Arlene Goldbard is a writer, speaker, social activist, and consultant who works for justice, compassion and honor in every sphere, from the interpersonal to the transnational. She is known for her provocative, independent voice and her ability to inspire and activate.
The maxim “the map is not the territory” was coined by philosopher Alfred Korzybski, who also said, “the word is not the thing,” perhaps inspiring Zen teacher Alan Watts’ dictum, “the menu is not the meal.” Experience is deeply affected by (and often confused with) the way we label it. One of Korzybski’s proofs was to give students cookies in two unmarked bags; all munched happily until the plain label was torn from one bag, revealing that the cookies it contained were dog treats. Reading the words—rather than eating the cookies—was what sent students running to the toilet, clutching their mouths.
Right now, a war of words is being waged over Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s use of the term “concentration camps” to describe U.S. incarceration of immigrant children at the border in circumstances Physicians for Human Rights characterized as “dangerously inadequate conditions of confinement.”
I don’t have a problem with her language, as I’ll explain below. But I believe I understand something of those who do.
For the groups most strongly opposed to AOC’s language—Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum; The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum; The Anti-Defamation League—”Holocaust,” “concentration camps,” and other such terms must be reserved for a unique event, the systematic extermination of approximately two-thirds of Europe’s Jews by Nazis and their allies. The desire to insist on its singularity is rooted in the remarkable indifference of much of the world as these events were unfolding. Germany built Dachau, the first concentration camp, in 1933, yet the U.S. did not officially enter the war until Pearl Harbor was attacked in December, 1941. During those eight years, the Nazis committed a multitude of crimes against humanity, most aimed at Jews: officially boycotting Jewish businesses in 1933; enacting the Nuremberg Laws in 1935; destroying Jewish homes and businesses in 1938; moving Jews to official ghettos in 1939; empowering death squads and extermination camps to carry out the “final solution” through the end of the war in 1945.
It should not need saying that this is by no means the only incidence of genocide in human history. The litany of blood spilled to annihilate demonized groups is long. We can list genocides, naming Indigeneous people of the Americas, Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia, to Darfur and beyond, and go on listing for some time.
Yet there is a unique feature of the Holocaust—what we Jews call the Shoah—and that is the substantial hate-fueled industry that turns on denying it ever happened, from crackpot websites to historians who are somehow deemed respectable despite the distortions and deceptions that underlie their claims. The Southern Poverty Law Center lists eight Holocaust denial hate groups in the U.S.; Wikipedia lists 15; and it is worth noting that these are groups focused specifically on Holocaust denial, they do not account for all of the hate sites that make this merely one of their mad obsessions.
Jews are by now a tiny percent of the U.S. and world population. There are approxmately six million of us in the U.S., far under two percent of the population. There are at least ten times as many persons of African descent in the U.S. as Jews. Do the math. What if there were ten times as many—80 or 150 sites—devoted to spreading the libel that the Middle Passage never happened, that slavery was a made-up story? If that circumstance sparked a war of words, who would be surprised?
So I understand. But I can’t endorse. The Hebrew phrase “pikuach nefesh“—saving a soul, saving a life—names a foundational principle in Jewish law. It is taught that preserving human life overrides other considerations, that other prohibitions cease to apply when a life is in danger. This is the principle now at stake.
Arguing about proper usage of terms such as “concentration camp” and phrases such as “Never again!”—however strongly some of these arguments may be motivated by understandable fear and self-defense—does nothing to save life: to call attention to injustice, to connect past horrors with those now being committed in our names, to stop cruel and vicious incarceration before it becomes extermination.
The right-wingers who’ve joined the administration’s side in this war of words are making cynical use of history, trying to misdirect attention away from the reality—the territory—to an argument about the map. It may be that their narcissism renders it unthinkable that the evil they do warrants comparison with history’s worst villains. It may simply be that they’d much rather argue about words than have to face and defend these terrible acts.
And to the rest, to those who fear history’s erasure leading to its repetition, now is the time to stay awake. Now is the time for pikuach nefesh. It look the Nazis eight years to move from actions many members of the German polity must have explained away (just as some in this country are rationalizing and justifying official torture of children). Each step took time, testing the waters of public compliance. A full year passed after passage of the Nuremburg laws—prohibiting relationships, both intimate and economic, between Jews and Germans and denying Jews citizenship—before the laws were enforced. The Nazis elected to wait until after the 1936 Olympics, figuring good press would outweigh bad deeds. The Present Occupant of the White House craves this type of spectacle, and seems equally expert at titrating the dosage of horror, market-testing his appalling acts (look at his recent test flights on attacking Iran, on deporting undocumented family members.
There is no way to say that these human rights crimes against children and families will not unfold in the same way, a leading wedge to the normalization of new heights of systemic evil. We’ve had just two-and-one-half years of this administration. Can we stop fighting about what to call its crimes and shift to preventing what another five-and-one-half years could bring?
Here’s a long list of groups supporting immigrant rights and caring for children in separated families. And another that also highlights actions such as paying bail for immigrants, the quickest way to reunite families.
The terrible conundrum of contemporary politics is that everyone is responding to more or less the same forces, but in ways too radically different to be reconciled.
Take immigration. Around the globe, people are on the move, many having been forced from their homes by conflicts in their regions or economic and humanitarian crises (e.g., four million Venezuelans have fled their homeland). Approximately three million refugees have settled in the U.S. since 1980—about 22,500 in fiscal 2018. Globally, a record 70.8 million people—one out of every 108 on the planet—were displaced in 2018, according to a new report from the UN. Half are children.
The International Rescue Committee reports that with the U.S. taking the lead (the present administration cut refugee admissions by one-third), worldwide refugee resettlement slots have been reduced by half.
A recent Pew study reports that today, immigrants account for 13.6 percent of U.S. population. Their proportion has tripled since 1970, but still falls short of the 14.8 percent of U.S. population in 1890. More than three-quarters are legally documented, and nearly half are naturalized citizens.
These things are known. Some people take them as reason to support a strongman who promises to save them from the rampaging hordes. Others as reason to act with compassion, extending welcome and help.
The way I see it, the house is burning (literally: unchecked, climate crisis will create many more refugees) and instead of rescuing the occupants, most of the world is barricading the doors, having decided that the suffering of others is a small price to pay for their own well-being. I’ve heard this story before, of course: you can read here about the fate of Jewish refugees escaping the Holocaust. As you read, know that this story is not unique in the annals of NIMBY history.
What is to be done? It’s becoming clear that now is the time to engage that question, before history settles it for us.
I’ve been listening to a five-part series of the New York Times podcast “The Daily,” focusing on last month’s European Parliament elections, notably the nationalist parties and movements that have broken what once seemed a consensus in favor of a united Europe. Katrin Bennhold, the Times‘ Berlin bureau chief, herself born in Germany, is the lead reporter. What she learned set me to thinking.
Bennhold interviews candidates and voters in France, Italy, Poland, and Germany. In Italy, she focuses on the extreme-right League Party. Its slogan is “Italy First: Common Sense in Europe,” and a primary plank of its platform is opposition to immigration. With the League having received more than one-third of the vote in the European Parliament election, the party’s leader, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, is considered well-positioned to push for a national election and thus rise to Prime Minister.
In Germany, Bennhold concentrates on the extreme-right party, “Alternative for Germany (AFD),” Germany’s third-largest party, also radically opposed to immigration. AFD received two million votes in the 2015 European Parliament elections, double that in 2019. In recent history, Germany has been the world’s second largest immigration destination after the United States. A linchpin of the AFD approach has been denouncing Angela Merkel’s decision to admit a million refugees and immigrants in 2015, when the European Union’s asylum system crashed in the face of unprecedented demand. This theme seems to be evergreen, as it is in the U.S., even though current immigration to both this country and Europe have declined.
In the podcast series, immigrants are repeatedly denounced for corrupting the purity of national culture, taking jobs from citizens, bringing crime and objectionable behaviors—a litany that will be familiar to anyone who’s been listening to the Present Occupant of the White House. The blame for each nation’s significant economic and social woes is laid on these newcomers, who are charged with the crime of being not-Italian, not-German. Or not-French: Marine Le Pen, head of that country’s extreme-right National Front, now renamed “National Rally,” announced that after winning the most French votes in the European Parliament election, she would spearhead the creation of “Identity and Democracy,” a new pan-European far-right coalition.
Meanwhile, the Greens are on the rise, now considered Germany’s leading political party. You can read about their policy positions here. Suffice it to say here that in the face of the same economic and social challenges animating the far-right parties, the Greens support a positive approach to immigration, human rights, energy and environment, and oppose right-wing extremism—the opposite of most of the parties profiled in the Times‘ podcast series.
Both tendencies are on the rise in civil discourse and elections, as they arguably may be here in the U.S., as we saw with the recent election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other progressive candidates. Which tendency will prevail?
In the final episode, Bennhold says, “I don’t think we have a Europe problem. I think we have a democracy problem. For a lot of people we met, liberal democracy, it’s just not delivering anymore. These values that the EU was founded on, they’re just not making sense anymore in a lot of people’s lives….” She cites people whose salaries stagnate, who don’t feel at home in their towns, the Jewish restaurateur attacked by neo-nazis who notes, “Democracy isn’t permanent. Nobody every said it was….how can we be so sure that democracy will survive?”
Listening made me think about what democracy means to me. Everyone interviewed in the series is running or voting in a democratic election, many for parties which, if elected, plan to bring about an end to immigration. I often use the word “democracy” to mean “equity,” “fairness,” and “participation.” “Cultural democracy” to me means pluralism, participation, and equity in cultural life and cultural development. “Economic democracy” means everyone is entitled to a stake in economic decision and policy-making. Both notions of democracy incorporate limitations on the accumulation of power via privilege and protections for those lacking privilege.
In contrast, this podcast series makes the point that to the right, democracy means majority rule, period. No conditions, no foundational values, no promises to protect people who voted against you.
Both models are clearly in contention in U.S. elections. The candidate for re-election as President just launched his campaign with a rally that played on precisely the same resentments and injuries targeted by the European right-wingers.
To me, then, this is the most important question, and I want to put it not as a neutral one, but in personal terms: will democracy continue devolving to the crudest winner-take-all contest, or will those for whom human rights and democracy are inseparable prevail?
I was impressed by an international 2016 study of attitudes toward democracy which, if accurate, suggests that a surprisingly large proportion of younger people really don’t care which way the question is answered. Changing that outcome feels more important than I can say.
Last week I published a piece called “Lying for A Living: Is Valerie Plame Qualified for Public Office?” If you click the link, you’ll see the blog mirrored on Daily Kos, which describes itself as “a site for Democrats.” (I guess my votes qualify me, but I’m not writing this to defend the DNC’s idea of electoral strategy, that’s for certain.) I’m directing you to that page rather than my own website, Medium, or Tikkun Daily (where my blog also appears) because I want you to see the comments that essay elicited.
Plame, to recap, is running for Congress in my northern New Mexico district. She came to public notice in 2003 by being outed as a covert CIA officer; and again in 2017 for a series of repugnant antisemitic tweets. My original essay explains why I am disturbed by her candidacy and why she is not qualified to hold public office.
I learned a lot from commenters on Daily Kos. The lessons are food for thought that shouldn’t stop with a single candidacy. They raise the question of whether an “informed electorate” (deemed a democratic necessity by the author of the Declaration of Independence) is even possible. Here are a few that seem worth sharing.
Quite a few Democrats have no bone to pick with the CIA. Understanding that every nation has some type of intelligence-gathering agency, I have no desire to argue here against the existence of a U.S. secret service. That would be truly pointless. But having a secret service is one thing; allowing it free rein to engage in “enhanced interrogation,” “extraordinary rendition,” illegal experiments, and assassinations galore is quite another. (Read the original essay for more information.) I was surprised to see how many Democrats are happy to put the agency’s misdeeds to the side in favor of gratitude for protection from our enemies, for instance:
I’m not going to deny the obvious that the CIA has done some odious things but that says more about the political leadership of the country than it does the organization itself, which is made up of dedicated, everyday Americans who work hard to provide us with the information we need to protect our country.
Plame’s work—and that of her recruited assets—was in the field of wmd proliferation and acquisition, concentrating on Iran, I believe….
Plame worked on nuclear proliferation issues. She had no involvement with rendition or torture. What she was doing was extraordinarily important. In fact, I’d wager that, if you knew the things that she does you’d get a lot less sleep at night.
These commenters’ sources are evidently Plame’s own claims in her talks and writings after being forced out of the CIA. As linked in my previous essay, while she did some work on weapons proliferation, reliable sources say her main role at the CIA was performed under the deepest cover, recruiting agents who went on to do various things for the agency. She had no control over their assignments, and there is no way to suggest—let alone prove—that they stuck to the “clean” jobs she claimed as her own.
That error aside, these commenters seem to believe that the problem of weapons of mass destruction is solved by blocking other countries whose missiles are pointed at the U.S. They appear to think that the CIA’s role in protecting the U.S. justifies—or at least lessens the shameful magnitude of—well-documented CIA human rights violations made in our name (here’s the list I linked in the original essay).
But judged solely on documented facts, that role focuses more on defending the U.S.’s right to corner the arms market than to defend ordinary people from aggressors. I wonder if these commenters are aware that the U.S. is the world’s number one exporter of arms (near one-third of all arms exports), and that our biggest client is Saudi Arabia (indeed, sales to the Saudis were recently fast-tracked by the White House), despite being exposed as themselves using American-made weapons on civilians and transferring such weapons to groups like Al Qaeda. If the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is really a concern, clearly the solution starts at home. Forty-two U.S. companies appear on the list of top 100 arms sellers worldwide. It’s not hard to defend the proposition that we are our own biggest threat.
Framing is everything, or nearly so. According to Merriam-Webster, a whistleblower is…
an employee who brings wrongdoing by an employer or other employees to the attention of a government or law enforcement agency and who is commonly vested by statute with rights and remedies for retaliation.
In the hope of righting serious wrongs, whistleblowers voluntarily reveal hidden wrongdoing to responsible parties (such as elected officials in the case of publicly funded misconduct), law enforcement agencies, or if all that fails, the media. Often, they take great risks. For blowing the whistle on government conduct concerning the Vietnam War, Daniel Ellsberg was charged with multiple counts of theft and conspiracy. Had he not been acquitted, his sentence could have totaled 115 years.
From David Corn’s reporting and other accounts, it appears that Plame would not have left the CIA if she hadn’t been outed, nor did she publicly expose CIA wrongdoing while in the agency’s employ. So she can’t be compared with whistleblowers who made principled choices to repent of their own roles in wrongdoing and risk the possible cost of speaking out. That feels like an important distinction to me, but it seems to be lost on those who commented on my earlier essay. I have to conclude this is because Plame keeps framing herself as a kind of whistle-blower. Possibly a good campaign tactic, but hardly the truth. It seems framing equals truth for more Democrats than I imagined.
The nature of some counter-arguments really took me aback. I am usually the person at the table who speaks up to challenge assertions undermining the intelligence of ordinary voters. Everyone has reasons for their choices. The fact that they differ from mine isn’t a verdict on their mental capacity. But my certainty was shaken by the commenters who condemned my skepticism about a dedicated covert agent of a champion human rights violator being entrusted with the defense of my civil liberties and yours. It was asserted that my opposition to Plame meant I must also be opposed to the candidacy of an actor, completely missing the difference between pretending in plain sight, everyone in on the game, and deceiving:
So you are clearly against anyone who was an actor ever running for office? After all, their whole career is based on lying for a living.
On Saturday, someone who heard Jones address a Scott Walker recall rally in Wisconsin tweeted this quote from Jones’ remarks: “Don’t adapt to absurdity.” He was making the point that over time, even what seems preposterous becomes normalized. We adjust to the new normal, simply because we can. The flexibility that is one of humanity’s best qualities, allowing us to adapt and advance, works against us, enhancing the glow of inevitability political operatives slather onto champion hypocrites like Walker.
“Lying for A Living” expressed an opinion. Everyone else has the right to do the same. But if you are going to disagree with the facts as a particular writer understands them, is it too much to hope you will live into the imperative of an informed electorate: investigate, analyze, find more than a feeling to go on? I hope not. More than an election depends on it.
I’m giving little attention to the 23-candidates-and-counting race for the Democratic presidential nomination. I figure the ones who are doing it to raise their national exposure, banking name recognition for some future contest, will drop out. I look forward to watching the rest of them duke it out via rallies, debates, and of course, Twitter, and to use any influence I may have to ensure that the Present Occupant of the White House leaves Washington in defeat.
But when the race heats up, I will learn all I can through the lens I always use when it comes to elections, whether national or closer to home. Which candidate has the qualifications I prize: integrity, honesty, capability, heart, wisdom, presence? I can’t expect one person to hit the mark in every way, but too many misses and I’d be a fool to give my vote.
That’s why I was so disturbed to see that Valerie Plame is running for Congress in my district to replace Representative Ben Ray Luján, himself running to replace retiring Democratic Senator Tom Udall. Stepping down, Udall said, “Without the distraction of another campaign, I can get so much more done to help reverse the damage done to our planet, end the scourge of war, and to stop this president’s assault on our democracy and our communities,” which puts a rather fine point on the culture of electoral politics under the present administration.
If Plame’s name rings a bell, it’s probably from what has come to be called the “Plame Affair,” in which Plame was outed as a covert CIA officer in 2003. This Wikipedia page has an extensive chronology with many links, but if you google her name and CIA, you will find an abundance of sources.
If it rings a more recent bell, the cause is likely a series of antisemitic tweets Plame made in 2017. Plame evidently thinks she apologized for tweeting out her statements about Jews being behind 9/11 and wars in general, but as far as I can see, all she offered were excuses. She is quoted as saying she “only skimmed” the sites she shared via Twitter, that she was going through a lot at the time and “I should not have been anywhere near social media or a computer at that time in my life.”
I have no wish to get into the evergreen argument about whether a secret service is a necessary and proper function of democratic government. The precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency was the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), created during World War II to gather intelligence via espionage as part of the war effort. You won’t find many objections to covert action against the Nazis and other fascists. President Truman dissolved the agency after the war and a few months later, set in motion the CIA, the United States’ first peacetime international intelligence agency.
The question isn’t so much whether the agency should exist as whether it should be free to commit an appallingly large and terrible number of clandestine acts of violence and terrorism. Take a glance at this compilation of human rights violations by the CIA. The agency’s language is itself nauseating: “enhanced interrogation” (that’s waterboarding and other forms of torture, thoroughly documented by agencies ranging from the Red Cross to Human Rights Watch); “extraordinary rendition” (clandestinely transporting a captive to a foreign interrogation center not subject to U.S. law or constitutional rights); illegal experiments on U.S. citizens, including drug-fueld behavioral control experiments on unwitting subjects; many assassinations, some attempted and some accomplished; and much more.
Valerie Plame was engaged in covert activities at the CIA, so we will never know for certain precisely what she did. We have her own comments to go on—she wrote a book that was made into a movie and she has also given a large number of talks and interviews—and David Corn’s account. Both accounts highlight her role in recruiting operatives who, like herself, worked the agenda of the agency responsible for the reprehensible acts noted above.
Plame evidently thinks this qualifies her for public office. This is promotional copy from her website:
While at the CIA, Valerie worked to protect America’s national security. She helped prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, specifically nuclear weapons. She managed top-secret covert programs designed to keep terrorists and rogue nation states from acquiring nuclear weapons. She was responsible for decision making at senior levels, recruiting foreign assets, managing multi-million dollar budgets, briefing US policy-makers, and demonstrating consistently solid judgment in a field where mistakes could prove disastrous.
So let’s see how Plame lines up by my criteria: integrity, honesty, capability, heart, wisdom, presence. For all I know, she could be a lovely person who is delightful to her friends and kind to her pets. But none of that matters since she was quite happy to lie for a living at the CIA, and apparently felt just fine about continuing her tenure there despite all the human rights violations for which the agency is culpable. She couldn’t be troubled even to read the vicious antisemitism she tweeted to her many followers, nor to consider how the ideas she lazily endorsed support white supremacy and hurt those it targets. I would no more want to put such a person in a position to protect my civil liberties and democracy than I would appoint a fox to watch the hen-house. Would you?
There is a candidate in this race who appeals to me and who deserves the contributions from Democrats that Plame, with her social status and connections, seems to have no trouble attracting. Teresa Leger Fernandez is a local attorney much of whose practice is representing tribal governments. Read this interview with her in a local paper and judge for yourself: someone who has crusaded for voting rights, who defends Indigenous communities, who supports the Green New Deal and women’s right to choose, versus someone whose claim to fame is being caught lying for a living?
Stick around long enough and you may acquire the type of faith I am happy to host right now: the near-certainty that what comes around goes around, that whatever it is, this too shall pass. Why do I need this flavor of faith? Because so many things seem to be spiraling toward an end-state, confusion is becoming my usual condition. I have a touch of whiplash from—on the one hand—feeling encouraged by the type of resistance shown in massive demonstrations, the election of truly progressive candidates, and essential civil libertarian lawsuits; and—on the other—discouraged not only by the bizarre and disgusting actions of the party in power and its loyalists, but also by the divisiveness, sectarianism, and me-first-ism of a good deal of what could and should be an aligned American left.
Case in point: for several years, I’ve taken part in an online discussion group for progressive activists and organizers. In the last year or so, many exchanges between participants devolved quickly and hotly, not into ultra-polarized debate on the issues themselves, rather into intense challenges of people’s right to comment at all if their identities didn’t fit the correct categories of racial classification, gender and sexual orientation, religion, ability, or immigration status, and so on. After piling on increasingly elaborate and granular rules of conduct—to no particular effect—the list went into a “lite” mode, inviting only informational posts, brief queries, and no contention. I don’t think anyone wanted the discussion forum to fail, and I doubt that anyone knowingly acted in bad faith. People simply enacted the ideological framework that dominates the world of progressive activism, leaving many with “the sense that we are left with no practice of politics outside of the fashioning of our own personal identities and surveillance of the identities of others.”
Haider’s book draws on a wide and fascinating set of sources, most of which emerged from black liberation struggles, to question the impact of a politics of identity when in his view, liberation calls for a politics of organizing across identities. He points out that making identity the focus of critical thinking and action masks both very real class differences and interests within categories of identity; it also obscures the potential of common cause. For instance, these are two sections from Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation:
The most significant transformation in all of Black life over the last fifty years has been the emergence of a Black elite, bolstered by the Black political class, that has been responsible for administering cuts and managing meager budgets on the backs of Black constituents….
There have always been class differences among African Americans, but this is the first time those class differences have been expressed in the form of a minority of Blacks wielding significant political power and authority over the majority of Black lives. This raises critical questions about the role of the Black elite in the continuing freedom struggle—and about what side are they on. This is not an overstatement. When a Black mayor, governing a largely Black city, aids in the mobilization of a military unit led by a Black woman to suppress a Black rebellion, we are in a new period of the Black freedom struggle.
Haider excels in pointing out how the legacy of antiracist organizing is truly intersectional. He documents how economic justice must be intrinsic to racial justice and vice versa. The two aims are inseparable. When they are separated, they generate error. For example, looking at the legacy of slavery as if it existed as an artifact of racism, undervaluing the role of profit and thus leaving the impression, as he quotes historian Barbara Fields, that “the chief business of slavery were the production of white supremacy rather than the production of cotton, sugar, rice and tobacco.”
Haider is a young scholar; he was a PhD candidate at UC Santa Cruz when Mistaken Identity was published. He begins with his own experience growing up in a small town in central Pennsylvania, of going to school shortly after watching the World Trade Center come down on 9/11 and learning that his Pakistani heritage was felt to earn him the nickname “Osama.” Such experiences sent him on quest through the library, discovering Black Panther Party founder Huey P. Newton’s biography, Revolutionary Suicide, leading to many other discoveries. Flash forward a few years and Haider watches—not only watches, but tries to awaken response—as some fellow students among the many demonstrating against the University of California’s hefty tuition hike in November 2104 destroyed a vibrant, diverse coalition of protestors by channeling energy away from effective action toward debates over correct language, spreading malicious rumors of racism directed against the people of color who’d been facilitating strategy sessions, and splitting students of color into a separate caucus that drastically reduced the scope and power of opposition to the University’s policies.
This key incident opens the door to a truly fascinating and illuminating exploration of the roots of identity politics and how far the branches have bent. Haider lets members of the Combahee River Collective, credited with popularizing the term “identity politics” in their 1977 manifesto, explain what they meant by it, quoting founder Barbara Smith in (from How We Get Free, another book by Keeanga-Yamatta Taylor):
What we were saying is that we have a right as people who are not just female, who are not solely Black, who are not just lesbians, who are not just working class, or workers—that we are people who embody all of these identities, and we have a right to build and define political theory and practice based upon that reality … That’s what we meant by identity politics. We didn’t mean that if you’re not the same as us, you’re nothing. We were not saying that we didn’t care about anybody who wasn’t exactly like us.
Haider braids together many histories and voices, arriving at a conclusion he is certain (me too) is both entirely defensible and will attract heaps of criticism.
Intellectuals and activists allowed politics to be reduced to the policing of our language, to the questionable satisfaction of provoking white guilt, while the institutional structures of racial and economic oppression persisted.
As James Boggs reflected in 1993, “Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 we may have had the money but we couldn’t go into most hotels or buy a home outside the ghetto. Today the only reason why we can’t go to a hotel or buy a decent home is because we don’t have the money. But we are still focused on the question of race and it is paralyzing us.”
Haider sees the separation that has effectively been made between racial and economic justice as a path away from power for most, even as it enriched some. “I define identity politics,” he writes, “as the neutralization of movements against racial oppression. It is the ideology that emerged to appropriate this emancipatory legacy in service of the advancement of political and economic elites.”
Haider is nowhere near the camp of people like Mark Lilla in his plea for “post-identity liberalism,” in which people tone down their opposition to racism or gender-based discrimination and violence—Lilla calls these “narrower issues that are highly charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale.” In contrast, Haider is committed to building a movement that both opposes all forms of racism and invidious discrimination and organizes in coalition toward collective economic and social justice that crosses all lines of identity.
If you like to know what others think before you commit to a book, google Mistaken Identity to find many interesting reviews and interviews with the author in The Guardian, The Intercept, and other journals. This podcast interview on “The Dig” is a good introduction to Haider’s thinking too.
You will learn that Haider is a Marxist (whereas I tend to look askance at any commitment to ideology or theory that ends in “-ist”). If that vocabulary isn’t familiar, you’ll soon get the hang of it. Haider isn’t doctrinaire in a way that interferes with his healthy skepticism and probing inquiry, so don’t be put off.
I am very glad I read this book, and I have the idea you will be too.
Everywhere I look, there’s another example of the epidemic entitlement that distorts American society. I’m going to skip right over the Present Occupant of the White House, who walked out three minutes into a planned meeting on infrastructure with Democratic leaders, saying he refused to work with them until they halted all investigations into his conduct. The explosion was clearly staged, as his next stop was a Rose Garden podium adorned with a pre-printed poster saying “No Collusion, No Obstruction,” where he elaborated his ultimatum.
I’m skipping that Big Baby performance in favor of an interesting look at behavioral characteristic that has been allowed to run roughshod over our common culture, an unchecked outbreak of Big Babyhood that needs to be named as such.
Yesterday’s New York Times covered a study of the phenomenon. Well, the title says it all: “Why High-Class People Get Away With Incompetence.” Appearing in an American Psychological Association journal, the researchers’ report explains that people who come from a higher social class—more money and status—were reliably overconfident. They predicted that they would perform better than they actually did on a variety of tests, and were not dissuaded of their superiority even when shown their actual scores. What’s more, in situations such as mock job interviews, strangers tended to give the job to the most overconfident of these competitors. Their “overconfidence was misinterpreted as competence,” as the Times put it.
Overconfidence was part of the President’s performance too. Afterwards, he said this: “I walked into the room and I told Senator Schumer, and Speaker Pelosi: ‘I want to do infrastructure. I want to do it more than you want to do it. I’d be really good at that, that’s what I do.” But I’m skipping over that in favor of the riveting “No Fair!” episode of “This American Life,” a big chunk of which focused on basketball referees. I know nothing about sports, but that didn’t dim my interest or enjoyment in this eye-opening look at the performance of privilege and overconfidence.
It seems—as any basketball fan will surely have observed—that hating the ref has risen to new heights, with demeaning chants, on-court arguments, players who try to trick the refs (as by “flopping,” pretending to be injured), mandatory security escorts after games, and even occasional death threats now just part of the job description.
As video capture and playback technology has evolved, the NBA has even opened up the Replay Center, a high-tech operation hidden in a New Jersey strip mall, to vet disputes over contested calls. If you do watch professional basketball, and you observe a referee who’s called a violation make a twirling motion with his fingers, know this: the ref is signaling the Replay Center to watch the video posthaste. And the Replay Center can do this easily, as 110 video screens show every video captured at all 29 NBA arenas around the U.S. and on-call technicians are ready to zoom in, zoom out, and freeze-frame as needed. And all this is taking place during a period when the NBA is doing tons of other stuff to improve refs’ accuracy, even as outside researchers are documenting the things that can distort fair calls, such as racial bias. Referees can’t be perfect, but the podcast makes a convincing case that they are better than ever before.
In the podcast, the writer Michael Lewis explains that despite this, fans are far more focused on refs’ mistakes, partly because they too have access to JumboTron footage that zooms in on every detail, pulling their attention, and partly because of the national mood of conspiracy and coverup, which colors every mistake not as an accident but as an expression of corruption and more proof that all games are rigged. But mostly, he learns this:
It’s then that it occurs to me, just looking around the room at 110 TV screens, I’ve had a hard time following the games, never mind the scores. I sometimes don’t even know which teams are playing. But every time a player gets up into a referee’s face, I’ve recognized the player. And I actually don’t know that many NBA players, but I know all the ones who pitch these hissy fits, because the only players getting up into the faces of the refs are the famous players, or the coaches who protect them.
Lewis is disturbed by the performance of privilege, the pitfall of the richly rewarded: to believe so completely in their own excellence and rightness as to be certain that anyone who calls out a mistake must be driven by envy and resentment, even when they are in fact motivated—and compensated—to ensure fairness.
In the podcast, this realization segues into another story, this time a U.C. Berkeley psychology professor’s study of entitlement, conditioned on his experience of almost being run over by the driver of a black Mercedes who evidently believed the four-way stop he ran didn’t apply to him. Here’s the experiment set up to explore this behavior:
Michael Lewis: So Dacher and a colleague dreamed up this weird experiment. They hid two Berkeley undergraduates in the bushes near four-way stop signs. The undergrads noted the makes of all cars coming through the intersection, assigned them numbers, one to five, according to their market value. A new Mercedes was a five, a Honda was a three, and an old Pacer was a one.
Dacher Keltner: We positioned a Berkeley undergrad by a pedestrian zone, and we make sure they look like they want to cross the street. And they’re sort of leaning into their pedestrian zone, where it’s required by California law to stop.
And 0% of the drivers of poor cars zoomed through the pedestrian zone. They all stopped. And 40-some odd percent–45% of the drivers of the fives, the rich cars, blazed through the pedestrian zone, and just say, the rules don’t apply to me. I’ll carry on.
Doesn’t this just sum up our moment? The overconfidence of the privileged and sadly, so many people’s willingness to buy it. The narcissism of the star and the legions who pay obeisance, perpetually running defense for their heroes’ egos. The cozy certainty that in the place of privilege, the rules don’t apply.
My hope comes from three places. First the 45 percent of clunker drivers who played by the rules (my own ride is a 1997 Honda Civic, so I’m fairly sure I’d be slotted into that category too). Second the evergreen truth of human potential, that when we become aware that we’ve internalized the oppressor, believing the powerful propaganda of privilege and tailoring our own actions to suit it, we can stop.
And third, this story about Draymond Green, a star of the Warriors, the top team (and collectively the top pursuer of referees and top complainer about rules), which suggests that the people who benefit from the performance of privilege can decide to stop. Green recounts how is son emulated the questionable behavior of star players, including himself, inspiring him to tone down his belligerent antics even as he kept on scoring high:
“My son was playing, he was shooting and flopping. I said ‘Yo, you gotta stop watching the NBA.’ He was shooting and falling on the floor like ‘Oh daddy help me up’ and I’m like ‘Nah, junior what you flopping for?’”
Usually, when I open a new book that touches on the socially aware and community-engaged art which has been the through-line of my life, I feel an anticipatory cringe. So often, the work is tendentious in some reactive way, far from my lived experience—more an artifact of someone’s academic resume than a genuine contribution.
Knowing something of his prior work, I was certain there wouldn’t be a single reason to cringe as I read Francois Matarasso’s just-published book, A Restless Art. But I didn’t know how spacious, grounded, illuminating, and original the book would be. If you are at all interested in this phenomenon—art and social change, social practice, community arts, community cultural development, or any of the other monikers in circulation—you owe it to yourself to read this book.
There’s a lot to learn from A Restless Art (you’ll find a precis here), which traces the history (primarily in Europe, foremost in the British Isles) of art-making with people who don’t understand themselves as professional artists. It offers elegant and effective discussions of animating ideas and values, modes of work, ethical challenges, obstacles and possibilities. Diverse and interesting projects are profiled in interstitial color plates. The writing is straightforward and fair-minded, often anticipating and exploring objections before they distract the reader from its central points. I can focus below on just a few themes of key importance. I hope to give you a foretaste that makes you hungry for more.
Participatory art has become normal. Matarasso’s thesis is that participatory art—work that “connects professional and non-professional artists in an act of co-creation”—is now everywhere, having become an accepted and expected part of cultural provision from the spaces of contemporary social practice art to established museums, national theaters, and major concert halls; from educational settings to policymaking; from broadcasting to public spectacle such as opening ceremonies for major public events; from social-service provision to health promotion; and beyond. In a few short pages, he makes the case that participatory art has become a widespread phenomenon in the milieux that formerly walled anything like it off from “fine art,” a domain distinguished by the wide moat it dug between art and life.
This is inarguably true and brilliantly observed throughout the book. And it has set me to thinking about my own proclivity to focus on boundaries and borders rather than the overlapping territories they try to enclose. I’ve long been disturbed by the ease with which “social practice art,” for instance, has drawn resources from foundations, donors, and public sources without acknowledging the decades of community arts practitioners who devised the methods borrowed by social practice. I am still disturbed. Money goes to artists whose authenticating audiences are the museum-goers who visit exhibits of their projects’ documentation, while the remarkable community artists whose work is validated by the communities co-creating it go begging. (I wrote about this here and here, for instance.)
Matarasso writes about these distinctions too, but they don’t stop him from the seeing the larger picture A Restless Art brought into focus for me, which is that participatory art has become so widespread and normal that it constitutes an epochal movement, a watershed in the history of the arts.
Ideas and aims define the territory. Matarasso recognizes two categorical distinctions. The first is between art in general and participatory art (which involves non-professional artists). The second is between participatory art (which expresses what is called the democratization of culture, promoting popular engagement in institutional culture without proposing social transformation) and community art, (which expresses cultural democracy, pursuing social justice in opposition to the dominant order). Methods may be similar, but for community artists and cultural democracy advocates, the questions of why do the work and what the work can accomplish drive the practice. The book’s language is a little different from U.S. conventions, but I like the formulation Matarasso proposes, which subsumes the definition of participatory art, then goes beyond it to assert core values and principles of cultural democracy:
Community art is the creation of art as a human right, by professional and non-professional artists, co-operating as equals, for purposes and to standards they set together, and whose processes, products and outcomes cannot be known in advance.
The normalization of participatory art hasn’t altered the biases of the conventional artworld. Matarasso is eloquent and frank throughout A Restless Art in discussing the habitual and pointless over-evaluation of participatory art. For instance:
[T]he problem is not with evaluation, which is integral to all creative work, but how, by whom and why it is done. The long and costly effort to prove art’s social, economic and intrinsic value is entangled in a political culture concerned with control, not with knowledge, or the wisdom of experience…. [The] culture of planning, targets, monitoring and evaluation gave people an illusion of control in a complex world, whilst absolving them of responsibility for their own judgements. Further, there is too little recognition that this approach may cost far more, in financial and human terms, than the value of the data it produces.
Matarasso describes how the imposition of unsuitable managerial methods pushes participatory art toward a kind of social service, making participatory arts professionals “responsible for how the people they worked with would be changed by the experience. And by changed, what was really meant was improved.” He explains how the conventional artworld embraced participatory art to expand audiences in a rapidly changing world in which the special status of “fine art” is no longer secure. “The paradox,” he writes, “is that, unwilling to accept its loss of authority, it has applied the techniques of cultural democracy to the purpose of cultural democratisation.”
I love the rubric Matarasso derives from this: describing the result “as a kind of conceptual institutionalisation [emphasis mine], which tries to ensure that participatory art happens in ways and within boundaries that are acceptable to those financing it. The issue is not whether those parameters are in themselves good but that they unquestionably form a system of control.”
The U.S. and European stories of community arts differ in many ways. One that stands out for me is funding. Although the work is under-resourced abroad in comparison with actual need and potential, even in its most difficult periods, funding has been much stronger than in this country with its steadily atrophying public sector and bloated private wealth. Here’s one more quote I wish could be read by every arts funder in the U.S.:
Despite the demand for their work, participatory artists remain second-class citizens in the arts funding system. When a choreographer or curator approaches a funding body they can assume a shared belief in the intrinsic value of dance or contemporary art. A participatory artist in the same position can make no such assumption. the professional expertise of actors, musicians, curators, artists and directors is presumed, their judgement about creative matters trusted. Participatory artists can rarely count on similar esteem. This is not about whether or not an individual artist is admired. It is about different ways of valuing art forms. A grant application for participatory art will be expected to show, each time and in advance, the proposed project’s value—its rationale, need, anticipated outputs, outcomes, and legacy. A theory of change or log frame may even be required, as if it were a development project. that would be understandable from a social fund, but this is typically how arts bodies consider participatory work. The limited interest in artistic questions or the applicant’s record of work is one problem, but the real concern is the ingrained mistrust of participatory art’s intrinsic worth. It is simply not regarded by most people in the art system as a body of knowledge equal to music or theatre. So administrators who rarely have firsthand understanding of the field demand advance guarantees of its value to be verified by evaluation (not experience) on completion.
(I had a great time discussing the histories and relationships in the U.S. and U.K. cultural democracy movements with Owen Kelly and Sophie Hope on their podcast: see episode seven and episode eight.)
There is so much more to learn from this book, strengthened by the fact that the author has been a longtime practitioner in and respected researcher of the movement he describes. He has a vast knowledge of the literature and a personal grounding in the experience. It’s a winning combination and a pleasure to read. A Restless Art can be downloaded as a PDF, or you can order a paperback copy.
Revenge or restitution? I’ve been thinking of Paulo Freire’s powerful notion of a thematic universe. He wrote that every epoch is characterized by “a complex of ideas, concepts, hopes, doubts, values and challenges in dialectical interaction with their opposites.” This complex, interacting whole—our thematic universe—weaves the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the times.
Conventionally, historians propose a single theme for each epoch: the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment. But human history isn’t so simple. In each age, a top-down controlling force contests with an irrepressible assertion of human value and human rights, side-by-side with other themes. For example, today the certainties of fundamentalism clash with the certainties of science. The character of each time emerges not from a single winning idea, but from the encounter of opposites.
And our own thematic universe? Revenge or restitution is one of the starkest dialectics. “Dialectical” is kind of a dry word for the interaction of opposing forces, especially today, when that interaction resembles a bloody brawl. The image in my mind’s eye is a beautiful blue-green planet defaced by red wounds, knives always drawn.
When bad acts surface in the public sphere, who are we as a people? Those who can be satisfied only when their opponents are destroyed? Or those whose compass points to healing and repair and away from vengeance?
The United States is Incarceration Nation, with the highest incarceration rates and largest prison population on the planet. African Americans are imprisoned at more than five times the rate of non-Hispanic whites. We imprison more young people than any other nation. We have normalized a culture of punishment, adjusting to the cruel and absurd notion that locking people away increases safety, spending more than $30,000 per year per inmate to punish the incarcerated via overcrowding, substandard food, hygiene, and health, offering little or nothing to counter the recidivism such conditions breed. The trend toward prison privatization makes things much worse, cruelty without accountability. And the truth of collective responsibility for this collective transgression is hidden behind a veil of self-regard: the greatest nation on earth.
We continue operating this machine despite zero evidence that the system achieves its stated goals. Most people I know decry the prison-industrial complex; many of them work very hard to change it. But mostly, we Americans seem to see Incarceration Nation as another country, the other side of a border wall. In nurturing and feeding this culture of punishment, we spread an appalling moral corruption. Our official thirst for vengeance isn’t contained by prison walls; it also increasingly contaminates every part of public life.
At the podium for a press conference this past Saturday to discuss the blackface yearbook photo that triggered near-universal demands for his resignation, Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia also described blackening his face to impersonate Michael Jackson in a dance contest, mentioning the challenges of removing shoe polish from the face. (Wesley Morris deconstructed the hell out of that gesture in the New York Times; please do read his column.)
Northam’s remarks offer a particularly keen insight into the consciousness formed by white supremacy. No photo of Northam as Michael Jackson has so far surfaced, but his costume for the dance competition included the glove, the penny-loafers, the fedora, perhaps some sparkles. The symbols that said “Michael!” were so ubiquitous and universally understood by that time, Northam’s decision that blackface was needed to complete the impersonation telegraphs a nauseating ease with white supremacy and indifference to its consequences.
That was 35 years ago. Last Saturday was Northam’s opportunity to repent in earnest, whether or not repentance led to forgiveness. Instead, in the place that should have been held by shame, he displayed an utter lack of awareness of the meaning of his acts, and an appalling desire to turn insult into entertaining anecdote.
That is one big reason why he should step down immediately.
Forgiveness and vengeance are both challenges for me. Forgiving someone who has done serious harm requires me to shake off the fear that forgiveness will license that person to repeat the despicable behavior. Calling for revenge requires me to conclude that harming another is justified—but only when I do it, for reasons that satisfy myself. I easily get lost in the nooks and crannies of that dialectic. But I don’t want to stay lost.
I believe in the ever-present potential of repentance and transformation, in the possibility of forgiveness that follows. I have to. The alternative is a world in which no evil deed can be expunged by contrition and restitution, in which each misguided act risks a life-sentence of ostracism. Yet no one is perfect. We all mess up, and everyone with a heart and brain has the potential to learn far more through mistakes than through exercising mastery or repeating what we know to be sure or safe.
I think back to the time I was on the board of a Jewish organization considering charges against a rabbi of serious and repeated sexual misconduct. Understanding the impact censure could have on the rabbi’s future, no one wanted to act precipitously; understanding the impact abuse had on the women who accused him, no one wanted to ignore their call for rebuke and consequences. Spiritual leaders on the board—especially those having come into that status during the sixties and seventies “sexual revolution”—reminded everyone that ours was a “t’shuvah movement.” They meant that the mostly young Jews then seeking to renew and refresh traditional Jewish practice and learning had come to their spiritual path through personal trial and error. They crossed boundaries, including some that should have been respected. Awakening to their errors had animated their movement with the power of t’shuvah—awareness, repentance, reorientation, restitution.
It is a core Jewish teaching that each person is constantly subject to two competing pulls, the good inclination (yetzer hatov) and the evil inclination (yetzer hara). This is not uniquely Jewish, of course. Gandhi put it this way: “All religions teach that two opposite forces act upon us and the human endeavour consists in a series of eternal rejections and acceptances.” But Jewish teaching goes further to suggest that the t’shuvah of a person who is deeply susceptible to temptation, who must struggle hard to defeat those forces, matters more than that of a sage who through spiritual purification is far less subject to the pull of the evil inclination. More healing energy flows into the world if I miss the mark through my own my shame, grief, and restorative action than if I had risen beyond the reach of temptation, never erring at ll. So we want to see the signs of genuine t’shuvah, to honor them for their healing power, and to make room for harmful acts to be converted to acts for the good through four steps: awareness, repentance, reorientation, and restitution.
Like Northam, the rabbi in question did not truly make t’shuvah. He just issued a series of confusing denials, excuses, and dissemblance. It took quite a while, but eventually he was made to step down. Even changing his name did not remove the stink.
True t’shuvah is the easier part of the revenge versus restitution equation. Transgressors understand their wrongdoing, acknowledge it, bear their shame, accept consequences, take concrete steps to right their wrongs. Even extreme turnarounds can be accepted. For instance, late last month Derek Black—brought up in a closed-off and deeply vicious white supremacist context and converted by a remarkably patient Jew into a crusader for equity and justice—joined Dove Kent and Eric K. Ward in a discussion of Antisemitism in America. I’m not hearing an outcry that he should be shunned for his past misdeeds; his subsequent actions ensure that his t’shuvah is seen as sincere.
But what about vengeance? I understand the emotion. I can summon vivid mental images of the pain I have imagined inflicting on personal and public malefactors. I can taste the desire to see them suffer for the anguish they have caused, measure for measure. But I can’t believe in its efficacy, believe that punishment makes things right. I’ve seen too often how those who are severely punished for their transgressions turn around and wreak vengeance on their punishers, how the cycle perpetuates itself without fixing the problem. In the criminal justice sphere, I advocate restorative justice, which actually offers the hope of healing. This is a principle that applies equally to the personal and political.
Today the choice—revenge or restitution?— is being played out in the largest public arena. The most challenging case for me is when a single prior bad act is inflated into grounds for permanent condemnation, which is happening more and more often. I think Al Franken was guilty of juvenile stupidity, for instance, but he paid a price befitting a lifetime of sexual abuse. Our thematic universe is characterized by a culture of politics that equates rape or sexual blackmail with a moment of idiocy, treating them equally as grounds for banishment from civil society. Over and over again, punishment trumps repair.
The current atmosphere of vengeance is being fed by a failure to understand the value of restorative justice. If racist and sexist acts are understood purely as lapses in personal conduct, if transgressors understand their responsibility as beginning and ending with public contrition, punishment appears to be the only remedy that carries consequences. Sadly, though, consequences are there for the punishers too. When we’ve deposed, exiled, locked up, or bankrupted all the perpetrators of past bad acts, will the beloved community remain? Or will the habit of revenge overwhelm the desire for healing?
It’s hard to imagine the actually existing Northam doing what I’m about to suggest, but just try it on as a thought-experiment. Imagine he acknowledged his past harm, expressed his shame without excuse, and committed himself to a concrete program of restorative action, could true justice prevail? Imagine (to suggest just one example among many possibilities) a new curriculum requirement making the study of racism and its impacts a core subject in Virginia high schools and colleges, not a single course but an eight-year stream to promote both historical and self-awareness.
What if the transgressor in question were capable of more awareness and compassion than Northam has shown? What if this thought-experiment happened in real life, if healing action were catalyzed by one man’s racism and the t’shuvah it triggered? Would it be enough?
The path to restitution is open, but it takes two to walk it, the perpetrator and the harmed. The transgressor must convert harmful acts to acts for the good through four steps: awareness, repentance, reorientation, and restitution. So long as the mealy-mouthed pro-forma personal apology/justification is the accepted standard, true t’shuvah is impossible. And the body politic injured by harmful acts? We must not only demand restitution, but sincerely accept healing action in the place of revenge.
The demand must be made explicit. First, drop the default that says bad acts can never be expunged, merely punished. Second, make clear that forgiveness must be earned through all four steps, including true restorative justice and the sacrifice it entails. Third, understand that how we treat transgressors—whether Hollywood execs, governors, or those serving time for criminal acts—is our rehearsal for a world in which collective t’shuvah leads to collective transformation. I can’t know for certain we’ll get there, but I am absolutely positive that without practice, we will not.
I don’t say this is easy. In fact, it is very hard. But I’d really like there to be a blue-green planet left spinning and supporting life for future generations to populate with a gentler thematic universe. So we make the path by walking—or else.
Shemekia Copeland performing a song by J.B. Lenoir, “God’s Word.” (Yes, that’s Charlton Heston in the video, but you can always close your eyes.)
When Starbucks founder Howard Schultz announced a few days ago that he was exploring a 2020 run for President as a “centrist independent,” progressive social media exploded with reasons to reconsider. Op-eds proliferated, people began leafleting Starbucks and protesting at Schultz’s speaking engagements. A chief objection is the reality that Jill Stein, running as the Green Party candidate in 2016, took enough votes from the Democrat to propel the Present Occupant into the White House. Pick a party, many say, and run as hard as you want for the nomination. But don’t sabotage this critical opportunity to defeat the incumbent by pulling votes from the Democratic nominee. Michelle Goldberg did a good job of summing it all up in the New York Times.
Schultz’s trial balloon is likely to sink under its burden of self-regard, the billionaire’s blithe belief that wealth qualifies him for office. If not, the history and math showing how a Schultz candidacy is likely to re-elect the incumbent are hard to refute. I imagine Schultz will back down, but I also recognize that the surrealism of contemporary American politics can outstrip my imagination.
So what interests me most is not handicapping Schultz’s chances or joining the legions exhorting him not to run, but getting to the root of his absurd ambitions, which is to say the root of our plutocracy and its kudzu-like grip on the body politic.
I can’t think of anything that expresses it better than this quote from Paulo Freire’s masterpiece, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It explains the confidence of those like Schultz who believe their personal wealth and wisdom make them uniquely qualified to save the world. It explains why despite so much evidence to the contrary, they are certain they know better.
“…the fact that certain members of the oppressor class join the oppressed in their struggle for liberation, thus moving from one pole of the contradiction to the other… Theirs is a fundamental role, and has been throughout the history of this struggle.
It happens, however, that as they cease to be exploiters or indifferent spectators or simply the heirs of exploitation and move to the side of the exploited, they almost always bring with them the marks of their origin: their prejudices and their deformations, which include a lack of confidence in the people’s ability to think, to want, and to know.
Accordingly, these adherents to the people’s cause constantly run the risk of falling into a type of generosity as malefic as that of the oppressors. The generosity of the oppressors is nourished by an unjust order, which must be maintained in order to justify that generosity. Our converts, on the other hand, truly desire to transform the unjust order; but because of their background they believe that they must be the executors of the transformation. They talk about the people, but they do not trust them; and trusting the people is the indispensable precondition for revolutionary change. A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust.”
I have no great love for our current electoral system. It would take all of 30 seconds to come up with something better than our money-ridden, top-down two-party structure, its flaws compounded by the deformations of the Electoral College and bad Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United. But Schultz and others who imagine now is the time to experiment with sidestepping the Democratic Party are hugely mistaken. Perhaps wealth insulates them so fully from the consequences of such experiments that empathy falls by the wayside. Four more years of the madmen in the White House may not do irreparable damage to Schultz’s bottom line; it’s impossible to believe he’s given full weight to the damage others are likely to sustain. Either that or he turns out to be the worst type of ideologue, the true believer who accepts the suffering of others as allowable collateral damage in pursuit of a grand idea—in this case, himself as President.
Freire recognizes the importance of the privileged putting themselves on the side of liberation. There are many examples. I wrote in 2015 about the way great spiritual and political leaders may come from wealth and privilege—Moses, Siddhartha Gautama, Gandhi, Ho Chi Minh, and many more. But no matter how gifted, such individuals cannot advance freedom and justice unless they commit “class suicide,” dying to the privileged class of their birth—for instance, by taking a step with no return—and thus sacrificing privilege and power in favor of full identification with the oppressed.
Right now, today, how could someone like Howard Schultz—or Michael Bloomberg, who just said that Medicare for All would “bankrupt us for a very long time”—commit class suicide? We are taught that Moses’ moment came when he was moved to kill a brutal overseer abusing a slave and Siddhartha’s eyes were opened when he finally left his father’s palace and saw human suffering. So yes, these billionaire politicians could simply open their eyes—if seeing led to action. A good first step would be to come out in favor of the wealth tax ideas put forward by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren, nicely explained in this column by Jamelle Bouie.
The Republican right frames a top tax rate of 70 percent for the wealthiest as highway robbery, but that was actually the rate from the mid-1940s through the 1970s. So rather than advocating unprecedented radical redistribution, present-day economic reformers are simply calling for a return to policies that kept the wealth gap far smaller than today’s egregious reality, where the U.S. gap is worse than almost any other nation in the developed world. (If you like charts, here are a few more depicting growing inequality.)
Freire was right.The spoilers like Schultz who claim to be for the public good but sacrifice nothing to see it enacted, those whose self-importance swamps their often formidable intelligence, are rooted in economic privilege. Ralph Nader’s net worth was close to $4 million in 2000 when he ran against Al Gore; Jill Stein’s and her husband’s net worth totaled almost exactly the same when she ran in 2016.
The possession of wealth does not cancel empathy or disqualify one from leadership any more than poverty always amplifies empathy or promotes leadership. It’s not material conditions that make good leaders, but qualities: the compassion, humility, sense of reality, and commitment to love and justice which every human being has the capacity to cultivate. Tech zillionaire Tom Steyer has no dearth of self-confidence, but I was glad to see him separate himself from the likes of Schultz, putting paid to rumors of his presidential candidacy by announcing he was investing the millions he would have spent campaigning on the Present Occupant’s impeachment instead.
The part of that quote from Freire I love the most says that “The generosity of the oppressors is nourished by an unjust order, which must be maintained in order to justify that generosity.” It’s not hard to break down. The Present Occupant’s many campaign promises to restore manufacturing jobs and otherwise relieve the suffering of working people were 21st-century reenactments of John D. Rockefeller passing out shiny new dimes to everyone he met. The meta-statement each gesture made is this: I’m rich and you’re not. I have the power and you don’t.
In the Mishnah Torah, Maimonides defines eight levels of charity. The Hebrew word for charity is tzedakah, which also means justice or righteousness. The highest is to help someone via a loan, job, or partnership to avoid remaining dependent on others (expressed for instance in the Green New Deal proposal growing in grassroots popularity); the lowest is to give grudgingly (as when Wilbur Ross and other such Republican spokespersons condemned government employees unpaid due to the government shutdown for applying for public assistance or protested against having to pay taxes).
The highest level of tzedakah is class suicide, people with economic and social power turning their backs on the system that upholds their privilege and working for a new order grounded in equity and caring, reducing their own entitlement and specialness as countless others are uplifted.
In 2011 I shared a rabbinic story I’d learned many years before, in which a rabbi visits the town’s richest man to ask for alms for the poor, and is repeatedly refused. Finally, before he turns to leave, the rabbi asks the man to look through the window of his house and say what he sees. The man sees other people, of course, going about their business in the town. Then the rabbi directs the man to gaze into a nearby mirror and report what he sees. “Myself,” the man says. “That’s how it goes,” the rabbi tells him. “The human soul is clear, like glass, allowing us to see truly; but when we cover it with silver, all we can see is ourselves.”
More than twenty years ago, after drawing or painting nearly every day from the time I could hold a crayon, I stopped making visual art. Why? It’s a bit of a story. Something that happened on New Year’s Day made me want to tell it.
My husband’s and my annual new year’s ritual has two parts. Before midnight on December 31, we write down everything we want to leave behind in the year about to end. Then—after blessing the past to remain in the past—we burn the papers to ash. Before New Year’s Day ends, we write down our desires and intentions for the new year, one to a paper. These are rolled into tiny scrolls, each tied with a length of thread and tucked away, not to be read until next January 1.
A gratifying number of our year-old intentions for 2018 bore fruit. But one scroll showed me something remarkable and exciting about my personal year. Last New Year’s Day I was working on a book. On a scroll, I recorded my hopes for its completion and the response I desired.
But mid-year, my dreams took a sharp turn. I’d been feeling stuck. I realized that I’d spent much of my time doing perfectly worthy things that others needed. But I wasn’t learning from them, my growing edge wasn’t engaged. I was shocked to see that I’d fallen into a long-ago pattern of self-exploitation, as I wrote in July.
When I was asked what had excited and stretched me, the answer was clear and simple: in April I made more than three dozen tiny drawings. My husband and I took our annual visit to his family in Hawaii, but we were rained out. No beach days. Tucked alongside a supply of books and papers, I’d brought along a set of brush pens and a packet of small cards inscribed with English and Hebrew words. These were “angel cards,” used in a form of divination and given to us by dear friends.
In Jewish mysticism, angels are messengers between worlds and beings of single intention, in contrast to the infinite complexity and contradiction of human beings. So each card carries a word that could be seen as the name of a singular angel: “spontaneity,” or “love,” or “moderation.” You pose a question using a formula that can vary as you wish: “What angel will support me in _________________?” or (if the idea of angels gives you hives) “What quality will accompany me as I __________________?” There are 64 cards in all, so plenty of potential for interesting juxtapositions. Questions almost always bring words and images that spark fresh thinking. Often, something is illuminated. Surprisingly often a new understanding clicks into place.
Most angel cards come illustrated. But except for the words, these were blank, an invitation to add one’s own images. During many afternoons of unending rain (bringing frightening floods, washouts, and isolation to northern island communities), we drew 64 images, dividing them between us. Here are a couple of my favorites:
The act of drawing—choosing my subject, rendering the outlines, adding the colors and textures—instantly took me back to childhood, when any moment I wasn’t required to be elsewhere found me hunched over a piece of paper, creating a world I vastly preferred to the one I actually inhabited. The first time someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I answered “artist.” I didn’t stop answering that way until the 1990s, when writing became my obsession and delight. At the time, I felt a strong pressure to choose between the two creative practices, and I chose writing.
What was I thinking? Three things stand out.
The politics of art. I’d been a lifelong activist, often involving my art work. I created posters and flyers for causes. I helped to organize a kind of union for graphic designers, an alliance for artists working for social justice and peace, other campaigns and movements engaging artists. I did illustrations for an underground newspaper. And when I wasn’t doing these things, I painted portraits of my friends and colleagues, showing and selling a little.
In the politics of the left of the late twentieth century, making paintings was widely considered a trivial, even decadent, practice. It was okay to do community murals and posters, to create work with social utility and community representation in mind. Anything else was likely to be dismissed as bourgeois and self-indulgent. In those days, I lacked the understanding to argue otherwise.
The gallery system. When I started organizing artists in the sixties and seventies, I often used the metaphor of Sleeping Beauty, the artist as passive object kissed into life by the prince, which is to say the curator or critic. (I wrote a little bit about it here nearly a decade ago.) That metaphor landed every time I gave a talk, often with a force that at first surprised me. So many of the young artists I met were brokenhearted from trying. It didn’t feel right that they had to work all night waiting tables to earn not only a meager livelihood, but the right to make art. I didn’t like the constipated way most critics wrote about art, nor the snobberies and power-games artists were expected to ante into, competing to be noticed and rewarded.
I was interested in economic justice, so seeing my paintings on collectors’ walls didn’t strike me as a worthy ambition. It felt like way too much me-me-me and not nearly enough we.
Dominant ideas about artists. A high bar was set for seriousness of intention (although, paradoxically, possessing the requisite seriousness could just as easily be verified with a flamboyant personality as through long hours in the studio). Demonstrating sacrifice was critical: finding your specialty and sticking to it was essential. I disliked being asked to perform either the sacred fool or the anorectic ascetic. I disliked the self-referential framework of contemporary art, sometimes validating work by labeling its artworld influences, other times condemning it for being derivative, situating power everywhere but with the artist.
Everyone knew there was a hierarchy, descending from great artists to merely good to isn’t it time you found some way to make a living? If you didn’t have a chance of being great—by your own judgment or the judgment of others—there was a strong sense it was best to make a quick, clean break.
These three were my thoughts at the time. To my younger self, they added up to a compelling argument to put down my paint brushes when I picked up my pen to write. But no matter how many times I add them up today, I can’t make the sum come out that way it did twenty years ago. I can only marvel that I talked myself into a corner, giving up something that had been a principal source of pleasure, healing, and possibility since childhood. I love to write and have no regrets about taking up that practice. But having succumbed to such flimsy ideas about visual art, that I do regret.
Things have changed. The ideological tests of the left have multiplied, but perhaps the fact there are more of them has weakened their power. The gallery system still has plenty of snobby and terminally ambitious people who make me feel like taking a long break in a decontamination chamber. But they have nothing like the earlier stranglehold on the exchange of art. Today I am by no means the only commentator who has shone light on art’s power to change the story and therefore the world. I doubt the pressures I felt, the mindgames I took part in, are distorting the lives of younger artists to anything like the same degree I experienced, although they are still felt. There are more thought-police in the world, but their power is greatly diminished.
I won’t post images from the projects I am currently working on until they feel ready to share. But I will say that one project includes both drawing and writing, the other focuses on painting, and the headiest cocktail I imbibed this New Year’s Eve was the freedom rushing through my veins as I recognized that the choices I foreclosed years ago remain open to me now. You can be sure that one of the scrolls I hope to unroll in 2020 expresses my desire to have 2019 offer another sip of that intoxicating freedom, and another, and another.