While discussing a useful politics that actually points to ownership of the future developing around us, it’s useful to discuss what’s really wrong with what we have now. This piece from two years ago does just that.
My concern is no longer with politics, per se. “Politics,” as we know it, has come to be so totally divorced from policy it is largely meaningless anyway. It’s primarily about identity, which is what far too much of language is actually about.
So let’s instead talk about politics, the art and science of human interaction.
I am far more interested in anger as the primary response to … well, everything. Every interaction, artful or not, seems to produce a lot of anger. The pathology of this pathological response is worth thinking through in many ways – if for no other reason than to cool it down.
Not everyone responds with anger. But there sure are a lot of white people who are angry about something. Too much gummint, too little gummit. Too much injustice, too little injustice. I don’t know. It’s hard to understand what people are so angry about in the middle of a spittle shower.
A lot of men are angry about something, too. And you put those together and you have a lot of angry white men. As a pale male myself, I think I have some insight. Please indulge me a little.
You may well say, “It’s unfair to categorize us as white people first!” To which I say, “Seriously?” Granted, I have to explain that I mean cultural whiteness rather than skin tone, which is to say that I don’t have to necessarily be one of y’all even though any skin paler than mine is probably regarded as a medical condition.
But yes, white – the dominant culture of the USA. We used to call it White Anglo-Saxon Protestant until it expanded to include Irish, Norwegians, Italians, and … well, all that all cuts off somewhere, dunno where.
If you have a better word than “White” please use it. I tried “Cracker” but people freaked bad.
So here we are, angry about nearly everything. Not that there isn’t a lot to be upset about, mind you, and plenty of work to do. Anger is adrenaline lazing around but there is a place for adrenaline resolutely put to difficult tasks. Call it tikkun olam, or fixing the world in Hebrew. I think Jewish is outside of “White” still, but I’m never sure. Kind of a greyish-white.
But why anger? Why such a visceral, chemical response to absolutely everything?
I present to you that the level of anger right now is a fabulous measure of what we might call “privilege”. If that makes you even angrier, please read on. Any joy you find in being angry is about to become ecstasy.
We have been talking a lot about privilege. I’m happy to say that my friend Mitch, conservative as he is, has helped me expand the concepts greatly. What’s great about him is that he doesn’t really get angry about everything even if he sometimes fakes it for his audience. He’s as mellow as you’d expect a Norwegian to be, which is to say he may be really pissed off but you’d never know for sure.
Where we have left off this conversation:
- Privilege is real. (both)
- Privilege is the benefit of the doubt. (me) It’s who is “the good guy.” (Mitch)
- Privilege shouldn’t be smashed, it should be given to everyone. (Mitch)
- In the greater scheme of things, Americans are all privileged as Hell. (me)
The latest salvo in this conversation comes from Mitch in his article “Unpacking the Invisible NPR Tote Bag.” He uses flammable language to illuminate as much as to sear, decry “Urban Progressive Privilege”. If you read the article you’ll see what my relatively racist comment about Norwegians, above, was all about.
He has a point. It’s not about anger, per se, but snugness. Insufferability. More than a desire to remake the world in our own image, this is the insistence that the world must be made in our own image. In the libertarian-minded Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) blog the problem is “I’m smarter than everyone else.”
Yes, this problem is everywhere. It simmers daily as snugness but boils quickly into anger when confronted. It doesn’t want to talk, it wants to adrenalize into rallying cries for the like-minded. It calls for support largely because on its own it’s unsupportable.
My only addition this – I know you are, but what am I?
To be more adult about it, what I mean is that every close-knit community tends to encourage sameness. People like living close by to those who are just like them, which is to say that when something goes bad you can depend that they’ll do whatever it is you would do. A culture lacking any sense of formality, or walls between private and public, is especially susceptible to react in ways which are personal and largely inappropriate to those with the audacity to challenge the established “norms”.
Those who don’t fit in? Those who are not defined as “good guys” and who know they don’t have the benefit of the doubt? They tend to be very quiet, especially when a storm is going through.
It is the stormy times of nearly universal pain and trauma that define the issues. In these times, you want to know that your neighbors are are, indeed, all good guys. We want everyone to be at the same level of privilege, working the previous conversations backwards through an awkward converse.
This gets trickier in a world where we live and work and especially chatter much closer than before.
It goes down about the same whether you live in an urban or rural setting. The main difference is that we in Da Big City are supposed to be multi-cultural, which is to say we know better than to dump on people who were born looking differently from us. Far too often, however, we still have no problem sneering at people who think differently than we do. The criticism is valid.
All of this is very human. The differences between red and blue America are simply an urban/rural split, a division as old as civilization itself.
Rural America is facing unique challenges. A time of great economic change is a time that naturally leaves behind those who are least connected. Infrastructure of all kinds is usually priced by length, meaning that the last to receive needed upgrades are those who lose out on both sides of the net beneficiaries/foot calculation. On top of this, addiction to opiods and meth is striking the hearts of many who once proudly said, “That never happens in our family.” The various storms rolling through are numerous and constant, like the Great Plains in the heat of summer.
It’s far from the best time to demand a new definition of “the good guys.” But it has to happen all the same.
The point in all of this ramble is that we all have far more in common than we might think if we stop long enough to put down the smug and the anger. Difficult times feel less painful when we slouch back into sameness. Our publicly expressed view of what is going on around us is far less an expression of the identity we supposedly represent than it is a statement of our privilege, which is to say our sameness and, dare I say it, conformity.
There is only one way past this and that is to understand privilege. If that word still angers you as a word which comes from a mysterious “them,” let me try this another way – a way that is both more positive and traditional.
To return to the storm analogy, anyone who has lived through a hurricane knows this feeling. It’s the moment when the wind has died down and the door is cracked open a notch to see what is left. In the face of catastrophic destruction there is usually one response: “Thank God we are still alive.” Hopefully it is followed by “Thank God we still have a roof” or “Thank God the neighbors made it, too,” but the principle is always the same. A genuine storm when the loss is so heavy and obvious it must be dealt with immediately wipes the concept of “privilege” right out of our minds.
Take away all the veneer of civilization and all of this goes away. So does anger – and even smug.
This is Memorial Day Weekend. It is a day when America contemplates sacrifice and how it has made us who we are. There are two pieces to the prayers of gratitude for this day, a yin and a yang born in each other and worthy of extensive meditation. The sacrifices are a measure of loss, and who we are as a people is a measure of gain.
Appreciation of either, or ideally both, demands quite a lot of humility.
Anger as a measure of privilege is in itself a measure of how selfish we have become. If we understood how great our heritage is, in large part because of sacrifice, we would never see difficult times based solely on what we might lose. If we truly counted our blessings those of us with so much would be filled with great joy as we relived each one. We would light up with the pleasure of sharing these blessings, not hoarding them.
In social and political terms, we live in a time when anger is a measure of privilege. That is in itself a measure of our inability to create appropriate boundaries. Lacking them, many of us insist on the selfish rites of taking the world alongside the conforming rites of the world taking us. What we can see for a fact is that our reactions are far too often childish and indecent, regardless of what we think our peculiar “politics” is about.
Let’s not rip down privilege, let’s expand it. Let’s count our blessings. Let’s take this weekend to realize how America truly is bigger than you and I can ever imagine. Some of us are in real pain, yes, and there is much in this great nation to help them. That is the only division which matters and it is the one division we should indeed recognize – so that like all divisions we can heal and become one nation, truly proud of who we are once again.