Politics

A Symbolic Age

We are living in a symbolic age. Recently, as Puerto Rico had just been hit by hurricane Maria and tensions were mounting between our president and North Korea, I watched as a serious televised news panel show devoted its first 40 minutes to discussion of kneeling for the national anthem at NFL games. Over that weekend, just about every social media contact I have felt compelled to weigh in on the controversy– right to free speech vs. respect for country and flag.

Now symbols are layered upon symbols as apparently the vice president, in a pre-planned PR stunt, attended a football game in order to be seen standing during the national anthem and then walking out to protest the protestors.

This is exactly the type of thing that thrives in our current journalistic environment. More and more people get their news from social media, the same place we go to advance our public personas (personae?). The stories that thrive in that environment are stories that allow people to express their identities. Two years ago, when I first wrote about the phenomenon of news stories as identity expression, no one was taking a knee but we were debating the merits of Starbucks coffee cup design in regards to the “War on Christmas.”

The types of stories that thrive in this environment are those that lend themselves to some kind of identity building. For example, people post political stories that identify them as being like or unlike the Tea Party, or the religious, or the liberals. “I am a person who stands for…”  A story about Kim Davis who wouldn’t issue marriage licenses to same sex couples is the perfect story for this kind of news environment because it gives people an opportunity to post their commentary and present themselves as an upstanding fundamentalist or as the type of person who favors gay rights.

Do you remember the Starbucks cups? Kim Davis? Symbolic stories catch fire and burn out quickly. Unlike major policy issues such as taxation, health care, foreign relations, they are uncomplicated and require little expertise. It is easy to take sides.

Television news takes its cues from social media when determining what its audience cares about.  They call this “spicy, watchable coverage.”  But what if the public is being manipulated? What if our differences are smaller than we are led to believe and they are being stoked by trolls, bots, media personalities who thrive on conflict and international bad actors? Somehow though we can’t seem to resist playing along, using the cues to make identity claims and to associate with one tribe or another.

And by the way, I can’t stand that expression “the base” and its cousin “playing to the base.” If I were Lord High Commander of the Universe I would ban them.

When I look up polarization and culture wars I find blogs and news sources across the political spectrum lamenting the state of affairs. That we have a polarization problem is one thing we seem to agree on.

A fair portion of the commentary, however, blames the problem on “the other side.” “We need to put an end to this polarization, if only those guys would drop their misguided views…”

An example of this comes from The Federalist, which combines a straightforward call for transcending our differences with a hefty dose of blame and finger pointing, ” the radicalization of Democrats is something qualitatively different, and much more dangerous, than the radicalization of Republicans.”

A Columbia Journalism Review study meanwhile shows that polarization is “mainly a right-wing phenomenon.”

We now read and share different media sources, so those who identify with one point of view or the other each have support for the notion that it’s the other side’s fault. But really, who cares who’s fault it is? Isn’t trying to attribute blame part of the problem? If you really long for people to come together then you have to give up on the fun pass time of assigning blame for the nation’s problems on “those guys.”

It gets my back up whenever arguments devolve into talk about “liberals” or “conservatives.” If you’re arguing about what kind of person supports an idea you’re no longer talking about the idea. In fact, the act of defining a point of view as belonging to “the left” or “the right” skews our perception of how polarized we are. As The Washington Post explained in 2014, “This stems from the underlying psychology of categorization: merely labeling groups makes people see them as more distinctive than they actually are. So when people think about where ‘Democrats’ and ‘Republicans’ stand, they will tend to place Democrats too far to the left, and Republicans too far to the right, which psychologists term ‘false polarization.’”

Across several different surveys, we find a large degree of false polarization. That is, when we ask subjects about where they think the “average Democratic voter” and “average Republican voter” stand, they think they are further apart than the average Democratic and Republican voters actually are. For example, on the issue of capital gains tax cuts, respondents think ordinary Americans are 84 percent more polarized than they actually are (see the second row of the graph above)… We randomly assigned some subjects to read media accounts of a polarized electorate and others to read accounts of a more moderate electorate. When subjects are exposed to media coverage suggesting electoral polarization and division, they perceive greater electoral polarization–as measured by where they place typical Republican and Democratic voters on issue scales (readers interested in the details of the analysis can consult our paper). This suggests that media coverage can make people think the U.S. is a politically polarized country even if it is not.

In many respects, calling this cultural trend “political polarization” is missing the point. To a large extent these symbolic claims have nothing to do with actual politics.

Noah Rothman, writing in today’s Commentary, critiques a Washington Post article by Michael Gerson:

Unmentioned in Gerson’s column, however, is anything having to do with the structure of American government. He deals with race, technology, social alienation, and individualism, but the word “Constitution” does not appear in the piece. Governmental policy prescriptions of any kind are peripheral to the all-consuming conflicts he inventories. The kind of separatist, ethnographic language that would typify conflicts like these in other nations is utterly absent from respectable American political discourse.

Gerson has hit on exactly why politically active Americans (as opposed to those who shrewdly ignore the fractious day-to-day on cable news) are at one another’s throats. He has also, though, identified why this factionalism is shallower than it appears. None of it is really about government.

In identifying two divergent “trends,” Business Insider senior editor Josh Barro incisively identifies the extent to which America’s political dialogue has become divorced from actual politics:

One is a fixation on small concerns that have little or nothing to do with official actions of governments, such as whose statues should be displayed in public and what NFL players do during the national anthem. The other is a fixation on concerns so large and amorphous they cannot obviously be addressed by public policy: for example, the more expansive versions of the ideas of white supremacy and structural oppression for the left; a sense of “losing our country” for the right.

Both trends have led to a politics that’s not very much about government anymore — and a politics where politicians make promises about cultural matters outside their control, setting themselves up to disappoint the voters.

Voters are responding to social trends—both the piddling and unfathomably complex—but nothing that the U.S. government can or should do anything to address.

Research published in Political Psychology by scholars Schatz and Levine found that “national symbolism evokes a psychological attachment to the nation as an abstracted social entity, but not as a concrete functional system.”

And by the way, I have a pet peeve about the notion that there actually are two distinct poles on any issue. Most of the things that we have to decide as a nation are far more complex than that. There are many sides, and by making them into team sport, where there are only two sides and you must agree with one or the other, you limit discourse and constrain the ways of looking at a problem.

The way we talk about these issues increases our perception that there is no room for agreement and that the only answer, therefore, is to eliminate the opposition.

I would make the humble suggestion that as a start the cable news networks could stop following internet trends to decide what stories should lead. Leave the identity building symbolic stories to thrive in their natural environment, social networks, and don’t dignify them with lead story status. Especially as it seems clear that these divisions are being amplified by outside forces.

Alain de Botton, writing in News: A User’s Manual said:

The most significant fact of political life, which almost no news organization will dare to acknowledge – because it would at a stroke exclude half of its speculations and disappointments – is that in some key areas of politics, nothing can be achieved very quickly by any one person or party; it would be impossible for anyone – not simply this fool or that group of cretins – to change matters at a pace that would flatter the expectations of the news cycle; and that in the case of certain problems, the only so-called ‘solutions’ will have to await a hundred years or more of incremental change, rather than a messianic leader, an international conference or a quick war.

Noah Rothman, over at Commentary, calls this making politics boring again:

It would help Americans to have a realistic understanding of governmental functions in a country that no longer teaches its citizens basic civics. It would also allow the press to neutralize the efforts of politicians to incite controversies that exacerbate these tensions. In the process, however, that approach would murder a lucrative industry that has turned societal divisiveness into a sport.

On the basic structure of their government and the conduct of public affairs by its civil servants as outlined in the Constitution, Americans might find more common ground than they’d suspect.

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Have you no sense of decency, sir?

Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?

This statement, by Joseph Welch, special counsel to the U.S. Army is remembered as the turning point in Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch hunt in the 1950s.  The History Channel’s blog summarizes the events:

Senator McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) experienced a meteoric rise to fame and power in the U.S. Senate when he charged in February 1950 that “hundreds” of “known communists” were in the Department of State. In the years that followed, McCarthy became the acknowledged leader of the so-called Red Scare, a time when millions of Americans became convinced that communists had infiltrated every aspect of American life. Behind closed-door hearings, McCarthy bullied, lied, and smeared his way to power, destroying many careers and lives in the process. Prior to 1953, the Republican Party tolerated his antics because his attacks were directed against the Democratic administration of Harry S. Truman. When Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower entered the White House in 1953, however, McCarthy’s recklessness and increasingly erratic behavior became unacceptable and the senator saw his clout slowly ebbing away. In a last-ditch effort to revitalize his anticommunist crusade, McCarthy made a crucial mistake. He charged in early 1954 that the U.S. Army was “soft” on communism. As Chairman of the Senate Government Operations Committee, McCarthy opened hearings into the Army.

One of McCarthy’s bullying tactics was to accuse the people he wished to marginalize of having ties to communists. If he could link an opponent, however tenuously, to communism, he could paint him as a dangerous enemy who should not be heard.

During McCarthy’s army hearings, he charged Frederick G. Fisher, a young associate in Welch’s law firm, with being a long-time member of an organization that was a “legal arm of the Communist Party.”

When facing such accusations, most people instinctively responded by denying the content of the attack, proclaiming their patriotism and distancing themselves from accusations of communist sympathy.

Welch did not do this. “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness,” he said. “…Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

McCarthy, in his responses, demonstrated no sense of shame over his tactics, but the public was tiring of them and Welch had voiced a growing public sentiment.

Welch had refused to accept McCarthy’s framing– that his concern was rooting out communism– and highlighted the underlying truth that McCarthy’s real interest was his own aggrandizement.

Last night the President went on one of his predictable Twitter rants. (Somehow, even though his behavior is so consistent, it never seems to lose its power to shock.) As per usual, he picked on someone weaker than himself, in this case, the mayor of San Juan who is struggling to deal with the emergency on the ground every day. Yesterday she implored the President to somehow cut through the bureaucracy that has stifled rescue attempts.

“I will do what I never thought I was going to do. I am begging, begging anyone who can hear us to save us from dying. If anybody out there is listening to us, we are dying, and you are killing us with the inefficiency,” Carmen Yulín Cruz said.

The message was powerful. When the President saw this on television he was struck to his core. He was determined to do something to eliminate the problem. The thing is, the problem, in his mind, was that he was being embarrassed.

And so he tweeted. He blasted the mayor and accused her of conspiring with Democrats to humiliate him and for good measure blamed the people of Puerto Rico who “want everything done for them when it should be a community job.”

What a bleak window this is into the man’s soul. The degree of his self-focus is boundless and stunning. As human beings with normal senses of empathy and collective responsibility, we’re both appalled and fascinated that someone could actually react this way to a human tragedy. It is hard to look away.

Of course social media has been abuzz with the outrageous pronouncements (and the trolls and bots are chiming in as they’re programmed to do).  I haven’t tuned into the TV news, but I assume it is full of outraged people responding to the content of those messages pointing to the many ways that the community in Puerto Rico has responded. CBS correspondent David Begnaud, just back from Puerto Rico, posted a video on this subject that has been making the rounds. Yet I can’t help but wish we could stop responding to these outbursts. I am tired of living in a world where our national discourse is framed by twitter tantrums,  a house of mirrors where everything is a reflection of Trump. Can’t we somehow stop taking the bait?

Instead of saying, “How dare you? Look at how selflessly people in Puerto Rico have been trying to help their neighbors in the face of incredible hardship,” we should respond with a collective “Have you no sense of decency?”

Did you get that off your chest, Mr. President? I’m sorry your feelings were hurt. But this is not actually about you. So, let’s talk about organizing the distribution of supplies.

How do we do this?

I searched online to read what other people might have said on this question. I found an article in the Columbia Journalism Review with the headline “What We Miss When We Obsess Over Trump’s Tweets.” It is specifically addressed to journalists and asks them to stop taking the bait when they are personally attacked by the Commander in Chief. One line jumped out at me. Here is the context:

Remember when we used to obsess about every presidential tweet? When every story was about us? When Donald Trump’s war with the media was, really, the only thing that mattered?

We need to stop.

When I first scanned this opening, a different meaning emerged. Right now everything that happens in the world is eventually reframed as a story about Trump.

Remember when every story was about us?

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Religious Liberty”

For some reason, I don’t know why, I am on the e-mail list for the National Organization for Marriage, the organization that opposes same-sex marriage. I know I did not sign up, and I can only assume someone else signed me up to influence my opinion?

In any case, today I decided to click through and take a look at a petition they are circulating asking their members to contact Jeff Sessions and encourage him “to protect the religious liberty rights of individuals and groups who hold traditional viewpoints on marriage, life, gender and similar issues.”

Now, the phrase “religious liberty rights” on its face would seem to mean the right of people to practice their religion without the government taking sides. So you can worship God as a literal judge who sits in the heavens, while I am free to “affirm and promote the interconnected web of life of which we are all a part.” You can practice religion by wearing a specific costume and doing a particular dance, and I can practice by reciting tales of my ancestors or praying five times a day.

But what this petition is requesting is not liberty in this sense, rather it is asking for the government to take sides and protect a specific set of religious beliefs and practices– they don’t want to protect everyone’s liberty, just the liberty “of individuals and groups who hold traditional viewpoints…” (If you would like to read my views on this notion of “tradition,” incidentally, do a search on that word, and you’ll find a number of old posts.)

This wording aside, an argument could be made that those who created the petition are not asking for their religion to be given preference over others. Fundamentalist Christians who take the Bible literally are a minority religion, after all, in spite of their loud voices. Christians in general make up almost 80% of our population, but most are not Fundamentalists. As I have mentioned here before, a poll done by a Christian organization showed that only 30% of self-identified Christians approach the Bible as the literal and inerrant word of God. So the case can be made that a religious minority is asking to be excused from certain aspects of civil society, as a pacifist Quaker might ask to be excused from participating in war. They will not impose their faith on others if we agree not to impose our values on them.

This point of view, however, is undercut by some of the comments posted on the petition’s page. The very first commenter expresses his or her concern that “My fear is that an Executive Order would also likely have to provide ‘religious protections’ to other religious groups…” This person was especially worried about the “Big Love” scenario, in which fundamentalist Mormons and Muslims would push for plural marriage.  (Plural marriage is, as it happens, quite well represented in the Bible.)

The result of the nightmare scenario of giving other religious groups the same freedom to opt out of mainstream law and practice is clear to the poster.  Plural marriage would be accepted and “the Muslims will be breeding like rats on the public dole until they gain enough numbers to subvert the US into an Islamic Republic under Shariah!” (They’re going to have to get busy, as Muslims currently make up .8 percent of the U.S. population.)

This should make it clear enough that the petition is not really about “liberty.” A second poster agreed that what we really need to do is to “start asserting our right to keep all people who do not want to assimilate to our way of life out of this country.”

Using the language of individualism and choice, these posters are asking to have their traditions, and only their traditions, enforced. They don’t want to just be left alone to practice their minority religion in peace, they want those of us who are not practitioners to assimilate or get out. They are asking for the right to define the “real America” as people like them.

 

 

 

What is the Basic Unit of Society?

There is an age old debate over what the basic unit of society should be. Is it more important to protect the interests of the community or of the individual? Should we, for example, require all of our citizens to be of the same religion, to have the same sexual orientation, to participate in the same rituals, to speak the same language? Can we require people to conform in the name of social cohesion or should individual rights take precedence? This is the old liberal/conservative split.

It occurred to me, while watching news about the confirmation hearings for Neil Gorsuch, that there is a small, but powerful faction (because they are aligned with those who have money) that now views another entity as the basic unit of society which needs protection–the corporation.

Social science author F.S. Michaels has argued that we live in a Monoculture, with an economic framework for understanding what it means to be human in the world. “In our time, in the early decades of the twenty-first century, the monoculture isn’t about science, machines and mathematics, or about religion and superstition. In our time, the monoculture is economic.”

In the economic monoculture we live and participate in markets and see ourselves as consumers rather than citizens. Citizens have duties to one another. Consumers go shopping and have choices. In a society based on religion, gods are the main forces driving everything. In a society based on economics, the corporation is the driver.

Corporations transcend communities and even national borders. This puts them outside the old community/individual split. In the economic monoculture, both individuals and communities, even nations, must put aside their own needs for the greater good of economic growth. The market is expected, as the gods and monarchs were in days of old, to provide well-being for the general population.

In this clip Senator Al Franken questions Supreme Court Nominee Neil Gorsuch about the case of Alphonse Maddin a truck driver employed by TransAm Trucking of Olathe, Kansas. On a day when the temperature fell to -27 F, the brakes on Maddin’s trailer failed. He waited for TransAm to send a repair unit. After three hours, they had not arrived. The heater in the cabin was not working. The temperature fell to -7 and Maddin found, in his words, “I could not feel my feet, my skin was burning and cracking, my speech was slurred, and I was having trouble breathing.” Still his employer urged him to wait. Believing he might die, Maddin ventured out into the cold to lock the trailer, then unhook it from his cabin so he could drive to safety. He later returned and finished his job, but he was fired anyway for leaving the trailer.

Maddin sued for wrongful termination. He won his case, but TransAm Trucking appealed, and the case was argued before the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. Among the three judges hearing the case was Neil Gorsuch. Of the seven justices who heard the case over its years winding through the courts, only Gorsuch sided with TransAm. Gorsuch’s dissent did not cost Maddin his case, but it was popular with the business community.

There is one tangential point that I wanted to make, as we have been talking about the meaning of compassion.  In this exchange with Franken, Gorsuch insists he has empathy for Maddin. Empathy means to understand the feelings of another person, to put yourself in his place.  Even as he pleads “empathy,” he continually dodges the question of what he would do in Maddin’s position. (Maddin is African-American and it is possible that Gorsuch subconsciously believes that he was not actually in any real danger, wrongly assuming as even many medical students apparently do, that Black people actually feel less pain.)

Putting that aside, what Gorsuch appears to fundamentally believe is that employees have the duty to be obedient to their employers, even to the point of giving their lives in the service of the “job creator”. This is what a nation asks of citizens who are drafted into wars. In that case, the citizen sacrifices to preserve the nation. In the Gorsuch case the employee sacrifices to preserve the corporation.

This makes a certain sense, perhaps, if the market, not the nation or community, is viewed as the primary organizing principle of society.

Freedom’s Just Another Word For Nothing Left to Lose

Almost four years ago now, I wrote a post about a response I received in my twitter feed from a success coach who believed one should not say you “can’t afford” something but should frame it in terms of personal choice saying “it’s not in my budget now.” I haven’t thought about it in quite a while.

One of the things that bothered me in the success coach’s response (beyond the general annoyance at the idea of coaching for “success” without the specifics of “at what?”) as I think about it now, was that when there are things that you would really like to do, but you are thwarted because you don’t have money, it is annoying to have someone else tell you that you are actually just making a choice. It minimizes your experience.

Let’s say all your money is gone the day your paycheck arrives, spent on rent and groceries. Then the furnace breaks down and you have to wait two weeks, wrapping yourself in blankets and warming yourself over the stove, because you can’t pay a repair man. Well, I suppose “not in my budget right now” is true, but it doesn’t really describe the difficulty of not being able to get what you need or want.

I was reminded of this old experience when I was watching Meet The Press Daily this evening. The subject was the new GOP health care legislation. Rep. Kevin Brady was not concerned that thousands of people would lose health insurance because, he explained, it would be their choice. “This is health care they can’t afford,” he said, “so they are choosing [to]… wash their hands and say no thank you.”

Think about that. Because they cannot afford it, they choose not to have it. This logic can apply to almost anything. There is no reason to be concerned that 1.5 million people or so are homeless. You see, the reason they are homeless is that they have chosen not to have a home because they can’t afford one.

If you have only enough income that you can either pay your rent or pay for your health insurance premium, I suppose you can look at that as a choice. If you don’t have health insurance in that situation, you’ve chosen housing over health insurance You have, as Kevin Brady calls it “freedom.”

 

Fear

“You can’t commit atrocities with enlightened people, you need hatred, blindness and a knee-jerk xenophobia.”-Boualem Sansal, The German Mujahid

The original manuscript of my forthcoming book Oscar’s Ghost was three times as long as my publisher wanted. In order to make it an acceptable length, I had to cut 100,000 words from it, a book’s worth of material. In places, I am sure the tightening was an improvement, but there was also a great deal of material that I regret losing. Much of this fell into the category of cultural and social context. One aspect of the story of that time period was a growing anxiety about the loss of national identities and a fear of enemies within– those who lived as citizens but who could not, or were not allowed to, fully assimilate. The discourse these anxieties produced colored the worldviews and attitudes of everyone who lived through the era and thus are important to understand if you want to contextualize some of the behavior of the book’s main characters.

Oscar Wilde spent his last years in France, and while he was there the nation was gripped in a controversy that was tearing society apart. Everyone had an opinion on The Dreyfus Affair. It created what we might now call “a hyper-partisan environment.”

Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the only Jewish officer on the general staff of the French army had been a convenient patsy when it became clear that military secrets had been passed to the German military attache in Paris. The only physical evidence in the case was a memorandum, in French bordereau, found by a woman who emptied the wastebaskets of the German embassy.

Dreyfus was found guilty on the evidence of a handwriting expert and, before a howling mob shouting anti-semitic epithets, exiled to the Devil’s Island penal colony off the coast of French Guiana. He was kept in solitary confinement, manacled to his bed at night. By the time Emile Zola took up his cause in 1898, he was losing his teeth and hair and was unable to speak. But he was not guilty.

In the wake of Zola’s article, J’Accuse, the French public became divided along familiar fault lines. On the right were those who believed the verdict had been just. This group included nationalists, the military and the Catholic church. On the left were the Dreyfusards, mostly Protestant, Socialists, Freemasons and intellectuals. In fact, the word “intellectual” was coined by Georges Clemenceau, the politician who published Zola’s letter, to describe the Dreyfus supporters.

The underlying philosophical question had little to do with the guilt or innocence of Dreyfus, and much more to do with whether to be one nation a people needed to be culturally and socially similar. What was a “real Frenchman?” Religious and sexual difference both threatened social cohesion. In France this meant protestants were suspect. In Anglican England it was Catholics. In both nations Jews and homosexuals were “other.”

Oscar Wilde, perhaps surprisingly, did not take up the Dreyfus cause and instead befriended the real culprit Esterhazy. There were a number of reasons for this, which go beyond the scope of this article. My point is, that this era we are now in, in which fear and “othering” play such prominent roles is not unique.

Panics erupt from time to time like a virus. Societies come down with a kind of sickness, fear of outsiders bubbles to the surface and good people get swept up. Dark impulses, stereotyping, dehumanizing language, separating the superior from the inferior become part of polite discourse.

The fear and anger may be stoked by political actors with something to gain, but what I find more disturbing is not the evil actor. There are surprisingly few of them. It is that so many good, ordinary people go along. They try to associate themselves with the in-group and blame all of the problems of the world on the out-group.

One of my Facebook friends, a nice church-going lady, posted this meme on her wall.

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Before I get to the overall message: that white Christians are superior to others, there are a number of facts that need to be dispensed with. To claim that “European Christians built America” you need to overlook a great many things.

Let’s begin with the first European settlers. I am quoting from my book Blame it on the Rain:

The New World was not the vast, sparsely populated wilderness that some history texts would have you believe. In fact, historian William McNeil estimates the indigenous population of the land we now call America was 100 million in 1492– when Columbus sailed the ocean blue– while the European population numbered only 70 million.

The natives of what is now New England were not nomads. They lived in towns and villages. They were farmers and skilled craftspersons and had technology that many historians believe rivaled that of the English. So how were the Europeans able to colonize this “new” continent so rapidly and completely?…

Although the Europeans had a slight technological advantage in the form of steel weapons and guns, it was a secret weapon that allowed them to dominate the Americas, a weapon the Europeans did not even know they possessed—germs.

In the 1600s, before the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts, British and French fishermen started fishing the New England coast. Occasionally they would come to shore and interact with the natives. These unremarkable encounters would prove deadly. Within three years, a plague had wiped out between 90 and 96 percent of the inhabitants of costal New England. By comparison, the Black Plague killed perhaps 30 percent of the population of Europe. Whole cities lay in waste. There were so many dead that there was no way to bury them all. The disease-ravaged mourners were in no position to fight off European invaders. In fact, one of the reasons the Wampanoags were so warm to the Pilgrims at Plymouth was that their tribe was so weakened by illness that they were afraid of being attacked by neighboring tribes to the West and they sought allies to protect them. European colonization was swift because the settlers, in many cases, simply moved into abandoned Native American villages and farms.

The Mexicans speak Spanish today largely due to this same effect. When the Spanish marched into what is now Mexico City, they found an Aztec population ravaged by smallpox. There were so many bodies that the soldiers had to walk on them. The Spanish were largely immune to the disease…

As the Europeans settled in, they brought even more disease. They settled their farms with domesticated animals that were not native to the region—sheep, goats, cows, pigs. The animals carried streptococcis, ringworm, anthrax and tuberculosis, all of which could be passed on to humans.

Between 1520 and 1918, historians have recorded as many as 93 epidemics among native populations including bubonic plague, measles, influenza, tuberculosis, diphtheria, typhus, cholera and small pox.

The first Europeans on the continent did not need to build anything. They moved into already constructed cities which had been abandoned.

To say that the Europeans “built” America is also to ignore the labor of slaves. The plantation owner may have overseen the operation but the actual hands-on creation of value was done by the laborers, the slaves.

It ignores the fact that Jews are disproportionately prominent in American society. They have built so much of America that even though they represent only 2% of our population, in polls people consistently rank their presence much higher– around 30%.

It ignores the wave of Chinese immigration in the 1800s. If you didn’t learn about this in school (I did not), I recommend Ken Burns excellent documentary The West. In episode seven it tells the story of this group of non-European, non-Christian settlers. People like Chung Sun, who arrived here “with $600 and dreams of becoming a wealthy tea planter in Southern California.” What the Chinese encountered instead was racism. Although most of the white settlers and prospectors were also recent immigrants they accused the Chinese of taking “their” jobs. There was no such thing as “illegal immigration” in those days. There were no passports, no quotas, and if you could get here you could settle here. This began to change when non-Europeans started to arrive.

“For the first time in the history of the United States, the government decided to exclude a group of immigrants on the basis of race,” said Ronald Takaki in The West, “And it set a precedent … because for the first time you have this new thinking introduced … We can not only determine who could become citizens in this country, but we could determine who could come to this country.”

It also ignores the fact that large swaths of what are now the U.S. were built and inhabited by Hispanic people before Europeans got there.

As for the Christian European settlers, they did not all come to participate in the “American Dream.” There were also those who were forced out of their own countries. Quite a few of my European ancestors, for example, were victims of religious persecution, considered heretics at home. They were refugees.

Some of the Europeans were also convicts. According to The American Historical Review:

In 1769 Dr. Johnson, speaking of Americans, said to a friend, “Sir, they are a race of convicts and ought to be content with anything we may allow them short of hanging.” In the latest edition of Boswell, who chronicled this saying, it is explained by the following footnote: “Convicts were sent to nine of the American settlements. According to one estimate, about 2000 had been sent for many years annually. Dr. Lang, after comparing various estimates, concludes that the number sent might be about 50,000 altogether.”

And did they not bitch? Consider what historian Stephen Budiansky has to say about the first Thanksgiving:

…the colonies were organized and backed by joint-stock companies of wealthy English merchants — and the settlers worked for the company.

The real problem, though, was that the men recruited for Jamestown and Plymouth were expecting quick and easy riches without having to work at all.

Most of the participants of the debacle at Jamestown listed their occupation as “Gentleman,” which was defined at the time as, “Whosoever can live without manual labor.” John Smith kept desperately requesting that the company send men who possessed some actual skills and who were willing to get off their rear ends and work, but to no avail: “When you sende againe I intreat you rather send but thirty Carpenters, husbandmen, Gardiners, fishermen, blacksmiths . . . than a thousand such as we have.” Likewise he advised the Puritans, planning their colony in Massachusetts, “One hundred good labourers better than a thousand such Gallants as were sent to me, that would do nothing but complaine, curse, and despaire, when they saw all things clean contrary to the report in England.”

The “report in England” had promised nothing so much as a get-rich-quick scheme…So here’s an alternative interpretation of the Thanksgiving story:

A bunch of overprivileged toffs, backed by off-shore capitalist speculators, expected to live idly off the work of others (when they weren’t simply plundering treasure off the natives), and nearly starved to death from their own greed and idleness. (In Jamestown, they did starve to death.) Only when they faced up to the fact that they were going to have to work for a living, and threw off their foreign corporate masters, did they begin to prosper. And that is why we celebrate Thanksgiving today. The end.

 

Did they come to practice sharia law? No, of course not. But the Puritans did not sail to the New World to uphold the Constitution or to keep a separation of church and state. They were at odds with the Church of England and wanted their own land where they could set up their own official religion. They established religious law. Early on in Massachusetts the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and the celebration of Christmas were outlawed. Only members of the Congregational Church were allowed to vote. It was illegal to question church doctrine and church attendance was mandatory.

Christian Europeans came to America for various reasons. They built some things, appropriated others, took credit for still others and dominated other groups with military force. That’s how this nation was built.

Lets go back and talk about the wave of Chinese immigration in the 1800s for a moment. One of the insidious things about defining groups of our neighbors as “not us” is that we become blind to the harm that is done to them. There was no logical reason to call a recent Italian immigrant to California “American” and a recent Chinese immigrant “not American.” If we think of them as our fellow citizens, then any harm to them is harm to the body of our nation. The violence against Chinese immigrants was violence to our residents, even though the violence came at the hands of others of our residents. If we do not count them as us, then we are blinded to their pain, including the harm we do to them in the name of our fear. We recoil from guilt, and look for justifications.

 

51Gyz4dtWxL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_I have been reading Boualem Sansal’s The German Mujahid. Sansal is an Algerian author and the novel is billed as “The first Arab novel to confront the Holocaust.” It is the story of two brothers born in Algeria to a German father and an Algerian mother. They have lived most of their lives in the projects in France. After their parents are killed in an Islamist massacre, the older brother, now an educated professional goes home and discovers his father’s secret past as an officer in the death camps in Nazi Germany. The older brother Rachel is so overwhelmed by what he learns that he commits suicide and leaves his diary, with the story of his attempts to make sense of it all, to his teenaged brother Malrich. Malrich finds parallels between the Nazi regime and the Islamists who run things in the projects. He becomes determined to find a way to break the cycle. Sansal said he wrote the novel, “to ask what it might mean to take responsibility for ensuring that such crimes are never repeated.”

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Rachel is haunted by the question of where responsibility for the crime ends. Is he guilty of his father’s sins? Are we blameless if we accept the benefits of our ancestor’s misdeeds? Do we, for example, look at the fortune inherited from a large plantation once run on slave labor and say, “Europeans built that.”

 

It is not the question of guilt or blame that haunts me as much as another. Once these forces of fear are unleashed, where do they go?

“Compassion”

Compassion..gives the person who feels it pleasure even in the very act of ministering to and succouring pain.”-J..B. Mozley, Sermon at Oxford University, 1876

3330819045_6234b27d08_oSince writing yesterday’s post, I have been unable to shake a sort of existential sadness at the condition of, for want of a more secular word, the American soul. There is just something about Mick Mulvaney’s attempt to redefine “compassion” as not supporting Meals on Wheels that has played on my mind.

The word “compassion” comes from Latin roots com meaning together and pati to suffer. Compassion is to “suffer with” someone. It has been part of our lexicon since English looked like this: “Huanne on leme is zik oþer y-wonded. hou moche zorȝe heþ þe herte and grat compassion y-uelþ.” It has always conveyed a sense of fellow-feeling for someone who suffered and a desire to do something to alleviate that suffering. As the Oxford English Dictionary puts it: “The feeling or emotion, when a person is moved by the suffering or distress of another, and by the desire to relieve it; pity that inclines one to spare or to succour.”

Compassion is recognizing that a home-bound senior suffers and finding a way to alleviate some of that suffering, by delivering meals. What does it mean then when the perspective is shifted so that the home-bound senior is essentially accused of not being compassionate to the person who is asked to help?

Mulvaney likes to use the rhetorical device of casting the tax payer as a West Virginia Coal miner or “a single mother from Detroit” when the real beneficiaries of the budget he is promoting would seem to be the wealthy, military contractors and border wall builders. (Salon has a good analysis of who the budget is designed to benefit. It sure ain’t single mothers in Detroit.) And by the way, as someone who grew up and lived most of her life in suburban Detroit, I’m getting tired of my region being caricatured in the popular press as an island of urban poverty surrounded by a sea of “rust belt” working class Trump voters.

One of the most enduring images for me of the financial crisis of 2008 was an attractive, young woman with a satisfied smile on her face, holding a large sign that read “Your mortgage is not my problem.” The sign makes a virtue of non-compassion. It states a flat refusal to suffer with. “Your pain does not touch me,” it says, “I will not be moved by it.”

There is some element of our culture, an element that is now ascendant, that fears that in trying to relieve suffering, someone undeserving might get some of the aid. Some of us would rather let everyone starve than risk feeding someone who could get food for himself.

The question at the heart of all of this is what do we owe one another as fellow citizens, as neighbors, as fellow human beings?

It especially confuses me when the virtue of non-compassion is preached by someone calling himself a “Christian.” (Mulvaney is Roman Catholic.) The earliest Christian writings we have are Paul’s epistles. Scholars generally think that Thessalonians and Galatians were the first two books of the New Testament when arranged in chronological order. In Galatians, Paul recounts the details of a theological dispute he had with James who was the central figure in the early Jesus movement. The Galatians did not know whether they were to listen to James’ representatives or to Paul. They differed on the question of whether a gentile Christ-follower had to be circumcised in order to be a full member. James thought they did, Paul did not. In the end, they came to something of an agreement. Paul could preach to gentiles. “They desired only that we should remember the poor, the very thing which I was also eager to do,” Paul wrote. (Galatians 2:10)

So helping the poor was central to Christian practice from the beginning. When they seemed to disagree on everything else, the various factions could agree on this.

"Bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ." (Galatians 6:2)

In Biblical times people had a different understanding of poverty than we have today. Survival was hard. It was assumed that everyone understood hardship and deprivation and had an intimate acquaintance with hunger. Before the age of the self-made man in the mid-1800s, social status was viewed as essentially unchangeable. If you were born a peasant it was unfortunate but not a moral failing. In the mid-1800s, however, society was being transformed. In the UK the aristocracy was beginning to lose its power. In the still largely undeveloped United States, conditions were ideal for poor boys to make good. As P.T. Barnum put it, “In a new country, where we have more land than people, it is not at all difficult for persons in good health to make money.”

Irvin G. Wyllie, in The Self Made Man dates the golden era of the self-made man from 1835. If you wanted to go from rags to riches, this was the year to be born. (It was the year of Andrew Carnegie’s birth.) This generation came up with a new narrative. Horatio Alger wrote about boys who were born to poverty and who improved their lots in life through hard work and moral correctness. It seemed that anyone who was willing to work could become rich, men were in charge of their own destinies and the role of fate in our fortunes began to recede.

In what author Michael B. Katz author of The Undeserving Poor calls the “irony of optimism,”it followed that if a man made his own way, the poor must be to blame for their economic failings.

“The age of the self-made man was also the age of the broken man,” wrote Scott A. Sandage in Born Losers, “This ‘American sense’ looked upon failure as a ‘moral sieve’ that trapped the loafer and passed the true man through. Such ideologies fixed blame squarely on individual faults, not extenuating circumstances.”

The belief that people are entirely in control of their own destinies became so strong that Americans are now blind to the fact that there is a famine in the tale of the Prodigal Son and we tend to interpret it as a cautionary tale about being irresponsible and foolish with money.

In spite of our American industriousness, poverty has persisted. As we increasingly viewed it as a problem of persons (as Katz puts it), we looked for ways to separate the deserving from the undeserving poor in our policies. The identity of the undeserving has shifted over time. In the early days of our nation it was usually an able-bodied man, viewed as drunk and lazy, who was targeted out as undeserving. Increasingly, in our day, it is the unmarried mother.  Katz observes:

Empirical evidence almost always challenges the assumptions underlying the classifications of poor people. Even in the late nineteenth century, countervailing data, not to mention decades of administrative frustration, showed their inadequacy… Still, as even a casual reading of the popular press, occasional attention to political rhetoric, or informal conversations about poverty reveal, empirical evidence has remarkably little effect on what people think. Part of the reason is that conventional classifications of poor people serve such useful purposes. They offer a familiar and easy target for displacing rage, frustration, and fear. They demonstrate the link between virtue and success that legitimates capitalist political economy. And by dividing poor people, they prevent their coalescing into a unified political force. Stigmatized conditions and punitive treatment, moreover, provide powerful incentives to work, whatever the wages and conditions.

This has led to an ironic situation in which we now define those who are more well-off as the deserving poor and those who are the poorest, by virtue of being poor, as the least deserving. The results of a recent study on government spending on social programs to alleviate poverty found that there has been a marked shift away from supporting those earning the least money, as little as 50 percent of the federal poverty line, to those with incomes as much as 200 percent above the poverty line.

We do not suffer with the extremely poor, we blame them. In Mulvaney’s view of compassion, it is we who suffer because the poor need our help.

With finite resources, compassionate people can disagree on how best to help the poor, who needs a helping hand and who does not. The question will always exist. In the past, however, there were certain things we could pretty much all agree upon. We have not had, as Katz wrote, “much sympathy for poor persons throughout American history other than children, widows, and a few others whose lack of responsibility for their condition could not be denied. These were the deserving poor.”

Today it seems even those boundaries have been transcended. People in political power are now arguing that poor children should not be given free lunch because they need to learn responsibility, and that giving meals to elderly widows does nothing to improve the GDP.

So you will forgive me if I look beyond politics and wonder if America is losing its soul.