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.

 

 

Reality vs Not

The image of Trump that says all one needs to know about him came during the so-called Million MAGA March, when his SUV drove through the crowds that had assembled in D.C. on his behalf. We see him pressed against the window, hand raised, grinning, and scooting on by to their cheers. He did not stop. They came for him but he did not stop. He knew they were coming, so something could have been prepared for him to at least give a short speech. But he did not stop. He hurried through, grinning at them. Where was he going that he could not stop to give something back to his supporters?

He was going to golf.

Jokes have been made about a lot of presidents and their golf, but in this case it long ago ceased to be funny. He may or may not have spent more time on the golf course than any other president, but his personal jaunts have cost the taxpayer more than any other.

And the fact that this makes no difference to his supporters speaks to the more cultish aspects surrounding him.

Disclaimer: I have never found anything appealing or even mildly amusing about Donald Trump. He struck me as a fraud back in the Seventies and his string of mismanaged endeavors since has done nothing to convince me otherwise. The best I can figure, he’s one of those people who has financial support because he owes too much to too many and letting him go to live in a trailer park would be too costly. I tried to read his book, The Art of the Deal back when it came out and found it a kind of secular version of an occult magic text based on illusion and bad psychology. I didn’t finish it.

So when it appeared he was going to have a shot at being elected president, I, along with many others, thought, well this is the end of the Republican Party. They’ve put a shyster in the running.

A shyster who has managed to pull the same trick politically as he did financially—too much rides on him to just let him sink, too many careers, too much political capital.  Not because he’s such a great politician but because he has managed to make too many people dependent on him in unhealthy and frankly undemocrtatic ways.

I have been told to look at his accomplishments. To be fair, there are a few that aren’t all that bad.

But it doesn’t matter. Consider Nixon. It can be unapologetically argued that he did quite a lot that was good for the country. The EPA for one. And one might be excused for arguing that had he been left alone, even better things might have emerged. And while that may be true, it is also true that he subverted the institutions he swore an oath to uphold, created a shadow government, bypassed Congress, and committed crimes.

Nothing excuses that.

We do not here rely on cults of personality and because we have tried to be a nation of laws it is implausible to excuse someone who did so much damage on the basis of a few “good” things he may have done.

Because for one thing those good things were not and could never be all of one person’s making.

Nixon damaged our democracy. Trump has possibly broken it.

I don’t care what he might have done that in the next several years we might find laudable. Those things could have been done by anyone and he could not have done them alone in any case.  We have to ask, at what cost?

Suggestions of a sharp intellect behind the clownish veneer are frivolous.  The result of four years of this administration are in the streets. Discord, distrust, confusion, and distortions of right and wrong.

We could go down a list of the campaign promises he failed to deliver on, but why bother? The Trump Cult will excuse them in any of a dozen ways.

The frightening thing is, without the COVID pandemic we might have re-elected him, because he has managed to call so much into question that we are second-guessing ourselves about who we are. But 200,000 deaths from a mishandled public health emergency are impossible to ignore. His claim that they had no playbook for this has been shown to be false. Obama’s people left a detailed playbook behind. His people were smart, they knew what might happen, and they fulfilled their civic duty by trying to prepare the country.  Trump did nothing but shut down clinics that gathered data because he wanted the numbers to be different, which he stated, up front, in public.

I have been challenged to see positives in this.  Sorry.  Even in the broad policy strokes that in some wayu I might agree with, the management of them was so hamfisted and sophomoric that it has made things worse.

Trump has made the world a more dangerous place.

I am not exaggerating.

One might argue that pulling out of the Paris Climate Accords was questionable, but that was largely symbolic.  But pulling out of the WHO was criminal.

For a long time it has been clear that the GOP has become the party of wishful thinking, of appearances, of denial. The moderates are mostly gone, the base isn’t interested in rights so much as privileges, and too many people just want the country to look a certain way and to hell with social responsibility, demographic reality, and evolution of technical change. These are people who want people in church praying to Jesus and no one else, women to stay home and be mothers, men to be straight (and white), and business to lead the way. They want America to be at the forefront of everything but refuse to fund education or support labor in any meaningful way. They think Trump exemplifies their vision of America. A draft-deferred, womanizing, tax evading, subliterate conman who knows one thing—appearances are all that matter.

This is not Trump’s problem.  It is ours.  We bought into that image, enough of us that he actually made it into the White House. Like George W. Bush said almost 20 years ago, “I don’t do nuance.” But the world is nothing but nuance and those who refuse to deal with that will always make a mess.

Messes are costly.  We have one now.  And this obdurate refusal to concede the election, even when every reliable institution says it is legitimate, is the final evidence we need to see that this mess, one of our own making, is all Trump was ever going to provide.

Enough. It is time for him to go and it is time for his supporters to sit down and shut up about it. If I may remind them of their reaction four years ago, “He lost, get over it.”  And finally, “Fuck your Feelings.”

Fine legacy, that. I hope they’re proud.  Oh, wait. They are.

And that’s our problem.

Over?

The temptation to gloat is immense. After four years of living in the land of the cognitively dissonant, we have managed to displace a major symptom of national dysfunction.

Gloating would be a huge mistake.

The senate is still in the hands of the Party of Enablers who have for 12 years stood in the way of national amity. Mitch McConnell is for the moment still the majority leader there and he has already made it clear he intends to do the same to Biden that he did to Obama. I don’t care what your opinion may be of a specific policy, this is petty, vindictive, and destructive obstructionism and a palsy on our democracy.

That Biden/Harris seemed not to have sufficient coattails to turn over the Senate (and even lost a few seats in the House) does not surprise me so much as depress me.

Look: whatever side you’re on, we cannot solve problems by refusing to consider solutions, and the place for consideration nationally is in Congress. That can’t happen if someone keeps preventing bills and people from even being considered on the floor. The question is, what are they so afraid of? Because the only reason to keep ideas and proposals from being aired is because you are afraid your own ideas are weak or useless.

I cannot tell you how many times in the last four years encounters with self-professed conservatives (mainly on social media) have come down to name-calling and superior-sounding dismissals when all that was asked was for sources for factually dubious claims. I cannot tell you how many times insult came forth when all that was asked was an explanation and the chance for engagement. I also cannot tell you how many times it felt as if two alien languages were being spoken, even though the words and sentences were in English.

But we cannot begin to heal until some basic understanding happens. Whether we who have opposed Trump and his enablers like it or not, the fact of this election shows that we have a massive ideological divide that will not magically go away because a new president will be in the White House. We will war over this until we figure out how to resolve it or end it.

First suggestion: we must stop confusing tolerance and mollification. We have to find ways to tolerate the spreaders of nonsense without appeasement to the nonsense. People have the freedom to believe anything they wish, but that does not mean nonsense must be accepted as part of legitimate discourse or forms some kind of valid argument. I am speaking now to those who style themselves as liberals or on the Left.  We do this.  A lot. In the name of getting along, of “finding common ground,” of civility even, we have let things pass that ought never to have gained traction.  Saying out loud that something is bullshit is not a bad thing. But we can’t dismiss the people themselves. Trust me, those on the Right clearly have no problem expelling those with whom they disagree or dismissing arguments they either do not understand and refuse to accept.

Secondly, I believe we must deal with the underlying disconnects where they live, namely in the narratives that inform our apposite perceptions. One of those, I’ve come to think, has to do with the nature of property.  This nation has been built on an idea of property that runs through our history, elevating the very substance of it to the level of holy writ.  But I don’t believe we have a very good grasp of what property is.  Or, more relevantly, what it is not.

In 50 years of discussions, casual conversations, articles, op-eds, business, political, and cultural tracts, I’ve come to the conclusion that people on opposite sides of the so-called conservative/liberal divide have fundamentally different apprehensions of property. For liberals, loosely put, property is a by-product of living. For conservatives, it seems, property is the whole point of living. The real problem is what gets defined as property. For a conservative, again loosely put, everything is property, including rights. This is basic capitalism, which seeks to commodify everything.  And as capitalism has been practiced for two plus centuries, commodities are always limited. Capitalism is founded on scarcity.  Sometimes the scarcity is real—there’s only so much nickel, titanium, and aluminum is expensive to make, and arable land is finite. But today, recently, those scarcities have become manufactured,  Even so, some things cannot be so except by law—like human rights.

The conservative/capitalist playbook tells us that in order for someone to have something they haven’t got, someone else has to give something up. The zero sum game.  What we have to come to terms with is that to some people, when you talk about expanding rights or services, they automatically hear that they will have to give something up.  It is counter-intuitive to them to state that such is not the case.

Even in operant capitalism.

We must also begin to grapple with the fact that problems are never of a single facet. And when we get down to the individual level, the complexities multiply.

So relegating groups to single-diagnoses categories will always backfire.  They are not all stupid, ignorant, venal, or obsessed.  Seventy million of us voted to keep in play the guerrilla war for the culture.  Effectively, we might be able to deal with broad issues, but ultimately that means there are seventy million unique perspectives that do not match up with the seventy-five million who have rejected their choice for president.

There are basic moral issues at stake.  But mingled with those are people who think they will lose something in this outcome.

The one thing we cannot afford to do this time is think we have won and can now go home. This is only the latest battle.

So breathe, enjoy a bit of relief. Then do not fail to show up. You can’t win if you’re not on the court.  Nothing is over.

Reason and Intelligence

This will be brief.

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

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

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

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

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

Certainty.

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

We are dealing with a question of Reason.

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

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

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

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

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

Something to consider.

 

________________________________________

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

Dangerous Games

One of the difficulties of living in an open society is the unspoken requirement to be tolerant of stupidity. Giving others respect for opinions and beliefs that run counter to civility, reason, or the consideration of shared rights can nurture the false impression that such beliefs and opinions are valid and acceptable, not only to hold but to act upon.  While certainly one can entertain any idea, to go beyond contemplation and moving toward instantiating certain notions as if they were somehow justified across community lines is a different thing altogether.

The people involved in the kidnapping plot of Governor Whitmer of Michigan have too long accepted that their notions of legitimate action, based on opinions and beliefs which have gone unchallenged for them for long enough to constitute a functional break with reality, are exemplars of the downside of tolerance. Because it has become unacceptable for too long to simply call certain ideas out for the nonsense they are—because one is “entitled” to one’s opinion—we have seen grow pockets of cultish beliefs incommensurable with the very open society that says we should tolerate the widest possible range of opinion, hypotheses, personal choice, and credos.

This is the paradox at the heart of what we wish to see as our endeavor. This country. This planet.

But right there, the paradox emerges. Do we want to see the same things?

Broadly speaking, these little gatherings of white pseudo-militia groups embrace a Libertarian æsthetic. Not so much the philosophy. They may have a member or two who know a bit more about their stated philosophy and preferred political stance, but I suspect for the most part these folks have matriculated from the Hollywood school of American Myth. Combined with what appears to be a constrained ability to interact with people who are not just like them, they have mixed a cocktail of old westerns, McCarthy-era Red Baiting, and hate-filled commentary from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones to come up with something which “feels” like True American Virtue.

This has always been around, though. What is different now is that we have an administration which, for a variety of reasons, seems to be encouraging them. What began as cheerleading during the campaign to garner votes from the pool of chronically disaffected heirs of an American Dream that was never real or available to them the way they had become convinced it was is now a dangerous game of electoral chicken. Combined with his continual and too-often arbitrary interference with institutions and systems that until now worked well enough to afford us the space and luxury of indulging fancies and arguing over the furnishings as if they were the real substance of our republic, we have a situation now where too many people believe they have leave to act on their niche paranoias and dreams of a new revolution. It has now risen to the level of significant threat and it is time to recognized that, fun as this may all be for those who dislike liberal democracy and the actualities of genuine tolerance and inclusion, we live in a period balanced on a knife-edge and for no other reason than the refusal to recognize hate when it stands before us.

I have listened to the spinmasters of his campaign try to cast all this in a different light and the one consistent aspect of all their rhetoric is a persistent refusal to address what he has said and what has happened.  That for a huge portion of this country little or none of this has touched them directly, the fact is what happens on the surface and why can be used to make or break law, custom, and the connections that keep us whole. How many people in any organization does it take to wreck things? Very few.  Actual Nazis in Germany in the 1930s numbered in the minority, vastly dwarfed by the majority who were not, and yet that group, that slice, came to speak for and represent the whole of Germany and take it into a darkness we here believe couldn’t take us.  We see the Proud Boys and their like and we hear what the president says and while we may feel some comfort that “most of us” do not approve or would accept that in our communities, the reality is we are witnessing an erosion of our civic virtue and our national well-being.

He speaks nonsense. His followers seem to believe it. It would be an indictment on our past and legacy if somehow the majority of us who realize this cannot meet it as it should be met and he is re-elected. Our institutions and principles will not have failed us—we will have failed them.

We have to attend not to what we might lose but to what we are losing. We have to reclaim the authentic dream,  We have to become ourselves and remembering that while tolerating the freedom to think what we want, we are not obligated to accord stupidity, ignorance, and lies equal time at the podium.

This is not a game.

 

Detritus

Things pile up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which for the most part doesn’t bother me.

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

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

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

My music is yet another matter still.

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

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

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

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

I had other plans for my ecology.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something to think about.

 

Truths

I have rarely watched party conventions. They are filled with hyperbole, grandstanding, speech-making excess. All the emotion-laden hucksterism we usually joke about at other times. I distrust decision-making based on limbic response to blatant attempts to “inspire” me. Inspiration, to my mind, should be an emergent property of action, of character in service to sound ideas, to a self-evident moral response to circumstance. I am inspired by what someone does, is doing, not by the particular rhetoric of promises and assertions that I should believe in something as embodied by the speaker when I have not seen that speaker doing any embodying.

In this, I suspect I am in a minority. People seem largely to prefer cheering to deliberation.

In any event, I have usually made up my mind well before the convention, so unless a dark horse comes riding onto the floor, there are no compelling reasons for me to subject myself to what amounts to four days of self-congratulatory back-slapping, bragging, and crowd-rallying, the last of which I deeply mistrust. Too often, large crowds end up displaying the least dependable aspects of human nature. The momentum of large groups can overwhelm reason and restraint and end in riot. And by riot I do not necessarily mean the physical kind. There are many types and they are all destructive.

But conventions are instructive at a distance. You can tell a lot about the people in attendance, supporting them. This year the difference could not be more stark, and on a very simple metric.

The crowd component I mention above…

The Democratic convention this year was held online, virtually, in order to handle the pandemic in as responsible a way as possible.

The Republican convention was held in the traditional way, bringing crowds together, regardless of the pandemic and its potential consequences.

That’s pretty much all one needs to know about the difference between the two parties right now. Because the one is banking on its ideas and its embrace of common sense and a modicum of concern.  The other is banking on the momentum of the mob, and for that to be a factor, people have to be in the hall, in sufficient numbers for the excitement of the party to overwhelm reason.

Much has been said about the nature of our democracy. This has always been a topic, but it has grown into a major factor. Are we a democracy? If so, why do the parties make it hard for some people to vote? Shouldn’t the right to vote be axiomatic and unquestioned? “The Founding Fathers____!”

Fill in the blank.  It’s said they distrusted democracy, hence we have a republic, which is held up as some kind of anodine to democracy. it is said they loved democracy, hence humbled themselves before the dictates of The People. You can find quotes to support both positions. Like pulling quotes from the Bible, one can defend almost any assertion based on what the Founders said.

Some of which was unequivocal.  Much of it was implied. A good deal was personal opinion.

But it seems evident that they recognized a basic truth about human nature.

People do not live wholly by ideas.

People live where they are and by what they feel and in relationship to who and what they know. One way to put it is that people are less deliberative and more reactive.

For instance, you’re a colonial listening the the reading of the Declaration of Independence and you hear those words “All men are created equal.” How do you feel? Quite likely, if you are a patriot of the day, you hear that and think of King George and think “He’s no better than me, we are in fact created equal!” And that feels good, feels right.

What you do not do is turn around and say, “By god, that’s true, we should free our slaves and stop killing natives! We’re created equal!”

The idea has a limited range of effect. It may work in one direction, but not the other. Certainly, looking at history, this is a perfectly accurate reading. Ideas do not change prejudice, behavior, habit, or desire, not unless those ideas already in some aspect conform to one’s prejudices, habits, and desires. It is inarguable, based on the evidence of things done, that people ratified the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and then continued living as though none of it actually applied to them. In each period of our history, a struggle has occurred over what our principles say and what we wish to do.  All men are created equal, except some, whose situation we do not wish to change because it will cost us, and besides, those words only applied to me. Freedom of speech, of course, except for that newspaper publishing things with which I disagree, so I will burn it down. The franchise should come with equality, which is expressed in our Declaration, except for people I know who will vote against what I want to do, so no.

This is not a ridiculous idea. This is privilege, short-sightedness, and the consequence of people fearful of sharing something they only just now won, and not trusting that it means the same thing to others as it does to them.

And besides, life is competition, the struggle for advantage, cut-throat and dog-eat-dog, and abiding by lofty principles will erode gains made by one group in favor of other groups with no obvious affinity.

The Founders knew people were like this. It is why they created a system that worked against any one person or faction gaining and keeping power and also why they distrusted pure democracy. They took a very long view of how this might evolve, and some if not all of them knew it could get ugly.

But what choice did they have? They came very close to re-instituting a monarchical system they had just fought a war to be rid of. How to prevent that obvious desire? They heard from people who were happy and proud to be free who then wanted to turn right around and put themselves back in the same chains. No doubt they thought it would be different because they would be “our” chains. Then, too, they knew they could not simply overthrow the entire system already in place without releasing the jackals of civil war. We nearly had that anyway over the first decade or two. I think they knew it was inevitable as well, but had no idea how long it would take, and established a set of promises that gave legal pretext for suppression when it came.

The history of the Republic is underpinned by large segments of the populace acting on the assumption that certain rules did not apply to them. That to “do the right thing” according to those ideas would have meant not doing what they thought they had been given permission to do in the first place. Colonizing, settling, exploiting, intruding, and embracing intolerance when necessary in order to keep doing what they believed to be their right to do. What became the moneyed class, capitalists, assuming they could ignore the principles as long as business improved. And later, certain Citizens who assumed the law did not apply to them, because they were important and those pressing complaints against them were not.

Because ideas rarely trump that innate limbic response which can from time to time inform crowds and overwhelm reason.

When the charge “the Founders never intended” is leveled during times of disputatious turmoil, we should stop right there.

Yes, they did intend. Because they knew the ideas they sought to elevate as the foundation of a principled polity would take time, conflict, blood, and riot to instantiate. Yes, they did intend that we go to the mat over these things, because they knew it was the only way behavior changes across populations and even within families. They knew because they had just been through a class in exactly that. The arguments they made to Britain and the Crown over representation, taxation, treaties, self-government—arguments that were perfectly reasonable, even legally sound according to British law—had failed to move the king and Parliament, because that “august” body and George III simply did not feel their laws applied to Others. The entire war could have been avoided if ideas had immediate power as self-interest and pride and passion. The Founders had watched England squander the good will and potential of the North American colonies over questions of privilege and the assertion of authority.  In other words, they had watched human stupidity wreck a sound relationship.

So they knew what could and would happen when ideas—especially new ideas, ideas based in abstracts (albeit with profound real-world consequences) ran afoul of people being who and what they were.

And, yes, what they created took that into account. So what they “intended” was that we hash it out. They knew we going to fight about these things. All they did was set the ground rules and sprinkled some idea throughout to give us the right things to fight about.  Did they cover every contingency? Of course not. How could they anticipate what might change? Oh, wait—they did. The Ninth Amendment.

The flaw, if flaw it is, in the system is that with growing success materially our interest in participating intellectually tends to wax and wane. That’s why Jefferson stressed education. But even that is no guarantee that we might not come to a point where most of us could be willing to throw the whole thing out for the simple expedient of having Someone Else make all these difficult decisions. As well, the more complex the world becomes, the likelihood that enough of us might have the time, intellect, or interest in understanding these complexities well enough to make the kinds of judgments we elect representatives to do grows smaller. It’s not impossible, but look at where we are now.

But the fight goes on and out of the kicked-up dust and spit and broken teeth some kind of emergent property forms to take us to the next step. It almost never looks like we’ll make it, but at each one of these periods something comes about that carries us through.

Because ultimately we move against demagogues. Not because we disagree with their positions or dispute their ideas, but because we will not be dictated to. Persuaded, seduced, enlisted, certainly, all that, and at times we find ourselves with leadership taking us questionable directions because the program was presented with flowers and candy, but when the specter of bullying autocracy becomes evident, we bristle.

It’s not a method I am comfortable relying upon.

But to the point, we have an ongoing tension between who we want to be and who we are. Slowly, oh so slowly, over time, we have changed, becoming closer to an ideal which, itself, has changed. You could ask almost anyone if they agreed with that initial statement, All Men Are Created Equal, and for the most part find agreement. Of course, that’s what it means to be an American.

Then the other shoe falls. All men. And, in fact, all people, are created equal. All.

And then, if you press it, you find equivocation. When it becomes clear that you mean they should treat everyone equally.

Well, wait just a minute…

No, people don’t like that. For many reasons, not all of them as capricious as it might seem. For the most part, the discomfort is mild and usually unexpressed. But it’s there, and given the proper nourishment, erupts. But over time, we know the principle is better than the impulsive rejection.

Gradually we become who we wish to be. Sometimes it takes generations. And sometimes, there has to be a very public, very bitter contest over it. And if we’re lucky the reasons for embracing the ideas over the impulses show themselves starkly.  Then we have a choice. Who do we want to be?

Two conventions. Just the difference in the way they were handled is indicative of the choice.

As to the content…well, that’s been clear for a while now.

This is not, should anyone believe otherwise, a plug for one party or the other. Parties evolve, morph, turn into their opposites, encompass positions that are often far from ideal. No, I’m not shilling for one party or the other. I’m talking about where the human beings are right now. Where you find the clearest expression of human sentiment, ethics, and, yes, morality. I’m talking about people trying to be one thing or the other, but really I’m talking about people trying to be the best version of what our ideas have shown we can be. Where do they happen to align now? Where will we find the better angels of our nature? The room is not so important, although just now the nature of the room itself is telling, but who is in it.