We have nothing to fear…

I like to think that the darkness that we are experiencing right now is something we’ll look back on like McCarthyism, or the specter of Nazism.  I believe that reactionary politics, the politics of fear, are a sign of society’s progress as a whole, and that Millennials will not accept the inequity inherent in our inheritance. We as a generation get a lot of flack (from the generations that raised us, which I find interesting) about some of our traits, but employers are finding that millennials are globally conscious and want to make a difference in the world.

One of my dad’s favorite shows is Foyle’s War, which is a very real-feeling picture of what it was like during and after WWII in England. I suppose I didn’t really realize how truly dark those times were, when it seemed more a matter of “when” than “if” the Germans would land on British soil. Dad and I watched all of Foyle’s War this spring–twice–and it left me hungry for more British WWII reading. I picked up The Charioteer, not knowing anything about it, because it is about that time and place and because I love Mary Renault, as y’all know. I’m not sure I’m following all of the story’s nuances because I was looking for a light read, like her Greek mythology fiction, and so much of what these incredibly repressed gay British men think goes unsaid and even unwritten. However I think that it’s a pretty good glimpse of what it’s like to be the “other” in a society. The protagonist, Laurie, spend a lot of time having to worry about being caught even making eye contact too long:

Perhaps it was only instinct that made Laurie look around… at one of the far end of the buffet, one of the decrepit waiters had appeared. Laurie’s gaze traveled out… to meet a cold, flat, withdrawing eye, glaucous and sunken… the face could still be read… the glance, so quickly caught away, lingered on like a smell; it had been a glance of classification.

Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald’s book Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People (which I have previously mentioned and which I am still chipping away at) says that when we think we identify with someone, our brain tries to imagine what we would do, or rather, it simulates the mind of another person. People we don’t identify with don’t get the same treatment– like how Black Americans routinely are given less medical treatment than whites. We have a harder time putting ourselves in their shoes, feeling their pain. Banaji and Greenwald present research that shows that people naturally desire to share more resources with groups they identify as members of, creating the “us” and “them” binary that we see over and over again.

I’m generally optimistic, but frankly, today I’m a little down. Today I sat and watched one of my state’s senators stand on a stage and get heckled– not that he was innocent, by any means. I always thought of this guy as someone whose politics I didn’t agree with often, but who seemed like a reasonable enough guy. But today he threw out dog whistles that he knew would enrage the crowd, which was made up of 95% liberal/progressive people. I’ve followed politics for my entire life, and here’s what TV loses in a political encounter like this: the nuances of the atmosphere in a room. Today, our senator warmed up the room with feel-good stuff that we all like: basketball, football, baseball, and the companies that have flocked to our state (due to its anti-union laws and low taxes). He then shifted to addressing Russia and healthcare. Crowd was mostly on-board with Russia, but started to get vocal. The woman behind me started yelling “Nunes! Impeach Trump!” I asked her to stop so I could hear because I really wanted to know what he was going to say. I don’t trust the man but he does want to be reelected, right? So he has to do at least some of what he says he’s going to do. But she, and lots of other people, were just yelling out buzzwords and demands. Then the questions started and it reached an outright frenzy, especially when he didn’t answer a question about Planned Parenthood to the crowd’s satisfaction.

He stood pretty firm. He treated the crowd like a bunch of kids that he had to explain stuff to, which enraged people more. And then he slipped in a mention of his AR-15 when gun control came up. That man knew what he was doing. He knew it would piss people off to hear that, in a city where people got massacred in a church during Bible study.  People absolutely howled, and he just said, with the utmost self-righteousness, (I’m paraphrasing) “Criticizing me for owning a gun is downright un-American. Liberals are the most intolerant people in this country.”

I stood up and left.

Look, he’s not necessarily wrong. Look at college campuses, where students should be going to hear things that make them uncomfortable–but where they too often wrap themselves in their comfortable progressive bubble. I believe that there is a place for trigger warnings about things like sexual assault or trauma, but we can’t close out things we don’t like, and we don’t have to be offended by things that we don’t agree with.

But what really got me was how he smirked after that statement. He successfully made us the crazy leftists, and himself the stalwart conservative. And the crowd played right into his hands.  He, the bridge over troubled partisan waters, is as much part of the problem as any fringe candidate. And so the cycle continues.

But the greatest of these is Love.

Hate is just as injurious to the hater as it is to the hated. Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Many of our inner conflicts are rooted in hate. This is why the psychiatrists say, ‘Love or perish.’ Hate is too great a burden to bear. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I thought I would take some time off of reading challenging stuff and just read some easy novels for a hot minute, but everything I pick up seems to tie into my love/democracy line of thought. For example: I love Mary Renault’s novels about ancient Greece, and I had previously picked up a novel about the myth of the Minotaur. This time I picked up The Last of the Wine and Fire From Heaven.

The Last of the Wine follows Alexias, a young Athenian, through the Peloponnesian War, the downfall of Socrates, and the collapse of the Athenian democracy. With the collapse came rejection of free thought, love, honor, and democracy–all replaced by fear and mob rule. The mob feared Socrates and feared his free-thinking followers.

The voice of Anytos, some while unheeded, came back into my ear. ‘He taught you a new religion, too, you say. I can believe it… he is impious; he is anti-democratic; in a word, he is un-Athenian. I am not the only one who has had enough of it. Only influence in high places has kept him from getting his deserts long since.’

Sad!

It sounds too familiar to me. Socrates: bad (or sick!) guy.

The tyrants and populists of The Last of the Wine came to power inciting fear in the name of democracy. Renault captured the citizens’ bewilderment and terror as the institutions that they love and honor come crashing down around them. What I’ve been thinking about, and what I’ve been reading about, is the idea that democracy can’t stand on fear.

1 John 4:18 of the Christian Bible says:

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

It’s a ways into this podcast, but Alain De Botton’s interview with Linda Tippett on her podcast On Being goes into the work of love– how love is an active verb within successful marriages. When I look at my own parents, I see that they prioritize their relationship over all others, treating it like a pleasant but imperative task. Small conflicts are either carefully discussed or brushed off with the security of 30+ years of trust. Consider the following exchange:

MR. DE BOTTON: I think that’s fascinating. I think you’re onto something huge and rather counterintuitive because we associate the word “love” with private life. We don’t associate it with life in the republic, with civil society.

But I think that a functioning society requires two things that, again, just don’t sound very normal, but they require love and politeness. And by “love” I mean a capacity to enter imaginatively into the minds of people with whom you don’t immediately agree, and to look for the more charitable explanations for behavior which doesn’t appeal to you and which could seem plain wrong, not just to chuck them immediately in prison or to hold them up in front of a law court but to…

MS. TIPPETT: Or just tell them how stupid they are, right?

MR. DE BOTTON: Right. Exactly. We’re permanently — all sides are attempting to show how stupid every other side is. And the other thing, of course, is politeness, which is an attempt not necessarily to say everything, to understand that there is a role for private feelings, which if they were to emerge, would do damage to everyone concerned. But we’ve got this culture of kind of self-disclosure. And as I say, it spills out into politics as well. The same dynamic goes on of, like, “If I’m not telling you exactly what I think, then I may develop a twitch or an illness from not expunging my feelings.” To which I would say, “No, you’re not. You’re preserving the peace and the good nature of the republic, and it’s absolutely what you should be doing.”

MS. TIPPETT: Yes. And I guess — I’ve been having this conversation with a lot of people this year. The truth is, more than ever before perhaps, in our world, we are in relationship. We are connected to everyone else. And that’s a fact. Their well being will impact our well being, is of relevance to our well being and that of our children.

But we have this habit and this capacity in public to — and also, we know that our brains work this way — to see the other, to see those strangers, those people, those people on the other side politically, socioeconomically, whatever, forgetting that in our intimate lives, and in our love lives, in our circles of family and friends, and in our marriages, and with our children, there are things about the people we love the most who drive us crazy that we do not comprehend. And yet, we find ways to be intelligent, right? To be loving – because it gets a better result. [laughs]

Love is drawn out of the private to the public realm. This really struck me because I did a Facebook Live post the other day on my local grassroots organization’s page about civil discourse, and I got 3 posts that had NOTHING to do with civil discourse. 2 were about how evil they believe Paul Ryan is (I referenced Sister Simone Campbell’s interview with Krista Tippett and her friendship with Ryan). 1 was a comment about how I was a “typical liberal.” SWEATERGAHD I wanted to bang my head against a wall at all three of these.

So I guess what I’m drawing from my reading and talking and percolating on the subject is that sometimes it’s better to bite your tongue, especially as we “typical liberals” already have a reputation for snobbishness. I had dinner with an old friend who is progressive in almost every sense– except her religious beliefs have guided her to the Pro-Life camp, and she voted on that single issue. This bothers me for a lot of reasons, but why should it? I’ve known her for 10+ years. I know her to be compassionate, friendly, caring, and smart, and she has now joined the Trump Regretters. I don’t feel any satisfaction about that, just sad that she got conned like so many other people did. Not dumb people, or racist people, or bad people, just people who are trying to make good livings and do right by each other. Being smug assholes about it won’t help the progressive cause in the next election.

In the mean time, I’m trying to put my money where my mouth is. Our volunteer committee reached out to the county chair of my local Republican party and asked if he and his membership would be interested in a joint service project with our mostly-progressive grassroots group, and he was very enthusiastic about it. The chair of our volunteer committee and I are also planning a trip to the local mosque to talk about how to best support the Muslim community in our town, and our group collected hundreds of dollars worth of donations for refugees who were resettled here.

Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. (Matthew 25:40)

Racial Justice–Listening to Black Writers.

I am reluctant to talk about race.  I believe that it is better to listen to the experiences of Black people when the topic of race comes up, and to ask questions. I may have good intentions, but the good intentions of white people have been an excuse and a “self-exoneration” (according to Ta-Nehesi Coates) since it became unfashionable to appear racist. I am trying to become more well-versed in racial dynamics; the meanings of “whiteness” and “blackness;” what it is to be “privileged;” and the psychology of implicit bias. So right now I am reading 3 books: Coates’s Between the World and I, Banaji and Greenwald’s Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s autobiography, which is really a compilation of his personal papers.

I’m just listening right now, so I’m not going to offer too much commentary. I will say that Coates would probably call Blindspot another white self-exoneration. According to him, “police reform” and all that makes us (us being the comfortable white public, and a few wealthy comfortable black people) makes us feel good, because it distances us from the fact that the police are just an extension of our own desires. We complain to the police when there is a “suspicious” man in our neighborhood. The police are our arms and hands in the public body.

One thing that struck me about Coates’ book is the sheer terror that he experiences every day. I have heard the quote “to be Black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.” But I believe that it is also to be in a constant state of fear. I have a friend who is the mother of a 12-year old boy. He is tall and dark, and she told me she and his father sat down to talk to him about how to deal with police. I never had that talk. I grew up waving to the police and saying “thank you for your service.” I now have done a little work with my local police department and I know the leadership to be forward-thinking, and passionate about community policing, but I know that we as a society need to self-examine. We are the problem, not the police. All this justifiable fear and anger only makes MLK Jr.’s work more humbling.

I would like to end with a poem. This poem was featured in Charleston CurrentsI think it gave me just an inkling of what it’s like to be a black parent– I will never comprehend the enormity of it, but this is a glimpse.

 

I wish you Black Sons.

By Glenis Redmond, special to Charleston Currents
I wish you the ability to bear only black fruit
I wish you only sons
I wish them black
spilled from your loins like black ink
I wish you code words like: inner city  urban    hip-hop
I wish you Baltimore, DC, Newark, Philly, Ferguson, Charleston, Charlotte
and Greenville and so on…
I wish your sons long walks home
through white neighbors’ yards
I wish the neighbors’ curtains peak open
I wish they call the cops
I wish you that you live your life on the lip of this terror
I wish you dreaming of ways to whisper protection
in your sons’ ears
I wish you the knowledge that these words
won’t keep your son safe no matter how you tell him
to be clean cut and respectful and to say:  yes sir and no ma’am
I wish him natty locs and a grill
I wish him dreaming of revolution
I wish him on the frontline of the fight
tatted up and dressed in black leather
I wish you a minimum wage job
I wish you always a dollar short
I wish you no private or charter school
to keep your child away from bad influences
I wish you a job scrubbing toilets, but your mind always
on your son’s trek home as he is tracked like a suspect
I wish you a teenage boy full of shenanigans
I wish that he smokes weeds
I wish he gets in fights with his friends
I wish him a boy like any other boy not perfect,
but labeled a thug for life
I wish him stalked by a trigger-happy cop
unloading justified bullets in his black behind,
because he had it coming anyway
I wish that police officer off Scott free
time off with pay,
when he kills your son
I wish that police officer $500,000
from his Crowd Funding account
I wish you your son’s autopsy report
I wish it shows your son’s broken spine
and crushed vertebrae by his own hands
I wish you wondering how he killed him self
I wish you hear in your sleep eleven times:  I can’t breath
I wish you black
I wish you black sons
I wish you dressed in black
I wish you a black mother’s worries
and a black father’s prayers
I wish you no bandages for your bloodied son
I wish you only tears to wash his wounds
I wish you salt in your wounds:
I wish you Fox News on repeat
I wish you invitations to funerals every week
I wish you a world that cannot see your son,
but for the color of his skin
and not all the shades of how you know your son
from goofy to socially awkward
to wanna be the coolest on the block
wanting to go to prom
wanting a tight haircut and fresh kicks
I wish you not one flower at his funeral
just quotes about black on black crime
I wish you a world that never talks
about white on white crime
I wish you a stone for a pillow
I wish you awake all night alive in this place
where we have always lived:
1600s   1700s   1800s   1900s   2015
I wish you America
and your black sons are named:
Emmett, Trayvon, Michael, Oscar, Walter, Freddie and Tamir
I wish you awake enough to see: black
for what we always have been: black
and what we will always be: black
I wish you sight to take in: black
I wish you both eyes and heart to see
why we don’t parade the banner: all lives matter
because we know the statistics they don’t
I wish you: us
or at least the ability to see us: black,
but nevertheless like you: flawed, beautiful and human

 

Love–and Wisdom–in the Time of Cholera

cólera

FEMININE NOUN

  1. (ire)
  2. anger

Cuando veo algo tan injusto, me lleno de cólera y frustración.When I witness such injustices, I get filled with anger and frustration.

  1. rage

El acusado asegura que estaba cegado por la cólera y los celos cuando le disparó a su esposa.The defendant claims he was blinded by rage and jealousy when he shot his wife.

MASCULINE NOUN

  1. (illness)
  2. cholera

Es recomendable abstenerse de comer mariscos crudos para evitar contraer el cólera.It is a good idea to abstain from eating raw seafood to avoid getting sick with cholera.

I just finished reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s book Love in the Time of Cholera. Set against the backdrop of a hypothetical Latin-American country in the late 19th and early 20th century, the story follows the two loves of one woman’s life. Fermina Daza is a woman born to wealth in a country ravaged both by epidemic and by violence: cólera in both senses of the Spanish word. She sits in a place of privilege, untouched both by the civil wars around her and the deadly disease. At one point Fermina Daza and her husband, Dr. Juvenal Urbino, fly in a hot air balloon over a village in the countryside: “Someone said that cholera was ravaging the villages of the Great Swamp. Dr. Urbino, as he spoke, continued to look through the spyglass. ‘Well, it must be a very special form of cholera,’ he said, ‘because every single corpse has received the coup de grace through the back of the neck.’”

I listened to NPR a lot during the last election, and I kept hearing the same phrase over and over again: “People are angry.” A Time Magazine article published in June of last year asserted “America’s Anger Is Out of Control,” citing the oft-used word “outrage” as a prefix in headlines; violence during political rallies, and an overwhelming majority of Americans who described themselves as “angry” at the government in polls. Rural, blue collar voters seemed to be rebelling en masse, galvanized by a sense that they had no control over their political and economic destinies in a country populated by new demographics with unrecognizable values. All this is reflected in the rhetoric used (by both political parties) that vilified the other side, trivialized the accomplishments of legitimate public servants, and otherwise coarsened the public conversation. And while we wallow in our own deep disagreements, we use the word “angry” to diminish other people when they express their opinions, as in “angry black man,” or “angry feminist.”

The problem with the word “love” is that it is trivialized and associated with romance and sentimentality. I am uncomfortable with the word, because I’m afraid this post will dissolve into schmaltz and that my readers might start scrolling, looking for a tl;dr. However, in the reading that I have done since the election about character, ethics, activism and service, this word keeps popping up as the driving force behind good citizenship. We live in a time of cólera.  But I believe that we can also make this a time of love, and that more importantly, we should be striving toward that.

In Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, Krista Tippett explains that:

Love is the superstar virtue of virtues, and the most watered down word in the English language. I love this weather. I love your dress. And what we’ve done with the word, we’ve done with this thing—this possibility, this essential bond, this act. We’ve made it private, contained it in family, when its audacity is in its potential to cross tribal lines.

Love also isn’t a very descriptive word, and its meaning is highly dependent on context. Tippett contrasts filia, or the love of friends; agape, love as “embodied compassion,” and metta, or “lovingkindness.” She also introduces the idea of the struggle for civil rights as a struggle of love: “the political, economic aspirations of this monumental work of social change in living memory grew from an aspiration to create the ‘beloved community.’”

Tippett isn’t suggesting that we hold hands and sing kumbayah (and I’m not suggesting that either). She is talking about the work of love, the deliberateness and intentionality of loving. In a her interview with the poet Elizabeth Alexander, the two women muse about Alexander’s poem “Praise Song for the Day,” which was written for President Obama’s inauguration.

So ‘what if the mightiest word is love?’ is a question that asks in these times, as an incredibly heterogeneous collective as an incredibly diverse country, is there such a thing as a love that can supersede or guide or take us through disagreement…love with no need to preempt grievance, love that is not about marital love, not just about familial love…love that can even do more than tolerate dissent in difference. That can sit with it, can take it in, can listen to it, can let it stand whole and not necessarily feel the need to engage it argumentatively.

Alexander  argues that love “calls up deep, deep responsibilities.” She read “Praise Song for the Day” in front of a national audience, on the doorstep of a presidency that was created by hopeful voters. This poem challenged us, as citizens, to love one another, to enter into communion with our neighbors, to be vulnerable with each other, and to listen to one another. Alexander held the concept of love up in a political space, where it should not be a foreigner.

So what does this mean for us as citizens? The crux of the challenge for myself is how to turn these good intentions into something concrete. I would like to cultivate in myself deliberate love for other people, by listening and trying to find shared interests. Sometimes I hear people expressing political opinions that are absolutely repulsive to me, and I feel angry tension spread into my forehead and shoulder muscles. In those moments I will endeavor to be present with our dissent, to listen, and to respond with kindness.

 

 

 

 

Articles used:

http://time.com/4353606/anger-america-enough-already/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/11/08/a-new-theory-for-why-trump-voters-are-so-angry-that-actually-makes-sense/?utm_term=.a5ac173103dd

http://www.usnews.com/news/politics/articles/2016-04-18/poll-americans-angry-with-federal-government-happy-at-home

http://spanishdict.com/transplate/colera