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.

Post Pandemic?

Our governor, Mike Parsons, has announced that, for Missouri, the pandemic is over. It’s been demoted to “endemic.” Which means, in case anyone is wondering, that it’s not gone, it has “settled in” as a constant, like the flu or colds or mosquitoes. He’s more or less following the trend. People are abandoning their masks and it appears to have reached a point where he might as well give it the seal of approval or look like a stick in the mud. Or a Democrat.

I’m still masking. Depending on where I am, this is becoming a minority practice. I’m waiting for the notices of a new spike, but who knows? Maybe the Omicron variant isn’t as nasty in its consequences. Serendipity may make this look like a smart call.

But if it’s true that the virus is entering a less fatal phase, that evolution is doing what it does and making the changes from a killer to a nuisance, what does that say about the last two plus years of our collective reaction? Politicians can only do so much. If people are unwilling to go along with the recommendations—the rules—there’s not much they can do. Usually, only a minority of people in a given community resist the imposition of new requirements. What makes this last couple of years so frustrating is the nature of the requirements in the face of the kind of emergency that has made many of us look like fools.

This is not new. During the savage Spanish Flu outbreak in 1918, people across the United States resisted health regulations to isolate, quarantine, take basic prophylactic measures. Here in St. Louis, Dr. Max Starkloff, the city director of public health, went so far as to have people arrested who refused to stay home. That pandemic was in some ways worse than the present one. When restrictions relaxed, people got sick and died dramatically. But people bristled at being told what to do. Some thought their position in society was protection, others thought prayer would work, still more simply refused to believe they could catch it based on the centuries-old canard that illness was a sign of moral failings.  That last may have some credibility, but not the way people meant it. God was not going to protect them, but their willingness to be good citizens made a difference.

Be that as it may, the experience has left me a bit more cynical as to the dependability of my fellow citizens. Yes, wearing a mask has been annoying. Yes, using hand sanitizer ten times more often than usual is irritating. Yes, having to be aware of how close one is to anyone else requires more thought than we’re used to. I’m sure some people chafe at being required to wear shirt and shoes in restaurants or other stores (and personally I’ve always wondered why in designated areas men can go topless but not women). It’s been a while, but I’ve been turned away from certain restaurants for being underdressed, i.e. no shirt and tie—t-shirt and tennis shoes didn’t cut it. But they were rules of engagement and for the most part no one questions them. Mainly because the minority that complains is so small as to be ignorable.

It has been instructive. In science fiction from time to time we’ve had depictions of mass reactions consistent with what we just saw. It is a truth largely to be accepted that when people gather together in sufficient numbers, behavior changes. To paraphrase K from Men In Black, “a person is smart, but people are dumb, panicky, and dangerous.” Add a dose of partisan politics to the mix and we can have the full display of social discontent over what amounts to fashion.

The flip side of this is the amazing resilience and adaptive genius of so many people. While the intransigence and childishness of loud clots of obsessive complainers garnered headlines and news spots, the shear brilliance of others has been a balm to cynicism. Of course, many of those who have stepped up have been worked to the bone, and burn-out is the next epidemic we’ll have to deal with, but those who have just dealt with the situation and continued to serve is the stuff of inspiration. Without them, far more people would be dead, incapacitated, and unable to manage from day to day, and we certainly would not be having the recovery we seem to be experiencing. I have no doubt a lot of the self-styled “true patriots” who have been nothing but embarrassments with their refusal to simply be polite through all this will try to take credit when the smoke clears, claiming that they knew all along and so forth, but they will only be able to stand up and make those claims because of all the people who simply went to work to deal with the situation.

It’s been harder perhaps than it should have been because too many of our civil servants have opted to follow the winds of social reaction instead of taking the lead and allowed themselves to set policy according to the petulant mewling of a perceived constituency whose basic political position is “I don’t want to be bothered.” Had we all simply accepted that we faced a novel problem that required an extraordinary response, we might not have so many dead or, of lesser but not insignificant importance, divided ourselves even more than we have been.

To me, one of the saddest aspects of the lessons to be learned is just how self-involved so many of us are. Whether you agreed with assessed efficacy of the measures suggested or not, the fact is wearing a mask, social distancing, curtailing your usual social meanderings was for the benefit of others. You wear the mask to protect other people from your germs, not you from theirs. How hard is this to understand? The bleating of the imposed-upon marks a low point in basic civility and politeness. You don’t be polite only when it’s your idea. That’s not politeness. That’s not consideration. That’s showing off.

Be that as it may, I feel like I’ve been living in a very large zoo with restless animals set to stampede at any moment. The degree of skill on the part of those who have managed to impose some semblance of common decency among us is an achievement to be marveled at. My hat is off to those who have seen us through.

Thank you.

Life Of Words

My last post dealt with my principled opinions and feelings about book banning/burning. This one will be personal.

I realize it sounds clichéd when someone says reading saved their lives, but it shouldn’t. Our lives are saved by the people around us, those who are with us, relatives and friends and teachers, in an ever-widening circle of familiarity. That network is the reason we are alive and the people we are. I know it’s fashionable to try to claim island status, that we are ourselves by our own hand, but it’s nonsense, and even those most stridently dedicated to that bit of myth know better, unless they are so utterly isolated as to be clinically dysfunctional. That claim is made for a simple reason—certain people don’t wish to be beholden to those of whom they disapprove. 

As a result, at some boundary away from the center, as that circle of support expands, many reach a point where they stop knowing or caring about or accepting the next ring. The connection is too vague, from a place too unfamiliar, about people too unlike us.

Well, that’s where reading comes in. And it is absurd not to understand that books are part of that inner circle for many of us. They are our friends, with us, teaching. They are a refuge and a source of understanding. The moment we begin to read a book, it comes alive and is there. 

As I have written before, I did not have a particularly great time as a child. Not horrible. But I had trouble fitting in. Many of the daily fascinations of my “friends” baffled me. Once I got into school, these bafflements led to embarrassments which led to further disconnects which opened the door to bullying. 

Movies, tv, and books became my safe place. 

I had a small assortment of Golden Books, a couple of Dr. Seuss books, and a bizarre variety of comics. There were no bookstores near me at that time, so I don’t even know where they came from. We occasionally went to a big Drug Store called Katz (we called almost any store that had a pharmacy department a Drug Store, whether that was its primary business or not) and they had a magazine section where some of my comics came from. I got my first library card when I was six and there was the school library.

Unknowingly, my world was expanding.

I discovered “real” books around the age of 10. Real Books were books with no pictures. I admit the transition was difficult—I am primarily a visual person. What developed was a reading method that reached its peak around age 15 or so and has to some extent stayed with me. I loved movies. Upon starting a new novel, I would cast the characters and in my mind I ran a film of what I read, translating the words into scenes. By the end of high school, I was reading close to a 100 books a year (my senior year I read about 200, cutting class regularly to go to the public library for the day and sit reading). This fell off sharply when I got a job, but I have maintained a reading rate of between 50 and 100 books a year since. Although, as I got older I found myself reading more deeply, therefore slower, and so my average is somewhere between 60 and 80.

There may have been a year or two where my reading fell off close to nothing, but for 60 years I have never not read.

I had no idea reading could cause controversy until I was in seventh grade. The year before I had started bringing books to school, mass market paperbacks, most of which fit easily into a back pocket. I tried to find someplace to read during recess. I had little interest in going out to the playground. Eventually I found an unused room behind the stage in the gym where I could read for half an hour. I was smart enough not to disappear completely during recess, lest they try to come find me. I don’t know if that actually worked or if someone figured out what I was doing and decided to leave me alone. 

I did find my popularity with the girls rising. Many if not most of them were also readers. And they would borrow my books when I finished. In retrospect, I did bring some rather “inappropriate” books to school. Emmaus was a parochial school. Last Summer, The Master of Falconhurst, Flowers In The Attic…probably not what the parents of those girls would have considered suitable. And in hindsight, this was the reason they were borrowing my books and not getting their own. They couldn’t.

It didn’t become an issue until the principal, a dour older man named Adolph Oberman, caught me with a copy of Harold Robbins’  The Carpetbaggers. He took it, glowered, said nothing, and called my parents.

The Carpetbaggers is filled with quite explicit sex. For its day, quite explicit. 

The conference Mr. Oberman had with my mother and me was educational. (Yes, I was present. I think he expected a united front in making me ashamed of myself.) He handed the book to my mother and asked if she was aware that I was reading it.

“No,” she said. “Why?”

He was a bit dismayed. “Do you think this is appropriate for him?”

She shrugged. “If he can’t handle it, he’ll stop reading it. Or he’ll ask me about it. Either way, I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t censor what my son reads.”

Mr. Oberman was shaken. I was surprised, too, not because I had any sense of the book being a problem, but because I had come to expect that anything I did that resulted in this kind of a conference was automatically A Bad Thing. That my mother was putting the ball back in his court was unexpected. 

“I would prefer he not bring such things to school,” was about all he could manage.

On the way home she asked me where I had gotten it, but that was all. No lectures, not demands to see what else I owned, no impression of disapproval.

My mom is a hero to me.

It was around this time that I got my first bike and found the neighborhood bookstore. When my parents realized that I was spending my allowance on books, my allowance increased. They never questioned what I brought home.

Entering high school in the fall of 1968 was to walk into a maw of a cultural beast in full transformation. Till then I was marginally aware of “hippies” and the War and the Counterculture. Over the next few years I found out what it was all about and had a front row seat at the battle to control information. My favorite history teacher was reprimanded for allowing a debate over Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation to take place. I challenged the syllabus for its insipid choices and was finally told flat out that the books selected (for our school, which was traditional blue collar school) were chosen because they were short enough not to challenge our presumed attention spans. I read Fahrenheit 451 and learned about the history of censorship and suppression—

—which baffled me and angered me. These were my friends—the books—how dare anyone burn them?

And this is what nonreaders do not seem to get. Books are alive the moment a reader finds them. They are conversations. They are what remain of lives long gone yet through them still present. They are the Past, they are people, they are the future-maybes, they are the record of civilization, and they are the repository of the whole of human experience. When I could not talk to my peers, when they had nothing they wanted to say to me or know from me, I could open a book and be with people. 

For a long time I didn’t appreciate that aspect, but as I grew older I realized that the relationships on the pages I had attended to were, in their own way, as worthy and rich and supportive as those with flesh and blood on two legs and a whisper in my ear. Sometimes more so, because here these people, many long-dead, were explaining themselves to me, which most of the people around me never did. And because of these silent conversations via the word, eventually I understood the people around me, too.

It did save a lot of time and grief.

Granted, it can put one at odds with the people around you. For a time, as many devoted readers know, you are the odd one, the weirdo, the bookworm, the nerd, the dork. For a people who seem to value Experience, I always found it curious—and unfortunate—that they never realized that reading, close reading, is experience.

But some seem to sense, even understand in a clever and sly way, that it is, and that experience brings change.

I grew up able to read anything I came across. Did I read inappropriate material? First, define that for me. Secondly, I would hope so. You don’t expand your self by playing it safe and staying within arbitrarily defined “appropriate boundaries.” And, really, reading a book is about the most risk-free exposure to inappropriate there is.

Back at Emmaus, another incident occurred which I did not know about at the time, at least not the full story. That stolid, conservative principal, Mr. Oberman, decided, some time between my sixth and seventh grade, to try to bring into the school a sex education program. He found one that had been designed by christians, constructed with a concern about religious sensibilities while still dealing factually and fully with the world of chaos about to fall upon students of our age. There was a presentation at a PTA meeting, which my mother attended. (At the time my dad worked nights, which left mom to deal with this sort of thing.) According to my mother, it was a beautiful course, tasteful, knowledgeable, pitched to just the right level. She thought it would have been terrific. Only one other parent and she voted to approve it. Every other parent there said no. One, according to mom, even said “I never knew any of this stuff, why should our kids need to know it?”

I get the idea—if you don’t tell them, they won’t know to indulge it. It’s a stupid idea, but it’s as common as hydrogen. Because we were being told about it. Only not properly and not factually and not within any kind of framework that would allow us to understand it as it should be understood. We were getting it from older kids, from magazines that “showed up” and were passed around, from the age-old osmotic passage of “forbidden” knowledge that is the font of superstition, trash history, racism, and conspiracy-driven nonsense that somehow Everyone seems to know and no one bothers to verify. We were learning how french kissing could get a girl pregnant, how masturbation will cause cognitive degradation, how sex would cause hair growth, how a thousand other false “everybody knows” bits were true and a science-based course on human sexuality was a sin. All because parents—most of them in that place and time—could not handle the idea of sex education. 

For myself, by then I had acquired the priceless habit of Looking Things Up. I was made to feel stupid a couple of times about sex by my peers. What did I do? I rode my bike to that bookstore and bought a book about it. Love and Sex in Plain Language by Eric Johnson. A slim book, barely 110 pages, with illustrations. That was another book that got passed around to some of the girls. But it was the first time I ever had proof that what my classmates were telling me was empty nonsense.

But the nonsense was being passed around. That sex education course would have been as much damage control as anything else. 

“I never knew any of this stuff, why should our kids need to know it?”

Given that, what might they have felt about other topics? Like slavery or religious bigotry or Manifest Destiny or evolution or—? And we want people like that to determine what everyone else’s children can have access to why? Because believe me, they aren’t trying to keep those books out of their children’s hands for the benefit of the kids.

I imagine it’s possible, even likely, that some people consider me untrustworthy. Unreliable. Corrupt. A Bad Influence. Unpatriotic. I read all those books (somewhere close to 4000 by now) and filled my head with all those things nobody needed to know. 

But having read all those books—and living the kind of life such reading helped give me access to—I also know exactly what such opinions are worth.

Banning

To my mind, there are few acts more pernicious than book banning. It goes to a fundamental failure in us that usually manifests in several other ways that sometimes seem unrelated.

Firstly, it is a direct admission that the proponents care little and likely understand nothing about freedom.

All we finally have, all that allows us to be present in the world, known to each other, and recognized as ourselves is our voice. Take that away and you erase us. Any examination of the history of conquest and oppression shows that this is the primary tool of the conquerors and oppressors. Silence the subjugated, muzzle their allies, expunge them from history, ban their voices from being heard. Ever, if possible. It is nothing more than an attempt to declare only one view, one vision, one value. By denying a voice to others, you show the world what you are—a coward, a bully, a parasite. It is admitting that you cannot abide a world in which others matter. Being surrounded by those saying the same things you do is not proof that others matter, but that they would only matter if they said anything contrary to what you perceive as reality, at which point you must suppress them. You only exist by the acclamation of sycophants, whose words mean nothing.

Taking away another’s voice is the ultimate murder.

Parents who insist that others keep books from their children have either forgotten their own childhood or have no interest in actual parenting. Going to libraries and schools and demanding certain books be withdrawn, kept from their children, they admit to a level of fear that is entirely self-involved. Religious leaders who advocate for the banning of certain books reveal an agenda based on faithlessness and a conviction that they have nothing to offer. Politicians who advocate on behalf of censors show themselves to be venal opportunists willing to take advantage of any fecklessness their constituency may exhibit in order to retain office.

The uncertainty of finding yourself without answers to questions prompted by reading can only legitimately be addressed by engaging in the discussion, reading the books yourself, and joining with others to understand the questions posed, Banning the books only means you don’t want to talk about it, which is no solution, only an abrogation of responsibility.

The only thing that makes life worthwhile is sharing it with other people, other minds, other views. There are few places safer and more reliable to find those other perspectives than books.

The impulse to bar someone from reading a book is the essence of denial. It is also laziness. Parents demanding schools do this simply want someone else to do part of the parenting for them. To a point, fair enough—parenting is hard work and it is true that it cannot be done in isolation. But this is beyond seeking assistance, as it affects more than one’s own children—it affects the community. It is an attempt to edit the psychology, the ethics, the awareness of the entire community. It is declaring that certain ideas, certain perspectives—certain voices—should not be considered.

Should not be considered.

Why?

Because some people do not want to be challenged. Not by society, not by their neighbors, and certainly not by their children. They do even want to think about being challenged.

I have never been afraid of the unknown. I have been afraid of what I don’t know. Which motivates me to find out. What parent genuinely concerned with their child’s ability to thrive in the world would handicap them by insisting on ignorance? The truth is, no such concerned parent would. Parents who are more concerned with maintaining their sense of control, their illusions, hiding their own ignorance, avoiding uncomfortable questions, holding any ideology as more important than truth…they would.

But they themselves are victims. Those who are invested in their ignorance for political gain or to accrue power or just to make more money who know there are people terrified of facing realities that contradict their unexamined premises know how to take advantage. The only defense is to be open to…the conversation.

We can debate truth, history, we can question hypotheses and theories, that’s not at issue. The freedom to do all that is basic. But shutting down the conversation, that takes away any choice, any possibility of discovery, of growth, even of survival. And when one group says “We don’t want that book available to our children” that is exactly what they are doing—shutting down the conversation.

“But I have a right to control what my child reads!” That is between you and your child. You do not have a right to control what the entire community reads, especially not other peoples’ children, and if that’s what you’re trying to do, then the issue is not the book, but your insecurity and anger and resentment and ignorance.

The cottage industry in this country of scaring parents and capitalizing on their panic over issues that, with a little perspective would never be issues (the kind of perspective acquired from wide and regular reading) has grown into a major problem. It has joined now with the programmatic rewriting of history and the suppression of  inconvenient facts and is emphatically anti-freedom. The distorted politics and faux moral outrage at the heart of this has little to nothing to do with “protecting” children. The books chosen, the rhetoric involved, all coalesce around the reality that this is simply a wish to avoid responsibility. This is not about the children, this is about you not wanting to be bothered with trying to answer questions you do not want asked. Children are resilient. What they need most is information, knowledge, trail markers for the development of their eventual mature selves, and the ability to deal with a mutable world. The world you may be trying to preserve at the expense of stripping voices out of the zeitgeist will not survive to their adulthood and if you were somehow to succeed in stifling those voices they will be less able to manage those changes, that world.

Of course, you know this. In your bones, you know this is wrong. You want to fix your world in place and not be challenged in your prejudices and assumptions.

Besides, honestly, you know this will have the opposite effect than what you desire. Successfully pulling those books off shelves in schools and public libraries will be the shallowest kind of mollification. Those of you with children inclined to read know they will find these books and even if they were disinclined to read them before, they will read them now. This will be the definition of a pyrrhic victory. All you are doing is feeding a demagogue who wishes only to achieve power. And your world will end no matter what.

To quote Henry Jones, why don’t you try reading books instead of burning them.

Why don’t you find out if you’re being played.

 

 

Dear Pope

A consistently baffling phenomenon in life is how people with zero actual experience in something and with a stated ideological reason for not and never having that experience find it in themselves to advise, recommend, insist, dictate, and judge people who likewise choose not to have that experience—but for completely different reasons.

Life is full of this kind of thing. “Experts” with all kinds of advice for other people about things they’ve never done and have no intention of doing. One of the most egregious is all the “friendly” encouragement to have kids. (And yes, many of these people do have kids, but it’s surprising how many who don’t will join in.) For a certain period of time in one’s life, this becomes a thing when you’re in a relationship. People coaxing, prodding, dropping hints, suggesting. Propagandizing, essentially. “It’s different when they’re your own.” I’m sure that’s true.

And utterly beside the point.

The part they haven’t done? They haven’t lived your life or dreamed your dreams. They’re telling you where you should go with all that based on an unbridgeable ignorance of who you are.

It’s bad enough when this is the behavior of acquaintances, but when the leader of one of the major religions of the world does it, it strikes me as downright unethical, especially when the vow that leader has taken excuses him from ever having to participate in it himself.

There is a moral principle at work here. The edgy one, which is the distinction between telling people to do the right thing and telling them to remake themselves in order to accommodate your formula of the right thing. The pope has made a sweeping generalization about what human beings should be without bothering with the thorny question of what may be morally right for individuals. That, of course, is complicated and difficult to manage.

How many unhappy families must follow the traditional line before there is an acknowledgment that we are not all suited to one definition of correct behavior?

Before the cherrypickers pipe up with examples of killers and molesters and sociopaths of every stripe as being those who are doing what may be suited to them, let me say that there is a moral principle that negates those arguments, which is that one is obliged not to harm others in the exercise of one’s proclivities. You can name any of the varied acts of transgression as being unsupported by moral fiat and they all entail doing harm to others.

At what point do we add the thoughtlessness of making children without regard to our ability to properly parent?

I know, this is supposed to be one of those areas uncovered by reason or forethought, that is simply supposed to just happen as a consequence of love. That we should, according to the model handed down by the propagandists of human idealism, simply feel “blessed” and look forward to the joy of raising a child. When that is the case—and it is for many, many people—it is a wonderful thing. But it is not true for many others.

To define this as a simple-minded instance of selfishness is itself a species of prejudice.

(Especially when we do not acknowledge the selfishness of people who have children the way they collect knick-knacks and pay them no more mind than how they add to the family reputation.)

And insisting that people conform to your idea of what should make them more human is the sort of arrogance which has been costing churches membership for decades, and rightly so.

Pope John XXIII instigated the Vatican II reforms. Unfinished at his death was his attempt to revamp the Church’s attitude toward sex, especially concerning birth control. It was—would have been—a tacit acknowledgment that people have a right to decide for themselves whether or not to procreate. Further, it was an implicit recognition that sex and procreation are two different things, and that human beings have a right to express themselves in an act of physical love without further justification, which is what procreation has become in this instance. John XXIII died before seeing that through and his successor balked.

But over time, people have, more and more, assumed that right for themselves.

For myself, I realized that I would not have been a willing parent. Oh, I probably would have done a fairly good job, no doubt I would have loved my children, but that is not where I wanted my energies to go, and I believe the resentment would have shown through. Every child deserves a family that accepts it and loves it without reservation. I doubted I could have done that. You tell me if that would have been fair to any child. I was unwilling to gamble on sentiments I did not already possess. Does that make me selfish? You might construe it that way. Or you might step back and realize that I had made a moral choice not to risk another human being’s welfare on the chance that “it would be different with my own.”

And of course there is the absurdity of a committed celibate dictating such things to people who he does not—cannot—know. This is of a kind with all those males who see fit to dictate to women what they should do procreatively. Telling them how to live when they themselves will never have to face the decision with their own bodies.

You might also consider that you have mischaracterized uncounted pet owners. Most probably did not adopt a pet in place of having a child. Most adopted a pet in order to have a pet.

In summation, this is just more of the same old patriarchal arrogance that has rendered chaotic situations that perhaps might not have been with a simple freedom to choose. The guilt innate to this position is an ongoing nightmare for too many people. You might have been a bit more sympathetic for people whose situations you do not, cannot, and, frankly, by virtue of the vows you took to get where you are, will not know.

One More Thing

As a follow-up to my previous post, this occurred to me. It’s implicit in all the January 6th assessments, mine included. This morning I listened to this on the New Yorker Radio Hour and found myself nodding in agreement. So I thought, a separate post to underscore the point.

The insurrectionists are, mostly, convinced that the government is a danger to America. The precise formulation of this belief is less important, I think, than what informs it, which is what distinguishes this from most “rebellions.” Usually when The People rise up to oppose their government, it is because that government is oppressing them. Policies, procedures, the politics rallied to define what the government is doing basically align to force people to conform to realities they cannot abide. All well and good—your government is oppressing you, something should be done about it.

What sets this one apart is that what most of these folks are complaining about is not their own oppression (although they have construed it that way in order to justify their reactions) but because they see their government failing to oppress those they believe should be oppressed. Minorities, the poor, women, LGBTQ, and immigrants. Whatever the reality may be, we are in a period wherein our government has begun to address the concerns of marginalized groups, those who in past generations have suffered discrimination and legal censure. The last twenty, thirty years have seen reversals of this, so that at least publicly the government is speaking on their behalf (whatever actually policy may be). All in the name of equality. We have been in a maelstrom of realignment the purpose of which is to rehabilitate our postures in relation to previously alienated and oppressed groups.

The people who stormed the capitol are angry that “their” government is no longer censuring these groups, that it appears the government is tacitly approving of these groups, declaring that they have rights and should enjoy the same liberties.

All those White Folks are furious that the cops are being held to account for abusing people who used to be fair game for social restrictions, unacknowledged official sanctions, and legal barriers. They hate that people they were once able to make bad jokes about, treat disrespectfully, and force into hiding for being different now demand and receive the same benefits as White Folks.

Listening to the radio broadcast above, you will hear the same analysis. These are people suddenly stripped of their sense of entitlement to be the dominant hominid in their country. What they want is for their government to once more support them in their wish to feel superior to blacks, latinx, Asians, immigrants, gays, atheists, Jews, anything that is different than the whitebread protestant caucasian he-man image they embrace as the natural state of “true American.”

They’ve been losing the freedom to be assholes and they want it back.

I’m being intentionally crude here because after several years of listening to their screeds, seeing their outrage around insubstantial identity issues, and witnessing the childish (though quite deadly and frightening) act of rage last year, I find nothing sophisticated or supportable in anything they represent. They are crude, badly if not poorly educated, and representative of just about everything I find least admirable about America. Calling it a tantrum is both accurate and deceptive.

The people who have fed this tantrum, however, are anything but unsophisticated. But their motives are essentially the same. They don’t want to share what they believe is rightfully theirs.

So after trying to find motives and descriptors that render all this perhaps more comprehensible, I’ve given up. Performatively if nothing else—but frankly I think it’s the whole thing—this is simple racism.

Enough already with the tolerance for this nonsense.

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.

Retrenchment

The new abortion laws being enacted across the country should come as no surprise. This was going to happen. This has been in the cards since Reagan. Reliance on the courts to defend the right to choose was as much an indication of how much we underestimated the threat as it was any kind of faith in our institutions.

Right after Roe was passed, amendments to state constitutions should have been passed to nail it down. Other laws should have been written and passed to nail it down. One of the inherent problems with a federal solution is that it’s a one-time solution that can be reversed the next time across the board. Roe should have been the start of a long series of embedding legislation which should have been taken up on the assumption that Roe could be overturned.

It didn’t happen for a variety of reasons. One, I believe, is that too much support for the right to choose is tepid. It is too often circumstantial, waffling, and uncomfortable.

Now we’ll find out. Penalties are being attached. Some have already been enacted. This means one thing that has traditionally scared the anti-choice movement off—it will now be in the courts all the time.

Let me say here that in my opinion, as a male, I should have no say in this. At all. I was never at risk in this issue. I could never get pregnant. I was never going to suffer consequences from being denied the right to an abortion. This should not be something I have any stake in.

That said, it has become politicized to the point that having an opinion is unavoidable because now it is a civil rights issue, and civil rights affect all of us.

And no, as far as I’m concerned, a fetus has no civil rights. A fetus is not a person. At best, a fetus is a manifestation of an idea, and it only becomes a person if all the parties involve follow through. All the moralistic posturing about when life begins and what constitutes a human are just that—posturing. By taking the position that a fetus—now, in some cases, a zygote—is a human being with a full suite of rights, you automatically strip rights of personhood from the one carrying it. Personhood is an aspect of autonomy. Autonomy at the very least is a matter of self-determination. By declaring that a collection of cells has greater claim to state protection than the one carrying them is by definition declaring that woman less than everyone else. You can’t have it any other way.

Until we stop waffling about that, this issue will not be resolved.

Resolution, however, entails several other issues that are hanging upon the thread of ongoing discomfort. Like equality, for instance, and not just for women.

Education for another. The rationalization of sex. Not to mention the ongoing squirming about gender, orientation, and identity. All of this is tangled up and therefore it is difficult to know just what some people are objecting to when they go on a jeremiad about abortion. We may believe our response is exclusively aimed at the words coming out of their mouths, but then when their next response comes, laden with contradiction and vehement rejection, we sense that we did not know just what we were arguing about.

This is simple:  if the goal is to reduce and/or eliminate abortions, then a sensible solution is to substantially invest in meaningful sex education and the wide availability of contraception. Attack the causes of unwanted pregnancy and empower individuals to protect themselves. How hard is that?

Apparently, very. Almost no anti-choice group does not also include a ban on contraception as a stated goal. One of the justifications touted for this stance is the notion that contraception is simply abortion by other means. Pre-emptive abortion, if you will. That contraception inculcates a lax attitude toward the value of life. That contraception leads to an acceptance of abortion.

This facile excuse-making masks a very simple reality:  that the real issue is not abortion but sex. Sex practiced outside the bounds of what is hoped to be strict social parameters that will control behaviors said advocates find unacceptable. (A recent declaration by Alabama Republican state Senator and sponsor of the bill Clyde Chambliss, responded that, “The egg in the lab doesn’t apply. It’s not in a woman. She’s not pregnant.” That’s about as clear as it can be made—he and probably his supporters are not interested in the “facts of life” regarding fertilized egg—they are concerned with pregnant women and making sure they stay pregnant.)  This is a direct assault on a woman’s right to be her own agent.  It is punitive and it is a curtailment of her civil rights. This has nothing to do with fetuses except as a means of control.

Until we largely get past the traditional views that linger like mold that sex is somehow bad and that women who try to live their lives according to the same privileged sensibilities men do are “unnatural”; until we get to a place where we can accept that sex as an act of communication is separate and distinct in intent and outcome from sex as procreation and that all of us have a right to manage our own aspirations free of outside interference, we will continue to have this problem.

It is the start of a chain, though.  If you can dictate pregnancy this way, you can dictate all the rest of the privacy concerns adhering to questions of free association and identity. This can be enlarged for purposes of a resurgent legal challenge to homosexual rights, transgender rights, adoption rights, marriage rights, and so on.  Not that it necessarily would go there but by accepting the legitimacy of such limitations on one group for purposes having nothing to do with their innate and autonomous desires, you can construe a challenge to any group failing to fit an arbitrary social “norm.”

That is not a society I care to live in.

Until we quite clearly and loudly start dealing with the underlying (and not so well hidden) issues involved, we are destined to keep fighting these back-and-forth legal wars.  Despite the distance traveled since the 1950s and all its suffocating social restrictions, people still seem reluctant to defend their right to have healthy sex.  Indeed, we still have too many people who do not believe sex is healthy. Too many people who excuse their desires and passions by making babies and therefore proving a legitimate reason for having such a good time was there all along.

It sounds silly, doesn’t it?

When you disassemble the challenges and look at the arguments and then look at the policies advocated, it doesn’t sound so silly.  The anti-choice movement has depended on the tepidness, the discomfort, of too many people in order to build the momentum they have. They have relied on our collective ill-ease with the whole subject.

Well. Be that as it may. Sad to say, the pro-choice movement is likely going to lose this one. Having lost it, we will regroup, and maybe next time do the necessary trench-warfare in the state legislatures, and school boards, and town halls to instantiate this right in too many places, too deeply to be effectively challenged.

We need to. I am not willing to live in a Calvinist dystopia. I don’t think the Fifties were all that wonderful. I don’t want my friends to suffer a retreat from the dream of equity.

This has been a fight with ignorance. The depth of that ignorance is on display now across the country. People who don’t know—and who don’t want to know, because knowing confuses them, makes them doubt. They want a pure, righteous cause by which to feel virtuous.

For the life of me, I’ve never understood why genuine equality doesn’t fill that bill.

Equality? For the ignorant—that a woman can be shackled by a condition and have her entire life twisted and reshaped through no choice of her own and that men can never be so trapped automatically makes this an equity issue. That is reality. And I have no doubt that many if not all the architects of the so-called pro-life cause know that perfectly well and they are glad of it, because they think that’s as it should be.