Thursday, March 1, 2018

Learning the Hard Way

We’re on the train from Paris to Barcelona, along the path of world wars. Out the window I see the men with bayonets fixed to their rifles charging the barbed wire and the men in the trenches rising up to return fire, and then, looking over time, only a few decades, I see the panzer tanks of the blitzkrieg and the men and women outside the small stone villages like the ones we are passing with their hands held high over their heads as the Nazi soldiers inspect them and decide whether they will live or die, and whether there and then or in a death camp.

For me the fields of France are the eternal fields of war. They don’t look very different now than then, bare and specked in snow along the tree lines on this last day of February. I think of how cold the soldiers, the boys, must have been in those trenches, how merciless the tanks of the second German invasion.

I see those boys in the fields and I wonder if others do. It’s a different world now than at the end of World War II. The Germans and the Japanese, so thoroughly defeated in that war, roared back into economic dominance. It remains to be seen what that means. The Germans are setting almost as much economic policy for Europe today as they did when they overran it militarily. Japan isn’t the economic tiger it was in the 1980s, and the country it used to dominate, China, has taken over the title as regional monarch.

When I was growing up in the South, I regularly walked the killing fields of the battle of Nashville and the battle of Franklin of our Civil War. But they weren’t fields of war to me. They were just boring patches of farmland. I had no sense of the Civil War. I could not imagine the boys dying in those fields and in the parlors of their homes where they were sometimes brought home to die. The Civil War meant nothing to me. Less than nothing. I rejected talk of it the way I rejected talk of all things that would never matter in my life.

I wonder if young men and women today see the fields of war of the generations before them with that same lack of interest and curiosity, whether they see the mistakes of those who came before them as unique to the frailties and vanities of those times.

The frailties and vanities of today are manifested by the nuclear saber rattling of the United States and North Korea. By the islands China is building in the open sea to control shipping and military routes. By Russian tanks in Ukraine and its new missiles announced just today.

Perhaps because I dismissed our Civil War as an anachronism, I was unprepared for the resurgence of white male nationalism that was awakened by the racist and misogynist rantings of our current president. I would like to blame him, but he is just one man. It is we who are to blame. Millions of us elected him, apparently without memory of Southern lynch mobs or the time not so long ago when women didn’t have the right to vote.

In Europe, the hard right is building fences to keep out migrants, and the fears they cater to are winning them elections again. I thought fascism had been not just defeated but eradicated. But like polio, it is making a comeback. I thought racism was dead, but it was merely lying dormant in the cold ground of our darkest urges.

The cliche is that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. I’m sure I am not the first to suggest a modification to this wisdom: it may not be enough merely to know history to avoid repeating its mistakes, we may have to personally feel the pain of the lives shattered, the children lost, the future lost. To those who come later, the past may seem quaintly antiquated.

“We are not like that,” they will say, the ones who walk the fields and cannot hear the guns and smell the cordite.

But they are, I fear. We all seem to be. Only when the pain of tragedy is seared in personal memory does it seem hold us back from our human need to conquer and dominate. If there were a way to pass that pain along to each new generation, not just the fact of it but the actual night sweats, we might escape the tyranny of our evolutionary imperative. Otherwise, it won’t be long before another generation learns these terrible lessons the hard way.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Stuff of Memory

Remember setting up house? Pots and pans. One pan, anyway. A dish or two. Coffee pot. A decent knife. Laundry basket, or maybe not, maybe just a corner of the closet. You were busy and free. You weren’t worried about all that stuff.

But it piled up, and then you moved in with someone else and his or her stuff, and pretty soon you needed more room not just for the stuff but for the baby that was on the way, a prospect both exhilarating and terrifying. 

That baby did it. Before her, stuff was just stuff. Now it became the cradle, an ornate antique with lace linens, in imagination if not reality. The flowered wallpaper. The changing table. The rocking chair. The toy box. The soccer goal. The study desk and lamp. The stereo. The couch with popcorn between the cushions. The television with fingerprints on the screen. And finally, the duffel bag for college.

You keep her bedroom like a silent migratory marsh pond. When her visits become less frequent, you begin saving things you think she might like for her new apartment. A set of plates she always loved. The pots you cooked all her meals in. The lamp she read by. Your attic becomes a shrine to both her past and her future.

But she never comes for her old things. She sets up her own house and finds her own mate and has her own kids. You begin to save her childhood toys for your grandchildren. Your attic is getting crowded.

And now here you are with all that stuff, which is not stuff to you but the memoir of your life. Long after you know it won’t be needed, not even by you, you keep it, knowing without admitting it that one day you will be gone and those bits of your life will remain, knitted together like the gray twigs of an old robin’s nest, still sturdy and serviceable, but abandoned.

Monday, February 19, 2018


Two weeks ago, a limousine driver in Manhattan killed himself in front of City Hall. He did it, he said in an earlier Facebook post, to show how services like Uber and Lyft had killed his livelihood. The New York Times reported that the mayor of New York said, “Let’s face it, for someone to kill himself there’s an underlying mental health challenge.”

No doubt. 

Still, I keep thinking about that poor driver’s plight. When he started in the 1980s, he could support himself driving 40 hours a week. Lately he hadn’t been making enough to survive even driving 100 hours per week. Perhaps he had other problems, as Mayor de Blasio suggested, but his deteriorating work life was obviously a big contributor to his desperation.

Like coal miners in Kentucky, steel workers in Pennsylvania and textile workers in South Carolina, he was a victim of relentless economic change. The consulting firm McKinsey & Company predicts that by 2030 up to one-third of American jobs may be lost to automation.

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari observes that the shift by humans from hunting and gathering to farming created more food to support population growth but resulted in worse individual living conditions. Hunter-gatherers had more diverse diets, more leisure time and were less isolated than their farmer successors, who had to toil alone morning till night to grow and harvest their wheat, which made up and unhealthy percentage of their diet.

According to Professor Harari, early tribes of humans could work well together up to a number of about 150. After that, communication and coordination got too tough and the group splintered. Only when humans invented fictions that people in disparate locations could rally around did that numerical limitation fall away. Religion, nationalism and corporations are fictions, he says—they don’t exist in reality, only in our imaginations—that permitted the species to work together in common cause by the thousands and millions. By enabling collaboration across geography and time, fictions gave us power that reality did not. In their thrall, or under their banners, we created mighty industries, cured diseases and went to the moon.

Still, our moral ethos in America, the subjective way we see reality, is through the lens of self-reliance. Carry your own weight; lift your share of the load. If China or Uber steals your job, go find something else to do if you want to survive.

It’s not quite that brutal. We do have a social safety net. But it’s pretty close to the ground, and it has quite a few holes. By the time you hit it, you’re pretty far gone. Those of us who are prospering are helping by paying taxes to support food stamps and children’s health care, but it’s not enough. There are a lot of desperate people out there who have been left behind by the dramatic economic changes of the last century. And the rate of change is picking up.

Working life in the United States today is a game of musical jobs. The music stops now and then and you try to take your place on the manufacturing line or at your office desk only to find it’s gone. You haven’t changed, the economy has. Maybe you can find another job, maybe not. Maybe the need for your skills is just gone and isn’t coming back.

The free-market economy works well overall, but it’s not always so good on an individual level. And it’s heartless. It’s up to those of us who benefit from its dynamism and efficiency to give it its heart. In the small tribes of yore, where the pain was plain on the face of your neighbor, and impossible to ignore, anthropologists tell us everyone pitched in to help the sick and the weak. In our huge national tribe, it’s easy to look away.

We need some substitute for the compelling immediacy of the up-close-and-personal suffering of a fellow tribe member. A compact that we make among ourselves, like the charter of a business that governs the conduct of its employees, or the commandments of a religion that guide its followers. Professor Harari would call it a fiction, and so it would be. A fiction we would honor as steadfastly and unquestioningly as we worship our gods. A fiction that would unite us behind the promise that when the music stops for someone, there will be a fund to support him, a fund to which we will all contribute as routinely and piously as we drop bills in the collection plate at church.

Instead of God or Google, we might call our new fiction “Rotation.” It’s a non-judgmental word and a good descriptor of what happens: people get rotated out of the economy by drought, poverty, bad health or technological change. Its objective—like the objective of a business to make and sell products, or of a religion to save souls—would be that no one who has been rotated out of productivity will go hungry or be left without health care. When the music stops for you, because your job disappears or for some other reason, you will not be abandoned.

All this might sound like little more than a linguistic gussying up of the welfare state. In a way, that’s right. It’s an attempt to set aside the political baggage associated with welfare and return our notion of personal responsibility to one another to the time when we lived in small tribes. In a nod to those ancient times, we might think of it as establishing a kind of modern volcano god to whom we offer tribute as a defense against the random savagery of the free market and the capriciousness of personal calamity. Or we could simply view it as an acceptance to our common humanity, a humble acknowledgment that “there but for fortune go you or go I.”

Monday, December 25, 2017

A Prayer to Us

It’s Christmas morning, and the Pope is praying for peace. I like Pope Francis (except for the fact that he lets the Catholic Church remain patriarchal). He has generally progressive and humane ideas about our responsibilities to one another in this life. But he’s wasting his time praying for peace.

Prayer has been a staple of the religious and, in emergencies, the non-religious for millennia. I assume every pope since the beginning of popes prayed for peace. We might ask ourselves why those prayers have not been answered.

For atheists, the answer is easy: no God.

For those who believe, from the fervent to the hopeful skeptic, the answer is more complicated.

Many say, He gave us free will, so He doesn’t intervene. Of course, if you believe that, you have just made the case for why prayer is a waste of time. He’s letting us do our thing, presumedly hoping we will learn from our sins and eventually evolve into more moral humans. (It’s always a He, right? This is Francis’s problem with women priests, I assume.)

If you believe He does intervene occasionally, you have to ask yourself when. Why does he permit so many children to starve to death worldwide? Or be butchered by their genocidal elders? Those poor babes don’t live long enough to learn any lessons. Really, if you look at life and world events, from wars to natural disasters, it’s hard to think God is involved in our day-to-day affairs.

He seems to have left it up to us.

Looked at that way, prayer is more of a complaint than anything else. “Help, we can’t fix this. Bail us out.”

But He’s not going to. He has left it up to us.

If that’s the case, I suggest we quit praying and start doing something about our troubles. 

Here are a few ideas:

1. Vote for politicians who seek peace. Resist the urge to revert to tribal defensiveness. Open your hearts to the other.

2. Give time or money to organizations that help those in need. Go global or go local. Your choice.

3. Spread the word. Post on Facebook your hopes for peace and goodwill, and what you are doing to advance them. Or Instagram. Or Twitter. Be a voice in the wilderness.

4. Reach out to those around you. Forgive old sins. Bandage old neglects. Stitch up the wounds of your friends and family.

Don’t give yourself to the Lord. Give yourself to your fellow man. I imagine that if She’s paying any attention to us at all, that’s what She wants of us. Surely She’s not concerned about crowd size and loyalty. We already have one of those in our lives right now, and we see how that’s going. That’s not the kind of God we want.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Stranger

“There’s nothing more frightening than a man with a gun in his hand, and nothing more helpless than a man without one.”
   —the worst bad-guy in “Godless”

“Godless,” the name of a new tv series, describes the territorial American west where it is set and most of the men who drift and plunder there. Inevitably, in the way of these stories, we root for the least-bad bad-guy. Sure, he’s killed some men, but he teaches a boy to ride and be a good man and he defends a town against ravaging marauders.

It’s any Clint Eastwood spaghetti western. It’s the Magnificent Seven.

But something about the way “Godless” is told brought home to me in a way none of those epic westerns ever has how close we are still to those fearful times. When a stranger comes to the door in “Godless,” he or she is greeted with a gun; and if he doesn’t account for himself quickly enough, he is shot. Not just by the hard guys, but by most anybody. Even Michelle Dockery, for Pete’s sake—Downton Abby’s Lady Mary after a long and harrowing journey west.

In the west of “Godless,” it didn’t pay to give a stranger the benefit of the doubt.

The stranger killed a whole town, just because they harbored someone he had a grudge against. (A nod to the way the Nazis handled towns harboring Jews, now that I think of it.)

The stranger came to your campfire and took your woman for the night. In the morning, he ridiculed you for not laying down your life for her.

The stranger hid in the dark bar and lit the lamp so the sheriff got one last look at who was about to kill him.

It’s tempting to say that Donald Trump is the murderous stranger who has taken us back to the land of “Godless,” but all he did was lead us out of town and set us down around a campfire with darkness all around and start making noises like someone was coming for us. It didn’t take much to stimulate our primitive fears, the conditioned reflex that has in dark times permitted us to survive.

Are these dark times? Do we have that much to fear? Is the stranger coming for us?

That depends. Not on Trump, but on us. Will we fall for his demagogic rants that we are in mortal danger from the other? Will we allow ourselves to be whipped into a murderous frenzy by his taunts and humiliations? 

Or will we realize that the stranger is not someone with a different skin color or a different religion, or even someone who undoubtedly wishes us ill but who from a practical standpoint is unlikely to be able to harm us? Will we take a step out of the darkness and see that, each to the other, we are ourselves the stranger? That, to paraphrase FDR, we have nothing to fear but ourselves.

Sunday, November 26, 2017


When I was in law school, I was a bore at cocktail parties. I had few opinions on the great issues of the day. Why not? I was certainly opinionated—I couldn’t otherwise have survived in my father’s house—but law school was teaching me to learn all the facts before making up my mind. Easy enough in the legal cases we studied, almost impossible on subjects like economic policy and foreign affairs. So, no opinions.

That phase didn’t last. I have plenty of opinions now, but my legal training still makes me yearn for facts. When I was younger, Walter Cronkite told me what I needed to know, or at least all there was to know outside the C.I.A., and I believed him and formed my opinions based on his facts and my judgments about what would be good for society.

But Uncle Walter is long gone—I can still see him taking off his black-framed glasses and wiping away a tear as he told us President Kennedy was dead—and reliable facts are getting harder to identify in the torrent of digital news. It’s a paradox of our time: more information, less truth.

In self-defense against the barrage from unreliable sources, we tend, naturally, to rely on those we have come to trust over the years. Some trust sources that tell them what they want to hear. Some trust sources that have a track record of getting the facts right. Lately, the sources I have always relied upon, like The New York Times, have come under attack from those who are only interested in news that confirms their pre-existing beliefs.

So they have their sources, many and varied, and I read The New York Times and The Washington Post, both known for journalistic integrity and for getting the facts right. Do I feel superior? No, but I do feel informed.

Today, a friend and political sparing partner responded to a spoof I sent him about Paul Ryan’s concern for the poor with a suggestion that I make a resolution for 2018 to “spend more time outside the echo chamber.”

He no doubt meant it good-naturedly, but it irritated me because it's another example of the false-equivalency virus that's going around. I may be living in an echo chamber, but it's echoing the truth, or at least as close to the truth as I can feret out in this complicated and contradictory world.

I’m interested in economics, for instance, especially as it informs our choices on fiscal and monetary policy. I’ve read big-government advocates like Stiglitz and Krugman, but I’ve also read libertarian conservatives like Hayek and Friedman. It turns out, if you read the works of any of these brilliant thinkers fully, you can find plenty in each to agree with. It’s all a matter of balance. And the sad truth is, still, in economics we aren’t always sure what produces what result.

But we are pretty sure of a few things. Trickle-down has been largely discredited. And lower taxes aren’t likely to meaningfully increase GDP, not with taxes at current rates. This isn’t some wild-assed guess or article of liberal faith; it has been tried a few times and it hasn’t worked.

So when Paul Ryan, defending the current tax proposal, says lower taxes will boost the economy, what am I to think? This is what: he wants to lower taxes for his own reasons—to shrink government, for instance—and is trotting out old dogma that he almost certainly knows to be incorrect to try to convince us it’s a good idea. 

Plenty of people lie and get away with it. O.J. comes to mind. But that doesn’t mean I have to fall for it. And it doesn’t mean that just because I don’t, just because I go back to the studies that have disproved these theories in the past, that I am living in an echo chamber of mis-information. 

In fact, what I am doing is educating myself to be able to sort fact from fiction in the post-Uncle-Walter age. It takes more work than turning on The CBS Evening News every night, but it’s the only interesting and helpful way to consider problems and possible solutions.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

"I'm Just So Lonely"

I keep hearing my mother say that: “I’m just so lonely.”

She only said it to me once, many years ago, but I hear it over and over in my mind. It’s a mark of how oblivious I was to her emotional needs at the time that I don’t even remember what year it was. Was I living in L.A.? Baltimore?

I suppose I didn’t think there was anything I could do about it. She came out to visit once in a while. I went to see her now and then. That’s just the way it is with parents and kids living in different cities.

My father died when he and she were fifty. She lived alone after that, for 34 years.

Late in her life we were in the same cities again for a dozen years. I saw her often. I hope she wasn’t lonely in those years, but to tell the truth, maybe she was.

Loneliness is a funny thing. It’s a kind of desperate longing. You can be in a crowd and be lonely. You can have casual friends and be lonely. Close family is usually a pretty good antidote for loneliness, but that cure can sometimes be worse than the disease. Old thoughtless habits, old grievances. Sometimes you may want a stressful family member, or even a well-meaning one who is pushing you to do things you don’t want to do, to be things you are not, or are no longer, to just go away so you can be lonely again.

Loneliness has to do with living alone, of course. It also has to do with having too much time on your hands. Too much time to look back, to reflect, to regret.

There is no cure, I think. There are moments of respite—of remission, one might say—but once it has crept into your life, loneliness seems to persist despite everyone's best efforts to chase it away.

It’s a form of getting ready for death, I suppose. A gradual release of one’s hold on the world, and of it on you.

Mom died in a nursing home in another city, two thousand miles away. I’ve been thinking about her lately because it was about this time of year eight years ago that I flew with her to my brother’s hometown and had her furniture sent to the nice private room we had arranged for her there. She needed 24-hour care, and all she could have afforded in my town was something like a cubicle with a sheet between her and her roommate, in a place that said for her not to bring any of her lovely clothes, only a few sets of sweatpants and comfortable tops they recommended I buy at Target. 

I missed her and felt guilty about not being with her. I visited as often as I could those last few months of her life, but it wasn’t that often. When I saw her she always asked me to wheel her around to a cage of parakeets in a hallway. She loved their happy chatter and companionship.

A hospice nurse called me not long after my last visit to say Mom had died. Not from anything in particular, the nurse said. Failure to thrive, she called it.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Jim Crow Healthcare

Graham-Cassidy comes up for a Senate vote next week. Here’s why I hope it does not pass.

First, and initially foremost, it will make health insurance harder to get for tens of millions of vulnerable Americans. In ten years, when Medicaid funding is further reduced, it will essentially gut the system we have laboriously established over many decades to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves. Medicaid is not a perfect system, but it’s there, and it works.

Second, The ability of the states essentially to opt out of pre-existing condition protections will return us to our darkest, and least-humane period. Got cancer? Oh sorry, good luck with that, but you’re going to have to pay more for your coverage now, a lot more.

Finally, and this is almost as big a reason as the first two, health care should not be left to the states. With few exceptions—I’m looking at you Massachusetts, with your Obamacare precursor that is working so well—they have a bad track record. Why is that? I’m not sure. Overall—and you can note my preconceptions in this—I think health care is too complicated and requires too much expertise to be handled locally. There’s a reason we all go to major medical centers for major surgery and not local clinics. Size and scale, managed correctly, beget expertise and good results. Google. Facebook. Amazon. 

Why do I think the feds can manage a large healthcare program, either insurance or single-payer-based, better than states? Two reasons:

Big problems with big societal consequences attract big thinkers. We don’t ask states to manage national defense. Making good medical care broadly available is a challenge that requires the heavyweights of policy and process.

The second reason is that although national management of issues has its own risk of bloat and inefficiency (which, incidentally, I don’t think is any greater than on the state level), it has fewer racial and economic biases. This is why we needed federal Civil Rights legislation a half-century ago. Because of racial prejudice, the southern states were making a hash of it. Not only were they not helping, they were making things worse for blacks.

Why do I think prejudice might impede good healthcare decisions by states today? Just look at the large number of states that refused to expand Medicaid under Obamacare. The expansion would have benefited their poor and would have been almost entirely paid for by the federal government. Yet they passed. They said they didn’t like the future costs. They said they didn’t like the constraints. What I think is that they just didn’t think it was important to help their poor if it meant letting the federal camel get its nose under their tent. And the fact that many of those poor were black? Coincidence?

Milton Friedman, the famous economist from the University of Chicago, was more of a libertarian than I am. He thought government should be as small as possible. And when government had to be involved, he believed that the best decisions were made locally. He saw centralized government as the beginning of the end of liberty.

He was right, in principle. Especially when the choice, as it was for him, was between capitalism and totalitarian control of the economy. But even he acknowledged that it is the proper role of government to enable us to do collectively what we cannot do individually. Healthcare is a perfect example of such a need. It requires that we share our healthcare risks broadly among us, so that no one of us is left to bear the full furry of bad genes or bad luck. The bigger the risk-sharing pool, the better that system will work.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Identity Theft

Can you hear it, the flapping of little wings as the youngsters leave the nest? We have a number of friends this year who will be participating in that poignant ritual. Participating in the sense of shopping for college-dorm-room sheets and reading lights and standing on the outside of “The Gate of Tears,” which is what the University of Chicago calls the final portal through which freshmen pass and parents may not.

I had kids under eighteen in the house for so long I hardly knew what to do when I didn’t. I started this blog then. Writing about my feelings helped. 

I haven’t tried my hand at advice to new empty-nesters. Throw yourself into your work. Travel. Make love in places you never could before. If you have a dog, be nice to it, as it will become your replacement child.

This too will pass, I could say, except that I’m not sure it’s true.

When your kids leave home, it’s a form of identity theft. You are no longer who you were, no longer snack-maker, homework-nagger, chauffeur and spy. The role of parent is not one you play, it is who you are. When they leave, you are still that, but you have no duties to perform. You are consigned to straightening the comforters on their beds, dusting their trophies, hoping they will call.

If someone steals your credit card or your social security number, they can steal your money. We call it identity theft, but it isn’t really that. Only your children can steal your soul.

It won’t pass—at least it hasn’t for me, even after seven year—but it will get better. The pain will dull. The longing will abate. You’ll begin to share in their lives and achievements in different ways. You’ll meet them at lake houses and invite them to join you in Paris. They may not, but even the hope of it will be exhilarating. You’ll remind them to renew their passports.

It will get better, but it will always be there, that small empty spot. Like the damage to your self-confidence when you tried out for football in eighth grade, like the BB-sized hole in your heart from your first lost love. The scar will fade so that you’ll hardly feel it except on sad, rainy days. Or on sunny days, when you’re sitting alone on a bench in a park watching a scrum of third-graders in a soccer game and your foot twitches as if to kick the ball, a reflex called up from a time when you knew with certainty who you were.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

R.I.P. Traveller, and that Guy on your Back

I remember dating a girl in high school who lived in Franklin, Tennessee, which, having been a big Civil War battleground, was full of confederate monuments. They loomed over the town square like ghosts from the past. At the time, when I was sixteen, I didn't think of them as celebrating white supremacy, I just thought the South had a hard time accepting that times had changed. 

If you talked to people in those days, a good many of them were nostalgic for the Old South. I don't know if they still wanted slaves, but they certainly wanted a world in which people of different races knew their places. I guess that was white supremacy in a more genteel form. No burning crosses, at least not from most folks, but if you got them going after a few beers you could see the torchlight in their eyes. 

I haven't thought about those monuments much until now, when we are all thinking about them. Whatever fantasies we have about the nobility of the Southern Cause, there was nothing noble about slavery, and that is really what the Civil War was about. Nor is there anything noble about the latent longing for segregation that Civil War monuments tacitly symbolize. 

They have to go. However beautiful they may be as art, what they represent is ugly.

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Penumbra of the Eclipse

Maybe its because of Charlottesville. Or BLM. Lately the news is full of stories about discrimination. Even white folks trying to get into Harvard think they are being discriminated against. Jeff Sessions has their backs.

There was a piece in the LA Times today about the systematic housing discrimination in LA that begat Watts. It wasn’t all private deed restrictions. The federal government wouldn’t let public housing for blacks be located in certain places, and insisted that blacks not be allowed to live in complexes that were predominantly white. This was the New Deal federal government, the post WWII federal government. The housing segregation so established is now perpetuated through zoning regulations that limit housing density in white neighborhoods: no housing projects (for you know who) need apply.

Then there was the piece two days earlier in the New York Times about how uneven enforcement of our drug laws has locked up blacks at a much higher rate than whites. Blacks go to jail. Whites go to rehab. The numbers are alarming.

So I posted those two pieces on Facebook and noted that we whites need to face up to our history of racial discrimination and make amends. Apparently not everyone agrees.

One person suggested that the government can’t help those who don’t help themselves. Welfare creates dependency is the root of that argument.

Another said he didn’t think blacks wanted me telling them who should be their neighbors. They like being together. You know, like my southern ancestors used to say: “They be happy down on the place.”

My point in writing this is not that ever since slavery, ever since Jim Crow, even today, racial prejudice holds back blacks and other people of color, it’s that we whites have apparently become weary of admitting it. We’re not as bad as holocaust deniers; we admit that slavery was a thing; we even admit that discrimination lasted a long time. But we have taken to denying that it continues. And we have taken to denying that its pernicious effects linger, continuing to limit opportunity for blacks, who have almost as hard a time breaking out of some pockets of segregated poverty, in places like the south side of Chicago, for instance, as their slave ancestors did getting off the plantation.

I thought this debate was put to rest by the court cases and laws of the civil rights era. Not so, as it turns out. 

But we have come a long way since MLK died for our sins in how we invoke the majesty of the law to insure equal justice for all: our Department of Justice has gone from defending the civil rights of blacks to insisting that they not take white boys’ places at Harvard.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Collecting My Poeple

“White people, save all your heartbreak and sadness and get off your ass and collect your people. #Charlottesville.”
       —Ferguson Freedom Fighter, Kayla Reed

Kayla Reed’s tweet was quoted in a recent sermon posted online by Mike Kinman, an Episcopal minister from Pasadena, California. “We have met the white racists,” they might have said, “and they are us”; or if not us literally, then at least they are our cousins. They may not be carrying torches, but they are sympathetic, even if they have spun elaborate webs of rationalization to avoid admitting it. Rev. Kinman’s thesis was that “after all we have put people of color through in this nation’s history…as white people we must not burden them with the responsibility of dismantling these systems and defeating this evil.”

We must collect our people. Bring them around to the view that not only is white supremacy unacceptable, black people and others of color have legitimate grievances that it is the obligation of whites to redress.

I’d like to do that, collect my people. I’ve been trying, but I’m not succeeding. I’m either singularly ineffective as a persuader, or I’m up against something I don’t understand well enough to argue against. I fault my understanding rather than the views of those I am failing to reach because I can’t believe the people I debate—smart friends and family members—are heartless racists.

In their view, leftist violence is a bigger problem that violence on the right. I cite studies showing that violence on the right is three times more prevalent in recent decades that that from the left, but the response I get is BLM is a bunch of thugs.

Blacks are takers, some of my friends say. When we give them more welfare, we aren't doing them any favors, we’re merely creating dependency, stripping them of individual initiative and self-respect. No amount of data about the deplorable poverty in which many black children are raised seem to alter this view. “They just need to try harder.” Never mind that they don’t have the resources to support individual effort, resources so abundant to those born to privilege, largely white.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to tediously trot out all the arguments back and forth. What I want to explore instead, is why no amount of rational debate seems to change minds. At least not the minds I’m trying to change. As I said, it may be that I’m just not an effective debater, but I think it’s something different. I think we’ve mostly made up our minds and are now spending out time defending our positions rather than openly reconsidering their correctness.

Economic and political policy thought has become like religion. You're taught to believe a certain thing, and that’s it. You believe. It doesn’t matter if there are countervailing facts. Facts have never gotten in the way of faith.

Of course, I may have just joined my own cult. Maybe I’m as resistant to facts as I accuse my friends of being. I think I’m open-minded and curious, but I’m sure they do to. I think I’m right. They do too.

I have spirited debates over dinner with friends who are smart conservatives. I always come away thinking we have bridged the gulf between us, if only over one of the narrower tributaries. Then we have dinner again and start right back where we were. When we thought we were coming together, we were just being polite. That woks fine over dinner, less well over torches and AK 47s.

So I’m not doing a very good job of “collecting my people.” I’m giving it my all, in conversation and in writing, but I don’t think I’m making a dent.

Maybe I should try another approach. Waterboarding, perhaps. Or maybe I should just give up. 

Every time I think that, that I should just shut up, I remember one of the most powerful thoughts I’ve ever heard: MLK when he said, “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

When you think of it that way, we have no choice but to keep speaking up, all of us.