Monday, June 29, 2020

2020 - Second Act

Six months ago, for my last post of 2019, I posted about the unknowability of the future, about the fact that almost every moment of life brings the unexpected, despite that we’ve somehow conditioned ourselves into thinking that our lives are mapped out, predictable, and that very little changes, ever.

I tried of come into this year open and purposely sensitized to this constant precipitation of newness into my life. And while I think I did an okay job of it, have my expectations ever been overwhelmed! Never could I have imagined the degree to which 2020 would upset every aspect of Normal. One of the most surprising things about this upset is that as much as it has operated in my personal life, that part is dwarfed by the transformations that are occurring in the world around me.

I could never have foreseen that the entire world would react almost in tandem to a viral threat of COVID. I could never have imagined that entire economies would be shut down for the preservation of life – not in this capitalist environment! And I’d never have believed that a handful of police murders such as has afflicted minority populations throughout the history of America would send people into the streets worldwide and be a catalyst for change in financial, political and social institutions across the country.


And now I find myself wondering if this is merely the tip of an iceberg. Yes, we’re about to enter 2020 – Act II, and it could be a doozy! I’m not much a believer in conspiracy theories. And with all my belief in the unexpected, I would never claim the gift of prediction. But I do have thoughts about forces that may be at play, lines of dominoes that may topple, and possibilities to at least be aware of. Here are a few of them:

How will the world respond to the 2nd and 3rd waves of Covid – let alone to the next viral surprise, in two, five or ten years? Could we ever experience another intentional shut-down on the scale of what we’ve just experienced? And if those waves or the next virus do materialize, and we don’t shut down, what then?

One way to look at the shake-up of the economy in recent months is to see it as an unveiling of the mind-game that economies are. Haven’t we all be trained to think of the economy as very fragile, and of the absolute necessity of constant spending and growth in order to prevent collapse? And yet, the governments of the US and Canada have been able to crank out billions of dollars to individuals and companies to keep them afloat and to keep people contentedly at home. I don’t claim to understand all of the long-term ramifications of these actions, and I don’t doubt that they are serious. But one of two things must follow: Either the economy does collapse and we enter a period of chaos, or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, this is evidence that economies can have a lot more flexibility than we’ve been led to believe. Yes, wealth can be redistributed. Yes, vast sums can be spent to feed and house people when these are accepted as priorities. Which means that we could eliminate poverty, have truly excellent schools, hospitals and nursing homes. If only we reset our priorities – as COVID has forced us to – and marshal the will.

One of my biggest-picture concerns is about the continuing concentration of power and wealth in fewer and fewer hands. A good friend of mine firmly believes that we are about to experience a rapid shift in worldwide financial institutions away from actual currencies to digital currencies, as in Bitcoin. Among other things, this could obliterate the dollar’s dominance and it would likely concentrate wealth even further. With China possibly leading the way.

What about global, political power? America has been dominant for a solid century now. It ascended to that position pretty quickly, following the upheaval that was World War I, And it’s place of dominance could end as suddenly as did that of the Soviet Union thirty years ago. Many expect that China will be the next dominant world power. I wonder what China makes of the disorder that prevails in the U.S. these days – failing at managing COVID and engaged in intense self-scrutiny dues to the police murders and the reactions. Given Trump’s success at eroding internal confidence in almost every national institution, including media, the courts, the policing forces and of course, the political parties, how might China, or even Russia, be looking to take advantage of it? And with authoritarian governments clearly demonstrating a superior ability to ‘manage’ their populations in response to threats like COVID, and with their increasing suppression of dissenting voices, what is the future for democracies?

A temperature over 100% Fahrenheit was measured within the Arctic Circle this week! Never happened before, and scientists are saying that the effects of global warming may be coming much faster than previously imagined? Having seen that the worldwide effort to deal with COVID was at least possible, if not fully realized – is it possible that a full-scale technological response to global warming will ever be attempted? And is this the time?

Each of these areas of speculation will be impacted by the United States, in one way or another. And the US is facing possibly one of the most important Presidential elections in its history. How will that go? Personally, I’ve given up on viewing the current Republican leadership as anything more than a kleptocracy – a regime bent of gaining as much wealth and power as it can, for its own and those it deems worthy, before it is ultimately swept from power. It will make a huge difference whether this sweep occurs in 4 months or 4 years. What daring acts, moral and immoral, selfish and selfless, will be required to pull off a victory, either way? And what will be the fall-out?

I wish I was more optimistic about what is to come. I do remain hopeful. And more than ever before – even more so than when my generation was coming of age – my hope is with the young.


Friday, June 26, 2020

Social Delusioning?

Is anybody really social distancing? Maybe it depends on exactly what social distancing means. But if it actually means maintaining a distance of six feet from other people, my own experience is that no one is really doing it.

I don’t mean that people don’t intend to do it. Or that we intentionally invade one another’s space. It’s just that we’re lousy at it, and we aren’t wired that way.

This isn’t about pointing the finger. Because I confess that I don’t succeed either. Whatever my intentions, I just don’t manage to be around other people for very long before someone is in my space or I’m in theirs.


During the first couple of months of the COVID shutdown, I successfully avoided almost all physical meetings and gatherings. But in recent weeks, I’ve been to several. And I can confidently state that not a single one has been really successful from a social distancing perspective.

That is, if six feet really means six feet. I sometimes wonder if the stated recommendation is six feet because health officials share my own conclusion: that people are horrible at social distancing. Do you recall that the initial recommended distance was 2-3 feet? I wonder if this wasn’t inflated with the belief that most people would never meet the full standard but might meet it halfway?

My personal experience has gone something like this:

A meeting or gathering is planned. One party says, “Of course we’ll social distance,” and there is general agreement. At the moment of contact, there is a display of good intention: people sliding sideways to pass one another, taking awkward detours, often with arms spread wide, or leaning away from one another. But within a short period of time – usually ten to twenty minutes – people are walking or standing within a foot or two of one another and no one seems to notice. When I’ve mentioned it, the reactions range from mild surprise, to shrugs of resignation to denial that there have been any lapses at all.

And I get it. I even accept it. We humans aren’t wired to behave like this. We’re meant to huddle together. And it’s uncomfortable to back away from someone, to ignore an offered hand, or to tell someone they’re standing too close. I'm accepting that if I want to social distance, I just can't do meetings. It just bugs me that we pretend we’re doing what we aren’t.

But what led me to post this are signs that this ‘denial’ may be more deep-rooted and widespread than I’d thought. I was watching CBC’s The National the other night. And there was a light, upbeat feature about a graduation event for a group of high schoolers who missed the real thing. And of course they missed the real thing because of COVID concerns. But in the videos of the event everyone is standing in small clusters as though COVID is the least of anyone’s concern. And then, the CBC anchor explicitly says that parents and teachers were on hand to make sure that everyone observed social distancing! I was astonished. Hadn’t he seen the video that I just saw? There was clearly no social distancing happening at all.

Then, I saw something very similar again today. Another event, video clearly showing that social distancing was ignored, and a representative of the event stating that, “…of course, social distancing was observed.”

So I’m scratching my head a little. Is what I’m seeing a reflection of the resignation that may be setting in about social distancing? Acceptance that people are too weary of the shutdown to take it seriously anymore? It might be so. And this may not matter across most of Canada, where infection numbers have clearly and steadily been coming down. But if there’s another spike, as much of the U.S. is now experiencing, or a full blown 2nd wave months from now, I wonder if it will even be possible to mandate a shutdown. It looks like there are many reasons that people will seize on, to stop trying to do something that we aren’t very good at anyway.


Saturday, June 13, 2020

Seeking Info Warriors to CONFRONT the BASE!


I’m tired of preaching to the Choir. From now on I’m preaching to the Other Choir.

I’m very concerned – even fearful – about what might happen 5 months from now, on Election Day 2020. I’m convinced that Trump and his allies will do everything in their power to steal the election. If he doesn’t manage that, he will contest it, even as he challenged the legitimacy of the election he won – by disputing his loss of the popular vote.

We’ve been hearing all of our lives about what happened in Germany in the 30’s, and we’ve endlessly pondered ‘how it happened’, ‘how it shouldn’t have happened’ and we’ve vowed not to let it happen again!

Well, it’s happening right now. Trump has spent 4 years selling fear and conspiracy to his Base, attacking the credibility of the courts and the media and of the scientists and social scientists who are equipped to challenge the pillars on which his platforms rest. He’s actively attempting to militarize opposition to every form of social, political and cultural progress.

He is the fool who would be emperor. And he may succeed.

I’ve been fretting about how to fight it. Of course I will vote. And I’ll sign petitions, post my rants and make my puny financial contributions. Personally, I won’t be out in the streets – not yet anyway. But thanks and blessings to the young ones who are taking it there. It's Not Enough!

So what to do?

Yesterday, I took it to his base, and I aim to do so every day from now until the election, and maybe beyond.

I went to the Fox news website. I registered – using my real email address but a pseudonym. I found an article about the protests in Seattle and went to the comments below it.       Before weighing in, I read a few dozen of the comments already posted. This is a sampling of the types of statements I read:

-       -  Democrats want disorder. They plan it and support it. They are deliberately or unwittingly bringing about the destruction of the country.

-       -  Liberal policies are about making endless, spineless concessions to criminals, thugs, subversives and takers. They are all about giving our country away.

-       -   The left has no concern for law and order, the constitution or democracy.

-       -   Liberals and the left are against free speech.

-       -   Trump must be re-elected to restore order and dignity.

-       -   The protesters are all rioting, looting, destroying and making baseless complaints and demands.

-       -   There were many calls for crushing dissent with military force, and even a few suggestions that civilian, vigilante force might come to bear.

-       -   AND, there was also a smattering of left-leaning posters, but almost all of them were in ATTACK mode, rather than seeking to engage.

I began my comment by saying that just as it is false and defaming to suggest that all police are murderers like those who killed George Floyd, it was equally false and defaming to lump all protesters with rioters and looters. I said that most protesters were calling for regulation of police forces to ensure that police officers fairly abide by the law, for the safety and protection of all citizens. And that anyone who truly loved the country and the constitution should support these efforts.

And it was ON!

I spent the next two hours responding to comment after comment. Many were insulting, at least in part. I ignored or simply indicated the pointlessness of attacks. Many other responses were defensive, challenging or argumentative. These I rebutted and engaged. And a very few were by obviously thoughtful people who actually expressed their concerns, perhaps some ambivalence, and a desire for things to improve. These I acknowledged and attempted to nudge toward deeper awareness. These are the voices I will be actively seeking!

The exercise was exhausting but very satisfying. Did I convert anyone? Probably not. But I was able to present thoughtful, balanced views to puncture the image of an irresponsible, evil, ignorant left. I was able to directly challenge many statements with facts, to direct people to other sources of information, such as youtube videos, NPR or other websites, to logically refute statements about Trump and about Obama. I repeatedly referred to the constitution and to Christian principles, and to former Trump allies to make my points. All in all, I’m sure it was much more effective than merely sharing posts among you who are reading this, who probably already agree with me on most political and social issues.

I remind myself of my own experience of web-browsing, how I sometimes go to articles and comments to clarify my own thinking, to work through my own ambivalence about a matter, actively seeking helpful perspectives. I remind myself that Trump nation was founded by a lot of people who felt disenfranchised and who were disillusioned. Many of them joined with Trump reluctantly, or believing he was the lesser of two evils. And many of them are deathly afraid of voicing the concerns already worming in their hearts and guts, because of the vehement retaliation they fear.

So in my responses, I remained courteous. I didn’t attack anyone for expressing something stupid, racist, fascist or uninformed. Instead, I respectfully pointed out how or why they were in error, and where possible pointed out contradictions and logical fallacies in their arguments.

I’m requesting that any of you who share my concerns consider participating in this effort to erode Trumps base directly, through person-to-person communication. How powerful it might be if a whole crew of intelligent progressives engages MAGA nation head on, but calmly, politely, armed with facts, conceding points when appropriate, referring them to other sites, speeches documents that are easily found online, expressing understanding of their legitimate concerns but firmly and maturely confronting the many untruths and misconceptions? I think such an effort with change a few hearts, a few minds and a few votes here and there.

I’m not starting any formal organization here. In fact, I think it an effort that’s best carried out on an individual basis, person-to-person, without scripts or talking points except those that anyone might choose to prepare for themselves.

For those of you who’ve done some door-knocking, it will be very similar, except that it will be aimed directly at the heart of Trump-mania. You will encounter some nastiness, some insults, and maybe some threats (which is why I opted to start with a pseudonym, but I’m considering using my own name.) You will need to have ways to shake off the stress, probably to de-toxify. But we can all certainly support one another. And if there are even a few of you out there willing to make this commitment with me, we can figure out what that support looks like as we go along.

I’m committing myself to doing this for an hour a day, between now and election day. Please consider joining me. I believe that we could make a difference!

PLEASE CONSIDER SHARING!!!

 


Sunday, May 31, 2020

Why Are They Rioting? Don't They Know it Doesn't Help Their Cause?

This is addressed to those of you who ask these questions. 

First of all, it’s disingenuous of you to ask, if you have no interest in “helping their cause” to begin with.

Second, MOST of the protesters have nothing to do with the violence and destruction. There are Protesters and there are Rioters. Yes, some of the protesters may tip over and join the riot, but DO NOT confuse the two. And DO NOT ignore the first group because you are dismayed by the other!

But let me address your complaint directly, about those who are very intentionally TEARING SHIT DOWN! It’s because they aren’t thinking about “helping their cause”. They are saying “Fuck YOU!” And they are saying it to a system they know is interested in everything but “helping their cause”.

But before I go on, let me ask YOU a few questions:

Don’t you know that when you support a system that forces more and more people into poverty and helplessness, they are going to be pissed off about it?

Don’t you know that when you keep slapping someone over and over, that eventually they are going to slap back?

Don’t you know that if you keep telling someone that they’re living in the Greatest Country on Earth, that they’re respected and that everything is being done to elevate and support them, when it is all an obvious lie, that after awhile they will stop listening to you, shout BULLSHIT, and damn you for the lying ass that you are?

And don’t you know that if people who are entrusted with “protecting you” repeatedly do you harm, then lie about, excuse or forgive it, that eventually you will strike back, and make no excuses, nor ask forgiveness?

Okay! Got that off my chest. So let me try and answer the legitimate part of the concern, about the violence that too often comes with protest. And how do I know it’s legitimate? Because to a substantial degree, I share it.

I’m a Black American male, born in Detroit, who was a teenager, living in Manhattan just a few blocks south of Harlem, when the waves of rioting in the Black communities in the 1960s began.

Ironically, I didn’t learn until much later that in America “race riot” used to be a term applied when a lot of White people stormed into a Black Neighborhood to raise hell. Often because some uppity nigger had “insulted” a white man or woman and the entire community had to be put in its place.

When those riots happened in the 60’s I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, it was kinda cathartic to see Black folks doing something that upset and scared the White status quo, that it felt powerless to do anything about. On the other hand, rioting was so damned STUPID! Why destroy our own neighborhoods? Why burn down the only stores that existed where you lived? Why destroy the homes and livelihoods of your own. It seemed to me that it would make a lot more sense in we went into White neighborhoods after instances of racist brutality, and raised some hell THERE.

What I didn’t yet understand was that it wasn’t possible for Black folks to protest in white neighborhoods. When White folks had stormed into Black neighborhoods, or even when they’d attacked peaceful Black & White demonstrations, they’d always had the police (and if necessary, the national guard and the military) firmly on their side, if not actually leading the way.

Note that almost all of the 60’s rioting took place in cities outside of the South, which had the largest per capita Black populations. Because in the South, even the most peaceful of demonstrations were met with unbridled violence. As regards the North, where riots did happen, one might find references to the phrase, “Give them an inch, and they want to take a yard!” Which is true, but honest only if you preface it with, “First, we stole a Mile from them! And they’ve been demanding it back ever since!”

This is an historical lesson that the Black community has learned over generations. The slave revolts of Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner in the 1800’s were followed by brutal attacks and retribution being visited on both slave and free Blacks across the south, whether they were in any way connected with or expressed sympathy with the revolts or not! All through the earlier 19th century, efforts by Blacks to organize, to protest, to gain rights were met by brutal force, as evidenced by the proliferation of lynchings, bombings and the terror campaigns of the KKK between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement.

And then there’s the case of the revolutionary Black Panther Party, which originated just around the time the riots started, and whose members brazenly patrolled their own communities while fully armed with both automatic weapons and law books, directly confronting police violence. The Panthers were systematically wiped out in about a decade, through outright murder, incarceration, and the organized and condoned mis-application of the law by police and the courts.

In short, there’s a long history of suppression of Black protest.

So, when you look at today’s rioters, you must understand the social DNA that they spring from. And let me clearly make the point that UNDERSTANDING is not CONDONING. It is still as stupid in 2020 as it was in 1967, to burn your neighborhood convenience store and your neighbor’s car. (A police station that has been abandoned over ‘safety concerns’? That’s a different story.)

But however “unacceptable”, the violence and destruction - even to the point of self-destruction - is frequently, and very naturally, the result of on-going abuse, neglect and not being heard. And this must be understood or it will never change. You can't expect the calm, rational, result-oriented problem-solving of safe, comfortable people, who believe and trust in the process that has served them. Not from those who CAN NOT believe or trust in a process, because it HAS NOT served them. From the latter, you are going to get visceral, emotional responses.

It’s easy for me to see and to feel the senselessness of the rioting, and to wish it would simply go away, so that the focus can remain on the police violence that took the life of George Floyd and too many others. And I’m sure that most of those protesting peacefully feel the same way. But I too have the privilege of being comfortable, of feeling relatively safe where I live, even of having had overwhelmingly positive experiences with police.

Because as I said, in 1967 I lived near Harlem, not in Harlem. And I was from a working-class family, not a poor one. I had educated parents and a wonderful upbringing. I had too many opportunities to list here. And all that gave me huge advantages, including a promising future, including hope!

I’ll bet that every Black American who was born around the time I came into the world – 1954 – can remember like I can being told by any number of my elders that, “You can’t EVER trust a white man. They will do you dirt as soon as it’s to their advantage!” Or, “The system is set against you, and there’s NO WAY you will ever make it as a Black Man in America!” Or, in regards to interracial relationships, “She may say she loves you, but a time will come when she’s gonna call you a Nigger!” These were common refrains among people of my parents’ generation who had been brutalized and betrayed until cynicism had crusted over almost every hope.

But I didn’t hear these things from my parents. They too had escaped the very worst of racism, though they’d experienced way more of it than I have. They’d survived it well enough to live some of their dreams, to overcome some of their fears, to become convinced that it wouldn’t hold them back from LIVING!

One of the very best lessons I remember receiving from my father was about racism. He let us know that it was all around, that we must be aware of it, but that we needn’t fear it. He compared racism to a huge hole in the road that you come upon when aiming to get somewhere. “Don’t be stupid and walk right into it,” he’d say. “Jump over it, if you know you can make the jump. Otherwise, you just have to find a way around it. The MAIN thing, though, is to not ever let it keep you from getting to where you’re headed.”

My God, what an amazingly powerful lesson that has proven to be, through my entire life! Basically, it was a lesson in empowerment. But, it isn’t a lesson that everyone gets. I got it through privilege. And one way of defining privilege is as a benefit one has that they did not have to earn. I was able to get and retain that lesson because I wasn’t personally brutalized and impoverished by racism. But I grew up around many who weren’t so fortunate.

Yesterday, as I listened to reports of the demonstrations happening across North America, and around the world, and feeling so grateful for them, for the outrage, the demand and the hope they express, I knew that there would be burning and looting too. I was proud of Atlanta’s mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, for so passionately demanding an end to the violence. And I was gratified to hear so many citing the words of Dr. King, who said that violence is a natural expression of those who have not been heard. Because I know, from MY experience, that many of those who were RAGING were fueled by a sense of hopelessness about anything resembling an American Dream.

This must be understood and remembered. Because the roots of this weekend’s violence go deep. If you are one of those who say, “Slavery ended 150 years ago. Get over it!” then you are a FOOL. If you are one of those who say, “There’s no more racism! How can there be racism if we had a Black President?” then you are another FOOL.

Because every time we decide that school budgets don’t matter, or that all those people on welfare are just lazy, or that investor profits are more important than workers’ rights, or that aboriginal Americans and Canadians have so many privileges that the rest of us are paying for, or that all that rioting just proves that they are all thugs and they should all be arrested or shot… all of that is just contributing to the development of more future rioters, who would rather throw a brick at a cop than vote, because they legitimately feel, “What the Fuck has voting done for us anyway!”

If you doubt this truth, look into the personal histories of those who fill our prisons, our group homes, our mental institutions and our shelters for confirmation. Overwhelmingly, their childhood stories are chronicles of abuse, neglect, violence and poverty. It's a truth that our societies (US and Canada) continue to ignore.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Re-Discovering Roots

I finally got around to reading Alex Haley’s Roots, and I wonder why it took me 44 years. I was aware of it when it was published and intended to read it. But then the mini-series came out, and it was such an event and was so hyped that I moved the book from my “Read Soon” list to my “One of these Days” list.

A really stupid reaction, that was. It would have done me a world of good to read it at the time. That was so long ago that I can acknowledge that I was afflicted with a kind of arrogance. Roots was hailed for reawakening America to the reality of slavery. But I thought myself already well aware and well-informed on the subject (I wasn’t, really). So I didn’t want to lump myself in with late-comers to the reality. I was doubly arrogant in that I moved away from anything in direct proportion to how popular it was, something I probably still suffer from, though hopefully to a lesser degree.




But anyway, I was tremendously moved by the book. Even granting all the criticism that has come over the decades about faulty scholarship, plagiarism and false representations, the book remains a powerful testament to the corrupt foundations of American society and the poisonous legacy that continues to this day. But it is also a testament to the enlightened, progressive and ever-hopeful America that also endures.

One of the most painful aspects of the story that Haley tells is the abject powerlessness that slaves must have felt, when any assertion of right or dignity or anger could be met not only by personal debasement, torture and/or death, but also with that same treatment extended to family and fellow-sufferers. Haley recounts the terror campaigns that followed the revolts of Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner. This ever present “backlash” is with us still and has become an entrenched part of American society and politics, as elaborated in this powerful piece by Lawrence Glickman from a recent issue of The Atlantic. (https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/05/white-backlash-nothing-new/611914/?fbclid=IwAR26Q-e_Bv6f2Y9wmRK-LvkTaa4F2SFz1cUGYLkzqmk49PvAd2Z8bA3q_Sw)

But what moved me most in reading Roots was the last few chapters, with Haley’s account of hearing the story of the ancestral “African” who called himself “Kin-tay”. This, when he was a child, crawling amongst his grandmother and her sisters as they sat on the front porch, sharing the bits of his language and personal story that they retained. And then, writing of the long, arduous search he undertook decades later, to trace these bits of information backward, all the way to the 1750’s, to Juffure, a village in The Gambia.

The beauty and the blessing of that moved me to tears. And they reminded me of my own family’s tidbits of personal history. In 1974, when I’d just turned twenty, I sat with my Great-Aunt Audrey in Detroit, my hometown, and she told me that one of my ancestors was said to have been brought into slavery from Madagascar. I’d never heard that before. And I’d never heard of slavery in relation to that huge Indian Ocean island. Aunt Audrey also told me that one of our ancestors was a Native American, but she couldn’t remember to what nation he belonged. I wasn’t forward thinking enough to make notes of our conversation, and it turned out to be my last visit with Aunt Audrey. She passed away a year of two later. During my next visits to Detroit, I asked other aunts and uncles and cousins about these ancestors, but was shocked to learn that none of them remembered ever having heard what I’d heard.



I’ve never made the effort that Haley did, to mine those few details for treasure. Reading Roots certainly nudges me to do so. Or maybe I can interest one of my nieces or nephews in doing so. Wouldn’t that be something!

Another thought is that – however moving and impressive his feat – even Haley didn’t truly capture his ancestry. Because he counted himself the eighth generation from Kunta Kinte, who was therefore only one of one-hundred-twenty-eight direct ancestors of his. Kunta’s wife, Belle, was another. But what of the other one-hundred-twenty-six? Haley tells of a white slave-owner and of a half Native American in his own genetic mix. What other myriad, genetic strands contributed to his lineage. And who are the 128 forebears of mine that walked the earth approximately two hundred and fifty years ago? I can’t name a single one!

How about you?

Monday, May 18, 2020

The Limits of Knowing in MAGA-land


I’m thinking a lot these days about knowledge and its limits. Of course, this has always been a problem, and it will always be a problem. Scientists and philosophers and theologians and artists have wrangled forever over the problems of knowing.

But it seems to be a heightened problem these days, because political, social, religious and cultural rifts mean that there are very few things that are widely agreed upon. And even moreso because knowledge has become so weaponized that even when it isn’t, there is suspicion that it is. There is hardly anything of importance that you can assert nowadays that won’t be challenged if you say it loudly and beyond your immediate circle.

When I think about it, the splintering of what used to be called “common knowledge” into partisan factoids isn’t entirely without a bright side. Because there is always some part of common knowledge that is false. And it’s so much harder to challenge established lies when they are uniformly agreed upon. To cite what may be the most obvious example, two hundred years ago (Do I hear a hundred? Do I hear fifty? Do I hear twenty?) it was common knowledge that women simply weren’t equipped to reason, to problem-solve or to lead like men were. Imagine trying to argue otherwise in America in 1820. And this, despite the fact that everyone must have known at least a few really intelligent, forceful, dynamic women and a few really stupid, weak and ineffectual men.

These days, because of the fracturing of the monolith of truth – and the ethics of free speech and of multiculturalism play a role in this – one can probably find fellow travelers and have some of the comfort of numbers, no matter what idiotic nonsense one believes, even that the Earth is flat. So this is one of those two-sided coins, both a blessing and a curse.


A piece of the problem is that having the right answers doesn’t necessarily correspond to intelligence. All sides of just about any good argument are going to have intelligent proponents as well as its fools. Which means that there will be plenty of circumstances in which an idiot, representing the truth, with horrible arguments, flawed evidence and no skill at presenting them, will face off against a genius who represents the falsehood, but armed with great arguments, overwhelming data and the gift of eloquence. The ‘winner’ of the argument will never be in doubt. And yet….

It's obvious that there were plenty of early adapters of the notions that the Earth is round, that germs exist, that mechanical flight is possible, that Blacks are equal to Whites, etc. who weren’t equipped to argue these propositions very effectively, and who had their metaphorical asses handed to them on platters when they tried to argue these positions against the most highly educated and eloquent members of their societies. And when they were up against the authority of the status quo, many of them had their asses handed to them literally!

So can we be so secure and smug when the experts align and tell us that something is so? There may be a consensus on the point now, but in 1960, there sure wasn’t a consensus that global warming was real.  It probably seemed a pretty cuckoo notion at the time. I wonder what the consensus will be about UFO’s and ESP in another hundred years?

But coming back to today, how do we convince anyone of anything anymore?
I’ve had to realize that despite my very strong feelings about quite a few things – such as, that Trump is a witless Fool! - there is hardly a single fact about anything outside of my immediate world that I can verify directly through my own experience and research. That includes COVID-19, the Federal budget, whether eating meat is healthy, if the people of Afghanistan want a continued US presence, and whether that exercise machine guaranteed to “melt off the pounds” really work. I don’t personally have the facts or the experience of any of these things. 

Yes, I could research it all, but even then I’d have to trust my sources (Wikipedia, anyone?). And I could actually buy the exercise machine and try it out. Then, I would know!
But I’m not going to buy the exercise machine. Why not? Because though the occasional risky purchase has met my expectations (yes, I admit to buying the odd such ‘miracle’ gadget/herb/self-improvement program over the years) most of them have disappointed. And I’ll never have the time or the money to invest in everything I’d like to believe is legit, even if I wanted to. And I’m also not going to research all of the dozens of questions that arise everyday about events and conditions around the world, or right under my nose. Because I’m lazy, I don’t like doing research. And there would never be enough time anyway.

And so, I’m left to trusting my sources. But because I’m lazy and don’t like to do research, I’ll choose most of my sources with very little vetting. I’ll accept that the New York Times got it right because…well because of its impressive appearance, and the intellectual quality of the writing, and because it’s cited by other sources I respect (for the same reasons) and… out of habit. And because the sum total of what I know and accept and believe supports the world I live in and – to a large extent – the stability and ease of my life. Because, when we no longer know, accept and believe the common knowledge truths in our lives, it presents us with huge challenges. Because then – if we pretend to any integrity – we have to challenge and resist and work for change.

One of the very best things about having been born Black in America is that it provided me with a constant experience of dissonance which served as an antidote to this easy belief and acceptance that I refer to. It was clear to me from childhood – as it must be, overwhelmingly, to most minorities around the world – that the common knowledge was very flawed, that my schools, the New York Times, and the President all presented very skewed and partial realities, at best. At worst, they presented outright lies and deceptions and fabrications.

Of course, as a child, I was in no position to become a revolutionary – not then, anyway. And so I learned that path of compromise that most of us learn (Most who don't wind up dead, incarcerated or psychotic). How much of the lie do we accept, simply to be able to get on and get along. And what personal lines do we draw and hope never to cross.

I didn’t expect this little piece of writing to get anywhere near this deep. What started me on this progression is the problem of truth in Trump’s America. Because I believe that one of the greatest misdeeds of Trump is that he’s put America as a whole into this position of mistrusting common knowledge. From the start, he has nudged the entire country toward distrust of the media, of the judiciary, of the government as a whole, and of science. He’s made us all, on both sides of the Red State – Blue State divide, incredibly suspicious of what we read and see and hear, except what comes from our personally trusted sources.

How can I say this is such a bad thing, when in this essay I’ve been attacking the sanctity of the known, the accepted, the believed? Well, it isn’t entirely a bad thing. Americans as a whole could stand to be more cynical and less gullible about many things - including how great America is. What I so detest about Trump is that he’s nourished this cynicism in support of such a narrow and short-term self interest, and that there is no morality behind it, and that he doesn’t seem in the least concerned about the costs. Even the Black and Native American revolutionaries of the past, after all, despite being full of bitterness about how their people had been oppressed and degraded, maintained some awareness of the cost – to their own people and others – of tearing it all down. They were driven by concern for more than themselves. Many of them recognized – despite the gross hypocrisy of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution – that they contained values that were capable of more than what had so-far been achieved, and they looked toward a future of betterment in which they knew Community would be essential.

I’ve rambled here, and I’m rambling again. Where I’m coming from is my despair about the state of the United States and what it’s allowing itself to become. I despair over the difficulty in knowing, naming and championing the truth, in a way that isn’t just about getting what we want. I detest Trump, but it’s his followers who frustrate me. There will always be fools, but fools don’t have to have followers. And I wonder why the hordes in their MAGA hats cannot see what is so plain. (And yes, I must remind myself that, to at least some of them, they hold truths that I refuse to see!) Is it possible in America anymore to identify truths that no side can deny, and to build from there?

Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Lunatic State of America

I was one of those who 4 years ago thought it unimaginable that Donald Trump could be elected president. He was so obviously a liar, a fool, and an irresponsible narcissist that I couldn’t imagine there would be enough Americans to fall for him, despite the arguable lack of good alternatives (personally, I thought Hillary Clinton was a decent candidate who would've made a fine president, but I understand how and why others could reasonably disagree). But it's what's happened since Trump's ascent that is truly disturbing. The party that originally put him forward with some uncertainty has now practically deified him. Some go so far as to proclaim that he is Heaven-sent.

I have remained baffled these 4 years, that even as his approval ratings have never reached 50 percent of the American people, they have only rarely dipped below 40 percent. And one of the things that baffles me most is that White, God-fearing, Christian Evangelicals make up the solid core of his base. And that this core overlaps with working-class, minimally-educated White men. On the surface, these are groups I would’ve thought least likely to embrace an arrogant, wealthy, New York City celebrity. I stumbled across a podcast that has helped to shed some light on this phenomenon. “Straight White American Jesus” by “two ex-evangelical ministers-turned-religion professors” is worth a listen. (https://straightwhiteamericanjesus.podomatic.com/)



Trump has managed to whittle away belief in science, in the press, the judiciary, the military, and of course the Federal government, which he has rendered almost deserving of dismissal through his gross mis-management. The Deep State conspiracy theory has been fueled, and up to 40% of Americans believe that the only trustworthy sources of information are the Bible and the Tweets of IMPOTUS - despite the fact that both are riddled with inconsistencies. 

My nightmare throughout the Trump presidency has been that he would lead the country into civil war, or even global war. I confess deep relief that neither has happened, yet. However, his recent tweets to “liberate” states from Corona virus measures, explicitly citing 2nd amendment rights, and in support of fully armed protesters, affirms the reasonableness of my concerns.

For years I’ve heard Islamophobes insist that a fundamental difference between Islam and Christianity is that the latter is “too mature a religion” to promote the levels of intolerance and violence spawned by Islam. But sadly, that maturity is nowhere in evidence in MAGA-land these days. And bringing young children together with automatic weapons to street protests strikes me as a few steps beyond anti-social, and beyond sanity.

One of the big problems with Christianity is that its call for “true faith” dares the believer not only to reject negative proof, but also to reject the need for any positive proof. Reliance on proof or scientific evidence only demonstrates that one has little faith. The more illogical and absurd Trump’s actions and statements, the more he piles lie upon deflection, and blame upon lie, the more urgent becomes the call to faith, and the more blessed is he or she who remains true.

Though I’ve lived in Canada for over twenty-five years now, and even since becoming a dual citizen, I’m still much more American than I’ll ever be Canadian. I would cite as evidence that I watch mostly American news, follow the NFL and not the CFL, and I’m hardly aware of Canadian films or television shows, but those things are all true of lots of Canadians. One thing that marks me as “still a Yankee” for sure – to myself, anyway – is my lunatic way of looking at politics. 

As Americans, we cling more tenaciously to philosophical and political ideals than do Canadians. We’re more dogmatic, and quicker to stake everything on our dogma. Canadians too, boast of being the greatest country on Earth, but more in the way that most of us will say that our parents are the greatest – though we mean it, we won’t feel offended, or that we’ve been betrayed when we hear our best friend say the same thing. Canadians are just as fallible, just as error-prone as Americans. We had Rob Ford as major of our largest city, after all. And he was almost as shamelessly outrageous, arrogant and ignorant as Trump. I sometimes wonder how much of Ford's playbook Trump stole. Maybe it's just that Canadians have more humility, and don't stake quite so much on being RIGHT all the time, so don't put so much fervor into making the other WRONG. In any case, it is clear to me that sanity prevails to a substantially greater degree here, North of the border.

The current political divide in America really scares me. Trump has been campaigning for a second term since the first week of his first term. And I don’t think he’s above using the Corona crisis as cause to make voting in November as burdensome as possible where this will help him. And I don’t doubt that there are groups of zealots out there now, armed to the teeth and impatient for the Second Coming, who will be all too happy to usher in a Holy War when a humiliated Trump claims that a “fake”, rigged, witch-hunt of an election forced him from power.

I pray it ain’t so, but in the current Lunatic State of America, it seems that anything is possible.