Author Archives: Andrew Batcher

Beyond the Politics of Hope

Source: http://melivingmylife.com/2014/12/16/distraction-free-abandon-all-hope/

‘Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.’

-Franz Fanon

 

I really feel that quote.

As a child I gave myself a fledgling mission–make the world better. Eventually it was clear, this was harder than it should be.

Huge problems plague the world–racism, war, ecological collapse, poverty, etc. Some people even work 9 to 5 at making life worse! (like private health insurance that tries to take your money and deny your coverage, or neo-conservatives who want to make war just because, or nazis).

A lot of us agree on what is needed. We know the world should not be dominated by corporations. We know we should be building a sustainable society so that future generations, and the Earth itself, can flourish. We know people shouldn’t work all day and be unable to afford basic necessities like food, shelter, and medicine (personally I think we should all have our basic needs met regardless of what we do).

People who agree on obvious goals of human survival ARE the numerical majority. Still, political power is held by those committed to domination and exploitation. The majority are not represented. We do not live in a democracy (here’s a post about that), and thinking that we do causes us to continually pursue ineffective political strategies.

But there is something else that gets in our way.

Seeds of depression abound in this frustrating world, and the opiate of the masses  is HOPE.

Hope is the problem.

Hope lets Us off the Hook

Source: https://www.1stdibs.com/art/paintings/figurative-paintings/jed-jackson-opiate-masses-gouache-on-paper-framed/id-a_924893/

I will go into the problems with hope, but first I want to discuss something fundamental–how stuff happens.

If I want to build a ladder, what do I do? I research how a ladder is made. I get the materials I need. I do the labor to transform those materials into a ladder. Pretty simple; research, gather, create.

If I wanted a world where everyone had the resources they needed, first I would research money and how it is spread. Second, I would identify where to gain more access to money. Third, I would organize people to claim that money.

Ok so getting our needs met is more complicated than building a ladder, but the point is basically that we get stuff done if we have a plan and do the labor. The general process of poor people getting their needs met could mean labor unions fighting for workers, political advocacy for social programs (health care, social security, etc.), changing the tax system, deposing the current political class, etc.

How does this relate to hope? In a nutshell, people talk about hope INSTEAD OF talking about getting things done.

I am not completely opposed to hope. Hope provides a sort of inspiration that feels good but is fleeting. Embracers of hope usually make one very good point. People need to believe they can make a difference. In a hurting world, we crave hope.

I’ve both worked in and attended Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregations, where sermons are usually filled with hopeful words and songs. Many come to experience a weekly dose of good feelings and a sense that life will work out. These congregations do good work. I’m particularly proud of the congregation I worked at (Cedar Lane) and how they’ve provided physical sanctuary (here’s some info and I encourage people to support). The problem is congregations will often speak about, and subtly give themselves credit for, work that is more transformative than what they actually do.

I compare mainstream liberal institutions to the struggles of frontline activists fighting to hold police accountable for racist murder, or generally challenge the callousness of capitalism and the heavy-handed authority of the state. Those on the frontlines are often literally fighting for their lives, and they are largely ignored by more mainstream and “respectable” institutions who claim to support the same causes (the Democratic Party is the worst).

Often the hardest working people are those most dismissed in society. I know life is complicated and we can’t all do it all, but struggling people really need their true humanity to be seen. That means a transference of economic and political power and a real reckoning with our history. This is far beyond hope and feeling good.

Planning and working gets us what we need. Hope does not; and I suspect an over reliance on hope prevents us from diving in.

Hope as a Political Goal

Now I want to distinguish between hope as a feeling, which can be wonderful, and hope as a political goal. Hope as a political goal occurs when we gather together with people who hold our similar political interests, but the main purpose of the gathering is to make us feel good. Maybe in many cases this is fine. We need solace. We need good feelings, experienced with tender togetherness.

However, when hope becomes the central thrust of what we do, I would argue that hope is actually pacifying us and complimenting the exploitation and oppression we believe we oppose. Hope allows the bad people to oppress while the good people console themselves, it’ll all get better somehow someday.

We do not recognize, we are the ones the world is waiting for. Who else would it be?

The thing is that people have limited time to attend gatherings. If all we do is attend stuff that makes us feel good, we’re not actually going outside ourselves. We are not connecting to the work of living with mutuality. We are not doing the fundamental labor that makes things happen. And all that other stuff, connecting with people, going outside our own feelings, laboring to make things happen–this is the work of true transformation.

It often feels hard and painful.

I remember, for example, when I was first called a racist. It was in college. Based in my own self-centered experience, I was shocked, pained, and put off. But really I was being challenged to expand my mind and see a world filled with people who suffer racism, people I am alienated from because of my white privilege.

With an expanded perception I realized that calling me racist is actually calling me to a deeper understanding of what it means to be human and how we shape each other’s world.

My wife regularly informs me of how I’ve been trained to exploit her. She is telling me how I can be a better person, which I can see if I choose to step outside myself and listen. This is how we do the actual work, and it has almost nothing to do with hope.

The Democratic Party

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/10/us/politics/charlottes-plans-for-democratic-convention-security-draw-criticism.html

Protest of the 2012 Democratic Convention in Charlotte, NC. Democratic voters are mostly populists. The Democratic party is not.

Political hope mainly seems to be about convincing people in the slow gradual progressive change that is promised by the Democratic Party. Liberals like to use examples of historical progress that illustrate why we should hope. They don’t say get active. They don’t tell us to storm the Bastille. They say wait and trust our betters, and frequently end up using our hope against us.

Obama exemplified the politics of hope. He argued for hope and change and it was obvious his presidency would not have been possible without a series of incomplete changes to US racism. He also deported more immigrants than any president prior. Bill Clinton greatly expanded racist systems of policing and incarceration, but he looked so empathetic and seemed to promise much when he said “I feel your pain.”

The politics of hope assumes a fairly constant and linear understanding of human progress, sometimes explained with the quote, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Whenever I hear that quote I wonder what indigenous people would say who were beset by disease and genocide when European settlers/conquerors/explorers first came to the Western hemisphere. I wonder about Africans who were stolen into slavery. I wonder about the people targeted in the Nazi Holocaust.

History is filled with mass destruction and the uprooting of people’s lives and culture. I wonder, how do we fit their lives into this story of linear progress? If we are always progressing, how did these horrors come to be, and what exactly does it mean to bend towards justice?

Now I know, people hear this sort of thing as disparaging and it is precisely these sorts of horrors that make people reach for hope. I also know that the pain of historical trauma can be so great that the only thing you can do is try to feel like you can at least just be alright in this world. If we could move beyond hope, we might even realize that what we really need is healing. I believe, one of the things our generations are called to do, is to reach past what is easy, beyond hope, and embrace something more profound and lasting.

I have my own thing, I don’t know what to call it, but I think it gives me the same stuff people crave when they look for hope. Basically I remind myself that life is both wonderful and horrible and, to live well, I have to use the wonderful parts to help me struggle with the horrible parts. I don’t need convincing that change for the better is possible. I know I’ve made the world better because, through my planning and labor, I have seen beautiful outcomes.

The most painful part is there will always be something I know should be done that I do not have the power to make happen. My first bit of activism was the anti-war movement. It was a lesson in powerlessness. I also know, when I combine my power with others, together we can make amazing things happen. I have seen it many times.

We all have to wrestle with our power and powerlessness, with the work it takes to live together, and with oppressors who wish to keep us under thumb. I guess the thing I want to ask of all the lovely people out there with limited free time: seek less hope and more transformation.

(Note: after this I think I’ll write more about what the politics of healing might look like. I’m also thinking about how the politics of hope has us always looking for a savior, and why that is consistently a failing strategy for liberation. It’s a big issue every election, and I predict it will become a big issue regarding the social democrats–they’re better than mainstream democrats but they are not saviors).

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Progressive White Anti-Racists and the Contradiction of “Civilization”

Source: http://www.gballard.net/photoshop.html?http%3A//www.gballard.net/photoshop/homeland_security_poster.html

Note: I am a white anti-racist, which to me means I am racist and on a journey to try not to be. I write this not as an “expert,” but I believe it is my job to share what I am learning with other white people. I write this post in that spirit.

I was recently at a conversation about racism in a majority white progressive community concerned with social justice. They made a commitment to anti-racism and are trying to have conversations about what that means.

This particular conversation was about identifying our culture and how our culture is or is not inclusive. We talked about our core values. People said lovely things about valuing people, learning, and making the world a better place. Then folks realized maybe we don’t always live up to our values and started to question–do we really value what we say we value?

I said we were filled with contradiction, that when we’re asked about our core values, we’re going to say all the lovely things that reflect what we want to be. But there are other core values, things we may not like to look at, which can contradict our aspirations. I also said that being anti-racist means seeking awareness of our racist contradictions.

At the time I didn’t want to go into what the specific contradictions might be. But some folks wanted to talk about it so I thought I’d write one example in this blog.

Rational Supremacy

Source: http://wynningstrategies.lendingahand.com/2014/06/success-logical-emotional-decisions-made/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+WynningStrategies+%28Scott+Wynn%27s+Wynning+Strategies%29

In our discussion of culture, at one point people talked about how we were “intellectual” and sometimes disapproved of “too much” emotion. I mentioned that this was all part of mainstream white culture, which assumes there is a conflict between reason and emotion, and that reason is superior.

Anyway, the separation of reason from emotion and valuing of reason over emotion (I will call this rational supremacy) is a core value that is often prevalent in white progressive communities, and is often racist or feeds into racism.

Now, to be clear, there is a knee jerk reaction deeply ingrained into white people, about the word “racism.” We treat it a bit like the word “evil.” Racism is imagined with white sheets and swastikas. Really though, you can’t be part of our culture–formed through settler colonialism, global exploitation, and slavery–without racism being part of who you are. And racism comes in many shapes and sizes.

There are many layers to how rational supremacy is racist. Here are a few:

  • Not all cultures agree. Some people (myself included) highly value emotionality. I was elated when I learned in El Salvador that Spanish used the same word for sensitive and sensible, and it is seen as a positive trait. Also, growing up in a very diverse, majority black community it seemed to me like, in black spaces, emotions are not treated as a threat. In white spaces they usually are. I also came to view the phrase “keep it real” partially as a comment on white society. White people don’t keep it real because we’re always hiding what we’re really feeling. But white people not only assume that our cultural values are right, we tend not to see that others disagree with us (and that this disagreement is legitimate).

 

  • Cultural disagreements over reason and emotion would not be such a big deal were it not for the fact that European people killed, displaced, and set up European style institutions governed by European values in every place they went. Basically, the fact that white people have power means that everyone has to think about how to please white values. An example; folks have to hide what they feel at work. In contrast, white people do not have to think about how to adapt to other people’s values and emotional awareness.

 

  • The rationality that is valued by white society also either comes from white society or is claimed by white society. We value the enlightenment thinkers. We name Greece as the origin of democracy. We see Newton as our starting point in physics, Copernicus in astronomy. All our theology descends from Catholicism. In reality, democratic cooperatives far predate Greece. I’ve heard the US system was inspired by the Iroquois Federation. Many societies were innovators in math and physics (including Egypt, China, and the Inca). Different iterations of god and the nature of the universe abound throughout the globe. And the enlightenment thinkers were not so enlightened. White society has erased, othered, or treated as backwards the contributions of people who were just as much the subject of their own destiny as white people were.

Sometimes we overtly state that European values are superior. Sometimes we just assume they are. Many times we don’t recognize that we have a culture and that we would be different people if we were raised in a different environment. But some effects of making European values the norm include disadvantaging people who don’t reflect our values, alienating people who don’t have our history, and white people’s own failure to grow and learn because we can’t admit when we’re wrong.

The Civilization Story

 

Source: https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2018/05/31/a-critical-task-for-the-greek-economy-enters-a-new-phase

All of this ties into the civilization story, which has both a conservative and progressive version.

 

Conservative–the savage world is frightening and hostile and it needs to be civilized and controlled by humanity, and by enlightened law and order.

Progressive–the savage world is sometimes harsh and history sometimes tragic, but human beings are capable of making it better over time through enlightened law and order.

 

The civilization story depends on a duality between civilization and savagery (or barbarism). In the conservative version, savagery is evil and civilization is good. In the progressive version, savagery is backwards and civilization is progress. It’s the same basic duality, but approached with different attitudes and strategies.

But what is savagery?

My first big college essay compared John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and John-Jacques Rousseau’s views on “savage man.” “Savage man” partially was general, about people living in a “state of nature,” but these philosophers were also writing when Europeans were encountering a lot of indigenous folks around the world, who they also called “savage.”

Hobbes wanted violent control. Locke was most interested in exploiting resources. Rousseau was… kinder?… It’s been a long time but I remember him as being more exotifying, a kinda “noble savage” sorta deal.

These are all different flavors of racism, perhaps because the civilized and savage duality was intrinsically racist from the start.

The duality assumes that Europeans are above nature and that other cultures have nothing that could be called civilized. None of them imagined that people outside of Europe were worthy subjects of their own stories who had their own civilization that was equal to Europe.

Ultimately, the savage and civilized duality is about subjectivity versus objectivity. The civilized subject is entitled to act upon the object, which is nature. The civilized is seen as being above nature while the savage is seen as part of nature. The laborer can be exploited along with the fruits of labor and the natural resources. Chattel slavery is the total expression of this.

Gender roles are similarly used, with men being the subject and women (and their reproductive and domestic expectations) being a natural good that men can use.

Finally, to tie back to reason versus emotion, reason is seen as a defining feature of the civilized person who has risen out of nature. Emotion is seen as a wild part of nature, often associated with women and savagery, and is meant to be controlled.

White supremacy is the imagination, assumption, or outright statement that some version of European culture is superior to all others. Currently, we live in a world dominated by white supremacy. When Europeans began exploiting the world, they said they were superior because they were Christian and saved. Then they said they were rational and enlightened. Then they said they were white. Always, it has only ever been justification for stealing. It also teaches us very problematic moral lessons.

  • In 1899 Rudyard Kipling wrote about the white man’s burden to force civilization on people he saw as inferior.
  • Think of all the movies you’ve seen with wild and out of control savages that the white man has to survive. Right now I’m imagining Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
  • James Baldwin, a black author, talked about watching cowboys and Indians as a kid, realizing people were cheering on the cowboys to kill the Indians, and that he (as a black man) was the Indian (meaning the savage person of color to be violently controlled).

Civilization is one of the most racist words in our vocabulary. So are civil, civilized, and civility; which are moral words that could be described as don’t rock the boat, do what you’re told, even when obvious suffering, injustice, and heartache is in front of you. As civilized people we are to avoid excessive emotion. If you’re aching don’t cry out.

I am not saying that everything from Europe is bad. It isn’t; all cultures have their issues, and Europe is not a monolith. But the civilization story is deeply embedded in our psyches and deeply oppressive.

When white people get together and try to adopt an anti-racist perspective, one of the contradictions which will inevitably appear is the contradiction between being anti-racist and believing in the civilization story. Partially this is because the civilization story is also tied to national identity. In our nation, even Barack Obama believes in American exceptionalism, which is another multi-layered racist concept.

Revolution

So I’ll briefly outline an alternative to the civilization story.

Societies exist throughout the world. Each facing unique challenges, they imperfectly found ways for humans to live together. Societies have given much to their people, and have also been unjust. Not all societies have been equally unjust. Some have believed in conquest and either robbed or dominated their neighbors. This happened within Europe (as it did in other places), but Europe spread its domination system to cover the entire globe. All along there were Europeans and their descendants who acted against domination. All along, people around the globe have resisted domination and have fought for autonomy when it is taken from them.

The dominators take credit for a lot but provide very little. My desire is to move beyond their version of civilization, to empower the providers and overthrow the dominators. This, I believe, is what is best for humanity and the planet.

As for reason and emotion; feelings are an essential part of being human, and all feelings have value. Feelings can be used in our learning. I believe feelings teach us about right and wrong better than authorities can. Feelings allow us to love the gifts that we bring through both our diverse selves and our diverse cultures. Feelings help us to be together and to bond. Some are more in tune with feelings than others just as some are better at math or at imagining structures in their heads. The society I believe in is one where we try to figure out how we can accommodate all, so that everyone can be benefited from the potential of everyone else (and I mean not just as laborers, but as human beings who can be appreciated for who they are by other human beings). I also believe that such society can only be built when dominators are removed from power.

 

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UN Report on Climate Proves the Failure of our Political Leadership

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/07/climate/ipcc-climate-report-2040.html

Recently there was a UN report on climate, concluding that the world has essentially 10 years to prevent a global disaster that would occur within 20 years.  The speed and extent of economic change required to prevent catastrophe has “no documented historic precedent.” Source https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/07/climate/ipcc-climate-report-2040.html

Climate change is one of the big problems, like the Great Depression but probably worse (we could go extinct).

Right now, a lot of people are focused on Trump and want to get him out. Really we are facing much worse problems. Trump is a symptom, a terrible desperation that actually makes some sense in the context we live in (more on that later). So, if Trump is a symptom, what is the disease?

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Dialectical Materialism Sounds Boring but Explains the World

From: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/radicalchristianmillennial/2017/08/heck-dialectical-materialism/

There are many influences in this blog. Recently, after reading this post about the Kavanaugh confirmation, a friend asked for links about my philosophical influences. I wrote the below response, figuring I’d add it to the blog.

So I went to college feeling the world was mysterious, what I was told about things often didn’t reflect what I saw, and I needed to understand the world. Eventually (and it took a very long time) I felt like the framework which could best explain what I saw AND predict what was coming is something called “dialectical materialism” or “historical materialism.” Unfortunately there are poor introductory resources for this. Here’s something I kinda like https://www.marxists.org/archive/harman/1986/xx/base-super.html

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Resistance post-Kavanaugh; Please Stop Thinking we live in a Democracy

The Kavanaugh confirmation was a traumatizing debacle. What’s scarier is what will come. There’s a lot of pain that I can’t fully understand, but I want to share my perspective with those who might take this as fuel for resistance.

Source: https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/ahead-crucial-kavanaugh-vote-hundreds-protesters-rally-front/story?id=58281986

In high school I was told, again and again, how great a country I lived in. In college, I studied greedy military interventions, watched us go into Iraq and Afghanistan, saw the Patriot Act and the increase of government monitoring in our lives, saw the increased militarization of the police which was used to target black uprisings, and learned about the class nature of politics (both parties represent the rich).

I have felt ongoing disappointment and disillusionment as my country appears to be very different from what I was told. Trump and Kavanaugh only make sense as a continuation of the ongoing descent into fascism that I have been watching for the last twenty years. Like many, resistance has felt like my moral obligation.

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Social Action Alien Invasion Training Tool

About a month ago I did a training which was basically an introduction to social action.  As part of this training I wrote up a scenario about alien invasion which I gave out to prompt discussion about social action strategy, tactics, and the process of organizing.  I was very happy with how this worked, and want to share the scenario.

Here it is:

After a long protracted struggle, aliens from outer space have conquered the Earth.  In ___ (insert country where this training is happening) they have not changed the basic governmental structure.  However, they have established a society where the majority of people are paid less than what is necessary to survive; although most do survive through activity in the informal economy and/or through debt (which is largely owned by aliens; who now control the financial industry).  Many humans are also imprisoned, and the legal system (both the courts and the police) tend to primarily protect alien interests.   The highest offices of authority are held almost exclusively by aliens while a lower strata of authority is maintained by humans, most of whom have come to emphatically endorse alien rule.  Elections and voting still exist, although people must always choose between very pro-alien candidates.  The aliens also do not need this planet and are willing to push the Earth’s resources to their capacity in order to produce valuable goods in the overall alien empire.  As a result, climate change and energy scarcity have intensified.  Schools and the media largely portray alien rule as normal and natural, and the majority of humans accept this perspective.  While there are pockets of rebellion, most feel powerless to change things.  Many people say “that’s just the way it is,” when discussing perceived unfairness in their world.  However many people do wish for change, and they occasionally gather for this purpose.  You are a group of people gathering for change [Note, for this sentence I actually named the group I was working with in my original write-up, but you can insert whatever group you want here].  How might you direct your energy towards a better world?

The overt purpose of this scenario was to spark a discussion on strategy, tactics, and organizing.  The scenario also had a covert purpose of sparking social analysis.  It fulfilled both purposes better than I expected; with participants enthusiastically throwing out their ideas and very quickly realizing that the scenario actually described the world we already live in.

Feel free to use the scenario if you like.  If you do, realize that people will probably ask questions about things that are not stated in the scenario.  My answers reflected my understanding of the world we currently live in (with aliens basically replacing the world’s wealthiest and most powerful people).  Also, I treated the aliens as though they had both good and bad traits and were not all of one mind, even though they all did benefit (in some way) from the exploitation of humanity as a whole.  One of the pitfalls I see in this scenario is that it can dehumanize, which I would try to avoid.  But I think overall this is a very nice tool for sparking our social action imagination while deepening our analysis.

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Learning Liberation

I believe there is a very old and shared dream of liberation, a vision for a world which we can imagine but find difficult to create.  To me this vision is defined by the good things which already exist in life, and the possibility that this good can grow.

My own experience of goodness is defined in stories.  As a child I shared my fear of death with my mother and saw tremendous empathy in her eyes that was so beautiful it transcended my fears.  I grew up struggling with wanting support from people that I never seemed to get, but then felt great fulfillment when I was able to give that support to others.  I have had my spirit shattered as I learned of how I benefit from war, poverty, and the systematic oppression of the majority of humanity; then my spirit has been reconfigured into greater wholeness once I committed to a better world.  I have felt true togetherness when crying on someone’s shoulder; and the healing that comes when we cry together. I have been inspired by the risks others have taken to make their behavior consistent with their values; by, for example, fighting global warming, dictatorship, or racial oppression.  I have felt my sense of the human family expand as I marched in solidarity over values of basic worth and dignity. In all this and more I see liberation in a formative state, the dream of what the world can be, struggling to be realized.

“Liberation” was not always the word I used to identify my dream.  As a child I named my desire “peace.”  I saw a lot of beauty as well as ugliness in the world and believed that it was our role as human beings to embrace the beautiful–things like compassion, friendship, and appreciation. In meditation I felt these good things and found a frequent sense of peace, of rightness with the world.  I believed that if we all could just discover this peace for ourselves then the world as a whole would be at peace, and that was what I wanted to live for.

When I was around ten this vision was challenged.  I saw my peers en masse start to say things like “I’m not good enough,” “I’m stupid,” and “I’m ugly.”  To me these statements were heartwrenching because I believed the opposite, and reeled at the idea that the people I loved would hate themselves.

I told my friends that I believed in them; that they were good, smart, worthy, etc.  But time and again I could see that my words were rejected.  Eventually I saw my friends entering new levels of competition over basic recognition and social respect.  To be recognized we had to dominate.  We had to prove who was the smartest; who was the most attractive; who was the strongest.  This competition increasingly involved putdowns and bullying.  I was a target.  I felt so much unnecessary pain and saw that same pain moving throughout the world as children degraded each other.

I had years of nightmares, suicidal thoughts, and trying to avoid the outside world.  But, despite this pain, I could still see the profoundness of life.  For years I had an inner battle between misery and the commitment to resist misery.  Eventually something shifted in me.  I remember a nightmare where I was chased by a monster (as I had been so many times before).  But unlike before I did not wake in a cold sweat, but turned around and killed that monster.  Then I brought it back to life.  Then I made a world of monsters who danced in simple joy.  Though it was all in my head I experienced liberation which went beyond the peace I had experienced before.  This was not just good feelings, but greater clarity over what was worth living for after winning a conflict between the life affirming and the life negating.  I had found some freedom from the weight of depression, and from the ubiquitous hatred that caused my depression.

Yet again it must be stated that this was liberation in a formative state.  It was personal triumph, but only a small change in a world that is much bigger than my head.  Over the years I still saw the same story repeated again and again of people I cared about hating themselves, and most of what I said to counter this had little affect. Eventually I realized that my beliefs held little weight because I was not respected as authority.  Someone with greater authority already told people that they did not measure up; and I began to see clearer who that authority was.

Girls would describe themselves as ugly while looking at fashion magazines.  I had a bully that stabbed me in the leg with pencils in order to “toughen me up” who was abused by his father.  Kids doubted their intelligence while adults told them that their entire future depended on them defeating each other in an endless competition for grades, recognition, and status. So many authorities had a tendency towards dehumanization, stripping us of inherent worth and treating us as tools.

When I learned more about history I could start seeing this even more clearly.  European elites created empires which conquered the world, subjugated its people, took their resources, destroyed their cultures, engulfed the planet in World Wars, and pushed workers into the worst conditions they could stomach in order to maximize the profit of a few.  The world of today has inherited all of this pain.  We have normalized the idea that it is the rightful place of authority to abuse, and the powerful of today continue to reap benefits from inequity.

In my moments of peace I have seen what life can be if we can find freedom from injustice.  But experiencing moments of peace is not enough to create this freedom. My happiness does not change the exploitation of humans.  As such it does not change the exploitation of me as a human, and my momentary peace can be nothing more than momentary.  To truly find greater freedom there must be resistance.  At the same time, I can resist injustice in a way that ultimately provides nothing better.  I can use my hurt as an excuse to hurt others, leading to no net improvements in the state of humanity.

Liberation falls into neither pitfall of resistance without purpose nor self satisfaction without social conscience.  Liberation is instead the simultaneous resistance of injustice and embrace of peace that is both the means and the ends to a world which genuinely serves our needs.  This combined resistance of injustice and embrace of peace is a journey taken by both the individual and the many collectives which define the individual.  Ultimately liberation is a long process which requires both struggle and reflection on the meaning of our struggles.  Liberation must be learned, and learning liberation is the best thing I can think to do with my life.

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I am no better or worse than anyone else

Over the holidays I went to the movies and saw Les Miserables.  It was an emotional experience which got me in the reflective mood.  As I watched the revolutionaries struggle and die I felt a strange sensation, a growing internal conviction that I no longer wish to think of myself as better or worse than anyone else.  Perhaps this is my newest resolution (which just so happens to fall near the new year).

Losing the desire to be better than others goes against much that I was taught growing up.  As a child I remember wanting to be special, and competing with other children to prove that I was.  I remember boys performing feats of strength in gym class or feats of numeric processing in math.  We measured each other in order to decide who was worthy and unworthy.  Such measurement then expressed itself in envy towards the achievers and abuse towards the underachievers.  And, as we measured each other, the school measured us with grades and test scores.  For me, I felt a desire to compete that I think came from other peoples’ expectations of me but my heart was never in it.  In school I saw the stress of the overachievers and determined that I did not want to be like them.  Outside of school my father enrolled his sons in wrestling.  I often won informal matches during practices but could not stand the pressure once there was competition between teems and an audience in the bleachers.  Yet looking back I realize that, while I became uninterested in competing with people athletically or scholastically, I embraced a sort of moral competition.  I did want to be superior.

I have spent a good deal of my life watching others and judging them in order to convince myself that I was better than them.  I have listened to the words of good people who meant me no harm and, from the safety of my unspoken thoughts, I have thrown litanies of vulgarity at them.  This includes things like,

  • Why are you wasting my time?
  • That thing she said was stupid
  • He is an idiot
  • I would never get myself in that situation
  • You are not as special as me, and also
  • racist, classist, sexist, and ableist epithets

These thoughts were never the only ideas I had about people but they would pop into my head, and they often disturbed me.  My mind went back and forth between, I deeply admire you, and, you’re a piece of shit; and these contradicting ideas would exist at the same time about the same person.  As I grew up I came to notice my judgmental hostility more and more.  Meanwhile I desired more and more compassionate ways of relating with people.  Through much meditation and self-help experimentation my ability to listen grew and my tendency to judge lessened.  Then, as I noticed these changes, I became oppressively smug.  I wore my moral victories as a badge to prove that I was superior.  This had always been a hidden motivation for me… or perhaps it was a motivation hidden from me though obvious to everyone who knew me.

Eventually I realized that the self was really constructed by society (for example, kids judging other kids is learned by how the school system judges kids via grades).  As I figured this out I shifted from a self-help focus to a social change/collective liberation focus.  Now I think that my desire to feel special was a predictable response to a society that runs off of artificial scarcity.  Basically, we need to prove that we are special in order to prove that we are worthy to receive the resources we must compete over (for example, money).  Only a small minority of us are able to have truly secure livelihoods, have our ideas represented in government or the media, find work that is appropriately challenging and fulfilling, and be taken seriously by the people around us.  In a socially just world these things would not be treated as scarce privileges but instead as basic human needs.  However we live in a world which normalizes and indoctrinates us into accepting less than we deserve; and we behave according to the world we are indoctrinated into.

I also came to see how my desire to be special reinforced racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, and other forms of oppression.  The privileges afforded to me by my white skin, Y chromosome assigned male identity*, and parents’ income give me an upper hand in the competition for those scarce societal resources.  For example, as a man I am not expected to cook and clean and do the daily domestic work.  My father did not do this.  Many fathers and grandfathers I have known did not do this.  Unpaid and under valued domestic labor has been the role given to women.  This privileges me and other men because, without having responsibility for domestic chores, I am afforded more time, freedom, and respect when I chose to pursue the things which will actually earn me that scarce societal recognition.  I have more time to work and to play.  I have more time to network and more expectation that I will not be home with the kids.  I have more access to the language and culture of men who, overall, hold more power.  And it is a challenge for me to resist this privilege by, for example, spending an equal amount of time as my wife on domestic chores.  This is because I am scared of giving up the privilege that helps me to compete, get what I want from life, and not be as exploited as others.

Lessons about the basic mechanics of privilege and oppression were taught to me in my twenties.  But, even as I have learned how the competition for superiority is just a tool of artificial scarcity by a dehumanizing societal machine, I have held on to the child’s dream of being recognized as special and extraordinary (which are ultimately just nicer sounding ways of saying “superior”).  But I have a growing sense of the vanity in this child’s dream because convincing myself that I am special does not actually provide me with the world I wish to see.  I wish for true love, true friendship, and true camaraderie.  I wish to be with people, to share in their joys and their struggles.  I wish for no accolades, no shallow rewards, no teacher’s stars to measure zir favor (zir is a gender neutral pronoun; like his or her).  Liberation is my desire, and I believe it is only possible when we lose the ambition to become better than others and the fear that we are worse.

Like all good resolutions, I need help to maintain this.  I expect to fail often and don’t really care because failure is part of the learning process.  But I would like for people to show me where I am wrong because that helps me learn as well.  In later posts I will explore what it means to live as though I am not better or worse than anyone else.  This resolution entails an awful lot which I am excited to discover.

*I first wrote Y chromosome thinking that the Y chromosome was a trait that could represent many traits that are associated with being male.  It was brought to my attention that this was cissexist because it excludes people who identify as male but do not have a Y chromosome and people who have a Y chromosome but don’t identify as male.  In  other words, having a Y chromosome does not necessarily mean you have a male identity.  I found a link to another blog which describes cissexism in more detail.

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Gun violence ain’t about the crazies. And crazy is a horrible word.

Last week the vice president of the NRA, Wayne Lapierre, gave a speech designed to elicit a state of perpetual militaristic panic against violent people with mental illness.  He stated; “our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters–people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them.”  Lapierre finds the source of gun violence in these “monsters,” and proposes we protect our children through a national database that keeps track of the mentally ill.  I believe this is a terrible idea.

“Mental illness” is not a well defined concept.  Looking in retrospect at someone who goes on a shooting spree, it is easy to say they are ill in the mind.  But can we really predict the potential violence of a person, and is “mental illness”–a very broad and nebulous term, really the predictor we want to use?  Does it make me appreciably more likely to kill people if I talk to myself, lay in bed for months with depression, struggle to empathize, experience unexplainable amounts of anxiety, or other fairly common behaviors we like to link to “mental illness?”  Could mental illness actually at times be a source of strength, like having communication challenges that come from focusing on things others do not or having depression that comes from increased sensitivity to the struggles of the world?

“Mentally ill” is a label we use to marginalize people, and I know this because I have spent a lot of time worrying about my own sanity.  As a wee boy I learned, as all children do, the language and logic of my parents.  This language and logic outlined a spectrum of thought and behavior that was considered “crazy” which was contrasted with a spectrum of thought and behavior that was considered “normal.”

crazy normal spectrum

The man who went to work everyday to provide for his children was “normal.”  The man who waded into water carrying a baby over his head and declaring himself to be Jesus was “crazy” (this was a news story I vaguely remember from childhood).  All good boys and girls were supposed to be “normal.”  Those who were within the spectrum of “crazy” were dangerous, unpredictable, liable to make bad romances, wallow in endless sorrow, and go on violent rampages.  To me, the actual behavioral confines of “normal” seemed to involve wearing middle class clothing, enjoying sports (for boys) and makeup (for girls), rooting for the home team, not feeling a great need to question authority or critique society, and tending to be uncomfortable with displays of emotion (which were often associated with “imbalance”).  But I had a problem because, although I did not know if I was “crazy,” I also was not “normal.”

I was a bizarrely spiritual boy.  I meditated.  I had mystical experiences (a sense of oneness with the universe).  I did this before I knew what meditation and mystical experiences were.  I came to think of myself as “talking to god,” and I heard quotes like this from Thomas Szasz; “if you talk to god, you are praying; if god talks to you, you have schizophrenia.”  But the thing was…  in my mind, this talking to god was a two way street.  While I was engaged in mystical experience, I had many moments of clarity where I felt the wisdom of an all-connected higher mind come to me.  I also had a vision when I was three where I saw an illusionary inferno that was premonitionary of a house fire that happened moments later.  Now, in truth I don’t know the significance of these experiences and, increasingly over time, I don’t care.  I have met many people who I know find my story very bizarre, even inconceivable.  Others relate to my story.  Others try to use my story, against my permission, to validate their own religious perspective.  But the point here is that I grew up feeling like a damn weird kid.

I was terrified of being crazy.  It haunted my dreams.  I saw the word “crazy” wielded like a club that bludgeoned all the people the bludgeoner thought deserved to be dismissed.  Here are some examples of what this looks like:

  • “Don’t listen to John, he’s just crazy,”
  • “if you say you take that position, people will think you are crazy,”
  • “[insert political or religious group you don’t like] are just a bunch of crazies”

This deep-seated fear of insanity gained deeper perspective for me when I went to a very small college with a very politically radical population, Antioch.  Prior to Antioch I learned that Anarchists, Communists, and other radicals belonged in that “crazy” range of thinking.  Although in retrospect I think I had a lot of leftist inclinations, I was politically what I now call a “militant moderate”–to me the middle ground was always best.  I think I felt that way, in large part, because few people accuse moderates of being crazy, and I was so scared of being diminished for who I was in my head.  Because of this fear I tried to embrace “normality” and, at Antioch, I thought of people as crazy because I was internalizing my own oppression.

It took me a long time to learn this but I have figured out that actually, like the Anarchists and Communists I once marginalized, I was a radical too.  Now, when I embrace my radical identity, I feel the spiritual liberation of simply being present with who I have always been.  It is healing.  And yet I also know that, by calling myself a radical, I open myself up to the same marginalization I have always feared–the marginalization bound within the words “crazy” and “normal.”

I realize I am somewhat conflating mental illness with abnormality but this is because they are conflated.  As I said earlier, mental illness is an ill-defined term.  Should you study psychiatric diagnoses you will find that “mental illness” actually is defined  and diagnosed by abnormal behavior.  In fact, the DSM (manual for diagnosing mental illness) keeps getting updated as society renegotiates what we consider normal and abnormal.  Homosexuality, for example, used to be called a mental illness (and just spend a moment contemplating what this fact would signify for a mental illness database).  And the thing is, there are many abnormal people in the world.  I suspect there are far more people who exhibit abnormal behavior than those who do not.  This points out that abnormality is not really about how often a behavior occurs but how shunned a behavior is in mainstream society.  Many shunned behaviors are problematic (going on a killing spree, at least within one’s country, is one of them).  Many shunned behaviors might actually be beneficial (like having an unusual ability to empathize or think critically).  But, of all the people we might decide to label as mentally ill or abnormal, only a very small minority actually commit physical violence.

We do not live in the nightmarish world outlined by Wayne Lapierre.  If we did, mass shootings and attempted mass shootings would be much more common.  But thinking that our safety is constantly besieged by mad individuals causes real problems.  When mental struggles and abnormal behavior are seen as excuses for marginalization people are actually disincentivized to seek and find help, which makes them more likely to act on destructive impulses.  Further disenfranchisement by stamping crazy on peoples’ permanent records is an ill-informed attempt to make the world better which will actually make it worse.

So you may wonder, what do I propose to prevent violent people from acquiring weapons.  Dismantle the military industrial complex!  While we’re at it we can also dismantle the small-arms industrial complex (which involves the NRA).  These groups benefit from guns, the use of guns, and from the mindset that guns represent legitimate ways to solve problems.  In general I think we need a more serious analysis of violence in society, but unfortunately massive amounts of propaganda make it hard for us to really look at ourselves.  Still, it is immoral to avoid difficult tasks just because they are difficult when peoples’ lives are on the line.  And, in the spirit of seriously examining violence in our society, I ask you to ponder the following:

We are upset by the mass shootings committed by a “crazy” person in Connecticut.  It is tragic, horrible, angering, and saddening.  Most disgustingly, it is only a ripple in the overall waves of violence that are produced by frightened people with destructive technology.  Consider how many children have been killed by “normal” people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Pakistan?  Cruise missiles and drone strikes do not have an avoid children switch.  Could it be that there are people with power who have an interest in dismissing and destroying human life?  Could it be that this is what is done in any war, every mass shooting, and even in the label of “crazy” itself?  And, if you want to further explore the expendability of human life by people with power I suggest viewing the video on this page.  I will warn, it is extremely violent, disturbing, and potentially triggering.

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We Need to Acknowledge the Reality of Violence: My Account of the Eviction of Occupy DC

So I know the semi-eviction of Occupy DC happened many months ago, but I want to give my account of it and explore some of the lessons I learned.

On February 4th in McPherson Square, at Occupy DC, it was a day filled with brutality.  There had been a lot of talk that the eviction was coming after a congressional hearing decided that people could keep a constant vigil in the park but could not sleep over.  Police told occupiers that tents could stay, as could objects like chairs and tables, but the sleepers could be arrested, and sleeping bags could be confiscated.  Police asked us to leave our tents open and told us that, if we complied, our things would remain in the park.

Occupy DC protesters in front of the Tent of Dreams

On January 30th, the pre-eviction happened.  The cops said they would come.  Occupiers, in response, threw a giant tarp over the statue of General McPherson which stands in the center of the square.  We named the tarp “the tent of dreams.”  We carried signs talking about our dreams, and spoke about why we occupy -the beauty of the camp, the community we created, the troubles of the world, the necessity to resist.  We talked about struggles with debt, foreclosures, homelessness, health care, with being used and abused in the military.  We talked about the world we wished to see -a world which serves people above profits, a world which stands up against exploitation, a world of fairness and justice.  The police left.  Protesters basked in victory.

A few days later I got a text message describing the scene unfolding downtown as a “full eviction.”  I came to McPherson Square and saw the damage.  Hundreds of cops surrounded the square.  Horses watched on at the periphery.  The park was sliced up by barricades.  The tent of dreams had been taken down.  The southeastern section of the park was filled with officers in hazmat suits, systematically tossing almost every bit of occupy property into a dump truck.  The majority of these tents had been left open, which the police had promised would allow us to keep them.

The eviction

Around the camp people walked in shock, trying to clear out their belongings before the cops threw them away.  There was a sense of betrayal, of violation.  I know I felt the desire to fight back but, with more cops than protesters, this felt like a losing battle.

Soon the cops entered another section of the camp.  They went through more tents with their hazmat suits and threw more things away.  At this point protesters started gathering into the last section of the park, our main street, where the information tent, the kitchen, the university, and the medic station sat.  A call went out to protect the library, a center for conversation and a symbol of the camp.  Here we would stand our ground.

We waited on that front with slow boiling tension.  We spoke again about why we occupy.  We chanted in solidarity.  “Whose park?”  “Our park!”  “Whose first amendment rights?”  “Our first amendment rights!”  We read passages about how we appreciated the library.  At one point I led the group in a very awkward mic checked version of the song “Hold on” (otherwise known as “Keep your Eyes on the Prize).  All along, a line of very stoic officers stared at us.

As this was going on, the library committee was negotiating with the cops to keep the library from being thrown away.  The cops said they would inspect it.  The library said they needed to have librarians present while police inspected.  We all felt we couldn’t trust the cops.  Some were very vocal about this, saying the library should make no agreements.

In the end two librarians would stay in the tent while the police inspected it, and everyone else who was supporting the library would be asked to move away.  I noticed one officer say something else during these negotiations, almost as an afterthought.  The library was going to be inspected at the same time that the police would open and search the final section of the park -the section everyone was standing in.

Police attack

As police moved in, they started yelling “move back!”  Librarians also pleaded for protesters to comply.  Some were adamant “we should not move, the cops have been lying to us all day.”  I was moving back in support of the libraries request, while also being concerned about what was soon to happen.  Stepping back from the heart of confrontation I saw the police moving to surround us.  They were coming behind the tents, flanking us.  I told some people what I saw happening.  Then I heard screaming.

I moved around the camp, scouting out what was going on and trying to see how I could be most helpful.  At one place where a barricade was just being raised I saw a protester yelling into a cop’s face.  I thought either the protester or the cop might be ready to strike out and was worried of what might happen.  I stepped in between them.  The cop didn’t seem to see any difference between me and my compatriot however and, as soon as the barricade rose, he stabbed me with his billy club, knocking me to the ground.  I picked myself up.  He pushed forward again, knocking me down once more.  I saw him ready to charge yet again while I lay.  He yelled “get up and walk away!”

Despite the tension, I found this somewhat comical.  I raised my hand, indicating I meant no harm, then said “I will walk away, if you let me get up.”

He repeated “get up and walk away.”  In his eyes I saw fear.

The big push

Around me others were pushed.  Usually this was at a manageable pace but occasionally the cops charged into the crowd, rushing people, knocking them down, trampling them.  It was horrifying to see people I cared for, people I stood in solidarity with, being hurt.  At one point I saw a cop jump out of the line, swinging his riot shield like a weapon.  He hit the person next to me, then swung his shield into my face.  My nose and teeth stung.  I lost it.  Glaring deep into his eyes I yelled “police brutality!”  For a moment he looked like he was ready for more, and so was I.  But my allies calmed me down while his marched past him.

There were a few more instances of screams.  I told the police what I had witnessed from their colleagues.  I said “you know, if you just stop charging us, no one would get hurt.”

One cop responded “if you would just turn around and walk away…”

The person next to me said “turn around while you’re charging into us?”  Then I felt a horse nuzzle into my hair.

Soon we were pushed into the street.  The police closed off the park.  We stood at the perimeter and yelled our anger and our passion.  I continued walking around the park talking to stoic officers about what their fellows had done, asking the question “who do you protect and who do you serve, because it sure as hell isn’t us.”

My friend started rattling the barricade and yelling “We’re not afraid of you!”

Then we had a general assembly in the middle of k street.  At this point I had to leave.  That evening I had agreed to take tickets at my wife’s chorus concert.  The eviction had ended, I was not in jail, and I didn’t want to let her down -though it was such a bizarre clash of environments to go from overt police violence to choral music.  After coming down from the adrenaline I found myself distracted from the music.  A deep disturbance clung to my brain.  I realized, holy shit, I’m traumatized… and I know everyone else is too.

The next day I came back to the park and saw people walking on crutches.  The police had broken their bones.  One friend described his experience of being slammed on his head, knocked unconscious, and hospitalized.  His body would never be the same.  My nose hurt for a couple of weeks from the cop who swung his shield in my face.  I found myself thinking I wish I got his badge number, but in the middle of the chaos it was hard to keep track.  Fortunately my nose got better.

I told people about what happened, and my experience in retelling these events was probably the most disheartening aspect of the whole process.  I talked about watching my friends trampled, having bones broken, and cops who behaved brutally.  People stared somewhat blankly, not acknowledging the factual basis of what I said, and quickly wanting to change the conversation.  But I needed them to understand.  I needed them to understand how many people have faced this violence, from police brutality in working class communities, to nations invaded overseas, to the proxy dictatorships that promote the interests of elites.  And I needed people to recognize that this violence was also a part of them.

When I eat a hamburger, I am part of the process which kills the cow.  When I buy from companies who use sweatshops, I am part of the process which puts workers into oppressive conditions.  When I do not intervene in the silencing of people who are advocating for their democratic rights, I am part of the processwhich undermines my own rights as well.  And I suppose the lesson I want to come from this experience is that standing in solidarity with the 99% means acknowledging the violence, exploitation, and marginalization that has been practiced upon our diverse communities.  I ask readers, do not dismiss the suffering of one group of people just because it clashes with your experience or view of the world.  One way to create a more humane existence is by granting yourself the moral courage to see the realities which contradict our desires for how reality should be.  And thank you for reading my story.

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