Sunday, June 17, 2007
A Blasted Landscape
We live in a blasted landscape, a culture denuded by hatred, fear, racism, the hot air of our own certitude in our goodness fanning montrous crimes. Our government, controlled by a supposed two-party system, is in service of the unfettered flow of rapacious capital and imperial war. Our culture, our government, our economic elites trample on hard-won standards of human rights, shredding laws of war, torturing, launching unprovoked attacks on other sovereign nations, tearing families apart with a system of laws that increasingly favor those with economic advantage, and grinds those without under ever more draconian penalties and economic exploitation. For many Americans we paid scant attention over years, but increasingly we see this behavior at home, in our brutal prison system, our shredded labor rights, in a healthcare system that delivers economic ruin along with grudgingly offered care.
It’s hard to look across that landscape, the sulferous gases of our aggressive loathing of life and decency stinging our eyes, coating our throats with barely-suppressed bile as we fight down despair and disgust, so it’s no wonder that we gaze with relief and joy upon any signs of life that break through the disasters we create, like the recent decisions about the men our government has tortured and held in legal limbo:
In our national debate on torture and the mistreatment of prisoners, one theme is consistently on the lips of those attempting to advance the president’s agenda. Our situation is, they say, without any historical precedent. I think when I hear these words that a scoundrel is speaking, for they are uttered with a simple object – and that is for civil authority to free itself from the bounds of civilization and tradition, indeed, from the bounds of common decency. This argument is raised with the object of justifying tyrannical rule and specific practices which defy any individual justification. And indeed, are there not an endless number of historical precedents precisely for such acts of barbarity?
We take faith in the idea that hope and life will overcome, that political conflict in the United States swings on some wonderful pendulum, that cases like this or an insincere law passed by the Donklephants to nudge the minimum wage up slightly are signs that we will be okay, that it’s natural for the system to right itself.
It’s dangerous to take so much comfort in these brief flowerings. It’ll take years of such court decisions, years of struggle, years of work to remind ourselves and those around us that we can choose to build something better than this lifeless, hopeless field of hardened lava. Over and over again, those with money and power have tapped into the burning fear and hatred that has been at the heart of this country since it’s settlement by white invaders: that bastard child of fear and hatred ... racism.
It is racism that has driven so much of this country’s economic development. It’s racism that has fostered so many of our wars. Manifest Destiny is just a nicer, holier name for White Supremacy. The Indian Wars, the various invasions of Central America and the islands of the Caribbean, the Mexican American Wars ... through all of them is woven the thread of racism, that “those people” are more primitive, weaker, dumber, less godly, that only by our intervention and their subjucation could they be civilized. One can look at the execution and planning of the current debacle and see the same attitude: our “leaders” thought they were dealing with primitive dupes, how hard could it be? The Hadjis are just the latest red savages, the latest niggers and spics and yellow devils for the big strong white man to grind under heel before he can be elevated by our paternal “charity”.
It is racism that also prevents us from fighting back, from leveling the playing field of our economic system. We resent people who are different than us, who’re “less deserving” of “help”, and for many people it’s skin color that determines who is “less”. If we want more flowers to burst through the blasted crust of this new century, we have to face and own up to how much we’ve ALL been cooked in the fires of this terrible flame. It’s in all of us. Face it.
But from that moment on I have been learning. I no longer resist the fact that I live in a racist world, in a racist society, in a racist city and a racist neighborhood. I spend my money in racist stores and attend racist classes. White doctors, teachers, service people, firemen, policemen and clergy are racist. I don’t care how many of us are here or how much money we are making or how many of us are graduating from how many colleges. When whites are born into this society, they know inherently that they are superior to all third world people, and especially to blacks. No matter what negative condition they find themselves in, they are still superior to blacks. And some blame blacks for their negative condition. Liberal whites decide just how much slack they will cut us, and then assume we should not only be grateful, but also friendly. I have never met and probably will never meet a white who believes himself racist. He will tell me about his racist mother or his racist brother-in-law or his racist neighbor, but not him. Rather than to accept the fact that I might be equal, or maybe even better, white people have told me that I’m “not really black”.
This situation will never, never improve until whites can admit to themselves that they are by definition and innately racist. They should identify as closely with their racism as they identify with their gender. If you are born white, you are born racist. Blacks like me become racist in defense. Identify that you are racist and, recognizing yourselves as such, you can check yourselves. Blacks do not want your love. Your like isn’t even important. And your understanding is not necessary. We don’t even care whether or not you smile at us. What we do want is that you not stand in our way. What we do want is equal justice by law, no favors. And just for the record, affirmative action is just that, not a favor.
Thirty years ago, in a fit of panic and pseudo-generosity prompted by fear, the white power structure admitted blacks, almost indiscriminately, to some schools and some jobs. Since this action was indiscriminate, many blacks failed. At which point the whites sat back and said, “See! We gave them a chance and they failed.” And that was the end of it. So now it’s cut welfare, cut the quota system, beat ‘em up and throw ‘em in jail.
It will take years of exposure for the rest of the United States of America to fully realize what a monstrous thing American racism is. And all during this time one proceeds quite naturally with one’s life dealing with racism on a day-to-day basis, too overwhelmed by the monstrosity of it ever to be able to get up on a soap-box screaming in rage. And as the realization slowly inches its way into the consciousness, the surprise, the hurt and then the rage take over. How many times must one silently, but clearly, be called “nigger” before it finally sinks in? And if one is to be a nigger, then one had better track down the meaning of this negritude.
My particular racism is my particular experience. I’ve never written about it before for two reasons: I wasn’t sure I was black enough to discuss it with blacks, and it does no good to discuss it with whites.
It’s not unreasonable to wrap this all up together as one problem. Our economy and our aggressive military structure and our broken political system are all fueled by our inability to see what we have in common with one another. When I come across a group of young black men on the bus, our on the street, little suspicions and fear flicker across my lizard brain ... hands tap pockets, eyes are averted. It’s a hard thing to face, but a lifetime of the propaganda that passes for news and entertainment has trained that more primitive part of me to see a threat. That ... is ... racism. For years, when I was younger, I got mad when confronted with it. “Not me ... I’m a liberal, I judge people by their ACTIONS,” I’d insist.
That’s all very comforting, but begs the question. We’re TAUGHT to be racist, either directly or indirectly, and it plays on the survival instincts we all have to recognize threats ... if a group of people is presented as a threat, whether by a modern media or personal experience, then the reptile brain kicks in and shuts off the higher reasoning parts of our natures. When that happens, clergy or politicians or parents or teachers or friends looking for a fight can give that brain a further kick, give it a push, make us lash out. This is why over and over again we turn on our fellow human beings ... we’re predisposed to see them as a threat, and dishonest or greedy people exploit that fear and hatred, riding our racism into a new war, a new round of disenfranchisement, another round of unjustified tax cuts to benefit those who least need them. It’s all tied together.
To fight it, you have to SEE it, even in yourself. We won’t have a just society, we won’t stop being a threat to the rest of the world, until we face this firey fuel that drives us as a country, that pushes us to consume so much of the world around us. It’s nice to take hope in those brief flowerings like the decisions mentioned above, but real change is going to take a change in the American heart, and right now it’s hard to see any sign of it coming anytime soon. Meanwhile, the blasted landscape spreads.