The Unwashed are Coming

(Moises Castillo/AP)
The fever pitch of election season always brings out the histrionics in us. The way the political right frames it, we now have an “invasion force” coming at us from the south, not carrying guns but.. of all things, flags of their home country! This unusually selected detail was used by a post I saw on social media focusing on the flags (accompanied by an inflated statistic of the size of the group) as solid evidence of an “invasion.” So our President sends 5,200 troops to the border and speculates about “middle easterners” being among the refugees. Simultaneously, our own military files a threat assessment that predicts only 20% (1,400) will actually make it to the border and finds exactly zero middle easterners in the group.
 
We also get to witness the cries from the left of “Nazi!” and Fascist!” which get thrown around at any sign of the exercise of power politics on the part of the ascendant political class. While I am aware of a growing number of cases where rights are abrogated and power is used that has not been designated by democratic representation, it is my opinion that these terms fly about too readily and too unrealistically. I’m sure there is a sociological formula for the average gap in time between mentioning the President’s name on Facebook and the appearance of these words. There are times when we witness true fascistic behavior. And we would be better served to hold those terms in reserve for the times when law enforcement actually aids and abets extremist elements, or acts to deny us our constitutional rights with impunity. 
   
Another word that we hear frequently in this context is “racist.” All indications are that at a bare minimum, the president struggles with a tendency towards racism. But his racism, like most racism, is context driven. A member of another ethnic group is not treated unfairly unless they are a threat, either as a member of a group with a contrary agenda (immigrants, “Jewish bankers”) or as part of an economic underclass. This second type of racism results from a peculiar class awareness that makes associations with being financially well-off the hinge factor. Financial status is the key element that determines whether or not a member of the wide variety of humanity that is not Scotch-Irish is worthy.
 
Max Weber

The great sociologist Max Weber, known for naming and describing the “Protestant work ethic”, had an insight into this classism that has origins in our nation’s puritan background. He examined the pervasive belief in predestination that was central to his own Calvinist upbringing and found powerful threads running from it into capitalism and classism. The idea that our fates are decided beforehand and some of our names are “written in the book of God” became, for early capitalism, an organizing principle.

 
Since predestination was real but only God knew who was pre-selected, the stout and hearty Calvanist took life as an opportunity to demonstrate salvation. Hard work, upright morals, and thrift were salient features that proved a person’s eternal destiny. The notion of thrift in particular acted to fund the store of surplus capital that led directly to institutions of lending at interest and equity markets that we consider natural today. In prior ages, if any money was earned by commoners it was by and large spent as soon after it arrived. 
 
All of this of course is the well-rehearsed underpinning that Weber provided to his theory of the Protestant work ethic fueling capitalism. A lesser known corollary helps clarify our current dilemma over immigration and racism. Weber thought that this demonstration on the earthy plane by God’s “select” (i.e. that they had been predestined by God) became reinforced over time to become an assumption. In other words, the stricture that we do not know the mind of God as regards to who is predestined for glory went by the wayside and those who demonstrated an ethic of hard work and thrift began to assume that they were as a group clearly marked for eternity in heaven.
 
The political philosopher Slavoj Žižek notes a parallel here with the end times teachings about the rapture and those “left behind” who remain after the select enter into heaven. The same principle of “chosen” and “damned” seen in the theology of predestination applies to this formulation. Even the rough percentage holds: 10% matter, 90% don’t. 
 
Inevitably, this led to where we are today. The mere appearance of being financially well off is enough to delineate who is “clean” in the eyes of God and who is “the unwashed.” The feelings of sympathy and comity with the poor become less important and the burden of responsibility and connection to their well-being is lifted. The idea that the poor are responsible for their own fate begins to dominates and any guilt associated with having surplus is allowed to vent.
 
Those who are not currently wealthy but only aspire to be part of this club of the well-to-do buy into this same program. The recognition that the rich have a responsibility to the poor is seen as sentimental hogwash. All of life is reduced to tooth and nail struggle to reach a lifeboat and if that means climbing over your neighbor to save yourself, so be it. That person, by losing out, in effect demonstrates that they were not predestined for glory anyway.
 
Weber had much else to say that we could stand to hear today. He provided insights into political ethics that are as sharply descriptive as they were when he first published his essay “Politics as Vocation” almost a hundred years ago. He argues that political leaders must balance what he calls the “ethic of conviction” with the “ethic of responsibility”. Conviction is doing what you feel is right regardless of the consequences. Responsibility lies in seeing where an action might possibly lead. It takes into account the implications and ramifications.
 
We are more closely being led by political convictions today and they emerge from that bottomless font of political enthusiasm; ideology. It starts with unshakeable premises like “government is bad” and “foreigners are dangerous” and all actions flows from that. Subtlety, nuance, fact sorting and consensus are left begging. And unintended consequences are the result of acting on irresponsible conviction. “Political stunts” (as Barack Obama deftly termed it) like the militaristic overkill at our southern border work more as emotive electioneering engines than practical strategy.  
 
The immigration issue is real and problems regarding refugees, economic inequality and political stability must be addressed. Dividing off and dismissing a group of humans as arbitrarily unworthy is not helpful or humane. 
 
 

Guiding Us To a New Future

After suffering repeated school shootings we have arrived at a point where the students themselves have taken the lead. They are showing how it’s done. They are confronting their elders with their impotency. They know the score. The adults are too scared, or too complacent, or just too burnt out to do anything about it. The future belongs to those with vision and energy. The future belongs to those who are oblivious to the fact that it can’t be done.

Our state governor (Bevin) gets a mike in front of him and makes his case for how this is a cultural problem, not a gun problem. He wants to isolate guns away from any discussion of the problem and shift the focus to the influence of video games, movies and music. In his view these influences are the major culprits. He has his personal reasons for doing that I’m sure. But his political reasons are also transparent. He says we wouldn’t have these impressionable youths gunning down their peers if they weren’t crucially swayed by the entertainment industry (hint: full of elite liberals). The breakdown in family structure and the general lack of moral tone gets the hammer next (hint #2: Godless liberalism causes that too). But not guns (hint #3: gun control is political anathema to his party). Because this is not a gun problem. Give him points for not budging from the party line.

But guns are involved here in some manner, right? His general point about cultural issues is valid but by refusing to talk about guns themselves he loses the plot. Yes, it is a culture problem. But no, the main element in that culture problem is not something like a gory video game. I’ll put this in caps here to make this clear: We Have a Gun Culture Problem. The argument “it’s not a gun problem” is the go-to rebuttal. The gun is inanimate. The gun has been with us for many years. Gun are part of our American identity. Guns need to be out there so that guns can be in the hands of the good guys.

Yes to all of that. But here is what his behavioral counter argument is missing: We Have a Gun Culture Problem.

To discuss the cultural issues mentioned above while keeping guns in some bubble of isolation is comforting if you own guns and if your worry is that they will be taken away. But it is also being willfully blind to what America is. We are a gun loving nation. All of the other things including these horrific killings draw their power this basic fact.

We sanction guns. We glorify guns. We worship guns. We fetishize guns.

We allow this pervasive and unquestioned identification with gun culture to win the day. In the face of an apparent pattern of killings in schools, instead of looking at the elements of this pattern; with the same type of weapon, by someone who forms an identity and sense of power through gun culture, because of a lack of community outreach that recognizes inordinate gun fascination, or because he can easily obtain the gun he shouldn’t have due to lack of uniform regulation, we shift the focus away. We minimize the part that guns themselves play in this pattern and compartmentalize them. We say: “It’s not a gun problem.”

As if any aberrant behavior was not bound up with either objects or other living beings. If you have a drinking problem and you say “it’s not the liquor” you have hit on a corner of the truth without exercising true comprehension of the entire dynamic. Let’s try a general equation: Object + Person = Problem. We don’t say “it’s not a liquor problem” to the alcoholic. We tell them that they have a disease and part of the cure is keeping liquor away from their lips. It’s liquor and them, To say it’s not a gun problem is to ignore the entire dynamic. In the case of a would-be criminal it is: Gun + Person = Problem.

The “Person” part of this equation is where all this discussion of societal and family dynamics plays a part. I am not arguing against any of that. By all means, limit exposure to violent media in young people, work to support healthy family and community life, look out for each other, be aware of who is being bullied or ostracized.

But next, let’s take another look at how a love of guns that sometimes resembles a sublimated sexual obsession works in this way to damage society. And not just among criminals but also in the law abiding gun community. How can we allow easy access to guns to the frustrated, isolated, and powerless among us by making an argument that guns should be universally accessible? Because of our blithe attitude towards gun culture, we give our tacit permission to use guns to solve these problems. Our love of guns and our lack of control with this obsession sends the wrong message: “We don’t care, so why should you?” Our blindness to this simple fact leads to tragedy. And it leads inevitably to doubling down with the following logic; when a problem of gun violence inevitably occurs, throw more guns at it (e.g.: arming teachers).

We have reached the insanity of a gun culture without limits. The way to demonstrate that we as a nation can control this problem is to actually exercise control. Over ourselves and over guns.

Until we look deeply into our individual souls, and our soul as a nation, and begin to see gun culture as a pathology (and yes, it is about guns too), one that needs to be examined and rationalized and tamed, we will move along into a future unchanged.

Bless those high school kids. They are guiding us to a new future.

Take a Knee

I really think the NFL could solve this problem right now. The owners and players would just agree to go back to the way it was and have the players stay in their locker rooms until after the Anthem is played. The fans can stand and sing, or stand reverently if they can’t sing, or stand or sit distractedly, or do whatever the heck they want just like before all this started and get back to not thinking about what they would rather not think about on their weekend of diversion. The players could stand or kneel or (see above), while they watch it on the monitors.

The fans would miss out on seeing the players perform the ritual of unity before the contest begins. And give up on insisting they perform like automatons.

The players would give up the opportunity to make a public demonstration of their convictions, having now a made point of their sense of emergency. But they would gain something too. Their protest could very well change how we view, and what we demand of patriotism. It would show us that we must set aside this weird thing of requiring ritual behavior. It would once again insist on the maxim, “Without free choice there is no virtue.”

We have a unique American identity that is tied in many ways to “You can’t tell me what to do.” If our founders went to such great lengths to build this notion into our Constitution when facing religious imperatives in colonial America, why can’t we also see the problem with requiring these other things today, those that abjectly force us to behave a certain way. They are just another kind of imperative; a patriotic one.

I realize the ritual of unity that takes place before the great contest is important. But the rule requiring players to stand on the sideline during the Anthem only started in the NFL in 2009, after the trauma of the Gulf War. College teams largely have their players sit in the locker room only to emerge with great fanfare after. It works pretty well for them.

The post game gathering of opposing teams is much more significant for me anyway. A word of congratulations or encouragement, a bro-hug that re-unites the adversaries, and the picture they provide for us of seeing them as adversaries and not enemies.

Reclaiming Government

There are two power centers in our American culture, business and government. But before we can proceed with an analysis, let’s look at what we think of when we hear the term “government.” We imagine “government” as being out there somewhere; corrupt, ineffectual, and against our interests. But this is a manufactured image of externalized government which is presented as real by the other power center. We have largely accepted this definition and fall prey to the perception that we are its victim.

Unless we are on board with the attempt to reclaim the term ‘government’ as representing all of us, unless we are focused with putting “We the People” back in the position of power, none of the following will make any sense.

Maybe you think this analysis is shallow and that business has dominated and corrupted government so thoroughly as to make government pointless, at best enfeebled. Or that they are both the same thing. Well then business interests have certainly prevailed because they rely crucially on this transference of the impression of “corruption” to the political sphere. They also count on the impression that you are now powerless to counter their maneuvers.

This gives birth to the premise that “government is the problem”. Again, if you operate from this premise then business interests have won their fight. I hear a lot about how “government should get out of the way”. A very important principle in how society is structured is; There is no such thing as a vacuum. When you hear phrases like these remember that government never disappears. Even narrow interests of the existing power structure require an arbitrator. The goal of this ideology is not some libertarian or anarchist Eden. The goal is to diminish or even remove the power of the voting public.

If we move to deny government its legitimacy (i.e.: the legitimate power of the vote) then sensible regulatory efforts that can benefit us all will no longer occur. Policy decisions that maintain the benefits of the existing power structure become the purview of business related lobbyists. By making “government” the bogeyman the beneficiary is not “the people” but instead, business.
Today we have a seemingly clean split between right and left. But both sides share the deeply held impression that we are caught in a corrupt system. How does this play out to create these diametrically opposed systems of analysis and solutions? The transference of our impression of corruption to the political sphere is the key. The Tea Party right sees government and “those Washington bureaucrats” as the problem. The Occupy left follows the money to analyze the source of corruption in the system. The moneyed interests rely on their ability to use political front men as a smoke screen. If our frustrations with the current state of America can be focused on the overreach of government then we will never see the true power behind the screen. Big business loves the foibles of Washington. The more we are impressed that the Federal government is inept the more leeway Big Money has to operate unhindered.
But wait… we are the government. We can’t permit ourselves to forget that.

Going Amish

Amish rockers

It seems that life is tougher now. Certainly more complex. On drives through the beautiful countryside around our home here in western Kentucky I often joke about “Going Amish.” We could write our families and tell them that we wanted to simplify our lives and make beautiful furniture. I could wear that cool looking broad-brimmed black hat and skip shaving. Stefanie could sport the bonnet and her elegantly tailored frock. We’d still drive around in our little screaming yellow Ford Focus of course. Wave to people as we drove by. Give the larger Amish community a bad name when people see an Amish couple cruise by in a yellow hatchback. Endure taunts of “Hypocrites!” and “Why don’t you get a therapist like the rest of us!!”

But is life really all that tough? I don’t mean to make light of anyone’s sense of deprivation since these are tough economic times. But it is relative. And a quick look back at the history of mere survival would suggest that it has been worse. Maybe tougher in some ways like finding something good to watch on TV. It certainly is tougher to remain thoughtful and sensible with our brains infested with all manner of perceived threats to the continuity of the world as we know it. And with major problems looming, it would seem like the right time to sit down and think of ways to make a change. But then any plan of change we come up with begins to seem more scary than where we are right now. So we react. We pull back. We get riled up and demand simple solutions. We demand that our leaders reflect our “core values” as if that alone would somehow make it all clear, in black and white. We forget the preponderance of gray which requires a political process that wends its way through complex issues towards imperfect solutions.

We know change is coming. When it comes to change our brains get into a little scrap where our intellect says “go” and our emotions say “no.” No surprise then that we tend to shut it down and get cozy with the devil that we know. And what works better when faced with daunting change than a good old political platitude, or the balm of soothing escapist entertainment. But what happens to old fashioned thinking and to reasoned discussion then? Where are those spaces between our “events” where we can just sit and reflect?  And what ever happened to all those chunks of silence when there was, for whatever weird reason, no entertainment?

Priorities change. Today its not so important to know things like which philosopher best represents a particular school of philosophy. Even a fan of philosophy like me has trouble bringing those details to mind. On the other hand, I have more luck recalling the featured menu item at some fast food restaurant. So why does “Hand-Breaded Chicken Fingers” spring with clarity to mind when I think of “Hardee’s” and “Existential someone-or-other” emerge through the fog when I think “Heidegger.”

I remember now. One’s easy and one is hard. One involves issues of life and death, being and non-being, and painstakingly scrutinized methods of thinking and speaking. And the other is just plain delicious! Its a no-brainer! (what did I say?). It wasn’t always like this, was it? Am I just imagining a time not so long ago when discussions lasted long into the night about personal interpretations of reality? Seems like silly pseudo-intellectual bloviating now maybe but at least our brains and passions were fully engaged. Like Greece during the first millennium when there were basically two armed camps fighting in the streets because they disagreed about whether Christ was “of one substance” with God, or merely “of like substance.” That all changed of course when we discovered that Life is an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, smothered in secret sauce.