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.
Audre Lorde famously said it, “[T]he master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” She went on: “They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” The essay was based on a 1979 panel presentation responding to a feminist movement dominated by those who opposed sexism but benefited in other ways from the existing social order. She warns a liberationist movement against reproducing the racial, economic, and other privilege-based operating assumptions of the dominant society, lest it fall far short of its potential to catalyze a more loving, just, equitable, and vibrant society.
Sometimes I like to adopt an alien view, to pretend I’m watching from outer space as we humans scurry across the face of the earth, billions of intelligent two-legged ants. What is getting them so excited now? What tools are being wielded with what intentions? And are they shoring up the master’s house or dismantling it?
In our little corner of the planet, my alien self picks up a loud buzz about appropriation. What’s that? In ordinary English the verb can mean many things: to set aside or authorize funds, to seize or steal something. In art worlds, the word has a fairly flat meaning and a heightened one. The flatter version covers things like Marcel Duchamp’s “readymades,” in which ordinary objects are renamed, repositioned, and exhibited as art. His most famous example was the 1917 Fountain, a porcelain urinal set on a pedestal and signed R. Mutt. Ever since, a huge amount of modern and contemporary visual art has included appropriated elements.
Appropriation is so common in popular music that a new word was chosen to represent it: sampling. There’s a nicely detailed account of Biz Markie’s losing a suit over a sample of “Alone Again,” one of many such cases in the early 90s challenging musicians’ right to use snippets of others’ copyrighted songs without prior permission. Rick James sued MC Hammer for sampling “Superfreak” on his hit, “U Can’t Touch This,” to cite one example among hundreds. The most recent cases turn on uses of as little as two words. But mostly, these are financial transactions having less to do with moral rights and more with getting paid. Reaching a financial settlement is almost always the endgame.
The heightened meaning of “appropriation” is cultural theft. The accusation is frequently made against artists—but also entrepreneurs and corporations—adopting and profiting by something emblematic of a culture not their own. “Cultural appropriation” is the full moniker, but mostly it gets shortened by omitting the first word.
When I googled “appropriation,” the first thing that came up was denunciation of the actor Zac Efron for posting a picture of himself in dreadlocks. The discussion about appropriation of dreads has been going on for a long time. The argument against dreads being worn by those commonly placed in the white category was most succinctly summed up by a young actress called Amandla Stenberg, who made a viral video entitled “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows,” saying “Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated but is deemed as high-fashion, cool or funny when the privileged take it for themselves.” Her perspective located the axis of appropriation along the spectrum of social power, suggesting it occurs when something associated with groups commonly targeted by invidious stereotyping is exploited by others for some type of self-aggrandizement. As her title suggests, the chief currency of exploitation is…well, currency. Its clearest form is someone with social and economic cachet making money from the creations of those never commensurately rewarded for their creativity.
For the person calling out appropriation, it’s pretty easy to feel confident in dreadlocks territory: something created specifically for black hair, associated often with Rastafari and reggae music, is borrowed and promoted as a signifier of hipness by someone without any of the relevant attributes. (It is interesting to read how far back into ancient cultures of India and Africa dreadlocks go, especially when you consider that the Rastafari were inspired by descriptions of the consecrated hair of the Nazirites of the Hebrew bible. When it comes to cultural appropriation, I sometimes wonder if it started with Adam and Eve—but that’s another blog.)
Lining up clear cases of cultural appropriation is easy. When I pull my perspective out into space, gazing with alien eyes on our cultural controversies, certain moments pop out. On one end of the appropriation spectrum, there’s an incredulous brouhaha right now about Canadian writer-director Robert LePage’s theatrical production SLAV (pronounced slave), featuring mainly white actors costumed as field workers singing African American slave songs, which was cancelled a short way into its run at the Montreal International Jazz Festival due to massive protest against cultural appropriation.
There’s not much nuance in this story, although LePage would like there to be, trying to situate it as a threat to artistic freedom. What has left me shaking my head in wonder is how the production could have been conceived, written and composed, cast(!), included in the festival, promoted to audiences—can you count how many gatekeepers and approvals must have been part of that saga?—without anyone saying “Whoa!” before performances started. The cultural blindness, tone-deaf ethics, indifference to outrage, misplaced self-confidence—what do they say about the cultural climate in a metro area of more than four million souls?
My stomach turns to read about the Poles and Ukrainians who have taken to re-enacting Jewish ceremonies and celebrations and to promoting Jewish-style restaurants and klezmer music in a country that is today without Jews though still well-supplied with antisemites. Look at the pictures accompanying this story of “Jewish” weddings. If you too descend from those persecuted for their identity, I ask you to try a little thought-experiment: transpose the wigs and costumes to those of whatever ethnic group connects most closely with your own heritage and see how it feels. Some of the people quoted in the story said they see such actions as part of a healing process, just as LePage sees his as expressions of artistic freedom. But both took place in the context of tourism promotion, and both, if successful, would enrich its creators at the expense of the exploited.
The question is far murkier in other arenas. What about the teenage girl who was widely condemned for wearing a qipao—a Chinese dress—to her prom and posing with her friends with knees bent and hands clasped as if in prayer? The gestures displayed in her prom photo were also widely condemned as ridiculing Chinese culture, though in fact that have a much more recent lineage in the “Papa Bless” pose, originated by and associated with a YouTube entrepreneur who posts under the title “Vape Nation,” and from what I could learn was inspired by a joke about Papa John’s pizza, with not a hint of anti-Asian influence to be found. The first condemnation in the Qipao Affair was tweeted by a young man of Chinese heritage: “My culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress.” But since everything that happens on the internet stays on the internet, people quickly turned up a six month-old tweet by the same young man: “I’m eating tamales with chopsticks. This is why America was founded.” Then came a view from China.
The type of blow-up in which charges of cultural appropriation are lodged on a purely racial basis—someone of your skin color gives offense by wearing or enacting something associated with a different one—can often be dissected, wheels within wheels, to interesting effect. The trigger is generally when residents of different cultural milieux misread each others’ codes and signifiers. Quite a few tweeters condemned the prom girls’ pose as ridiculing a demure and formal shyness they associate with Chinese women: knees and head slightly bent, hands clasped prayerfully. The young women enacting the Papa Bless pose evidently had no awareness of portraying anything but a silly, pizza-themed pop-culture meme. The tweeters who condemned them for that (you see, the tempest divided into two categories, debate over the dress and debate over the pose, with some people condemning or defending one or the other, or both), evidently had no awareness of the stereotypes resident in their own minds, contributing to that insulting interpretation. The tweeters who condemned the young woman’s dress as appropriation are highly likely to be garbed in jeans, durable, riveted work clothes created by a Jewish immigrant to meet the needs of miners in the mid-19th century California Gold Rush. And so on ad infinitum.
In this story—which I find so juicy because it makes so much of so little, as in Bob Dylan’s words: “just like a mattress balances on a bottle of wine”—no one gained economic or social power via cultural exploitation or insulting depictions. But damage is done. In a kind of cultural telephone game, the essence of cultural appropriation is reduced to a simple principle: no person not assigned to a racial or ethnic group may employ signifiers or expressions of that cultural identity.
Miles out in space, observing the global scurry with a jaundiced eye, my alien self enjoys the syncretic nature of human culture. We all know, don’t we, that the Japanese borrowed a system of writing and a great deal else from China? That western mathematics took the concept of zero from fifth-century India? We do not question the right of Anthony Davis to compose opera, of Misty Copeland to dance ballet, of Anthony Brown—whose father is Choctaw and African American and mother Japanese—to perform with Jon Jang, a jazz pianist of Chinese ancestry, or Mark Izu, a jazz bass player of Japanese heritage. Grace Kelly (nee Grace Chung) is a much-admired jazz saxophonist. Mildred Bailey was the first female singer to front a jazz big band; she grew up on the Coeur d’Alene reservation in Idaho. Natacha Atlas, an amazing singer of Arab-western-hip hop fusion, was born of Jewish parents. Thirteen years ago, I wrote a brief essay about the towering African-American artist Paul Robeson singing the Kaddish of Reb Levi Yitzhak in Moscow. The Hispano-Arabic, Muslim, Roma, and Jewish influences that created flamenco are taken for granted (or have perhaps faded away), so who has the right to compose and perform this music?
And that’s just music, and just a few examples. The syncretic force in human culture is powerful, blending belief systems, borrowing spiritual practices, opening to influences. Forcible appropriation has created huge wounds in the fabric of human life: forced conversion of Jews and Indigenous people to Christianity, for example. But even under such terrible conditions, the impulse to blend, meld, and borrow survives, as in the practices of Crypto-Jews in the Southwest, as in customs such as Dia de los Muertos in Mexico and the Chicano diaspora, and so much more.
Humans’ overwhelming cultural truth is mixing, which rests on a foundation of conviviality, consensual exchange, curiosity, and pleasure. Against that backdrop are actions—some terrible, some trivial—of true cultural appropriation, in which something seized from one generally maligned cultural milieu is exploited for profit and power in another more privileged.
So what does this have to do with “the master’s tools?” Everything.
In this moment, many people respond to a rising tide of racism, antisemitism, homophobia, and other oppression based on identity by asserting pride in belonging to a particular category of identity. It is natural to do so, aikidoing the painful energy of an onslaught into the animating energy of an assertion of value. The positive impact of this transformation is sometimes very clear and powerful. Consider “black is beautiful,” a direct response to standards of beauty created and imposed by white supremacy. That assertion carries so much meaning: that no one is entitled to dictate the standards for all; that multiple and coexisting beauties are real, natural, necessary; that no one should be told to internalize a concept of beauty that devalues their own truth. It speaks truth to power in a particular pointed way, exposing the weakness behind the mask of power in much the same way the boy in the fable pointed to the emperor’s nakedness.
But what’s frightening about the prom-dress strain—you’re the wrong race to wear, eat, sing, or dance that—in the current chorus of cultural appropriation turns on the truth that racism is real, inscribed in policies, relationships, countless expressions of oppression, but the concept of race is tool of domination. By compliantly continuing to use the so-clumsy half-dozen categories scientistic racists promulgated as a culling-system for human beings (there are tons of useful accounts of this history, here’s just one short one)—by collaborating in the white supremacist project of putting all of us into our assigned categories and treating us as if that were natural and right, we are using the master’s tools to shore up the master’s house.
If you doubt this, look at how the white supremacists deploy this tool: falsely claiming there is such a thing as “white culture,” falsely claiming it is under attack by those of other races who they claim contaminate or pollute it by appropriating its tropes, customs, and practices. This tool has worked very well to promote white supremacy. Can we claim it belongs to anyone other than the master?
I’m planning to continue reveling in the cultural richness of my own heritage, which is Ashkenazi Jewish and first-generation U.S., the recipient of the social category of whiteness which can be and has been given and taken by those in power; my husband’s Okinawan heritage and Hawaiian upbringing; the family stories and present-day customs of my Haitian friends; of Hispanos, Tewa, Hopi, and Zuni friends in this region—the incredible and specific mixtures of influence, migration, exploitation, and choice that can never be adequately be summed up by one word.
I’m planning to continue patronizing bagel bakeries staffed by Jews and non-Jews alike (though expect me to call out the blueberry bagel as the abomination it is), to eat fusion food prepared with heart and respect, to listen to music made across cultural categories, including hip hop from Palestine and Eritrea (go ahead, google “hip hop” and the name of any country or culture you choose).
And I’m planning to go on calling out real violations of cultural appropriation when I see them: it’s not too hard to distinguish an ersatz Jewish wedding in Poland performed in full costume-shop regalia from a cheongsam prom dress in Utah. But know this, I’ve resigned any role I may have formerly taken, knowingly or not, in enforcing the clumsy racial categories white supremacy created to keep everyone in the places that uphold its world order.
A friend posted on Facebook, sharing the fatigue and demoralization she had been fighting as she sorted through old papers documenting her journey in the last few decades of the progressive movement in this country: the ideas appropriated without credit; the individuals whose own sense of entitlement blinded them to the injuries they inflicted; the surplus ego, the embedded pathways of patriarchy, and more, much more.
She touched my heart in the tender place of my own questioning, and I wrote back:
The challenge of remaining whole amidst the brokenness is formidable. The challenge of holding all these contradictions is fatiguing. It may not be much consolation to be seen as one who helps to shift the energies, inside and out, by speaking these truths, but you are such a one. There is a Jewish legend of the 36 just ones (the Lamed-Vav Tzaddikim) who by their existence uphold the world. It is not given to anyone to know who they are, but we are asked to live as if life itself depended on us, as if we were among the 36. Love and honor to you for answering this call, my friend.
You see, her words brought to mind the legend of the 36 Just Ones—The Lamed-Vav Tzaddikim in Hebrew—who by their righteousness uphold the existence of the world. In Jewish mysticism, the story goes that if at any time the total number of these pillars of existence were to fall below 36, the world would end, as together they constitute an ironclad argument to the Divine that humanity is worth the trouble.
In Yiddish vernacular, they are called the Lamedvavniks (the “Thirty-sixers” would be a rough equivalent), and they also have another Hebrew name: Tzadikim Nistarim, the “Hidden Righteous.” This is because their status among the 36 is secret, even from themselves. Any one of them may emerge into temporary visibility, taking a necessary role in mending the human world. But they immediately subside into an anonymity which expresses an essential quality of the 36, humility. If one proclaims him or herself among the Lamed-Vav, that is a sure sign of self-delusion.
My friend was moved to share her feelings as they emerged from a trip down her own memory lane, an experience I find relatable. How many times, how many ways, have I written or spoken about the same challenges we face today—different cast of characters, different details, but underneath it all, the same? I tell myself it is human to lift one’s head from the task, to look around and ask if it has all made a difference. That is a hard question to hold, because after all, who can know? Despite all the assurances—the sweet friends who sense how deep the questioning goes and hasten to say, Yes, it matters to me, you have made a difference for me—this is for many of us a moment in which the surreality of political life calls that question.
I have been reading snippets lately from people who, seeking light in a dark time, offer a particularly sobering form of reassurance, that many before us have lived through periods of dictatorship or fascism, fought for freedom, and emerged intact. There is some comfort in that being the worst-case scenario, as I believe it is. I do not believe that the puny excrescence of broken ego currently impersonating national leadership has the power to plunge us into lasting darkness, extinguishing the fires of love and justice burning in so many hearts.
But more than anything, I believe this truth put so beautifully by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:
This is the most important experience in the life of every human being, something is asked of me. Every human being has had a moment in which he sensed a mystery waiting for him. Meaning is found in responding to the demand, meaning is found in sensing the demand.
There is plenty to do these days, of that I have no doubt. But for me, the questions my wise friend posted on Facebook—the deep desire to learn from our pasts and not simply to repeat them—are the necessary foundation for choosing what to do. I’ve been moved to look through some of my old writing too. In January 2010, I offered this in a talk to artists I gave in California:
We can’t predict how things will morph over the next decade or two. But because so much is unknown, if we come to the fore with energy and vision, our ideas can have influence. I don’t think there is one right answer to the inquiry we are undertaking. We need to engage many questions, generate many ideas, to experiment, make mistakes and learn from them. I hope to have dozens of mind-blowing conversations about these essential questions, to clear out all the cobwebs and the old answers, and with others as excited by these challenges as I am, to come at this task with fresh energy and vision.
That is still my hope.
What is needed now? Amidst all the doing I am holding space for deep listening. This is a time of opening all my senses to the voice of the demand, a time a time of willing myself ready to respond as I sense it. This line from the Song of Songs (8:13) goes through my mind: “O you who linger in the garden, a lover is listening; Let me hear your voice.”
What is “The Big Lie” and why is the Present Occupant of the White House so committed and adept at deploying it?
When Hitler coined the expression “The Big Lie,” he meant it as an accusation against German Jews, charging them in Mein Kampf with falsely condemning Erich Friedrich Wilhelm Ludendorff for losing World War I due to his strategic errors in the spring offensive of 1918, after which he was forced to leave his post.
Ludendorff retaliated by working overtime to blame defeat not on losses in battle under his command, but on Jews and Communists, whom he saw as a powerful internal enemies. As history shows, his Big Lie triumphed in the court of public opinion. As World War II ramped up, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels used the term to characterize the British relationship to public opinion, accusing them of telling a big lie and sticking no matter what.
Mostly, though, we hear the term in relation to Nazi Germany’s own propaganda, as in this characterization of Hitler from the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (predecessor to the present-day Central Intelligence Agency) during the war:
His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.
A poison seed of false belief allows The Big Lie to take root and sprout. Each Big Lie contains something many people want to believe, such as the assertion that immigrants cause crime and create danger, relieving themselves from responsibility by scapegoating newcomers. German antisemitism was not created by the Nazis but fed over decades, most publicly by nationalistic movements such as Ludendorff’s German Völkisch Freedom Party, begun in 1922. When you see the word “Volk” in German political history, beware. Although its literal meaning is “people,” both in the sense of a populace and of an affinity group, it has marinated so long in a romantic attachment to a German peoplehood based in blood: Volksdeutsche. Praise for the purity of the Volk very often comes wrapped in hatred of those deemed impure.
So when the Present Occupant—who swathes himself in red, white, and blue bunting as he defiantly proclaims his devotion to American purity—tweeted on 19 June that “Democrats are the problem. They don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13,” he chose his verb carefully. Aviya Kushner explains it all in this 20 June analysis of his use of the word “infest,” with its long and vicious history.
And remember, these countries that we give tremendous foreign aid to in many cases, they send these people up and they’re not sending their finest. Does that sound familiar? (Laughter.) Remember I made that speech and I was badly criticized? “Oh it’s so terrible, what he said.” Turned out I was 100 percent right. That’s why I got elected.
In the same speech, he describes a “a massive child smuggling trade…the worst it’s ever been.” He’s been talking about skyrocketing crime rates attributable to immigrants in Germany (actually, crime there is at its lowest in 30 years) and the U.S. (actually, both undocumented and documented immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than American-born citizens—check out the studies referenced in this Washington Post article).
Paul Krugman has been calling out truth with particular clarity lately.Here he is questioning the Republicans who claimed outrage at the administration’s family separation practices. Here he harkens back to the Nazi era in a recent column debunking the anti-immigrant Big Lie with actual facts, for instance:
[P]laces with a lot of immigrants, legal and undocumented, tend to have exceptionally low crime rates. The poster child for this tale of un-carnage is the biggest city of them all: New York, where more than a third of the population is foreign-born, probably including around half a million undocumented immigrants — and crime has fallen to levels not seen since the 1950s.
In her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt, herself an exile from Nazi Germany, wrote of the degradation of truth in totalitarian movements:
In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true… The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.
Words create and feed the conditions for totalitarianism to flourish. If we fail to take them seriously, we invite the demise of democracy, already badly wounded by its abusers. If only one person, however prominent and adept at taking center stage, were promulgating The Big Lie, it would be serious indeed. But the fact that this behavior licenses small-time bigots and big-name cretins—and every practitioner of The Big Lie in between—is not in dispute. Read this account of a football coach at Washington State University defending a patent and easily discredited lie about Barack Obama by tweeting, “What is a fact?”
Arendt wrote that, “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth and truth be defamed as a lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world—and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end—is being destroyed.”
This same week, along with the escalating Big Lie and many accounts of its falsehood, an interesting and useful short essay by Richard Bernstein about the relevance of Arendt’s work appeared in the New York Times. He points out that Arendt
…warned against being seduced by nihilism, cynicism or indifference. She was bold in her description of the lying, deception, self-deception, image-making and the attempt of those in power to destroy the very distinction between truth and falsehood.
Her defense of the dignity of politics provides a critical standard for judging the situation many of us find ourselves in today, where the opportunity to participate, to act in concert and to engage in genuine debate with our peers is being diminished. We must resist the temptation to opt out of politics and to assume that nothing can be done in face of all the current ugliness, deception and corruption.
In doing so, he describes my worry: that the patent absurdity of The Big Lie, the sheer volume of repetition, the assumption that anyone with half a brain will see through it—all these things will lull us into the delusion that the loud, ugly, cries of “America First!” will subside by themselves.
So this is what I tell myself: if I don’t decry them until the need expires, I share responsibility for the Big Lies being told in my name. I cannot live with that.
Jews of my generation are trained from infancy to sense which way the wind is blowing. If you descend as I do from a long line of nomads and refugees—if your family tree is stunted, the branches disappearing into cracks in history, if the images of children being torn from their parents’ arms are imprinted just behind your eyes—you develop a keen sense of impending disaster. And so the question that reverberates is simple: Is it now? Is this it?
I’m afraid so.
The Present Occupant of the White House is trumpeting his policy of separating families at the border as a clever negotiating tactic, hinting he’ll stop if Congress gives him the wall and other expensive, vicious tools of othering.
I like to know what to do. I like it so much that sometimes I forget that before one can have a hope of truly knowing what to do, it is necessary to understand what is happening. What I think is happening is brought home in this New Yorker piece by George Packer, in which Dr. Ruth describes the last time she saw her father.
I watch the gulf grow. The possibilities of ordinary life persist, the world of normalcy endures, a jumble of small-world pleasures and heartaches, moments of love and luck tumbling into the present: have a taste of this, let’s see a movie, come get a hug. And all along, on a parallel track, cruel, cynical, terrifying deeds are being committed in our name and we are becoming inured to them.
Hey, he [Kim Jong-un] is the head of a country, and I mean he is the strong head. Don’t let anyone think anything different. He speaks, and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.
The spirit of democracy is stuck in an abusive relationship with a larger-than-life broken bully. Can she be rescued? Every day I hear someone say, “I’m not surprised” at the latest outrage. Maybe not, but surprise and shock are two different things. It hurts to be beaten even if you see it coming.
In the small world of the family, the pain of being tortured by the person who should be looking after you is amplified by indifference of others. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a survivor of horrific childhood abuse say, “the people next door must have heard the screams, but they said nothing, did nothing.”
There is a powerful pressure to normalize the present regime, to call people into line for violating conventional political decorum by speaking out too harshly.Here’s the New York Times’ Frank Bruni taking Robert De Niro and Samantha Bee to task for excessive emotion in their denunciations, dismissing comparisons between this administration and facist regimes.
That’s the voice on one side: this is America, Trump was elected (if only by the Electoral College, and who knows about all that Russia stuff?), keep calm and carry on as before and things will sort themselves out. And on the other side: those pictures of children at the border, those presidential statements establishing ownership of the body politic, the Big Lies and small coming every day. When do you suppose was the moment that Jews in Germany saw through the scrim of normalcy and sounds of reassurance that all is well, the institutions are holding and will protect us? Enough who had the means to escape chose to stay to make me think that even under conditions that blaze crystal-clear in hindsight, the lulling voice has power.
Sometimes “the people next door [who] must have heard the screams, but said nothing, did nothing” live in our own heads.
It may not be possible to know with absolute certainty. We may be in the grip of an historical process larger than any of us, one that is still playing out toward an unknown end. Or stopping the sadistic manipulation of children’s suffering for a bully’s political gain may be precisely the thing that turns the process around. There are so many ways to stand and be counted. But in doing so, we must bear in mind that this is not an isolated instance. It is one thread in a fabric of lying, self-dealing, white supremacist thinking and action, realpolitik justifying the embrace of evil, democracy eliding to fascism.
Is it now? Is this it?
I’m afraid so. And you? If we have any hope of discernment, any way to shine a light on reality, I feel it starts with bringing these questions everyplace we go.
I’ve heard it said that belonging sounds kind of soft, but to me, it’s a knife that cuts straight to the heart of our collective challenge. How do we cultivate a society that embodies the right to belong, that offers full cultural citizenship: justice and love, equity and compassion, the right to feel at home in one’s community, to feel safe in one’s school? To belong.
It’s not clear whether school shooter Nikolas Cruz actually trained with the white nationalist militia Republic of Florida (the group’s leader claimed Cruz, then said he’d mistaken him for someone else. But Cruz had been aligned for years with white supremacist views, according to a high school classmate and others: “He would always talk about how he felt whites were a bit higher than everyone,” Charo said. “He’d be like, ‘My people are over here industrializing the world and starting new things, while your people [meaning blacks and Latinos] are just taking up space.’”
When we debate who belongs—about how belonging must be earned and which categories of people are entitled to a say—we had better be ready to tussle with history.Consider a few scenes from the annals of belonging.
When I walked into the conference breakout room, introductions were already underway. The prompt opening this conversation was not just to say one’s name or current location, but to tell something about your people and their history on the land. Around the circle, Native people spoke of the chain of generations linking themselves and their children to a particular place on earth; people whose forebears from Europe settled on this continent five or six generations back spoke of the meaning of homeplace in their lives; people whose ancestors had arrived on slave ships centuries ago shared their connections to the lands where ancestors had farmed and raised families, even if they no longer lived there.
When my turn came, I said that I’d never met my paternal grandparents, who’d emigrated to England just before my father was born, that my maternal grandparents had escaped to the United States after my great-grandfather had been killed in a pogrom, and that while I didn’t know my family history any further back than that, it was a fairly safe bet I was descended from a long line of generations pushed out of one place after another by sinat chinam, Hebrew for baseless hatred, an expression that applies to all stories of genocide or exile grounded in identity.
I suspect few of us know the fullness of belonging and disbelonging as it has been expressed in countless individual and collective histories, nor do I see widespread awareness of the nuanced forms baseless hatred has taken. For example, I urge you to read this essay by John-Paul Pagano analyzing the impact of hatred that “punches up” versus “punches down,” that is based on villifying whole categories on account of their imagined evil superpowers rather than on account of their presumed inferiority.
What is the understanding of belonging that takes all those stories seriously?
In so many US cities, newcomers and developers with deep pockets drive out local people needing affordable places to live and work. Organizers are drawing attention to displacement, rallying people to protect longstanding communities. I hear from people who go to these meetings, people whose politics and economic values are right in line with the movement toward placekeeping and against displacement, who work with social justice projects. But so easily, the desire to limit economic depredation and prevent displacement is converted into an assertion of special belonging. I’ve been in more than one meeting where speakers made it clear that being born on the land—preferably descending from several generations on that same land—should be the chief criterion for belonging, that by implication everyone not tied to the soil was other. And suddenly all whose ancestors had been driven away by baseless hatred or were pushed out of a home place by economic necessity, suddenly, we don’t belong. Does denying my right to belong advance the just and equitable aims of anti-displacement organizing? No, in fact it undermines them.
What is the understanding of belonging that embraces all of us, regardless of the circumstances of our ancestors?
That the same concept can be introduced from love or from hate should make us think carefully through the implications before deploying it, to be sure we aren’t unintentionally aiding our opponents. Blut und Boden (Blood and Soil) was the Nazis’ way of saying that German land was bound to German blood, adding force to the movement to expell foreigners, chiefly Jews, as a contaminating force. It underpinned the Nazis’ Lebensraum (“living room”) policy, which justified conquest of adjacent lands to the east as properly belonging to ethnic Germans, as just needing a bit of “ethnic cleansing” to restore purity and fill Germany’s breadbasket.
More recently, “Blood and Soil” has become a visible white nationalist slogan in the U.S., shouted from crowded streets in Charlottesville and wherever Nazis and their allies have marched in recent months. The slogan may have specific provenance, but the underlying concept, that belonging is an attribute of those groups deemed the true inhabitants or possessors of the land, has a long and ignoble history, one that seems nearly irony-proof.
Consider the use of the concept of “states’ rights” to resist federal mandates to desegregate or to permit same-sex marriage. The argument is that local culture and customs emerging from the particular history and conditions of a place ought to supersede a higher authority’s right to impose federal law. It’s easy to see how in principle, decentralization of authority can be an instrument of democracy. But the forces presenting the states’ rights argument were white people in power in the post-Reconstruction South (who seem not to have recognized the irony of asserting blood and soil rights in states squarely on the Trail of Tears of “Indian removal” just a century earlier). “States’ Rights Party” was the official name in 1948 of the Dixiecrat party led by Strom Thurmond. Former Governor George Wallace of Alabama declaimed in his 1963 inaugural address, “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” He was later quoted as saying he should have said, “States’ rights now! States’ rights tomorrow! States’ rights forever!” After all, the two were interchangeable, with states’ rights merely a dog-whistle substitute for segregation.
The necessary precondition to bring about cultural democracy—a true state of belonging, equity, justice, and caring—is being able to recognize and respond to multiple coexisting truths:
We have a collective responsibility to repair the massive damage that has been done by moving Indigenous nations off their lands, stealing their water and mineral rights, and other crimes against the first peoples of the Americas. (I want to point you to a USDAC project that is being effective in spreading the first step, acknowledgment: Honor Native Land.)
We have a collective responsibility to protect all people’s rights to grow where they are planted, opposing policies that allow profit- and “ethnic cleansing”-driven rezoning, “urban removal,” and rapacious development to prevail over protection of human social and cultural fabric. (The USDAC’s “Cultural Impact Study” proposal is a powerful tool toward that end.)
We have a collective responsibility to welcome the stranger, including visitors, immigrants, refugees, and wanderers whose places on the land no longer exist or are no longer livable, whether due to natural disaster, social emergency, or both. (The USDAC’s Policy on Belonging provides feasible and adaptable policy tools to make belonging a core human right in your community.)
We have a collective responsibility to assert and protect belonging not as a privilege, but as a human right conferred on any person who does not transgress others’ right to belong. Nazis and other white supremacists forfeit their right to belong by attempting to deprive others of that same right. It is our duty to protect their targets from the harm they wish to inflict, to punish the perpetrators when that harm succeeds, to change the policies that arm them, and also—however unlikely success—to attempt wherever possible to persuade them of the error of their repugnant ways.
The history of such concepts as “Blood and Soil” and “States’ Rights”—and of even cruder cousins such as the “white man’s burden” and “manifest destiny,” justifying genocide and conquest in the name of racial superiority—shows us how easily principles grounded in special rights of certain groups can be turned against those who proclaim them.
Hutu extremists in Rwanda asserted their superiority leading to genocide against the Tutsi; their movement can be seen as a reaction to earlier German and Belgian colonizers’ policies of treating the Tutsi as a superior African people while still insisting on their own ultimate superiority to conquer and possess Africa. On this continent, some Indigenous people carried out raids to acquire slaves from among Native nations deemed lesser, while both Franciscan orders and U.S. troops enslaved Native people, grounding their actions in the same presumed superiority. Here in New Mexico, there’s a yearly “Entrada,” a pageant re-enacting the purported (but historically false) welcoming of the Spanish conquerors by Native people (whom they proceeded to displace, persecute, exploit, and murder). In recent years, protests have grown steadily in scale and impact, impressive and encouraging. What about the conviction that Indigenous people, Hispanos, and those who immigrated from Mexico are entitled to a fullness of belonging those born elsewhere can never earn? Truth, yes. Acknowledgment, yes. Recognition of their rights to ancestral lands, yes. Recognizing the right to belong as a universal human right presents no conflict with these other rights.
When we get into a conversation about who belongs—about how belonging is earned and who has a say in a community’s future—we had better be ready to tussle with history.
Only one perspective on belonging offers the generosity, compassion, and willingness to face the complexity of history that can save us now. The right to belong must be an inalienable human right, not an attribute of a racial or other category nor a privilege that must be earned.
The right to belong must encompass all of us, in full acknowledgment of our mixed histories—neither sweeping the past under the carpet nor making it a barrier to full cultural citizenship—whether we came to our places against our will or willingly. When we attach belonging to a racial or other such category, we aid the white supremacist project of racial categorization, forgetting, as Eric Ward has said, that racism is real but race is not. Belonging must never be used as an excuse or justification for othering our neighbors. And it must never exempt us from vetting our own behavior and others’ for its exclusionary, discriminatory, or antidemocratic impacts.
Truth is complicated, but we are obliged to open ourselves to its full breadth, or succumb to baseless hatred.
At our Hanukkah party a couple of weeks ago, we asked our guests to each share a way in which they want to bring light into the world in the coming year. Like other festivals that kindle a blaze as the sun’s light wanes—Diwali, Christmas—Hanukkah can be understood as a collective refusal to surrender to darkness, a collective invitation to remember the light even in the darkest times.
My wish was for a pervading awareness, the kind that sees past the conventional categories that constrain thinking. I haven’t been blogging much because I’ve been giving my writing attention to a new book which treats this question as a central theme: why have we fallen so much into treating people and issues as toggle switches—#MeToo, for or against?—and what can we do to open the gates of awareness to multiple truths? My wish was for ruthless awareness, the kind that penetrates the surface of what is, allowing layer after layer to emerge and be explored, side-by-side, not always resolving to either/or.
I thought of this again yesterday. It was my task to offer the kavannot (intentions) for aliyot (Torah readings) in services yesterday morning, drawing out underlying teachings of the Torah portion assigned to this past week and inviting all who wished to connect to those energies to come take part in the blessings before each reading.
It felt like a really auspicious occasion: the last reading in the book of Genesis/Beresheit, the last Shabbat of the secular year. In the reading, Jacob prepares to die, offering parting messages to his offspring and blessings to Joseph’s sons, his grandsons. As the reading comes to a close, Joseph dies too. The Hebrew calendar only occasionally matches up with the secular year in this way. But because this is an annual cycle, because many of us have read it countless times, we know the book of Exodus/Shemot is coming next, the story of the long journey out of slavery. Everything ends, yet every ending is also a beginning.
For the second aliyah, I drew attention to the moment that Jacob offers parting words to his sons in Genesis 49:1-29. He speaks fearlessly, telling it as it he sees it, both what has been and the foundation the past has laid for what may come to pass. The passage is quite remarkable as he speaks very hard truths and very great blessings, equally without hesitation. This same capacity is my new year’s blessing for all of you, dear readers, fearless seekers after truth and wisdom, beauty and meaning, love and justice: that all may be able to see truth despite those who seek to obscure it; and speak truth despite those seeking to silence it.
Today we have new names for lies. The sleep of reason breeds monsters such as “fake news,” a club brandished by the Present Occupant of the White House to beat his critics into submission; and also by his opponents to discredit those who reprint his lies without reservation.
Eighty-three years ago, in 1935, the German writer Bertolt Brecht published his essay, “Writing the Truth: Five Difficulties.” To urge you on in the spirit of fearless truth, ruthless awareness, I offer a few of his words:
Nowadays, anyone who wishes to combat lies and ignorance and to write the truth must overcome at least five difficulties. He must have the courage to write the truth when truth is everywhere opposed; the keenness to recognize it, although it is everywhere concealed; the skill to manipulate it as a weapon; the judgment to select those in whose hands it will be effective; and the cunning to spread the truth among such persons. These are formidable problems for writers living under Fascism, but they exist also for those writers who have fled or been exiled; they exist even for writers working in countries where civil liberty prevails.
Here’s a live 1974 recording of Link Wray’s groundbreaking “Rumble,” first released in 1958. An essential part of living into truth these days is unearthing what has been suppressed, resurrecting buried truths. You must see Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, a remarkable documentary on the Indigenous roots of rock’n’roll, released this year and now available for streaming.
Every community owes its existence and vitality to generations from around the world who contributed their hopes, dreams, and energy to making the history that led to this moment. Some were brought here against their will, some were drawn to leave their distant homes in hope of a better life, and some have lived on this land for more generations than can be counted. Truth and acknowledgment are critical to building mutual respect and connection across all barriers of heritage and difference. We begin this effort to acknowledge what has been buried by honoring the truth. We are standing on the ancestral lands of the Coastal Miwok people. We pay respects to their elders past and present. Please take a moment to consider the many legacies of violence, displacement, migration, and settlement that bring us together here today. And please join us in uncovering such truths at any and all public events.
I want to mention another USDAC resource that is especially relevant here in Northern California where wildfires have forced evacuations and incinerated lives and homes, as in Houston, Puerto Rico, and so many other places experiencing civil and natural emergencies. Go to the USDAC home page and you can also find Art Became the Oxygen: An Artistic Response Guide, offering models, examples, ethical and practical guidance to artists who wish to place their gifts at the service of communities needing consolation and care, help in devising creative protest, and support in building resilience to withstand future onslaughts.
When Nina Simons asked back in February if I would organize a panel for this year’s Bioneers, I had no hesitation in choosing a topic. Regardless of the specific outcome of that struggle to protect sacred land, I knew that we had seen something at Standing Rock that pointed the way forward, toward an integrated way of being that is art, spirit, and social change simultaneously. In February, the last water protectors were being cleared out. Even in February, we’d seen enough of the new administration in its first month to fear what was to come. Today, nine months into the White House’s rampage of hatred and destruction, we have ample proof of how much easier it is to tear down than to build up.
What do we do with that information? I have a few thoughts.
I’d like to start by sharing a teaching from from the great teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Afterwards, he told the world: “When I marched in Selma, I felt my feet were praying.”
Rabbi Heschel wrote this: “This is the most important experience in the life of every human being: something is asked of me. Every human being has had a moment in which he sensed a mystery waiting for him. Meaning is found in responding to the demand, meaning is found in sensing the demand.”
I am sensing the demand. And I am by no means the only one.
Whether the focus is cultural rights, climate crisis, racist policing, rape culture, rampant gentrification or many other things I could name, while it’s true that stopping the destruction—damming the torrent of hatred—is necessary and crucial, we have a larger and longer-term task, which is building up a social order of justice tempered by love. It is our task to create the container for full belonging, for full cultural citizenship which knows no papers or borders, in which each person is welcomed with dignity, respect, and equity. It is our task to counter the brokenness that prevents us from bringing all parts of ourselves—body, emotions, intellect, and spirit—into everything we do. It is our task to step across the barriers erected by the old order and show up fully where our gifts are most needed.
When we were preparing for this session, Lulani pointed out how the very language we may use forces our experience into categories that don’t do it justice. We fall prey to the habit of compartmentalization which has shaped the current social order, where it is not only in the interests of those who profit from our subjugation to divide us from each other.
Their project also requires dividing us from ourselves.
How commonplace is it to accept that we must leave large parts of ourselves outside when we enter the room? The life of the body is not welcome in the classroom—unless you count recess. Tears have no place in the boardroom, despite the many decisions made there that cause them to flow outside. As for the courtroom: the oceanic sense of connection to spirit that may arise at any moment had better keep its head down there. In this country, we are facing a gigantic case of fragmentation-induced historic amnesia and compulsive lying. Here’s how James Baldwin put in 1962, 55 years ago:
We know, in the case of the person, that whoever cannot tell himself the truth about his past is trapped in it, is immobilized in the prison of his undiscovered self. This is also true of nations. We know how a person, in such a paralysis, is unable to assess either his weaknesses or his strengths, and how frequently indeed he mistakes the one for the other. And this, I think, we do. (The Creative Process,” 1962)
This condition is not hard-wired into human beings. But it is encoded in the English language and the conventional habits of mind that go with it, obscuring the integral nature of the task before us—if only we can sense the demand. The demand I sense is to cease dividing us, each from the other, each from ourselves. I don’t want to be part of a left that does the oppressor’s work by treating the categories that shatter us as if they were real. I don’t want to have a million debates about whether art and politics mix, as if every creative action didn’t also carry information about who we are, what we stand for, how we want to be remembered. I want to remember the shining truth of Eric Ward’s words,
Race doesn’t actually exist but racism does. Race is a social construct, not a biological definition. White supremacy has conned us into believing that race is about biology. It’s not our job to codify racism in America. Our job is to destroy the concept of race, not reorganize it. When we reorganize race, we become agents of white supremacy.
Our job is reunify the parts of ourselves that have been shattered by a social order that sees fragmentation as an easy route to compliance, that takes us apart to make us easier to treat like machines. Our job is to to remember history, to dream a future that leads us out of paralysis.
All around us, we see shining examples of the demand for wholeness being met. When I think of the water protectors at Standing Rock joining in ceremony clothed in beauty, of the women processing to the water at sunrise, of the singers at the sacred fire, if someone should ask me whether these things are art, or spirituality, or politics, I have only one answer:
The planet and all of the life forms it supports are calling out to us. The capacities that will equip us to sense and act on the demand now sounding so strongly are reflected in the work you will hear about from our presenters today.
The culture shift now underway—despite formidable obstacles—is from a consumer society in which economic value is primary and everything that counts can be counted to a creator society in which all of us have our stories and all stories count. The work our wonderful panelists will share with you today points to a path of wholeness. As artists, they know that everything created must first be imagined, including the loving, just, and beautiful society, the full belonging we are trying to help into being. When we create or experience beauty and meaning, we are able to practice the two critical skills most needed to make our visions real: imagination, to see that that another world is possible and bring it into focus; and empathy, to put ourselves in one another’s places, to feel something of another’s truth and to be moved to just and compassionate action.
When undertaken with this awareness, these creative practices actualize the simple and profound message which is the DNA of every spiritual tradition. I’ll offer the Hebrew version: do not unto others that which is hateful to yourself. I sometimes feel that the Golden Rule could serve as a one-line public policy. Imagine if every policymaker was required to apply it to all public actions, putting empathy and compassionate action first. Senators and governors would have to send their children to the same public schools they deem good enough for the children of immigrants; their families’ medical care would take place in exactly the same circumstances as provided for those using public health facilities; they would have to live in the same public housing they prescribe for others. If the Golden Rule were actually applied, we could solve most of our problems overnight.
But how do we get there?
We know from the increasingly interesting findings of cognitive scientists that people make political decisions not by adding up facts and figures in a dispassionate manner, but by connecting issues to emotions, associations, stories, images, parables. We know that to change the world, we have to change the story. Those who carry a story that says their white skin entitles them to a position of social superiority will vote for the candidate whose story matches theirs. The new story needs to kindle imagination and empathy, enabling them to not just know, but to feel the consequences for all who are oppressed by that story. Those who carry a story that says the land and water are merely raw materials for profit will vote for the candidate whose story matches theirs. The new story needs to embody a long and encompassing view of the life sustained by Mother Earth, enabling them to see themselves in a kind of family relationship with others, not as owner versus owned.
That is why I am very glad to turn the floor over to these amazing storytellers, who will share with you ideas, experiences, and examples of braided activism in which art, spirit, and politics are indivisible. I invite you to listen with your whole being: to open your hearts and minds to what is being shared; to bring your awareness to what is being evoked in your body and the information that carries; and to allow the sounds and images you experience to erode the boundaries between us and within you. To take this opportunity ourselves that while each of us is unique, we are also one.
Our well line broke this week. We live far from city water—or gas, or waste collection. We compost scraps, haul our own recycling, burn paper instead of flushing it to some unknown but surely polluted location. The issue coincided with days of heavy rain, welcome in New Mexico but also saturating the ground and thus postponing repairs. We haven’t had running water since Tuesday, especially inconvenient as we planned to host beloved friends coming here to lead Yom Kippur services.
Every hour has brought a reminder of how dependent I am on the conveniences of modern life (even our boondocks version). My body turns on the tap over and over before my mind remembers that no water will be forthcoming. I think of the people in Puerto Rico suffering from the pernicious neglect of a government that purports to watch over them. Those with homes still standing, how often do their bodies flip a light switch before their minds turn to wondering how they will survive in cities and towns without electricity?
I wash my face with a cup of filtered water purchased from the supermarket and think of the writer from Tamil Nadu I once met at an international gathering. As waiters refilled our sparkling glasses from crystal pitchers, he pointed to the tumbler next to his plate and said, “This is how much water I wash in every day.” I think about the people in Flint, Michigan, the people standing with Standing Rock for the truth that water is life, the people on Dine lands here in the Southwest and in the developing world across the planet for whom clean water has become a luxury, a profit center for corporations, a memory of what has been lost.
I find myself worrying about how much longer we will have to wait for repairs to our well, how much they will cost, and then I think of the people in Houston—like those in New Orleans and New York before them—waiting for years, sometimes forever, to return to their homes.
Underneath all the logic and analysis, I am a superstitious person. I have a bunch of little habits—knocking wood, being careful not to step over someone lying on the floor, holding a piece of thread between my teeth if I must reattach a button to a garment I am wearing (that one insures you don’t sew up your brains, according to my grandmother)—that also live in my body, rituals my body performs before my mind even knows they are happening. It is very easy for me to interpret a setback as a punishment. The reactive voice resounding in my head speaks the words I have heard so many times from others coping with misfortune: “Why is this happening now? Why is this happening to me?”
My conscious mind does not for one moment believe that things like broken well lines, as with broken arms, are anything but random occurrences. I don’t for a second believe there is an Accountant in the sky meting out rewards and punishments. Experience has taught me that sometimes the evil prosper and the good suffer—and just as often, vice versa. Nevertheless, those kneejerk superstitions have become part of my body’s operating system. The challenge is to ignore or dismiss them instead of entertaining the illusion that they are voicing truth.
For a day or so after the water disappeared, though, it was a struggle. Here we are, right in the middle of the High Holidays, when I am inventorying my soul and actions and doing all I can to set right those places where I’ve missed the mark, when I am opening myself to whatever message comes to me before the gates which have opened to receive our prayers close at the end of Yom Kippur. The voice in my head kept asking me what I had done to deserve the disruption of my process of reorientation to what matters most.
And then the message came to me. This is the process. I was reminded to be grateful for what I have grown accustomed to receiving without conscious awareness, to notice and cherish the many gifts each day brings unbidden, and to allow compassion to flow in thought and action toward those whose ordinary reality has been ruptured not only by storms, but by the human actions that made their consequences so much worse.
There is a teaching that we should say 100 blessings each day. In the Jewish tradition, blessings are both mindfulness practice—stopping before you eat to acknowledge the Force that brings forth bread from the earth, rather than just wolfing down the food—and gratitude practice, offering thanks for the bounty of the world and our part in it. So the lesson I draw from our well is this blessing, one I hope for myself and for you: may we remain aware of what we receive and remember to be grateful, not falling into the illusion that comfort is our entitlement, but using our gifts to pursue the well-being of all.
I started this blog series exactly a month ago, saying I “borrowed the title of this series from a shrink who offered it as a way to call in the awareness and acknowledgement that start to diffuse reactivity. You know what I mean by reactivity? I’m talking about that rush of terror or fury or both that overwhelms brain and body when something pokes its finger into an old wound, flooding the inner world with elicited memory, elicited pain.”
Recently several friends have asked for my assessment of the general state of people as I observe them. I travel a good deal for speaking and consulting gigs and spend a lot of time connecting across distance in other ways, so responding to that query entails a quick mental survey of all I’ve seen in recent weeks.
So far, my replies have begun with my own state of mind. “I’m easily irritated and frustrated,” I say. “I hear something and I put the worst spin on it, making up the worst story to explain it. Then I have to dial back to remind myself there are other equally possible stories. It takes effort to relax into not-knowing.”
Then I say this: “But I’m definitely not the only one: polarizing rhetoric, hardcore posturing, the resistance to empathizing with another’s challenges because that might take attention away from your own—it seems like everyone is a full glass of water, poised to spill over at the next drop. I can think of lots of reasons, mostly things not in our immediate control. If I don’t want to feel this way, the territory I’ve got to explore is the landscape of my own emotions: where are they anchored in false narratives and ungrounded assumptions? What is in my control that can help to shift them?”
For people like me who’ve been working a lifetime to help nurture a social order of justice tempered by love, it’s frightening to see how quickly the people in power in DC can tear things down. So I’m fighting discouragement, and the biggest ally I have is the awesome scope of resistance, opposition, and the persistence of visionary thinking and action—unparalleled in my lifetime. Demoralization is a choice, I remind myself, since the future cannot be known. But when the monster ego in the White House broadcasts his own power via 24/7 threats to both domestic and international well-being, it takes energy to tune him out.
For those living and working on the frontlines of our social emergency, the challenge is so much greater, it beggars imagination. There is no hurricane here, no earthquake. My family is not being deported. I don’t live in fear that a trip to the grocery store may end in a deadly encounter with police who challenge my right to walk the streets of my own city. I’m alarmed at the truth of antisemitism at the core of white nationalism that is coming to light (more words of wisdom from Eric Ward and Jill Jacobs can be found beginning at 4:40 on episode 79 of this podcast). But I will be able to go to Rosh HaShanah services in Santa Fe tonight without passing armed guards, even as I read about congregations in other communities that keep the address of services secret, or Nazis threatening to burn a St. Louis synagogue that recently gave refuge to demonstrators.
I feel more tired than usual. I’m crystal-clear that doing less and resting more is the antidote, and I admit it: I am the world’s worst when it comes to resting. So much needs doing, so much calls to me, and before long I notice that I am moving through the world without really tasting it. There is a lot of writing about this right now by people who have learned to recognize their own incipient burnout and begun the hard work of restoration, such as this post by Dom Chatterjee on Rest for Resistance.
My main reasons to cultivate rest in this moment—aside from the fact that I live in a body and would like it to keep functioning well as long as possible—is that creating space in my physical and mental landscape enables reflection, and despite the reams of analysis currently issuing from every corner of our tortured body politic, reflection is what we sorely lack. When I rest, fresh ideas sprout and I have time to notice them. When I rest, my ability to enter into my experience is much, much greater. I remember that having been given life, it is my responsibility to notice, experience, and bless. As the Jerusalem Talmud (Kiddushin 4:12) says, “It is the future of every person to be required to give a full account and reckoning for all that his eyes saw that he did not taste.”
When I remember that, I can exhale, and the irritation and frustration dissipate. Perhaps it will work for you.
So whether or not you celebrate the High Holy Days, dear readers, I want to offer the blessing of a sweet year in which rest and reflection support you in tasting all the world offers, nourishing yourself to act for love and justice in the coming year.
I had a friend who in her youth acquired an elaborate multicolored tattoo spanning her stomach, a symmetrical image in which her navel served as a focal point. An eye? I no longer recall. She gave birth by Caesarean operation, and when the doctors stitched her back together, the two halves of the tattoo didn’t match up. As the years passed, the skew and pucker escalated. Her skin was an ever-present reminder of the gap between intention and execution, of innocence and error.
I think of her every time I see a body bearing a significant acreage of ink, especially the tattoos with quotations or aphorisms likely to grow less legible as flesh wrinkles and sags—but perhaps not before the sentiments they convey become stale or tiresome or embarrassing. A time-lapse effect goes off in my brain, fast-forwarding each decorated body fifty or sixty years into the future. Everything changes, I know. What were they thinking? Don’t they know the perils of anchoring tomorrow too firmly in today? The law of unintended consequences is the only one that is never broken.
Just so with the monuments to conquerors, Confederates, and criminals. These bronze-and-stone memorials are tattoos on the body politic. What were they thinking? Surely that whatever seemed worthy or urgent on the day they decided public space needed a tattoo would—should—remain so always.
All flesh is grass, said Isaiah, and the corpus of the body politic is no exception. Monuments erode, are toppled or exploded, get pushed aside by the urge to memorialize a fresher event with a more promising potential for timelessness.
Regret the tattoo on your body and the consequences are relatively minor: a removal procedure, a modest wardrobe, an avoidance of mirrors. Regret the tattoos scarring our parks and plazas and the possible consequences are major.
At this time of year, we Jews are asked to perform a cheshbon hanefesh, a soul accounting or inventory, examining the year gone by, asking forgiveness from those we have wronged, doing t’shuvah—reorienting to the Source through prayer and redemptive deeds of justice and loving-kindness, granting forgiveness when it is asked by someone truly ready to engage that reciprocal process.
What should we do with these powerfully regrettable tattoos on the body politic? We should awaken into the stark truth that it is cruel and wicked to glorify suffering and make heroes out of those who imposed it. The path out of the trance of indifference to the harm done requires only three steps: awareness of wrong and one’s connection to it; acknowledgment of wrongdoing and its consequences; and redemptive action to contradict the cruelty and begin a healing process.
We need a national soul accounting to bring truth to light, give it public acknowledgment, and declare the steps that will be taken to begin national redemption. No process is perfect, but I commend you to the final report of Canada’s national Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which lays out in detail the terrible crimes the government, private institutions, and settlers committed against Aboriginal people.
We need to face and fix how we hold the United States’ collective history of sins against those whose land was occupied, those brought here on slave ships from Africa or imported from Asia to satisfy capitalism’s appetite for cheap labor—against all who have been exploited, harmed, whose stories have been erased from the official record in service to white supremacy.
The statues are a small part of it, to be sure. But they carry enormous symbolic weight. We need robust cultural action to erase, remake, and replace the monuments to cruelty marring the national landscape.
As the debate unfolds, undigested assumptions and opaque assertions get tossed around like so many rocks, sometimes doing damage, sometimes missing the mark. Instead of moving us toward truth and reconciliation, they trigger our defensiveness, feeding the fantasy that this is an argument which can be won by a contest of assertions. They are standing in the way of a true soul accounting.
Every question, no matter how complex, turns on fundamental values. So I will begin with three questions you’ve heard me ask before. Their answers can illuminate some of the conflicting values at the heart of the controversy:
Who are we as a people?
What do we stand for?
How do we want to be remembered?
Who are we as a people?
That “we” names a big tent sheltering everyone who calls this country home, whether our forbears lived many generations on this land or have recently arrived, whether we feel our birthright is to rule or live with the fear that our right to remain turns on the sufferance of rulers. Standing in the tent, shoulder-to-shoulder with friends and foes, it can’t be about one winner. If democracy is to be real, we are obliged to find a path that the greatest number can walk with dignity in peace.
So while asking who we are as individuals yields a long list of conflicting particulars—white southern descendants of the Confederacy asserting that their ancestors’ noble cause must be honored and the descendants of black freedom riders who risked and sacrificed for the fundamental human rights the Confederacy denied—it is the collective answer that matters most in shaping a social order of justice tempered by love.
We live in a time that loves classification, almost as much as the 18th-century scholars enamored of Linnaeus’ system of botanical classification who decided if the naming of families and lineages worked for plants, it ought to sort human beings into handy categories. Many people today love classification almost as much as the 19th-century ideologues who, extrapolating from the system of classifying plants and animals, braiding it into the Christian conquest of darker people, decided that some of the “races” they’d created weren’t entirely human after all.
I’m learning a lot from Eric Ward these days (I cited him in part one of this series on anti-Semitism as the foundational idea of white nationalism). A few weeks ago he commented on Facebook about a question concerning Jews and whiteness that came up at a panel discussion he’d taken part in:
During my phenomenal and dynamic panel last night, the discussion turned to whether Ashkenazi Jews are white. My response. “White groupings in America don’t receive systemic reminders to ‘know their place.'” Don’t believe me? Ask Arab Americans how life changed after the mainstreaming of Islamophobia on September 12th.
Race doesn’t actually exist but racism does. Race is a social construct, not a biological definition. White supremacy has conned us into believing that race is about biology. It’s not our job to codify racism in America. Our job is to destroy the concept of race, not reorganize it. When we reorganize race, we become agents of white supremacy. Know what? That makes us white supremacists.
Race is confusing because it doesn’t make any sense. I get that people want to make sense of racism but we shouldn’t do it by trying to put organization to race. I do sincerely apologize if my words appeared harsh last night but it’s the anti-racist in me. As Audrey Lorde says, “If I’ve spoken to you in anger, at least I’ve spoken.”
Who are we as a people is as wildly complicated a question as Lisa Richardson made it in her L.A. Times op-ed on 27 August:
Like millions of African Americans, I am the descendant of a Confederate soldier. True, we are most likely descendants through coerced sex and rape, but we are descendants all the same. According to Ancestry.com, the DNA of the average African American is 29% European. These bronzed southern soldiers are literally our forefathers too.
Sometimes the expression “skin in the game” is all too apt. This is one of those times: when the debate is cast as a contest, two sides claiming ownership of history for the sake of their ancestors, the question gets reduced to who has the right. Behind the curtain of false equivalence, the person who loves walking past a monument that depicts Africans or Indigenous people as welcoming the civilizing hand of slaveholders or colonizers has just as much right to preserve it as I do to protest: fair’s fair. As my friend Makani Themba (who serves as Minister of Revolutionary Imagination on the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture National Cabinet, by the way) put it:
Fake fairness shows up in attempts to legitimize racism and white supremacy as a “fair” and equivalent “response” to racial justice. It underlies the twisted logic that the tragic violence in #Charlottesville represents one of “many sides” of a “legitimate” debate. Fake fairness did not start with 45. It has been a running national story for centuries, helping to dismantle affirmative action, slash public benefits and attack public education. It was used to frame civil rights organizers as “instigators” “stirring up racial violence”- I guess by peacefully demonstrating and getting beat up by the police.
Read Lisa Richardson’s whole op-ed, then tell me who has more right than she to voice the fate of the Confederate monuments.
What do we stand for?
Toppling monuments to make way for new deities and heroes is as old as humankind. Deuteronomy 12:2-3 exhorts the people to “destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshiped their gods, whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under any luxuriant tree.
“Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site.”
If you’re tempted to dismiss that precedent as too ancient to relate, fast-forward to the 17th century when the colonists, many of whom came to these shores seeking freedom to worship as they chose, followed suit in decimating the Indigenous people of these lands and their sacred sites.
If you’re attempted to dismiss it as too specific to a particular religious tradition, widen your gaze. We can page our way through history assigning virtue or vice to the topplers, depending on our own sense of the sacred. Virtually every revolutionary force—whether the revolution they envisaged was the overthrow of modernity or replacing repressive state authority with liberatory ideals—has erased or transformed the monuments of the order it wishes to supplant. Here are a few examples.of monuments toppled, from King George the 3rd to the Taliban.
Such destruction has symbolic meaning as well as practical impact. Whether it was ISIS toppling Assad in Raqqa (City of Ghosts is well worth seeing for many reasons, including a close-up of this example) or protests of the false history of the Entrada, glorifying Spanish conquest, right here in New Mexico, the message is this: “this gesture signals that we are changing history’s path; ignore us at your peril.” It isn’t right or wrong, it just is—and if it weren’t, we’d be picking our way through a forest of carefully preserved artifacts every time we took a walk, and instead of a city, we’d live in history’s museum, attic, or junkyard, depending on how much you love clutter.
Just so, erecting a monument is all about standing for something. The history of Confederate monuments has been told many times. Suffice it to say while a few of these statues were put up immediately following the Civil War to memorialize family members and so on, the vast majority were erected later as part of a reactionary project to sanitize and suffuse white supremacy with enduring legitimacy, tattooing its symbols permanently on the body politic.
They didn’t pop to the surface of parks and plazas like mushrooms after a rain. In each case, some individual or group decided it was a good idea to raise a monument to an historic moment or cause. Typically, beginning with major gifts from wealthy patrons, these projects were funded through subscriptions marketed to assert a legacy—to show people what “we” stand for. There was little difficulty in obtaining the necessary funding and permissions; these monuments to privilege could easily sail past the gatekeepers of privilege. One thing they stand for is to remind us of the ease with which public space gives way to private entitlement. Another is to remind us whose voice counts, who tells history, and thus who holds power.
The epidemic of premature fatalities under Spanish colonialism was facilitated by an authoritarian and brutal mission system, enforced by irons and the whip. Life “under the bell,” as prescribed by Junipero Serra, was disastrous for native people.
Functioning as forced labor camps, the missions imposed baptisms and conversions, fiercely policed the boundaries of Christian sexuality and punished infractions with flogging. Cut off from their homelands, deprived of cultural traditions and exposed to unfamiliar viruses, 1 in 3 babies born in missions did not make it to their first year; 40% of those who survived died before their fifth year; and 10% to 20% of adults died each year.
It isn’t all about removing symbols that glorify domination and oppression. There is also an outcry over the missing monuments, those that should now stand in plain sight if our sites of public memory are to stand for the truth of we the people. Last month Jessica Wang wrote on Alternet about the 4,000 people of African descent lynched in the south: where are their monuments? The short video from the Equal Justice Institute that accompanies that essay is one. A campaign in New York to add women to Central Park’s 22 male figures memorialized in bronze and stone led in 2015 to approval of a statue of women’s rights advocates Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Funds are still being raised to support the project.
Searching for the monuments that aren’t there teaches just as much about what we stand for as calling out those that shouldn’t be.
These Confederate monuments are historically significant and essential to understanding a critical period of our nation’s history. Just as many of them do not reflect, and are in fact abhorrent to, our values as a diverse and inclusive nation. We cannot and should not erase our history. But we also want our public monuments, on public land and supported by public funding, to uphold our public values.
Ultimately, decisions about what to do with offending memorials will be made on a case by case basis at the community level. Some memorials can be moved, others altered, and others retained as seen fit. Whatever is decided, we hope that memorials that remain are appropriately and thoughtfully “re-contextualized” to provide information about the war and its causes, and that changes are done in a way that engage with, rather than silence, the past–no matter how difficult it may be.
We should always remember the past, but we do not necessarily need to revere it. As communities work to determine the appropriate balance, we hope they move forward in a transparent, deliberative, and inclusive way that embraces the complexity here, examines many possible alternatives, and allows for a thoughtful community dialogue that gives all sides a chance to be heard.
How do we want to be remembered?
The people who tattooed monuments to white supremacy on our body politic wanted to be remembered as saviors and heroes of “manifest destiny,” an ideology justifying racism and conquest as expressing the divine right to dominate. Despite white nationalists’ attempts to reprise this message (repeatedly drowned out by defenders of freedom, justice, and equity who vastly outnumber them), there is no basis to argue that anything approaching a majority of Americans want to see it revived as public policy.
But right now, a whole lot of people want to argue that these monuments deserve to exist simply because they have stood over time even though the ideas that animate them have not. A ton of competitive writing on the subject is coming out. Some of it is egregiously wrongheaded, like Robin Pogrebin’s and Sopan Deb’s 26 August, New York Times piece based on the astounding idea that if these bronze and stone soldiers on horseback are classified as art, freedom of artistic expression is somehow endangered by removing or altering them.
Quite a few seem to want to be remembered for the sheer volume of our detritus rather than the special merit we have wrought. Historian and geographer David Lowenthal’s notion of this is described in an interesting essay by Michael Press in Hyperallergic of August 29:
Our compulsion to preserve as much of the past as possible is a development of the last few decades in particular, and primarily an American and European one. The National Register of Historic Places was established only in 1966, after most of the jazz landmarks mentioned above were already demolished. From UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites to Antiques Roadshow, over the past 50 years we have encountered the incentive to value every material trace of the past more and more, like a society with collective hoarding anxiety. Lowenthal observes that, contrary to what we generally believe, cultural heritage is not shrinking but constantly expanding. It is not a finite source gradually disappearing, piece by piece, but something that we keep discovering and reinterpreting, and keep adding to as the present continues to become past.
No one has explained to my satisfaction how a large stock of statues embodying white supremacy’s mythology is a necessary prerequisite to facing historical truth. There is, however, considerable evidence to the contrary. Here are two extremely interesting essays on Germany’s choice to eliminate monuments to Nazis so as to avoid equipping racists with the sort of rallying-place Robert E. Lee’s statue in Charlottesville provided this summer. Maggie Penman’s NPR piece “How Charlottesville Looks From Berlin” points out how replete that city is with memorials to Hitler’s victims, how much attention goes to remembrance with a single Nazi statue; in Politico, Joshua Zeitz’s essay entitled “Why There Are No Nazi Statues in Germany” begins with Frederick Douglass:
“Whatever else I may forget,” the ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass said in 1894, “I shall never forget the difference between those who fought for liberty and those who fought for slavery.” Douglass…deplored an emerging national consensus that the Civil War had been fought over vague philosophical disagreements about federalism and states’ rights, but not over the core issue of slavery. In this retelling, neither side was right or wrong, and both Confederate and Union soldiers were to be celebrated for their battlefield valor.
“Now, a century and a half after the Civil War,” Zeitz writes, “Americans are finally confronting the propriety of celebrating the lives of men who committed treason in the name of preserving slavery. That these statues even exist is unusual. When armies are defeated on their own soil—particularly when those armies fight to promote racist or genocidal policies—they usually don’t get to keep their symbols and material culture.”
What is to be done?
The question seems pretty clear to me: I want to be remembered for truth and reconciliation as the antidotes to false history serving a politics of indifference, exploitation, and greed. And that means facing history as, however imperfectly, Canadians have tried to do.
It means a robust conversation about alternative means of using our sites of public memory to redeem the body politic and move toward healing, including such ideas as those a dozen different artists offered, responding to a query from artnet News, including the inspiration offered by those memorializing a fearless encounter with history, such as the institutions taking part in Sites of Conscience. It means actually investing significant public and private resources in the process of soul accounting and the actions that must be taken to set things right.
In my tradition, the annual cheshbon hanefesh is followed by a ten-day cycle of holy days. We recite Unetaneh Tokef, which initializes the fear humans feel facing the inevitability of death and the harsh judgment it may decree. Leonard Cohen’s song “Who By Fire” incorporates and adapts some of its elements.
And who by brave assent, who by accident,
Who in solitude, who in this mirror,
Who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand,
Who in mortal chains, who in power,
And who shall I say is calling?
Leonard Cohen, Who by Fire , Dublin 12-09-2012 - YouTube