Crossroads

We’re standing at a crossroads.

Donald Trump has the Republican nomination, and Hillary Clinton (almost) has the Democratic nomination. America is thus faced with a choice. But it goes far beyond Trump vs. Clinton or GOP vs. Dems. This is a choice that may well decide several things. First, it may decide what kind of country the United States truly is. Second, it may decide the fate of the US in general. Third, it may decide the fate of human civilization.

Let’s take that one at a time.

Remember this: the United States was built on racism. It was built on the racism of denying non-white people their land, their liberty, and their labor. Mexican-Americans in Texas and California are in the first category, African-Americans in the second and third, and Native Americans in all three. It was built further on a policy that US needs should and would override the needs of everyone else in the world. Thus democratically elected regimes in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Chile, and Iran were all overthrown with US help or approval, in order to preserve profits, and thus Saddam Hussein was our friend while he fought Iran but our foe when he fought Kuwait, and Osama bin Laden was our friend (or at least our fellow-traveler) when he fought the Soviet Union and our foe afterward.

Racism is in our DNA: it taints the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and it haunts us still in police violence, economic disparity, and political power imbalance, to name only the most obvious. Continue reading

The Goblin King Could be a Powerful Friend

Yesterday I argued that David Bowie’s legacy must be tarnished, but not erased. If anyone thinks it odd that I am defending the legacy of a musician and actor after he committed a genuine crime, I offer this as evidence for why he can’t be simply dismissed:

“…There Are So Few Black Artists on MTV. Why Is That?”

The deep tragedy of heroes who abuse their power is that they are still heroes.

Ferguson Queries

As I was coming home from work the other night, a song came up on my headphones: “The Suburbs,” by Arcade Fire. I have always thought of that particular piece as a “prophecy song,” in large part because of the music video, which can be found here. It’s about six minutes long, and I encourage all to watch it.

For those who are unable to watch, the video centers on five friends, in their early teens, enjoying their life among wealthy suburbs, riding bikes, playing with BB guns, roughhousing, and in general becoming fast companions. But they live in a slightly different America, a dystopia, set against the background of, as the song lyrics say, “a suburban war—your part of town against mine.” Armed soldiers patrol the streets. Occasionally people are dragged from their homes in the depths of night. Military helicopters fly overhead, trucks and tanks are common sights. And gradually this background seeps into the foreground, as the twisted world the kids live in begins to destroy their friendship, culminating in an act of brutal violence.

As I listened to the song on my headphones, I thought of the current situation in Ferguson, Missouri—the St. Louis suburb where Michael Brown, 18, was shot and killed, unarmed, prompting protests and riots. I thought of the militarized police that has been so aggressive and so criticized in Ferguson. And it finally hit me, years too late: Continue reading

Senseless?

Last week the flags were at half-mast again. I am beginning to wonder if we shouldn’t just leave them down all the time.

With the half-mast flags come the attempts at explanation. But the attempts usually fail: “Senseless,” cry the papers. “Mindless,” declare the TV anchors. Investigators digging for “clues” to the “motives” assure us that we may never truly know why such things happen. Regarding the latest incident, the Seattle Times opined: “The shooter in Oak Creek, Wis., took six lives and wounded three others in a mindless display of firepower fueled by a motive he surely cannot articulate.”

Oh? It seems to me that his message was “Kill the brown people.” Wouldn’t you say he delivered that message well? Continue reading

The Last Judgment of the USA

Then the people of the United States were brought before Christ, and were divided in two, the sheep and the goats, and the goats were placed at his left hand. And he said to them, “You who are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and you did not cure me, in prison and you did not visit me.” And they all answered, “When was this precisely, Lord?”

And he told them:

“Whenever you drove past East St. Louis or around Watts, and did not stop; whenever you passed over Gary or avoided the South Side; whenever you ignored Baltimore or the Bronx, stayed away from Philly’s heart, fled DC at nightfall. Continue reading

Suspicious

Students at Howard University put out this video in response to Trayvon Martin’s tragic death. I strongly encourage you to watch it, because of its powerful refrain: young men on their way to careers in history and law put on “hoodies” — like the one I’m wearing right now — and say, “Do I look suspicious?”

And my gut response, my immediate reaction, no matter what I tried to stop myself was, “Yes. Yes you do.” Because I’m white, they’re black, and I’m racist. Continue reading

People

Here’s a simple exercise:

When you’re out in the world, look around you. See who else is out and about. Then call them what they are: people. Practice naming them as people.

It helps if you start out by ignoring everything you know about them. First to go should be appearance. Nice clothes or shabby? Doesn’t matter. Different skin, different hair, different eyes? Forget them. Young, old? Irrelevant. Ugly or attractive? Not a factor. Male or female? Beside the point.

It’s hard, truly hard. (I said it was a simple exercise, not an easy one. This is why we have to practice it every time we go outside.) Society has trained us to place people in categories, boxes really, which is why it’s so important to practice getting away from that. Because people are not boxes and do not conform to our expectations. When I see a black man, I don’t always think “criminal/dangerous” — but I have thought that, in the past. This despite the fact that such a snap judgment is a) ridiculous and b) goes against everything I’ve been taught by my parents and my faith. Society insinuates its lessons, despite all counter-instruction. I’m getting better. Even as I frequently manage to dissociate “black” from “criminal,” however, my brain still performs the snap categorization that permits such a false and discriminatory judgment in the first place: when I as a white man see a black man, my brain says, “black man.” When I see another white man, though, my brain says, “man.” Until I can change that, I am still racist.

Note that even just “man” puts people in boxes, though. The oldest divide in the human race is between male and female, a split we now know does not have a clear line, but a split regardless. Here I fight not just my socialization but my genes (and hormones!), for my brain has a deep predisposition to focus on young attractive women. Women, however, are far more than objects to look at, and far more than sexual targets to be desired.

Possibly the most important if least-frequent label to remove is “annoyance.” People bother me a lot, talking when I’d prefer silence, intruding on my time when I’m hurrying, interrupting the tasks I’ve set myself. They cut in front of me, they block my way, and (when traffic is involved) they may even hazard my health or life. Seeing those people as people is perhaps the most urgent part, because to see them as people may head off conflict. Harboring anger or resentment for someone permits our minds to denigrate, disrespect, and ultimately dehumanize someone who is, after all, a relative, no matter how distant. Dehumnanization is what permits all forms of violence, mental or emotional or physical. In fact one might say that to see someone as a problem or an annoyance is the first act of violence. Everyone who looks at another with anger has already punched that other in the face.

So I strive to pull back from all the labels I place on the people around me, and only call them “people,” nothing more specific. “Person,” I tell myself. “People. Person. Attractive person.” (I haven’t perfected my technique yet.) “People. Person. People. People. People.”

That’s the first step, pushing through the mass of labels and boxes and preconceptions to the point where you recognize human as human. This first step then enables the next. Once you have trained yourself to set aside all that you see of the people around you, appearance and action, then you need to remind yourself of what you can’t see, but is definitely there: hopes. Fears. Dreams. Love. Anger. Joy. Wisdom. Mistakes. History. A future. In short, all the stuff that makes a soul a soul, all that makes you, you and me, me — it makes them, them.

Look. Call them people. Fold up your boxes and put them away. Remember what you don’t see. Then take the last step, and love these your neighbors as you love yourself.

Divisions

[Note: This was written on April 22; it’s taken this long to get up in part because of The Filter.]

I have just watched a deeply troubling video of a brutal beating. It shows a transgender woman under attack by two women in a Baltimore McDonald’s. The violence is horrifying, and seems to never end; every time the attackers move off for a moment, they come back. The McDonald’s employees largely do nothing, instead recording the attack on a camera phone; one employee does try to stop the beating, but after a brief time he seems to give up. The pummeling doesn’t end until the attacked woman begins to have a seizure, her blood smeared on the floor, and the man recording the incident warns the attackers to run before the police arrive.

First let me state that the footage is not always clear. The video makes the violence plain, but does not reveal motivations, show what is happening elsewhere, follow the incident all the way to its conclusion, or even provide a clear recording of what the people are saying. All that can truly be understood from the video is the flying fists and the blood on the floor. So my analysis here may be flawed on several levels.

This whole incident cuts across so many divisions in American society. Let us count the chasms…

What first leaped out at me is that the attackers appear to be black while the trans woman appears to be white. I say “appears” because again the footage is not always clear; it is difficult to judge race from a blurry cameraphone video — again, we encounter the limits of anything filmed — but also because the racial lines in this country are themselves increasingly blurred. The attacked woman could identify as white or as Hispanic or as almost anything, which underscores the futility of ever judging by skin tone. But this doesn’t mean that we can dismiss the racial element. There seems to be greater resistance toward non-heteronormative identity and presentation from some in the African-American community. I also note that one of the people to interfere in the violence is white, and while again motivation is unknown, a yelling match between an older white woman and a younger black woman will inevitably have some racial overtones.

A second thing that struck me is that both people who attempt to intervene are older than the attackers, while the bystanders seem to be younger people themselves, setting up an age-imbalance dynamic. Speaking as a teacher, I know that younger people do not always react well to being yelled at by older people, or even just being told what to do. I also note from long personal experience that bullying by young people is always more effectively opposed not by adults but by other young people. While this battering is obviously on a different level entirely, the age of the bystanders makes me wonder: if one or more of the younger employees or customers had even spoken up, would the attack have continued so long? The tacit approval of their peers and the presence of a camera might have added to the vitriol of the assailants.

A third divide worth noting is that of citizens vs. authorities. The bystanders warn the attackers to flee before the police come, indicating that the bystanders have more sympathy for the assailants than for law enforcement. The bystanders also make no move to call for an ambulance at first, as this too would draw official notice, until they realize that with the woman’s seizure they have entered a new level. The racial element returns here, and I may also note that trans people may not always welcome the police, either.

The most obvious division, of course, is between heteronormative and transgender women.

The most fundamental divide, however, is “Us vs. Them,” sameness vs. the other, which runs through all the rifts discussed here.

It seems to me that every act of brutality, from this small-scale viciousness to the most dire genocide, hinges on drawing that line between “like me” and “not like me,” and then cutting off those “not like me” from any common feeling. Those “like me” I will protect; those “not like me” I will attack, or permit to be attacked. We are people, They aren’t. And you only have to be good to people.

This incident teaches us all too viscerally of where that line of thinking leads us: it makes us into victims or villains. It leaves us bloody on the floor, or with blood on our fists, or — most likely — watching idle from the sidelines, inactive and yet just as complicit. There are no other options if we divide the world into Us and Them; every act of human violence has happened because people allow people to suffer what they would not suffer themselves.

This incident also teaches us that all our problems are interconnected. We cannot separate the clash of heteronormative vs. transgender from the clash of race, age, class, or power.

And finally, just as all the problems are entangled — just one problem, really: dividing people — then this incident teaches us that we must be united. I write this on both Earth Day and Good Friday. Just as those two occasions are far more connected than you might think, we are all more connected than we realize. Earth Day reminds us that all the people in the video have more in common than they have differences: the same genetic heritage, the same needs and hopes and aspirations, the same oasis home on the Pale Blue Dot They are all human. Good Friday suggests that — now that what’s happened has been done and cannot be undone — then the absolute best possible outcome from this terrible deed would be all the women, attackers and attacked, becoming friends. If these blows do not lead to an embrace in the end, then the attack’s last tragedy rolls around: it cuts the chasms deeper, and hurts all involved again.

I’ve written of what weapons do to us, the harm they inflict in both directions. That is true even if the weapons are words, or fists, or feet, or power, or paychecks. Harming anyone does damage to the harmer. So I mourn for what the attackers did, both to another person and to themselves. And I mourn for the bystanders who let it happen, as I mourn every time we stand by.

All the problems we face are aspects of the dire knot, humanity’s self-division and civil war. All hope we have rests in our reunion. Unless “Us vs. Them” becomes “Us and the Rest of Us,” we can’t even begin to face the catastrophes we’ve brought on our heads, because we’ll still carry the cracks in our hearts, the cracks that will widen to chasms and divide us yet again.

So speak with me now:

All our woes are one. All people are one. All the earth is one. I must be a friend to all my foes, and they must be friends to me, or everything we have and everything we are will always live in risk.

We are one.

We are one.

We are one.

Blocks

The people of the Census Bureau are probably some of the unsung heroes of the United States government. In a representative republic such as ours, a census is absolutely vital to determining who gets represented, etc. My home state of Washington will get another representative in Congress, since we have grown since the last census in 2000. The census also collects other information, and that information can be an absolute gold mine. Specific census data — with names attached, that is — is opened up to historians, genealogists, researchers, and the curious after seventy years. Generalized data, i.e. averages without names, is revealed more quickly. The New York Times and Google Maps have now taken recent census estimates and put together a remarkable website, Mapping America, which shows averages on race, income, rents and mortgages, and education for “every city, every block” in the country.

(Ostensibly every block. The city of Mercer Island, near Seattle, simply doesn’t appear to have any information, as if the Census or the Times simply don’t think it exists. There are also considerable areas labeled “Low Population Area” or “Small Sample Size” that don’t turn anything up. But still, it’s darn close.)

By going to the site you are confronted with the racial breakdown of New York City. Zooming in you can get a better look, and can mouse over any census tract to bring up information. Zooming out you can get a national view, with county-by-county breakdowns available. Going up to the button “View More Maps,” you can switch from the racial distribution to other maps based on race; going over to the sidebar on the “More Maps” screen you can bring up map sets based on income, households, and education as well.

Let’s look at what the site teaches us. Continue reading

Forgive Us

For over a century, women in this country had no real legal rights, except perhaps as widows. They had no right to vote, no right to own property while married, no right to a divorce except in cases of adultery, no right to even a modicum of control over their own bodies. That last was not a comment about abortion: women were denied access to information about controlling their fertility. Not abortions, not condoms, just pamphlets. Such information was declared “obscene” by the Comstock Laws, and Federal officials would routinely search the mail and seize educational material on human sexuality. The lack of control would go even further, as spousal abuse was not considered a crime and rape would generally be blamed on the victim.

For over a century, African Americans could be killed with impunity in this country. They could be lynched for talking back to a white man, whistling at a white woman, owning a gun, or trying to vote. As local law enforcement usually organized the lynch mobs, blacks had no legal recourse or protection (State and Federal officials ignored the problem). Nor was this an exclusively southern phenomenon. The north and west had “sundown towns,” so called because the rules were simple: blacks could come into town during the day to work or do business, but had to be beyond the city limits by sundown, or face arrest or worse. Lynchings the country over were family affairs for whites, an occasion for a picnic and taking photographs. They were so solidly entrenched in the American culture that Franklin Roosevelt could not get an anti-lynching law passed in the heyday of the New Deal.

For nearly two centuries, gays and lesbians in this country were effectively persecuted. Sodomy was a felony. Just being at a gay bar could get you arrested for public indecency. If a gay man got arrested, he could expect to be beaten by the police (who would he complain to?) and have his name published in the newspapers, unless he could bribe his way out of it. If his name was printed up he could expect to lose his job, his friends, even his family.

Lesbians could expect all of the above as well; they would also be raped.

Things are better now, of course. Teachers can’t get in trouble for teaching about sex, just for teaching anything other than abstinence-only birth control. Blacks can’t get lynched by the police, just shot by them. Gays and lesbians can’t get beaten by the police, just by the general population. Continue reading