The Master’s Tools Are Those Closest At Hand

For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.

That is an awesome quote by Audre Lorde. It was published in the 1984 Sister Outsider, but originally was written as comments to a 1979 feminist conference. It has stood the test of time. If anything, it is more relevant than ever.

In discussing Ursula K. Le Guin’s take on it, I wrote a long piece a few years ago exploring what it means. It is a deceptively simple metaphor, the master’s house and the master’s tools, but the implications are hard-hitting. As Le Guin considered,

“Are there indeed tools that have not been invented, which we must invent in order to build the house we want our children to live in? Can we go on from what we know now, or does what we know now keep us from learning what we need to know? To learn what people of color, the women, the poor, have to teach, to learn the knowledge we need, must we unlearn all the knowledge of the whites, the men, the powerful? Along with the priesthood and phallocracy, must we throw away science and democracy? Will we be left trying to build without any tools but our bare hands?”

All around us are the master’s tools for this is the master’s house. Everything here is the master’s, unless someone has smuggled something in from elsewhere. Otherwise, we’ll have to get out of the master’s house in order to find new tools. But how do we escape without using the tools we have at hand, even if they belong to the master?

Lorde was writing as a black lesbian and radical feminist. I’m a straight white guy who, in my heart of hearts, would love to be in a world where sane moderate liberalism ruled — a rather utopian vision, I know. I’m a reluctant radical, at best. I’ll join the revolution when it starts, but I don’t see myself trying to start a revolution, even as I increasingly see it as inevitable. White male privilege aside, I’m no more happy dwelling in the master’s house than anyone else. If all that white male privilege gets me is a working class job along with severe depression and growing hopelessness, I’d like to get a refund.

That is the problem. In reading Lorde’s essay, she obviously wasn’t speaking to people like me. I wasn’t the intended audience. As a white guy, I guess I’m supposed to feel identified with the masters, but what does my skin color matter when the powerful don’t see me and what does my masculinity matter when I feel politically impotent. It’s not like I’m going to find comfort and inspiration from a new white patriarch elected to rule over the land.

Whites right now are the only demographic with worsening mortality rates. Plus, suicide and homicide always get worse under Republican administrations, as the data shows. Drug addiction, specifically opioid addiction, for whatever reason hits whites more than minorites and right now Americans are dropping like flies from opioid overdose. These are probably not accidental deaths, considering that whites have disproportionate rates of both drug addiction and suicide. Some of the data indicates that the worsening mortality rates among whites is at least partly caused by drug addiction.

Yet Lorde writes in the same essay that,

“Women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and to educated men as to our existence and our needs. This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns. Now we hear that it is the task of women of Color to educate white women — in the face of tremendous resistance — as to our existence, our differences, our relative roles in our joint survival. This is a diversion of energies and a tragic repetition of racist patriarchal thought.”

I get the point she is making. It is true, if limited.

Most poor people are white. Most welfare recipients are white. Most police brutality victims are white. And most prisoners are white. This was even more true several decades ago when Lorde wrote the above words. Yet no where in her collection of essays and speeches, Sister Outsider, does she talk about poor whites and their plight. Why is it the responsibility of poor whites to stretch across the gap of the ignorance of middle class black feminists?

The problem is that even radicals like Lorde don’t take their radicalism far enough. Being a poor white single mother, a mentally ill homeless white veteran, or a politically disenfranchised white ex-con is also about intersectionality. Someone like Lorde had more in common with the middle class white feminists she complained about than she had in common with the majority of whites on the bottom of society. These poor whites apparently were invisible to her. Or worse, she simply dismissed them out of hand. It didn’t mean she was a bad person. It just shows she was a human like the rest of us, with cognitive biases and blindspots. What she didn’t fully appreciate is that identity politics is yet another of the master’s tools.

That was something Martin Luther King, jr very much understood. Right before his assassination, he reached out to poor whites in the hope of creating a movement that cut across racial divides. Even early Black Panthers somehow were able to realize that their fate was tied with the fate of poor whites. In expressing his gratitude, William Fesperman said in 1969,

“Our struggle is beyond comprehension to me sometimes and I felt for a long time [that poor whites] was forgotten … that nobody saw us. Until we met the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and they met us and we said let’s put that theory into practice.”

Identity politics is one of the master’s most useful tools. The political right will always be better at wielding such a tool. Consider Clinton’s clumsy attempt to use racial and feminist identity politics, as compared to Trump’s ease with identity rhetoric. Identity politics is a blunt tool that leads to blunt results. It smashes everything down, inevitably being turned against those who are different.

The oppression we face is not demographic. It’s systemic. Angela Davis, long known for her early association with the Black Panthers, wrote that,

“More than once I have heard people say, “If only a new Black Panther Party could be organized, then we could seriously deal with The Man, you know?” But suppose we were to say: “There is no Man anymore.” There is suffering. There is oppression. There is terrifying racism. But this racism does not come from the mythical “Man.” Moreover, it is laced with sexism and homophobia and unprecedented class exploitation associated with a dangerously globalized capitalism. We need new ideas and new strategies that will take us into the twenty-first century.”

To be fair, Lorde touched upon this insight by way of a related observation about the human condition. Another piece from the collection is “Age, Race, Class and Sex”. In it, she wrote:

“The old definitions have not served us, nor the earth that supports us. The old patterns, no matter how cleverly rearranged to imitate progress, still condemn us to cosmetically altered repetitions of the same old exchanges, the same old guilt, hatred, recrimination, lamentation, and suspicion.

“For we have, built into all of us, old blueprints of expectation and response, old structures of oppression, and these must be altered at the same time as we alter the living conditions which are a result of those structures. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

“As Paulo Freire shows so well in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations which we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us, and which knows only the oppressors’ tactics, the oppressors’ relationships.”

From one of the last pieces in Lorde’s book (“Learning from the 60s”), she furthers this thought. She states that,

“As Black people, if there is one thing we can learn from the 60s, it is how infinitely complex any move for liberation must be. For we must move against not only those forces which dehumanize us from the outside, but also against those oppressive values which we have been forced to take into ourselves. Through examining the combination of our triumphs and errors, we can examine the dangers of an incomplete vision. Not to condemn that vision but to alter it, construct templates for possible futures, and focus our rage for change upon our enemies rather than upon each other. In the 1960s, the awakened anger of the Black community was often expressed, not vertically against the corruption of power and true sources of control over our lives, but horizontally toward those closest to us who mirrored our own impotence.”

So, she realized the danger. The easiest target for the oppressed has always been other people who are oppressed. Those in power, no matter the political party, want nothing more than to keep the American public divided. The specific danger is that the master’s tools are those most familiar to us, the ones nearest at hand. We should never forget that, if we ever hope to find different tools to build a new society.

Vision and Transformation

I feel both drawn to and wary of activism. I have involved myself in various ways over the years, but I’ve never identified as an activist.

I recently was feeling the attraction again with all that was going on. I started following closely some local activist groups. I attended a rally and talked to some others about writing a trade union resolution in support of the Ferguson protests.

I was reminded of my wariness. There is so much personal drama people put into their activism. I constantly see turf wars going on between activists. In private messages, I get warned about dealing with this or that person. A few loud people dominate almost everything and agreement is hard to find.

With the trade union resolution, the main guy interested is a strong left-winger where the ‘worker’ is the basis of his identity politics. He offered a draft and in it he went far beyond his original proposal. He made it into a far-reaching manifesto, from harsh criticisms of the police as terrorists to demands that major industries be nationalized. I was like, where did this come from?

Besides the questionable politics, it was extremely negative in tone and so broad as to be unfocused. I saw little practical value in it other than emotional catharsis. I couldn’t see it as the conversation-starter that he claimed it would or should be. Even with softening the language, it didn’t appear to be a fundamentally hopeful vision of a democratic free society. It was a demand for change by a perceived elite vanguard that would represent the workers and lead them in the fight against all that is wrong with the world. I found it the opposite of inspiring.

I was definitely not on board with his vision, but the experiece was helpful for me. At the same time I was reading Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination by Robin D. G. Kelley. The two gave me contrasting views, although both radical. In the book, Kelley writes about visions of hope. He purposesly steers away from ideological dogmatism and toward the power of imagination itself.

He writes, “the kind of politics to which I’ve been drawn have more to do with imagining a different future than being pissed off about the present.” Further on, he makes this even more clear: “There are few contemporary political spaces where the energies of love and imagination are understood and respected as powerful forces.” The author wishes to promote such spaces for inspiring dreams. That is namby-pamby liberalism, but in some ways I think this attitude is more radical than what what many left-wingers are offering, at least the dogmatic variety.

The guy who wrote the draft maybe is stuck in his own suffering (as he mentioned some major family tragedies in recent years) and I know how that feels. The difference between the two of us is that it seems he can’t imagine anything else other than the struggle. I understand life often involves struggle. It’s just I don’t want that to be the defining feature of my experience. Still, I understand the attraction of that worldview. I have just decided to resist that attraction because of the dark turn of mind it leads to.

Here is what really caught my attention in Kelley’s book:

“I did not write this book for those traditional leftists who have traded in their dreams for orthodoxy and sectarianism. Most of those folks are hopeless, I’m sad to say. And they will be the first to dismiss this book as utopian, idealistic, and romantic. Instead, I wrote it for anyone bold enough still to dream”

This relates to why I naturally imagine democracy as both means and ends. The trade union guy, on the other hand, only imagines it as a means and even then only a partial means. If he were given a choice between democracy and struggle for the ’cause’, I feel confident he’d choose the latter.

The worldview he is in is that of tragedy. It is a compelling worldview because it creates a sense of high drama and that can be addictive. When someone is dealing with much suffering, it is a natural worldview to be drawn to. But I’d rather live in a different kind of story, a different kind of vision of the world.

I really do believe it matters what we focus on. Also, the means matter as much or more than the ends, for the latter is implicit in the former. What we focus on and how we act will determine the path we take and the results that will follow. I’ll accept what struggle cannot be avoided, but I have no desire to seek out struggle for the sake of it.

I genuinely believe democracy is our greatest hope. I don’t mean voting and other official political processes. What I envision isn’t just a politics of democracy, but more important an entire society and culture of democracy. In a very real and basic sense, we are all in this together. Our fates are intertwined.

A turn toward that understanding can’t be forced. It must be embraced and given the space to grow.

“Without new visions we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down. We not only end up confused, rudderless, and cynical, but we forget that making a revolution is not a series of clever maneuvers and tactics but a process that can and must transform us.”

Systemic Suckitude

I just wrote about my views on what I called a fucked up world. I was ranting about the failure of politics, specifically partisan and identity politics, to deal with real world suffering. It all comes down to rationalizing the problems of my group and scapegoating some other group.

It irritates me, to say the least.

I’ve never felt like I had a group. I don’t strongly identify with any social identity. It feels rather incidental and random that I was born a particular gender, race, nationality, class, etc. I can’t take credit or blame for these conditions of my fate.

Anyway, suffering doesn’t care all that much about your social identity. Anyone can suffer, although suffering is far worse for some. I mean, if you have a car accident or get some crippling disease, the animal reality of suffering is basically the same. Maybe you can get better pain drugs and a little bit more comfort, but no amount of wealth or privilege can solve the mystery of suffering.

I have a clear sense of this because of my personal experience. I’ve suffered severe depression for I guess more than a couple of decades now. I’ve had severe depression for most of my life now. I can hardly remember what life was like before it.

Depression is a unique category of suffering. Unlike the PTSD of a veteran or the physical disability of a parapalegic, depression typically has no obvious cause or reason, no obvious effect even. It pissed me off, when I first began struggling, because there was nothing I could point to and blame. It was some internal failure inside me that couldn’t even be pinpointed. There was no dramatic story to be shared about being abused or growing up poor, no political oppression or horrific racism.

Depression is just pure unadulterated suffering. My experience of it has allowed me to better grasp suffering on its own terms, and not get stuck on the proxies of suffering. Race is a proxy for class in our society, but then class is proxy of other things. Everything is a proxy of something else, except for our most intimate and direct experiences. Depression needs to be proxy for nothing. It just is.

This is what few understand about the essence of suffering. It ultimately doesn’t matter what causes your suffering because in reality there never is a single cause. Suffering is irreducible, humanity at its most fundamental. To understand suffering, we must understand the human condition.

Yes, this involves all those other factors that contribute and exacerbate suffering. I don’t mean to dismiss the objective realities of victims. But in a world of suffering, the struggle of individuals is never really individual nor even demographic. Your social identity will offer you little comfort or protection from this shared human condition enmeshed in a shared society. It is the entire world that is fucked up. It is systemic suckitude.

Social labels only separate us from this harsh reality.

Reform as Fear of Revolution

It is easy to focus on the victim while ignoring the victimization.

Let me explain. Narrowing our focus too much on a specific group, as is common with identity politics, can cause us to miss the forest for the trees. A culture of victimization is something that impacts everyone. It is easy forget this simple truth.

White males have relative privilege, but that doesn’t make poor rural white males feel any better about their lot in life. Rich people may amass great wealth in a society of great economic inequality, but research shows that even the wealthy are worse off in such societies because the increased social problems affect everyone. Middle class Westerners live relatively comfortable lives, but if you are a woman or homosexual you will still experience prejudice.

A society of violence and oppression doesn’t make for happiness for anyone involved. Pollution is breathed by all humans, rich and poor, white and minority, male and female, adult and child. We aren’t all impacted equally, that is true. Even so, we are all impacted.

We have difficulty in our society to think about problems from a more systemic perspective. We would like to improve things for those who suffer most, which is a noble endeavor. Yet, at the same time, we are reluctant to question too deeply the entire social order that made that suffering possible or even inevitable. We see problems as isolated issues that require isolated solutions. We are unable or unwilling to see how all the problems connect and magnify. We focus so much on minor reforms for fear of revolution.

This is as true for those on the left as for those on the right.

The line between victim and victimizer can at times be uncomfortably blurred. In our carelessness and unawareness, we are complicit in these ongoing injustices, for we are as responsible for what we don’t do as much as for what we do. No single person, group, or generation can be blamed for all the problems, and still the problems continue. Who is at fault? No one and everyone.

Taking responsibility is different than blame. To blame is to try to make others feel shame, but shame is rarely motivating. We take responsibility or we don’t, simply because that is what we choose. If we make that choice, we do so because we can.

 * * *

 

Class and Race as Proxies

“Perhaps what binds them all together, though, is class. Rural or small town, urban or suburban, the extreme Right is populated by downwardly mobile, lower-middle-class white men. All of the men I interviewed—all—fitted this class profile. When I compared with other ethnographies and other surveys, they all had the same profile as well.

“In the United States, class is often a proxy for race. When politicians speak of the “urban poor,” we know it’s a code for black people. When they talk about “welfare queens,” we know the race of that woman driving the late-model Cadillac. In polite society, racism remains hidden behind a screen spelled CLASS.

“On the extreme Right, by contrast, race is a proxy for class. Among the white supremacists, when they speak of race consciousness, defending white people, protesting for equal rights for white people, they actually don’t mean all white people. They don’t mean Wall Street bankers and lawyers, though they are pretty much entirely white and male. They don’t mean white male doctors, or lawyers, or architects, or even engineers. They don’t mean the legions of young white hipster guys, or computer geeks flocking to the Silicon Valley, or the legions of white preppies in their boat shoes and seersucker jackets “interning” at white-shoe law firms in major cities. Not at all. They mean middle-and working-class white people. Race consciousness is actually class consciousness without actually having to “see” class. “Race blindness” leads working-class people to turn right; if they did see class, they’d turn left and make common cause with different races in the same economic class.”

America’s angriest white men: Up close with racism, rage and Southern supremacy
by Michael Kimmel
from Salon
November 17, 2013

Masculinity & Presidency, Sexism & Politics

Katz: Sure. Well, the first thing I think that I look at in my work, and I think it’s really fundamental and basic, is that there is a persistent gender gap in voting patterns in the United States. And among white men in particular, white men have been voting radically disproportionately for the Republican nominee for president for the last 40 years. And working class white men, and there’s different ways of defining working class, but with a high school education, men with a high school education, voted in 2000 for George Bush by something like 27 points over Al Gore, and Kerry, about 25% voted for Bush over Kerry in 2004. Barack Obama cut into that pretty significantly in 2008, although he still lost the white men’s vote.

David: That’s right.

Katz: But he lost it by like about 16 percentage points, so he made some significant inroads into the white men’s vote. But if you look at white male voting patterns, the only way a Democrat can win at the national level, in the presidency, is if they win so… such a dramatic percentage of the women’s vote that it offsets their deficit among the white male vote.

David: That’s right.

Katz: And so how can we not talk about gender? Why are white men so dramatically voting for the Republican candidate for president? Now, some people, of course, for the last… since the Civil Rights Act have been talking about race as one of the central forces subtextually at work in presidential politics.

David: And it’s being talked about looking forward also because of the increasing Hispanic population and how that will play a factor.

Katz: That’s right. And of course, Obama being an African American, that brought to the surface a lot of discussions about race and politics and such that had always been there, but they were talked about even more explicitly, would white people vote for an African American for president, etc.

My thinking is that it’s not just that white men are voting as a racialized block for the Republican candidate, although that’s a big part of it, they’re also voting in a gender sense as men because since, especially since the late 60s and early 70s, and then increasingly after the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, the way that the two-party system has been sort of shaken out, if you will, in the gender binary is the Republican Party is the party of real men…

David: Right.

Katz: And the Democratic Party is the party of women and feminized men, and that has heterosexist implications as well.

David: Sure.

Katz: Because the party is seen as, the Democratic Party is seen as the party of gay rights, if you will, in addition to the men in the Democratic Party feminized in the national discourse. And I think this is a cultural/political analysis, right? I think that this is an incredibly important reason why lots of white men, including working and middle-class white men, vote against their economic interests, at least as some of us understand those economic interests.

David: No question about it.

Katz: Right. So this complicates the analysis of, say, Thomas Frank and others who have been trying to figure out why so many Americans, especially white Americans, have voted against their economic interests for the past generation.

David: You mentioned the issue of gay rights, and we saw that really incredibly directly and just at the forefront in the discussion of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I mean, I interviewed people who said the reason we shouldn’t have homosexuals serving openly in the military is because the American military is manly. And implicit in that, even though it’s not discussed, is that there’s something bad about, you know, femininity and women in the military. And when I challenged some of those people directly, it was made very clear that that is involved in that subtext, just barely underneath the surface. But other than that particular issue, what else is it that has driven this white male voting block towards the Republican candidate?

Katz: Well, in my book that I’m working on and just about to complete, I look at three issues. There’s so many issues, and so you have to really narrow it. But…

David: Yeah. Well, the major ones maybe are…

Katz: Yes. Yeah, sure. I looked at three issues that all involve violence, and they all involve important political issues over the past 40, 50 years. The first one is the cold war, the second one is the rise of street crime as a domestic political issue in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, and the discussion about, you know, violent crime, street crime, has a definitely racialized undertone to it, and then the rise of terrorism as a political issue in the late 20th century and into the 21st century.

All three of those issues, cold war, domestic crime, and terrorism, have to do with violence, and the president is a stand-in, in a certain sense, the symbolic leader of the country. He embodies, if you will, the national masculinity in a very important sense. People talk about the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the mourner-in-chief when national tragedy happens, the first family, the… I mean, he’s the one who everybody salutes to and everybody stands when he enters the room. He really does, in a certain sense, represent the country.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jackson-katz/teachable-moment-in-tucso_b_809963.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jackson-katz/rush-limbaugh-and-the-mob_b_279696.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jackson-katz/white-men-and-the-gop-mas_b_124136.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jackson-katz/the-hidden-race-and-gende_b_88580.html