Archive for May, 2010

Baldwin, Arizona, and the Tea Party

May 19, 2010

I said in my last post that I blame Joshua for me reading James Baldwin, and, indeed, he’s been nudging me in that direction for a while. The tipping point, however, was reading a post by Tim Wise on Facebook, quoting No Name in the Street.

The paragraph he quotes in the context (primarily) of the new Arizona immigration law is, as he says, a powerful message “for those who think white supremacy, and American supremacy, and Christian supremacy are forever.” The perspective and near prescience Baldwin brings to the discussion is provoking – enough so that I bought the book right after reading Wise’s post.

“Force does not work the way its advocates seem to think it does. It does not, for example, reveal to the victim the strength of his adversary. On the contrary, it reveals the weakness, even the panic of his adversary, and this revelation invests the victim with patience. Furthermore, it is ultimately fatal to create too many victims. The victor can do nothing with these victims, for they do not belong to him, but–to the victims. They belong to the people he is fighting. The people know this, and as inexorably as the roll call–the honor roll–of victims expands, so does their will become inexorable: they resolve that these dead, their brethren, shall not have died in vain. When this point is reached, however long the battle may go on, the victor can never be the victor: on the contrary, all his energies, his entire life, are bound up in a terror he cannot articulate, a mystery he cannot read, a battle he cannot win–he has simply become the prisoner of the people he thought to cow, chain, or murder into submission…the excluded begin to realize, having endured everything, that they *can* endure everything. They do not know the precise shape of the future, but they know that the future belongs to them.”

I dove into the book right away. Any plan I had to search for the paragraph above was abandoned when I became engrossed in the story Baldwin tells. One morning last week, on the bus, I came across a paragraph so powerful that I read it, filled with awe, several times:

“But for power truly to feel itself menaced, it must somehow find itself in the presence of another power — or more accurately, an energy — which it has not known how to define and therefore does not know how to control. For a very long time, for example, America prospered — or seemed to prosper: this prosperity cost millions of people their lives. Now, even to the people who are the most spectacular recipients of the benefits of this prosperity are able to endure these benefits: they can neither understand them nor do without them, nor can they go beyond them. Above all, they cannot, or dare not, asses or imagine the price paid by their victims, or subjects, for this way of life, so they cannot know why the victims are revolting. They are forced then, to the conclusion that the victims — the barbarians — are revolting against all established civilized values — which is both true and not true — and, in order to preserve these values, however stifling and joyless these values have caused their lives to be, the bulk of the people desperately seek out representatives who are prepared to make up in cruelty what both they and the people lack in conviction.”

I couldn’t help but think of the connections between the formation and rise of the Tea Party and our “post-racial” America, as proved by the nation’s first Black president. The rush and urgent need to “take America back” has undertones of racism and fear. Certainly, it’s ridiculous to say the election a Black president signals the end of racism in America and ushers in a post-racist era, but it’s easy to see how it might be seen as a menace against (white) power. Reacting to this menace, though conscious or not, could be manifested in portraying President Obama as a witch doctor during the course of the health-care debates or calling health care for all “the beginning of reparations.” It could be why, while insisting they are not a racist movement, Tea Party rallies often have strong, unchallenged racist messaging.

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Fear

May 19, 2010

I’m starting to think it’s possible that fear is the root of all evil.

Semantic discussion of the religious implications of evil aside, I have seen people twist themselves in knots in fear. Fear of pain, hurting someone else, or seeing something unlovable in themselves. Fear of seeing themselves as they truly are, as if it’s something unimaginably horrid. As if seeing ourselves in all our history and present is worse than death.

Around racism and privilege in particular, I have seen this fear manifest as (sometimes incredibly skillful) avoidance. From often vague and lofty claims of colorblindness, to interpersonal conflicts and competition among white people that are misplaced – if not entirely created – to avoid even talking about talking about racism.

I’m struck in particular by one dichotomy I’ve witnessed. On the one hand, it’s generally accepted when talking about and exploring white privilege and racism, it’s up to white people to do their own work. Part of White Privilege 101 is that it is not okay to ask a person of color to teach us about racism and oppression, both because one person can’t be asked to represent an entire group and because it’s not their job to educate us about our shit. And privilege and racism is definitely our shit. White people also add that they would likely not be as honest about their own racism with a person of color in the room. On top of that, people will question someone of color who is willing to lead or facilitate a discussion with white people on privilege, wondering about where they are with their own internalized racism and having genuine concern about the re-wounding of a person of color in that role. On the other hand, I get a strong message from people of color and other marginalized groups – and throw off the same signal in groups where I am marginalized – that if you are trying to be an ally to me and protect me from your -ist bullshit at the same time, then you have seriously underestimated me. The notion that we can decide what other people can handle around their oppression seems to be a privileged one, and one that meets with lots of resistance.

To further confuse myself, I have started reading James Baldwin. (If you know me and you know Baldwin, you’re right to be scared. I blame Joshua.) From No Name in the Street:

If Americans were not so terrified of their private selves, they would never have needed to invent and could never have become so dependent on whey they still call “the Negro problem.” This problem, which they invented in order to safeguard their purity, has made of them criminals and monsters, and it is destroying them; and this not from anything blacks may or may not be doing but because of the role a guilty and constricted white imagination has assigned to the blacks.

There’s a lot said in Buddhism about being fully present in the moment, and fear seems to be the antithesis of being present. I think fear has a lot of anticipation of what’s next in it.

There’s a well-known Zen koan about a man chased by a lion over a cliff. Clinging to a vine for his life, he sees a tiger below him, waiting to eat him, while the tiger that chased him is just above him on the cliff. To add to the peril, there are mice gnawing at the vine he is clinging to. In the midst of all of this, when his fear should be at its highest, he sees a strawberry near him. He lets go of the vine with one hand to grab the strawberry and eat it and enjoys how wonderful and sweet it is.

I’m told the opposite of fear is love. I’m tempted to wax poetic about how the world would be so much better if we could love ourselves enough to love one another enough to vanquish fear, but that’s too corny and optimistic for even me. But if we could place love – or being in the moment – where fear comes up, I wonder how the conversation would change.