While reflecting on the place our country finds itself in right now I’ve come across two great articles that have gotten my mental gears turning and given me insight, even some optimism.
The first is In extremis by Nabeelah Jaffer published on the website Aeon this week.
Jaffer, a PhD student at the University of Oxford challenges our widely held belief that religious extremism, fanaticism, and violence are phenomena born out of foreign lands, foreign cultures, and foreign faiths. Instead she highlights that the root of these social ills lies in the universal experience of loneliness.
As George Orwell said, sometimes it takes all our effort just to see what is right in front of our faces.
Jaffer’s observations already fit with the clichés we hear uttered about nearly every mass shooter, domestic terrorist, or serial killer: they are loners. . .alienated, isolated (and almost always male—that is a whole other blog post). But Jaffer pushes her readers to see the foreign terrorist, the domestic mass shooter, and the violent white supremacist as one in the same. We should. The distinction between domestic and foreign criminals who perpetrate this type of extremist violence is facile at best. It relies on an “othering” of people from different nationalities and backgrounds that has no real basis in fact. No matter who we are, where we are from, our hearts break for the same reasons.
What Jaffer’s article opens up is a line of inquiry to examine the alienation and isolation that is behind violence in the Middle East, violent Alt-Right extremism here in the states, and even nativist White Supremacist hate groups in Europe. These are manifestations of the same maladies and might even have similar solutions. (Spoiler alert, those solutions are love and inclusion—don’t act surprised, the name of the blog is BELONG after all).
The second article is the special report in the July 14-20th edition of The Economist (full disclosure, I am an unapologetic fanboy of The Economist). This special report on America’s Democrats, taken with the same issue’s cover story on the inherent bias built into the electoral college and its “odious” (The Economist’s word not mine) roots in slavery make the edition a MUST read.
I’m sympathetic to the spirit of what is often derided as “identity politics.” I think it is crucial we recognize that people from different backgrounds—ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, faith, etc . . . have different experiences of the world. This is a non-negotiable if we are to move forward as a country and try to evolve away from out normalization and centering of “whiteness” and “maleness.” I like how the report, in the balanced-yet-witty fashion of the Economist, says the following:
“Candidates who are not in power must be able to persuade people that they share their worries, are on their side and, at some level, are like them. Voting is partly an exercise in narcissism. People want to be able to look at a candidate and see something of themselves. When your party does this, it is called empathy. When the other side tries, it is called identity politics.”
I admit, identity politics frequently leaves me with a sense of unease. For taken too far, I see its potential to set us apart from one another to further divide us. A balance needs to be struck, but what that balance is exactly, has eluded me up to this point. How do we do so without glossing over people’s legitimate experiences, their unique identities, the value of different voices?
The Economist article goes on to posit a way forward. It closes with an interview with Governor Jerry Brown of California—a leader who has remained relevant in an increasingly diverse electorate by consistently being on the cutting edge of progressive politics, and one might say, the right side of history. (The guy has been succeeding in California politics longer than I’ve been alive, serving as Governor in the seventies and today—well played Mr. Brown, well played).
Brown argues that we need to steer clear of the roll call of identities taking over the introduction of speeches by democratic candidates. While we certainly need to de-center white-masculinity, this does not mean we value some voices over others. We white men definitely need to do more listening and less talking these days. There needs to be a shift in how much time folks get to hold the microphone. But telling white men to simply “shut up” because they are not valued and people of color are, is just the mirror opposite of the white supremacy we are trying to combat today. James Baldwin said as much years ago when he criticized the Nation of Islam of exhibiting the very same racism as the whites they were calling devils.
I say that knowing I’ve have, figuratively, told white men to shut up at times. (Sometimes they deserved the rebuke—looking at you Matt Damon). Those of us on the progressive side of things are all likely guilty of some version of this I fear. It takes several forms. It even can show up when we tokenize the stories and voices of people of color, LGBTQ, (at the risk of appropriating them), simply moving down that “check list of oppressed identities” without reflecting on the individual persons telling their story. We don’t pay attention to the person as much as the label and the perfunctory task of getting some “melanin behind the microphone” for optics rather than true recognition.
It’s a tricky balance to strike I admit, but we need to constantly check ourselves, our motives, and how we present ourselves and ask others to tell their stories (and others not to). When we appear to completely devalue some points of view because they are too “privileged,” when we are blind to their pain or treat them as inauthentic, we get into dangerous waters. It can lead us into, what some observers have deemed, the “misery Olympics.” It even contributes to the (mistaken) impression among some whites that they are being persecuted.
Let me be the first to say they aren’t. But we can over steer in our efforts to self-correct and end up doubling down on differences, which can further alienate us from each other. This can make some people, who operate on a scarcity model, feel that in the recognition of historically marginalized voices means their own will be lost.
It won’t be. We’re all made better by inclusion of many voices. I’m convinced of it, but it requires a shift from a zero-sum to win-win mindset. One of generosity. That is NOT the worldview promoted by our current administration. If anything, the current administration has succeeded by doing the opposite, convincing people that if others are “winning” they must be losing. . .and on the verge of social extinction, which some (idiots) interpret as genocide.
I can’t even . . .
As we correct historical imbalances in representation, however, it can be an exceedingly tough balancing act and sometimes feels like a real catch-22. But Governor Brown presents a refreshing antidote, urging us to focus on an articulation of the American identity that is, at its core, inclusive.
That has always been the ideal of America from the beginning, but not the practice. (This is captured powerfully in the recent excavation of the burial site of George Yeardley, the first governor of Jamestown settlement in the colony of Virginia. Yeardley was the first leader of a representative assembly in North America, as well as its first slave holder. He is the inescapable epitome the contradictory themes of our country, right there, in front of our faces from its very beginning: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/archaeologists-have-found-the-remains-of-one-of-jamestowns-early-settlers-now-they-have-to-prove-he-is-who-they-think-he-is/2018/07/23/81c71708-8901-11e8-85ae-511bc1146b0b_story.html?utm_term=.1d61235c0c43 ).
But enough about the governor of Jamestown. Back to the governor of California, Jerry Brown. Here I see that, again, we can evoke George Orwell: the solution was staring us in the face the whole time. In Brown’s words, progressive leaders need to “wrap themselves in the flag and become grounded in this ‘Americana business.’” By Americana business, Brown does not mean whiteness, border walls, guns, or Christianity. He means embracing and fighting for an American identity that emphasizes the things about America that leads so many to fall in love with her in the first place: freedom of speech, of the press, of faith, equal access to opportunity and protections of the law. As The Economist report concludes, we “must relearn the language of American civil religion: self-evident truths; a shining city upon a hill; life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. And above all, e pluribus unum: out of many, one.”
(An aside: I wonder if “out of many one,” has been floated with focus groups as a slogan for the next democratic presidential campaign slogan).
This vision not only helps us to strive towards the best ideals of the United States of America, but it presents us with a big-bucket identity that is at once inclusive and also embracing of our differences. It might also be a healthy counter to the hyper-categorization and segregation of the electorate we see taking place by political operatives who place emphasis on long-tailed labels. Some labels have value. They help us to be SEEN. But they can also lead to the isolation and alienation Nabeela Jaffer warns against in the first article mentioned above. This is the very isolation that leads to political extremism and violence, especially if it contributes to the “othering” of our brothers and sisters.
I see Jerry Brown’s approach as a shift from a deficit minded lens to a strengths-based one. I guess my hope is that the socially conservative, church-going white-dude in Alabama (Joe six pack) can stand alongside green tea sipping LGBTQ allied, agnostic, AfroLatina in San Francisco (Ayesha Yoga mat) and they can realize there are American ideals that unite us, not just labels that divide us.
Out of Many, One.