Make America Cynical Again

     Recently, during a discussion of current events, my own beloved father looked at me gloomily and said, “You’ve become cynical.  That makes me very sad.”

     “Why?” I asked.

     “Because if you’re cynical, it means you aren’t hopeful about people,” he said.

     I was surprised, and for two reasons.  The first was his use of the word ‘become’.  Whether I am, as he says, cynical, or whether I am, as I would argue, realistic, I have certainly always seen the world through this lens.  It is familiar by now.  I have always been this way – I have never been optimistic.

Trump Rally
Quick, what color are all these people?

     (Although, in my father’s defense, it is true that the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States of America jarred me and, perhaps, sharpened the edge on my cynicism.  I had not believed my countrymen would be willing to elect a man that xenophobic – I was wrong.  I don’t intend to overestimate them again.)

     But I was also surprised by his juxtaposition of cynicism and hopefulness.  He seemed to feel that these were necessarily opposite conditions – I don’t believe that they are.

     ‘Cynical’ can mean several things.  My father, in this context, probably meant ‘distrustful of human sincerity or integrity’.  I suppose I am that.  It’s not that I don’t believe that humans lack either sincerity or integrity, or even that those qualities are rare.  However, I believe that those qualities co-exist, in all humans, with cowardice, malevolence, and a facility for dishonesty, and that, therefore, those virtues are unreliable in any individual or population over time.

Nuremberg Rally
The Annual rally at Nuremberg in 1936

     As I have said before (several times), I believe that all peoples, in all places, at all times, are capable of evil.  That this capacity for evil, like our capacity for good, defines us as a species.  That we will never outgrow it, evolve past it, or become too smart for it, and that we must be ever vigilant against it.  I believe that the data, both historical and contemporary, support my conclusion.  I believe that this conclusion, to put it plainly, is true.

     And the truth is never cynical.  No belief, no matter how rosy it may seem, if it is not premised on the truth, can be really hopeful.

hiroshima5-crop

     The belief that we are better than our ancestors or the people of other nations, this is a self-flattering lie, a delusion which is easier to bear than hard truth.  And lies are never really hopeful; they are, in fact, a surrender to a much darker cynicism than I am capable of: that it is better to believe yourself good than to acknowledge your own capacity for evil and so avoid doing it.  That it is better to seem than to be.

     I believe that it is far more hopeful to be a cynic who looks out for ordinary evils than an optimist who insists that evil is always freakish, because only the cynic will see the evil coming far enough away to stop it.  Only someone who believes in evil will trouble themselves to learn about it, and learning is the best way we can avoid it in ourselves.

     Any view of the human race which denies an essential and ineradicable part cannot be hopeful.  Hope is not hope which is premised on ignorance.  There can be no true hope without honesty first.

     So, no, Dad, I may be cynical, but I’m not hopeless.  On the contrary, Dad: I find that you have much less hope than I.  People who, confronted again and again with the wickedness of their fellow men, with their small-minded hatreds, their tribalisms and rages, people who nevertheless insist on finding them essentially good, they are hopeless.  People who are then always surprised when evil happens, they are hopeless.  People for whom the good opinion of each other means more than actually saving each other, they are hopeless.  If you must lie to yourself about man’s nature in order to accept him, that is hopeless.

Memorial Rwanda
Memorial shrine in Ntarama for victims of the Rwandan genocide

     I believe I have seen man in all his despicability, and I still see a way forward for him.  He’s not a saintly ape, he is not basically good, but, with attention, he might learn.  And, as long as that is true, he will never be completely hopeless.  

     I’m trying to learn, and so I’m not hopeless.

Featured Image: This is a real product, sold on Amazon, ‘Election 2016 Donald Trump Make America Great Again Booty Shorts

Dear Mitch McConnell

     Dear Mitch McConnell,

     Have you ever read ‘A Man for All Seasons’, the play by Robert Bolt?

Sir Thomas More
Portrait of Sir Thomas More, by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1527.  Part of the Frick Collection.

It’s about Sir Thomas More, the 16th century English statesman and philosopher, specifically about his struggles with his own conscience in his capacity as advisor to and Lord High Chancellor for Henry VIII.

     I ask because there is a moment in that play which I wish you had read, because I believe it might have been a warning to you this week.

     It is a discussion between More and his son-in-law, Roper, about whether to arrest a man named Richard Rich.  Roper would like him arrested, and More replies that Rich has committed no crime, saying that he (More) would let the Devil himself go free if he had not committed a crime.

     Roper: So now you’d give the Devil the benefit of law!

     More: Yes, what would you do?  Cut a great road through the law to go after the Devil?

     Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

     More: Oh?  And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you – where would you hide, Roper, all the laws being flat?  This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast – man’s laws, not God’s – and if you cut them down – and you’re just the man to do it – d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?  Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

     This week, Mr. McConnell, you destroyed the Senate’s filibuster rule for Supreme Court appointments.  As I understand it, you are now preparing to do the same for all legislation.

     I know that the filibuster, like any tool, can be used for ill: it can be used for blind obstructionism and grandstanding (well you know this, Mr. McConnell, for you have used it this way).  The filibuster, when abused, allows for the tyranny of the minority, and tyranny of any kind is harmful.

     But not all tyrannies are equally harmful, and the tyranny of the minority is less fearsome than the tyranny of the majority; the filibuster protects against the tyranny of the majority. It encourages compromise and discourages polarization. It blunts extremism and forces cooperation.  In these ways, it is good for the country.

“Breaking the rules to change the rules is un-American. I just hope the majority leader thinks about his legacy, the future of his party, and, most importantly, the future of our country before he acts.”

– Minority-leader Mitch McConnell in 2013, about Harry Reid eliminating the filibuster.

     Perhaps you don’t believe that, Mr. McConnell; perhaps you believe that the more power accrued to your side, the better.  That would not be such an evil thought, Mr. McConnell: if you believe truly that you are right, then why shouldn’t you wish that your side be able to pass laws unobstructed by a troublesome minority?  If that is the case, then, please, Mr. McConnell, listen to Sir Thomas More.

     Because you’ll be in the minority again, Mr. McConnell.  One day, whether in two, four, eight, or sixteen years, the great wheel will turn again, and your party, your principles, your values, will hold fewer seats.  You will be no more or less right than you are today, but you will be less powerful.

     And where will you hide then, Mr. McConnell, the filibuster having been cut down?  As you slowly destroy the rules and customs which protect the minority, do you ever trouble yourself to remember that people treat others as they themselves have been treated?

     You are teaching a whole generation how to treat a political minority, Mr. McConnell. You are teaching them to cut down every rule, disregard every protection, disdain every view but their own, in order to achieve what they want.

     Today, you have the majority and you have used it to deprive the minority of their voice.  But in life only one thing is certain: this too shall pass.   That majority was given to you by the people and people are fickle.  It will be you in the minority one day, Mr. McConnell, and do you really think that you will be able to stand up in the wind that blows then, when the people blow against you?

     I don’t think you will.

“For He Makes His Sun Rise on the Evil and on the Good, and Sends Rain on the Just and on the Unjust”

     I’ve become a little obsessed with something Vladimir Putin once said.

     Putin has, of course, been much in the news lately here in the United States as various interested parties try to figure out exactly how involved he has been with our President.  And so I finally got around to reading a book I’ve been wanting to read since it came out: Masha Gessen’s ‘The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin‘.

My edition has two afterwords.  The second, a postscript written in 2014, concerns the autocrat’s violent anti-gay ideology.  Gessen is herself gay, and it was the persecution of homosexuals which finally drove her from her country, and so in a book with many emotionally difficult portions, it is one of the most upsetting.

     And, in it, Gessen quotes, among other things, Putin’s State of the Federation address to Parliament in 2013, in which he said,

     “Today many nations are revising their moral values and ethical norms, eroding ethnic traditions and differences between peoples and cultures.  Society is now required not only to recognize everyone’s right to the freedom of consciousness, political views and privacy, but also to accept without question the equality of good and evil, strange as it seems, concepts that are opposite in meaning.” (p. 312)

putin 2013 address.jpg
Putin entering the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow to give that State of the Federation address in 2013, from the Financial Times

     It is always fascinating to watch someone invoke the fight against evil in order to achieve evil.  It begs the question: do they know that they are about to commit an evil act?  If not (surely not), then why don’t they know?  If someone else committed that act, would they know it was evil?  Are they hypocrites interested only in the accumulation of their own power, or are they true believers?

     Vladimir Putin and I agree that evil exists, but we have very different notions of what it is, what it looks like, and who is doing it.  In fact, we probably believe that the other is a pretty near approximation of an evil actor.

     Putin believes (I am persuaded by Gessen on this) that evil is personified by liberal, democratizing, Westernizing forces which corrode the conservative, traditional power structures of his country.

     I believe that the evil person is one who seeks to accrete power, wealth, or to experience joy or relief, at the expense of the natural rights of other people: at the expense of their safety, health, freedom, or life.  I believe evil is that which requires that the rights of the other be sacrificed to achieve the goals of the self.

     So how can Vladimir Putin and I use the same word and mean such different things?  If ‘evil’ means ‘someone I disagree with very, very much’, or ‘someone who does something I find personally repugnant’, does it really have meaning worth preserving?  Is ‘evil’ just another level on our personal scale of badness, or is it another thing altogether, a distinct category of human behavior?  If it is the latter, shouldn’t we make sure that our use of that word is spare?  Shouldn’t we make sure not to dull its edge by overuse?

     Obviously, I cannot stop Putin from saying or doing whatever he pleases (apparently, no one can).  But I can object strongly to his use of that word, ‘evil’, which is incorrect and dangerous.

Pew Homosexuality 2014
Results of a 2013 Pew study asking the question “Should society accept homosexuality?’, broken down by nation, from pewglobal.org

     Whether you believe that homosexuality is right or wrong (and I would like to be clear and emphatic here: I believe that homosexuality is exactly as right, as normal, as healthy, and as natural as heterosexuality), surely we can agree that one person’s homosexuality does not deprive any heterosexual person of their natural rights, and, therefore, is not evil and should not be so called.  Tolerance of homosexuality, then, is not a commitment to neutrality in the battle between good and evil – that is a preposterous idea.

     We may disagree about what is right and what is wrong, but we should not disagree about evil.  There are many things which are considered ‘wrong’ by some portion of the population but which we all ought to have the right and freedom to do: take the Lord’s name in vain, get a divorce, tell a lie, have a child out of wedlock, smoke marijuana, marry someone of the same gender, cheat on our spouse, work on the Sabbath.  You may think one or more of these things is wrong, but, if I do them, I do not violate your natural rights, and so my right to do them should be respected.  We can agree to disagree.

I don’t believe that we can afford to agree to disagree about evil – there are lives at stake.  And so I don’t believe that we should be using the word ‘evil’ when we mean ‘wrong’; I don’t believe we should use the word ‘evil’ except when we mean it.  Because we’re going to want to have that word at our disposal, potent and not diluted, when we need it (to, say, describe a man who is having opposition journalists killed).

     And we are going to need it.

 

Featured image from abc.com, anti-Putin protests in the UK sparked by the Russian crackdown on gay rights in 2014.

Peaceful, Evil Man

To Tony Judt, With Humility and Apologies

     There are minds so strong and lovely that one quails at the idea of disagreeing with them.  The error must be yours, you think, because their thinking is so sure and clean and reliable.

     When I find a discrepancy between my thinking and that of a greater mind, I usually retire, but every once and awhile, an admired intellect will assert something that I feel strongly is incorrect, and I find myself unable to give way.

     That happened to me this week.  I have been reading, with enormous pleasure, ‘When the Facts Change‘ by Tony Judt, the lucid, moderate, incisive historian of post-World War Europe. Judt is the sort of author is who is so reasonable and articulate that he is dangerously persuasive, and I find myself, usually, in total agreement with him.

     So I was caught up short when I read something in this book with which I disagree pretty categorically:

“It is war, not racism or ethnic antagonism or religious fervor, that leads to atrocity.  War – total war – has been the crucial antecedent condition for mass criminality in the modern era.  The first primitive concentration camps were set up by the British during the Boer War of 1899-1902.  Without World War I there would have been no Armenian genocide and it is highly unlikely that either Communism or Fascism would have seized hold of modern states.  Without World War II there would have been no Holocaust.  Absent the forcible involvement of Cambodia in the Vietnam War, we would never have heard of Pol Pot.” (p. 274)

     These data are cherry-picked.  

     First of all, it is certainly coherent to lay the victory (though not the rise) of Communism in Russia at the feet of World War I, but to suggest that, for example, the millions of deaths in China during the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976) were a result most proximately of World War I is ridiculous – the People’s Republic wasn’t even established until 1949!

1966 Struggle Session
A ‘struggle session’ in Harbin in 1966 during the Cultural Revolution, featuring public humiliation.  From scmp.com

     Or: perhaps the first British concentration camps in Africa were built because of the Boer War, but what about the detention camps they used for massive deportations of Kikuyu in Kenya in the 1950’s?  Describing the “Mau Mau Uprising” as ‘total war’ seems like an enormous stretch, even when one considers how reluctant the British have been to be honest about it.

Mau Mau
British soldiers looking for Mau Mau fighters in Kenya in 1954.  From guardian.com

     Or: what about the Japanese annexation of Manchuria in 1931 and the truly blood-curdling actions taken by the occupying forces there?  

Rape of Nanking
A Japanese soldier poses with decapitated heads in Nanking in 1937.  From ‘The Rape of Nanking’ by Iris Chang

     Or: if we must restrict ourselves to the treatment of African-Americans in modernity, what about the Jim Crow era in the United States, which was nothing if not atrocious?

Lynching
From atlantablackstar.com

     There are more.  The truth is, there is no limiting circumstance on human evil.  To suggest that there is, is to indulge in optimism completely without cause.

     Judt’s assertion offends me because it implies that, in the absence of war, people can be trusted not to lash out at each other genocidally, and this is clearly not the case.  The arc of human history does not bear this out; the history of the twentieth century does not bear this out; neither the history of my nation or his bears this out.

     Humans require no special context to commit evil.  They do not require war to commit genocide.  They do not need to be in extremis to commit atrocities.  They do it in all places at all times whether or not they have war as an excuse.

     This capacity to annihilate one another is not a limited or circumscribed capacity – it is a human capacity.  If we keep looking for reasons why we could never have done the same terrible things as other people, if we keep looking for special circumstances which explain why cruelty and murder and evil are not universal, then we aren’t going to see the next evil coming.

     We have to take responsibility, not for the evil we have or have not done, but the evil we are capable of doing.  To say that only people in certain circumstances might commit atrocities is logic preliminary to explaining why we cannot commit them.

     But every nation, people, or creed will have the opportunity to strike cruelly at another people, and, if they are convinced beforehand that they are not capable of it, then they will think less critically about what they do.  It is only by acknowledging that we may all do terrible things unless we are careful that we will see the need to take care.

     And we must take care.

 

Featured Image from law.georgetown.edu/library

To Cease to be Divided

     Do you ever wonder whether everything you believe is wrong?

     I mean, not ‘everything’, obviously – I’m sure we all believe many, many true things. But do you ever wonder whether your deeply held beliefs, the pillars of your world-view, the informational basis around which you organize yourself as a moral or ethical member of society, as a citizen, might be wrong?

     I worry about this all the time.  I’m someone who, a generation ago, would have identified as a moderate conservative with liberal social values, which position today makes me pretty solidly liberal.  I live in the Northeast, surrounded by other liberals, and the constant lament these days, the endless question, is:

     How can conservatives believe the things that they believe?  Don’t they see that their views are incoherent?  That their new President lies?  How can they so casually disregard science, fact, data, consistency?

     I am sure that conservatives wonder the same things about liberals; I read conservative news, so I know for a fact that they do.  When two opposing sides disagree about the nature of reality, when each is sure that they are correct, when they will state opposite “facts” with equal confidence and each side rejects the “facts” of the other, my question is this:

     How can you be sure you’re on the right side?  How do you know that it’s the other side that is deafened by their echo chamber, and not yours?

     As far as I can tell, I am the only person in the country right now worrying about this. Everyone else seems very sure that they are on the right side, and they become more sure every day.  Thus, the two sides grow further apart.

     I’m not sure I’m right.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m wrong.  I’m sure I hold some number of beliefs which are completely ass-backwards – I just don’t know which ones.

     How can you tell if your mind is open?  How would you measure such a thing?  I read people who disagree with me, and sometimes they persuade me: does this happen enough?  Too much?  If it doesn’t happen often, is that because I’m closed-minded, or because I’m already mostly right?

     Whenever I find myself very sure that my side is right, I think back (bear with me) to O.J. Simpson’s murder trial.  I was just a kid when O.J. went to trial, but I remember quite clearly that all the adults in my affluent and mostly-white world were sure that O.J. was guilty.

     More than that, these adults were dismayed by what they saw as the shameless race-baiting of O.J.’s lawyers, which they considered manipulative and transparently false.  O.J. was one of the most famous men in the country: of course the police weren’t being racist with him.  Of course they hadn’t planted that glove, that accusation was elaborate, absurd.  The police might have been racist in Montgomery in the 1950’s, but this was the 1990’s, L.A.: they didn’t frame black men anymore.

     And I remember that they all seemed disturbed that black Americans had fallen for the cynical ploy of lawyers.  It seemed credulous and paranoid to the adults around me, for whom the police were an accommodating if obstructionist presence.  It seemed as if race mattered more to them (black people) than truth, as if they were willing to overlook facts in order to stay loyal to their side.

bialik-oj-11
From fivethirtyeight.com: At the time of the trial, nearly the same percentage of black Americans thought O.J. was innocent as white Americans thought he was guilty.

     None of these white adults would have identified themselves as racist; they would have been hurt and offended by the accusation.  But it never seemed to occur to them that, perhaps, every black person in America wasn’t paranoid, that when they said that it was plausible to them that the L.A.P.D. would try to frame the most famous black man in America, it was because they were having very different experiences with police than white people.  That the world, that even their own country, was much bigger than their experience.

     But no one around me seemed to figure that out then – it wasn’t until decades later, when dash cam footage showed police shooting and killing many unarmed black men, that we understood how the police looked to other Americans.

     I think about this whenever I hear liberals lament the blindness of conservatives, because I hear them say the same things about those conservatives that we said about black Americans: that they care more about their team than about ‘reality’.  The implication is that we are superior or smarter, that we see more clearly, that ‘we’ know what reality is.  I’m not sure that’s true.  That wasn’t the case back then – maybe it’s not the case now.  Because, sometimes, the problem isn’t whether you see clearly or not; it’s that you only believe what you see yourself, but the world is much, much bigger than what any one side can see.

     So I wonder: what am I missing now?  What don’t I know?  What can’t I see?  What are my prejudices?  How can I tell the difference between when you are wrong and when I am wrong?  I am sure we are both wrong much of the time, but how can I tell which is which?  I’m frantic to know this, to see into the darkness of my own ignorance and error.  I just need a light I can trust.

Featured Image:

Reactions to the O.J. Simpson verdict, taken from atlantablackstar.com

Where All Are Guilty

     I’m not sure what we’re all doing here, exactly.

     I think it’s fair to say that when the Allies liberated the German concentration camps in 1945, most of the world was shocked by what they saw there.  They had not known that mankind was willing to commit an enormity of that measure.

     And so we learned then what we were really capable of.  Maybe we should have known before – the record of man committing evil against man is as old as history itself – but, for whatever reason, we did not even seem to suspect before then.  Certainly, we knew after.

     We saw that we were monsters, that we would tear each other apart for the sheer joy of it, that we would grind out the lives of the young and the vulnerable by the million to sate our own blood-thirsty needs.

     The Germans were not the first people to commit genocide, and they weren’t the last. But they were a fully modern, secular nation, and that proved to us that no creed or technology of thought yet devised places a people out of the reach of those terrible impulses.  It seems we carry our capacity for annihilation with us, that we are born with it, like our capacity for love or language.

     Those camps were our own darkest heart brought to light, and when we looked them full in the face, we faced a choice: we could abandon ourselves to the despair of the wicked, embrace the nihilism that such evil implied, or we could repudiate it.

     However, since human evil is a fact, since it has touched every age and every nation, in order to deny it in ourselves, we must believe that we can change.  And, in order to change, we must be able to learn.  If we cannot learn, history will bend again and again towards those camps, towards the ovens and mass graves, and we will be monsters still.

     But what would it mean to learn away evil?  Presumably, it would not merely mean that we refrained from rounding Jews into camps and exterminating them, or rounding anyone into camps and exterminating them.  It would mean understanding the grave errors in thinking which led us there.

     The most serious error is this: that it is useful or correct to think about groups: national, religious, socieconomic, racial groups, as moral units, to fear or condemn them as though they were individuals.  Treating groups as individuals, as though they possessed the characteristics of individuals (‘values’, ‘intelligence’, ‘trustworthiness’, ‘criminality’), is rarely useful and often evil, and the events of the last century (not just the Holocaust, but also the American Civil Rights movement, the advances of women’s rights in much of the world, the slow death of European colonialism, the enormous genocides in China and the USSR) should have convinced absolutely every thinking person of that.

Brexit 'Breaking Point'
UKIP Pro-Brexit, Anti-Immigration ‘Leave’ Ad

     But my own countrymen have just elected a man to the office of the President of the United States in a large part because of his propensity for exactly this kind of thinking: his willingness to treat Mexicans as a group, “blacks” as a group, Muslims as a group, to act upon them as though they were individuals, to register or ban them.  We are still making this same mistake.  We aren’t learning.

 

     This lesson is so important, so necessary to the functioning of a moral society, that, if we have failed to grasp it after everything we’ve seen, then all our manners and petty ethics and customs are so much farse: play-acting at true civilization, and I don’t understand why we bother.  If the dark evil still beats within us which causes us to drive the other out into the cold because he is the other, to strike him down or deny him, then why are we bothering to honor our speeding tickets or queue at supermarkets or refrain from parking in the handicap spots?  If we still haven’t learned that children are children wherever they come from, if we are still willing to let them die because we can’t look past their category designation, then we are doomed and I don’t understand why I pay my taxes or say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.  These are the trifling rituals of civilization – we have failed to grasp the fundamentals.

     I will pay my taxes; I will say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, because I wish to participate in a civil and good society.  But these gestures do not make a society civil or good – they are just niceties propping up a rotten structure unless we can learn and move forward, can understand our mistakes and become better.  And we aren’t better yet.

 

Header Image:

Selection of Hungarian Jews at the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center. Poland, May 1944.— Yad Vashem Photo Archives, taken from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Website, http://www.ushmm.org

Dear Secretary Clinton

     Dear Secretary Clinton,

     I owe you an apology.

     When you first ran for President, in 2008, I didn’t think that you were the best candidate to be the first female President of the United States of America.  As a woman myself, I felt that the fact that you had first achieved national prominence as First Lady was compromising; I wanted our first female President to be uncontaminated by her husband’s status.

     I also had a notion that the Clintons were beset by scandals, and that they must certainly be to blame for that, at least in part.  I suppose I hoped that the first female President would be covered in glory and uncomplicated, and I believed that the nation would allow such a person to exist.

     I was wrong – I was naive.

     I didn’t anticipate how the first serious woman candidate for President would be treated.  I didn’t anticipate the intensity of the hostility to her, the demeaning and vile things that would be said about her, the contempt with which she and her accomplishments would be treated.  I believed the world was better than it has proven to be .

     I’ve been shocked and hurt by the things that have been said about and to you, by the incoherence people have been willing to entertain in order to vilify you.  I was shocked, but, somehow, I don’t think you were.  I believe you knew exactly what awaited you, what you were in for, and you ran anyway.

     I am not so naive to think you were unmotivated by personal ambition – that would be absurd.  No one reaches for the presidency without ambition.

     But I also believe that you sought the presidency for our sake, for the sake of all the women of this country, who have never seen one of ourselves hold that office and who, before you, have never had a reasonable hope of doing so.

     There is going to be a great deal written and said about the ways in which you were the wrong candidate.  It is going to be asked whether you were destined to lose, whether your inherent political and electoral weaknesses allowed Trump to win.  And so I just wanted to say to say to you, as one woman to another:

     I’m glad it was you.

     I think it had to be you: there aren’t many people strong enough to be bear hate and then smile – there aren’t many people brave enough to let the wave break on their back.  You did that for us, and the fact that you didn’t win doesn’t mean that you didn’t do it well.

     I’m sorry for how you were treated.  I’m glad that you ran – thank you for running.

     It was an honor to vote for you.

     J.S. Burton

The Founding Father Problem

     Since you’ve insisted, I will admit it to you: I really dislike Thomas Jefferson.  In fact, I dislike him personally and profoundly, almost violently – I try not to dwell on my feelings in public, lest I become agitated and make a spectacle of myself, but the truth is, if I think about him for too long at a stretch, I will end ranting and cursing, even to myself.

     There are many good reasons to dislike Thomas Jefferson: you might loathe the American farmer.  You might have sided strongly with Alexander Hamilton.  You might date the decline in American culture to the introduction of the dumbwaiter to the continent.  You might be a banker.

     I hate him because he was an accomplished hypocrite, and I believe that his moral janus-face helped lodge something poisonous at the heart of the American story.

     I’m not talking about slavery.  Well, I am, but I’m not.  Slavery was disgusting – obviously, the decision of the founding fathers to allow the practice to continue in their new nation was despicable.

     But the problem with Jefferson, in particular, is subtler: more than any other founding father (with the possible exception of George Washington), we identify with Jefferson our particularly American virtues.  He was, after all, the author of our most exalted sentence:

     We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

     It’s magnificent – it fills Americans with patriotic feeling.  It expresses the quality about which we are most proud.  For this reason, we have always cherished Thomas Jefferson, as though he embodied in his person, and not merely in his words, our best self.

     But, of course, he didn’t.  Thomas Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves.  It’s all well and good to crow about universal human rights, but when you go home and rape the humans you own, you should have no claim on the affections of any nation which prizes those rights.

     We ought to have repudiated Jefferson when we repudiated slavery, but we didn’t: we tried to keep the man while ignoring the slave owner, and I don’t think we can do that.

     Slavery, the keeping of people in bondage, is an unpardonable crime – why do we pardon it for the sake of our founders?  Jefferson gives us no reason to forgive him – he did not even manumit his slaves after his death, like Washington, despite recognizing that the institution was morally repugnant.

     He also cannot take refuge in his age – many of Jefferson’s contemporaries realized that slavery was evil and acted accordingly, including Benjamin Franklin and the aforementioned Alexander Hamilton.  And even if his peers had not seen their way to moral clarity on the issue of slavery, I don’t believe we would be unreasonable in nurturing higher hopes for Jefferson than for other men: he was, after all, the author of our guiding moral statement.

     And Jefferson did realize that slavery was an immoral institution.  He even took steps to limit its spread in the new world; he just stopped short of implementing measures which would have personally diminished him, and that is evil.  A man who looked at black Americans and failed to see the crimes being committed against them would be morally, fatally, blind; a man who saw, but would not act for love of profit, should be damned by history.

     If we are to grapple properly with slavery, we need to stop excusing the men who committed it.  We don’t allow other nations to excuse their own crimes against humanity, or the men who commit them.  Jefferson wasn’t merely a slave owner – he was a head of state, a powerful man who’s interventions helped perpetuate the institution.

     We would not forgive the Germans if they exalted a Nazi statesman because he was the author of some beautiful words, enshrined his image on their currency, named towns and roads and hospitals after him.  The ownership of a race, the complete refusal to admit its humanity, is not less evil than its extermination.  We should not pretend that Jefferson is anything less than a monster.

     It shouldn’t shock anyone that a nation which persists in revering Thomas Jefferson would, in 2016, essentially allow police to shoot black men without reason or repercussion.  If we were, as a nation, serious about valuing black lives, we would not celebrate men who traded in them.

Freddie Gray

A friend of mine, a woman a little younger than I am and also white, is reading The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander.  This week, in the wake of the indictment of six Baltimore cops for murder or manslaughter in the death Freddie Gray, she asked me, “What should we do?”

She meant ‘we’, ‘white people’, and, I think, when she said, ‘What should we do?’, she didn’t just mean, ‘How can we help?’ – she also intended the harder, subtler question, ‘What am I supposed to do with my anger about this? How do I understand and cope with how desperate this makes me feel, especially in light of my own complicity?’

During the winter, I go to the gym most days after work.  The TVs over the treadmills are usually set to CNN, and this is pretty much the only the network television I watch.  During the past few months, I have run while, each week, it seems, CNN covers another murder of a black man by the police.  Lately, as we all know, there have been videos of these deaths, and I watch while these men are killed over and over and over, and all I can think, ‘We should all have known that this was happening.’

There are a number of systems failing in these videos, many policies indicted in the facts of these deaths: the expansion of police powers, the war on drugs, entrenched, multi-generational poverty.  There are more evils at work here than simple racism.

But simple racism is there: there are fewer consequences for killing blacks than there are for killing whites, and police across the country have been exploiting that difference for a long time.  Black lives matter, but they matter less than white lives.  This is an empirical truth and a moral catastrophe.

This problem has not gotten worse recently: the police did not just start killing black men this year.  The national media did not finally develop a racial conscience; white people are not more aware, more sensitive, than we were in 2005.  So what changed – why are we talking about this now?

Because now there’s video.

Everyone has a camera now, smartphones which feel like an extension of their arms, and their own personal social media platforms.  The situation is exactly the same, but now there’s proof.

I feel crushed by this fact: black Americans have, for decades, insisted that they were the victims of police brutality.  Most white people didn’t believe them, and even those of us who did, who believed that, yes, stop-and-frisk was racist, that blacks were systematically harassed by police, we didn’t imagine, didn’t really understand, that they were being routinely murdered by the police.

At least, I hope we didn’t.  Because the other possibility is that we did, and we just didn’t care.

But they were – they were being killed by the police, and we might have done something about it much sooner if only we had believed what we were told.  Unfortunately, and indisputably, the word of the black community is insufficient: they must have video corroboration, even in cases of their own deaths.

Truly, we had no good excuse for not believing the charges of racial violence made against the police.  In the entire history of black-white relations in America, every single time a system could victimize or disadvantage blacks, it has.  After slavery, after Jim Crow, after civil rights, when the black community said, ‘We’re scared of the police,’ where on earth did white people find the gall to disregard them?

It’s well past time to accept this: black Americans and white Americans occupy different countries.  Our experience does not delimit theirs, and the fact of the difference in their experience is not grounds for us to dismiss it.  It’s time for the white community to treat the testimony of black Americans as equal to their own.

If we had, perhaps we would not still live in a country where racist drug laws provide a thin cover behind which cops arbitrarily torture and execute an unknown number of black men.  If we had had a little moral imagination, we might have stopped this a long time ago – instead, we needed to wait for it to come out on video before we would even start talking about it.

So what should we do?

Here’s what we can do, for a start: the next time a black person tells us, ‘I can’t ever get a cab’, ‘They won’t lease us apartments’, ‘They treat me like I’m only there to shoplift’, ‘I was going the speed limit’, ‘I wasn’t resisting arrest’, ‘They kill us for no reason’, we can believe them.

Image taken from the New York Times

Here Endeth the Lesson

When I was very young, about eight or nine, my parents made a disastrous error of judgement.

In my house, we were absolutely not allowed to watch movies before the Motion Picture Association of America thought we should – if a movie was rated PG-13, then we would wait until the stroke of midnight on our thirteenth birthday to watch it.

There was only one exception to this rule: we could plead historical relevance.  This was my father’s particular weakness, and it could be relied upon: if a movie took as its subject a historical event in which we had expressed an interest, then we could almost always convince him to rent it, no matter the rating.

Which is how we ended up watching ‘The Untouchables’ one Friday night.  To this day, I wonder how he got that past my mother, who was of less amenable mind.  But no matter – by the time everyone figured out that it was an enormous mistake, the damage was done.

‘The Untouchables’ was written by David Mamet, directed by Brian De Palma, and stars Kevin Costner and Robert DeNiro. It tells the story of Eliot Ness’ investigation of Al Capone in Chicago in the later 1920s, which culminated in Capone’s conviction for tax evasion in 1931.  The title of the film refers to the team of men Ness built for that investigation, which includes, in the movie, a gruff old Irish police officer named Jimmy Malone.  Malone’s character is based on a man named Marty Lahart, and is played by Sean Connery.

Sean Connery
Jimmy Malone – adorable.

Of course, ‘gruff but lovable’ describes pretty much every character Sean Connery has ever played, but I was too young to realize that, and I fell completely for Jimmy Malone.  It is safe to say that, after about ten minutes of screen exposure, I loved and trusted him.

So, when he was gunned down, when he dragged himself bloody and dying through his apartment to write the name of his killer in his own blood on the floor, I was frightened and inconsolable.  My parents had to stop the movie; I lay my head down on the sofa cushions and sobbed for an hour.

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Creepy Guy Jimmy Malone’s death, achieved by this creepy dude.

I thought about that this week, as I binge-watched Marvel’s ‘Daredevil’.

As has been noted by all and sundry, ‘Daredevil’ is pretty violent.  And I’m fine with it.  Actually, I kind of appreciate it: the Marvel universe was getting way too cute.  I would rather unrelenting violence than unrelenting self-referential smugness.

And I like violent movies, at least some of the time.  But violence in movies is like horror in movies: it’s supposed to have an effect.  But this week, as I was watching Vincent D’Onofrio beat a guy to death in a car door, just slamming him over and over until the car door decapitated him, all I thought was, ‘That interior is gonna be impossible to get clean.’

I love action movies, and horror movies, fighting movies, gory movies, and I hope I always will.  I don’t ever want to be one of those flinching people who wring their hands about violence in movies, or video games, or AC/DC lyrics – I don’t care if teenagers play Grand Theft Auto, and I’ve never seen persuasive evidence that exposure to representational violence creates or encourages violent behavior in audiences.

But just because exposure to representational violence does not cause violence in life doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have any adverse effect, and it seems to me that I have changed a great deal since I lay down on the couch and wept about Sean Connery.  Some of that change is doubtless due to growing up, and some due to better reality testing.  But I don’t remember being confused about reality back then – I didn’t think that Sean Connery was really dead, and I wasn’t confused about the fact that he was an actor.  I was shocked by the violence, and I knew that the ‘The Untouchables’ was based on a true story, and I was crushed, absolutely crushed, by the visceral realization that good people die horrible deaths.

And that is how violence probably should feel; at least, we should be able to feel that way.  I’m not comfortable with my own lack of reaction now, which is a sort of a wimpy meta-concern, I know.  I mean, I am human: I cried at the ‘Jurassic Bark’ episode of Futurama – if ‘Daredevil’ didn’t ruin my evening, that isn’t the end of the world.

But ultimately, this isn’t about ‘Daredevil’ – this is about me.  I don’t want to become blasé about violence.  I am not over-endowed with empathy to begin with, and I don’t want to lose what little I have.  Maybe it’s too late, or maybe it’s just part of being an adult.  But if I can’t still be that humane, it’s important that I at least remember the time when I was.