The Only Thing We Have To Fear

We received one of those chain e-mails detailing in exhaustive hyperbole how all our current woes stem from the Left’s plot to “hurt” the president. It was filled with blaming, with tortured reconstructions of history, with the logic of the obsessively fearful. On the one hand, it made no sense. On the other, its message could not be clearer. The sender is terrified.

Of what, I am not exactly sure. But it encapsulates a raw, undifferentiating fear that first and foremost just wants everything to stand still.  Everything. And maybe back up a few steps, history-wise, to an imagined time that never was.

It was altogether depressing, not just because it was so laden with bad history and worse reasoning, but because someone felt it necessary to construct such a thing in the first place. And because of the efforts of others who provided the groundwork for such a thing to become accepted truth for too many people.

The truth is not difficult to find, only difficult to embrace, because mingled with any truth is a certain amount of ambiguity.  We usually confuse truth and fact, but what we’re seeing is not a confusion of them, but a rejection. There’s little in these things that demonstrate any investment in reality, of any kind. It’s pseudoscience and alternate history, an imitation of comprehension.

And yet, somehow, it feels real.

The reality of the cage.

The reality of the gated community, the narrow selection of news sources, the country club exclusions, the property tax impediments. The reality of purged voter rolls, underfunded schools, privatized healthcare that excludes by price. The reality of assuming everyone should be like you, and if they are not then they deserve no regard.

The reality of looking at a man designated their leader standing in front of a church holding a bible while calling for stronger police action and not noticing that he had his path cleared to that church by law enforcement and tear gas. This perfectly embodies the mentality of his core supporters, who are terrified. They are not angry.  They are not in dudgeon over the state of the union. They are in vehement disagreement with the direction of the country, but not based on a reasoned examination of what is and what could be.  That assumes cause and a reasoned response to issues.  There is none of that.  You can tell by what they excuse in the name of getting their way. Because, above all else, they are terrified.

It is difficult for someone who is not terrified to deal with someone who is. All the usual connections are buried under layers of reaction and adrenaline and doubt so profound Dante wrote an epic about it. That level of fear is itself terrifying and infectious. Walking it back, extracting the poison, that kind of work takes time and a degree of patience itself damaged in the confrontation.

The sad part is, those who are that fearful, that terrified of losing…something…seem unaware that they have already lost it. Because what they most want is to stop being afraid.

So they channel it into anger. They take a position, set up a perimeter, defend it with all the vitriol at their command, not realizing that the tiny space they have boxed themselves into holds almost nothing. Worse, while in that state of self-erected rage, they have become so easily manipulated by those who have figured out how to benefit from their inattention.  All someone has to do is point.

We seem too often to feel we are apart from or above history. We understand on some level that one of the chief tools of the autocrat is to single out a group that is in some way identifiably distinct from an ill-defined “majority” and start pointing at them whenever problems mount to the level of public agitation. Time and again we have watched dictators, strongmen, juntas, tyrants direct the frustrations and anger of their people at a target. We even seem to understand that this is done to distract that presumed majority from the actions of the one in charge and to gain the power to direct the fortunes of a country for his own ends.

But we don’t think it can happen to us.

This after decades of being whipsawed in exactly that way. Civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights, social justice, immigration reform.  Each one of these causes has been marked by an antagonism far outweighing the actual difficulties of achieving what ought not to be controversial in the least. Every single one of these instances have been amenable to straightforward solutions which became mired in factional disputes over—

Over what? Questions of whether the people at the heart of these issues were deserving? On what basis were they not? The resentment was fueled by someone, some group, pointing a finger and frightening people with possibilities that upon examination were baseless, cruel, silly, and ultimately illusory.  Like an experienced gambler, they parlayed our feelings of discomfort into nightmare fears of calamity, and in the end they accrued more power to stir that brew again and again, until among certain of us the reaction has been axiomatic. The finger is raised, no more prodding is required, we are ready to do battle to defend Our Values.

Which are what, exactly, in this construction? Hatred? Oppression? Denial of agency? The solution of the gulag, the concentration camp, debtors’ prison, or state sanctioned murder?

It is difficult individually to see how the structures at play feed into this. We live with them, for the most part they serve us, and if we are never abused by them it is hard to accept that they can be abusive to others.  But it isn’t that complex.  Things like lending practices, insurance risk-evaluation, investment strategies all can be used to target and exclude.  Jobs? Look at shareholder reports to see how those are affected. Even something as simple as refusing to acknowledge a word or a fact or a change in how a detail is used in a report can produce inimical consequences for some group with which we may have no direct connection.

Reagan blocked the CDC from talking about gays during the AIDS crisis. The deaths mounted. Something as simple as a refusal to look at a detail can kill.

The only reason this happens is because people are terrified. Sadly, they often don’t even know what it is that frightens them, they only know that they’re frightened.

And someone is right there to use that to take power from them and keep it for themselves.

If this country, this experiment, this idea perishes, it will be because too many of us are too afraid to be who we want to be.  Who we intended to be.  Who we can be.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt called it.

 

Still Reaching, Still Dreaming

Everywhere else there is news of calamity, sadness, tension, idiocy. It’s Sunday, a beautiful morning.  Something else, then. Something reaffirming, that there is still space for dreams, room for better, and the substance of higher aspirations.

 

(Image courtesy of Linda Overton)

Appearances

We’re raised by certain aphorisms. Rules of thumb. Heuristics.

You shouldn’t judge by appearances.

Well and good. A sound policy.

And yet, so many of us just…can’t…not.

A black man jogging through an affluent white neighborhood is chased down, confronted, and then shot to death. They did not see a man jogging, did not notice that, despite their claim they thought he was a burglar, there was nothing on him (bag, tools, stolen good, notebook), nothing about him suggested someone fleeing after illegal activity. He was jogging.  Video before the fatality shows someone running as a jogger would run. At this point, it is fair to say, unequivocally, had he been white, no one would have given him a second look.

It is, then, fair to ask—what went through the minds of those who killed him? The 911 call specifically said “a black man running through the neighborhood.”

Appearances.

Is turnabout fair play?

I’m looking at some of the lock-down protesters, the ones who showed up armed to rallies, and one in particular where the subject is stating to those filming him that he will not live in fear.

Well.

Look at the mugshots of the two men responsible for that jogger’s death and look at some of these protesters.  Let us play the same game.

I see round-headed, puffy man/boys with beards grown and groomed to resemble an abstraction of an Old West mountain man.  Or possibly some modern exemplar of a Biblical prophet. (It’s amazing how often the two are conflated, if not overtly then by association through signage.) There is a puffiness to the visage, a line-less youth that is not a matter of age so much as void. I see a face masking a mind waiting for something to fill it.  And below that?  I dressed like that at age ten, playing in the neighborhood with my buddies, who likewise assumed the garb of G.I. Joe and chased around killing imaginary enemies. That was all pretend.  And so is this.

Showing up in military drag, armed, and being a spectacle is all show. But look at that presentation. Is this an adult?

“I will not live in fear!”  But everything about him is a scream of just how afraid he is. Frightened of just about anything he doesn’t understand and has neither the intention or the ability to understand.

Just going by appearances, this is a round, soft white child of privilege.  Not the kind of privilege of the 1%, no, but it has always been a distraction to point out their privilege as if it’s the only kind that exists or matters.  This, before us, in full display, is the more common and less examined.  This is the privilege of someone who has never missed a meal. Who has never been denied admission to anything because of appearances. The privilege of knowing that nothing stands in his way except his own disinterest, disinclination, or distraction.

The privilege of knowing he can show up in public that way and not be arrested, harassed by authorities, or shot.

Because, looking at that face, you know if he thought there was any real danger, he wouldn’t be there.  He has never faced an actual challenge in his life. By that I mean a challenge to his very existence.  This posturing is in response to abstractions, not realities.  And his method of choice is insincere and lazy.  He has probably never had to really labor at anything in his life, either.  Things have been provided for him.  Money, certainly, nothing he’s wearing is cheap, especially not the arms, and if he has the disposable resources to equip himself thus, he has no concerns about rent or food or medicine.  This is not the costume of someone who has ever had to make those choices.

This is also not someone who has ever been faced with death because he happened to be in the wrong neighborhood.  He didn’t think twice about loading up and marching on city hall (literally) and assumes that an idea (the Constitution) will protect him.  And based on the sloganeering around him and his own verbiage, he has very little understanding what that idea actually means.  He seems—he appears—to feel it means that he has the right to do whatever he wants and the very state he is claiming is oppressive will defend that right. A contradiction? Not to him. Paradox requires some nuance, some experience, some grasp of cause and consequence to parse intelligently. (We all hold contradictory ideas at one time or another, we live with paradox, but it is a manageable condition given a studied sense of the appropriate and the self-reflective acknowledgement of the tension between duty and desire, responsibility and license, reality and fantasy.)

Quite likely some combination of tantrum, cleverness, and guileless insouciance has gotten him whatever he wanted his whole life. (That what he may have wanted was acquirable suggests he lacked the imagination to want what he could not by dint of circumstance have.  But that’s consistent—a lack of imagination is one of the deficits that have put him where he presently is.)

Am I being harsh? I am judging by appearance, certainly.  As I said, turnabout is fair play.  I could very well be wrong.  He could be a budding Constitutional scholar, with an interest in quantum physics, and a hobbyist’s knowledge of philately. It may be he can cite chapter and verse of Kantian ethics or the minutiae of Egyptian pharaonic history.  He could be in the running for a chess championship or a fine sculptor. I could be entirely wrong about him.

But judging by appearances, I can only conclude what I have outlined.

How does that feel?  Two (or three, depending on how things pan out) of his phenotypical brethren judged by appearance and killed a man. They were demonstrably wrong about him.  (I don’t care that Arbrey stepped into a construction site and had a look around. A call to the police about that was sufficient and then leave it alone. Let the professionals handle it, that’s what they do. But I wonder if that call would have been made had he been white. In either case, there is no justification for going vigilante)

How serious am I about that young man (and he may not be all that young, but he looks young, which is another prima facie conclusion based on appearances) playing at militiaman? Well, you have to ask if I would stop at my assessment.  He’s making a statement, though. The two instances are not the same. Arbrey was jogging, not making a statement.  Our G.I. Joe Wannabe is claiming a purpose in his appearance.  He put all that on with the intent to be judged.

But I’m more than willing to believe there is more to him than that.  You have to ask, does he even care if we are willing to see past the message?

See, if he doesn’t, if all that matters to him is the message, the symbol, the expression of personal opinion, then it is perfectly fine to judge him by appearances. He has to ask himself at some point if what he thinks he is conveying is actually what he is conveying.

Because, despite his claims, all I see is a frightened, shallow, play-acting child desperately wanting to be something he has no hope of being: relevant.

Really, he shouldn’t be surprised if we “get the wrong idea” about him. After all, people who appear very like him get the wrong idea about everyone they’re afraid of all the time.

 

Appreciations and the Pleasure of Good People

This is a personal comment on people. Specifically, people I know and work with.

Every generation, the same absurd clichés get bruited about regarding younger generations. I grew up hearing my elders complain about “you kids” and how we were—collectively—lazy or irresponsible or lacked respect or had our priorities in the wrong place. And then you get older and if, like me, you read a little history, you discover that this is a constant, droning, brow-beating exercise in self-importance, fueled by a nascent fear of obsolescence. “They don’t build anything to last anymore.” And you get the impression that our forebears built things with the engineering of the great pyramids.  And then you get to see some of these old constructs and can’t help but think, “well, they must have had an off day with this one.”

Then an emergency comes along, displacing the daily concerns of common expectations. Things are different. Actions take on meaning previously found only in movies or novels. The requirements of ingenuity, perseverance, discipline all become daily necessities.  At which point, the clichés burn away and we see each other and how we are in our handling of the Current Crisis.

If we’re lucky, we find ourselves in company with good people. We discover that the casual and sometimes cruel off-the-cuff assessments of someone’s value have been wrong, meaningless, small-minded, or simply thoughtless. And if we’re very lucky, we realize a new truth about each other. That in fact the things that inform what we call Community are not as rare or generationally locked as we might have believed.

I’d like to say here that I am privileged to know and work with Fine People. Things have turned topsy-turvy, “business as usual” is gone for the foreseeable future, and there are new requirements for taking care of each other.  Daily, I work with people who are displaying all the personal care, courage, and competence one might imagine. Age matters not at all. We show up, we do what needs doing, we work, we fulfill an important function in our larger community, and we do it with humor and grace. (I should say, they do it with grace; I’m managing, but how well remains to be seen.)  Despite my intentions, it seems I have fallen in with a bunch of Excellent Human Beings.

Which leads me to a different cliché, perhaps, which is: if these are examples of the kind of people who will carry us into the future, we’re going to be all right.

Personally, I’ve never held with the kind of carping one generation heaps on those coming up. I got enough of that when I was a kid and I knew it was unexamined intellectual laziness.  The occasional disconnects of what is known and what is expected are amusing markers of change and mostly of progress. Underneath, as some like to put it, deep down, where it matters, the important stuff continues.  Times like these, we get to see it, and have an opportunity to see things more clearly.  We have a chance to appreciate others in ways we perhaps have not before.

So I would like to do that. To my coworkers, to my friends, to their children, and to those whose work and willingness will see us all through, my thanks.  I feel privileged to know you all.

Axiomatic Civic Responsibility

I’m looking at the “protesters” in Michigan and ruminating on the nature of civil disobedience versus civic aphasia.

By that latter term I mean a condition wherein a blank space exists within the psyché where one would expect an appropriate recognition of responsible behavior ought to live.  A condition which seems to allow certain people to feel empowered to simply ignore—or fail to recognize—the point at which a reflexive rejection of authority should yield to a recognition of community responsibility.  That moment when the impulse to challenge, dismiss, or simply ignore what one is being told enlarges to the point of defiance and what ordinarily would be a responsible acceptance of correct behavior in the face of a public duty.

It could be about anything from recycling to voting regularly to paying taxes to obeying directives meant to protect entire populations.

Fairly basic exercises in logic should suffice to define the difference between legitimate civil disobedience and civic aphasia. Questions like: “Who does this serve?” And if the answer is anything other than the community at large, discussion should occur to determine the next step.  The protesters in Michigan probably asked, if they asked at all, a related question that falls short of useful answer:  “How does this serve me?”  Depending on how much information they have in the first place, the answer to that question will be of limited utility, especially in cases of public health.

Another way to look at the difference is this:  is the action taken to defend privilege or to extend it? And to whom?

One factor involved in the current expression of misplaced disobedience has to do with weighing consequences. The governor of the state issues a lockdown in order to stem the rate of infection, person to person. It will last a limited time. When the emergency is over (and it will be over), what rights have been lost except a presumed right to be free of any restraint on personal whim?

There is no right to be free of inconvenience.  At best, we have a right to try to avoid it, diminish it, work around it.  Certainly be angry at it.  But there is no law, no agency, no institution that can enforce a freedom from inconvenience.  For one, it could never be made universal.  For another, “inconvenience” is a rather vague definition which is dependent on context.

And then there is the fact that some inconveniences simply have to be accepted and managed.

We seem to be in a time when the actions of a not insignificant number of our citizens are informed not so much by reasonable acceptance of fact but by narratives based more on X-Files story lines, the pseudo-journalistic structures of conspiracy theories, and the desire not to be seen as uninformed or out of touch.  The black helicopters of secret U.N. operatives swooping in to do who knows what to stolidly independent individualists who represent threats to hidden systems run behind the scenes by Machiavellian apparatchiks have a certain attraction for the imaginations of those who have become at least partially convinced that the world is not as it seems and the “truth” is a commodity hoarded to their detriment.  Some variation on these thriller-esque left-overs of the Cold War, nurtured by the same charm that appealed to the occult fascinations of alchemists in an earlier age, seem to underlay the frustrated responses to the unfolding requirements of a world that really ought not be so alien given a little actual ratiocination based on available information.

But hold on a minute. That assumption itself may be an expression of privilege. It may be relatively easy for some people to discern “reliable” information from the noise that fills our lives, but that doesn’t mean it is either simple or even the same set of metrics for everyone.

Falling down a rabbit hole is easy—sometimes easier—than following a legitimate path.

Pause. Is there judgment in that? Of course. Judgement is at the center of this whole thing.  Your own and all those around you.

A simple mental (and moral) exercise.  Gather a group of a 100 people in a single space. You are now told that, statistically speaking, two to four people in that gathering will die. Soon, maybe in a week. Do you have any responsibility as a result? Now add one bit: out of that gathering, two to four people are going to die because you have all gathered in that space.  What now?  Does that make a difference? Is there now a personal responsibility element you recognize?

Judgment is required.  Judgment based on information.  But first, your reaction to the basic proposition matters.

Because if you think Well, no, I have no responsibility in either situation, then quite likely new information, or better information, won’t make any difference.

Which is why we as a community assign authority for decision-making in those circumstances to a person or persons equipped to make such judgments, thereby reflecting the general will and tending to the well-being of the entire group. Because there will always be a certain percentage of any population that will go against the best interests of the group.  Either out of ignorance, arrogance, ambivalence, or avarice.

We have, however, been through over seven decades of concerted efforts to undermine public confidence in the systems designed to do that job.  It began with the tobacco industry deliberately paying to have the science around smoking questioned in such a way that the general public would mistrust the data enough that sales of tobacco products could continue.  Combined with the growth of the corporate lobby system which made such efforts one with political advantage, other industries and interests employed the method.  The result has been a society permeated with enough mistrust, doubt, and poorly-considered sense of entitlement that we are now all in danger because too few will cede authority to those who are charged with deciding matters individuals are ill-equipped to deal with.

It’s not as if there aren’t real concerns with such authority. Governments do all sorts of things inimical to individual rights and liberties and should be called on them. But we have an ecology of reaction which elevates every concern to the same level of presumed legitimacy, which makes a mockery of so-called judgment.  It puts people in danger for no other reason than privileged posturing.

The question at the base of this is: who benefits?

What we are seeing are, if the images are to be believed, crowds of white people, predominately Trump supporters, many of them clearly 2nd Amendment fetishists, crowding into public spaces in camo, armed, along with cavalcades of suburbanite-ish middle class (white) people demanding an end to social distancing and lockdown orders. Among this main group are many subgroups (including some people taking advantage of the opportunity to voice their anti-semitism) who all share an apparent rejection of the state’s right to set public policy that infringes on the presumed freedoms of people to do what they want regardless of potential consequences.

Focusing for the moment on the most visible of these, the militia wannabes, their demonstration or armed resistance to a public health measure is, to put it mildly, extreme.

Unless, of course, you take into account that they are not demonstrating against public health measures, or at least not only.  Reading the various signage, the aggressive body language, the evident displays of camaraderie, and the accoutrements involved, this is not a “demonstration”—as in a protest—at all, but an exercise in power optics.

Again, who does this benefit? Not, in any practical sense, the demonstrators. They’re indulging in the equivalent of a sports rally. Coming out for the home team.  They have been inconvenienced, as we all have, for a reason they have decided for themselves to reject. Denial has become the hallmark of this sort of response.  The automatic dismissal of “official” information followed by an assumed “principled” resistance to perceived limits on individual autonomy.

Where is the reasoned acknowledgment of extraordinary necessity that informs the responsible care of society?

And again, who benefits? And how?

The only purpose in these outbursts that makes sense is to assert privilege. It is saying, firstly, that they have no regard for authority, whether responsibly asserted or not. And secondly that one’s presumed lifestyle is more important than public safety.  It is a feature of a consistent denigration of government which has been an ongoing process for decades.  If it is taken as given that nothing the government says is ever the truth, this then is a consequence of that assumption.  Combined with a belief that The Government is always and in every way set to strip us of our “rights” then it may even appear reasonable to reject the restrictions.

Except in this case people are getting sick, people are dying, and it isn’t just The Government saying this. At some point, reality should prompt a different response.

But reality, it seems, has been replaced. The common, consensual matrix of interactions that constitute Real Life, for some has been moved aside or coopted with a schema of conspiracy, resentment, and an assumed elevation of personal experience and political prejudice that allows for no possibility that things are other than the preferred viewpoint.

After accepting a given narrative (false one) that seems to conform to a certain set of conditions, life becomes an attempt to make that narrative true in the face of counterexample of better information.  The result, after long enough, is a mindset that is triggered by anything that narrative suggests is confirmation of the most inimical aspects of that view. The Government has ordered a stay-at-home decree. Obviously, according to a certain narrative, this is overreach and a blatant attempt to isolate and incarcerate certain people. It is a targeted shut down, because certain services and businesses are deemed essential and allowed to continuye to operate.  Therefore this is the first step in an authoritarian take-over and the COVID-19 pandemic is just an excuse. It may, in fact, be a made up thing. After all, no one in “my” sphere has gotten sick.  And even if they do, it’s not what is claimed, but a lab-grown plague released by The Government to achieve the subjugation of the people.

The People, in this case, being those like you.

It is difficult to know where to start to unravel this. It has been nurtured and grown for decades.

The question, again, is: if that narrative is not true, then who does it benefit?

Most obviously, it benefits those who have been instrumental in constructing the narrative and then benefits those able to leverage participation in it to enhance their power and/or bottom line.  In other words, those who have a stake in seeing civic authority weakened or destroyed.  Those who chafe at being told no when in pursuit of goals focused almost exclusively on profit or power.

The next question, then, is: why would anyone not one of them believe that narrative and cooperate with it to their own detriment?

Obviously, they don’t believe it to be to their detriment. Counternarratives notwithstanding, there is a rejection of re-evaluation, especially if it might tear apart the operative beliefs under which such actions are taken.  They feel that supporting those beliefs is worth the risk.

It has to be asked, then, given the way events have transpired: what risks?

All the risks in this false confrontation are for other people. The demonstrators themselves are in no danger, at least not from the responses any other group trying the same thing would experience. (And in this instance, those are the only risks under consideration.)  This is obvious.  All one need do is point out that any other group, those with perhaps more legitimate complaints whose actions might force change in the system, would have been met with considerable armed official resistance. Police, even National Guard, would have been on hand to put down the demonstration.  (Which is also a good way to tell which protests have genuine weight behind them.)  In this instance, demonstrators have been allowed inside public buildings with their weapons. If there has been any police presence, it has been for the demonstrators’ protection.  The only reason for this absence of official discipline is that these people are, essentially, harmless. Their demands require no real change, their posturing is causing no one any real alarm, and the only people put at risk are themselves and their associates (from the very disease many of them believe to be a hoax).

This is a cynical bit of political theater, both on the part of the demonstrators and on (and for the benefit of) the part of the politicians supporting them.  Those politicians believe they will benefit from the displays. This is their “base,” if you will.  Treating them equally before the law would not serve their purposes.

That said, the increased transmission vectors provided by this entitled display will allow the greater spread of COVID-19 and doubtless people not directly involved in this act will suffer for it.  The sponsors of all this will pay no price because they have done nothing—literally.  And people, including an unknown number of demonstrators, will die.  They will die because of long, drawn-out process of destroying trust in civic authority and a concomitant decay in civil responsibility, promoted and perpetrated by people who seek personal benefit from the erosion of those elements which are essential to a functioning community.

The cries to reopen the country—for business—are the hallmark of people who lack empathy.  Accepting those cries as legitimate is the hallmark of people who have lost the ability to recognize legitimate authority in service to the common good.  It seems not to occur to them that there are other ways to deal with what they have been told will be dire consequences. Partly, they only see one set of dire consequence—the infringement of their personal lifestyle.  If “other people” die, so what?

There are fairly simple ways to see when one is being had. But those ways fail when one is at the center of a bubble lined with a mirror surface preventing any view but your own self.

What should not be overlooked here, however, is that lack of response by the authorities.  That says more about the displacement of civic responsibility than the shallow bluster of these demonstrators, who after all are behaving more like spoiled children than principled citizens.