distal muse

observations, opinions, ephemera, and views


Why We Need To Teach Civics

Listening to the debates, not between the candidates but among the potential voters, it becomes clear that for many the workings of our government are a thing of deep mystery and frustratingly obscure. Donald hammered on Hillary repeatedly that in 30 plus years in office she had an opportunity to “do something” about certain issues and she did nothing.

She was a senator and then she was secretary of state.

Neither position affords anyone the power to just “do something” about any damn thing they want.

While morality may not be relative, politics is entirely so.  The problem is this:  you have a hundred people in a room who have been given a problem to solve.  There’s perhaps a right way to solve it, there are certainly wrong ways, and then there’s what each individual wants.

How do you simply “do something” in that situation?

Let’s compound it. Each of those hundred people is working with another set of probable conflicts. There is what he or she believes ought to be done, then there is what the people they represent want done, and then there is what she or he feels can be done.  Each one brings this bag of writhing conflict to the room and the task is to work with the other ninety-nine, each of whom has the same set of problems, to find a solution to the problem.

This is the fundamental nature of representative democracy.

In a word, it is impossible.  It is the human equivalent of asking the centipede how it manages to walk.

And yet.

Add to this the frustration of the constituency, each individual and group of individuals has a different set of desires.  They harangue their representatives to “do something” and get angry when nothing or, worse, the “wrong” thing gets done. Now yet another concern is heaped on top of all the others for the people in that room—keeping their job.

It’s amazing anything happens at all.

And despite what they may tell you, this happens in business, too.  All those moving parts have to be coordinated and, often—because they’re attached to people—assuaged.  So no, a Ross Perrot, a Mitt Romney, or a Donald Trump cannot magically step into this with their “business experience” and suddenly end the deadlocks and solve the problems.  Their “experience” ought to tell them this.  For one, they can’t actually fire the people they have to work with in congress.

If Trump’s accusations that Hillary “did nothing” when she had the chance have any resonance with voters it is because, I suspect, too many voters don’t understand the nature of the country in which we live.  Hillary tried to explain that she worked on several of those things, but if she can’t get people—many of whom in the last several years have publicly committed themselves to blocking any proposal that comes out of either the Obama White House or the Democratic side of the aisle—to go along with her proposals, just what do people think she could do?

That she has accomplished what she has is a minor miracle.

I received civics in grade school. We had to sit through it.  It was boring.  It used to be what was called social studies, which later seemed to morph into some kind of social psychology joined to history tracks instead of a study of how government is organized.  Probably it is taught in some schools still, but it seems not to be as a matter of course.

It’s why so many people are afraid a sitting president can take guns away from people or remove the Second Amendment.  A president can’t do that.  Just can’t.

But worse, it’s why so many people seem to not understand why their personal prejudice can’t be made law.

Frustration can be a driving force for a solution, though.  It seems that public frustration with the intractability we’ve endured in our politics is reaching a zenith and we may be about to witness an historic turn-over.

Ever since Reagan named government as the biggest problem we have there has been a tumor growing in the belly of our civil systems.  He was flat wrong.  Perhaps he was speaking in metaphor—he was an actor, after all, psychodrama depends on metaphor—but if so he delivered it with a straight face that appealed to the impatience everyone feels from time to time at the squabble in that room. With the benefit of the doubt, I believe he would be appalled at the consequences of his rhetoric.  We built the strongest nation in history through government, for good or ill, so just how much of a problem was it?  Depends on where you stand when you ask that question.

Because politics is relative.  Compromise is essential.

But I suspect a lot of people don’t actually know what compromise is.  You can’t tear down the bridge and then blame the other guy for not crossing the divide.

It might be useful to remember that the work in question is never “done” but is an ongoing, daily struggle.  Out of it we find a way.  But you can’t circumvent the process just because you think you’re right.  If you are, that will become evident over time.

We might want to remember that.  Civics.  The earlier the better.

October 08, 2016

What Grabs You

So The Donald was caught on tape saying something egregious about what he wants to do with women.  This has caused much ire among those in his party of choice.  Not most of the other egregious things he has said, alleged, alluded to, implied, or otherwise allowed to exit from his mouth.  We have witnessed basically a year-long example of escalating reaction not to the content of his pronouncements but to the manner of their expression.

Paul Ryan has weighed in with an egregious bit of condescension of his own which adds to the evidence that he is a “classic” conservative who seems not to Get It.

As bookends showcasing the problem they could not be more apt.

The basic privilege the self-appointed “ruling class” has always tried to keep to itself is just this—that they are allowed, by virtue of their own money and power, to treat those not in the club any way they choose.  The whole idea of equality and respect is anathema to one of the main reasons they act and think as they do.  Trump is spilling the secrets of the inner sanctum by speaking the way he does.  He is being supported by people who have long chafed under the requirements to matriculate from the high school locker room.

So why is what Ryan said just more of the same?

Mr. Ryan said:  “Women are to be championed and revered, not objectified.”

Now, on its face you might see nothing wrong with that statement.  But remember, this is coming from a man who has consistently opposed women’s right to self-determination where it conflicted with his conception of morality.  (To be clear, he never actually said “rape is just another vector of conception.”  But he made it clear that he has a moral and ethical framework which would demote women’s ability to determine life choices to secondary status in the case of unwanted pregnancy)

This suggests that he sees women as having a role to fill.  A role which under certain circumstances supersedes their position as individuals.

Women are to be championed and revered…

Why?  Because they can’t champion themselves? And how do you revere something without putting it in a special category? Reverence is akin to a religious appreciation.  We can revere life but it becomes trickier to revere an individual without bringing to bear expectations that merit such reverence.  The first—life—is a concept not a person.  It’s easy to revere ideas, beliefs, works of art.  These are not people, they are categories of object.  People are revered only when they are removed from the daily grime of actual living. Saints are never made so until they are dead and for good reason.  A person cannot—nor should—fulfill the expectations of such status.  And it is not a status one seeks but one that is imposed.

Women are not objects of reverence.  He contradicts himself in the next phrase, “not objectified.”

This is the problem at the center of this whole issue, which is difficult to parse for some folks.

And the reason that what Ryan is saying is not much better than what Trump says.  Only different.

Trump is saying out loud what has been implicit in a certain mindset among self-styled “conservatives” for a long time.  They want their privilege.  They want things made available to them and denied to the general public, because these things constitute the trappings of power.

Not all of them pushing this program.  Some, I suspect, are just neurotic and insecure.  Trump is neither.  Ryan is just shallow.  But the arrogance of a Trump has found a home in the shallow waters of what has become conservative philosophy.

Other Republicans, in response to Trump’s comments, have opted for the word respect, but given the repeated, consistent assault on women’s health care options, the concerted opposition to equal rights legislation, the open misogyny toward female politicians, and the general inability to understand the driving essence of the women’s movement for, well, forever, these pronouncements carry little weight outside the fact that they fear for their privilege because a loudmouth is talking out of school.  They want to impose a style of respect on women that will push the real issues back into the box wherein they’ve been residing all along.  These same people have had many gracious and pleasant and approving things to say about the late Phyllis Schlafly and given her quite unvarnished statements about what she thinks women (of a certain class, of course) ought to do rather than try to live lives of personal fulfillment, I take their repudiation of Trump for what it is—an attempt to put the lid back on that box.  From time to time many of them have said things about women that demonstrate a vast disconnect—lack of understanding and lack of empathy and a total disregard for women as people.

They like women to be objects of reverence.  Why can’t they just climb back up on that pedestal where they “belong” and smile?

I don’t want to beat up too much on them, because I also believe that they believe they’re speaking from conscience.  I just wish they had taken the trouble to examine that conscience a few decades ago, before they laid the groundwork for someone like Trump, who has yet to say one thing that has not been part of the conservative playbook since Goldwater displaced liberal Republicans and started us on this road in 1964.  They only say these things in well-turned, polite, and convoluted ways so the average person won’t understand that they basically want to turn this country into a “gentlemen’s club” where they can get what they want without having to respect those who are expected to provide them their services.

 

September 28, 2016

Crossing Eyes and Dotting Teas

In my previous post I talked about the use—misuse—of a term: Snowflake. It was brought to my attention that I myself may be misusing it or at least misunderstanding it.

It derives from Fight Club, as a negative.  “You are not special snowflakes…you are not unique…”  More or less.  Tyler Durden exhorting the new members of a club no one is supposed to speak about.  Which kind of automatically makes them special.  Exclusive club, deeply hidden, secret, and very radical.  How much more special can you get short of joining the Masons or being recruited by the NSA?

The term then entered the language by way of gaming, applied to people claiming unique privileges—usually unearned—in the course of some rule-heavy role-playing extravaganza.  It went from there to an appellation attached to Millennials of a certain mindset who had absorbed the pseudo-Montessori-esque lessons of specialness and uniqueness and then took it to the next level as sinecure that they, being unique and special, can do no wrong and are allowed to exercise a degree of privilege and intolerance based on that assumed status.

Like all such terms, obviously, it has been handed on, re-purposed, reapplied, contorted, enlarged, expanded, and now, today, it is being used to label anyone even glancingly allied to that other wonderful term that has come to be applied as a derogation, the Social Justice Warrior.

That’s the problem with labels.  They start out one way, they inevitably become something else, and then history gets retroactively rewritten to incorporate the new meanings.

Democrats belong to the party of Jim Crow.

Republicans freed the slaves.

As if those claims describe what they are intended to today.

What I have witnessed and heard is the appropriation of the label Snowflake by people who are unfriendly to messages and arguments about social justice, equality, political correctness, diversity, and related issues so they can apply it where needed to shut down debate.  Classifying someone as a Snowflake (or a Social Justice Warrior) is little more than an attempt to categorize what they have to say as a specific kind of rhetoric which we are not obliged to listen to or credit because it only describes the presumed delicate, unique, and supposedly privileged character of the speaker.  We don’t have to listen to them because, well, it’s just the way they are.

And somehow these delicate souls manage to harass the virtuous manly men (male or female) who have right on their side to the point of silence.

I haven’t, if you’ll forgive the mixed usage here, seen the silence.  On either side, frankly.  What I have seen is a big fat fence raised between the deponents made up of labels.

Now, labels can be useful.  I like to know which aisle contains the pet food as opposed to the household drygoods as opposed to the liquor.  I like to know which building houses what services and addresses are very handy.  I even like knowing what kind of music I’m likely to find on what station and it is helpful to know where in the bookstore I can find History as opposed to Humor.

But when it comes to people, labels are useless impediments to dialogue and intercourse.  And just because those people over there insist on using labels does NOT justify labeling by anyone else.  Because it is the nature of such things—language—that usage is hijacked, meanings change, and context shifts.

Back in the Sixties, there was an event in San Fransisco.  There was a funeral for Hippy.  The label, the tag, the identity.  Because the people at the core of the counter culture saw what was happening—that what they were, how they dressed, talked, acted, was about to be appropriated as fashion.  They knew that all they intended, all they meant for themselves, all they held important was about to be changed by the normal misuse of the American dialogue.  So they declared Hippy dead and they held a funeral.  There was, after that, no authentic hippy.

It didn’t stop the entire country from assuming it knew what a Hippy was and that they were all around.

In the Fifties the label Communist was horribly misapplied.  A wide net of philosophical and political opinions caught people up and labeled them and lives were ruined.  Because it’s easy to think in labels.  Action follows thought.

I don’t care for labels like that.  Especially when deployed in such a way as to shut down meaningful dialogue.

What I am seeing is the use of a term that once described something quite different being applied by people who think they have the right to determine what is meaningful by excluding what they think is without merit.

Does this go both ways?  Of course.  Labels have universal utility.  They are shorthand.  The problem with them is they make it easy to not think.

Just in case anyone thought I meant something else.

On Snowflakes and Labels

I’ve heard it a lot recently. Snowflakes. “Those snowflakes.”

It’s an insult.  It means, apparently, thin-skinned, easily offended, a lightweight, someone prone to knee-jerk reactions to certain things which the ones applying the label don’t see the problem with. “We mustn’t offend the snowflakes!”

What topics?  It has something to do with political correctness, which is another one of those labels which has lost valence through overuse and misapplication.

What is political correctness?

Well, others may have their definitions, but mine is to speak truly about a subject rather than resort to cliché.  To find out the reality before talking through one’s hat, using whatever popular cultural handles that may be lying around.

You can pretty much pick the topic and find disagreement over things ranging from stereotyping to cultural appropriation.  There’s the popular opinion, then there’s the fabrication, and then there’s the reality.  P.C. ought to mean we go for the reality, which requires a certain amount of work and a bit of sensitivity, which seems in short supply.  And if you have no sensitivity, why would you bother to do the work?

Of course, if you don’t do the work, where will you ever get any sensitivity.

So we have a new label, a category—actually a steel-reinforced closet—into which and by which we can dispense with the need to deal with the issues raised by the behavior being tagged as that of a Snowflake.  Once so labeled we can simply use that term to dismiss whatever might be upsetting them.

It’s hard then to know if what is upsetting them has any legitimacy because the conversation has now stopped.

Here’s a thought: those applying this new label seem to believe that these are delicate people who get flustered at the mere mention of opinions with which they disagree. What if that’s not it?  What if it’s more likely the final loss of tolerance for dealing with attitudes, opinions, and treatment with which they have been subjected to for years and they’ve finally reached the point of saying “You know what, if you can’t see through your own bullshit, I don’t have to either help you or put up with it anymore.”

What if a good number, maybe the majority, of people being labeled Snowflakes are actually of such a toughness that it took years and decades of being misheard, misunderstood, categorized, dismissed, and otherwise bullied before they finally just had enough and decided to slam the door in your face?

I’ve been bullied.  The one thing that becomes clear, finally, is that being bullied has no rational cause.  Nothing you can say or do will change the fact that the bully just wants to hurt you.  It’s not rational.  They will bully you because you don’t fit some cool profile or they sense that you’re vulnerable or—more relevant to this situation—that you, just by being, represent a threat to their self-image.  You can’t negotiate, you can’t “be reasonable,” and you sure as hell can’t educate them out of their desire, their urge really to put you in a box and keep you there.

You abuse someone long enough they will snap back.  Right now, voices are being heard that have needed to be heard and certain people, who thought as long as the room was quiet everything was fine, are trying to shut them down.  This is nothing new, this has been the reality for a long, long time.  Now we have some acting out.  Now we have some payback.  Now the “nice, quiet, well-behaved so-n-so who was never a problem before” is standing up saying enough, and so a new label is required?

What you are seeing as hypersensitivity is really just the final loss of patience.  If the conversation had been engaged honestly long ago you wouldn’t be facing a challenge to authority like this.  And claiming you’re the ones under siege is one more example of the myopia of too-long hegemony.

Every time now I see or hear that label being used I think “Have you looked in a mirror lately?  If anyone’s being hypersensitive…”  But no, that’s wrong.  It’s not hypersensitivity.  It’s insensitivity.

Now, go to your room.  Write a thousand times “I will not be an insensitive jerk and pretend it’s a defense of conservative principles.”

You just don’t like the message and you think creating and using a new label will fix the problem.  Like that ever worked before.

September 06, 2016

The Iconography of the Myopic

I debated whether or not to say anything about Phyllis Schlalfy’s passing. I have never held her in high regard and certainly anyone who has paid the slightest attention to my writings over the past three decades should know where I stand on the issues on which she and I disagreed. Violently disagreed at times.

But as her death follows upon the heels of the canonization of Mother Theresa, I find a certain symmetry which prompts comment.

These two women shared one attribute in common that has come to define them for the ages: an obdurate dedication to a special kind of ignorance. They have become icons for people who prefer their views of how the world should be and see them as in some ways martyrs to the cause of defending beliefs that require the most tortured of logics to maintain as viable.

Both apparently took as models their own examples as standards and arguments against those they opposed. Schlafly never (she claimed) understood the feminist argument about the oppression of the patriarchy and Bojaxhiu never understood the utility of situational beneficence.  Consequently both could proceed with programmatic movements that blocked progress and flew in the face of realities neither could accept as valid.

Schlafly was instrumental in blocking the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. Her rhetoric before and after was stridently right wing, as if the very notion of women wanting opportunities as human beings was somehow a threat to civilization.  She herself apparently never suffered resistance to anything she wanted to do.  She essentially told women less privileged than herself to be satisfied with their stations in life and give up ambitions of being more than wives and mothers, even as she lived a life that was anything but an acceptance of such limitations.  Her inability—or refusal—to come to terms with the fact that human beings deserve to be treated by each other as individuals cost her, but she has never once publicly acknowledged that she might be wrong.

Bojaxhiu set up shop in one of the poorest areas in the world to, ostensibly, minister to those poor.  Normally we hear that and believe some form of relief of suffering is involved, but apparently not.  She elevated the suffering of the dying to some form of divine gift, gave them aspirin, and prayed while they died in misery. It wasn’t lack of money, either. Her order has received many millions—which she used to open convents and wage a campaign in opposition to the one thing that might make a difference in those poor districts she held in such high esteem: birth control.  Of all the things she might have chosen to name as the most significant enemy of our times, providing women, especially poor women, the means to control their fertility, reduce family size so what resources they had might go further and do more, is a perverse choice. Catholic, yes, but it’s not like other Catholics haven’t seen reality for what it is and did something—anything—that might constructively alleviate suffering.  From the evidence, all she did was put a noble gloss on it and exacerbate it.

It could be argued that both were “of their times” and therefore exception should be made before too harshly assessing their legacies, but I don’t accept that.  In Schlafly’s case, she was educated, moved among the best minds when she wanted to, had more than ample opportunity to understand what she was doing.  It didn’t matter.  She had picked a side and stuck with it, reality be damned.  In Bojaxhiu’s case, the daily exposure to those she supposedly ministered to should have served to snap her out of whatever quasi-Freudian obsession she had with sex and start acting like a human being.  (Unless you wish to argue that she was indeed “out of her time” and would have been right at home in the Middle Ages as a flagellant.) She was not stupid, she was the head of an international organization.  She put on the sackcloth of the humble village girl with simple values, but she was anything but.

That the Church has canonized her is no surprise.  In Dante’s Paradiso we meet many saints and upon reading about them and their character we begin to wonder why these people are where they are.  Dante makes the case—among others—that the price of admission to this paradise is a lifetime of obsessive devotion to a view of divine truth that is essentially selfless.  In other words, in the consequences of their lives, the Paradisiacs are not much different than the Infernals, other than they are selfless rather than selfish.  Both share a conviction that their view of the world is right, but for very different reasons.

Of course, Dante’s Paradise is not really a place anyone rational would care to spend eternity.

That Schlafly has devoted followers is also no surprise.  One of the curious similarities between her and the so-called “New Woman” of the post-liberation era is the image of someone who does it all.  Wife, mother, lawyer, political organizer, mover, shaker. Whatever roadblocks might have been thrown in her way, she went around, over, or through them.  If she could do it, by gum, so can anyone, and we don’t need no damn ERA to do it!

Except for the privilege. No, she wasn’t born to money. But she got the advantages of a college education at a time women weren’t going to college much.  She also married money.  Draw your own conclusions, but without that her later ability to do all the things she chose to do would have been absurdly more difficult.  However, she has the background to appeal to the self-made, the education to talk constitutional law with the best, and the security to assert herself in ways women traditionally do not. However you want to spin it, she was privileged.

Both women offered ideologies that overlooked or flatly denied certain inconvenient realities.  But they had their lives, their callings, their successes.  What is this reality that makes any kind of claim on the conscience of the visionary that either was obliged to respect?

Phobic Identity

Here’s a the thing.  If you need someone to be in some way “less” than you in order for you to feel good—or even adequate—about yourself, you have a problem.  It’s not their problem, it’s yours.

This “pastor” who spewed all over Twitter that we shouldn’t feel bad about the Orlando killings because they were “perverts” is a prime example.  If he’s really a pastor, a religious leader, there is no reason for him to say any of that unless he’s just trying to assert superiority.  Which is entirely not the point of Christianity, as I understand it.  The point is to embrace the commonalities among people, not sort them out into boxes labeled “Preferred Types” and “Types To Be Condemned.”  No, he’s just indulging in bolstering a shaky self-image by dumping his own head full of crap on a group he finds personally—

What?  Offensive? Incomprehensible? Or simply indifferent to his beliefs.

But, then, how would he know?

People who try to make themselves feel better by denigrating others have always been among us but they have never been so able to broadcast their inadequacies so loudly and regularly and they have found each other and formed support groups. I can’t imagine a gloomier or, frankly, duller forum.

I have found that prejudice rarely survives real knowledge.  Actually knowing someone makes it very difficult to shove them into a category and hate “just because” they are a particular “type.”  Oh, it’s possible.  I have heard all manner of tortured rationalization to continue hating a group while embracing individuals from that group as friends.  But that requires, I think, a profound myopia. (And I have to wonder how much of a “friend” they can be.)  Generally, once you know someone, I believe it becomes harder and harder to categorically judge and hate them and those like them.

Which is why much of this hatred is based on ignorance.

But a particular kind of ignorance, one based on identity.

After 9/11 we saw people who suggested we learn more about Islam condemned as some species of traitor.  How dare you suggest we learn something about this group that just hurt us so badly!  How dare you suggest that we can’t programmatically cast all of them into the same box and deal with our pain by blaming them all and hating them!  How dare you suggest that more knowledge will benefit us!

It was a spasm of national smallness.  “I know who the enemy is, don’t tell me more about him or I might stop hating him.”

Reality is always more complicated.

People who feel squeezed by circumstance, unable often by virtue of their own ignorance to make the decisions necessary to get themselves out of their own cesspools of anger and frustration, seem to contract into themselves and put up a wall to keep out any ideas or facts that might tell them they are in error.  They end up hating, many of them, and you see it all over, with signs that are not only wrong-headed but in too many cases suggestive of poor education, illiteracy, and parochialisms that reinforce a siege mentality that grows daily more dense and difficult to penetrate.

No, sir or madam, “they” are not the problem.  There are conditions and circumstances that make for a toxic situation and someone has told you that “they” are the cause, the consequence, and the catalyst, all rolled into one, and if we can just be rid of “them” then you will stop being afraid.  Whoever told you that lied to you, probably because in so doing they have made themselves feel (falsely) more in control of their situation or they have a power agenda that depends on you buying into the lie.  It certainly depends on you never asking deeper questions.  Easier to just target and hate.  There, the shots have been fired, the bodies are on the floor, “they” have been dealt a blow.

Then why don’t you feel any safer?  Why can’t you get past the hate?

Why must we now shift aim to yet another group you know nothing about except that they don’t look or sound or act like you?

Too many people in this country harbor and nurture identity hatreds—we know who we are because we hate those people over there, who are different.

While you’re feeding on that, someone has been stealing your soul to use for purposes you’re too busy hating gays or Muslims or socialists or single parents or blacks or Latinos or Asians or Liberals or Democrats or anyone who knows something you don’t know or has an education or a vocabulary or anyone who reads or supports birth control or feminists or accepts evolution or advocates tolerance or the group of the day to notice.

On some level, along the way, inside, you are one or more of these very things. Hate them, you hate yourself.  And if by so doing you define who you are, then you have created for yourself a prison, with bars on the inside, through which to look and resent a world of which you have little understanding.  Because you refuse to.

And that pastor?  He’s one of the wardens.

March 03, 2016

Wandering On A Thursday Morning

 

Feeling a bit abstracted and commentative this morning.  Politics is depressing and energizing at the same time, did you ever notice that?  The devouring of the corpus publius

So photographs.

La Policia, b&w February 2016 Pavement & Puddle, February 2016Wandering the streets, trying to fit what was with what is, seeing the skeleton of what you used to know beneath the layered detritus of the now.  I see the same things but they no longer register the same way.  Is this, perhaps, nostalgia, intense homesickness, nosta—homecoming—algia—pain?

The past is there, but I am not.  I can only note what it once was, testify where it had been, validate the now because the scaffolding of then holds it up.

Or maybe I’m just tired.

We are a pattern-anticipating sensate creature.  Where the patterns mean nothing we can oblige the emptiness by bringing our own meanings and applying them.  It’s as pleasant a pasttime as any other, until we begin believing our own significations to the detriment of the previous occupants.  Even knowing the traps, we can’t help it.  We want to, and sometimes we do, but more often we just think we do. Know, that is.  The inability to accept the process leads to tight spaces with no room to maneuver. Squeezes our expectations all out of true.Crossed Trees, February 2016The patterns persist even when the desires change.  If we appreciated them for what they are and resisted the urge to impose our own hungers on them, we might find what we need and feel better about it in the process.

But what do I know?  I’m just a science fiction writer who takes pictures.

Hope you have a fine day.

December 28, 2015

Best Posts of The Year

We Prospered

Getting Out of Your Own Head

Old New Work

It’s Been HOW Long?

Update and So Forth

Passing of Giants

A Few Words About Unpleasant Realities

“That Guy”

I Don’t Read That Stuff

Dear Anonymous

Peak Experiences

September 04, 2015

Dear Anonymous

Sir (or Madam, as it was not clear from the lack of signature which you may be),

Thank you for your note of the Nth instant concerning your feelings about our organization’s position regarding the current crisis in our community.  The strength and sincerity of your position are well represented in the brevity of your declaration that you will cease to do business with us due to our public stance.  As you may know, the open exchange of ideas is central not only to our own philosophy but to the very identity of our community and country.  Unless we know, unless we can discuss and debate, unless we can openly disagree and engage with each other and, in time, find common ground based on such free exchanges, we cannot move forward, we cannot improve, we cannot redress grievances or attend to injustices.

Which makes it all the more puzzling that you chose to send your note anonymously.

You place me at a disadvantage, since obviously you know how to directly communicate your sentiments to me but I have no recourse to reply other than by public pronouncement.  I can only conclude that you have no interest in my response, and so also conclude that this was not the sincere offer to engage that it might seem at first brush.

Why is that?

Well, perhaps there is a clue in what you chose to say to me.

You have declared that you find my—and my organization’s—position partisan, that I have failed to see a “bigger picture” by not including irrelevancies in my stated position, and that I am therefore “fueling hatred” by supporting only one side of the issue.  You claim that by not opening out a larger umbrella that includes so many factors that the basic point of my argument would be lost in the muddle that I am an agent of chaos.

You finish by declaring that you will never do business with us again.

Since I don’t know whether you have ever done business with us in the first place, as you failed to identify yourself, I have no way of knowing how much of a loss this may (or may not) be.

However, I’m sure you have your reasons for remaining anonymous.  Possibly many reasons.  So, be that as it may, I will address myself to your detailed charge that I and my organization may be  “fueling hatred.”

The hatred is already there.

Let me see if I can explain this by an analogy.  “Fuel” suggests a fire, which seems apt in this case, so—

If a particular house is on fire and the fire department has yet to be called, if I start a campaign pointing out that a house is on fire in order to bring the firefighting strength of the community to the scene and put it out, then why would you try to undermine that by pointing to all the other houses that are not burning and complaining that the blazing house is getting preferential treatment when everyone knows “All Houses Matter”?  If you’re successful, then the fire department will spray water all over everywhere and likely fail to put the fire out in the one house that is burning.

Of course, the problem with that is, since the fire will not then be out, it will likely spread to all those other houses which received a then-unnecessary dousing.

My declaration that “This House Matters” on the other hand points to the problem and it can, hopefully, be dealt with directly and thoroughly, before all those other houses are engulfed.

There is no logic in your opposition to my campaign.

Unless you don’t want the fire in that house extinguished.  Unless you want it burned to the ground so you don’t ever have to think about it again.  Unless you don’t regard the people living in that house as worth the same consideration as the residents of all those other houses.

Surely not.  That would be cruel.  That would be—how shall I say this?—discriminatory.  That would be the position of…

But, surely not.  Surely you are not so bereft of human sentiment as to wish ill upon people you probably don’t know.  You would have to not know them to think that way, because surely if you did know them then you would be even less endowed with the compassion necessary to live profitably in a community.

Ah, not your community?  Well, that’s just a matter of perspective, isn’t it?  Perspective and border grids?

But, as I say, surely not.

Maybe you simply object to someone interrupting your tranquility by summoning a gaggle of loud firefighters into your neighborhood.  After, your house isn’t on fire, why should you have to put up with the noise and inconvenience of saving someone else’s house?  And, really, shouldn’t they have paid closer attention to their house so that it didn’t catch fire in the first place?  Obviously, it’s their fault, otherwise the house wouldn’t be on fire.

And me?  You object to me calling attention to the fire?  Because it may spoil your weekend plans?

Logically, then, there are two conclusions.  Either you don’t believe you should sacrifice your peace of mind in the cause of putting out the fire…or you want the fire to run its course.

I suppose it’s possible that you don’t believe there actually is a fire.  That’s possible.  But then why object when someone points out to you that there is?

Is it possible you could feel responsible for that fire?

This analogy has run its course.  Obviously we’re not talking about houses on fire—although that has been a part of this—but people who are living in conditions less than ideal.  And through no fault of their own, are being abused for having to live in those conditions.  Or, even less comfortably for you, abused simply for being who they are.

Which is sort of similar to what you’re doing to me and my organization.  I—we—have taken a position of conscience.  Because this is who we are.  You are objecting to that and threatening us as a result.  Just because of who we are.

What is more, a part of you knows you’re wrong.  Otherwise, there wouldn’t be any of this anonymous nonsense.  You want me to know how very strongly you disapprove of what I do but not strongly enough to sign your name to the disapproval.

Another possibility is that you feel compelled to take part in this debate but you don’t have anything useful to say.  You resent that, you resent being made aware of problems you’ve probably been ignoring all your life—or never believed were problems—but now that there is an argument, you really want to take part in it, but there is nothing—nothing—in your background, your lived experience, your education, or among your family or friends that would provide you with one constructive thing to contribute.  Saying nothing is not an option, because then you wouldn’t be in on the action, so…

That would be kind of juvenile, though, don’t you think?  Not knowing how to build something and feeling left out, you do the one thing you know how to do—throw a brick at someone else’s building.

No, surely not.  Surely you aren’t that bereft of options or compassion.

But you felt the urge to threaten.  Why?  You felt the need to try to obscure a problem and make it seem not so important.  Why?  You felt the need to get angry at the people calling in the fire department instead of taking your place in line at the bucket brigade.  Why?

I am left finally with the one conclusion that makes any sense to me, given the paucity of clues with which I have to work because you have chosen not to engage in a dialogue but instead throw a brick—a paper one with words on it, but a brick nonetheless.  That, in it’s simplest terms, you have caught yourself looking into the mirror I’ve helped hold up and you don’t like what you see.  You hate me now for showing you a glimpse of yourself you thought long buried and forgotten.

To once more use the house analogy, while you may not have set the fire, you probably stood on the sidelines with a bag of marshmallows and a long stick.

I’d rather not think that of you but there’s no way for me to know otherwise, because you’ve chosen to show me this and nothing more.  I can’t discuss it with you.  I don’t know you.

You don’t know me, either.  And evidently, you don’t want to.

And that is where the problem begins and finally ends.

Sincerely yours…

….but you already know who I am.

 

July 04, 2015

Freedom and Those People Over There

It’s the Fourth of July.  The national birthday party.  On this day in 1776 was the official reading of the Declaration of Independence, when the Thirteen Colonies broke from Great Britain and began the process of forming a nation. In the 239 years since we as a people have engaged an ongoing and often contentious, sometimes violent conversation about the one thing we like to say distinguishes us from every other people or nation or country on the globe:  Freedom.

Contentious because everyone means something different when they use that word. We do not agree on a common definition.  This isn’t a deep, difficult to understand reality, we simply don’t.  Put any group of people together from different parts of the country and have them talk about what they mean by Freedom and while certain common ideas bubble, once you get into the details you find divisions, sometimes deep.

Clearly for most of the first century, as a nation, we had a pretty limited notion of what it meant.  It meant freedom for a certain few to do what they wanted at the expense of others.

So native Americans didn’t have it, nor did slaves, nor, for the most part, did women. Even a white skin on a male body didn’t guarantee one equal consideration, because money and property were important, and, to a lesser extent, natural born versus immigrant, language, and religion.  We, like any bunch of people anywhere, fell into groups and competed with each other over privilege and those who came out on top extolled the virtues of freedom while doing what they could, consciously or not, to limit it for others who might impose limits on their success.

This is not controversial.  This is history.  We’re human, we can be jerks like anyone else.  What makes it awkward for us is this widely-held belief that we are unfettered supporters of Freedom.

In the simplest terms, we claim to be free when we feel no constraints on preferred action.  So if you’re going on along doing what you like to do and no one tells you that you can’t, you feel free.  If, to complicate things a bit, someone passes a law that says Those People Over There may not do something you have no interest in, well, you don’t feel any less free and may wonder why they’re complaining about being oppressed.  After all, you’re free, you don’t have any complaints, and that makes this a free country, so stop bitching.

Naturally, if someone passes a law that says you can’t do something you either want to do or makes claims on your resources in order to support such rules, now you feel a bit less free, imposed upon, and maybe complain yourself.  Of course, Those Other Folks Over There are quite happy about the new law and themselves feel freer as a result, so they look at you now as the sore thumb sticking up.

But it still involves questions of constraint, which is what the law is about, and we agree in principle that we need laws.

If we need laws to restrain—to tell us what we can and cannot do—doesn’t that immediately beg the question of what it means to be free?  I mean, the libertarian line would be that I’m a grown-assed adult and I can control my own life, thank you very much, you can keep your laws.

What if your desire for unconstrained action puts a burden on other people?

What if, to make a big but logical leap, your sense of freedom requires that others have less than you or, to put it back at the beginning, that some people be ownable? You know: slaves.

That the Founders built it into the framework that slavery could not only exist within the borders of this new “land of the free” but that it was illegal to discuss the issue in Congress for twenty years might cause us to ponder just what they meant by Freedom.

And it did take over a century before the laws began to change concerning women and property. Was a time a wife was legally owned by her husband—her, her body, and all her associated belongings—and could be thrown out with nothing but the clothes on her back if the marriage went sour. That doesn’t even take into account that it wasn’t till 1919 that women could legally vote.

How does this fit with our self-congratulatory view as the freest nation on Earth?

Well, we say, that was then.  This is today and we’re not like that.

Aren’t we?  Then why are we still arguing—loudly—over questions of equality, and in several areas of concern?

I put these out there to leaven the uncritical jubilation over what really is a worthy aspect of this country.

What the Founders implicitly recognized was the multifaceted and often conflicting perceptions people will inevitably bring to this question.  They may well have held some overarching, abstract view as to what Freedom meant but they knew such could not secure the kind of stability necessary for a viable nation.  Absolute freedom would destroy us just as surely as absolute tyranny.  So they set up a framework in which we as a people would continually argue about it, and by extension demonstrated that it was this freedom to hash it out that they saw as the most relevant, the most viable, and in the end the only practicable way of securing individual liberty over time.  They built into it all the nearly sacred idea that we can say and think what we please and set up fora wherein we could express ourselves without authoritarian retribution.

That was the idea, at least.  Like everything else they put in place, it hasn’t always played out that way.  McCarthy wasn’t the first one to send a chill through the republic to make people afraid of ideas.

We are, however, free to argue.  Sometimes we have to bring ridiculous force to the table to make an argument, but at the individual level we can go to our various barbecues this weekend and have it out on any topic without fear that some censorious official will show up at our door next week to take us to a room and be questioned about our beliefs.  There have been times when even this was not a guaranteed freedom, but over all this is what the Founders decided on as the most efficacious form of freedom to protect.  They arranged things so the suppression of the freedom to have an opinion could end up fueling a political movement and take the argument into the public arena where it can be further debated.

But this also means we have to learn to privilege the freedom of expression and thought over any other.

And it’s hard. It is damn hard.

Follow the comment threads of any heated or controversial post anywhere—the equivalent today to Letters to the Editor in other periods—and you can see that many people just don’t get that.  It frightens them.  Why?  Because it’s fluid.  Because it means things change.  Because it calls into question what they thought were absolutes.  Because they grew up thinking their country was one thing, unchanging, ordained by divine testimony, and their sense of freedom is based on holding to those absolutes and defending them from those who would see things differently.  Flux, change, revolution.

They came to believe that all the work was already done and everything would be fine  except for Those People Over There, those…those…malcontents.

Forgetting, of course, that the whole thing came from the minds and labor of malcontents.

We come away from our youthful education about 1776 with the belief that the war was the revolution, but this is not the case.  It was the war for the revolution, which is what came after.  The revolution was the process of setting up a new form of government and establishing a framework distinct from what had gone before. 1787 was the year of revolution.  The Constitution was ratified by the delegates to the convention on September 17, 1787.  It then had to go before the individual states for final acceptance, which was not finished till May, 1790, when the last state, Rhode Island, voted to accept it by a two vote margin. Those two and half years were the actual revolution, because revolution brings us the new.  In a way, 1776 was little more than a decree to stop sending the rent to England and a statement that we were willing fight over the right to have a revolution. The war was not the revolution, it only allowed the revolution to happen.

And what was that sea change in the affairs of people?  That the people would choose their leaders?  Not an especially new idea—kings had been elected before (in fact, the Thirty Years War began over just such an election)—but here it would be the way we would always choose our leaders.  The mechanism by which we made that choice, now, that was based on the revolution, which was folded into this rather imprecise notion of Self Determination. But it rests ultimately on the sacred right of each one of us to disagree.

It is by disagreement—loudly and publicly, but beginning privately and from conscience—that we move toward that other nebulous concept “a more perfect union.”  Which itself is a strange phrase.  More perfect.  Perfection, by definition, does not come in degrees.  It either is or isn’t.  Usually.  Unless they, the Founders, were recognizing the fact that change is inevitable, especially if we’re going to sacrilize the freedom to disagree.  In practical terms, your perfection, however conceived, is unlikely to be mine.  If so, then the formula is there to move us from one state of perfection to another equal but different state of perfection.

Which is unlikely and sloppy logic.  Most likely, they knew, as they should have, being good students of the Enlightenment, that perfection is unachievable but the idea of it serves as a spur to do better.  Perfectibility is the ongoing process of seeking perfection.  In the seeking we have to define it and in the definition comes the debating.  In the debating we find a method for—often convulsively—blocking the hegemony of factions, or at least tearing them down when they become onerous.

So in order to “form that more perfect union” we accept that it is always just over the next hill and we have to have a consensus about what it looks like and to get there.  Which sets us to arguing, which is the best guarantor of liberty of conscience.

But we have to work at it.  Which means the revolution is not finished.  What they set in motion was something that would never be finished if we tended to it seriously and with reason and commitment.  So if anything, July 4 is the day we should celebrate as the point when we took steps for creating the conditions for the revolution. The revolution followed the surrender of the British and the commencement of the work to create a nation.  That was—and is—the revolution.

As long as we can meet and differ and find accommodation despite our differences and allow for those differences to be manifest to the benefit of society, the revolution continues.  That it continues is the sure sign that we have freedom (and tells the nature of that freedom).  Even when we don’t always use it or recognize it or allow it to define us.  Oh, we have work yet to do!  But we can do it if we choose.

Just some ruminations from a citizen.  Have a safe Fourth of July.

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