The Moral Axis of the Axial Age

Where is the world heading and upon what might it all be revolving? One would be unwise to speculate too much or offer strong predictions, but it must be noted that there has been a general trend that is well-established. Over time, Americans have been moving further and further to the political ‘left’. The majority of Americans are strongly liberal and progressive on nearly every major issue — political, social, economic, environmental, etc. But this is also happening on the political ‘right’, even among the religious. It’s interesting that as the elite have often pushed the Overton window to the ‘right’, the political ‘right’ has generally gone ‘left’ in following the rest of the American population. The whole spectrum shifts leftward.

Only a minority of right-wingers have become increasingly extreme in the other direction. The problem is this small demographic, what I call the ‘Ferengi‘ (overlap of Fox News viewers, white Evangelicals, and Republicans), has had an outsized voice in the corporate media and an outsized influence in corporatist politics. This ideological shift, to a large extent, is a generational divide or rather an age-related gradation. Each generation becomes steadily more liberal and progressive, sometimes outright left-wing on certain issues compared to how issues were perceived in the past.

This conflict of views has less relevance in the Democratic Party but is quite stark in the Republican Party. It’s also seen among Evangelicals. Old Evangelicals, at least among whites, are part of the Ferengi extremists. But young Evangelicals identify with the ‘progressive’ label and support such things as same sex marriage while no longer seeing abortion as an important issue, much less feeling drawn to polticized religiosity. The Ferengi are opposite of the majority of Americans, often opposite of a large number of moderate Republicans and conservatives, and definitely opposite of the young.

Yet the Ferengi are held up as an equivalent demographic to these much larger demographics in creating a false narrative of polariztion and division. The ideological gap, though, is in some sense real. The Ferengi fringe are disproportionately represented among those who are most politically active with high voter turnout, specifically as found among older conservatives with more money and influence. Even as they are a shrinking minority, they still strongly control or otherwise are overly represented by the Republican Party and right-wing media. The extremism of this minority emphasizes how far ‘left’ the rest of the population has gone.

This ongoing leftward pattern, what some might consider ‘progress’, isn’t exactly new. The shift hasn’t only happened over the decades and across the generations but, one might argue, goes back centuries or possibly even millennia. Being part of the political ‘left’ project has required saintly patience, prophetic vision, and heroic will. The impulse of egalitarianism and universalism initially were religious imperatives — born under the Axial Age, grew into childhood during the Middle Ages, and came to young adulthood in the Enligthenment Age, if still not yet having reached full maturity.

It was in the 1300s, when the moral vision of Jesus, as expressed in the orignal Christian creed, finally captured the populist imagination as something akin to class war and sociopolitical ideology. Some of those early proto-leftists sought to overthrow the hierarchy of fuedalism and church, to bring the equality of heaven down to earth. Their thinking on the matter was far from being rationally articulated as a coherent philosophy, but the demands they made were stated in no uncertain terms. They weren’t content with otherworldly ideals of rewards in the afterlife. Once imagined, those ideals inevitably became radical in their threat to worldly power.

Yet no one back then had any notion of a political ‘left’, per se. For most of the past two millennia, it remained a moral intuition bubbling up out of the collective psyche. Even so, it was a poweful moral intuition. Those peasants, in revolting, did rampage into the cities and killed more than a few of the elite. They nearly took the king hostage, although they weren’t quite sure what to do as the commoners had never previously gained the upper hand to that degree. It would require many more centuries for the dirty masses to figure out exactly what were their demands, what exactly did this moral intuition mean, but for damn sure it could not be denied and it would only grow stronger over time.

That ancient outrage of the commoners is what we have inherited. We’ve fancied it up with Englightenment thought and clothed it in modern respectability, while the political ‘right’ has sought to blame it on French Jacobins and postmodern neo-Marxists or whatever, but in essence it remains that crude beating heart of moral righteousness and divine judgment, the authority of God’s command brought down like a sledgehammer to level the towers of human pride, as with Jesus throwing the moneychangers out of the temple. It’s not an intellectual argument and so, in response to it, rationality is impotent. But equally impotent are the churchly claims of fundies and the delicate sensibilities of social conservatives.

Every single advance of society began as a never-before-thought idea that was imagined into existence but at first denied and attacked as heretical, dangerous, crazy, or impossible. So much of what has become established and normalized, so much of what even conservatives now accept and defend began as terrifying radicalism, fevered dream, and ranting jeremiad. Before written about in revolutionary pamphlets, scholarly tomes and left-wing analyses, these obstinate demands and unrealistic ideals were originally brought forth by prophets from the desert and peasants from the countryside, the uncouth and illiterate rabble who spoke with the moral certainty of faith and of God’s intimacy.

These initially incohate inklings and urgings of the Anglo-American moral imagination took so many unknown generations of struggle to take shape as we know them now. But we act like the revolutionary zeal of the late 18th century burst forth like Athena from Zeus’ head, as if intellectuals with too much time on their hands thought it all up while getting a bit tipsy in colonial taverns. More than a few of those rabblerousers and pamphlet scribblers began as religious dissenters, a tradition they inherited from their forefathers who fled to the colonies during the religious uprising and populist unrest of the English Civil War.

Thomas Paine, a man hated for claiming God was not an evil authoritarian ruling over humanity, has been largely forgotten in his later writing of Agrarian Justice in 1797. In offering a plan for land and tax reform, he spelled out ideas on an old age pension and basic income. The former took almost a century and half to finally get enacted as Social Security and the latter we’re still working toward. These kinds of radical proposals take a while to gain purchase in political action, even when they’ve been part of the political imaginary for many generations or longer. Paine himself was merely responding to an ongoing public debate that preceded him in the centuries before.

Even his criticisms of organized religion were largely his having repeated what others had already said. Some of those heretical thoughts were already being recorded in the ancient world. Jesus, after all, was one of the greatest heretics of them all, a detail that didn’t go without notice by so many heretics who followed his example. Such religious heresy always went hand in hand with political heresy. The early Christians were disliked because they refused to participate in poltical religion. And some of the first Christian communities set themselves apart by living in egalitarian communes where positions were decided through drawing lots. Their radical beliefs led to radical actions and radical social order.

So, it’s unsurprising that primitive communism, proto-socialism, and Marxist-like critiques began among religious dissenters, as heard during the Peasants’ Revolt and English Civil War. They took inspiration from Jesus and the original Christians, as those in the first century were themselves drawing upon the words written down over the half millennia before that. When the full-fledged socialists came along with their crazy dreams as implemented in Milwaukee’s sewer socialism, they were doing so as part of the Judeo-Christian tradition and in carrying forward ancient ideals.

Yet here we are. The radical notion of sewer socialism where everyone equally deserves clean water was once considered a threat to Western civilization by the respectable elite but now is considered an essential component of that very same ruling order. Conservatives no longer openly argue that poor people deserve to fall into horrific sickness and die from sewage and filthy water. What used to be radically left-wing has simply become the new unquestioned norm, the moral ground below which we won’t descend. Some might call that progress.

It’s the same thing with constitutional republicanism, civil rights, free markets, universal education, women’s suffrage, abolition of slavery, and on and on. In centuries past, these were dangerous notions to conservatives and traditionalists. They were condemned and violently suppressed. But now the modern right-winger has so fully embraced and become identified with this radicalism as to have forgotten it was ever radical. And this trend continues. As clean water is accepted as a universal right, in the near future, same sex marriage and basic income might be likewise brought into the fold of what defines civilization.

There is no reason to assume that this seismic shift that began so long ago is going to stop anytime soon, as long as this civilizational project continues its development. The aftershocks of an ancient cataclysm will likely continue to redefine the world from one age to the next. In a sense, we are still living in the Axial Age (“The Empire never ended!” PKD) and no one knows when it will finally come to a close nor what will be the final result, what world will have come to fruition from the seed that was planted in that fertile soil. The Axial Age is the moral axis upon which the world we know rotates. A revolution is a turning and returning, an eternal recurrence — and in a state of disorientation with no end in sight, around and around we go.

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On the Cusp of Adulthood and Facing an Uncertain Future: What We Know About Gen Z So Far
by Kim Parker and Ruth Igielnik

Within the GOP, Gen Zers have sharp differences with their elders

Among Republicans and those who lean to the Republican Party, there are striking differences between Generation Z and older generations on social and political issues. In their views on race, Gen Z Republicans are more likely than older generations of Republicans to say blacks are treated less fairly than whites in the U.S. today. Fully 43% of Republican Gen Zers say this, compared with 30% of Millennial Republicans and roughly two-in-ten Gen X, Boomer and Silent Generation Republicans. Views are much more consistent across generations among Democrats and Democratic leaners.

Similarly, the youngest Republicans stand out in their views on the role of government and the causes of climate change. Gen Z Republicans are much more likely than older generations of Republicans to desire an increased government role in solving problems. About half (52%) of Republican Gen Zers say government should do more, compared with 38% of Millennials, 29% of Gen Xers and even smaller shares among older generations. And the youngest Republicans are less likely than their older counterparts to attribute the earth’s warming temperatures to natural patterns, as opposed to human activity (18% of Gen Z Republicans say this, compared with three-in-ten or more among older generations of Republicans).

Overall, members of Gen Z look similar to Millennials in their political preferences, particularly when it comes to the upcoming 2020 election. Among registered voters, a January Pew Research Center survey found that 61% of Gen Z voters (ages 18 to 23) said they were definitely or probably going to vote for the Democratic candidate for president in the 2020 election, while about a quarter (22%) said they were planning to vote for Trump. Millennial voters, similarly, were much more likely to say they plan to support a Democrat in November than Trump (58% vs. 25%). Larger shares of Gen X voters (37%), Boomers (44%) and Silents (53%) said they plan to support President Trump. […]

Generations differ in their familiarity and comfort with using gender-neutral pronouns

Ideas about gender identity are rapidly changing in the U.S., and Gen Z is at the front end of those changes. Gen Zers are much more likely than those in older generations to say they personally know someone who prefers to go by gender-neutral pronouns, with 35% saying so, compared with 25% of Millennials, 16% of Gen Xers, 12% of Boomers and just 7% of Silents. This generational pattern is evident among both Democrats and Republicans.

There are also stark generational differences in views of how gender options are presented on official documents. Gen Z is by far the most likely to say that when a form or online profile asks about a person’s gender it should include options other than “man” and “woman.” About six-in-ten Gen Zers (59%) say forms or online profiles should include additional gender options, compared with half of Millennials, about four-in-ten Gen Xers and Boomers (40% and 37%, respectively) and roughly a third of those in the Silent Generation (32%).

These views vary widely along partisan lines, and there are generational differences within each party coalition. But those differences are sharpest among Republicans: About four-in-ten Republican Gen Zers (41%) think forms should include additional gender options, compared with 27% of Republican Millennials, 17% of Gen Xers and Boomers and 16% of Silents. Among Democrats, half or more in all generations say this.

Gen Zers are similar to Millennials in their comfort with using gender-neutral pronouns. Both groups express somewhat higher levels of comfort than other generations, though generational differences on this question are fairly modest. Majorities of Gen Zers and Millennials say they would feel “very” or “somewhat” comfortable using a gender-neutral pronoun to refer to someone if asked to do so. By comparison, Gen Xers and Boomers are about evenly divided: About as many say they would feel at least somewhat comfortable (49% and 50%, respectively) as say they would be uncomfortable.

Members of Gen Z are also similar to Millennials in their views on society’s acceptance of those who do not identify as a man or a woman. Roughly half of Gen Zers (50%) and Millennials (47%) think that society is not accepting enough of these individuals. Smaller shares of Gen Xers (39%), Boomers (36%) and those in the Silent Generation (32%) say the same.

Here again there are large partisan gaps, and Gen Z Republicans stand apart from other generations of Republicans in their views. About three-in-ten Republican Gen Zers (28%) say that society is not accepting enough of people who don’t identify as a man or woman, compared with two-in-ten Millennials, 15% of Gen Xers, 13% of Boomers and 11% of Silents. Democrats’ views are nearly uniform across generations in saying that society is not accepting enough of people who don’t identify as a man or a woman.

Ancient Outrage of the Commoners

For you are all children of God in the Spirit.
There is no Jew or Greek;
There is no slave or free;
There is no male and female.
For you are all one in the Spirit.

Based on Galations 3:28, Stephen J. Patterson, The Forgotten Creed

When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.

John Ball, 1381 sermon at Blackheath, after his release from prison during the Peasants’ Revolt

Who rightly claims the beating heart of moral imagination, of radical vision? Who feels the throbbing pulse of it in their veins, the flow of vitality in the body politic? Who bleeds when the cut goes deep, who cries out in pain, and who hears it? Who knows this wounding, what it means, what is to be gained? Who holds to this sacrifice and accepts its cost?

Within the broad liberalism of the Enlightenment, there was the reactionary strain of proto-conservative ‘classical liberalism’, as given voice by the Englishman John Locke (1632-1704) who gets more credit than he deserves. This early on was preempted by pre-Enlightenment religious dissenters and countered by radical Enlightenment thinkers, from Roger Williams (1603-1683) in the American colonies to Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) in Netherlands. We should acknowledge that Williams advocated Lockean-like land rights before Locke and did so with stronger moral force and egalitarian vision. And we should look to Spinoza, godfather of the radical Enlightenment, as a probable influence on Locke who lived in the same city when Spinoza was published, whereas Locke’s own writings only came later.

The more well known and respectable figures of the Enlightenment were being carried by the swift currents that surrounded them and preceded them, going back many centuries. The British Enlightenment didn’t come out of nowhere nor did the radical tradition of revolutionary zeal. Some consider the 17th century English Civil War, or else 14th century English Peasants’ Revolt, to be the first modern revolution based on class conflict (in the same period of disruption, there is also the 16th century German Peasants’ War led by Thomas Müntzer; see The War of the Poor by Eric Vuillard). In this largely religious milieu, there arose thought that was proto-liberal, proto-progressive, proto-democratic, proto-libertarian, proto-socialist, and proto-anarchist. But if nothing else, it was often radically populist and egalitarian.

Before the Protestant Reformation, there was the extreme hereticism of another Englishman, John Wycliffe (1320s-1384), who declared all were equal before God, everyone could know God for themselves, and Scripture was accessable to all. He also thought the clergy should take a vow of poverty or maybe be entirely abolished, and he went further in his radical belief that slavery is a sin. The entirety of feudalism was up for doubt and denial. Priests, lords, and kings had no rightful claim over the people and so freedom of the people could be reclaimed. What was to be rendered unto Caesar was not much at all. Such egalitarian righteousness would inspire the Peasants’ Revolt, and it lit a radical fire within the English imagination that never again was quenched.

Following the spirit of that age, Englishman John Ball (1338-1381) as one of Wycliffe’s disciples preached a warning, “Things cannot go well in England, nor ever will, until all goods are held in common, and until there will be neither serfs not gentlemen, and we shall be equal.” This was a demand for equality, on earth as it was in heaven, in the living present as it was at the time of Creation. “At the beginning we were all created equal,” Ball stated with the confident certainty of faith. “If God willed that there should be serfs, he would have said so at the beginning of the world. We are formed in Christ’s likeness, and they treat us like animals.” These words rang true among the commoners for it could not be denied, reading Scripture for themselves, what was found in the Word of God.

The uprising that resulted, although brief, was at times violent in seeking justice and it sent the ruling order into disarray — presaging what was to come. All of that was a more threatening challenge to the legitimacy of hierarchical authority, religious and otherwise, than either Martin Luther (1483-1546) or John Calvin (1509-1564) in the following centuries. These earlier voices of scathing critique, native to England, might be why the Protestant Reformation didn’t have the same kind of impact there as it did in continental Europe, for religious dissent wended its own path on the British isles. The religious fervor, often expressed as economic populism and politcal diatribe, kept eruptng again and again across the centuries. It was the seed out of which the English Enlightenment bloomed and it bore the fruit of revolt and revolution.

There long had been something in the British character that bristled against a ruling elite, maybe the cultural memory of British paganism among commoners in southern England, the Anglo-Saxon gut-level sense of freedom and communal identity in East Anglia, and the Scandinavian stoic but fiercely held independence found across the Midlands, not to mention the longstanding influence of cultural autonomy and at times political defiance from the Welsh, Scots-Irish, Highland Scots, and Irish. In defense against various ruling elites, from Romans to Normans and onward, a tradition of populist resistance and cultural pride had taken hold among regional populations, bulwarks against foreign incursions and centralized control. Attempts to enforce imperial or national unity and identity, loyalty and subservience was a constant struggle and never fully successful.

That particularly fed into the English Civil War (or rather wars) with the rebellious Puritans, pre-pacifist Quakers, the anti-authoritarian Levellers, and the primitive communist Diggers (among many others) who, in addition, took inspiration from the English tradition of the Commons and the rights of the commoners, a precursor to the American Revolutionaries’ invocation of the rights of Englishmen. Indeed, following coup d’etat and regicide (a fine example for the French revolutionaries to follow), many of the religious dissenters escaped to the colonies where they left a permanent imprint upon American culture and the American mind, such as the popular practice of the jeremiad (Sacvan Bercovitch’s The American Jeremiad & David Howard-Pitney’s African American Jeremiad).

This incited the religious protest of those like Roger Williams, upon finding in the colonies yet more authoritarian rule and churchly dogmatism. But it wasn’t only the religious dissenters who left England for the New World. Many Royalists on the other side of the English Civil War headed to Virginia and, in the case of Thomas Morton (1579–1647) with Merry Mount, caused trouble further north in New England. The Puritans, for different reasons than their treatment of Williams and Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643) along with the troublesome Quakers, hated what they perceived as paganism in the uncouth behavior of Morton, a man from Merrie Old England in the Devon countryside with its paternalistic populism and rural folk tradition, along with the libertine influence of the London Inns of Court, but also a place of organizing for the dissenting Lollards following John Wycliffe.

There were many distinct varieties of English hereticism and rabblerousing, all of which clashed as part of a creative flux of free-wheeling public debate and often scandalous rebellion, giving fruit to social reform and political idealism. It’s true that John Locke was part of this mix as well. Though not necessarly an advocate of slavery, neither was he a strong critic and opponent. His patron put him in the position of writing the constitution of the Carolina Colony that upheld slavery. In that founding document of violent oligarchy, based on his belief that such social compacts were immutable and eternally binding, he wrote that “every part thereof, shall be and remains the sacred and unalterable form and rule of government, for Carolina forever.”

The oppressed slaves, indentured servants, destitute laborers, and evicted natives were seen as trapped in a permanent underclass, a caste of untouchables for impertuity, no generation henceforth having any moral claim for freedom or justice. Dissent was denied any validity and so tacit assent was assumed as an article of faith of the elite-sanctioned moral order. It was a hermetically-sealed philosophical dogmatism and ideological realism. Public debate was declared ended before it began. This was a constitutional spell as binding word magic.

“And to this I say,” declareth John Locke, arbiter of truth and reality, “that every man, that hath any possessions, or enjoyment, of any part of the dominions of any government, cloth thereby give his tacit consent, and is as far forth obliged to obedience to the laws of that government, during such enjoyment, as any one under it; whether this his possession be of land, to him and his heirs for ever, or a lodging only for a week; or whether it be barely travelling freely on the highway; and in effect, it reaches as far as the very being of any one within the territories of that government.”

This was not an auspicious beginning for this particular American experiment. Yet Lockean ideology is held up as an ideal and standard of political thought in the modern Anglo-American mind of the propertied self and privatized capitalism. Among many, he has been deemed and esteemed as a founding father of respectable thinking. Lockean rights impinges an absolute claim on who is welcomed into the circle of privilege and who is excluded by decree. Ths is a non-negotiable conviction and certitude, a newfound set of Holy Commandments brought down from the mountain top of the rational intellect by the enlightened aristocrat as divine prophet.

That was one element, sometimes referred to as ‘liberalism’, that was woven into American political thought and quite influential, unfortunately. Although never having traveled to, much less glimpsed, the New World, Locke boldly envisioned it as a place akin to Eden, as had many other Europeans — he wrote that, “In the beginning, all the world was America.” That meant it needed to be tamed and civilized with the Whiggish vision of patriarchal progress and imperialistic expansionism, white man’s burden and manifest destiny that was to bring forth moral order to the world through not only slavery but also genocide, conquest, and assimilation. This was the orignal liberal elitism, in all its paternalistic glory, that one hears so much about.

That authoritarian impulse remains strong within the ruling order and has informed the longstanding reactionary fear of populist uprising and democratic demand. With the imperialistic pseudo-Federalism of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, the rot of authoritarianism had tainted the seed of freedom’s promise from the moment it was planted in the fertile soil of shared hope. Counter-revolution gained power within the American Revolution, which has ever since caused a conflation of anti-democratic rule with pseudo-democratic forms and rhetoric. This is how we’ve come to the point of a banana republic being called a democracy and used as proof of the failure of democracy by those who have done everything in their power to prevent and frustrate democratic aspiration at every turn.

In our collective miseducation and historical amnesia, many Americans can’t distinguish between democratic self-governance and anti-democratic oppression — causing moral injury, a schizoid wounding of the body politic resulting in spiritual malaise and psychosis. Even when diagnosis of what afflicts us rightly points to this unhealed trauma, the scapegoating of the democratic impulse becomes a sad charade that causes impotent despair and palsied cynicism. Amidst the throes of propagandistic infection, these fevered nightmares mock us in our still juvenile aspirations. We are meant to be shamed in our crippled and fumbling steps, to be trampled down by our own heavy hearts. We are judged guilty in the sin of our perceived weakness and failure. We are deemed as unworthy and stunted children who are a danger to ourselves and to society.

To assent to such a damning accusation is to accept defeat, but this demiurgic rule of lies fades before the revelation of ananmesis, a gnostic unforgetting. From religious dissent to radical rebellion, the burning ember of revolution within the Anglo-American soul never dies out, no matter how it gets mislabeled, misunderstood, and misdirected. The ancient outrage of the commoners, of the dirty masses and landless peasants, will continue to rise up like bile at the back of our throats, sometimes causing blind rage but at other times bursting forth with the clear sight of radical imagination and inspiration, commanding us to stand up in our full stature and stride confidently forward on a path that is set before us by an ancestral instinct, an awakening knowledge of the world before us.

We’ve been here before. It is familiar to us, the primal terrain of moral imagination, the living God whose indwelling authority speaks to us, we the living generation who carry forth a living vision, the ember setting tinder to flame to light our way. This is our inheritance, our birthright, the burden we carry and the hope that lifts us up. In the words that inspired revolution, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” Every moment we awaken to is pregnant with promise, something ready to be born in spirit and baptized in fire. The revelatory and revolutionary truth of the demos is all around us, for those with eyes to see. The liberation of the soul, the refutation of enslavement, the casting away of shackles — in this, we are already a free people, if only we would claim it, take hold of it and wrestle the dream down to the ground of our shared reality, in our common purpose, through our collective action.

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.

Matthew 6:24

Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.

Matthew 10:34

Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.

Matthew 19:21

And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.

Matthew 19:24

And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves,

Matthew 21:12

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The above is a very loose and indirect response to what is found below — basically, modern democracy as an expression of the ancient demos, We the People, is not so easily dismissed:

Will Democracy’s Myths Doom Liberty?
by James Bovard

Americans are encouraged to believe that their vote on Election Day somehow miraculously guarantees that the subsequent ten thousand actions by the president, Congress, and federal agencies embody “the will of the people.” In reality, the more edicts a president issues, the less likely that his decrees will have any connection to popular preferences. It is even more doubtful that all the provisions of hefty legislative packages reflect majority support, considering the wheeling, dealing, and conniving prior to final passage. Or maybe the Holy Ghost of Democracy hovers over Capitol Hill to assure that average Americans truly want every provision on every page of bills that most representatives and senators do not even bother reading?

A bastard cousin of the “will of the people” flimflam is the notion that citizens and government are one and the same. President Franklin Roosevelt, after five years of expanding federal power as rapidly as possible, declared in 1938, “Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us.” President Johnson declared in 1964: “Government is not an enemy of the people. Government is the people themselves,” though it wasn’t “the people” whose lies sent tens of thousands of American conscripts to pointless deaths in Vietnam. President Bill Clinton declared in 1996, “The Government is just the people, acting together—just the people acting together.” But it wasn’t “the people acting together” that bombed Serbia, invaded Haiti, blockaded Iraq, or sent the tanks in at Waco.

President Barack Obama hit the theme at a 2015 Democratic fundraiser: “Our system only works when we realize that government is not some alien thing; government is not some conspiracy or plot; it’s not something to oppress you. Government is us in a democracy.” But it was not private citizens who, during Obama’s reign, issued more than half a million pages of proposed and final new regulations and notices in the Federal Register; made more than 10 million administrative rulings; tacitly took control of more than 500 million acres by designating them “national monuments”; and bombed seven foreign nations. The “government is the people” doctrine makes sense only if we assume citizens are masochists who secretly wish to have their lives blighted.

Presidents perennially echo the Declaration of Independence’s appeal to “the consent of the governed.” But political consent is gauged very differently than consent in other areas of life. The primary proof that Americans are not oppressed is that citizens cast more votes for one of the candidates who finagled his name onto the ballot. A politician can say or do almost anything to snare votes; after Election Day, citizens can do almost nothing to restrain winning politicians.

A 2017 survey by Rasmussen Reports found that only 23 percent of Americans believe that the federal government has “the consent of the governed.” Political consent is defined these days as rape was defined a generation or two ago: people consent to anything which they do not forcibly resist. Voters cannot complain about getting screwed after being enticed into a voting booth. Anyone who does not attempt to burn down city hall presumably consented to everything the mayor did. Anyone who does not jump the White House fence and try to storm into the Oval Office consents to all executive orders. Anyone who doesn’t firebomb the nearest federal office building consents to the latest edicts in the Federal Register. And if people do attack government facilities, then they are terrorists who can be justifiably killed or imprisoned forever.

In the short term, the most dangerous democratic delusion is that conducting an election makes government trustworthy again. Only 20 percent of Americans trust the government to “do the right thing” most of the time, according to a survey last month by the Pew Research Center. Americans are being encouraged to believe that merely changing the name of the occupant of the White House should restore faith in government.

The Insanity of Gaslighting Ourselves

“Two plus two will never make five. That’s not the problem. And George Orwell at the end, Winston’s being tortured, and he’s made to say two plus two equals five, and this totalitarianism makes us all lie. [Hannah Arendt] said that’s not the power. It’s the fact that in a world where people are going to say it is even when they know it isn’t. That is deeply estranging. That’s what creates those conditions of loneliness and despair. That, for her, is the wickedness of the political lie. People don’t believe that two plus two makes five. They don’t believe half of what’s said.”
~Lyndsey Stonebridge, The Moral World in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt for Now

All the time, people say what they don’t mean. Or else it’s not clear what they mean, the actual significance behind their words, what is most fundamentally motivating them. This duplicity has become the normal way of relating. And this is the basis of the identities that possess us. A simple example of this is the often heard statement that American voters get what they want. That is like saying enslaved Africans were happy with their violent oppression. There are endless other examples, and the most powerful are those we don’t notice in ourselves.

Such statements are patently absurd when taken at face value. And one suspects that, at some level, most people know that they are not true, even as they say them. It’s not what they really believe, but it obviously satisfies some need or purpose. Our modern society is filled with such bald-faced contradictions to what we know and feel. This is part of social control. It’s one thing to gaslight others but it’s even more powerful to get them to gaslight themselves. It’s the ultimate betrayal.

Once someone is psychotically disconnected from a direct and personal sense of reality, they become schizoid and compliant. Without grounding in the world beyond rhetoric, people become vulnerable to those who control and manage public perception. Backfire effect plays its role in ideological defense, but that isn’t the underlying force at play. Once identity is solidified, people will defend it on their own by various means. That leaves the issue of how did that ideological identity take shape in the first place.

This is true of all of us. There is something profoundly disorienting and alienating about modern society. We lose the ability to discern what is of genuine value. So, we turn to narratives to offer us an illusion of certainty. Then the reality in front of us is no longer compelling. We believe what we are told. Then we repeat it so often that we forgot it was told to us. Because it confirms and is confirmed by ‘mainstream’ mediated reality, we sound perfectly reasonable and are taken seriously by others.

This isn’t a mere individual condition. It’s collective insanity. Yet the spell it has over us dissipates with awareness. But few will accept this awareness, quickly retreating to the safety of the group mind, of ideological realism. People briefly awaken all the time, only to fall back to sleep, drawing the covers back over their head. Being reoriented to a deeper truth can feel disorienting, in awakening from a deep slumber. It’s hard to grapple with what to do with this knowing. Yet it’s near impossible to unsee after being jolted fully awake. It’s not a state one would choose, to be on the outside of the social world into which one was born.

It forces one to relearn what it means to be human. Rather than being enlightnened with clarity, it’s to become aware that one is in a state of epistemological infancy. Everything one thought one knew is now under question and doubt. A different way of listening is required, to sense what is real and true, what is valid and meaningful. Relating well to others becomes even more challenging. Just because one has glimpsed some flickering light through the rhetoric doesn’t instantly dispel the shadows. The tape loops go on playing in one’s mind, in response to the tape loops in the minds of others. In not knowing how to respond, one increasingly finds oneself falling into silence.

Sometimes a non-response is the only response that remains. In a world full of words, one ever more notices the silence in between, what is not said. All that can be done is to witness it, to hear what others have refused to hear, particulary what they have denied in themselves. One holds a space open. One waits. One listens. In doing so, another voice is heard, only a whisper at first. It’s a different kind of voice, a different kind of self. There is an intimacy in how it speaks. We are not alone and isolated. We are not alienated.  The truth was never destroyed. Reality remains.

Sick White Middle Class Children Are Our Most Precious Commodity

As one sees on occasion in the news, there was a local story of a child with a disease that was being treated. The purpose is to elicit sympathy and/or inspiration, which is unsurprising and worthy. But it gets one thinking when considering the details and narrative frame. The reporting is often about how the community came together to raise money or otherwise help the child and the family. It’s a feel-good story that follows a particular kind of script. As important is picking the right child for the lead role in the drama.

In this case, the child was a cute, white, middle class girl. She was photogenic according to what our society deems good looking, even with her hair loss from chemotherapy. That is the basic profile of nearly every human interest story of this sort. It’s not just any kid that becomes the focus of a human interest story. There has to be hundreds of sick kids in the area that are some combination of less attractive, impoverished, and non-white. But rarely does a major news media outlet tell their stories of suffering and struggle, of overcoming the odds.

That is assuming they overcome the odds. No one reports on the poor kid who died because the parents couldn’t afford healthcare, who was slowly poisoned from lead toxicity because they lived in a poor industrial area, or some other sad demise. No one reports on the black kid who when sick the community didn’t come together because the community was majority white and the family had been excluded and isolated. What we don’t see in the news tells us as much as what we do see.

It reminds one of the studies done on news reporting of criminals. Black criminals are more likely to have their photographs shown than white criminals. This creates the perception that almost all crime is commited by non-whites. The news media teaches and trains us in thinking who deserves sympathy and who does not. The world is divided up as innocent well-off whites who must be saved and criminal poor blacks who must be condemned. News reporting is a morality tale about maintaining the social order.

The World Is Ending Again!

“Whether the response is lashing out, turning inward, tuning out, or giving up, Americans are becoming increasingly paralyzed by disagreement, disillusionment, and despair. Indeed, many Americans seem to agree these days on only one thing: This is the worst of times.”

R. Putnam & S.R. Garett, The Upswing (excerpt)

Along with a revised edition of the classic Bowling Alone, a new book has come out by Robert Putnam. With his new work, Shaylyn Romney Garrett joins him as co-author. The title is The Upswing with the accompanying subtitle of “How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again.” The basic premise appears to be that the mood at present resonates with the complaints and fears of an earlier era when the mood soured in the decades following the Civil War. As Americans headed into the next century, many voices lamented the end of an age, as if a new age would not follow (John Higgs, Stranger Than We Can Imagine).

Based on their generations theory, William Strauss and Neil Howe would give a simple response. This pattern has repeated many times over. But living memory is so short. In fact, it’s the loss of living memory of the last cycle that drives it to swing back around again. The old is made new again, as if a foreign land never seen before. That is why it requires an historical awareness to realize we’ve been here before and what to expect as we move into the next phase. Even as we are in the Crisis that turns the wheel of the Fourth Turning, something else is emerging upon which different social institutions and collective identities will be built. 

This cyclical view of humanity and society is the most ancient of understandings. But in modernity we have falsely come to believe that there is endless linear progress into the unknown and unpredictable. That is the empty pride of modern Western civilization, that we are unique, that we have broken the chains of the past. Maybe not. Jeremiads of moral panic about decadence and decline usually presage moral revivals and rebirth (Jackson Lears, Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920). That has been the pattern, so some argue, for centuries now. Is there a reason to think this time will be different?

In every generation that reaches this point in the cycle, there are those who confidently declare this time will be different, that this time it will be permanent, that further change is now impossible, that further innovation has ended, that the vitalizing force of society has been lost, that the younger generations aren’t up to the task, maybe even that we’ve entered the end times. Yet, so far, these predictions have been disproven over and over again. We act out what we suppress from awareness. So the more we deny the reality of cycles the more we become trapped in them. Our historical amnesia dooms us to falling back into patterns we don’t see.

* * *

‘The Upswing’ Review: Bowling Alone No More?
by Yuval Levin

“Drawing ingeniously on a vast array of data—economic, political, cultural, social and more—Mr. Putnam and Ms. Garrett persuasively demonstrate that Gilded Age America suffered from civic and social strains remarkably similar to our own. Then they explore how, from the final years of the 19th century until the end of the 1950s, an extraordinary range of forces in our national life, in their words, “shaped an America that was more equal, less contentious, more connected, and more conscious of shared values.” Finally they consider why, all of a sudden and without clear warning, “the diverse streams simultaneously reversed direction, and since the 1960s America has become steadily less equal, more polarized, more fragmented, and more individualistic.” 

“They chart this path from “I” to “we” and back again to “I” across essentially every facet of the American experience. Drawing some lessons from the Progressive Era, broadly understood, they suggest that a return toward a culture of “we” would need to involve a restoration of civic ambition directed toward pragmatic, concrete, incremental changes. That means building new institutions to address new problems, and it means paving paths from shared frustrations toward accommodations and reforms that could endure. It means devoting time to local service organizations and religious and professional groups, and talking less about how things got so bad and more about how to make them better where we are. It means fighting corruption and combating despair. And it means helping a rising generation think about its future, rather than drowning in debates about past feuds and divisions. 

“But the key, for Mr. Putnam and Ms. Garrett, is to move from broad categories of action like these to specific instances of practical organization and engagement. This is why the example of America in the first half of the 20th century can be so powerful. It is a positive answer to the question that threatens to debilitate anyone looking to turn things around in contemporary America: Is revival even possible? The authors make a strong case that a recovery of solidarity is achievable.”

Rate of Moral Panic
Technological Fears and Media Panics
The Crisis of Identity
The Disease of Nostalgia
Moral Panic and Physical Degeneration
Old Debates Forgotten

Disunited States of Outrage

Liberalism, by historical definition, has meant generosity — not only generosity of money and charity, of public welfare and the public good but more importantly the generosity of spirit. This has expressed an attitude of openness and inclusion, an equal treatment of all, including perceived others and outsiders along with those perceived as different or not fitting in: minorities, immigrants, and the poor; the underprivileged, outcasts, and the sick; the differently abled, neurotypical, and gender nonconforming; etc. That is the noble ideal that makes liberals feel all warm and fuzzy. On this basis, I’ve been sharply critical of the liberal class, aligned as it is with the DNC elite, for lack of understanding, empathy, and compassion toward those they perceive as their ideological enemies and their social inferiors. It’s an us-versus-them groupthink with a patina of liberalish rhetoric. Ideals, when betrayed, lead to cynicism and that is what we now have.

Then again, the liberal class is an odd term in reference to the academics, professionals, investors, business owners, and politicians who are economically comfortable or even wealthy. Many in the upper classes are not necessarily liberal. Meanwhile, the vast majority of self-identified liberals and those holding liberal views are lower class with many of them being downright poor. The liberal class, as an identity, not only excludes conservatives but also most liberals. This is maybe how liberalism has gotten a bad name and become a slur. Of course, there is an equivalent conservative class that silences, ignores, and dismisses most conservatives (and liberals) perceived as below them. The fact of the matter is class war has its own ideology that is independent of stereotypes of left versus right. Still, for a left-liberal, it’s the bad behavior of supposed ‘liberals’ that hits one in the gut, in how it undermines the entire moral vision of liberalism.

There are liberals who are offended when someone uses the same kind of criticism against vegans, feminists, etc that they themselves so carelessly lob against those on the right. They find it easy to identity with the members of their in-group while not taking seriously the suffering and grievances of those perceived as outsiders, as if everyone else deserves what they get. Sadly, many respectable Democratic partisans blame poor whites for the Donald Trump presidency and then portray them as a caricature of white trash, although interestingly the political right often goes along with this same rhetorical framing conflating class and ideology. The truth is most of Trump voters are middle class, not even working class and certainly not poor. Most poor Americans, white or otherwise, simply don’t vote or participate in politics and activism. The ignorance about the poor and indifference toward them is sad, sometimes downright infuriating.

There are those of us on the principled political left — Jimmy Dore, Glenn Greenwald, Ralph Nader, etc — who are used to being the punching bags of liberals (or what goes for liberal within corporatist politics), just as we are intimately familiar with the ire of the political right. We take our bruises and punch back. I’m one of the first to defend the poor of all races, by looking at the demographic data and pointing to the history of class war, as there is a lot more going on here that has brought us to this point. Then again, I’m one of those crazy left-wingers who gets why some otherwise good people would vote for a less-than-good demagogue and charlatan like Donald Trump, similar to why some otherwise good people would vote for corrupt elites like Hilary Clinton and Joe Biden. I know the attraction of lesser evil voting. To an even greater extent, I grasp the gut-level frustration that led to some to vote for Trump as an act of pure desperation, even as they admitted he was a corrupt swamp creature, for they saw him as a bully who would fight the other bullies or else blow the whole thig up. Then there are those on the other side who throw their lot in with the Clinton Democrats as what they think of as a last stand against authoritarianism — I get that as well.

I understand and empathize. Everyone has their reasons. I don’t want to hate upon anyone, to condemn them for making imperfect choices in an oppressive system that ensures all options allowed are bad and worse still. I’m not in a position to stand in judgment. I’ve felt the same frustration and anger, sometimes a naked sense of threat as authoritarianism digs its claws deeper into American society. Yet my offering of fellow feeling is not always returned. Such is the way of compassion in a world darkened by fear and anxiety, hatred and outrage. People are quick to see enemies even in potential friends and allies. Even familial bond is no guarantee of mutal understanding, much less kindness and forgiveness.

One person in my family is a poor white guy on disability who takes care of his sick father. He is libertarian-minded, lives in a conservative state, and probably supports Trump. He unfriended me on Facebook because I said something positive about the Black Lives Matters protests. It’s not as if I advocated violence, destruction, or anarchy; and I made clear that my position was as a proponent of free speech in the face of authoritarian force that wishes to take that right away. Another family member is similar except in being middle class. He has been even more vocally libertarian in the past, and yet recently he advocated a violent police state response to ending the same protests, in arguing he’d rather have authoritarianism than anarchy. What goes for libertarianism is about as uninspiring as what often gets portrayed as liberalism. Oppressed Americans like me, according to other oppressed Americans, have become the enemy to be defeated at all costs in order to fight oppression — I’m not sure how that is supposed to work exactly. As family, I know these two people fairly well and we share many interests. They are good people who care about their loved ones and communities. But their minds have been shut down and their hearts grown cold. It is the saddest thing I’ve experienced in a long time, as it is personal.

This civil conflict is taken as total war where one side must win and the other side eliminated. Yet if the police treated them and their loved ones in a similar oppressive fashion, they’d likely be advocating terrorism, revolution, and overthrowing the government while proclaiming ‘liberty’. But as long as those other people (minorities, immigrants, poor urbanites, etc) elsewhere are being oppressed, not them and their own, it is perfectly fine as those other people had it coming. Apparently, to their fearful mindset, it is as if there is a limited supply of moral concern with any compassion and kindness offered to blacks or leftists being a direct attack on whites and right-wingers. Equality, fairness, and justice is assumed as an impossibility. But to my mind, this self-enforced division of the citizenry is how oppressive rule is maintained. These right-wing family members, both living in a rural conservative state, don’t understand that they share the same basic problems of oppressive class war as do urban blacks, working class liberals, etc. Along with Democratic voters I know who are also family members, if my Trump-supporting family could get past the media narratives and propagandistic rhetoric, they would discover they have common grievances with most other Americans across various perceived divides. They’d come to realize they aren’t alone and isolated. If this can’t happen among family, what hope is there to be found in the greater society?

This same outrage has pulled other individuals in my family toward supporting Trump, including some who didn’t vote for him last time in cleaving to their identity as old school Republicans. The Cold War rhetoric of commie fear-mongering has worked them up into a state of terror, as if a Biden presidency will unleash a Stalinist takeover, not to mention the postmodern neo-Marxism and cultural Bolshevism. Some of these otherwise moderate conservatives are rightfully feeling mad about the corporate media shut down of the Hunter Biden scandal, although no more pissed off than us left-wingers who have received similar or worse treatment over the years and decades. A total lockdown of corporate media has kept left-wingers silenced for generations. But these right-wingers take this silence as a sign that we freedom-loving leftists don’t exist or don’t matter, instead taking the corporate whores among the Clinton Democrats as representative of the political left — a truly sad state of affairs.

Sure, the DNC has its tentacles in the corporate media, as does the GOP. Yet as Fox News might tell part of the truth about Hunter Biden, they are just as quick to lie to their viewers about the same kind of corruption and legalized bribery in the Trump family. The propaganda model of media is not a new phenomenon, as many left-wingers have been protesting it for a very long time. But to many right-wingers, particularly among the white middle class, it’s as if they are only now discovering that the corporate media serves a corporatist power structure that doesn’t give a fuck about truth or about the average American. They are being red-pilled but lack any historical context to realize this is an ongoing pattern of censorship that, in many ways, was far worse during the Cold War. My God! Just look at the Operation Mockingbird in the 1970s and Otto Reich’s white propaganda in the 1980s.

But to the outraged mind, whatever is the most recent outrage is the worst outrage that has ever happened. Outrage eclipses any greater awareness in enclosing the mind a mystifying fog of historical amnesia, which is the entire reason the ruling elite use the corporate media to incite outrage in the first place. Republicans and Trump supporters, mostly white and middle class, are shocked to realize that they are treated with the same propaganda and censorship as everyone else, that are treated as equal to poor minorities — God forbid! It is disturbing to find out that one’s racial and class privilege doesn’t guarantee special treatment, after all. They have no sense of the historical oppression so many other Americans have suffered for generations and centuries. The censorship in the corporate media pales in comparison to the censorship they’ve internalized in their own minds. Instead of it being a point of solidarity among the oppressed, competing victim identities are played against each other, as is the purpose of divide and conquer. Outrage shuts down empathy and disempowers the public.

Despite what they’ve been told by the right-wing corporate media, these right-wingers aren’t the first to feel frustration toward oppressive injustice and censorship. Nice to meet you, comrade! Welcome to the reality many of us have been living in for our entire lives! I felt that frustration about bipartisan attacks on Ralph Nader in 2000. The corporate media shut him out back then and, ever since, has continued to silence candidates that are third party and independent. If you think right-libertarians have a tough time competing in the duopoly of a one-party state, try being a left-winger like a Green supporter. Right-libertarians at least have powerful plutocrats like the Koch family funding them. To return to the 2000 election, consider how bizarre and disheartening it is that both parties and all of the corpoate media, from Fox News to MSNBC, refused to report on the stolen election, even though the data shows that Democrats won both the popular vote and the electoral college. The Supreme Court defied all pretenses of democracy and simply appointed George W. Bush as the supreme leader. The Democrats submitted to this power play, since the transpartisan ruling elite doesn’t care all that much about which party wins as long as the system itself maintains an illusion of legitimacy, thus allowing bipartisan backroom deals to continue in defense of coporatocracy and plutocracy. The only unforgivable sin of Donald Trump is his having destroyed that legitimacy and shown it to be the fraud it always was.

About protests, look back to the anti-war movement under the Bush regime. It was the single largest protest movement in the history of the United States and the world, having united multiple ideological groups on the right and left, not to mention including the citizens of numerous countries joining in their own protests against American imperialism. Unlike the Vietnam War that required many years of failure before public opposition formed, protests against the Iraq War were organized at a large-scale before the war even began. Most Americans opposed the war right from the start, but that didn’t stop the corporate media from being unified in their attack o peace activists while beating the war drums in service to the military-industrial complex. Many of the people now acting so outraged were perfectly fine with the workings of that propaganda machine. Likewise, there was more recent bipartisan support from the corporate media in spinning state propaganda by falsely reporting on Syrian gas attacks that blamed the government, despite the evidence pointing to other actors. None of the corporate media has ever admitted to this propaganda, much less apologized for being willfully wrong, and so most Americans remain ignorant.

Do you want to feel outrage? There is no lack of reasons. Let’s not be selective in our outrage by only getting worked up when we are personally harmed and our own views suppressed. This country was built on outrage and has been continuously fueled by outrage. There is a reason or rather many reasons Americans have been in a near continuous state of protest and revolt for centuries. There is plenty to be outraged about and there always has been. But we shouldn’t let outrage darken our minds in lashing out against fellow Americans, against even our own neighbors and family. Outrage without compassion will rot the soul and destroy the public good. We need to deal with our own damage, not continually projecting it out onto the world with trauma leading to ever more trauma, with each generation of victims becoming victimizers. Arrogance, haughtiness, and righteousness, makes us vulnerable to manipulation. We aren’t right-wingers and left-wingers, Democrats and Republicans. We are all Americans. We are all human. Our fate is shared but so is, if we choose, our sense of hope and promise.

* * *

Whiteness is Absence, is Loss and Death

Whiteness is an odd thing. It is one of those social constructs that falls apart under any significant degree of scrutiny. Yet few of us pale-skinned descendants of Europeans know how to not think of ourselves as white, as the enculturation of white identity is so deeply embedded within our collective psyche and throughout all of society around us. Such racial ideology frames and shapes everything else, ever lurking in the background even when not acknowledged.

It’s become a symbolic proxy for so much else. Racial differences and divides have become our way of talking about class, economic oppression, housing segregation, capitalist realism, the prison state, and on and on. It’s related to how talk of inequality of wealth so often hides the deeper inequalities of power, privilege, resources, and opportunities; of pollution, lead toxicity, underfunded schools, and loss of green spaces; et cetera.

The thing is white politics of identity and victimhood doesn’t really even benefit most whites. It is a cheap salve and band-aid placed over a wound that cut to the bone and left nerves raw. Whiteness is a sad compensation for all that was lost: ethnic culture, regional identity, close communities, extended kinship, rooted sense of place, the commons, and so much else. No wonder so many whites are on edge, a sense of free-floating anxiety about their place in the world.

The takeover of whiteness has happened slow enough for most people not to notice while being rapid enough to cause a radical transformation of society and civilization. Prior to the world war era, most people didn’t identify with a race or even with a nationality. The sense of self was defined by local experience, relationships, and commitments. That previous world barely lingers in living memory, but is quickly fading.

Most American whites became urbanized a little over a century ago. Even then, much of the rural experience held on in small towns and ethnic enclaves. The Boomer and Silent generations were the last to have a significant number of people to experience those disappearing traces of traditional culture, however faint they were already becoming. With the generations following, the loss is becoming so complete as to become collective amnesia.

My father is a young Silent and, even though his parents came from different parts of the country, he spent most of his early life in a single small town. He wasn’t surrounded by kin beyond his immediate family, but he did have the comfort of being surrounded by a community of people who themselves were surrounded by a web of extended families. That small town has since been decimated and no longer functions as a healthy community, instead having fallen into poverty and decay.

My mother, a first wave Boomer, had a much stronger experience of those old ties. She was born and raised a short distance from where generations of her family had lived. She spent her entire childhood and youth in a single house, in never having moved until college, with extended family all around her, a grandmother and uncle next door along with other uncles, aunts, and cousins in the neighborhood. Her siblings and cousins were her main playmates.

Her ancestors began coming to this sub-region of Kentuckiana (Central-Eastern Kentucky and Southern Indiana) shortly after the American Revolution. The first line of the family came in 1790 to fight Indians. Soon after, other lines of her family showed up in the area. As a young girl, she regularly visited a village where her family lived in the 1800s and where her grandfather had been born, a village that had been turned into a state park with historical re-enactors. Her childhood was filled with elders telling stories about her Kentuckiana ancestral homeland.

This older identity was beginning to erode with industrialization, but some of her family still remains in that area. Some of my father’s family also remains in the small town he left. So, both have hometowns to return to where family will greet and welcome them, including family reunions, but this inheritance isn’t likely to last much longer. My parents never gave my brothers and I the same chance to experience such deep-rooted belonging of family, community, and place.

By the time I graduated from high school, we had lived in four different states in multiple regions of the country. And after graduation, I wandered around between various states before finally settling down. Now the next generation is on the scene. I have two nieces and a nephew living somewhat nearby, if not as close as with my mother’s extended family. This new generation of young kids are all Generation Z or whatever one wants to call them.

If asked, I’m not sure most in the younger generations would have a strong sense of identity with either family or place. In my upbringing, I gained some vague semblance of being ‘Midwestern’, but with mass media so ruling the modern mind now I’m not sure that even such amorphous regional identities retain much hold over the public imagination. What’s replaced the local and trans-local are even more broadly generalized identities of being white, along with being American or Westerner, but such identities don’t speak to the concrete details of lived experience.

Then that brings us to what it means to not be white. That is how we often think of it, since white is the dominant and hence the supposedly defining racial identity. But maybe that is the wrong way around. Instead, it makes more sense that whiteness is defined as not being black, as it is always the other that defines us (the reason we should be careful about the people we choose to ‘other’ as minority or untouchable, as foreigner or outsider, as opposition or enemy). Germans and Italians, Catholics and Jews assimilated into general whiteness. Even Hispanics and Asians are being assimilated. Everyone can assimilate into whiteness, everyone that is except blacks.

Unlike whiteness, being black is a much more specific and localized identity. In America, it is defined by descending from West African ancestors who were enslaved as part of the colonial project of the British Empire with a population that was concentrated in the Deep South where a particular ethno-regional culture was formed and to some degree maintained as a segregated sub-culture among blacks that moved north and west but with most of the black population remaining in or returning to the Deep South.

Another difference is that the majority of American blacks were urbanized rather late, not until the 1960s to 1970s as compared to the ubanization of the white majority several generations earlier. The black population, even in being segregated in inner cities, maintained larger social connections than have most whites. That segregation had many downsides in being built on racist practices of sundown towns, redlining, and exclusion from government benefits that gave so many whites an advantage in moving into the suburban middle class. Yet it had the side benefit of maintaining black communities and black culture as something distinct from the rest of society, and this allowed a certain way of social relating that had been lost to the average white person. As Stephen Steinberg wrote:

“More important, feminist scholars forced us to reassess single parenting. In her 1973 study All Our Kin, Carol Stack showed how poor single mothers develop a domestic network consisting of that indispensable grandmother, grandfathers, uncles, aunts, cousins, and a patchwork of neighbors and friends who provide mutual assistance with childrearing and the other exigencies of life. By comparison , the prototypical nuclear family, sequestered in a suburban house, surrounded by hedges and cut off from neighbors, removed from the pulsating vitality of poor urban neighborhoods, looks rather bleak. As a black friend once commented , “I didn’t know that blacks had weak families until I got to college.””

Blacks weren’t allowed to assimilate to the larger society and so had to stick to their own communities, opposite of many other ethnic populations that were encouraged and sometimes forced to assimilate (e.g., German-Americans during world war era). To be black is always to have the stigma of the Deep South and all it stands for. Most whites had their past erased, but blacks aren’t ever allowed to escape the past. And for whites the erasure happened twice over — once before in Europe and once again in the post-colonial order.

The indigenous cultures and religions of Europe were genocidally wiped out over the past two millennia and replaced with foreign systems of rule and worship, primarily of the Roman Empire and the Christianity with the Catholic Church playing a key role, although in England it was the Romanized Normans that created the monarchy and aristocracy that replaced traditional British society. American blacks can look back to West Africa where traditional cultures remain to a large degree, but American whites can’t look back to Europe for traditional cultures are missing. The erasure and amnesia of whiteness is nearly absolute.

This is the reason whites are forced to define themselves against what they are not — they aren’t black, as they aren’t ‘savages’ or ‘primitives’. They inherited the Roman ‘civilization’ as an overlay of all that was destroyed and lost which means they aren’t even ‘indigenous’. So, they’ve become part of some amorphous and monolithic Westernization, upon which WEIRD bias is founded. This WEIRD, this Wetiko disease as victimization cycle is a scar of trauma upon trauma, so many layers thick that the contours of what came before is obliterated. All that is left is whiteness as an empty signifier, an absence and a void, but that throbbing wound reminds us who are called white that we too once had our own traditional and indigenous cultures, that we too were once people of a particular land, of ancient languages and lifeways long since forgotten.

* * *

“What have you given up?” – Zen priest Greg Snyder on growing up Pennsylvanian Dutch, assimilation, intimacy, and power
interview by Eleanor Hancock

The main thing that was different about growing up in a Pennsylvania Dutch (PD) community, in central Pennsylvania, is that my default identity wasn’t white. I didn’t know people without Germanic surnames – Snyder or Rehmeyer or Schroeder. That area of Pennsylvania was said to be, at the time, the least ethnically diverse place in the U.S.; virtually everyone was Pennsylvania Dutch. We were in the social position of being treated as white — but as a kid that wasn’t our first way of talking about ourselves. […]

In Pennsylvania I was a shy boy; I was afraid. We moved around a lot, to new places, and felt alone. But I also had a sense of “we.” So much of that “we” had to do with the land. It wasn’t an abstract we, like “we’re all American.” I am suspicious of that identity and wonder how many folks really walk around with a deep, gratifying visceral identity as an American. Maybe they do. I guess I am just suspicious of identities that seem to have more to do with power than connection. […]

When I go back to central Pennsylvania and I see that particular landscape, it feels like me. I am that land. I am the people who till the earth on that land. I know that shale; shale is right on top of slate. I used to make chalkboards with my brother, cutting into that ground. It’s sad: in one or two more generations, I think the people I am of will be gone, as an identifiable ethnicity in the U.S. Maybe the Amish will survive, but already assimilated Pennsylvania Dutch are shifting from calling themselves Pennsylvania Dutch to referring to themselves as being descended from Pennsylvania Dutch. Capitalism and whiteness are really good at wiping out ethnic support systems for poor white people.

In Undoing Racism workshops [for white folks], at Brooklyn Zen Center, we have participants state their ethnicity. How connected they are to their ethnicity depends on how far back it got included in the white camp. Italians and Greeks are clear: “I’m Italian; I’m Greek.” They know who they are. While those of English or Welsh background don’t really have any idea who they are; it’s hazy. So they say “I’m just white suburban.” As someone with a Germanic heritage (which has also been wiped away in the U.S.), what I cherish is that I grew up with a sense of a people. The saddest thing for white people, and something they need to look closely into, is what’s missing. What’s missing when you let whiteness characterize you? What have you given up? […]

There were lots of things like this, that were experienced as an ethnic community. Having a sense of a people, where you live together and do things together — an identity — I think that’s a loss. Of course food is the last thing to go with eroding ethnicity, so fastnachts and Pennsylvania Dutch food are still popular. But I remember having a sense of the year’s progression in relationship to the cycles of the harvest and community religious celebration. When I left Pennsylvania, that was lost.

When an ethnicity falls away for the sake of whiteness, we trade intimacy of connection for positions of power. If you understand yourself as an individual without a people, the only thing protecting you is your social location. We have to interrogate that deeply. What would it be like to be a people that is not rooted in power? […]

As a kid in farm country, when you ran out of something you went to your neighbor and asked for it. If you started working in your yard, your neighbor showed up to help you. When my aunt Henrietta got cancer, pies and other food just kept showing up. Here in New York City, I’d never ask my neighbor for anything. In middle-class white circles, asking your neighbor for something can be seen as a sign of shame or weakness: “Why haven’t you figured this out?”

Roots Deeper than Whiteness
by David Dean

In order to weaken their resistance to enclosure and prepare them for a forced exodus to towns and cities as the exploited labor force that this new economy required, the communal, earth-based, and celebratory cultural identity of the English peasantry was attacked. In The World Turned Upside Down, English historian Christopher Hill describes the attempted brainwashing of this population to believe in the primacy of work and the devilish nature of rest and festivity.

“Protestant preachers in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century undertook a cultural revolution, an exercise in indoctrination, on a hitherto unprecedented scale… to create the social conditions which discouraged idleness. This meant opposing observance of saints’ days, and the traditional village festivals and sports, and sexual irresponsibility… it took generations for those attitudes to be internalized. ‘It is the violent only that are successful,’ wrote the gentle Richard Sibbes: ‘they take it [salvation] by force’.”

Notions of the isolated nuclear family and women’s inherent inferiority were also emphasized. If a wife could be subjected to life as the sole sustainer of her family in the home then her husband could be expended of all his energy in the factory. Women, too, were associated with the devil. Federici names the witch-hunts as a tool of this cultural revolution and the movement to take away the commons. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of women were tortured and killed throughout Europe. The century between 1550 and 1650 was both the height of the enclosures and of this genocide in England. Particularly autonomous women were in the greatest danger of persecution. Herbalists and traditional healers, widows and the unmarried, and outspoken community leaders were regularly targeted. Mass government-run propaganda campaigns led peasants to fear one another, effectively dividing and weakening them against the threat of enclosure.

Relentless protest and insurrection, most notably the Midlands Revolt of 1607, was not enough to prevent the eventual outcome. Historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker illustrate the “colossal dimensions of the expropriation of the peasantry” in The Many-Headed Hydra:

“By the end of the sixteenth century there were twelve times as many propertyless people as there had been a hundred years earlier. In the seventeenth century alone almost a quarter of the land in England was enclosed. Aerial photography and excavations have located more than a thousand deserted villages and hamlets…”

Communities were traumatized and splintered. The fortunate worked in urban textile mills under grueling conditions, weaving into fabric wool shorn from sheep that grazed their ancestral lands. Most were not so lucky and lived on city streets as beggars at a time when loitering and petty theft were punished with physical mutilation, years of incarceration, or death.

Even with this mixture of urban poverty, hyper-criminalization, and merchant campaigns to encourage the poor to go to overseas colonies as indentured servants, only some willingly left their home country. The Virginia Company, a corporation with investors and executives intent on profiting from the theft of labor and foreign land, began collaborating with the English government to develop a solution to the problems of unemployment and vagrancy. Homeless and incarcerated women, men, and even children, began to be rounded up and put on ships headed to the plantation colony of Virginia to be bought and traded by wealthy British royalists. According to Linebaugh and Rediker, of the nearly 75,000 English indentured servants brought to British colonies in the seventeenth century most were taken against their will. In The History of White People, Nell Irvin Painter commented that in this era these captive voyagers would be “lucky to outlive their terms of service.” However at this point in history, they still did not call themselves “white.”

They crossed the ocean with their traditional way of life shattered, clinging to meaningful communal identity only in memory. They arrived to the colony of Virginia through the early and mid-1600s where, according to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, fifty wealthy families held almost all of the land. They worked on tobacco plantations for periods of seven to fourteen years with indentured and enslaved Africans and some indigenous people, two other populations recently torn from their cultures and communities.

At this time forms of racism did exist. Scholar Cedric Robinson tells about the existence of various forms of race-like hierarchy within European societies for centuries. In early colonial Virginia the presence of racism was evidenced by the initial genocidal attacks on indigenous nations, some disproportionately harsh sentencing toward people of color in colonial courts, and the fact that even though chattel slavery had not yet been fully institutionalized, some African and Native people were already spending their entire lives in bondage.

However historians Jacqueline Battalora and Edmund Morgan note that the historical evidence still is clear that all three of these laboring groups in Virginia shared a more similar position in society and stronger relationships with each other than they soon would. It was common for them to socialize and inhabit in the same quarters. They often intermarried and built families together. They toiled in fields side by side and were degraded and beaten by the same wealthy masters.

Many had lived on some form of “commons” earlier in their own lives and some sought to live in this way again. The Many-Headed Hydra includes the following striking examples. In the early years of the Jamestown settlement one in seven Englishmen fled to live within the more egalitarian Tsenacomoco or Powhatan Confederacy, inspiring the Virginia Company to enact a decree called Laws Divine, Moral, and Marshall threatening execution for desertion in order “to keep English settlers and Native Americans apart.”

The Vast and Beautiful World of Indigenous Europe
by Lyla June Johnston

I have come to believe that if we do not wholly love our ancestors, then we do not truly know who they are. For instance, I get very offended when people call Native Americans “good-for-nothing drunks.” Because by saying this, people don’t take into account the centuries of attempted genocide, rape and drugging of Native American people. They don’t see the beauty of who we were before the onslaught. And now, I am offended when people call European descendants “privileged good-for-nothing pilgrims.” Because by saying this, people do not take into account the thousands of years that European peoples were raped, tortured and enslaved. They do not understand the beauty of who we were before the onslaught. They do not understand that even though we have free will and the ability to choose how we live our life, it is very hard to overcome inter-generational trauma. What happens in our formative years and what our parents teach us at that time can be very hard to reverse.

They estimate that 8-9 million European women were burned alive, drowned alive, dismembered alive, beaten, raped and otherwise tortured as so-called, “witches.” It is obvious to me now that these women were not witches, but were the Medicine People of Old Europe. They were the women who understood the herbal medicines, the ones who prayed with stones, the ones who passed on sacred chants, the ones who whispered to me that night in the hoghan. This all-out warfare on Indigenous European women, not only harmed them, but had a profound effect on the men who loved them. Their husbands, sons and brothers. Nothing makes a man go mad like watching the women of his family get burned alive. If the men respond to this hatred with hatred, the hatred is passed on. And who can blame them? While peace and love is the correct response to hatred, it is not the easy response by any means.

The Indigenous Cultures of Europe also sustained forced assimilation by the Roman Empire and other hegemonic forces. In fact, it was only a few decades ago that any Welsh child caught speaking Welsh in school would have a block of wood tied to their neck. The words “WN” were there-inscribed, standing for “welsh not.” This kind of public humiliation will sound very familiar to any Native Americans reading this who attended U.S. Government boarding schools.

Moreover, our indigenous European ancestors faced horrific epidemics of biblical proportions. In the 1300s, two-thirds of Indigenous Europeans were wiped from the face of the earth. The Black Death, or Bubonic Plague, ravaged entire villages with massive lymph sores that filled with puss until they burst open. Sound familiar?

The parallels between the genocide of Indigenous Europeans and Native Americans are astounding. It boggles my mind that more people don’t see how we are the same people, who have undergone the same spiritual assault. The only difference between the Red Story and the White Story is we are in different stages of the process of spiritual warfare. Native Americans are only recently becoming something they are not. They are only recently starting to succumb to the temptations of drugs, alcohol, gambling, self-destruction and the destruction of others. Just as some Native American people have been contorted and twisted by so many centuries of abuse, so too were those survivors of the European genocide. Both are completely forgivable in my eyes.

The Lost People
by Thom Hartmann

Imagine if this — the dream and best effort of the White conquerors from Europe — was fulfilled. Imagine if there was not even one single Native American alive in the entire world who could speak a single sentence in Cree or Ojibwa or Apache or Lakota. Imagine if every Native American alive today, when thinking back to his or her ancestors and past, could only imagine a black-and-white world where people were mute and their ceremonies were mysterious and probably useless and primitive, having no meaning…and if they did have meaning, it didn’t matter anyway because it was now lost. A total forgetting of the past — all the ways and languages and memories and stories — destroyed by the people who had conquered your people. Every bit of your culture was burned in the fire of this conquest, and all was lost. All of your people knew the history of Greece and Rome and England, but nothing of the Cherokee or Dene or Iroquois people.

Can you imagine what a disaster that would be? How empty and alone and frightened you and your people would feel? How easily they could be turned into slaves and robots by the dominators? How disconnected they would feel from the Earth and from each other? And how this disconnection could lead them to accept obscene behavior like wars and personal violence and the fouling of waters and air and soil as “normal”? Perhaps they would even celebrate this fouling in the name of “progress,” because they would have no memory of the Old Ways, no realization of the meaning or consequences of these actions.

Imagine if your people were no longer a people, no longer nations and tribes and clans, but only frightened individuals of a different race than their conquerors, speaking only the language of their conquerors, sharing only the memories of their conquerors, and living only to serve the richest of those conquerors.

This is an almost unimaginable picture. The worse fate that could befall any people. The most horrific crime humans can commit against other humans.

And this is what happened a few thousand years ago to my people, to the Whites of Europe, who for 70,000 years prior to that had lived tribally just as your elders did.

It was done first by the Celts, who conquered and consolidated most of the tribal people of Europe 3000 years ago. It was then done more thoroughly by Julius Caesar of the pre-Christian Romans 2000 years ago. And it was absolutely finished by the iron-fisted “Christian” Romans 1000 years ago as their new Church sought out and destroyed all the ancient places, banned the old rituals, and tortured and murdered people who practiced the ancient European tribal religions. They even converted all alphabets to the Roman alphabet, and forced European people to change their holy days, calendars, and even the date (the year 1 or “beginning of time”) to one that marked the beginning of the Roman Christian Empire’s history.

This massive and thorough stripping of their identity and ancient ways — this “great forgetting,” as the Australian Aborigines refer to it — is why my people often behave as if they are “insane.” It is why they are disrespectful of our Mother the Earth and the life on Her. It is why so many of my people want to be like you and your people, to the point of dressing in buckskin and carrying medicine pouches and building sweat lodges from California to Maine to Germany. It is why we have hundreds of “odd” religions and paths, and why so many of my people flit from Hinduism to Buddhism to Paganism like a butterfly going from flower to flower: they have no roots, no tribe, no elders, no path of their own. All were systematically destroyed by the Celts, the Romans, and then the Roman Catholics. Whites in America and Europe — and Blacks who were brought to America as slaves and have since lost their ancient ways and languages — are a people bereft. They are alone and isolated from their ancient clans and tribes. Broken apart from the Earth, they are unable to reclaim their ancient languages, practices, and medicine…because these are gone, totally destroyed, even to the last traces. […]

For over a thousand years, the soldiers and inquisitors of the Holy Roman Catholic Church spread across Europe and destroyed the native people’s sacred sites, forbade them to practice their religions, and hunted down and killed those who spoke the Old Languages or practiced the healing or ancient arts.

Stones with written histories on them were smashed to dust.

Ancient temples and libraries were torn down or set afire, and Roman churches were built atop them.

The few elders who tried to preserve the Old Ways were called “witches” and “pagans” and “heathens,” and imprisoned, tortured, hung, beheaded, impaled, or burned alive. Their sacred groves of trees were burned, and if their children went into the forest to pray they were arrested and executed. God was taken from the natural world and put into the box of a church, and Nature was no longer regarded as sacred but, instead, as evil and dangerous, something to be subdued and dominated.

For a thousand years — continuously — the conquerors of the Roman Official (Catholic) Church did this to the tribal people of Europe.

As a result, today not a single European remembers the Old Ways or can speak the Ancient Languages. Not a single elder is left who knows of sacred sites, healing plants, or how to pronounce the names of his ancestors’ gods. None remember the time — which the archeological record indicates was probably at least twenty thousand years long, and perhaps as much as seventy thousand years long — when tribes lived peacefully and harmoniously in much of what we now call Europe. None remember the ways of the tribes, their ceremonies, their rituals of courtship, marriage, birth, death, healing, bringing rain, speaking to the plants and animals and stones of our Mother the Earth.

Not one single person alive still carries this knowledge. All is lost but a few words, the dates and names of some holidays, and a few simple concepts that have been stripped of their original context.

For example, my father’s parents came here from Norway during World War I. They spoke Norwegian, but it was not the true language of their ancestors. That language was written with a different alphabet, which is referred to today as Runic; nobody alive remembers how to pronounce the runes, or their original meanings. Adolf Hitler adopted one of the ancient Norwegian runes — what is believed to be the symbol of lightning and the god of lightning — for his most elite troops. The double lightning-bolts looked like an SS, so they were called the SS, but it was really a rune. So lost are the old ways of my grandmother’s people that even the Nazis felt free to steal and reinvent them in any way they pleased.

When we track it back, it seems likely that it all began — the entire worldwide 5000-year-long orgy of genocide and cultural destruction — in a part of the Middle East known then as Ur and now called Iraq. It started with a man named Gilgamesh, or one of his ancestors, in an area now called Baghdad.

The first conquers — the first people to rise up and discard the Great Law — were not the “White men” of Europe. They were, instead, the people of the region where the Middle East meets northern Africa. (Which is why this area is referred to as the “Cradle of [our] Civilization.”) Their direct descendant is not the Pope or the Queen of England or King of Spain, but a man named Saddam Hussein.

The Great Weirding of New Media

Our society has become dominated by new kinds of media. One one level, we have a return to the image, in replacing or subverting or altering the written word, by way of cable tv, 24/7 news, Youtube, numerous streaming services, etc. But that isn’t quite correct. Even as the image has retaken territory within the psyche and the media world, the 21st century has seen a simultaneous rise in the consumption of text. More books are being published now than ever before in history. That is on top of the endless and overwhelming stream of news articles, long-form essays, the blogosphere, social media, email, and texting. There are comment threads on Reddit that are so long that, if printed out, would fill an entire multi-volume encyclopedia.

All media has increased, as unmediated experience has gone on a rapid decline. Even when people are together physically and in person, there are quite likely to be multiple devices that are offering diversion and distraction. In the middle of a conversation or debate while sitting with friends at home or chatting with a coworker over lunch, someone is likely to settle an issue or answer a question or throw in a factoid by turning to their smartphone. All the world is at your fingertip; well, all the world that conforms to the constraints of new media. Our minds are constantly aflutter with both word and image, if not so much the direct human relating that defined humanity for so long. If media is the message, what does it mean to have all of this addictive, compulsive, and obsessive, immersive, and always accessible media?

There have been a number of scholars who have explored how changes in media are closely tied into changes in culture and mentality — there is Marshall McLuhan, Walter J. Ong, Julian Jaynes, and Jean Gebser, to name a few. All of them agreed that media has the power to destabilize and transform societies, but none of them had formed their theories in analyzing media in the 21st century. They were prescient in many ways, that is true. Still, I’m not sure any of them was able to come close in predicting the full extent and impact of what media would become in the not too distant future that we are now living in. How could they?

There is something strange about the internet, in particular. There is such an ease of access to other humans, in being able to talk with people anywhere in the world. Even for those who only speak one language like English, much of the world’s population can communicate with them. But this means most interactions online have an arbitrary or random quality about them, in that the price of admission is low. It can feel like there is little at stake. The connections made are usually fleeting with the people interacting likely never meeting again. The quality of sitting alone and silently with text on a screen has similarities to talking to oneself or being lost in one’s own thoughts — it creates shallow intimacy, a sense of sharing that is only words deep. Besides, such sharing is rarely reciprocated, as there is this constant reticence and pulling away from these shadowy others lurking at the periphery of one’s mind (personal space is amorphous, shifting, and porous when online; this can be unsettling).

The human desire to connect draws one in, but typically leaves one dissatisfied or worse. It creates social conditions that are extremely unnatural, distorting, and anxiety-inducing. So much of the normal context of interactions are removed, not only the sensory experience of lived perception and behavioral observations of being in the embodied presence of others but also the shared environmental and cultural context that offers cues, norms, roles, expectations, and such. Even videos, be it Youtube or Zoom, create an odd situation in the hyper-focus on the face; and seeing one’s own image while talking lends an agitating self-consciousness, as if one is performing on a stage.

Text without video isn’t better as it can lead to an insular unawareness of others, as if one is talking to oneself while the people on the other side of the screen aren’t quite present or, at best, that they are a mere audience to one’s monologue (this is magnified by the tendency of text to induce abstract thought, whether in how people get caught up in ideologies or in how they reify their ideas, in either case making it harder to differentiate between thought and reality). Along with anonymity, this is a probable contributing factor to disinhibition in people acting in ways and saying things they otherwise would not. If one expresses online that one’s feelings were hurt as one might do in normal life with a friend who said something unkind or careless, one is unlikely to receive sympathy or even acknowledgement, much less an apology and contrition — to expect any human warmth from other humans online is treated as naive, pathetic, and laughable. That is how low our standards have become.

The human quality that exists in almost any other situation is missing when people pull on the masks of their online identities. That latter issue is most apparent in a blog such as this. The blogger is an unknown entity, as is each new commenter. There is often a heavy guardedness to such interactions where everyone is ready to retreat, attack, or evade — sometimes a near total lack of the basic goodwill and casual trustfulness that is more common in person, the lack occasionally verging on paranoia about the intentions of the other. The internet can be a harsh and unforgiving social environment, a playground where our worst impulses are unleashed.

More often than one would prefer, people online say what they otherwise would not and in ways they would not if they were talking to a living, breathing, feeling person right in front of them. Such ways of treating others can come across as quite unfriendly, often passively indifferent and apathetically unsympathetic, but sometimes downright cruel or trollish, aggressive and confrontational. Yet at other times, one leaves a comment and gets no response at all, even when attempting to be friendly in inviting connection. And because of the practice of drive-by commenting, even responding to a comment won’t necessarily elicit dialogue. This kind of behavior of one-way talking would never happen in most other situations in life (Would you drive around your town yelling at strangers? Would you knock at people’s doors, blurt out your political opinions or pet theory, and then run away? Would you harangue and criticize random people at a store and then act shocked or outraged by their negative response? Would you stand on a street corner giving a monologue to a passing crowd about your relationship problems or the movie you just saw?). One-way behavior in general is indicative of power inequality where one has no social obligation or moral responsibility to the other who is perceived as inferior in value or of lesser position. This othering effect can be quite profound and disconcerting.

It’s not only strangers that are pulled into this great weirding of new media (the “great weirding” is related to what some refer to as the “global weirding”). Similar interactions or rather non-interactions happen with people one personally knows, including family. You text, email, or Facebook chat someone as a friendly gesture of conversation. Under normal conditions in talking face-to-face, this person you know would immediately acknowledge you said something and respond. But the social norms of relating well don’t translate outside of the directly interpersonal sphere. One loses count of how often no response is ever given, even when it shows the person viewed what you sent them. Could you imagine meeting your brother or a neighbor you’ve known for years, casually saying something to them as an easygoing conversation-starter, have them stand their silently as if you said nothing at all, and then watching them walk away as if you weren’t there? Yet that is the equivalent of what happens with new media on a regular basis. Most people don’t seem to recognize how utterly bizarre this is.

This lack of basic recognition of another’s humanity, of course, is far worse with those met online without any prior personal contact. Most of the internet is not people fighting but ignoring each other, as if people of different identities, views, and ways of speaking don’t matter or don’t exist. A large part of online commentary occurs with little or any response — it’s echos in the void, a vast seething swarm of humanity mostly talking to themselves or else to those who already agree with them, which is the same difference. That is how it can feel at times. Maybe this is why so many seek out conflict, simply to be acknowledged at all. This is how people can become trollish without consciously intending to do so. Trolling is often more of a mentality one falls into than an identity one embraces. Any attention can be good attention, to all those isolated individuals hidden behind their keyboards amidst the lonely masses in their not-always-quiet desperation.

We humans are social creatures — we need the social as we need air and water; we long for human contact and relationship. Here is the rub: Social conditions determine our social behavior. But millions of years of hominid evolution happened in a far different kind of environment than we’ve created in recent generations. Social behavior requires social input. Mindreading others (i.e., social cognition) requires the development of a mental map of others. This is called theory of mind, but there is an interesting and informed speculation. It appears that, as children, we develop a theory of mind of others before we develop a theory of mind for ourselves. That is to say our self-concept is a model that mirrors and internalizes our developing perception and understanding that comes through relationship. The other becomes the self. And so the others we are surrounded by are powerfully influential — as your mother told you, pick carefully who you associate with, including the strangers you interact with. “Let me explain,” writes Augustin Fuentes (Are We Really as Awful as We Act Online?).

“We’ve all heard the diet-conscious axiom “You are what you eat.” But when it comes to our behavior, a more apt variation is “You are whom you meet.” How we perceive, experience, and act in the world is intensely shaped by who and what surround us on a daily basis—our families, communities, institutions, beliefs, and role models. These sources of influence find their way even into our neurobiology. Our brains and bodies constantly undergo subtle changes so that how we perceive the world plays off of, and maps to, the patterns of those people and places we see as most connected to us. This process has deep evolutionary roots and gives humans what we call a shared reality. The connection between minds and experiences enables us to share space and work together effectively, more so than most other beings. It’s in part how we’ve become such a successful species.

“But the “who” that constitutes “whom we meet” in this system has been changing. Today the who can include more virtual, social media friends than physical ones; more information absorbed via Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram than in physical social experiences; and more pronouncements from ad-sponsored 24-hour news outlets than from conversations with other human beings. We live in complicated societies structured around political and economic processes that generate massive inequality and disconnection between us. This division alone leads to a plethora of prejudices and blind spots that segregate people. The ways we socially interact, especially via social media, are multiplying exactly at a time when we are increasingly divided. What may be the consequences?

This is where new media short-circuits our normal cognitive and affective functioning. If we can’t fully experience the other with all of our senses, our ability to read them is crippled. Pushed to the extreme, our ability to read ourselves can also go offline as we go online. The signalling we depend on disappears and so might much of our self-awareness. The person on Twitter or wherever might not be an intentional asshole or troll. Rather, in a sense, they might be lashing out in social blindness. And the same goes for us. That is the thing about the internet. It creates the social conditions of social unawareness for people who likely have little ability to handle this well. Someone who spent their whole life blind can walk down a city street and not get run over. But put blindfolds on crowds of sighted people and they’ll be running into each other and they won’t be happy about it. Then imagine what happens when you also put blindfolds onto those driving the cars. Well, that is what the internet is like.

By the way, some studies indicate that internet trolls may not be as socially blind as some but they are psychologically deaf, in not emotionally hearing their targets and victims except in the most exaggerated forms of emotional response. Interestingly, though lacking affective empathy, trolls actually measured high on cognitive empathy, which is to say they understand human behavior well enough for purposes of manipulation while being emotionally numb to the consequences — to put it simply, they know where to jab the knife for greatest hurt (Evita March, Psychology of internet trolls). On the other hand, “trolls displayed low levels of emotional and social intelligence” (Neil Graney, Is internet trolling simply replacing the violence we used to see on the football terraces?). Trolls are both stupid and smart in relating to others — call them stupid-smart. The other person remains psychologically unreal to them and so they just don’t get what all the fuss is about (it’s all about the lulz). Keep in mind, though, that anyone can be prone to trolling, particularly when a precedent of trolling has been set in a particular situation (Justin Cheng et al, Anyone Can Become a Troll) — this is maybe why trolls seem to proliferate and take over comment threads. It’s a virulent mind virus.

Outright trolling behavior (Dark Tetrad: psychopathic, sadistic, narcissism, Machiavellian) aside, what we perceive as anti-social behavior may often be better understood as non-social behavior, that is to say normal responses to abnormal conditions. It’s a reality-warping effect. We become disconnected to a radically extreme degree because most of the key markers of reality perception are missing; and so we relate without fully relating, something we’ve all experienced in the regular irritations, conflicts, and miscommunications of the internet. What one sees on a screen might not feel psychologically and viscerally real, even as intellectually we know there are real people involved living real lives in the real world. This effect can be subtle in unconsciously creeping up on us after spending long periods on the computer or scrolling our smartphone, as is common these days between work and home. It can take immense effort of reality monitoring (combining self-awareness and social awareness) to counter this sense of derealization. About why this psychological slippage happens, Alan Martin wrote (Online disinhibition and the psychology of trolling):

“Psychologist John Suller wrote a paper on this in 2004, entitled “The Online Disinhibition Effect”, where he explored six factors that could combine to change people’s behaviour online. These are dissociative anonymity (“my actions can’t be attributed to my person”); invisibility (“nobody can tell what I look like, or judge my tone”); asynchronicity (“my actions do not occur in real-time”); solipsistic Introjection (“I can’t see these people, I have to guess at who they are and their intent”); dissociative imagination (“this is not the real world, these are not real people”); and minimising authority (“there are no authority figures here, I can act freely”). The combination of any number of these leads to people behaving in ways they wouldn’t when away from the screen, often positively — being more open, or honest — but sometimes negatively, abusing their fellow internet users in ways they wouldn’t dream of offline.

“Internet psychologist Graham Jones believes that to a certain extent the kind of aggressive behaviour often seen online happens in the real world. “Having said that, there is a feature of the online world that makes such negative behaviour more likely than in the real world,” he says. “In the real world people subconsciously monitor the behaviour of others around them and adapt their own behaviour accordingly… Online we do not have such feedback mechanisms. These feedback mechanisms can be body language, facial expressions or more obvious cues, but a recent study at the Univeristy of Haifa revealed that those who had to maintain eye contact were half as likely to be hostile as those who had the eyes hidden. The lead author of the study, Noam Lapidot-Lefler, believes this is because eye contact “helps you understand the other person’s feelings, the signals that the person is trying to send you.”

Some people are more skillful in handling this psychological crippling of online environments. They might have learned greater social intuition about personality and behavior from some kind of atypical life experience or professional training. Or because of some lucky combo of nature and nurture, they might’ve always been extraordinarily calm, accepting, gracious, and forgiving toward others. But for most of us, we continually bump into one another and then immediately blame the other, likely even giving them a good whack to teach them a lesson and complain mightily when they whack us back, that is if we manage to even slightly recognize and appreciate their humanity and existence. One might like to think that one is above average in interpersonal skills and moral character, unlike all those other social morons and lowly reprobates, but the fact of the matter is most people are not above average. And in the social blindness of the online world, the standard social ability of the average is already quite low.

It’s actually worse than described since, as the deficient social signaling can make us socially blind, we can be socially blind to the fact that we’re socially blind, not recognizing ourselves in the mirror of our own projections — a self-enclosed obliviousness and self-reinforcing obtuseness. Imagine all those normally sighted people with blindfolds on and not realizing they are blinded, going about their lives as if they could see. That causes much psychological confusion and interpersonal havoc, further exacerbating the sense of the great weirding and at times magnified to the level of the political and even geopolitical (President Donald Trump being the great example). Welcome to the new media world! Think of it as an opportunity for a steep learning curve. Keep all of this in mind. If you can recognize you’re in a situation of social blindness and surrounded by the socially blind, you are already ahead in the game. Maybe don’t react so quickly, withhold that initial impulse to judge, pause and take a breath. Maybe give the other person the benefit of the doubt and assume the best, as you’d like them to do for you. People sometimes just have bad days, even when the antagonism of new media weirding isn’t involved. Simply put, be kind and forgiving.

We are going to need all the compassion we can muster, as we move forward in this new media society of heavily mediated reality. The changes in media are going to happen faster and faster with impacts and consequences we won’t be able to imagine or predict. It’s guaranteed we won’t handle it well. The stress of society will fracture society even further. It’s possible that our society will survive the threats of collapse and eventually gain a new stability within this media paradigm, although social norms and functional ways of relating well will be slow to develop and take hold. It is highly doubtful that we will see the end of this transition in our lifetime, much less benefit from what might eventually be a positive change. We are in the middle of the storm — tighten the straps and hunker down.

Let’s end on a personal note. In this crazy online world, for those we’ve attacked, irritated, or unfairly judged, for those times we failed to treat others as we’d want to be treated, we apologize for our shortcomings as normal humans stuck in abnormal times. But we know we’re likely to continue to get stressed, anxious, and emotionally pulled into conflict; and so we also apologize in advance for our future wrongdoings and lack of needed understanding. We’ll try to do better, if that helps. In such difficult times, though, one’s best might not be good enough. So, we should be forgiving toward ourselves as well.

* * *

Here are a few things I came across while writing this post:

Here’s Why Internet Trolls Are So Good at Upsetting You, According to Science
by Minda Zetlin

Internet Trolls Really Are Horrible People
by Chris Mooney

Psychopaths, Sadists, and the Lure of Internet Aggression
by Traci Stein

Loneliness moderates the relationship between Dark Tetrad personality traits and internet trolling
by KeitaMasui

Autonomic stress reactivity and craving in individuals with problematic Internet use
by Tania Moretta & Giulia Buodo

Internet “addiction” may fuel teen aggression
by Amy Norton

To end internet trolling, send everyone to a nice park
by WHIMN

Over a quarter of Americans have made malicious online comments
by Jake Gammon

Why Is Everyone on the Internet So Angry?
by Natalie Wolchover

We’re the reason we can’t have nice things on the internet
by Whitney Phillips

The Internet Is a Toxic Hellscape—but We Can Fix It
by Whitney Phillips

Weirding Diary
by Venkatesh Rao

The Internet of Beefs
by Venkatesh Rao

Crowds and Technology
by Renee DiResta

Status as a Service (StaaS)
by Eugene Wei

“We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

“It’s hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head.”
~Sally Kempton, from Ben Price’s None Dare Call It Propaganda

“Power is the ability to rule the imagination.”
~Jacques Necker, from Guillaume de Sardes’ Against the hegemony of American art

Divide and conquer begins in the psyche, the soul. Before authoritarianism is a system of power, it is a memetic virus that slips into the public mind where it grows and spreads. That is how we have come to find ourselves in this moment of a conflict we don’t understand because the first divide is within awareness. Such is our schizoid identity. As with any protest movement, there are criticisms and complaints, often unfair and dismissive. Those people are destroying their own communities, burning down their own neighborhoods. These are nothing but violent and destructive riots. They are bringing police violence down on themselves; they’re asking for trouble and get what they deserve. The protests are infiltrated or taken over by ‘antifa’ who are a terrorist group. On and on goes the idiocy, quite demoralizing but also quite effective.

First off, most of the protesters and protests are nonviolent. Few Americans, protesters and police alike, want to commit violence against their fellow Americans, against their own neighbors. Amidst the violence and destruction, there are many involved, including some police attacking those peaceful crowds often times for no apparent reason. There is sad irony when some authoritarian-minded police use brutality to punish supposedly free citizens in a democracy who dare to protest police brutality. But it’s the nature of the narratives we get caught up in that tell us conflict and confrontation can only end in violence. And for anyone drawn to that narrative, it’s easy to find someone on the other side who will join you in playing it out to its inevitable conclusion. This narrative pull of conflict and division overpowers any natural empathy that might otherwise inspire the better angels of our nature.

That isn’t to say there aren’t people committing crimes that the police are well within the the purview of their official mandate and public duty to pursue in enforcing the law. But the police can arrest those few people without wantonly attacking large crowds of innocent protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets and batons, sometimes with real bullets as well, including innocent bystanders such as a businessman who was shot to death by police while standing in front of his business (Aída Chávez, Louisville Police Left the Body of David McAtee on the Street for 12 Hours) and the medical staff beat up by roving gangs of police (Olivia Messer, Medical Workers Fighting COVID Say Cops Are Attacking Them). The police showing up to peaceful protests in riot gear ready to rumble, now that is asking for trouble. The police, in being drawn into a narrative of fighting mob violence, end up acting like a violent mob and so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

There are other ways of dealing with crowd control in maintaining peace and by directing police force only against serious lawbreakers, not the general public who are practicing their democratic rights. Some of the government officials have stated that most of the lawbreakers arrested were from outside the cities and states in which they were protesting. No doubt there are plenty of outsiders of one kind or another. Protests attract a diversity of individuals and groups and no one knows who they all are. Of course, there are the opportunistic looters, arsonists, criminals, gangsters, and troublemakers who join in and cause havoc without any greater purpose. Also, throw in some people who simply have serious psychiatric disorders, including some of the police as far as that goes.

Then there are the agitators and provocateurs of various sorts, specifically those who oppose the ideals and message of the protest movement, from white nationalists to undercover cops and maybe some FBI agents. This latter set of people, in some cases, would even be seeking to incite violence and destruction, looting and rioting, while hoping for police backlash and authoritarian measures. This is a much more difficult problem to deal with in our society. In some of the cities, the police have welcomed and cooperated with white thugs walking around with bats and other weapons to take care of the protesters which has led to violent altercations. This same kind of police-thug alliance has happened in past protest movements as well.

Some of these dangerous individuals and groups have clear agendas, often an attempt to alter the media narrative and public perception in order to undermine support for the protest movement and to isolate protesters. Think of COINTELPRO agent provocateurs of the past and the more recent entrapment practices during the War On Terror. Protesters have noticed older white guys dressed all in black with faces covered who were working alone or in teams to cause damage, such as the now infamous umbrella man. Most of these covert actors and malcontented troublemakers remain unidentified.

There are many games going on. Even outside of the protests themselves, social media has been a hotbed of influences. One Twitter account was portrayed as ‘antifa’ and was promoting violence, until those behind it were outed as white nationalists and the account was shut down. Imagine all of the state and non-state actors, including foreign actors, who might want to not only influence the protest movement but meddle in American society and politics, maybe simply to promote strife and conflict before the election. I could imagine fake accounts and trolls even infiltrating and targeting police in online groups to further rile them up.

There are many competing narratives out there. And those pushing those narratives in many cases aren’t doing so for ideological reasons. One doesn’t have to believe a narrative to want to use it to promote whatever one does believe in, from authoritarianism to chaos. The sad truth is that the average person never gives much thought to the narratives that are fed to them and that infect their minds. Many of these narratives are carefully crafted to get past our defenses, to tell us what we want to hear, confirm our biases and prejudices, fit into our stereotyped interpretations of others.

One of these narratives has fallen into the category of white identity politics. Many otherwise libertarian-minded whites who would criticize abusive authority find themselves pulled into a racialized narrative promoting the rationalization of authoritarian oppression toward those ‘others’. They are allowing themselves to be cynically manipulated because these narratives make them feel good about themselves while so many others suffer. But the reality is poor whites also suffer police abuse and so, even if only for selfish reasons of believing all lives matter, they should be joining these protesters demanding police reform and justice.

Even though blacks are disproportionately harmed, the fact of the matter is most police brutality as with most imprisonment falls upon whites, mostly poor whites, for the simple reason that whites remain the majority on both sides of the authoritarian equation. The racialized narrative of oppressive authoritarianism gives these poor whites a sense of pride in that, no matter how bad their lives are, at least they can think of themselves as being better than those poor blacks. Why do whites so mindlessly accept this false narrative that harms themselves personally, harms their families and neighbors, harms their entire communities? Why can’t they see they are being used as tools of authoritarian power? Why can’t they muster basic human empathy for others who are oppressed in this same system of injustice?

How would conservative and right-wing whites respond if during Barack Obama’s administration black police officers were wantonly killing poor whites, typically without legal repercussion or sometimes even losing their jobs, and then when Tea Party activists formed a mostly peaceful protest movement, they met with further police violence intended to silence them? Now imagine that this followed centuries of continued personal, systemic, and institutionalized racism against whites that kept them trapped in impoverished neighborhoods where there children were literally being poisoned from urban pollution and heavy metal toxins and targeted by a school-to-prison pipeline.

The response by most on the political right to this radical thought experiment would be typical. The narrative of white identity politics says this would never happen to whites because somehow whites, even the poorest whites, aren’t of lowly character like blacks. But this is total bullshit, if we are to define character by the conditions of oppression. Some of the most desperately impoverished and criminal-ridden places in the United State are these poor white communities such as in Appalachia where such racist rhetoric most strongly takes hold (Are White Appalachians A Special Case?). This racialized story comforts the traumatized, rather than resolving the trauma that continues generation after generation.

None of this is necessary. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, he was in the middle of organizing a poor people’s movement. He was hoping to join poor whites and poor blacks in a fight against the oppression of a caste system of a permanent underclass. It was understood even long before MLK that class war was used to oppress not only blacks but also poor whites. This argument was made by Peter H. Clark (1829-1925), the first black socialist in the United States. There was also the Wobblies, the Industrial Workers of the World, that in the early 1900s organized across racial and ethnic lines in reaching out to minorities and immigrants; and, as always, they too were persecuted. Even many racist whites prior to the Civil War understood that the emerging industrial capitalism was being built on class war that kept lower class whites in a state of desperation and disenfranchisement. One doesn’t even have to be an anti-racist supporting black freedom and civil rights to understand this basic truth of capitalist class oppression and disenfranchisement.

Following MLK’s assassination, others tried to carry forward a multiracial (and multicultural) fight against class oppression, including the popular Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton who united with diverse other groups in a Rainbow Coalition, including the Young Patriots consisting of Southern whites living in poor Chicago neighborhoods (Poverty In Black And White; Michael McCanne, The Panthers and the Patriots). Guess what happened to Fred Hampton? He also was assassinated. And who was behind the assassination? The FBI and police. This was the era of COINTELPRO where the government sought to infiltrate, co-opt, and manipulate groups considered to be a threat to statist power and interests. For example, earlier on, the FBI sent MLK a letter threatening to expose his extramarital affairs in order to blackmail him to commit suicide. Please understand, these were some truly evil people in our government and evil people like them are still in positions of power and influence.

The point is that this was never only about blacks and other minorities. Poor and working class whites were also harmed and disempowered when those black civil rights leaders, MLK and Hampton, were assassinated. I’d go so far as to argue that even middle class whites were worse off for having lost these voices that, if they had lived longer, might have alerted them to the forces that were also attacking the middle class. Now there is a narrative for you. It’s not only a story for it is actual history, much of it based on government documents that were released or leaked along with some great investigative news reporting from the past. But how many Americans, particularly poor whites and conservatives, know their own American history? Very few. The propaganda of corporate media, corporatist education, and corporatocratic politics has suppressed and silenced these facts that are inconvenient to the capitalist class and ruling elite. More importantly, it isn’t only a class war being hidden behind racist agendas of social control. As the likes of MLK and Hampton understood, all of this is inseparable from violent and oppressive imperialism, a class war against the entire world’s population of the poor.

Some relatively comfortable and privileged Americans get upset because a few people died in the recent protests, along with some property damage. They take this as indicating the protest movement has gone too far. Yet many of these same people supported the Iraq War based on a lie, a war of aggression and invasion that ended up destroying an entire country while dislocating, injuring, killing, and orphaning millions upon millions of innocent people. For what purpose? So that the United States could set an example for what happens to anyone who doesn’t bow down to American hegemony. And so that American corporations could maintain control of Middle Eastern trade routes and access to Middle Eastern oil and other natural resources. Talk about looting and on mass scale, not to mention the vast wealth and resources that corporations steal from the American public every year (Trillions Upon Trillions of Dollars).

It’s far from limited to Iraq. American imperialism has led to aggressive wars, overthrowing of democracies, support of terrorist/paramilitary groups, and much else all over the world. Of course, those are mostly poor black and brown people suffering and being killed and they are far away in other places. American policing around the world is far more brutal than the policing at home, but the two are simply expressions of the same fundamental brutality. This is made more apparent with the overt militarization of the American police, not to mention the deployment of military in U.S. cities. The counterinsurgency tactics used to suppress populist movements in other countries are brought home to be used on the American people, of all races and ethnicities.

This protest movement is not only about blacks and other minorities, is not only about police brutality. Most importantly, it is a fight over narrative, a fight to speak truth to power. If whites don’t stand up with blacks now, then later on upper working class whites won’t stand with poor whites, middle class whites won’t stand with any of them, and eventually the ruling class will turn on us all. We are divided up into groups and each group is isolated and attacked and neutralized, until there is not enough people left to stand up against the authoritarianism that began creeping into power over many generations. Authoritarian oppression against any of us, in the end, is authoritarian oppression against all of us. Violence is violence.

All of this was made possible through narratized propaganda that too many of us blindly or cynically accepted because it was easier to do so. Maybe it’s time to change that, time to wake up to reality, time to unite in solidarity. There are more of us than of them. As was understood when America was founded, supposedly in the words of Benjamin Franklin to the Continental Congress in signing the Declaration of Independence, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” But at the same time, we have to take responsibility for being complicit in a society where we’ve projected our authoritarian impulses onto an ‘other’, the police and military, instead of healing this disease within. If we hang separately, it may very well be on a scaffolding we helped build with the thought that we were building it to deal with another set of ‘others’, the poor and minorities.

We need new narratives and so do those authority figures who stand in as representatives of our social order. The police are in an impossible position. They are being commanded to serve too many masters, serve too many purposes. With increasing militarized power and aggressive methods, they are supposed to, implicitly or overtly, represent the enforcement of authoritarian statism, capitalist interests, systemic racism, and class war while somehow also “basically being tasked with addressing every social problem that we have”, far beyond mere enforcement of basic laws (NPR CODE SW!TCH interview with Alex S. Vitale, How Much Do We Need The Police?). While being the ultimate symbol and representative of hierarchical power and privilege, they are supposed to monitor traffic infractions, protect communities, uphold individual rights, deal with troubled teens, handle disorderly conduct, help the mentally ill, provide services to the homeless, mediate spousal conflicts, stop child abuse, intervene in alcoholism and addiction, monitor sex workers, act as guards in schools, enforce order in classrooms, and on and on.

The main tool we give the police to deal with this overwhelming and ever growing set of tasks is violence and threat of violence with a gun always at hand — stop the bad guys by any means necessary, in a narrative where all social problems are turned into black-and-white morality judgments. The police are often both the first to be called and the last resort to enact punishment when all else fails. The police are put into an impossible situation. They are asked to carry the entire load of our schizoid society, simultaneously serving authoritarianism and (hyper-)individualism, two sides of the same dysfunctional society of ideological extremism and dogmatic absolutism. It makes no sense. It defies all possibility of sense. So, we end up scapegoating the police when they fail to do the impossible, no different than we also scapegoat the poor and minorities in being victims of the same moral rot that grows like a cancer within our collective humanity.

Such vast areas of modern life have been criminalized. This has placed a large part of the population under the control of militarized policing that must enforce law and order. As communities have disintegrated and culture of trust has weakened, the police are suppose to replace what has been hollowed out, what once made society functional. It’s fucking insane! This is how we end up with more police than social workers, more police than teachers, more police than librarians and coaches and ministers. The police have become the sole pillar that must hold up the entire social order or it will collapse into total chaos and that will be the end of civilization as we know it; or so the story is told in a tone of the fear-mongering. Well, that is asking a lot of police. No wonder they feel stressed out and so often break under the pressure in turning to brutal violence and abuse, not only of citizens but also as seen in the high rates of spousal abuse among police officers.

The police are incapable of even policing themselves, much less reforming themselves. That is because they are forced to try to do what is beyond their capacity. They are violence workers with the mandated power to stop and arrest criminals with the protected right to kill whenever they deem it necessary. “And while we’re not using police to manage slavery or colonialism today,” Alex S. Vitale spoke, “we are using police to manage the problems that our very unequal system has produced. We’re invested in this kind of austerity politics that says the government can’t afford to really do anything to lift people up. We have to put all our resources into subsidizing the already most successful parts of the economy. But those parts of the economy are producing this huge group of people who are homeless, unemployed, have untreated mental health and substance abuse problems. And then we ask the police to put a lid on those problems — to manage them so they don’t interfere with the “order” that we’re supposedly all benefiting from.”

It’s not surprising that the police act dysfunctionally and oppressively in acting on behalf of a dysfunctional and oppressive system. It could not be otherwise. And so we should not be surprised that, when turning police against protesters who are protesting police abuse, it will not turn out well — as Vitale explained: “What we’re seeing is really an immediate escalation to very high levels of force, a high degree of confrontation. And I think part of it is driven by deep frustration within policing, which is that police feel under assault, and they have no answer. They trotted out all the possible solutions: police-community dialogue sessions, implicit bias training, community policing, body cameras. And it just didn’t work. It didn’t make any difference. And so they ran out of excuses. So the protests today are a much more kind of existential threat to the police. And the police are overreacting as a result.”

Policing has not only become our answer to everything but, worse still, our explanatory narrative of everything. And to try to resolve this conflict, we’ve made our problems worse by militarizing the police which ends up conflating military and police, as our society further takes on the characteristics of a fascist police state and hence a banana republic. With each new wave of policing failure, we throw even more policing measures to deal with it. But this is not a problem for the police to take care of. Turning to the police in the first place is the problem. The police are an extreme measure and should only be called upon when all other measures have been tried and failed. Only in immediate situations of violence should the police be the initial course of action. Militarizing the police in treating them as the solution to everything is not only anti-democratic and anti-libertarian but also simply unfair to the police officers themselves who shouldn’t be forced into that position of authoritarian oppressors. All of us as citizens and community members need to take responsibility for having apathetically succumbed to authoritarian realism, of having failed to radically imagine another way.

It shouldn’t be hard for us to imagine non-violent methods and services to replace present violent policing. Even within the limits of the present legal system, if given a choice, most Americans would rather have rehabilitation than harsh punishments and mass imprisonment (Reckoning With Violence; & The Court of Public Opinion: Part 1 & Part 2). We Americans aren’t a punitive people. Rather our imaginations have been intentionally constrained by a punitive ideology enmeshed in social Darwinism and capitalist realism, a system maintained through the narratives pushed on us by polticians funded and MSM owned by big money interests, largely transnational corporations seeking to uphold the fascist police state and military empire.

It could be added that neither are we a divided people, not fundamentally, certainly not in terms of what we support according to diverse public polling over decades (US Demographics & Increasing Progressivism; American People Keep Going Further Left; Sea Change of Public Opinion: Libertarianism, Progressivism & Socialism; Warmongering Politicians & Progressive Public; Gun Violence & Regulation (Data, Analysis, Rhetoric); Claims of US Becoming Pro-Life; Public Opinion on Tax Cuts for the Rich; Most Oppose Cutting Social Security (data); Non-Identifying Environmentalists And Liberals; Environmentalist Majority; Public Opinion On Government & Tea Party; Vietnam War Myths: Memory, Narrative, Rhetoric & Lies; Who Supported the Vietnam War?; & Most Americans Know What is True), although the ruling elite have gone to great efforts to divide us but in reality it’s the ruling elite who are disconnected from the silenced majority (Political Elites Disconnected From General Public; Wirthlin Effect & Symbolic Conservatism; Sacrifice of Liberal Pawns; Polarizing Effect of Perceived Polarization; Inequality Means No Center to Moderate Toward; Racial Polarization of Partisans; Poll Answers, Stated Beliefs, Ideological Labels; & Get on board or get out of the way!).

In imagining another way, consider some possibilities from Ktown for All. These aren’t necessarily perfect suggestions, but they give us the basic sense of how other solutions could operate, specifically at the community level. This is how we need to start thinking. After we get past the idea phase, it will take years and decades of local experimentation, if centralized government will get out of our way. In some ways, this is simply a return to local community systems that used to operate in the United States — consider the non-criminal courts in the mid-20th century that offered community solutions for juvenile problems which is a far better system than our present school-to-prison pipeline. When naysayers tell us that change is impossible, there are precedents we can look to. Portugal’s Carnation Revolution, to take one inspiring example, was a nonviolent removal of a police state that allowed democratic reform, specifically to how policing was done. The Portuguese demilitarized the police, eliminated mass incarceration, ended their war on drugs that was a war on the people, decriminalized drug use, turned funding to programs for intervention and rehabilitation, and as a result saw a decline of drug addiction.

Maybe reforms are unlikely to be successful anytime soon, as the forces resisting them are powerful. Maybe or maybe not. Either way, it’s always nice to dream. We have to start somewhere and there is nowhere better to start than with radical imagination. If an era of ever worsening crises is heading our way, that is all the more reason to get our minds in the right space. We need to have new ideas and narratives in place ready for when we finally get to the point where change is inevitable. Let us prepare for a better tomorrow so that the next generations will have a fighting chance to build a free society, the dream that has inspired Americans for centuries.

“We continue to make this about the police — the how of it. How can they police? Is it about sensitivity and de-escalation training and community policing? All that can make for a less-egregious relationship between the police and people of color. But the how isn’t as important as the why, which we never address. The police are a reflection of a society. They’re not a rogue alien organization that came down to torment the black community. They’re enforcing segregation. Segregation is legally over, but it never ended. The police are, in some respects, a border patrol, and they patrol the border between the two Americas. We have that so that the rest of us don’t have to deal with it. Then that situation erupts, and we express our shock and indignation. But if we don’t address the anguish of a people, the pain of being a people who built this country through forced labor — people say, ‘‘I’m tired of everything being about race.’’ Well, imagine how [expletive] exhausting it is to live that.

“Police brutality is an organic offshoot of the dehumanization of those power structures. There are always going to be consequences of authority. When you give someone a badge and a gun, that’s going to create its own issues, and there’s no question that those issues can be addressed with greater accountability. It can be true that you can value and admire the contribution and sacrifice that it takes to be a law-enforcement officer or an emergency medical worker in this country and yet still feel that there should be standards and accountability. Both can be true. But I still believe that the root of this problem is the society that we’ve created that contains this schism, and we don’t deal with it, because we’ve outsourced our accountability to the police.”

~ Jon Stewart, NYT interview by David Marchese (June 15, 2020)

“Our democracy hangs in the balance. This is not an overstatement.

“As protests, riots, and police violence roiled the nation last week, the president vowed to send the military to quell persistent rebellions and looting, whether governors wanted a military occupation or not. John Allen, a retired four-star Marine general, wrote that we may be witnessing the “beginning of the end of the American experiment” because of President Trump’s catastrophic failures.

“Trump’s leadership has been disastrous. But it would be a mistake to place the blame on him alone. In part, we find ourselves here for the same reasons a civil war tore our nation apart more than 100 years ago: Too many citizens prefer to cling to brutal and unjust systems than to give up political power, the perceived benefits of white supremacy and an exploitative economic system. If we do not learn the lessons of history and choose a radically different path forward, we may lose our last chance at creating a truly inclusive, egalitarian democracy.

“The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously said that “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Today, the same can be said of our criminal injustice system, which is a mirror reflecting back to us who we really are, as opposed to what we tell ourselves.”

~ Michelle Alexander, America, This Is Your Chance

“If we are serious about ending racism and fundamentally changing the United States, we must begin with a real and serious assessment of the problems. We diminish the task by continuing to call upon the agents and actors who fuelled the crisis when they had opportunities to help solve it. But, more importantly, the quest to transform this country cannot be limited to challenging its brutal police alone. It must conquer the logic that finances police and jails at the expense of public schools and hospitals. Police should not be armed with expensive artillery intended to maim and murder civilians while nurses tie garbage sacks around their bodies and reuse masks in a futile effort to keep the coronavirus at bay.

“We have the resources to remake the United States, but it will have to come at the expense of the plutocrats and the plunderers, and therein lies the three-hundred-year-old conundrum: America’s professed values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, continually undone by the reality of debt, despair, and the human degradation of racism and inequality.”

~ Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, How Do We Change America?

What will we choose?

Donald Trump, in declaring anti-fascists are his enemy, is helping to remind and clarify to Americans what is fascism, who are the fascists, the great enemy an earlier generation of Americans fought and defeated. He has stated it in no uncertain terms.

If you’re opposed to anti-fascists, there is only one other choice. There is no third option. Are you for or against fascism? That is now the main dividing line in American society. It’s a stark contrast with centuries of unresolved conflict being forced to the surface.

If we allow it, the police will become increasingly violent and draconian. Lockdowns and curfews could become the norm. More and more innocent people will be attacked, killed and imprisoned. Eventually, if it continues, ghettos and camps will be created. Maybe we’ll even get to the point where people are simply disappeared.

Humanity is at this crossroads again. In a state of public crisis and moral panic, demagogues are offering the certainty of authoritarianism, the promise of law and order. But it’s also an opportunity to seek a just and fair society, to finally fulfill the dream of a free society, maybe a second American Revolution to complete what the first began.

What will we choose?

* * *

Donald Trump’s “Antifa” Hysteria Is Absurd. But It’s Also Very Dangerous.
by Chip Gibbons