Arguments and Beliefs, Race and Pride, Hate and Randomness

Is there progress without violence? Do our people respect anything short of murder and beatings? Despite all efforts to the contrary the Civil Rights marchers carried arms, and Dr. Martin Luther King paid with his life for the efforts. Those efforts can often seem to have fallen flat, I hear the word “nigger” every day. Often applied humorously and usually with an expectation of your appreciating the joke. The young blacks I work with use the word consistently, and I’ve even been embraced and called “My nigger” by one of them. This still rankles my old white sensibilities. I still see Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor in the interview sketch in which Pryor replies “dead honky” to Chase’s use of “nigger”. Times have changed I suppose, Richard was long time ago now. I suppose the argument would be that when used by my young black friends the term has been repurposed, it’s evil scrubbed and that my squeamishness is a kind of relic from the ancient history of racism. Where is our modern Richard Pryor? Chris Rock’s humor has left me shaken. His rant about hating “niggers” himself, and railing about what a “nigger” is abraded me so intensely that I thought that it’d have been no different if his work had been penned by white supremacists. Maybe I’m too uptight, and also maybe our generations get caught in tidal surges of worry that leave us stranded where islands of political correctness trap our aging understanding of social peace and justice. Should I just trust the kids? That seems to be the last thing any of us over fifty care to do!
In the past I have argued that there is no political correctness that there is only correctness. When our current administration’s tacit endorsement of the alt-right leaves us anticipating ever more grotesque debasement of everyone from non-Christians, to internationals, to even women in general it isn’t about some kind of passe or false “political correctness” that is engaged to make all Americans feel part of the process. That engagement of nation for all Americans is simply correctness, it is American correctness—period.
And this past Christmas (2017) when folks in Raleigh woke up to find Klu Klux Klan reading material carefully distributed in their neighborhoods, tauting white pride, and other race baiting stratagems, my friends shrugged and insisted that it’s really not enough people to even raise your blood pressure a tic. That there will always be some level of shittiness no matter how hard you work. And of course, this past fall when the eagerly chanting, torch bearing defenders of Jim Crow era confederate statuary were heard shouting something about not being replaced by Jews, they also shrugged and said that the story was overblown and that we were getting ourselves all worked up for nothing. And when Donald Trump who sits so bizarrely in our highest office tweeting responses to every and all criticisms with the energy and narcissism of a Old World “God Emperor” Nero somehow transported to our time—I am amazed he hasn’t yet taken to the road with a singing career as Nero did—I am still unable to grasp how so many people (yes not a majority but still too many!), even my own well-respected dad, could cast a vote for the obviously stupid reality television personality who continues to behave no differently than he did as a TV personality (which he has always been, and nothing more). For Trump, all is forgiven in the hopes that his business acumen (something I don’t have much faith in and I’ll discuss why) would be good for the nation! My dad wants me to accept that Trump is a solid choice, he wants me to understand that in his inability to keep his feet out of his mouth lies his brilliance. Somehow, the thinking continues that Trumps boorishness and total lack of any sort of social grace means he’s going to do amazing things for the people. This sort of obvious inverse qualification instead of disqualifying the candidate somehow, in the bizarre world of politics, created a choice candidate. And because of this inverse qualification nothing Trump says is held against him. He is utterly free to sound like a xenophobic walking cock, offend anyone he pleases in any manner imaginable and his supporters simply don’t care. Of course, for many people his outward belligerence toward non-white, non-Christian suits them just fine! These people are basically the hidden variety of the sons and daughters of the KKK who quietly go about their business, but when the surface is scratched bleed with a kind of human oil of dispute and disregard for anything not directly benefiting themselves. Their understanding of society and its institutions often ends with bibles and firearms. They’ve been lucky people. They’ve been able to live fairly peaceably their whole lives in a society that takes care of them utterly, and been allowed—like some failing of Lao Tzu’s old wisdom of politics—to imagine they did everything themselves. They imagine, with mental filters better than anything on your iPhone camera, that they never had any help, and that their successes are due only to their own grit and wit. And best of all will rail at you with the evil and ferocity of a Tolkein wraith if you even suggest to them that society educated them, and that society protected their rights, and that their devotion should in part be to the country they so devoutly fly little flags of on their cars or houses. The costs of running a country aren’t always sweet. It’s sometimes hard to swallow the fact that we have to support prisons, where we attempt to rehabilitate the wayward. Some people without children are expected to put in tax money so we can run schools for other people’s children. And, of course, illness and death face us all, and it’s an amazing thing that there are people in those hospitals waiting to care for you, and training right now to deal with your problems. But those are all big things. We easily forget the roads, and the buildings, and the sewers, and the water systems, all that stuff we blithely refer to as “infrastructure” as though it were nothing more than a piece of rebar mounted in a lump of concrete. Get this, society is the thing that lets us all be something other than a subsistence farmer. You know what a subsistence farmer is? It’s what 99% of all human beings did for the vast majority of human history. You lived or died on the gamble of your crop. You have a good crop this year? Good for you! Drought, insects, and disease managed to give you a pass, don’t go believing it’s your awesome relationship with Ganesh or Yaweh. Because next year you’re in the same gamble, and it will likely go horribly wrong at some point. So society made it so we could survive that yearly subsistence gamble. Without society you could live, but you wouldn’t live well. You could write all your own novels and make all your own television shows—if you knew how to build cameras, make film, and project it all yourself on equipment manufactured at home. For most of human history people didn’t go much farther than walking distance from where they were born. They had to heat with wood—a limited resource for certain (Europe used to be covered with trees)—and very often succumbed to the elements.
I have to stop here and add something important to this rant, in fact, it’s something that constitutes an entire rant in itself but requires elaboration to understand where science and liberalism come from. The crux of the argument is this: the world is a largely random place and there’s not much we can do to affect the courses of events that are our lives. Randomness pervades our existences. No matter how hard we try to manipulate the course of our lives what happens to us is mostly out of our control, but, many of us refuse to admit or understand it. It’s a terrifying reality to fully realize. None of us live a science experiment where variables are corrected for or limited. We are in the world, and every day millions of people are laid low by happenstances beyond our control. People are quite magical thinkers, and we mostly enjoy a positive narrative about ourselves, and so we self edit these happenstances into a logical story. In the same we are able to see human faces in so many inanimate objects, we are also capable of fabricating these stories where they don’t really exist. We like a moral or a self aggrandizing lesson in our tales. Most of our daily interactions with other people are combinations of these sorts of inventions. People imagine they won’t have traffic accidents because they’re superior drivers. They imagine they would survive warfare because they are resourceful individuals. They imagine illnesses can be avoided through the eating of organic veggies. When the truth of the matter is these skills and choices have only a modicum of, if any, influence. Illness are often genetic. Our socio-economic circumstances are most often inherited. You have no control over a drunk driver. Almost everything in life is a roll of the dice (fair unadulterated dice) in which no matter what, you have no influence over the outcome. People who eat right and exercise regularly still die of terrible afflictions, while heavy smokers and drinkers live on. The statistics are with the healthier choices, but just the same bad things happen to good people, as the old saying goes. Now, this is where religion comes in and this is where I find myself unable to talk to many people. Many people want to insert the care of a supernatural being into the equation. In fact, this is why gods were created. The reason there are so many religions and religious tactics is that anxiety about randomness is universal. We big-brained primates are alone in our anxiety about our own eventual suffering. Religion acts as our escape hatch. The problem is it isn’t real, and it influences how people think about other people. As soon as someone can imagine that suffering is brought on by not being amply devout to a religion that religion becomes a dangerous social disruption. Strangely almost all religions preach kindness and love, many even devote themselves to charity and alleviation of poverty, yet, they also breed a code of disgraceful superiority. Many people imagine their choices in life make them righteous simply because they are the choices they were born and raised with. This kind of condescending cultural bias is the heart of almost all social problems. The entire ghastly error of pride for accidents of birth.
When these facts of life can’t be made acceptable to the viewpoint actively arguing against me, the one that wishes to maintain their racism, their self-pride, and their devotion to keeping the goods of society for themselves because they deserve them while others do not, using some kind of rubric of responsibility, or effort, as if this self-determination meant anything in the case of success in our culture, there isn’t much more to talk about. When the people can’t see that their lives had more to do with the luck of belonging to a good functioning society it is impossible to make the argument that poor people are deserving humans as well. The simplistic and magical equation of of seeing ourselves as hard-working and therefor deserving is balderdash and almost impossible to dislodge from the believer. Of course the evidence lies all about us, yet believers are able to argue away each element of it in order to maintain their comfortable outlook. You see those hardworking and basically impoverished ethnic laborers, powerlessly operating as sweaty mules for a lawn-care service employed by the wealthy, and yet it is easy to dismiss their struggle and their plight as right despite the actual backbreaking and often dangerous work being undertaken. We often have no qualms with the idea that people who don’t have good jobs don’t deserve them because they somehow didn’t take the correct steps in life to have them. This again may have examples we can see in our lives (every conservative seems to know Reagan’s welfare queen despite it having been totally apocryphal), but more often than not we easily forget that working for someone else generally means we won’t ourselves see wealth or even real prosperity. Americans don’t want to admit that wealth does not move very much, that the wealthy are those who have been for a very long time, and those who are poor have few to negligible opportunities to break that barrier.
Mostly anecdotal tales of hard work paying off prevail and are wholly untrustworthy. The statistics, the real studies done, including of cost of living index and rates of pay, show that we are suffering. The fact that occasionally a few very lucky individuals manage to gain some wealth (usually through some ludicrously ignored lucky break) does not change the fact that most of us will never see it. Most of us won’t even be able to afford the hospital bills we’ll inevitably incur. Most of us won’t be able to afford having a family and drop into such precarious debt that it’ll never actually be paid off. These are difficult realities to digest and many folks simply don’t.
A few years ago people were bombarding the internet with handheld and handwritten testaments of their own excellence. Despite being utterly hubristic most of these placards of self-congratulations held the actual keys to their success unknowingly divulged right in the text. One person was proud of their ability to graduate from a university program debt free, but also mentioned the winning of two scholarships that paid for 90% of their schooling. Wildly, instead of a placard about such good fortune the student used this information like a whip to suggest that with hard work and self-determination two scholarships were anyone’s obvious ticket to the good life. And while the student deserves a pat on the back for devotion to the scholastic, plenty of us have devoted to academic pursuits without such help, and of course, ended up in debt for the investment.
Few people want to talk about the obvious input from family and friends. It’s not cool to talk about how easy you had it because your folks managed to pour a lot of resources into your education and living circumstances. It’s not wrong for a family to buy a child a car, but it shouldn’t be imagined a quality of life only denied those who don’t deserve it.
Beating this bias, this ridiculous misunderstanding of privilege isn’t easy. People who work hard to build a living for themselves seldom care to hear about the ease with which they managed to achieve these opportunities. Especially when the efforts are compared across socio-economic and racial / ethnic categories. More of that randomness of birth being the greatest weight on our success. There are few arguments a struggling small businessman wants to hear when he spouts some kind of cruelty aimed at his favorite scapegoats. And it is very difficult for those of us understanding of the carelessness of the universe and the uneven playing field of life selling the idea of past privilege as the actual solution to the difference between us and them. I can report this as a lifelong devotee of academia and a PhD with many PhD friends who all struggle to just get by. Effort and training have had little to do with success or lack of it. Ability to pay rent has often had more to do with chance pay-offs that have nothing to do with our chosen fields of study. And when a professorial job opens up and you hear that there were more than four-hundred applicants you begin to wish for a deity who would take a personal interest. C’mon Hanuman!
What can I say to those who are invested in beliefs as astringent and caustic as the KKK? How can I make my outlook on President Trump understood when I was appalled by his character when he was nothing more than a lousy and belligerent television personality. How can we get across to the believers that a man who misunderstands what is meant by evidence, and instead offers anecdote and a vociferous “Believe me!” in its place, is not fit to really do any adult work.
Is it possible to actually reach and persuade someone as deranged as a Westboro Baptist waving anti-homosexual signs at soldier burials? Is it possible to corral those KKK literature throwers and make them understand that their idea of pride is useless and bankrupt? How hard should I work to get a magical thinker to understand that they should do more than just wave a flag, but should instead actually wish to invest in their society, with or without the film industry, or a love of novels?
The reality is no amount of argument will matter to those folks who are so invested. The argument itself is sport and will never be relinquished. All one can really hope to do is lead by example, continue being kind, and vote and patronize thoughtfully. Life needs to be lived, don’t waste your efforts arguing with people who can’t be persuaded.

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