A white boy speaks of race

Yes, I know, political correctness maintains that white people have no title to an opinion on the subject today, but I’ve never been much for following rules – not back when conservatives were the cultural police and not now with liberals as the cultural police. So what the hell, here’s my view. It is not intended as the final word on the subject, not even my final word, as there’s a lot to hear before fixing my position too firmly. It is one voice among many, but it is a heartfelt one, and any tricky issue is navigated best when the widest range of voices, including those we disagree with, are welcome at the table.

As a white man, I feel sorry for my black brothers and sisters. Not only because they have suffered so deeply from historical conditions whose effects continue today, but also because the liberal agenda, which was “liberating” at the time of the Civil Rights/hippie 60s, has now become a constraining force. Conservatives, of course, are no help whatsoever. But liberals used to offer, at least in the vision, a way out. Now the liberal agenda, although split between residual Enlightenment liberals and emergent identity politics liberals, seems to have given the microphone to the latter. And the latter seem to hold that if you are black, every aspect of your identity must be defined by racism. You cannot speak, especially if you are a public figure, of any interactions with mainstream culture or white people without decrying racism as a driving part of the interaction. Forget about the collaboration, the good times, the connections that transcended race or racism.

Indeed, many of my younger liberal friends are probably already offended by the fact that I opened with a reference to “my black brothers and sisters.” That old liberal vision that says we are all in this together, brothers and sisters, regardless of race or demographics, that says we should measure each other by the content of our character and not the color of our skin, is now anathema to liberals. Where liberals once fought to break down the walls between races, liberals now insist upon those very walls. For white people to try to identify with blacks as brothers and sisters is considered presumptuous, overreaching, an affront to the black experience. There is a certain logic to this position but it gives us no way forward toward a harmonious multicultural society. When activists demand that the Whitney Museum “remove and destroy” Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till solely because it was done by a white artist; when universities demand that students treat each other not as fellow human beings but as instances of this or that race (“I don’t see race when I meet people” is widely listed as a microaggression); at this point, liberalism becomes a force that hardens the walls between races and blocks any collective path forward.

Few people at any point in the political spectrum deny that racism exists. But whereas racism was once considered a cancer to be removed from the body politic, liberals now conflate it with the body politic itself, and the treatment seems to involve killing the patient to get at the cancer. I believe this is a mistake. The truth is that many people, black and white, have been fighting against racism for a long time; that many people, black and white, still harbor race-based judgments against others; that blacks have suffered disproportionately because of their race; and that the solution is not and will never be to sharpen the line between white and black with the “us versus them” approach favored by conservatives in the 1960s and now favored by liberals. Better to search out and magnify the good in one another, not to search out and magnify the bad. What you focus on determines the fruit you bring forth.

(To my younger liberal friends [black or white]: Before you write me off, please note that beneath all the needless belligerence manufactured by today’s political players, there’s actually a lot we agree on and can work on together.)

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Hitchhiking Poland and Czech Republic

It was a cold morning walking through Dresden Neustadt for the bus to the edge of town. The driver was also cold and wary. Maybe it was my 25-year-old coat, or my 40-year-old backpack, or maybe the hitchhiking sign I was carrying: WROCLAW. From where he dropped me, I walked a quarter mile toward the highway and staked my spot. An hour. Then a stylish woman stopped but she was turning toward Berlin. A half hour later, a college guy pulled over, but he was going to Saxony. I turned them both down, always a hard choice when you’re on the side of the road, but I didn’t want a 5-mile ride to the next fork when I had a good spot.

Waiting. Enough waiting for my bus driver to make his loop twice. I always wave to bus drivers, but the second time he waved back like he meant it. I could tell he was pulling for me at this point. Such are the weird bonds of hitchhiking. People along the way, bus drivers or shop attendants, who reject hitchhikers in the abstract come to see their human side. And for the hitchhiker, the complete surrender to the generosity of strangers is enlightening on some visceral level. A paradox of surrender and liberation. Or maybe surrender and connection. Your fate depends on strangers, not on family or tribe, but on human connection in general. In a way, this is true for all of us all the time, but on the shoulder that truth becomes concrete and immediate. Someone must pick you up. And it could be anybody.

In this case, “anybody” is a Polish hippie who had recently moved to a simple country shack, with a teenager in the passenger seat. They had just met at an animation conference, the kid a hobbyist and the hippie still enough on the grid to make a living writing musical accompaniments for animators.

So we cruised, we three, through a lovely cold day in Poland. In two days, I would hitchhike through Czech Republic, hitting small mountains and snow and chilly spots beside the road, riding with Henryk, the jolly businessman who supervised 150 people, and with the Prague cop who warned me of every possible crime that might be committed against me in Prague. But for now I was happy to escape the cold, to meet my couchsurfing hosts before dark, and to play with their 3-year-old, who was just the right age to teach me a few words in Polish.

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Hippies, Wholeness, and Human Touch

If you look at clips of hippies from the Summer of Love or Woodstock or their post-60s communes, you see, the sexual liberation of the times aside, lots of non-sexual touching and hugging. In the hippie zeitgeist, human touch was one of the primary glues of communal oneness. Physical touch was not just symbolic of healing and unity. It was the physical joy of human connection itself. It not only symbolized but manifested oneness with our fellow beings on the level of all the sheaths of identity (physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual). You could feel the bonds. Besides the cosmic, hippyish explanation, this may simply be evolution. For millions of years, grooming and snuggling and other forms of touch have defined primate behavior.But as with so many things in the hippie spring of the 1960s, the reinvestment in physical touch was part of a social vision, a push toward a society that was less materialistic but richer in human contact.

Nowadays, the focus on sexual harassment has brought shame to many who long deserved it, but has also raised a question for us hippie sympathizers: Was there a utopian naivete about the hippie zeitgeist on touch? Can it be exploited by those who would sexually harass? That is certainly a risk, and the anti-harassment movement we see today is a corrective to that risk. But I fear the baby being thrown out with the bathwater. Along with those who are justly punished, there seems a sense building that any touch on the shoulder or forearm,  is a blip on a gradient that ends in rape. We have moved from seeing “human touch” as one of the great healing and redemptive powers at our disposal to seeing it as something intrinsically dark.

I don’t want to overstate my case. I understand that no one is proposing that all human touch be marked negative. But is that becoming the new default setting? In our eagerness to right wrongs, is “potentially toxic” becoming the first thing we think of when one human being touches another? Come to think of it, a lot of default settings seem to be moving the needle to “toxic.” Masculinity is increasing portrayed as toxic in itself, invested in violence and power and subjugation; heterosexual sex is seen as vaguely toxic, and even women with straight heterosexual desire should feel a little guilty for being complicit in the heteronormative patriarchy. Such are the times, at least as they are being engineered by the theories coming out of academic identity departments.

But touch, I hate to see touch go. Whereas the push in the 60s was for a society richer in physical human contact, the push now would seem to presage a society that valorizes a decrease in physical human contact. Granted the naivete of the hippie zeitgeist had a vulnerability that could be exploited, I just worry about the pendulum swinging too far. I am uneasy about the demise of that hippie optimism about human nature and human connection. I worry that the beauty of human touch will be lost in a new age of puritanism. I worry that this new idea we have of the integrity of the isolated individual – some would say an idea that really only emerged 100 years ago with the existentialist philosophers – that this idea puts us at odds with millions of years of evolution, in which identity formed as part of a group, with constant tactile confirmation giving “wholeness” to that identity.

A society depleted of that tactile confirmation may indeed make individuals safer,and there is an absolute value there that gives pause to my own thesis. That value alone makes today’s anti-harassment movement potentially a great positive in our effort to “form a more perfect union.” But great positives can become negatives without moderating voices, just as the heady liberation of the French Revolution (1789) morphed into the Reign of Terror (1793). Without a Martin Luther King or a Gandhi, the passion of protest can turn unprofitably violent. And if Facebook posts are any indication, there are certainly some cultural warriors out there harboring a little of the Robespierre bloodthirst. So yes, I am all for the increased safety that might result from the anti-harassment movement, but be aware that a lack of moderation always comes with its own risks. The risk in this case is a more general fear of human contact. People may slowly become more isolated, alone, bereft of the redemptive power that has always saved us from our fragmentary, individual lives and given us a pathway to fulfillment that only comes viscerally, through abundance of human contact.

Photo credit: Peter Simon (http://www.petersimon.com/)

              

Did 1960s liberals become today’s conservatives?

The answer splits into two trajectories. The simplest trajectory is where those individuals changed their values as they aged into what are traditionally conservative values – favoring lower taxes, preferring stability to dynamic change, etc. This treats “conservative” and “liberal” as constants, and remarks the change in individual behaviors.

The second and more interesting trajectory looks at how the definition of “liberal” has evolved. This second grouping of old hippies has stuck to their hippie values, but have seen the definition of “liberal” separate from, and then become antagonistic to, those values. The new “liberalism,” to them, seems restrictive, segregationist, and puritanical – in a word, the antithesis of a 1960s liberalism that was restriction-busting, radically integrationist, and non-puritanical. This branch of 1960s liberals indeed no longer fit the category “liberal,” but nor have they altered their values in the direction of conservatism. Unlike those in the first branch, these 1960s liberals have simply become outsiders, equidistant from today’s conservatives and today’s liberals. They see today’s liberals and conservatives both as essentially reactionary formations, restrictors of freedom, each trying to enforce its own norms against all dissent, with no one left to represent the more radical liberation of the 1960s vision.

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Are today’s liberals really liberal?

Of course, terms like “liberal” and “conservative” change values over time, so there is no permanently fixed answer, but the question is still meaningful. Looking at the general standards of what “liberal” has meant in living memory (the past 50 years or so), today’s liberals are not liberal by a 1960s definition, and indeed, for better or for worse, are working feverishly to dismantle the 1960s liberal vision. The 1960s counterculture liberals pushed hard for a non-restrictive (break all restraints), radically integrationist (everyone share everything openly, regardless of race), and non-puritanical (celebrate all forms of robust sexuality, so long as no one is forcing anyone) vision. Using these three criteria, today’s liberals are by 1960s standards “pseudo-liberal” at best, “reactionary” at worst — i.e., they are restrictive (policing speech and every false move), segregationist (cultural appropriation and do-not-cross lines and “you can’t know my truth” because you’re not my color), and puritanical (crude jokes and clumsy flirtations are actionable offenses, every hint of male heterosexual desire is suspect in a vague consensus that “male pleasure is inextricably tied to victimizing, hurting, exploiting” [Dworkin]).

So are liberals today “liberal”? If by liberal, you mean restrictive, segregationist, and puritanical, yes. Perhaps this is indeed what “liberal” has become. But if you are old enough to have set your benchmarks of “liberal” over a longer range, say reaching back through the hippies to John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, the new “liberalism” (restrictive + segregationist + puritanical) might seem “pseudo-liberal” or even reactionary, in some cases more reactionary than today’s college-age conservatives.

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Out on a Limb: Sexual Harassment, Race, and the Unsinkable Mr. Trump

Mixed feelings on sexual harassment in the news stories of the day. It’s good to see those who routinely harass getting caught and going down in greater numbers. But I do worry about a loss of perspective. If there are 50 million married couples in the US, and you asked how many started with (a) venturing a kiss in the hopes that it would be reciprocal, or (b) asking permission for a kiss, I’m guessing that at least 49 million would say (a). By today’s standards, that means 49 million marriages started with an act of sexual harrassment. Similarly, by the standards of California’s “yes means yes” law, I believe every sex act I’ve ever had would be a rape, since I never explicitly asked or received a verbal permission. In fact, since I align with 1960s feminists (who proclaim for women equal strength and agency with men) more than with current feminists (who more often risk infantilizing women for political gain), I’d have to say every sex act was a mutual rape, since I also did not explicitly say “yes, it’s OK” before the act. This is what I mean by a loss of perspective. I am not sure of my position because tides and definitions change so quickly on the topic, so I’m open to feedback. It’s been too long, anyway, since we’ve allowed each other to air out unfinished thoughts openly in the public sphere without triggering the hegemonic machinery of shame and condemnation. So for all those who would like to see a little more tolerance and openness, maybe even a little more play and freewheeling chaos, in the greater communal idea exchange, I’ll go out on that limb.

Now to turn from sexual harassment to “rape culture,” here too it’s good to see rapists nailed as often as we can nail them, and forcible rape should be “one strike you’re out” with no hope of parole. But blaming it on “rape culture” gives me pause. I didn’t grow up thinking rape was OK until someone taught me otherwise. I think most men are horrified by the thought of rape without having to be “taught” that it is wrong. Those who need to be “taught” that harming innocent people is wrong may already be hopeless. This doesn’t mean I’m against educating people – and boys in particular – about where the line is or how certain behaviors make women feel – but keep it in perspective. Blaming “rape culture” or Western culture in general is like blaming black culture when a black man commits a crime or Islamic culture when an Islamic terrorist strikes. Broadening the blame so widely takes the focus off of the criminal, and elides all laws and social forces aligned to punish rapists and other criminals without broad-brushing the rest of the group with guilt by association. And there’s also the problem of blurring categories. It seems in the media that “rape culture” is a vague umbrella under which crude jokers and clumsy suitors are more or less lumped in with brutal rapists, which may not be the best way to focus the efforts of a wide range of people.  I sympathize with the goal of calling attention to and clamping down on sexual assault, but I’m not yet convinced that the broad brush of “rape culture” is the right tool.

While I’m out on that precarious limb, I fear a similar loss of perspective on race. Per the Black Lives Matter focus on cops and black suspects, I am glad there’s a watchdog to insure an investigation when a suspect is killed. Given our history, it makes sense to have a watchdog group with a particular eye on black suspects who are killed. A demand that an investigation take place, and evidence be gathered and presented in court, is totally fair. A demand for a guilty verdict before a trial takes place seems a bridge too far, but it seems a bridge many routinely cross nowadays.  I’m reluctant to use an individual criminal case as a venue to redress social problems. I have friends both liberal and conservative who seem more eager than I am to take sides up front based on preconceived notions about race relations. But even if those preconceived notions are correct, not every white cop is a racist and not every young black man is a thug. With individual lives at stake, specific cases should not be prejudged on political grounds. At least that seems a good general rule. As political currents shift, grand juries and juries of peers seem a safer long-term bet than guilt assigned and convictions demanded before investigations take place.

Tiptoeing still further out on my limb, I will say that I think in the wake of Trump’s election, some of my liberal brothers and sisters have generally taken their eye off the ball on how to address persistent racial inequality. I think this stems from a misreading of Trump’s supporters. Sure, the hard-core racists who never vote Democrat voted Trump, but my theory (coming from a conservative part of the country where probably 40% of my friends and family voted Trump) is that most people who voted for Trump did so because (a) they always vote Republican regardless of the name of the ballot, or (b) they were sick of Democrats and Republicans and political correctness, and Trump seemed to them an outsider who would cut through the crap. In the case of the white working class, they were sick of being told by liberals that they were racist, sexist dolts who were overloaded with unearned privileges. I think voting for Trump was a mistake, but one that is explicable without appeal to racist, sexist xenophobia.

Once Trump votes were marked as a simple indicator of widespread racism and misogyny, the damage was done to the liberal mindset. In facing persistent racial inequities, focus on schools and economic opportunity in specific areas seems to have shifted to a focus on a vast conspiracy of white supremacists. In a word, liberals went back to fighting the battle of the 1960s. As unpopular as it sounds, white people’s hatred and prejudice against black people is not the biggest inhibitor to racial equity today. Although there is some of that, and it has perhaps been hardened in recent years by an unfortunate backlash against a relentlessly race-conscious identity politics, there are still few actual white supremacists. The big national call for a white supremacist gathering in Tennessee a few weeks ago brought in a total of 300 people from around the country. These knuckleheads have been increasingly marginalized since the 60s. As Charles Barkley said, if ignored, these 300 idiots gathered from around the country could talk stupid to each other for a couple of hours and then go home with no one ever noticing. Our new crop of liberals raised on identity politics, though, have vastly enhanced the prestige of those 300 idiots, telling them that America in general is a white supremacist nation that has their back. I fear that today’s liberals are rapidly reversing the gains in consciousness we made in the wake of the 1960s Civil Rights and hippie movements. By the end of the 70s, I’d say very few white people I knew really thought whites were genetically superior to blacks, and even those few would not admit it in public. Yes, there are still inequities that need to be addressed, yes there are still pockets of racial prejudice, but overall we’d gone a very long way toward marginalizing KKK thinking. (As Professor Cornel West once said on a talk show appearance while seated next to some klan members, “The KKK doesn’t represent white people; they represent morons.”) Sadly, the new liberal idea that everyone is a white supremacist moves in the other direction, giving those few KKK idiots an enormous microphone. The unpopular truth is that most corporate entities are eager to recruit women and minorities, if for no other reason than the edge it gives them when seeking big government contracts and major clients. The major obstacle for these corporate entities is finding enough women or minorities who have been well-prepared for board seats or top-level positions. We need to work on getting women and minorities well-educated from the ground level, well-prepared professionally – schools, mentoring, and economic conditions on the streets – this will serve better than marching against the till recently quite marginalized idiots of the KKK.

So let’s take the spotlight off the idiots, and off of the supposedly entrenched demographic differences that falsely present us as enemies, and see each other anew. Obama, in 2008, probably gave the best speech since Martin Luther King on the issue of race:

“I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together – unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction – towards a better future for of children and our grandchildren. This belief comes from my unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people.”

It’s hard to tell whether Obama is schooling prospective Trump voters or identity politics liberals in this appeal, but let’s hope it’s a little of both. We need to stop the nonsense, see the good in each other, and get to work. Forget about all the theoretical divisiveness and do what it takes to make this school or that neighborhood better with an eye not on the past but on the immediate future.