Endless Outrage

“Let me be clear: this by no means justifies the Isis-inspired attacks. But, until the leaders and opinion makers and talking heads in the U.S. and France and their allies, are willing to recognize the extent to which their own massive intervention in the Greater Middle East is also responsible for the terrible situation we find ourselves in today–then, this long, downward spiral to God knows where will only continue its bloody way.” –Barry Lando

“Atrocities breed atrocities. Or as Andrew Kopkind remarked in another context, the skies were dark in Orlando this past weekend with the chickens coming home to roost.” –John V. Walsh

The recent club shooting is one of those rare events that unites nearly all Americans.

Those on the political right can feel particular hate for the shooter because he was a Muslim of Middle Eastern descent who killed Americans, ignoring that he too was American and ignoring those he killed probably included minorities and surely many atheists as well. And those on the political have a similar response because the targets were gay, an official identity politics victim class. But if the shooter had been a white right-wing Christian who shot up a women’s health clinic or if it had been a poor struggling single black mother who shot up a convention of big biz lobbyists, many Americans would have had a more mixed reaction and the outrage would be less clear.

As always, the identity of the victimizer and the identity of the victims determines the responses heard from the general public, the mainstream media, and government officials. We live in a global world where victimizers and victims are dime a dozen, but most of the violence and death is ignored by most Americans and most Westerners. It depends on the value of those involved, and of course not all humans are seen as equal in value. At times like these, that is the thought that first comes to my mind. It was the same thought I had after 9/11, an event that had followed upon decades of terrorism worldwide, both of the state and non-state varieties.

The United States military actions, CIA covert activities, and government policies such as sanctions lead to the deaths of millions in my lifetime. Bin Laden even made it clear that the 9/11 attack was precisely about that fact, the nonchalant oppression and careless murder of poor brown people and non-Christians by Western powers. The US regularly invades countries, overthrows governments, assassinates leaders, collapses countries into chaos, and destabilizes entire regions; or else aids and abets those who do such morally depraved things.

Fifty innocent people dead is just another day’s work for a government like the United States. A single drone strike in an instant easily kills fifty innocent people. It happens all the time. The illegal and unconstitutional, immoral and unjustified Iraq War has already led to the death of probably at least a half million Iraqis and possibly over a million, most of those being civilians, many of whom were women and children, and surely way more than fifty gay people died in the process—not only that, it turned a stable secular society with a thriving economy and a strong middle class into a permanent war zone where Islamic extremists have taken over, creating yet one more stronghold for terrorists.

If you take the total death toll of the War On Terror, it is in the millions. Looking at one country alone, “total avoidable Afghan deaths since 2001 under ongoing war and occupation-imposed deprivation amount to around 3 million people, about 900,000 of whom are infants under five” and “Altogether, this suggests that the total Afghan death toll due to the direct and indirect impacts of US-led intervention since the early nineties until now could be as high 3-5 million.” More broadly: “According to the figures explored here, total deaths from Western interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan since the 1990s – from direct killings and the longer-term impact of war-imposed deprivation – likely constitute around 4 million (2 million in Iraq from 1991-2003, plus 2 million from the “war on terror”), and could be as high as 6-8 million people when accounting for higher avoidable death estimates in Afghanistan.”

That is a small sampling of the kinds of things the United States and its allies have done and continue to do in the Middle East along with many other areas of the world (e.g., Latin America). In some cases, it might be a severe undercount of deaths. That doesn’t even include the crippled, traumatized, orphaned, dislocated, etc. Much of the refugee crisis right now is the result of Western actions in non-Western countries.

Just imagine if some other country (or alliance of countries) over a period of decades invaded the United States multiple times, armed and trained paramilitary groups here, overthrew the government, propped up a dictator or left the country in chaos, sent drone or military strikes from across the national border, enforced economic sanctions, and on and on. Just imagine that these actions led to the harming and killing of millions of Americans, including hundreds of thousands innocents (women, children, and other civilians), maybe taking out a few gay clubs that were in the wrong place.

Yet we Americans have the arrogant audacity and willful ignorance to wonder why so many people hate America. Worse still, Americans go on voting into power the same kind of neocons that caused so much suffering and devastation for decades. And idiotic assholes on the political left will praise someone like Hillary Clinton for supposedly being a feminist and LGBT advocate and a voice for minorities, the very politician who has promoted policies around the world that have killed more innocent women, LGBTs, and minorities than all American right-wing hate groups combined. Who needs the evil hate-and-fear-mongering of the political right when we have the New Democrats to do the job for them.

If you want to be fully pissed off, right there is a good reason for righteous anger. And if you want to fight evil in the world, make sure sociopaths like that never get elected again. But if you get emotionally worked up every time fifty innocent people get killed for reasons of oppression and prejudice, you’d be in an endless state of outrage and much of it would be directed at the United States government.

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Who Is To Blame?

Identity politics too often distracts from the real issues and can even make problems worse. My focus is as much on the victimization cycle as on the victims and victimizers. The victimization cycle puts into context and so offers a larger vantage point.

All of us humans all over are caught up in a globally-connected system of victimization. That isn’t to say all suffer equally, but it is to say we all are equally fucked in the long term on a shared planet with limited resources. What goes around comes around.

I’ve been arguing with one racist guy who keeps saying that American blacks are more violent. I can argue with that on one level by pointing out that whites are more likely to be child molesters, school shooters, bombers, serial killers, etc. But that misses a bigger issue. Why is the entire American society violent? Why is the world in general such a violent place? Why are the wealthiest countries so war-mongering? Why are so many of the post-colonial countries troubled by near endless internal conflict?

Limiting our view to the US, blacks do commit high rates of homicides, although most of their victims are also blacks. It is violence within a community. But how did so many poor black communities become so violent? Before someone committed murder, they were a kid being raised in a particular environment in a particular society. Some thing shaped them.

We know what some of those factors are. We also know that most victimizers were once victims themselves. If we looked at most people arrested for violent crime, we’d probably most often find a personal history of violent victimization: friends, neighbors, and family members murdered; police targeting and brutality; systemic and institutional racism; oppressive poverty and economic hopelessness; et cetera.

We can extend this argument to Native Americans. Native American communities also have high rates of violent crime that goes hand in hand with being the victims of large-scale violence across recent centuries.

As far as that goes, this argument also applies to poor white communities such as in the rural South, specifically Appalachia. They also have high rates of violent crime. All poor communities in this country have high rates of social problems, especially in places of high economic inequality.

Most Americans forget that the raw numbers of poor whites is massive. There are more whites on welfare than any other race. Some of these populations have been in a permanent state of poverty for centuries or longer, going back to the British Isles and Europe.

Race becomes a proxy for class. We talk about the problems of poor blacks when we really mean the problems of poor people, the problems of poverty and economic inequality, which goes hand in hand with historically oppressed groups, even though oppressed in vastly different ways.

Here is my main point:

Every victim has a victimizer. And likely most victimizers were once victims. You can keep going back and back. Where you stop as the original source of victimization can be arbitrary or else ideologically biased.

To focus on those in power: Who is to blame for the world’s present system of imperialism? The first empires who invented this social order? The later empires that introduced it to new populations such as into tribal Europe? The even later empires that turned it into colonialism? Can anyone today take responsibility for the past, whether imperialism forced onto Native Americans or imperialism forced onto earlier Europeans?

Instead of blame, who will take responsibility? What does it even mean to take responsibility for problems so far beyond any individual, for cycles of victimization that extend across centuries and millennia?

Us versus them mentalities are how authoritarian social orders maintain their power. Even many people who fight imperialism and oppression end up internalizing the dysfunction. This is why so many revolutions fail and end up with authoritarian states, sometimes worse than what came before.

All I know is that the world is a lot more complex and a lot more fucked up than most people want to admit. The world is complex. Humans are complex. It is impossible to put people into neat little boxes. We all have immense potential, for both good and evil. That is what many people are afraid to confront, the immense potential that lurks within.

Authoritarians couldn’t get away with most of what they do if not for all those complicit, including among the victimized groups. Take for example the history of blacks. The slave trade was dependent on Africans selling other Africans into slavery, not unusually people selling their neighbors or even family members in hope of saving themselves. Later on, many blacks who, after being freed following the Civil War, became Indian fighters and in doing so violently and genocidally promoted US imperial expansion across the continent.

Both poor whites and poor blacks have been willing participants in American power. These disadvantaged people have always been the majority of the soldiers who fight the wars for the rich and powerful. That is the power of nationalism, of patriotism and propaganda. Even the rich end up buying the rhetoric they use to manipulate others for their minds get warped by the same basic media that warps the minds of all of us. We are all stuck in the same reality tunnel, unable to see beyond it.

If not blame, how is responsibility to be taken? Who will take the first step?

Moral Accounting Versus Shared Suffering

There is a game humans play. It is about counting wrongdoings and measuring suffering. Whoever has had the worst experience, whoever has suffered the most wins. You get extra points for being a victim.

This is something all people do, left and right, women and men, young and old. Everyone has something that has hurt them or something they fear will hurt them. Some of these ’causes’ seem more objectively valid than others, but they all are real within the person’s experience.

This is the game of moral accounting. I don’t mean to judge this game as wrong. I’m one to do moral accounting when it comes to social problems. And I’ve been known to do it on a personal level. My long-term severe depression is the cross I bear. Through it, my understanding of the world feels justified. I have suffered. I know suffering. But so have almost everyone, one way or another. We all need to remind ourselves that we aren’t special, that our suffering isn’t unique.

How can I say my suffering is greater or less? There is no way to compare suffering. Suffering is suffering is suffering, the great equalizer. Obviously, in this life, suffering hits some people far worse than others. Yet we are incapable of being objective about it. Our own suffering is always worse, in our own experience.

Too easily, suffering can shut us down, close us off, isolate us from the world and from other people. Suffering, sadly, often divides us from the larger experience of shared human suffering, an experience that would lead us to compassion, even when we can never truly understand the suffering of another.

Why is this embracing of compassion so difficult? Why do we nurse our wounds as if from them we could shape weapons and armor to defend ourselves with? What do we fear would happen if others discovered our secret pain, if we just let our suffering be?

 

Racism Without Racists: Victimization & Silence

Violence, what does it mean? Whose violence against whom? Who gets to decide what is and isn’t violence? The victor? The imprisoner? The ruling powers, whomever they may be?

Who is the real victim and who is the real victimizer in this contest for power, this fight for freedom and justice? In what sense does might make right? Why do we so willingly accept the history written by the victors?

The world is full of violence, the United States most of all. This country, my country, our country (for my fellow Americans) has a long history of ethnic cleansing, slavery, oppression, war, conquest, punishment, exploitation, and imperialism. Violence in all of its forms. The U.S. is the most violent country among affluent nations. We spend more money on our military and we imprison more of our citizens than any country in history. There has never been a more powerful empire.

Living in a society of violence, how do we talk about violence? It isn’t just data like homicide rates. Such data is a small percentage of total violence.

I’m reminded of a quote often attributed to Joseph Stalin:

“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

An earlier version is even more apt, from the Watertown Daily Times citing a “crazy statesman” (1939):

“If you shoot one person you are a murderer. If you kill a couple persons you are a gangster. If you are a crazy statesman and send millions to their deaths you are a hero.”

Violence, at its most basic, is about suffering. It is a matter of who does and doesn’t feel suffering, who inflicts the suffering and who is inflicted. This brings us to the issue of compassion and lack thereof. These are more complex issues than the simplistic data collected by bureaucrats and academics, data-collecting that can at times verge closer to sociopathy than to compassion. The demands of objectivity, as a recent study has shown, often have a deadening effect on our ability to empathize. People are living beings with hopes and fears, not numbers, not statistics. When looking at data as we are wont to do, we must never forget what that data represents, the human reality.

I’ve struggled with understanding the suffering and violence that I see all around me, understanding it on the human level. It can feel overwhelming and senseless. How does one find humanity within inhumanity? How does one find meaning in it all?

I’m not sure about meaning, but I have come across one particular articulation and portrayal that offers a larger context to begin considering it more deeply. I speak of the work of Derrick Jensen, specifically two of his earliest books: A Language Older Than Words and The Culture of Make Believe. For many years, I searched and searched for even a glimpse of understanding. Jensen’s work was the first voice to give voice to my own sense of suffering. It felt like an acknowledgement, a validation of what I knew in my own experience, a breaking through the isolation of silence like a glimmer of light in the dark.

“If the first rule of a dysfunctional system is ‘Don’t talk about it,’ then our primary goal should be to tell the truth, to be as honest as we can manage to be. When I read something truthful, something real, I breathe a deep sigh and say, ‘Fantastic — I wasn’t mad or alone in thinking that, after all!’ So often we are left to our own devices, struggling in the dark with this eternal and internal propaganda system. At that point, for someone to tell us the truth is a gift. In a world where people all around us are lying and confusing us, to be honest is a great kindness.”
~ Derrick Jensen quoting David Edwards, The Culture of Make Believe, pp 141-142

Jensen offers two main explanations: the victimization cycle and dissociation.

The victimization cycle is a framework to make sense of how violence perpetuates itself. The line between victim and victimizer is very thin. This is demonstrated by how victimizers often have histories of victimization, typically in childhood. Jensen makes a good case for putting this into the terms of our collective history, violence endlessly leading to more violence.

Dissociation, however, is the key that unlocks the mechanism of victimization. This is how we are silenced, blinded, numbed.

Jensen uses many examples, but one stands out. In Nazi Germany, there were many doctors who did horrific experiments on children in the concentration camps. Each night, these doctors would go home and many of them had children of their own. They were good fathers, good husbands, good citizens. The two sides of their lives never crossed. It was as if these doctors had two separate selves with an absolute cognitive disconnection between them.

Nazi doctors is an extreme example, but the behavior is completely normal human psychology. Less extreme examples are commonplace. We all do it to varying degrees for our lives are divided in so many ways. It is easy to not feel and understand the connection between our personal lives and our work lives, between the Sunday sermon and the rest of the week, between what we see on the news and the world immediately around us, between what we buy at the store and what is happening in another country, between what we learn in school and in books and how we think about our everyday experience. We know many things in many aspects of our lives, but we don’t quite make the connections. In this way, we know and we don’t know many things.

We know and don’t know about about mass incarceration and racial injustice:

“The claim that we really know where all the black men have gone may inspire considerable doubt. If we know, why do we feign ignorance ? Could it be that most people really don’t know? Is it possible that the roundup, lockdown, and exclusion of black men en masse from the body politic has occurred largely unnoticed? The answer is yes and no.

“Much has been written about the ways in which people manage to deny, even to themselves, that extraordinary atrocities, racial oppression, and other forms of human suffering have occurred or are occurring. Criminologist Stanley Cohen wrote perhaps the most important book on the subject, States of Denial. The book examines how individuals and institutions—victims, perpetrators, and bystanders—know about yet deny the occurrence of oppressive acts. They see only what they want to see and wear blinders to avoid seeing the rest. This has been true about slavery, genocide , torture, and every form of systemic oppression.

“Cohen emphasizes that denial, though deplorable, is complicated. It is not simply a matter of refusing to acknowledge an obvious, though uncomfortable, truth. Many people “know” and “not-know” the truth about human suffering at the same time. In his words, “Denial may be neither a matter of telling the truth nor intentionally telling a lie. There seem to be states of mind, or even whole cultures, in which we know and don’t know at the same time.”

“Today, most Americans know and don’t know the truth about mass incarceration. For more than three decades, images of black men in handcuffs have been a regular staple of the evening news. We know that large numbers of black men have been locked in cages. In fact, it is precisely because we know that black and brown people are far more likely to be imprisoned that we, as a nation, have not cared too much about it. We tell ourselves they “deserve” their fate, even though we know— and don’t know— that whites are just as likely to commit many crimes, especially drug crimes. We know that people released from prison face a lifetime of discrimination, scorn, and exclusion, and yet we claim not to know that an undercaste exists . We know and we don’t know at the same time.”
 ~ Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, pp. 181-182

We know and don’t know about sundown towns:

“White Americans encounter sundown towns every day but rarely think about them or even realize that they’re in one. They look like other towns, especially to most non-black people, who often don’t notice the difference between 95% white and 100% white. Motorists driving through Anna, Illinois, might stop to see its famous library, designed in 1913 by Walter Burley Griffith, the Prairie School architect who went on to design Canberra, Australia. Or they might be visiting a mentally ill relative in the Illinois State Hospital. They don’t notice that Anna is a sundown town unless they know to ask. Most sundown towns and suburbs are like that: invisible, until a black wayfarer appears and the townspeople do something about it.

“At the same time, whites have nicknames for many overwhelmingly white towns: “Colonial Whites” for Colonial Heights, near Richmond, Virginia; “the White Shore” across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, instead of the West Shore; “Caucasian Falls” for Cuyahoga Falls near Akron, Ohio; “Whiteface Bay” for Whitefish Bay, north of Milwaukee; and so forth across the country to “Lily White Lynwood” outside Los Angeles. Whites make up jokes about the consequences of an African American being found after dark in many sundown towns and suburbs. “Even the squirrels are white in Olney” is a quip about a sundown town in southeastern Illinois known also for its albino squirrels. Such nicknames and jokes show that the whiteness of these towns has registered; whites do understand that the absence of blacks is no accident. Residents of a metropolitan area also know which suburbs are said to be the whitest and which police departments have a reputation for racial profiling. The practice of stopping and questioning African Americans in Darien, Connecticut, for example, was “an open secret in town,” according to Gregory Dorr, who grew up there. Nevertheless, when told that many American towns and suburbs kept out African Americans for decades and some still do, often these same individuals claim to be shocked.

“Perhaps it is more accurate to say that white Americans know and don’t know about sundown towns. This curious combination of knowing and not knowing seems eerily reminiscent of Europe, 1938–45: surely Germans (and Poles, French, Dutch, etc.) knew that Jewish and Romany people were being done away with—their houses and apartments were becoming vacant and available before their very eyes, after all. Yet many professed shock when told about it afterward. I do not claim that America’s rash of sundown towns is a Holocaust. The murdered probably total fewer than 2,000 and the refugees fewer than 100,000, nothing like the fury the Nazis unleashed upon Jewish and Rom people. Yet there is a parallel question: why have so few white Americans ever heard of sundown towns, even when they live in one?

‘“Yvonne Dorset,” for example, grew up in Buffalo, Illinois, near Springfield. In 2002 she replied to a discussion at Classmates.com: “I graduated from Tri-City [the high school in Buffalo] in 1963. There weren’t any African Americans in my graduating class, but I never thought of it as anything but coincidence. We were brought up to respect all races.” As best I can tell, Dorset has lived in Buffalo from 1945 to now. What would we make of a long-term resident of, say, Heidelberg, Germany, who wrote in 2002, “There weren’t any Jews in my graduating class, but I never thought of it as anything but coincidence”? Buffalo drove out its African Americans on August 17, 1908. The absence of African Americans from Buffalo today is no more a “coincidence” than the near-absence of Jewish Germans from Heidelberg.”
~ James W. Loewen, Sundown Towns, Kindle Locations 3829-3856

There seemingly is no end to the things we know and don’t know.

Dissociation protects against suffering that is simply too great to comprehend, protects us against uncomfortable truths. This is a psychological form of plausible deniability that usually goes hand in hand with collective forms of plausible deniability. Like structural racism, there is structural dissociation that can be found in government, in the media, in schools, in churches; it can be found everywhere.

Dissociation is how reality tunnels form, and while in them we see nothing else, know nothing else. It is simply our reality. It is our attempt to make sense of the senseless, our dysfunctional response to a dysfunctional world. It is adaptive behavior to a bad situation and no one can doubt that we humans excel at being adaptable.

Dissociation is how victims become victimizers, how good people do bad things. We judge others as immoral or even evil: Nazis, rapists, child abusers, etc. They are different than the rest of us, we assure ourselves. We are good people. We aren’t racists, we aren’t murderers. It isn’t our fault that racism and violence exists in our society. Yes, there are bad people. But that has nothing to do with us. We are innocent. We aren’t perfect, but we have good intentions.

Ah yes, good intentions. *sigh* The road to hell is well paved.

We are all culpable, all responsible for we are all part of this same society, this same history. The past is never past. We can’t pretend that the world we live in has nothing to do with what came before. The past, as it has been said, is prologue.

Indentured servitude led to slavery. After Reconstruction came the Redeemers with the worst forms of sharecropping, debt peonage, chain gangs and forced labor camps. Then came Jim Crow and now mass incarceration. It never ends. It morphs and each time it becomes more resilient to scrutiny. But at a basic level it remains the same. It is just more injustice and oppression, just more violence and suffering. It is the same old story of justice delayed.

The horror of this has become clear to me as I’ve read more and more about American history. I keep being shocked by the arguments people made in the past. I recognize them as arguments I hear today. It is eery how little changes. Most people who made rationalizations and excuses in the past were good people, whether slaveholders or Nazis. Most people today who make rationalizations and excuses are also good people. The world is full of good people and yet not-so-good things continue on.

There is no evil master plan. It isn’t necessary.

“The unfortunate reality we must face is that racism manifests itself not only in individual attitudes and stereotypes, but also in the basic structure of society. Academics have developed complicated theories and obscure jargon in an effort to describe what is now referred to as Structural racism, yet the concept is fairly straightforward. One theorist, Iris Marion Young, relying on a famous “birdcage” metaphor, explains it this way: If one thinks about racism by examining only one wire of the cage, or one form of disadvantage , it is difficult to understand how and why the bird is trapped. Only a large number of wires arranged in a specific way, and connected to one another, serve to enclose the bird and to ensure that it cannot escape.”
~ Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p. 184

This makes it all the more frustrating. It is racism without any need for racists, a cognitive prison of our own making.

How does one discuss racial bias with those who don’t see it? When something is unconscious, it simply and seamlessly is part of a person’s sense of reality and a part of the reality shared by nearly everyone around them. There is no conscious intention to be racially prejudiced, but there is an instinctive fear or resistance toward the status quo being challenged. Or else it is simply indifference, a lack of understanding and so a lack of knowing why they should care. It isn’t real at a gut-level in the way it is real to someone who has been the victim of it.

In trying to discuss this, my frustration in part comes from how it too often gets misdirected to side issues, slipping away from the core truth that needs to be spoken and heard. The apparent explanation is that some people literally can’t see the main issue or can’t see it on its own terms, can’t see it for what it is. This is a cultural blindspot. It is as if it doesn’t exist for, in their reality tunnel, it doesn’t exist to them. So, they latch onto side issues that are the only things they can see as relevant. Discussion, such as it is, just goes around and around never getting to the heart of the matter.

This frustration eventually gets to me and gets the better of me, thus bringing out the worse in me. There is this immense injustice in our society, injustice that is cruel beyond belief. It is hard to resist responding with mean-spiritedness, resist falling into bitterness and anger. The excuses and rationalizations for this collective ‘evil’ are soul-crushing, and there is no other word besides ‘evil’ that can capture the depth of moral failure and in some cases outright moral depravity. It is ‘evil’ because it is so much greater than any individual, greater than any generation of individuals, greater even than a single nation. The roots of this shared human sin go back into the distant past. Our entire society is built on it. Simply by being born into this society, we all bear some responsibility, first and foremost the responsibility to become aware and then responsibility to give voice.

It has been with us so long that it is immense. Most people don’t have the time and energy, much less the interest, to study the long and detailed history of oppression and injustice that has continued up to the present. Most people simply don’t comprehend it and, because of the collective shame about it (along with fear and anger), there is little to compel understanding. When confronted with this knowledge, many people complain that you’re trying to make them feel guilty. This seems to be an unconscious acknowledgment that there is something to be guilty about, an acknowledgment that can only be stated through projection for that is always how the unconscious first emerges. The budding awareness of mass suffering isn’t a comfortable experience, to feel it like a raw wound.

The systemic oppression and prejudice truly is immense, beyond any individual. It is actively enforced on the societal level of politics and law. It is pervasive throughout our culture. It is the air we breathe, the ground we walk upon, the world we know. It is just there. As such, on the individual level, it is largely passive and mindless. Most people just go along to get along (I know that I usually do exactly this). Most people don’t ever give much thought to other people’s problems and sufferings, even when or especially when their own continued benefit and comfort is dependent upon it. It is motivated reasoning which is why it must operate to some degree subconsciously.

“Others may wonder how a racial caste system could exist when most Americans— of all colors— oppose race discrimination and endorse colorblindness. Yet […] racial caste systems do not require racial hostility or overt bigotry to thrive. They need only racial indifference, as Martin Luther King Jr. warned more than forty-five years ago.”
 ~ Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p. 14

It is obvious for anyone who has fully looked at and seriously considered the data that racism is rampant in all aspects and at all levels of American society. But the typical stumbling block is that few have much, if any, familiarity with such data. There is always a reason to deny it and dismiss it, to rationalize it away before even considering it. There is always a reason for those who want a reason to not face what is in front of them. Humans are extremely talented at rationaization.

“There is a strange kind of enigma associated with the problem of racism. No one, or almost no one, wishes to see themselves as racist; still, racism persists, real and tenacious” —Albert Memmi, Racism

“Nowadays, except for members of white supremacist organizations, few whites in the United States claim to be “racist.” Most whites assert they “don’t see any color, just people”; that although the ugly face of discrimination is still with us, it is no longer the central factor determining minorities’ life chances; and, finally, that, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., they aspire to live in a society where “people are judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin.” More poignantly, most whites insist that minorities (especially blacks) are the ones responsible for whatever “race problem” we have in this country . They publicly denounce blacks for “playing the race card,” for demanding the maintenance of unnecessary and divisive race -based programs, such as affirmative action, and for crying “racism” whenever they are criticized by whites. Most whites believe that if blacks and other minorities would just stop thinking about the past, work hard, and complain less (particularly about racial discrimination), then Americans of all hues could “all get along.”

“But regardless of whites’ “sincere fictions,” racial considerations shade almost everything in America. Blacks and dark-skinned racial minorities lag well behind whites in virtually every area of social life; they are about three times more likely to be poor than whites, earn about 40 percent less than whites, and have about an eighth of the net worth that whites have. They also receive an inferior education compared to whites, even when they attend integrated institutions. In terms of housing, black-owned units comparable to white-owned ones are valued at 35 percent less. Blacks and Latinos also have less access to the entire housing market because whites, through a variety of exclusionary practices by white realtors and homeowners, have been successful in effectively limiting their entrance into many neighborhoods. Blacks receive impolite treatment in stores, in restaurants, and in a host of other commercial transactions. Researchers have also documented that blacks pay more for goods such as cars and houses than do whites. Finally, blacks and dark-skinned Latinos are the targets of racial profiling by the police, which, combined with the highly racialized criminal court system, guarantees their overrepresentation among those arrested, prosecuted, incarcerated , and if charged for a capital crime, executed. Racial profiling on the highways has become such a prevalent phenomenon that a term has emerged to describe it: driving while black. In short, blacks and most minorities are “at the bottom of the well.”

“How is it possible to have this tremendous degree of racial inequality in a country where most whites claim that race is no longer relevant? More important, how do whites explain the apparent contradiction between their professed color blindness and the United States’ color-coded inequality?”
 ~ Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America, Kindle Locations 168-195

I don’t want to get into the details right now, the statistics and research results, the endless examples and anecdotes. There are a lot of details. I’m not exaggerating. The research demonstrating racial prejudice has been discussed in hundreds of books and it really does take a book to do it justice, although it is the type of book that the most racially biased are unlikely to read (yes, that was meant as a challenge; I can offer a list of books for anyone wanting to be challenged). I hope that maybe there are some fence-sitters who can be convinced that sitting on fences is a less-than-comfortable position.

I recognize this is a difficult issue. It isn’t about blame for there is plenty of responsibility to go around. Who here is without sin? I’m certainly not in a position to cast the first stone. My personal life is a mess. I’m no hero or saint. I’m nobody important. I’m just trying to understand. I still don’t know what to make of it all, much less what should be done about it. My only purpose is to be yet another voice. My only hope is that if enough voices are joined maybe we will be heard. And in being heard that the silence will be broken.

Public Good vs Splintered Society (pt 3)

I’ve been in a mood of retreat recently, less spiritual retreat and more battle retreat. I’m fed up with the whole shebang. Even NPR is pissing me off (NPR: Liberal Bias?“This is the type of issue I’m tired of posting about. But I’m posting it because the lying pundits and deceiving political strategists never tire… and, more annoying to my everyday interactions, because the un-/mis-/disinformed followers never tire.”).

It’s not just about disagreeing. It’s more fundamental. I want truth, authenticity. I want to know what is real, feel it in my gut. All the spin and rhetoric is getting to me. I’ve hit breaking points before, but this one is different. I’ve been studying history and politics in great detail for a number of years now. I’m not entirely giving up on that, but I can feel a part of me beginning to back off from it all.

Various things clarified this for me recently. What really pushed me over the edge was actually reading something inspiring, something that felt authentically real. The book in question is Homegrown Democrat by Garrison Keillor, the inspiration then led to sadness when I watched and listened to some mainstream media and politics. A while back, I was similarly inspired and saddened by reading Harvey J. Kaye’s Thomas Paine and the Promise of America (Thomas Paine was a classical liberal I could respect).

Inspiration and depression have always gone hand in hand for me. I’ve always thought that if modern society doesn’t make you feel suicidally depressed, then there is something seriously wrong with you. I say that only half humorously.

“From a certain point onward, there is a no turning back. That is the point that must be reached.”
 ~ Franz Kafka 

– – – 

Here is a long comment from a recent post where I expressed my feelings:

What Paine and many others realized is that civilization is built on and dependent on violence. All the good of our modern lives is inseparable form horrible violence. It’s a conundrum, but one that must be faced. The worst violence doesn’t come from a gun or not in a direct sense. There is no choice between violence or no violence in this world. A completely peaceful world is a nice utopia, but for right now we have to deal with the reality in front of us.

As for guns democratically controlled, this happened because they were controlled undemocratically in the past. The world is violent. That is just the way reality is, like it or not (which isn’t to say we shouldn’t aspire toward peace). It’s just that a gun controlled democratically is better than a gun controlled by a tyrant or a gang or a corporation. I’m not a fan of choosing between the lesser of two evils, but in this case there is no other choice… except by either fundamentally altering human nature or fundamentally altering all of human civilization (both being very long term projects that certainly won’t see fruition in our lifetimes, if ever).

Freedom from violence is an abstract ideal. The land you live on is made of the corpses of Native Americans who unwillingly sacrificed their freedom for yours. The products you buy are made through an oppressively violent global economy. If you own property, you are participating in the continuation of a history of colonial genocide and oppression. The land you own is theft from the indigenous and theft from the commons. The landless peasants, many who are homeless, still suffer because of an ownership class that defends it’s stolen land by use of violence, both public and private. How many more people have to die and how much longer does oppression have to last for the sake of these abstract ideals?

“I might disagree, for example if you were asserting that the label “socialism” can be interpreted to mean MERELY valuing the collective good, and fairness.”

I’m not asserting anything in describing what socialism is. I didn’t invent socialism. What I was doing is pointing out the fact that many people are misinformed about socialism. Many of the criticisms of socialism are against views that many socialists don’t advocate. ‘Socialism’ is a favorite straw man of American society, In response to this sad state of affairs, I was offering accurate definitions of socialism.

It’s just a fact that socialists care more about the common good than any other group. It’s the very heart of socialism: social good, social concerns, social-ism. Socialists merely point out that in an interconnected world as we live in it’s literally impossible to separate individual good from collective good, private good from public good. The distinctions between these things only exist in the human mind and in human language, but they don’t exist in the actual lived reality of the world we all share. I know many Americans don’t want to accept these facts. Still, the facts remain.

The distinction I put forth is that anyone who cares will always put people before ideology, including the ideology of ‘freedom’. The question is: Freedom from what and towards what? Whose freedom at whose cost? Too many people want to defend their own freedom while trampling on the freedom of others and then rationalizing that it isn’t their fault that their freedom is built on violence and oppression. People suffer, there are winners and losers, some are just inferior and deserve the horrible fate an oppressive society forced on them. In my heart of hearts, I hope such people one day experience the suffering of those they look down upon or simply ignore. The distinction I put forth is between those who know suffering in the marrow of their bones and those who live comfortable, contented lives.

I’m tired of ideology. I really don’t know how to communicate what I feel other than to say I feel frustrated. The freedom to be poor and oppressed isn’t a freedom I want. The freedom to live in a dog eat dog world is a freedom that makes me want to commit suicide, not joking. If that is freedom, then I’m with Derrick Jensen and I want to see civilization be demolished.

I’m tired of people who, while seemingly meaning well, promote an ugly view of society and of human nature. I’m tired of people who act patriotic about ‘America’ when it’s obvious they have little faith in what America stands for. To them, America just means an attitude of ‘me and my own’ (“Real Americans”).

And I’m tired of people who righteously defend freedom while not acknowledging that most people still live without basic rights and opportunities, that the freedom they defend is in reality just the denial of the freedom of others. Freedom can’t be taken away when it has yet to exist in our society (yes there is some freedom for some people, but even that limited freedom is mostly held by a minority… when freedom means wealth and power, then freedom no longer has any valid meaning).

I’m just plain tired. The worldview that America has come to stand for is something I feel compelled to stand against. Freedom has become a choice between Coke or Pepsi, between Republican or Democrat, between America or the Commies. It’s a simpleminded, black/white conception of freedom. It’s an empty, superficial freedom… just propaganda for mass control.

What inspires me is very simple: people caring about people. Not people caring about people because they think it will boost their own self-interest. Just people caring about people because it’s the right thing to do. We can worry about abstract ideals later… after the starving are fed, the freezing are housed, the sick and dying are cared for. Jesus didn’t ask for money before healing someone, didn’t wonder if such actions conformed to some abstract ideal of liberty. Jesus just helped people.

Basically, what I’m proposing is Midwestern liberalism which partly originates from the early settlers who brought along with them a pragmatic socialism (from Northern Europe). Midwestern liberalism/socialism is just basic Heartland values. The Milwaukee socialists were known as the Sewer Socialists because they were concerned about very practical issues of community life such as making sure there was clean air and water so that people didn’t get sick (which was a major problem with the rise of industrialization). The Sewer Socialists were proud of having a sewer system that actually worked (quite an achievement at the time), to have public services that actually served the public. They didn’t give a damn about ideology. They just wanted people in their community to be healthy and cared for.

Such simple pride in having a healthy community seems almost odd today, but such Midwestern liberalism/socialism still exists… at least in some parts of the Midwest. I was just reminded of this tonight while reading Garrison Keillor’s Homegrown Democrat:

“The state was settled by no-nonsense socialists from Germany and Sweden and Norway who unpacked their trunks and planted corn and set about organizing schools; churches; libraries; lodges; societies and benevolent associations; brotherhoods and sisterhoods, and raised their children to Mind Your Manners, Be Useful, Pay Attention, Make Something of Yourself, Turn Down the Thermostat (If You’re Cold, Go Put on a Sweater), Share and Share Alike, Be Satisfied with What You Have—a green Jell-O salad with mandarin oranges, miniature marshmallows, walnuts, and Miracle Whip is by God good enough for anybody. I grew up in the pure democracy of a public grade school where everybody brought a valentine for everybody on Valentine’s Day so we should feel equally loved though of course some valentines are more equal than others, some have lace and little flaps under which special endearments are written, and others are generic, printed six to a page with bumpy edges where they were torn on the dotted line. But you should be happy with what you get and Don’t Think You’re Special Because You’re Not. (Those people on daytime TV talking about how their parents never gave them the positive feedback they needed and that’s why they shot them—those are not Minnesotans. Nor are the people who go to court to win their children the right to not say the Pledge of Allegiance or not be in the room when other children are saying it.) We take pains to not be Special. If there is one meatball left on the platter, you do not take it, you take half of it, and someone else takes half of that and so it is endlessly divided down to the last crumb. Not a state of showboats or motor-mouths.

“[ . . . ] there is a high value placed on public services. If you call 911 in St. Paul, the cops or the EMTs will arrive within four minutes. In the Republican suburbs, where No New Taxes is the beginning and end of politics and emergency services depend on volunteers, the response time can be anywhere between ten or fifteen and thirty minutes.”

Keillor is the first person I’ve come across in a long while who captures that down-to-earth sense of the common good. It’s very Midwestern thing and so I’m not sure people from other parts of the country can fully understand it. In the Midwest, community has more centrality than individuality. There are a couple of reasons for this.

First, it’s farming country. When it was first settled, farmers were fairly isolated and were dependent on their neighbors. They shared their resources to have schools, roads, bridges, hospitals, etc. They truly had a government for and by the people.

Second, it’s partly the religion of the first settlers. They were largely Catholics and Quakers who are very community-oriented. Catholics and Quakers built public schools, orphanages and hospitals where ever they settled. They put collective action and collective benefit above individual freedom and self-interest. It’s why the Catholic Church has often had an uneasy relationship to unbridled capitalism and it’s why the areas of the US with the highest rates of Catholic membership are also the same areas with the highest rates of union membership.

– – –

In case you didn’t notice from that comment, let me state it obviously: I’M TIRED! Lordy Lordy!

But, more importantly, I was impressed by Garrison Keillor. He is what is known as ‘good people’. I just finished reading his book. It made me so happy… well, while reading it. Paine made me proud to be an American. And Keillor makes me proud to be a Midwestern liberal. Keillor is so down-to-earth and easygoing. Reading Keillor’s words, I felt a genuine attitude of emotional honesty, an open-hearted sense of humanity. Whatever it is, it’s a rare thing. Some people thought Bush jr was the type of guy you could have a beer with by which I assume they were referring to his past as an alcoholic frat boy. Well, Keillor is the kind of guy you imagine having breakfast with in a cheap diner while discussing important issues such as weather, town gossip and last Sunday’s sermon.

However, it’s more than just that friendly, down-to-earth midwestern sensibility that values people over ideology and community over politics, that emphasizes the enjoyment of the simple things in life, that looks for the good in others while emphasizing that one is no better than anyone else. All of that is there in Keillor, but he also comes off as having great self-awareness and social insight. You can tell he has thought deeply and carefully. He isn’t expressing his opinions for the sake of proving that he is right and that those who disagree with him are wrong.

In thinking about Keillor, I was thinking of others of a similar authentic, easygoing bent. Some obvious examples are Jim Wallis, Noam Chomsky and Thom Hartmann. I might also add people like Henry David Thoreau, Philip K. Dick and Terrence McKenna. The common theme among all of these is a basic quality of humanness rather than ideology or ulterior motive. All of these people seem to genuinely like people, something I admire for the reason I too often fail at it. I realize I would be a better person if I was able to feel and express such empathy and compassion.

  – – – 

There is one part of Keillor’s attitude that is most relevant to my own recent focus. I described it somewhat in the above blog comment when I mentioned community as a traditional Midwestern value.

Community is such a simple thing, but these days it can seem like a strange alien artifact. Some American citizens are so messed up in the head that they think hating the American government is patriotic. Instead of being about people and community, patriotism has been made into self-righteous folk religiosity. Instead of being about democracy and public service, patriotism has become about partisan self-interest and xenophobic fear-mongering.

All of this got me thinking about individualism, specifically the American variety of hyper-individualism that became increasingly popular in recent decades. Although clearly popular among conservatives, it isn’t limited to conservatives. It’s not unusual for me to come across liberals who promote their own kind of hyper-individualism. There is a type of person who is so concerned about individual liberty and rights that everything else, at best, becomes of secondary value or, at worst, becomes entirely occluded from their vision of reality.

Basically, such a person can’t see the forest for the trees. You can point at the trees and they will see the trees and they might go on about the value of each and every tree. They might be sad as tree after tree is cut down or infested by insects or strangled by kudzu or becomes sickly from pollution, but they won’t put it all together, won’t see an entire ecosystem dying, won’t understand that when this particular ecosystem dies the entire life-supporting biosphere is further weakened. A rainforest, for example, can take hundreds of thousands or even millions of years to form. But once destroyed they can’t be replanted. They’re just gone, a major source of the very oxygen we breathe gone forever (or at least gone forever as far as the human species is concerned).

 – – – 

I had an insight about where hyper-individualism came from in American history. I see two major factors.

Right from the beginning America has been a favorite destination of people escaping oppression, violence and various other kinds of suffering and horror. Many first generation immigrants were psychologically traumatized which led to a rootlessness. These people had a mentality of escape and Americans are always getting away and moving on, always planning escape routes. The Native Americans also were traumatized, but we hid their trauma by sending them off to places we didn’t have to see them.

The history of America has been trauma, victim becoming victimizer creating new victims. It’s our founding mythology, told and retold: slavery, religious persecution, indigenous genocide, revolution, etc. After independence was declared, there soon followed the Civil War which was in many ways just re-opening old wounds of revolutionary era conflicts. The Civil War ripped America apart and we’ve never really healed from it. We are still a divided people.

This is where the second factor comes in. The symbol of American (hyper-)individualism is the lone cowboy, sometimes fighting the good fight but reluctantly, always escaping a haunted past. Have you ever wondered what the haunted past was that caused movie cowboys to often be silent and at other times violent. In reality, many Wild West gunslingers (such as Jesse James) were Civil War veterans, quite a few Southerners. They saw many friends die in the war. A lot of them lost their homes and their livelihood. For a few, the entire town they left behind was burned to the ground. Some lost family members or even whole families (My dad was telling me about one of our neighbors in South Carolina who told him about how on one side of his family every male had been killed in the Civil War; and he explained to my dad that, after losing a war of that magnitude, such personal losses aren’t forgotten even generations later).

These were severely traumatized veterans and they didn’t go to therapy to heal their trauma. They were real men, and as real men they turned to booze and prostitutes, guns and adventure. Many went West because of their haunted pasts that were driving them to get as far away as possible. As the first immigrants escaped the horrors of other countries, the Civil War veterans were escaping the horrors of America.

Here is a clear description of the horrors, both collective and personal, of the Civil War and its aftermath (from Rebirth of a Nation by Jackson Lears):

“EARLY AS April 1862 Americans had a sense of what happened when massive assaults provoked massive counterassaults. Near Shiloh Church in Tennessee, Generals Beauregard and Grant threw armies at each other for thirty-six hours. As reports of the battle filtered back to the home front, the staggering losses mounted, eventually up to 24,500 killed, wounded, or missing on both sides. The numbers were numbing; in any case there was little popular protest, North or South. A few Democratic newspaper editors in the North, never too keen on the war in the first place, deplored the losses and demanded Grant’s scalp. No one knew that they had seen the future. Shiloh was only the first of many bloodbaths—the first of many indications that the most successful Union commanders would be the ones most willing to sacrifice unprecedented numbers of men. The West Point Code was on the way out.

“Neither side sought to avoid bloodbaths; both seemed addicted to frontal assaults (preferably uphill) on entrenched fortifications. The casualties were fearful, in the mass and in detail. The failed assault on Fort Wagner in July 1863 by the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth, the black regiment under the command of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, left an eyewitness aghast: “The ditch was literally choked up with dead bodies and it was possible to walk upon them for fifty yards without touching ground.” Those who survived often faced their own protracted horrors, as Walt Whitman reported from a Washington hospital: a Union soldier shot through the bladder, marinating in his own piss; a Confederate soldier the top of whose head had been blown off and whose brains were suppurating in the sun, surviving for three days while he dug a hole in the ground with his heel. These scenes were repeated by the hundreds of thousands. And there were many witnesses.

“Looking back on the war in Specimen Days, Whitman strained to capture the enormity of the evil unleashed by raw rage. After describing John Mosby’s Confederate guerrillas gunning down the Union wounded they had captured near Upperville, Virginia, Whitman then recalled the Union cavalry’s counterattack, capture, and summary execution of seventeen guerrillas in the Upperville town square, where they left the bodies to rot. “Multiply [this scene] by scores, aye hundreds,” Whitman wrote, “light it with every lurid passion, the wolf’s, the lion’s lapping thirst for blood—the passionate volcanoes of human revenge for comrades, brothers slain—with the light of burning farms, and heaps of smutting, smouldering black embers—and in the human heart everywhere black, worse embers—and you have an inkling of this war.”

“Whitman’s recollection of “the light of burning farms” underlined the other major feature of total war: the treatment of civilians as belligerents. Early in the war, Confederates fantasized about bombarding Northern cities, and Stonewall Jackson was always champing at the bit to bring the war to the Northern people. But despite Jackson’s murderous ferocity, the Confederates did not have the resources to sustain an aggressive war. Apart from the two abortive invasions that ended at Antietam and Gettysburg, the main damage done by the Confederate Army to the Yankee population was the tactically pointless burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in 1864. The chief Southern war on civilians was conducted in Missouri, by guerrillas and other irregulars who resisted the Union army of occupation and terrorized its civilian sympathizers, torching their property and gunning them down at random. William Quantrell and his guerrilla band in Missouri, along with John Mosby and his raiders in Virginia, led what might today be characterized as the terrorist wing of the Confederate insurgency.

“Confederate guerrillas practiced insurgent terrorism, the Union Army gradually embraced a policy that can accurately be characterized as state terrorism. By 1865, fifty thousand Southern civilians had been killed as a direct result of Northern combat operations. The policy was embodied in Lincoln’s General Order #100, authored by Francis Lieber, a German émigré, romantic nationalist, and erstwhile professor at the University of South Carolina. The first part of the order aimed to restrict “savage” behavior, such as the bombardment of civilian areas in cities or the pillage of farms; the second part eviscerated those restrictions by stating that any of them could be ignored in the event of “military necessity.” In a counterinsurgency campaign, the phrase justified shelling cities and torching farms. Like other insurgencies, the secessionist movement depended for its support on the local population. The recognition of that fact was behind Grant’s famous order to Philip Sheridan: “turn the Shenandoah into a barren waste so that crows flying over it for the balance of the season will have to carry their own provender.” Other rationales for treating civilians as belligerents foreshadowed contemporary excuses for “collateral damage.” Sherman bombarded Atlanta neighborhoods, he said, because the Confederates were using civilians as human shields. The mass of the Southern population was neither armed nor dangerous. But they were in the war, whether they wanted to be or not. Total war swept all before it.

“Conventional accounts of Appomattox and its aftermath have everyone rolling up his sleeves and getting ready to pitch into an expansive economy. But given the ravages of total war, North and South, one could just as easily describe a postwar landscape littered with lost souls. Consider, for example, how the war shaped the lives of two James boys: Garth Wilkinson James and Jesse James.

“James was the younger brother of William and Henry James, one of the two less favored sons in a talented, ambitious family. Plump, good-natured, and fervently antislavery, Wilky enlisted in the Forty-fourth Massachusetts regiment in September 1862. Both his older brothers managed to avoid the army, with their father’s approval and connivance. Henry James Sr. showed no such solicitude for his younger boys. But war would be Wilky’s one chance to step out of his brothers’ shadow. Transferred to Shaw’s Fifty-fourth, Wilky became one of the white officers who led the black regiment’s doomed charge on Fort Wagner. He was seriously wounded, hit by a shell in the side and a canister ball in the foot. After months of convalescence he returned to the Fifty-fourth, but he never really recovered from his wounds. He survived for eighteen years after Appomattox, in nearly constant pain from rheumatism in his wounded foot. He bumped from one bad business venture to another, beginning with the failure of his idealistic plan to provide recently freed black families an economic foothold by employing them on his farm in Florida. Having run through many thousands of his father’s dollars, he was finally disinherited and died in poverty in Milwaukee, where he and his family had been scraping by after several failed business ventures. For Wilky the war brought not regeneration but ruin. He was one of many men whose physical and emotional wounds never healed.

“James, in contrast, was not physically wounded but psychologically brutalized by the war. Coming of age amid the white-hot hatreds of wartime Missouri, he grew up in a world where casual murder was a manly sport and a rite of passage, the only conclusive proof that you had become (and remained) a man. He proved himself many times during the war, when he rode with Quantrell’s raiders. After Appomattox new opportunities presented themselves. In Missouri, ten years of blood feuds had bred widespread longings for retribution. Many returning veterans could not give up the habit of violence and helped to swell a postwar crime wave. Gunslinging became a way of life.

“Much of the violence was rooted in Reconstruction politics. Bushwhackers wanted revenge against Radical Republicans and money from the companies the Republicans financed. That was enough, among embittered Confederates, to make the James gang seem more than mere bandits and killers. But that is what they were. For fifteen years, they took money at gunpoint from banks and later from express companies, whose monies were being transported on the expanding network of railroads. They also killed a lot of innocent people. Throughout his short life, Jesse remained irresistibly attracted to arbitrary violence.

“Wilkinson James and Jesse James were both permanently scarred by the war, though in profoundly different ways. Wilky limped through the postwar period, failing at everything he tried, knowing that nothing he did would ever match the heroism of storming Fort Wagner. Jesse was filled with partisan rage and vicious notions of manhood that transformed him into a driven killer. The war ravaged lives in unpredictable ways and left a wounded nation.”

In the years following the Civil War, some gunslingers became idolized as heroic lawmen and others became idolized as anti-heroic lawless gunslingers. Jesse James, mentioned above, is a good example of the latter. And Virgil Earp is a good example of the former:

“Private Virgil Earp was still a teenager when marched off to war in 1862 leaving his wife with a baby girl just two weeks old. He would not see his wife or daughter again for thirty-seven years because in the summer of 1863, Ellen was told that Virgil had been killed in Tennessee. Heartbroken, Ellen took her daughter and headed west with her parents. Unaware of the reports of his death, Virgil served throughout the Civil War seeing action in Tennessee and Kentucky. His regiment was assigned to the Army of the Cumberland commanded by Major General George H. Thomas. By the end of the war, the 83rd Illinois had lost one hundred twenty-one men and officers. Private Earp was not among those who died. He returned home in the summer of 1865, three years after he left, to find his wife and baby gone and no way to contact them.

“Like tens of thousands of Civil War veterans, the Earp brothers headed west for a fresh start and new opportunities. For the next ten years, Virgil Earp moved around the country holding various jobs such as farming, railroad construction, and stagecoach driver. He married, divorced, and married again.”

Whether lawman or lawless, it was a popular romantic myth of violent justice where the individual determined his own sense of justice. There was not much if any government in the Wild West. Both heroic lawmen and anti-heroic lawless gunslingers were uneasy of the encroachment of civilization with a new brand of lawmen who were a privatized law and military force, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. There were more Pinkerton agents than there were US soldiers, and probably quite a few Civil War veterans were hired as Pinkerton agents. The lawless gunslingers were seen as heroes because they were fighting big businesses that used violence and oppression to get their way. This was an era that was fomenting the public unrest eventually leading to the Populist Era.

At the same time, this was the era of the Indian Wars which continued into the early 20th century. The Native Americans were fighting their last battles as the unions were fighting their first battles. Between Indians and Pinkertons, the Wild West cowboy was in the middle of enemies. It was a time of violence that created a culture of violence.

 – – –

Furthermore, this violence became the mythology which was permanently emblazoned on the collective psyche through early publications of the exploits of gunfighters and later on with movies.

After those earliest cowboy movies, the lone cowboy myth was being modernized during the Reagan Era when hyper-individualism took on new meaning. Reagan was the actor pretending to be a cowboy who pretended to be a corporate spokesperson and then a president. The romanticized myth of the lone cowboy helped get Reagan elected. It was at that time when macho hyper-individualism fully became the new American mythos: the lone cowboy, the lone rogue cop, the lone businessman. And I suppose it was no accident that the rise of hyper-individualism came at the high point of communist paranoia, communism after all being the antithesis of hyper-individualism.

It was the death knell of liberalism. Rambo was one of the first modernized versions of the lone cowboy. There is the book The Spitting Image by Jerry Lembcke which analyzes how a legend formed around the claim that many Vietnam vets were spit upon by protesters (Damn hippies!) when they came home. In that book, he attributes the origins of this legend to movies such as Rambo: First Blood where there is a scene of Rambo raging about the injustices he met upon his return:

Colonel Trautman: It’s over Johnny. It’s over!

Rambo: Nothing is over! Nothing! You just don’t turn it off! It wasn’t my war! You asked me I didn’t ask you! And I did what I had to do to win, for somebody who wouldn’t let us win! Then I come back to the world, and I see all those maggots at the airport, protestin’ me, spittin’, callin’ me a baby killer and all kinds of vile crap! Who are they to protest me?! Huh?! Who are they?! Unless they been me and been there and know what the hell they yellin’ about!

Of course, this ignores that the anti-war protesters directed their anger and criticism at the political leaders and not the soldiers. It also ignores the fact that a fair number of Vietnam vets became anti-war protesters. But facts never get in the way of a good story.

Obviously, the Vietnam War was traumatizing to the American psyche similar to the Civil War. Both wars created a generation of physically and psychologically battered veterans many of whom felt victimized and resentful. And out of that trauma was born a sense of isolation and a sense of the individual being against the world. Rambo describes this in his words directly following the above speech about “all those maggots”:

Colonel Trautman: It was a bad time for everyone Rambo. It’s all in the past now.

Rambo: For you! For me civilian life is nothin’! In the field without a code of honor. You watch my back I watch yours. Back here there’s nothin’! Col. Trautman: You’re the last of an elite group. Don’t end it like this. Rambo: Back there I could fly a gunship, I could drive a tank, I was in charge of million dollar equipment. Back here I can’t even hold a job PARKING CARS!!!! UUHHHH!!!!! (Throws M-60 at wall and then slight emotional pause. He drops to the ground in a crouched position out of breath and very upset) Wha…I can’t…oh, I jus–omigod. Where is everybody? Oh God…I…I had a friend, who was Danforth. Wha–I had all these guys man. Back there I had all these fucking guys. Who were my friends. Cause back here there’s nothin’. Remember Danforth? He wore this black head band and I took one of those magic markers and I said to Feron, ‘Hey mail us to Las Vegas cause we were always talkin’ about Vegas, and this fucking car. This uh red ’58 Chevy convertible, he was talkin’ about this car, he said we were gonna cruise till the tires fall off. (upset pause) We were in this bar in Saigon. And this kid comes up, this kid carryin’ a shoe shine box, and eh he says uh ‘shine please, shine.’ I said no, eh an’ uh, he kept askin’ yeah and Joey said ‘yeah,’ and I went to get a couple beers and the ki–the box was wired, and he opened up the box, fuckin’ blew his body all over the place. And he’s layin’ there and he’s fuckin’ screamin’, there’s pieces of him all over me, jus like–! (frustrated he grabs at his bullet chain strapped around his chest and yanks it off) like this. And I’m tryin’ to pull em off you know? And ehe.. MY FRIEND IT’S ALL OVER ME! IT’S GOT BLOOD AND EVERYTHING! And I’m tryin’ to hold him together I put him together his fucking insides keep coming out, AND NOBODY WOULD HELP!! Nobody help me. He sayin’ plea I wanna go home I wanna go home. He keeps callin’ my name, I wanna go home Johnny, I wanna drive my Chevy. I said well (upset and breaking down) WHY I can’t find your fucking legs. I can’t find you legs. (softly now) I can’t get it out of my head. I fuc..I dream of seven years. Everyday I have this. And sometimes I wake up and I dunno where I am. I don’t talk to anybody. Sometimes a day–a week. (Almost inaudible) I can’t put it out of my mind…fucking…I can’t…….(totally sobbing now)

For the Rambo at the heart of our culture, the past is never past. The violence is continually relived.

Rambo, of course, was overly simplistic melodramatic violence porn. Maybe for that reason it had such an impact on the American psyche. Rambo expressed something that Americans felt, something that Americans wanted to believe. It gave all of the conflicts and doubts an emodied form. It put it all into the context of a story. And stories have a way of informing our perceived reality, our shared sense of identity.

 – – – 

I touched upon these issues in my book review of David Sirota’s Back to the Future. Here is the relevant section:

First, Sirota argues that the 80s was when violence became normalized. Violence became a central part of our collective psyche: movies, video games, etc. Part of this had to do with the Vietnam War, the first major military loss that shook America’s collective confidence and righteous nationalism. Americans had internalized the violence from the Vietnam War footage and were now trying to come to terms with the sense of national failure that came after the withdrawl from Vietnam. It was maybe something like a collective Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Sirota does mention the Vietnam War. He talks about the explanations given such as what he calls the “hands tied behind their backs” myth. I guess the idea was that if the soldiers weren’t held back, they could’ve demonstrated some real violence that would’ve forced the enemy into submission.

Second, the obsession with violence was inseparable from the obsession with hyper-individualism. This partly was represented by fear and hatred of government, the belief that the government can’t do anything right, that the government is the enemy of the people, of local governance, the enemy of communities, of religions, of capitalism, the enemy of all that is good. In general, all collective action and activism was looked upon with suspicion. Nothing good could come from people working together cooperatively toward the common good. Only individuals (or else individuals working together for the purpose of profit, i.e., private contractors: The A-Team, Ghostbusters, etc) could solve problems. People couldn’t rely on government, the FBI, or the police to solve their problems… and, so, people instead had to hope for a hero figure to come to town. And it was considered admirable when things got done, even if it meant breaking laws and committing violence.

In that same post, I gave an example that resonates with my having been a child in the 80s, a child who watched all of those 80s shows and absorbed their lessons. The 80s didn’t make me into a conservative, but the scars of cynical hyper-individualism are upon me.

Reagan considered Family Ties one of his favorite shows and offered to be in an episode. Sirota considers that show to have been central. Many young conservatives took inspiration from the Alex P. Keaton’s rebellion against his liberal former hippie parents. Alex stated a classic line when he complained about his parents being arrested for protesting nuclear weapons:

“You know what’s wrong with parents today? They still think they can change the world.”

Many Republican and Tea Party conservatives still feel that way today. It’s something like a Calvinist sense of fatalism combined with the self-assurance of a car salesman. Nothing good can be accomplished collectively and so you might as well narrowly focus on your own self-interest. Rambo’s despicable spitting protesters became Alex’s naive yuppie parents.

As I recall, in that episode Alex’s parents were protesting nucler weapons in an attempt to revive the memories of their past activism. Even if well intentioned, these old former hippies are almost pitiful. Alex maybe correctly perceives them as having sold out for careers and a middle class lifestyle. And so maybe he reasons that it would save time by going straight to the selling out.

What is the point of trying to make the world a better place? What did the hippies accomplish? The answer from conservatives is that at best hippies accomplished nothing and at worst they helped destroy everything that was good about America. Specifically, the 60s hippies are the archetypal enemy of the idyllic 50s. It was all going so well until the hippies came along. Never mind the fact that the 50s was the era when liberalism reigned unchallenged. Never mind the fact that what ended the idyllic liberal 50s was the rising neo-conservatism of the 60s. Never mind inconvenient facts.

To me, facts matter. But in the culture wars, story matters even more. It saddens me that there is such a dark and ugly story at the heart of American culture. It’s a festering wound that needs to be opened in order to let out the puss and be cleansed. There is a conflict of narratives, a conflict that I feel like a knot in my chest. It’s scary to believe in something as great as the collective good. It’s so much easier to be cynical or merely focused one’s own individual life, one’s own private concerns. Why stick one’s head out onto what might turn out to be a chopping block? The veterans who fought the wars know that there is rarely much reward offered for their sacrifices. Most homeless people are veterans, forgotten and uncared for. The conservative politicians campaign on sending young men to war and upon their return they seek to cut benefits for veterans.

It’s hard to blame anyone in feeling cynical after such treatment. And it’s not just veterans. Recent decades have been an endless parade of lies and deceit, an endless betrayal by politicians who serve their corporate masters and their ideological bases. As I write, Washington elites are discussing how far they can get away with balancing the budget on the backs of the average Americans. Tax cuts for the rich and bailouts to the banks received less discussion than this.

 – – – 

Nonetheless, I refuse to believe that it has to be this way.

I know in my heart of hearts that humanity has such great potential. I want to believe in what America stands for. I want to believe in it in the way Thomas Paine believed in it. Yes, to believe so passionately is foolhardy. Even so, if there were no fools, there would never have been an American Revolution in the first place. If the founding generation didn’t foolishly believe in the common good they shared with their countrymen, they wouldn’t have fought for and won their independence. And none of us would be here to argue about the potential of the American Dream.

But I realize that my cynicism too often wins out. My cynicism is constantly confirmed and what little hope I have is constantly dashed. Still, I want to believe. I don’t want to live in a world where I have to fear of losing my job and becoming homeless, of going bankrupt because of health problems, of one day becoming yet another forgotten and lonely elderly person who barely gets by eating God knows what. I’m tired of it all. It’s so depressing because there is no practical reason it has to be this way.

It reminds me of how there is enough food in the world to feed every single person and yet hunger, starvation and malnutrition are widespread. If we spent even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percentage of our military budget on medical research, we probably could have found cures or improvements for all of the major illnesses. If instead of spending money on fighting over oil we spent that money investing in R&D, we would already have viable, cost effective alternative energies. Rather than helping the poor, we build prisons to house the poor. Rather than funding public education, we fund the military-industrial complex.

In heartfelt despair and bewilderment, Derrick Jensen writes (The Culture of Make Believe, pp. 140-1),

“As this dawning dissonance began to tear at my insides, again and again I considered that the confusion must come from within, that I must be missing some simple point: No one could be so stupid as to kill their own planet, all the while chatting breezily about golf, “reality-based TV” (whatever that means), bulging stock portfolios, and How ’bout them Cubbies? What seemed profoundly important to me seemed of no importance whatsoever to most people, and what seemed important to so many people seemed trivial to me. I couldn’t wrap my my mind aroundit. Lawrence Summers promotes the poisoning of poor people, and is elevated to secretary of the treasury. People profess concern over child prostitution as they continue to promulgate the economic and familial conditions that lead to it. The United states bombs Vietnam to save the Vietnamese people, it arms death squads through Latin America to save the people there, it bombs Iraq to save the people there. I kept thinking: Is there something I’m missing?”

Endless violence. Endless stupidity.

I sympathize with those who seek to escape into stories detached from reality. But I also understand that stories have the capacity touch upon deeper truths.

“There is a language older by far and deeper than words. It is the language of the earth, and it is the language of our bodies. It is the language of dreams, and of action. It is the language of meaning, and of metaphor. This language is not safe, as Jim Nollman said of metaphor, and to believe in its safety is to diminish the importance of the embodied. Metaphors are dangerous because id true they open us to our bodies, and thus to action, and because they slip – sometimes wordlessly, sometimes articulated – between the seen and unseen. This language of symbol is the umbilical cord that binds us to the beginning, to whatever is the source of who we are, where we come from, and where we return. To follow this language of metaphor is to trace words back to our bodies, back to the earth.”
~ A Language Older Than Words, Derrick Jensen, p. 311

In the end, maybe I’m just hoping to find a story I can believe in.

Victimization: Culture & Education

There is a good deal else that would not exist without “poisonous pedagogy.” It would be inconceivable, for example, for politicians mouthing empty clichés to attain the highest positions of power by democratic means. But since voters, who as children would normally have been capable of seeing through these clichés with the aid of their feelings, were specifically forbidden to do so in their early years, they lose this ability as adults. The capacity to experience the strong feelings of childhood and puberty (which are so often stifled by child-rearing methods, beatings, or even drugs) could provide the individual with an important means of orientation with which he or she could easily determine whether politicians are speaking from genuine experience or are merely parroting time-worn platitudes for the sake of manipulating voters. Our whole system of raising and educating children provides the power-hungry with a ready-made railway network they can use to reach the destination of their choice. They need only push the buttons that parents and educators have already installed.”

 ~ Alice Miller (as quoted from Poisonous pedagogy)

This video is an insightful analysis.  I don’t have in opinion about the book in question (The Catcher in the Rye) since it’s been many years since I read it.  There is another video about it from the movie Six Degrees of Separation.  I like what Will Smith’s character is saying about imagination.

The two views of the book are a bit different, but maybe there is a connection.  What kills the imagination?  Imagination is very personal.  For the imagination to become externalized and objectified (as entertainment or organized religion) implies that a violent disconnection has occurred.  So, what about our society is responsible for this?

Since I’m reading Derrick Jensen right now, I have been thinking about the connection between abuse and hierarchy.  Jensen discusses it in terms of the victimization cycle of victims becoming victimizers and the culture of power and fear (in particular, Jensen discusses all of this in relation to child abuse including his own personal experience).  Related to the imagination and the individual, Jensen also talks about the commodification of our culture.  Imagination becomes a commodity as entertainment and people become commodities as workers.  This process is largely dependent on proper ‘education’.

The guy in the first video pointed out something I hadn’t heard before.  He mentioned that both prostitutes and those who seek them out tend to have histories of sexual abuse as children.  I had heard about this being true for sex workers, but it’s strange that sexually abused people would seek eachother out to form this kind of business relationship.

I think it’s important that he connects abuse to general dysfunction both in the individual and society.  Abuse early in life messes up a person psychologically and often turn to self-medication.  Everyone blames the victim, says this guy… and he has a theory about it.  “Of the three major kinds of abuse (verbal abuse, physical abuse, and sexual abuse), it is the verbal abuse victims who become the political leaders… Those who are physically abused become the workers… While those who are sexually abused often become the criminal class.” 

Civilization isn’t the normal state of the human species.  People have to be formed correctly at a young age to fit into such an unnatural situation.  Mostly this isn’t planned out in a conscious way (and conscious awareness of the process is discouraged by the system itself).  Abuse is self-replicating.  In a society based on victimization, it is easier for a victim to become a victimizer than it is for a victim to become a defender of victims.  We are all victims in various ways as we live in a very oppressive society, but abuse makes for a good example because it’s more obvious (for anyone who wants to see).  Child abuse is very common in our society and most often children are abused by their parents.  A child is statistically safer around strangers.  Rape, whether of children or adults, is also very common. 

If you blame the victimizers, you’d be blaming a large percentage of our entire society and most victimizers were also once victims.  To go by the theory presented in the video, maybe blaming the victims in the first place promotes victims becoming victimizers.  The separation between victims and victimizers is less than we like to think.  There is the cartoon of the boss who yells at the employee who goes home to yell at his wife who yells at the kid who yells at the dog.  That is a simplification of the process.  Everyone wants to be in the position of the abuser rather than the abused.  If the employee becomes the new boss, he will then yell at his employees.  When the kid grows up to be a parent, he will yell at his kids or his wife.

No single person can be blamed.  The victimization is systemic to our entire culture.  It can be seen in the news and in entertainment.  It can be seen in politics and war.  It can be seen in the police force and in business practices.  It can be seen at work and at home.  It’s all around us and we are all apart of it.  The key point that Jensen makes is that we shouldn’t blame ourselves for being born into this society.  We do what we can.  We should understand that we all are the walking wounded and should be compassionate.

I must admit that I find it difficult to be compassionate at times.  I’m one of the walking wounded as well.  My own suffering sometimes makes me more compassionate and sometimes less.  I wish I were capable of always being kind and caring, but it is always a challenge.  I found helpful the attitude expressed by Thomas Ligotti which comes down to hate the sin, not the sinner.  In speaking about his own pessimism (which could be applied to Derrick Jensen’s pessimism), he writes:

“It would be a sign of callousness to bemoan the fact that pessimistic writers do not rate and may be denounced in both good conscience and good company. This judgment makes every kind of sense in a world of card-carrying or crypto-optimists. Once you understand that, you can spare yourself from suffering excessively at the hands of ‘normal people’, a pestilent confederation of upstanding creatures who in concert keep the conspiracy going by rehashing their patented banalities and watchwords. This is not to say that such people do not have their struggles and responsibilities, their pains and sufferings, and their deaths by accident, murder, or disease, which only makes all the  more pestilent their normal thinking that being alive is all right and that happiness should attend upon the arrival of life’s newcomers, who, it is always assumed, will be normal.”

 ~ “Thinking Horror” by Thomas Ligotti, Collapse IV (which is an extract from the soon to be available The Conspiracy Against the Human Race)

If you criticize society, those who identify with society and promote it’s values will at the very least criticize you in return.  But if this is all they do, be thankful.  Many people throughout history (and in the present as well), have been ostracized and imprisoned, beaten and killed for criticizing society.  As long as you merely criticize, those with vested interests often don’t care.  But as soon as you attempt to act on those criticisms, prepare yourself be punished and put back in your place.

Knowing this, you have two responses.  You can go by Ligotti’s advice… Don’t provoke the dangerous animal!  Or you can go by Jensen’s advice… Someone has to stop the dangerous animal from continuing to kill.  I understand Jensen’s view, but I don’t have it in me to fight the system.  I’ll write my criticisms and hope for the best.

In conclusion, the following is a quote from an article that strengthens the argument about the connection between society, trauma, and addiction (I’ve written along similar lines in the post Homelessness and Civilization).  Dislocation is one of the most fundamental aspects of victimization and one which Derrick Jensen speaks of in terms of destroying stable traditional cultures.

The Roots of Addictionin Free Market Society
by Bruce K. Alexander

As free market globalization speeds up, so does the spread of dislocation and addiction.

In order for “free markets” to be “free,” the exchange of labour, land, currency, and consumer goods must not be encumbered by elements of psychosocial integration such as clan loyalties, village responsibilities, guild or union rights, charity, family obligations, social roles, or religious values. Cultural traditions “distort” the free play of the laws of supply and demand, and thus must be suppressed. In free market economies, for example, people are expected to move to where jobs can be found, and to adjust their work lives and cultural tastes to the demands of a global market.

People who cannot achieve psychosocial integration develop “substitute” lifestyles. Substitute lifestyles entail excessive habits including—butnot restricted to—drug use, and social relationships that are not sufficiently close, stable, or culturally acceptable to afford more than minimal psychosocial integration. People who can find no better way of achieving psychosocial integration cling to their substitute lifestyles with a tenacity that is properly called addiction.

In case you’re interested in the evidence and arguments behind the view of the first video, the same guy made some other related videos:

Victims & Silence

“If the first rule of a dysfunctional system is ‘Don’t talk about it,’ then our primary goal should be to tell the truth, to be as honest as we can manage to be.  When I read something truthful, something real, I breathe a deep sigh and say, ‘Fantastic — I wasn’t mad or alone in thinking that, after all!’  So often we are left to our own devices, struggling in the dark with this eternal and internal propaganda system.  At that point, for someone to tell us the truth is a gift.  In a world where people all around us are lying and confusing us, to be honest is a great kindness.”

Derrick Jensen quoting David Edwards, The Culture of Make Believe, pp 141-142

Derrick Jensen is one of my favorite authors.  Even though he is quoting someone else here, this basic message runs through all of his writing.  There are few occupations more worthy than simply telling the truth, giving voice to the silence.  Jensen explains this brilliantly in his earlier book, A Language Older Than Words.  It was that book, more than any other, that helped me understand our culture. 

It’s depressing to consider how few people speak up about the atrocities of our society, but it’s understandable.  It’s easy to feel like a powerless victim when faced with such overwhelming suffering and destruction.  Even most victimizers were once victims and still see themselves that way.  We are a culture of victims.  But to refuse the collective agreement to be silenced, even if only for a moment, is to step outside of the role of victim.

Punishment/Reward, Good/Evil, Victim/Victimizer

I was talking to a friend last night and we had a very long discussion that covered many subjects: suffering, mental health, meritocracy, plutocracy, movies, noir, gnosticism… and whatever else.  One of the first things he brought up was a book he read recently.  The book is Alfie Kohn‘s Punished by Rewards  which, as I understand from my friend’s explanation, is about the problems of the reward/punishment methodology of behaviorism.  It sounded interesting in particular as the author supposedly was analyzing the scientifc research and found it didn’t support behaviorism’s effectiveness.  I’ll have to look into this further as I don’t understand enough at present to come to a conclusion.  Instead, I’ll share this short video of Alfie Kohn speaking about the failure of punishment.

My point for blogging about it other than it being interesting is that I came across some similar ideas from a field other than psychology.  I was perusing a blog simply titled Theologies which is written by someone going by the name Marika.  I read the post Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Christian ethics.  I’ve come across Bonhoeffer’s name many times over the years, but have never read any of his books.  Anyways, below is some of Marika’s post:

The first rule of Christian ethics, according to Bonhoeffer, is that there is no such thing as Christian ethics. The knowledge of good and evil is a result of the fall, and the return to God means abandoning all our knowledge of good and evil. […]  The knowledge of good and evil means that we start to see ourselves not in terms of our relationship to God, but in terms of our capacity for good and evil. […]  Instead of trusting God to show us what sort of people we ought to be, we set ourselves up as our own judges.  Shame is the sign of this disconnection from God: it is our recognition that we are estranged from our origin. 
 Alfie Kohn says that punishment merely focuses the mind on the punisment itself rather than what the punishment is supposed to be about.  The punished person looks for ways of not getting caught in the future and they obsess over a mentality of blame and retribution.  The punished person ultimately wants to become the punisher…. when I’m older, thinks the child… which reminds me of Derrick Jensen’s analysis of how most victimizers were once victims.  Bonhoeffer would, however, argue that the only way out of this vicious cycle is to turn to God.
 
To throw in Gnosticism for good measure, Marcion would say the punishment model should be left in the Jewish scriptures and not forced onto Christian theology.  Jesus didn’t preach punishment and was definitely against the hierarchical relationship between the person punishing and the person being punished.  Interestingly, Bonhoeffer puts his criticism in the context of knowing God which is precisely what the Gnostics were all about.