Camouflage

I’ve been seeing posts on Facebook and Twitter this weekend saying things like “look at these heroic redneck guys who are rescuing people! But next week, media will be back to calling them Nazis and KKK.” Tell you what: if anyone in “the media” is randomly accusing guys with pickup trucks of being Klan members or of being Nazis, then they should be dragged through a metaphorical mud pit.

But I haven’t seen that happen. I have seen guys holding swastika flags accused of being Nazis. I’ve seen people dressed in KKK uniform shirts accused of being KKK members.

This isn’t difficult. No sensible observer is calling you a Nazi or accusing you of being a Klan member just because you’re a white person (if someone does that, they’re a troll, plain and simple). However, if your cousin is nice to you, but he dresses in a white hood and goes to Klan meetings on the weekend, guess what. He’s not a nice person.

“Rural white gun owner” isn’t a hypothetical or mythical group for me. I’ve hung out at shooting ranges with these guys for years, and lived among the New England variety. I’ve participated on their gun forums.

Most of these guys are upstanding citizens, many of them are military veterans, and most of them would give you the shirts off their backs if you were in need, or work half a day helping you get your car out of the ditch.

I also know a sweet-looking grandpa who interrupted a funny story about his granddaughter to point out the ‘mud puppies’ who had just walked into the restaurant where we were having breakfast (a young couple with their biracial children, if you’re not up on racist nicknames for people).

He once told me how much he wanted to move back to a farm in Virginia, where he could set up a firing range where he could shoot “darkies.”

But if you look at the larger view, some 80-year-old guy’s racism and bigotry isn’t the hugest problem. He’ll be dead in another couple of years. As hideous as his attitudes are (and as much as they’ve been on display in the news recently), I think (and hope) that they’re gradually becoming less common, less accepted.

There’s another reason that I get angry at the reactionary attitudes of my rural compatriots: They give cover for people doing even worse things. They’re used as human camouflage by industries and corrupt politicians.

The heroic veteran hauling his flatboat from Louisiana to Houston to rescue people makes great fodder for propagandists. They haul out photos of Buford or Cleat pulling people out of the flood and say “look, these guys just want jobs and to go fishing, but your regulations are killing their way of life.” Of course, Mr. Propagandist drives a Beemer and lives in a high-rise luxury apartment or in a gated community. He likely has a degree from a nice college and wouldn’t hang out with Cleat for good money (though he might hire him as a local guide on his annual luxury fishing trip). This marketing guy might work for a giant oil refinery which is fighting regulations because following those regulations would shave 0.0012% of profit off their balance sheets. Or maybe he works for a developer who can build housing estates a lot cheaper if he can do it in an area with no building codes.

Then you end up with a city like Houston, with refineries plunked down in poor neighborhoods where the residents don’t have the political clout to get the pollution stopped. A city where there’s so little permeable land left that there’s no chance for rain to soak into the ground before running into the streets.

Think about it. Most regulations aren’t enacted out of some spiteful attempt to throttle profit. Most of them come about because we’ve seen cities burn to the ground, so we come up with fire codes. We’ve seen people poisoned by water systems so poorly designed that the designers should be up on manslaughter charges. We’ve proven that cars with seat belts and airbags save lives and reduce injury. We’ve looked back at the early days of the packaged food industry and decided that “no, we don’t want contaminated ketchup on the shelves” (read up on this period if you want a really hair-raising experience; you’ll never look at food regulations the same way again).

Yeah, there are regulations that are monumentally stupid. Regulations that exist as protectionism. We should clean those up. But if an expert in urban flooding tells you that building a city in such-and-such a way will lead to massive flooding (and has strong evidence to back up her claims) yet your city fathers ignore that and build a sprawling, concrete city that ends up flooding every time you get three inches of rain; well… Please don’t haul out poor heroic Cletus and his flatboat and expect me to buy your shtick. Clete has had his head turned around so far (from listening to talk radio all day long), he’ll likely go back home and vote in people who will continue to create the conditions for more flooding, more pollution, more industrial explosions. And he’ll be convinced that he’s protecting his freedoms by voting that way.

I saw a quote yesterday that went something like “Americans are great in a crisis, but bad on the long haul.” Avoiding more situations like Flint’s water, or Norfolk, Virginia’s sinking waterfront, or Houston’s sprawl takes planning, regulations, awareness, spending, and long-term determination. It takes a concerted effort to fight political corruption and make sure that we know what’s going on, and why the regulations are important.

Private industry isn’t going to do that. They’ve proven that plenty of times over the last 200 years.

Yeah, I know the old chestnut: “the scariest phrase in the world is ’I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” Funny joke. You know what? At its best, the government is us. It’s made up of citizens who want to fix things so they’re still working a century from now.

If we work really hard, find ways to mitigate the pollution, reduce greenhouse gases, stop the destruction of the oceans and the rain forests, then perhaps Clete’s great-grandkids will have clean lake water to fish in from their flatboat.

Unaccountable

Any group of people with power or authority, who are not held accountable in some way, will end up doing bad things.
 
If you see any group; cops, politicians, priests, judges, jailers, professors, doctors, dentists, business tycoons, psychologists, faith healers, karate instructors, whatever… anyone with authority over others… who is trying to ward off attempts to check on their behavior either is doing something unethical or are afraid they are.
 
It’s not as if people set out to do bad things, generally, but the first slip happens, and if there’s no blow-back there are fewer reasons to fight against that next slip. If there are rewards for slipping, then pretty soon you have institutionalized secrecy as a rule for group membership…
 

“I don’t need to march for any rights,” she said.

I spotted this post on Facebook today written by a Trump supporter in response to the women’s march, a woman with an Hispanic-sounding last name.

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I am not a victim. I don’t need to march for any rights. I have the same rights as anyone else. I’m not raising a victim either. So let’s call today’s activities what they really are, an anti Trump rally for prochoice people. What a bunch of bullies and so much hate speech (scarlet johansen verbally attacking a woman – Ivanka Trump and Madonna talking of her fantasies to blow up OUR White House). I don’t want my daughter looking up to any of those nasty women.

Anyone involved in this farce, I am disappointed in you for being a part of such hypocrisy. You are not victims. I would have so much more respect for you if you just called it ‘Women marching against Trump in fear of losing (abortion) choice.’ I stand behind your right to march for that. Just be honest about what you’re doing.

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I want to discuss this point-by-point, so I’m including the entire thing. I’m also going to write about some things that are at least implied by her profile.

Point one: A woman wrote this. Women only slightly older than I am have told me about rights they only gained within our lifetimes. She seems to assume that, because she has these rights now, that she’ll always have them. Many, many, many women and men have fought for over 200 years to get to the point where she can feel confident that she has the same rights as the men around her. I don’t think it’s overstating the case to say that she has these rights in part because ‘nasty women’ stood up to social pressure to fight for them.

Point two: A person with a minority last name, Hispanic in origin, wrote this. There are American citizens of Hispanic descent in the US today who face daily discrimination, including being subject to unequal policing and discrimination in the workplace. She lives in an urban area in North Carolina, so it’s possible she herself doesn’t see such discrimination, but I suspect that it would be an eye-opening experience for her to drive through some of the states along the Mexican border. Even in North Carolina, though, it’s probably only her economic status that’s shielding her. I hear people casually referring to Hispanic folks with really ugly racist terms, and assuming/implying that “the Mexicans” are only capable of being roofers, landscapers, or house maids. I wonder if she’d be comfortable being addressed with any of those terms, or lumped into those assumed limits.

Point three:I am not a victim” she says. That’s great. I’m glad that she feels safe in her life. I’d never wish any ill to her. But many of our fellow citizens are not so safe. I am able to see that just because I’m not personally being victimized, the incoming administration is putting many more of those citizens into precarious situations or outright danger.

Point four:I don’t need to march for any rights.” Nice. Apparently she doesn’t have the slightest sense of gratitude for everyone who has marched and fought for those rights.

Point five:let’s call today’s activities what they really are, an anti Trump rally for prochoice people.” I can’t call the marches that, because it would vastly understate the reasons I’ve seen my friends list for why they marched.

  1. Yes, some are pro-choice, but not all.
  2. Yes, nearly all the marchers are anti-Trump, but that wasn’t exactly a hidden motivation.
  3. I’ve seen people who are also marching against the incoming vice president and Trump’s choices for his cabinet and other administration posts; let’s not pretend Trump is the marchers’ only concern
  4. I’ve seen people marching in support of LGBT rights, which they see as being at risk with the new administration
  5. I’ve seen people marching in support of minority & immigrant rights
  6. I suspect the list is a lot longer than this.

Point six:What a bunch of bullies” The dictionary definition of ‘bully’ is: A person who is habitually cruel or overbearing, especially to smaller or weaker people. It’s essentially impossible for someone out of power to bully a person in power. I’ll ding her here for poor word choice at a minimum. Given the tone of the rest of the post, though, I would prefer to list this as a biased word choice. People are often cruel, and if the speakers were, in fact, being cruel, then I wouldn’t support that. If they were, rather, speaking emotionally and emphatically, then I totally support that.

Point seven:I don’t want my daughter looking up to any of those nasty women.” That’s fine. I hope that she models really good behavior for her daughter. I’d suggest she look carefully at her Facebook posts to see if she’s doing so. I’m also really curious as to whether she thinks Trump’s behavior is a good model for her offspring. Would she really feel comfortable sending her daughter out on a date with a young man who spoke about women the way Trump does? I think she’s exhibiting a double standard by defending Trump, but accusing the speakers at the march as being nasty.

Point eight:You are not victims.” How can she know that? Her assumption — that everyone at those marches is as safe in their lives as she is in hers — goes beyond simple privilege into territory I find offensive. She is invalidating the concerns of millions of other Americans just because those concerns aren’t hers. Outrageous.

Point nine: In her second paragraph, she accuses the march of being a farce, and the marchers of being hypocrites. To use the word “farce” to describe hundreds of thousands of people taking (in many cases) days out of their lives to express outrage and concern about a long list of political and social issues is just plain slander. It makes me doubt her claim that she would stand behind the right to march against Trump and for reproductive rights. She reinforces my doubt with her accusation of hypocrisy, because, again, the marchers have worked really hard to list their concerns on social media, on the signs they carried, and in innumerable blog posts, speeches, and interviews over the last two months. I see no hidden agendas, no hypocrisy.

Final point: I saved this for the last, because it would have been redundant to make it for each point above. To assume that — because you have a right — you will always have that right, is to ignore history and ignore all the people who fought and sometimes died for these rights. Rights, once gained, need to be actively protected for many years, and jealously guarded from attempts to diminish them.

To return to the subject line of this post… Why are people marching? People are marching to keep and extend the rights that this woman takes so much for granted.

Marcher in New York City on Jan. 21, 2017. Photo by Robert Stribley, used with permission.
Marcher in New York City on Jan. 21, 2017. Photo by Robert Stribley, used with permission.

Trump… and a meditation on buying stuff to make yourself feel better.

Most of us know — or suspect — that we don’t always buy things because we need them, but because we think we’ll feel better/more complete. Advertisements and reviews can hint that you’ll be better looking/cooler/more manly/more well-liked (or whatever) if you just had this watch, or that jacket, or the new car, blender, book (OMG the promise of books…).

Then we buy it, and often experience buyer’s remorse, or just a vague sense that it  just wasn’t right. In any case, the promised perfect future isn’t here.

Most people either run out of cash to keep trying again or go deep into debt to keep buying more/ better quality/faster/bigger/more expensive things. Some people with more money actually buy stuff and then give it away soon after to make room so they can buy the latest stuff.

Some recognize the futility and try to find other paths to personal fulfillment, or try things like volunteering instead of purchasing.

These are really hard paths, not least because our whole society is set up to keep us hoping the next gadget or guru will be The One.

Even volunteering to help people can lead to the same disappointment; “oh, look, there are still homeless people, I’ve failed again.” (I’m not trying to discourage volunteering, by the way. 🙂 I just suggest that you meditate a little on why you’re doing it. Being really clear on your motivations will probably keep you focused for longer and prevent burnout. Heck, it might even keep you from being badly used.)

But now imagine that you are so rich that you not only have marketing people manipulating you to think “this is it!
you also have hangers-on manipulating you to keep spending money because their chance for wealth depends on you thinking that.

If you’re not particularly self-aware, it’s not even likely that you’ll recognize what’s going on.

It’s certainly easy to see this pattern in Trump. If he can just build the best resort, the biggest tower, the fanciest golf course… he’ll get the adulation and satisfaction he craves.

Picture Trump in 2015: his 70th birthday is looming. He may not have many years left. He has his name on towers, golf courses, luxury resorts. It’s all a bit flat.

He sets his sights on a new project; running for president. It’s absurd, over-the-top… it’s classic Trump. Ahh, now the hangers-on are really excited. This next vanity project is one that they can not only make serious money on, but maybe even get serious power, which is the ultimate prize at this level…

It’s easy to see Trump as a buffoon; it’s less easy to remember that nearly all of us have similar base urges; we just have more obvious limits. If you make $30,000 or $100,000 a year, you’re pretty likely to run into your limits fairly soon. If you make $10,000,000 a year, your limits are probably less obvious.

I’m not saying that understanding that we have something in common with this guy means letting him off the hook. We absolutely have to fight him; and even more importantly, we have to fight the manipulators who helped him get to the point of being elected as the President of the United States, but we should at least be aware of our similarities, even if… or maybe particularly if… looking in this mirror makes us uncomfortable. I suspect that it’s hard to fight efficiently and effectively if we are in denial about our own weaknesses.

People who annoy me. November 29 installment…*

<rant>

  1. People who confuse the flag and the concepts the flag stands for.
  2. People who promote something close to worship of the American military.
    • There are MANY people who risk everything to help others. Why aren’t you in awe of those folks as well? If you can’t figure it out, you may want to contemplate whether you’ve been taken in by an elaborate marketing scheme. (Corollary: not all veterans are combat vets. I was in the Navy. I washed floors and managed storerooms. Probably most military jobs are at that level of ‘glamorous…’ keeping things running so the small minority who are fighters can be ready to do their jobs. All of these jobs are important to keep the organization in a ready state, but don’t assume every person who was in the military had some deep combat experience)
    • Any organization is made up of people. People who are given large amounts of money and power are at grave risk of being corrupted by the attractions of money and power. We should be as critical of the U.S. military as we are of any other organization, to make sure that they’re not falling into abuse of power or theft/mismanagement of resources.
    • Supporting the troops shouldn’t mean blindly supporting everything the military does. How about supporting the troops by not sending them into danger for stupid reasons? How about supporting them by taking care of them when they get home?
  3. People who think freedom of religion should only apply to their particular faith.
  4. People who assume that if you are religious you’re more moral than non-religious folks… against much evidence to the contrary.

</rant>

*prompted by current threads I’m seeing on Twitter, of course

PS: Get off my lawn.

Cold air, false history, and privilege

I’m not sure I have the skills or knowledge to turn this into a decent blog post, but I keep finding myself mulling over these ideas so I figured I’d write them down, trying to clarify my thinking.


During the summer of 2015 I was reading the news about the attempts by various activists to get the Confederate battle flag removed from official government locations, including from in front of the statehouse in South Carolina, where I live. The conversations on social media during that time also frequently included a message along the lines of “check your privilege.”

A Twitter poster whom I generally enjoy reading posted several angry comments, saying that he didn’t want people to yell at him any longer about “privilege” because it was a concept that included no path for taking action. He said that he didn’t mind being told that he needed to treat people more fairly, or stop doing something that caused distress …whatever… but that there seemed to be nothing that he could do about privilege. If we white men are privileged in America just by accident of birth, he said, then there’s nothing he could do to change it. He wasn’t going to stop being male nor white, so everyone should just shut up already…

I knew right away that I disagreed with him, while also sympathizing with him to some extent. After all, being blamed for something you aren’t even aware of benefiting from isn’t much fun for anyone.

My problem was that I couldn’t figure out — any more than he could — what to do with this concept of privilege.

A few days later, it occurred to me that a great use of being aware of social privilege is in checking assumptions for things like… oh… the idea that police treat everyone fairly. I saw posts this summer that were variations of the old “hey, if you don’t like being mistreated by the police, maybe you shouldn’t do any crimes, then the police won’t have an opportunity to mistreat you.” This can only be spoken by someone who has never had to fear that they’ll be pulled over while driving just because of how they look, stopped and searched just because of how they’re dressed while walking through a neighborhood. If you know that privilege exists, then you can, perhaps, pause while reading a news story about someone being arrested and not automatically assume that the person deserved to be arrested. You might start realizing that there are people who ‘do the time,’ even if they haven’t ‘done the crime.’ There is value in this not only in the sense of your being a more discerning consumer of news, but even in a larger sense of perhaps supporting changes to some future legislative efforts to bring about police reforms.

I think that one of the reasons privilege is so hard to think about when you’re a beneficiary of it is that it spoils you, and no one likes to give up comfort. It’s like someone who is sound asleep in a warm bed on a cold night, and their partner steals the blanket. Without even waking up they grab the edge of the blanket and grumpily pull it back into place. Feeling the cold air outside your cocoon is uncomfortable.

Here’s a real-world example. I know mature, responsible adults; upstanding members of their communities; valued employees; parents… who did drugs in their 20s. It would strike them as completely absurd if you tried to explain to them that the world would somehow be a better place if they’d spent the last 20 years in jail for their indiscretions. It’s obvious that punishing them for something that hurt no one would not have helped the world. Their current lives clearly enrich the world, and strengthen the fabric of society. But somehow they manage to ignore the fact that our prisons are chock full of people who committed no worse crime. People who will have no chance to ever turn their lives around, because very few businesses are willing (or even able; it’s often against the law) to hire anyone with a felony conviction. These people don’t see that having an entire underclass of people who can never hope to contribute to society weakens the country. Some of these prisoners didn’t even commit the crimes they are in jail for.

You don’t even want to get me started on the subject of the way that prisons have systematically removed proven programs for educating and reforming prisoners over the last few decades, essentially ensuring the profit structure of the prison industry (all in the name of being tough on crime).

Then, just this morning, several more pieces fell into place in my mind.

I recently listened to a podcast profile of the “father of PR,” Edward Bernays. The podcasters described how Bernays helped create the consumer culture we live in today, but they also touched on his forays into politics, including his involvement in the overthrow of legitimate governments in Latin America. This clicked with a complaint that was popular a few years ago among right-wing columnists; the idea of “historical revisionists” who were re-writing the history of the US and, for that matter, all the history of western civilization. I doubt that any real historian would use the term revisionism, because the practice of history involves (or should involve) going back and checking assumptions, checking the work of other historians, making sure that we try to describe what really happened.

The columnists, of course, were upset because their cherished mental images of glorious, flawless founding fathers were being shown as the figments of imagination that they actually are. Great men and women are never flawless (which is not to say that they were not great).

Where does public relations and marketing come in? All of this hinges on the old idea that history is written by the winners. I’d take it further; I’d say that history, perhaps particularly so in the US, has been written by marketing experts, often in the guise of the writers of heroic stories and songs, but just as often by patriotic textbook authors and newspaper columnists. It’s very easy to buy their product’s authenticity when their stories are providing the warm blanket that reassures you that all is well with your world. That the USA is a glorious bastion of freedom, that your religious leaders are moral paragons, our soldiers clean and upright young patriots, and our police firm- and fair-minded defenders of justice.

This is why the argument by poor, disenfranchised white men — that since they are poor and disenfranchised that they clearly are not privileged — doesn’t hold water. Privilege doesn’t imply that you have all good things in life. It implies that you’re able to continue to believe the comforting stories that you’ve grown up with. That the police only arrest bad people (of, if they make a mistake, our justice system will correct the problem), that our military only serves to protect our shores from evil men, and our leaders have our best interests in mind. I’ll grant you that the fabric of this mythology starts looking more than a little thin when you’re poor.

Becoming aware of the layers of unreality you live behind… in other words, becoming aware of your privilege… won’t, in fact, directly change anything. You can’t stop benefiting from it. But becoming aware of it might help you see through some of the illusions and, if nothing else, help you make decisions based on something closer to reality. Who knows, perhaps you’ll even help someone struggling under an unjust system somewhere.

(First draft dashed off without edits on Dec. 20, 2015… I reserve the right to edit for content (as I learn more), clarity, grammar, wording, or anything else…)


“The history of a nation is, unfortunately, too easily written as the history of its dominant class.”
Kwame Nkrumah

Center-left

Possible essay topic I’m mulling over.

I’m not gradually moving left on the American political spectrum because I have some love for governmental intervention (rather the opposite, I suspect).

No, I’m moving left because most of the kindest people I know seem to be on that end of the spectrum.

I have, with a little luck, a few decades left alive. I’d rather spend them working toward solutions to problems than being told that I need to be afraid of other humans who are also dealing with really bad problems.

I can’t ignore the legacy of political maneuvering and disastrous political experiments of the last 100+ years, but if you can hold that legacy to one side and look at the people involved, I keep finding the bravest and kindest ones (the people I want to hang with) seem not to be on the far right.

I know this isn’t much of a basis for making decisions on, but it feels… at least honest to the person I want to be.

A ‘plague of offense’?

I’ve been seeing posts and articles claiming that “everyone is offended these days,” with the implication, at least, that everyone should just get over themselves. I agree to a point, but I also think that some of this is a passive-aggressive way of saying “stop pointing out that I’m a bigot.”

Here’s my take on the ‘plague of offense’ that we’re apparently suffering through. Subject to revision/refinement as I think this through…

I don’t expect to get through the day without being offended
(I’ll try not to whine about it beyond posting a snarky comment).

I don’t expect to get through the day without offending anyone, but I don’t go out of my way to do so. I think people who do are just showing that they’re jerks. If I cross the line from expressing an opinion to being deliberately offensive, call me out on it.

My “being offended” is different from pointing out discrimination and bullying behavior. If you think that you can silence me by telling me to quit being easily offended, you’re wrong.

There are problems that won’t go away by being ignored; if someone points out racism, sexism, or any other social issue that they think is a problem, don’t imagine you can shut them up by claiming that they just need to grow a thick skin.

“I hate that the world has changed”

(cross-posted from FB)

Many of the complaints I see from the conservative side of social media seem to boil down to “I hate that the world doesn’t look like it did when I was a kid.”

For the most part, the good old days were not so good for most people. We’ve lost good things, I won’t deny, but some things are better, and equal rights for more people are on my list of those better things. I’m not asking anyone to agree, but I’m probably not going to spend much time talking with you if you disagree.

Peace.