On Our (Not So) Great Racial Divide

”The two platforms” From a series of racist posters attacking Radical Republican exponents of black suffrage, issued during the 1866 Pennsylvania gubernatorial race. Democratic candidate Hiester Clymer’s platform as “for the White Man,” represented here by the idealized head of a young man. (Clymer ran on a white-supremacy platform.) In contrast a stereotyped black head represents Clymer’s opponent James White Geary’s platform, “for the Negro.”*

Pious White America created a racist environment—with its ongoing consequences—at the nation’s inception, and it has steadfastly maintained it since. Barack Obama, as the first black president, could do nothing to change those two facts. Nor will Donald Trump, as the first authoritarian president, be able to do so—should he even care.

In the country’s early days, the small ruling class had three big forces of opposition: natives, poor whites, and blacks (free and slave). The threat of overthrow was a constant worry. If any two of these groups banded together in opposition, the party was over. The prevailing strategy of control was to keep the three groups at odds with one another.**

Genocide, over time, took care of the Native Americans, rendering those who survived toothless. But the black-white problem persists through its deliberate nurturing. Trump’s promise of “law and order” will not solve anything other than maintaining the violent tension and keeping private prisons profitable.

If the racial divide never existed, ours would be a much different country. If you tell me it would be worse, then you have reason to support the divide with all its negative consequences. If you say it would be better, then what part will you play in breaking down the barriers?

*Image and description of poster from Wikimedia Commons.
** See The People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn.

Our Greatest National Resource

A well-educated, healthy, and prosperous citizenry is a National Resource. Demand it. Nurture it. Protect it.

The Sources of Good and Evil

There are these two kinds of people in this world:

• Those who use their abilities for good

• Those who use their abilities for evil

An evil one’s strategy is to convince others that good is evil and evil is good.

It’s impossible for it to be the other way around.

Roots of Division – Part 2: Roe v. Wade

Demonstrators voice opposing views on abortion.

In Part 1 of this series I suggested that the Senate Watergate hearings of 1973—which along with the encompassing investigation, led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation—was such an embarrassment to the Republican Party that ever since it has tried to live it down by beating down and demonizing the Democratic Party.

Aiding and abetting the effort, Rush Limbaugh and many like him, took to the air and Internet, ranting about the evils of Liberalism and everyone connected with it. These constant right-wing drum beats helped rally the faithful to one side of the field and outfit them in the jerseys of TeamRed. The goal? Overthrowing America’s (perceived) enemy of all that is good and true: TeamBlue.

A major affront to the Conservative notion of good came on January 22, 1973, when the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, the ruling that gave women in all states the right to seek abortion. (Before then, it was already legal in five states.)

Roe v. Wade and Watergate were gigavolt jolts to the Conservative psyche, one right after the other. The festering wounds they caused continue to poison the sociopolitical atmosphere of the United States.

One of the many powers of the president is to appoint justices to the Supreme Court in the case of a vacancy. That’s always a consideration during a presidential race. Voters expect Liberal candidates to appoint liberal judges who would vote favorably on cases that came before them. The same expectation holds for Conservative voters.

Ever since Roe v. Wade became law, Republicans have fought to control who sits on the Supreme Court and, therefore, the opportunity to overturn the ruling.

During his January 11, 2017, press conference, President Trump said:

"But on the Supreme Court, I'll be making that decision, and it will be a decision which I very strongly believe in. I think it's one of the reasons I got elected. I think the people of this country did not want to see what was happening with the Supreme Court, so I think it was a very, very big decision as to why I was elected."

Trump did not have to utter the words “Roe v. Wade.” The whole country knew what he meant. The Women’s March on Washington the day after Trump’s inauguration showed his widely perceived intention.

Why is abortion so divisive? For Conservatives, it’s strictly a moral issue. Abortion, at any stage and under any circumstances, is murder. For liberals, it is not so black-and-white. And it’s less of a moral issue than it is a social and personal one.

In his majority opinion, Supreme Court Justice Henry Blackmun wrote:

"The detriment that the State would impose upon the pregnant woman by denying this choice altogether is apparent. Specific and direct harm medically diagnosable even in early pregnancy may be involved. Maternity, or additional offspring, may force upon the woman a distressful life and future. Psychological harm may be imminent. Mental and physical health may be taxed by child care. There is also the distress, for all concerned, associated with the unwanted child, and there is the problem of bringing a child into a family already unable, psychologically and otherwise, to care for it. In other cases, as in this one, the additional difficulties and continuing stigma of unwed motherhood may be involved. All these are factors the woman and her responsible physician necessarily will consider in consultation."

This runs counter to a Conservative worldview built on the absolute conviction of right-wrong morality governed by strictly moral authority. There is no gray area and no sympathy for those who live within it.

Legal or not, like it or not, abortion has always been part of human activity and with social ramifications. Making it illegal will not make it go away:

  • Women with resources and who are intent on abortion will have one.
  • Pregnant women who are intent on birth may be forced into abortion by others—with or without the resources for a safe procedure—to make it happen.
  • Poor women without resources and who seek abortion will put their lives in jeopardy.

With or without adequate resources, women who feel compelled to give birth to an unwanted child, as suggested by Judge Blackmun, are likely to suffer mental and financial problems they may be unable to manage. And an unwanted child is at a great disadvantage from birth and more likely to be a lifelong drain on society.*

The personal and societal effects of illegal abortion lean toward the negative.

A not-so-subtle hypocrisy exists within the pro-life movement.

If abortion is strictly a moral issue, then we must talk also of guns and other weapons of war, war itself (which always entails murder of innocents), extreme Capitalism, systemic racism, political corruption, voter suppression, social and political injustice, etc. Aren’t all these immoral? In particular, we must talk of forcing an unwanted child—especially a poor one—into a world where he or she has little chance of wholesome or real survival. Thanks to a sociopolitical mindset that is dead set against programs designed to help them, for many, it’s a life of poverty, crime, and prison. Isn’t this akin to murder?

Roe v. Wade is law. Whether it is upheld by future courts or struck down, the division it has created will endure.

Part 3: The Vietnam War coming soon. For Part 1: Watergate, go here.

*For an in-depth analysis of the relationship between abortion and crime, read Chapter 4 of Freakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner.

On the Spectrum of Ignorance and Wisdom

 

“Spectrum” initially referred to the range of colors displayed as a continuum when white light disperses through a prism. Today we use the word to describe any continuum on which a condition, person, or group might fall. Political spectrum is a good example. The phrase “on the spectrum” applies to people with a variety of social disorders, usually lumped together as some form of autism.

Just about anything displaying subtle gradations can be placed on a spectrum line. Some, like your intelligence quotient, is quantified by IQ points based on testing. Others are not so easy to pin down. What I have in mind is the spectrum of ignorance to wisdom.

This is tricky territory for the same reason we don’t, in polite company anyway, make judgements about a person’s IQ—which we aren’t likely to know—and how smart they are. Another reason it’s tricky is that words like ignorance and wisdom will mean different things to different people and under different circumstances.

Merriam-Webster defines wisdom as: “knowledge that is gained by having many experiences in life; the natural ability to understand things that most other people cannot understand; knowledge of what is proper or reasonable; good sense or judgment.”

The same source defines ignorance as: “a lack of knowledge, understanding, or education; the state of being ignorant.”

In other words, ignorance is the lack of wisdom.

People with low IQs or an overall lack of wisdom don’t generally brag about such things (which they may not even be aware of). Some people, though, do like to brag about their high IQs and how smart—and wise—they are.

Braggarts aside, the qualities of stupid and smart, and ignorance and wisdom are more often attributed to us by others—sometimes correctly, sometimes not. Such judgements, right or wrong, depend on those judges’ own placement on the ignorance-wisdom spectrum.

The dictionary definition of wisdom is useful only on a superficial level, because it gives no insights into vague ideas of what’s “proper or reasonable,” or of “good sense or judgment.” Each day, people gain another day’s worth of experience. That incremental gain doesn’t necessarily add to one’s wisdom. As for “the natural ability to understand things that most other people cannot understand,” well, it may sound mystical and shamanistic, but the relatively few people who understand quantum mechanics or string theory aren’t necessarily wise.

So how to know wisdom? To get a better gasp of what wisdom means let’s take a look into some qualities showing in wise people.

  • Wise people carry intentions of harmlessness. They consider their future actions in terms of the benefit they will have for others, avoiding harmful actions. They reflect on past actions, also in terms of benefit and harm to others, then adjust accordingly.
  • Wise people carry intentions of good will. They speak well of others, avoiding gossip and derogatory speech. They are truthful. Their tone is pleasant and harmonious instead of harsh and divisive. They say things that are meaningful instead of chattering on without purpose.
  •  Wise people have an understanding of the connectedness of things and instinctively see how changes in one area or circumstance may have profound effects on seemingly unrelated areas or circumstances. They understand the nature of cause and effect on levels deeper than the mundane.
  • Wise people are generous, because they understand the grip of need. They are virtuous, because they understand the heavy boot of dishonest and dishonorable people. They don’t take what doesn’t belong to them, because they understand the pain of loss.

I doubt this covers everything, but it’s a start at painting a picture of wisdom. Wisdom has more to do with understanding the nature of the human condition and responding in a positive way. Those who understand the nature of the human condition and respond in a negative way—taking unfair advantage of others, for example—are, at best, sociopaths. At worst, they are psychopaths.

Wisdom has little or nothing to do with general knowledge and IQ. Knowledgeable and intelligent people can be short on wisdom. Uneducated and low-IQ people can be wise.

Giving attention to your inner world as well as the outer world, with the intentions of harmlessness and good will, is the means for cultivating wisdom. Like a well-tended garden, wisdom can grow. The more wisdom grows, the further away from ignorance you travel along the spectrum. And that’s good for you and good for the world. The world is sorely in need of wise people. All people are sorely in need of wise leaders.

The Right Man for the Job

Caravaggio's Narciso (1594-1596).*
Caravaggio’s Narciso (1594-1596).*

I’m beginning to see how Donald Trump is the right man for the job. I don’t mean President of the United States, though, because he’s unqualified for that one. Rather, he—and only he—is uniquely qualified to use his coming position as president to fulfill a purpose whose time has come. It’s now or never.

As president, he will show us Americans what the rest of the world already knows about the country we call our Homeland. As a country, the United States is narcissistic, duplicitous, dishonest, and dangerous. As president, Trump will hold a mirror to us the people and say, in contradiction to a few other politicians: “This is who we are.”

For too long we have wrapped ourselves in the flag of American exceptionalism, believing (by God!) we have the unique purpose in the world to rule. We piously claim ourselves a Christian nation, but we sell more weapons around the world than any other country. We espouse freedom but overthrow weak democracies in order to exploit their human and natural resources. We start wars so as to promote our own interests, regardless of the economic and human costs. We oppress our own citizens through bigotry and hatred.

Politicians, i.e., Republicans, like to tout their Christian values. To me, Christian values are things like “love thy neighbor as thyself,” caring for the poor, “turning the other cheek,” the Beatitudes,** and all those other Christ-like qualities one finds in their over-thumped Bible. Yet those politicians ensure the poor stay poor (while blaming them for their poverty), ensure the rich get richer (while saying they deserve it), decry peacemakers and justice-seekers as unpatriotic, undermine their opponents with lies and cunning, use their office to increase their own power and influence, and many other tawdry things. And we the masses cheer (or jeer), just as ancient Romans had done at the Colosseum and Circus Maximus.

Such are we—as a nation—the Great Pretenders, wrapped in delusion.

Now (by God!) we have Donald Trump. He, too, is a pretender. And a con-man. He doesn’t try to hide who he is, either. He is the greatest, the best, the only one who can save the country—but that’s just his sideshow-barker’s cry. Something else awaits us inside his hall of mirrors. He made a lot of promises for the sole purpose of garnering the support of the masses. It worked, and he’s in.

Based on his campaign, post-election behavior, and his selections for cabinet and other positions, Trump’s plan for making America great again will not entail building up and unifying, but demolishing and dividing. In the meantime, he will line his pockets and those of the plutocrats he’s brought into power with him. The rest of us, I fear, won’t fare so well.

Well, fine. He’s who—and what—we voted for (not all of us, but enough). Donald Trump is who we are as a country. Some of us, though, don’t find that image so appealing. These are people who, like me, cringe when we see our reflection in the national mirror. Many of us have seen it for years, generations even. Most of us have gone along with the program with uncomfortable acceptance. Others of us (but not enough) have stood up and stood out but with only small success.

And now, maybe enough of us—even those who believed the Flim-Flam Man from Queens—will be so appalled by his behavior and disregard for the average citizen and the world that we rise up in outrage and say: “If the United States will be truly a good and moral force in the world, then we must begin now to practice what we preach so the rest of the world will see us as we wish to be seen.”

All our politicians at every level—whether Democrat, Republican, or whatever else—need to hear this cry. We must demand they and other leaders set examples of goodness and not greed, harmony and not hatred, justice and not judgement, virtue and not viciousness. We must insist they create conditions that foster the health and wellbeing of all of us, not just the ruling class.

Donald Trump has exposed the right’s longstanding moral corruption masquerading as sanctity. He has shown us just how complacent, misleading, and corrupt much of our media have become. He has revealed how the Democratic Party has lost its way as champion of the working class. For all this we should thank him.

Now, we, as a country, must shatter the mirror of national narcissism that Trump holds before us. Let us use him as a beautiful, beautiful catalyst to create the kinds of change that benefit us all, every one of us. This is real life I’m talking about, not just another episode of “Celebrity Apprentice.” We’ve had enough of that.

*The story of Narcissus and Echo

**The eight Beatitudes in Matthew 5:3–12 during the Sermon on the Mount:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn: for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

On Teaching Children How to Think or What to Think

This showed up one day on my Facebook newsfeed. It’s among the thousands of catchy image quotes that friends like to share. I found one attribution to cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead. Although I couldn’t verify the quote anywhere else, it does seem consistent with other things I’ve read about her.

Teaching children how to think seems a fine idea, don’t you agree? But what does that mean, really? What teachers themselves know how to think? Who are the teachers who know how to teach children how to think? What does “how to think” mean in the first place? 

Most children’s first teachers are their parents. And most first-time parents are, themselves, very young when they have children. Child-rearing is an occupation undertaken with “no experience necessary,” including experience in teaching anything, let alone thinking skills. From my own parental experience, I know that much of what I taught my children—if not explicitly, then implicitly—came from what I learned from my parents. 

“How to think” was not part of my growing-up curriculum. “What to think,” however, was—not only at home but at school. Some things I learned as matters of fact include: the United States is the best country in the world, and good Catholics go to heaven (and, at best, Purgatory for the rest of you). Only later, when I was able to look at these two “givens” objectively—through my own reasoning—was I able to come to different conclusions.

“How to think” implies using reason and logic to analyze information or situations in search of understanding or other desirable outcomes. And that implies the need for a well-rounded education—not necessarily a college degree, but at least some exposure to a variety of topics and disciplines (e.g., history, humanities, physical sciences, civics and political science, religion, etc.) Part of that education comes from exploration and experimentation—whether physically, mentally, or spiritually. In other words, a variety of diverse life experiences. How can you evaluate something without having something else to measure against? 

Also important is an understanding of (or just recognizing) the many biases and fallacies people fall prey to without even knowing it. Salesmen, advertisers, politicians, preachers, and other persuaders are expert in using these to get what they want: which is to convince you it’s what you want too. To me, knowing how to think seems a valuable asset and survival tool (unless you’re living in 1984).

As beneficial as this may seem, however, critical thinking—and the education that fosters it—may be at odds with the Judeo-Christian ethic and core narrative of our country. Both of these are matters of faith, and faith definitely falls into the “what to think” category. 

Martin Luther, the rebellious Catholic priest and principal of the Protestant Reformation, said:

Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has: it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but—more frequently than not—struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God. 

The definition of reason is: “the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic.” Reason is dangerous because those who know how to use it may come to different conclusions about things that were once accepted as matters of faith and fact and “because I said so.” 

Animosity to reason is alive even today, at least in some parts of the country. Built into the 2012 Texas Republican Party platform is this statement:

Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority. 

So not everyone believes teaching children how to think is a good idea. “What to think”—e.g., fixed beliefs firmly instilled by one’s parents—is the order of the day here. By objecting to this, I don’t mean to imply that we should raise little anarchists without any respect for authority. I believe in teaching respect, especially respect for one’s parents and teachers. But that respect should be founded on love and wisdom and not on fear and guilt. And parents should have enough respect for their children to teach them how to make their own decisions, develop their own consciences, and form their own opinions.

Someone else who doesn’t appreciate the value of education is Karl Rove, who said:

As people do better, they start voting like Republicans…unless they have too much education and vote Democratic, which proves there can be too much of a good thing.

On second thought, he may appreciate the value of education very much. Apparently, a well-educated and thoughtful electorate is something to fear.

Please take the poll, and leave your reasoning in the comments section if you’re so inclined.