty. And equality, in my opinion, was for most incomprehensible. Even where the concept was understood, it likely could not be understood without feeling that it meant yielding personal liberty. For all of us to be equal, none of us could be more or superior or better. For all of us to be equal, some would have to be granted that which was not earned. For all of us to be equal, all of us would have to have the same access, the same freedom of association, the same regard.

The same property rights.

The various eruptions of separatist sentiment over 250 years of our history is central to an understanding of where we seem to be today. People claiming the status of “true patriots” are attacking our institutions, declaring them illegitimate.  (Without the least apparent sense that if they “won” then they would eventually be faced with the same reaction from a different group, making the same claim.) It would be refreshing to hear them just once explain that what they claim to prize about our Founding has nothing to do with the ideals of liberty, but the opportunity to accrue the power to be separate and beholden to none. Another unachievable goal, but one I believe is aspirational and inspires the sullen anger of those who reject out of hand the concept of equality that was, frankly, never something they had either faith in or inclination to partake of.

The various movements for secession exemplify this, frivolous though most of them are. These are folks who want to live in that Other Country that, for them, is also America. You know, the country where each man is a king and civilization is that state of community where everyone knows their Place? That Other Country that was implicit in the early promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The remarkable fact is, for most of our history, the system cobbled together by the Founders has managed to accommodate these countervailing ambitions without coming apart at the seams. The Constitution is a framework for allowing competing factions to break upon each other and flail until they fade. Only once have we come to serious blows from the strain, and for a brief time we came close to melding the two seemingly antagonistic aspects of our national ideal—liberty and equality.  We’ve inched closer to that in the time since, but now we seem to be pulling apart again, and the struggle centers as much on the misunderstanding of those two concepts as on the outright rejection of their mutuality.

Mutuality. Because there can be no true liberty without equality. Liberty cannot successfully exist in a zero-sum game that requires some to lose in order for others to win. That’s not liberty. Winning is not freedom. And dominance is no basis for peace. If one’s life is always to be engaged in a competition not of one’s choosing, then is to be in thrall to impulses that do not nourish, do not enlighten, do not fulfill, but only distract. Until we stop pursuing the desire to feel superior to others, we will never be free of manipulation and we will never have the liberty we claim to value.

That liberty is only gained by the mutuality of regard that is the basis of equality.

We will not find it in that other country of kings and paupers, of the dominant and the resentful. We have to find it here and we have to find it with each other.

Oh, and Putin and the murderers of Ahmaud Arbery? It has to do with arbitrary power and the disregard of others. Hallmarks of the denizens of that other country. If that’s not apparent by now…

 

 

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.