Monday, May 14, 2018

Arhythmic grumbling

In a Peanuts strip of sainted memory (meaning I can't find it easily via Google, and I'm not gonna do the work....), Sally Brown is giving a report to her class about overpopulation, and she says the problem is everybody is concerned about it but nobody wants to leave.  It's a variant on the argument that so long as things are good for me and mine, things are good and if there's a problem, it's with all those other people.  Or, as Ezra Klein puts it in an article about how bad things aren't these days:

Ian Haney López, director of the Racial Politics Project at the University of California Berkeley’s Haas Institute, calls the 20th-century United States “a herrenvolk liberal democracy” — a democracy for the majority ethnic group but something very different for the rest of society. “That herrenvolk liberal democracy solved major problems for whites,” says Haney López. “It solved the problem of national identity. It solved the problem of how to ensure wealth in society was continuously pushed downward and outward, so prosperity was shared and broad. For whites, democracy was working very well.” But for nonwhites, America was neither liberal nor a democracy."*

Which, I have to pause to point out, is what Dr. King said in his most famous speech; in the part we uniformly ignore:

But one hundred years later (All right), the Negro still is not free. (My Lord, Yeah) One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. (Hmm) One hundred years later (All right), the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later (My Lord) [applause], the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land. (Yes, yes) And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence (Yeah), they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men (My Lord), would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. (My Lord) Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds. [enthusiastic applause] (My Lord, Lead on, Speech, speech)

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. (My Lord) [laughter] (No, no) We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. (Sure enough) And so we’ve come to cash this check (Yes), a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom (Yes) and the security of justice. (Yes Lord) [enthusiastic applause]

We have also come to this hallowed spot (My Lord) to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. (Mhm) This is no time (My Lord) to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. [applause] (Yes, Speak on it!) Now is the time (Yes it is) to make real the promises of democracy. (My Lord) Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time [applause] to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time (Yes) [applause] (Now) to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent (Yes) will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. (My Lord) 1963 is not an end, but a beginning. (Yes) And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. [enthusiastic applause] There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

We might mention that "promissory note;" but "whirlwinds of revolt"?  Yeah, we've forgotten that already, and it's only been, what, 50 years?  Indeed, talk like that is "identity politics," isn't it? At least, I'd say.  Things were so much calmer back then, right?  So much simpler than today, especially with selective memory.  Then again, it is clear that Ezra Klein is still learning (and kudos to him for doing it on the public stage):

Levitsky and Ziblatt, for instance, write that, “The norms sustaining our political system rested, to a considerable degree, on racial exclusion.” It’s an unsettling analysis that raises the question of how long, exactly, America has actually been a democracy.
I didn't come to that "unsettling analysis" myself until not quite 20 years ago, and being almost 30 years older than Mr. Klein I don't think he finally caught up with reality, but that he's catching up even faster than I did.  But it is reality; which brings me to fantasy.

That fantasy being the premise of the film "Avengers:  Infinity Wars."  Thanos is finally the villain some critics have said Marvel movies lack.  He shows compassion (insofar as he can) for his adopted daughter Gamora (we've met her in the "Guardians of the Galaxy" movies), which we see when he first met her, as a child (just as Thanos' troops are slaughtering half the inhabitants of Gamora's planet, including her mother).  Which is to say he has complexity, a sense of responsibility if no sense of guilt.  Thanos, we are given to understand, has been pursuing his goal long before he donned the gauntlet that allows him to collect, and employ, the infinity stones to enforce his will on the universe.  There are two stories here, aside from the motivations of Thanos (that would be another, albeit interesting, discussion):  one is the use and abuse of power.  Power used to defend is good, a fundamentally American ideal.  We've turned against torture because we think we aren't defending ourselves anymore.  While we were, it wasn't so bad.  We changed our "War Department" to the more anodyne "Defense Department" because we need to defend ourselves; but we don't want to always be at war, or preparing for war; which is exactly what a "defense department" is for, as it turns out.  But "Defense" sounds so much nicer, so much more...defensible.  That's the fight, really, in the Avengers movie that precedes "Infinity War":  "Captain America:  Civil War."  The plot of that film pits Tony Stark (Iron Man) against Captain America.  Tony wants a defense department, ready to protect the world (or the U.S.) when needed, held in check otherwise.  Steve Rogers (Captain America) wants a War Department, one needed only in time of war, not wandering around looking for  ways to prevent what the government perceives as trouble.  It's a fine distinction to those being attacked.  Captain America leads an assault on a villain that inadvertently creates significant damage to innocent people, the same thing Stark is confronted with in the movie, from his previous actions building Ultron, a villain who also caused the deaths of millions of innocents when Stark's aim was to defend those innocents from alien invader villains.  In the end we root for Captain America, but we understand Stark's position, too; they really aren't that far apart, but where the emphasis falls, as always, is the bone of contention.

The moral quandaries of those films are blanked by the villainy of Thanos, who wants nothing less than the annihilation of half of life in the universe (intelligent life, apparently; not plants and "lower" animals).  His power to pursue that goal is his villainy, but his desire is equally villainous.  What would have made the film more interesting is if Thanos' actions had displayed a moral universe in which he was annihilated in his wish.

Because what Thanos wants is a universe that suits him.  He doesn't want to balance the universe, as he often says in the film; he wants it to be balanced for his apperception.  He wants to enjoy the balance.  It is a given his wish does not include him.  The norm he wants to impose on the universe rests on his exclusion from that imposition.  He wants to be in it, but not of it; and that, actually, is the most villainous posture of all.

When Captain America insists, at the end of "Civil War," that a better system of control must be possible than the imprisonment of those who sided with him (he frees them from the prison they are put in), we approve of his illegal act.  Justice is for other people, not for people like us (and who watches a comic book movie and doesn't identify with the heroes, even if governments say they are criminals?).  It is not something we see easily, because all we see in comic book movies is violence:  the bad violence of the villains, the reactive violence of the good guys, who are always a step behind, but who eventually prevail if only because their violence has an approved end.  It never looks like this:

In White Rage, Carol Anderson reflects on the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and the way the nation has always been transfixed by black rage, by images of “rampaging, burning, and looting.” But not all rage is so visually arresting. “White rage is not about visible violence,” she writes, “but rather it works its way through the courts, the legislatures, and a range of government bureaucracies. It wreaks havoc subtly, almost imperceptibly. Too imperceptibly, certainly, for a nation consistently drawn to the spectacular — to what it can see.”
It isn't just that we can't see it; we don't see it.  Governments and laws that keep us safe, happy, secure, comfortable, are doing what governments should do.  Governments that are helping the poor, the downtrodden, the dispossessed, the "other," make us uncomfortable, and that leads to "white rage."  White shooters, it is too often pointed out, are "lone wolves," are "disturbed," are "unique."  Black shooters are proof of "thug culture," brown shooters are "terrorists; everyone in those groups is to be feared because of the acts of individuals.  Whites are not to be feared as a class because we know "we" are "not like that."  And we aren't; but we are like Thanos, wishing for a universe that suits our preferences, our predilections.

And what makes Captain America a hero is that he accepts his status as an outlaw. He doesn't want to control the change of the world, he wants to be a moral example in it. Thanos wants to remake the universe in his image. That's what makes him a villain. But while we think we are Steve Rogers, we act like Thanos.  We think we know what the problems are in the world, and we always think those problems stem from other people; and if we could just get rid of them.....

Consider this bit of irony I just read about over at Thought Criminal:

Braasch has also fought againt hate crime laws. “I am pretty much the only person I know who hates hate-crime legislation as little more than bald-faced thought-crime legislation. I am not infrequently verbally vilified for asserting the claim that morality has no place in the law,” she wrote in the 2010 article. In 2011 she wrote a piece on Daylight Atheism titled, “Be Careful What You Wish For (Why I Hate Hate Crimes Legislation, But I Love Hate Speech).” 

"Braasch" is Sara Braasch, the graduate student at Yale who thought Lolade Siyonbola should be asleep in the common room of a dorm on campus because Ms. Siyonbola is black.  Well, there wasn't much other reason to suspect she didn't belong there.  I learned this experience in seminary, a very white seminary with deep German roots where one professor was black (and he taught me a great deal about being black in America, things I'd always known but never acknowledged), and one black woman, a student.  She came in full of justified anger toward white people, one of the few (if memory serves, one of the only) black students I saw in four years in seminary.  We learned about her, she learned about us, and we taught each other about the two Americas we lived in, although she mostly taught us about the America she lived in.  I most remember her because one of my classes featured a video from a mega-church "seeker service," one that was pointedly more about entertainment than about any kind of traditional worship.  The "sermon" of that service was a man (woman?) portraying a poor white woman, for the comedic possibilities and entertainment of the crowd.  I was the only person who didn't laugh because I pointed out that person resembled my family, mostly poor whites themselves.  I thought insulting people in the name of Christian worship, even in a "seeker service," was hardly Christian and was certainly offensive, at least to me.  Two people sided with me, privately, after the class unanimously told me to "lighten up."  One was a Southerner herself (there is a line between the South and the Midwest, and Missouri is not as Southern as it thinks it is, especially in St. Louis); the other was the black woman.  She said my story made her realize that, had the actor been in blackface, it would have offended her, and it was little different that the actor portrayed a poor white as a figure of mockery.  I had learned to respect her long before that day; but that day, we both realized we were fellow human beings.

We don't need to get rid of people:  we need to see them as fellow human beings.  I don't have an answer for how we do that.  I don't want to just be outraged that we don't.  I do know it's something we have to work very hard at, very conscientiously, and for all our lives.  We'll never be able to snap our fingers and solve the universe's problems as we see them; and we'll never be able to solve them by being the better fighters, or having the better reason to fight.  We can't rest on the past we think once existed, or worse insist upon its recovery.  Perhaps we could start with recognizing that complaining about "identity politics" does not mean we don't have an identity we think is both normative, and above "mere politics."  Because then why is ours the one so privileged, and not theirs?

*I have to point out Mr. Klein doesn't understand the full implications of everything he quotes, as he also quotes "Tiger Mom" Amy Chua (who is as qualified to opine on American political history as she is to give advice on child rearing, IMHO):

We find ourselves in an unprecedented moment of pervasive tribal anxiety. For two hundred years, whites in America represented an undisputed politically, economically, and culturally dominant majority. When a political tribe is so overwhelmingly dominant, it can persecute with impunity, but it can also be more generous. It can afford to be more universalist, more enlightened, more inclusive, like the WASP elites of the 1960s who opened up the Ivy League colleges to more Jews, blacks, and other minorities — in part because it seemed like the right thing to do.

Today, no group in America feels comfortably dominant. Every group feels attacked, pitted against other groups not just for jobs and spoils but for the right to define the nation’s identity. In these conditions, democracy devolves into zero-sum group competition — pure political tribalism.
Chua doesn't even notice that "white" in the '60's still didn't include Jews; anymore than it included most of Europe that wasn't Britain (which to this day insists it is NOT Europe) or French (or even all of Britain, eh, Ireland?) for much of the 19th century.  Funny thing about "Gangs of New York" is that it's whites against whites, but neither group at war in the New York slums is considered "white" by the New York elites.  Yeah, our problem today is "pervasive tribal anxiety."  Because some definitions (who is "white"?  Who is not?) are more tribal than others, eh?  And I guess that problem never arose with the people the Europeans found here?  Or the people the Europeans enslaved and brought here? Or at any time in the 19th or 20th centuries?  Yeah, as I was saying....


  1. Given so much here worthy of discussion, I will of course manage to find a minor item on which to comment. I haven't seen the new Avengers movie (I will probably go this weekend), but I was caught by the description of Thanos. It resonated with something I earlier I read on LGM regarding Kayne West and a comment by Bari Weiss (I feel no need to link to his piece) where we says of Mr. West "There was something about the reaction that just didn’t sit right with me, something too easy, too dismissive of an individual artist’s right to say whatever he wants, to be accountable to no one but himself." We are living in an age where too many, most especially the wealthy and powerful feel they have a "right to be accountable to no one but themselves". Ta-Nehisi Coates does such an exceptional job on Mr. West that I couldn't add anything of value, but the broader question of to whom are we accountable and responsible remains. We have a host of extraordinarily wealthy private citizens, particularly it seems now from tech, that openly advocate they have no responsibility to anyone, are accountable to none. To think of this as a right. Even someone on the surface more benign like Elon Musk can't think of how to spend all his money so he is pouring into rockets because it uses a lot of cash. The Koch brothers, Peter Theil, and more are the opposite of benign. None of this is particularly historically new.

  2. What feels different is now we have a government of people that feel no responsibility or accountability to anyone but themselves. Implicit in electing one to power, is that use of that power is accountable to at least those that of voted for the person. A more enlightened view would be accountable to the entire electorate and the broadest would say to everyone effected. (For example most of us would think a politician accountable to school students even if they are not yet of voting age). Responsibility for actions and consequences can and should extend even further. Reality of course is different, historically it hasn't been unusual to have politicians accountable and responsible to only a segment of the electorate, in the Jim Crow era politicians only felt themselves accountable to the white electorate (I have managed to at least a little bring in the rest of the post). Trump seems truly unique, he acts as accountable to no one, responsible for nothing. He has surrounded himself with the like minded. Betsy Devos feels no responsibility at all to students, the reason for the existence of her department. The same can be said for Pruitt and so on. Most extraordinary is that the segment of the electorate that voted for Trump and Republicans overall, don't seem to care. There has been burst of articles the last few days, crabbers in Maryland, farmers in eastern Washington, a business owner in Wisconsin, that are being actively harmed by this governments actions, and end by saying they still support them and would vote for them again. So we have a group of Super men and women, in both the public and private sphere that want to, and are allowed to, have a right to no accountability and responsibility. (To be clear, it's not just wealth, the Baptist seminary president doesn't feel accountable or responsible to the battered wife).

    The other hand is this blog, religion is responsibility or nothing at all. The first shall be last and servant to all. For myself, I find it well summed up in Step 12 of AA, "Service, gladly rendered, obligations squarely met, troubles well accepted or solved with God’s help, the knowledge that at home or in the world outside we are partners in a common effort, the well-understood fact that in God’s sight all human beings are important, the proof that love freely given surely brings a full return, the certainty that we are no longer
    isolated and alone in self-constructed prisons, the surety that we need no longer be square pegs in round holes but can fit and belong in God’s scheme of things—these are the permanent and legitimate satisfactions of right living
    for which no amount of pomp and circumstance, no heap of material possessions, could possibly be substitutes."

    What was a gap between these two worlds has become a chasm. It will not be fixed by the end of Trump's administration in 2 or 6 years, this culture is much deeper and pervasive. This world of a right to be unaccountable and not responsible, how do we live in it? The courage to change the things I can, the courage to change the things I can, which of course for each of us starts with ourselves. Peace be with you.