Escape from the Narrative Matrix

Part IV: A Transmission from the Nebuchadnezzar

 Far from the frenzied cacophony of talking heads
The people are waking up
 
No longer willing to listen to authority
To “experts”
Flailing a bit at times
Straying into conspiracy
But thinking, pondering, exploring, reclaiming our narrative filters.
 
Power still reigns
On the vast playing fields
Of nations
And multinational corporations
And media narratives
But the people are beginning to tell different stories.
 
If Power controls the food system
Then we will feed ourselves
Turning abandoned city blocks into gardens
Supporting local farms
Giving freely to friends and neighbors in need
 
If Power controls the medicine
Then we will care for ourselves
Offering our skills freely and willingly
To those who need them
 
If Power controls the money
Then we will stop using it
Trading among our communities
Creating local currencies
Building a resilient economy of real exchange
Outside the gates of Wall Street

The people are waking up
And soon, I hope
We will leave the talking heads behind
In a barren and empty dreamworld:
The narrative matrix
A decaying husk
Of distortions and lies
The narrative matrix
No longer in control
Of our stories
 
Then the people will say
I do not choose to live in a world
Where illness or injury
Leads to lifelong debt
 
I do not choose to live in a world
Where human beings
Are unhoused
And unfed
And uncared for
 
I do not choose to live in a world
Where human beings
Are destroyed by bombs
In the name of strategic interests
 
I do not choose to live in a world
Where our children’s futures
Are sacrificed on the altar
Of profit and progress
 
I do not choose to live in a world
Where a few human beings live in luxury
While most simply survive
 
I do not choose to live in a world
Where human beings
Are the only beings
That have a voice
 
And then the people will ignore the talking heads
And choose a leader
Who is not of Power
Who is not an actor
Who is not a demagogue
But who speaks for the farmworkers and the caregivers
The teachers and the counselors
The cashiers and the carpenters
And the forests and the prairies and the oceans.
 
And who can say with great conviction
And without caveats
We hold these truths to be self-evident
That all are created equal
That they are endowed with unalienable rights
That among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
 
Amidst all of the chaos and confusion
Conflict and conflagration
Gridlock and anger
Fake news and alternative facts
We have the option
To step out of that story
 
Indeed it may be our only option worth considering
The alternative being descent
Into the sort of dystopian Gotham
Of cinematic imagination
 
The time has arrived
To awaken
 
The time has arrived
To escape from the narrative matrix
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Escape from the Narrative Matrix

Part III: What Is the (Narrative) Matrix?

Turn on any news channel, listen to the radio, or browse any mainstream news website, and you will encounter stories.  Attend school or college, and you will encounter a worldview:  a narrative of history and an interpretation of the present moment.  Most of these stories are based on truth.  Most of the opinions are coherent and well thought out.  Most of the people are well-meaning.  And at the same time, nearly all of these stories will support Power.  This is true not because the people telling the stories are evil or part of some giant conspiracy, but simply because they almost universally are beneficiaries of Power, and those who benefit from Power will not question Power. 

The narrative matrix is a collection of stories and worldviews that have been carefully sanitized of any effective opposition to Power.  It is based in reality, but twisted and incomplete.  And the more that the effects of Power become obvious in our everyday lives, the more stories which must be carefully avoided, the more the narrative matrix must distort truth and generate distraction to avoid confronting Power. 

When there is a conflict – and there seem to be many these days – the narrative matrix ensures that neither opposing viewpoint is a threat to Power.  If the debate is about healthcare, the two acceptable positions are that we should either continue the status quo of unaffordable and ever-increasing insurance premiums, or we should transfer the bill to the government as Medicare for All.  The question of exactly why we spend more than twice as much as other similar nations for comparable care is not allowed to be asked or addressed.  To address that would be to confront Power, to say that some humans are shamelessly extracting wealth in exchange for providing an essential public good.

Inside the narrative matrix it is only criminal and newsworthy when a company raises the price of a lifesaving medication by a factor of 50.

Outside the narrative matrix it is criminal and newsworthy whenever any institution or corporation with a mission of providing care and saving lives prioritizes profit over providing care and saving lives.  Outside the narrative matrix it should not be possible to amass a fortune by providing essential care or medicine.

Inside the narrative matrix we embrace identity politics, in pursuit of a more equal society, or else we rebel against them in pursuit of “traditional values.”  We focus on persistent bias that remains from the time when Power utilized race and gender as important distinctions, and on the identity-based inequalities that are still with us.  We note with chagrin that for every dollar a woman makes on average, a man makes $1.23.  For every dollar a Black person takes home, a white person takes home $1.43.  We seek to stomp out remaining racist attitudes and to provide preferential opportunities to marginalized populations to reduce these inequalities, and we note with some pride that we have been making progress in terms of reducing inequalities along these lines over time.

Outside the narrative matrix this is still important, but it too often serves as a distraction from the inequalities that are rapidly expanding in our current moment.  For every dollar a grocery store cashier makes, an accountant makes $3, a doctor makes $8, a typical CEO makes $32, and Jeff Bezos sees his wealth increase by 2.5 million dollars.  So long as we need cashiers, shelf stockers, meat packers, apple pickers, and janitors for a functioning society, the people performing these roles deserve to be paid enough to survive and thrive.

Inside the narrative matrix any attempt to address this excessive and ever-growing income inequality is met with howls of SOCIALISM!

Outside the narrative matrix it is immediately apparent that in 1950, working class jobs paid a living wage and a factory worker could easily afford to buy a home and see a doctor, and the US was most definitely not a socialist county in 1950.  We could take steps to return to that more reasonable level of wealth inequality while preserving a market economy.

Inside the narrative matrix we are told that racism is our nation’s original sin, that we must all acknowledge our biases, and that by stomping out racism and other forms of oppression we will achieve a better world for all.

Outside the narrative matrix it is immediately apparent that a world in which billionaires are proportionally Black, Latino, and LGBTQ while half of Americans – with all identities proportionally represented – still barely scrape by is not the victory we are seeking.  It is equally apparent that preferentially offering winning lottery tickets (e.g. scholarships, college admissions, hiring decisions) to impoverished people of marginalized identities is a great way to stoke anger among impoverished people who do not have marginalized identities, and that fueling this anger is a great way to prevent confrontation with Power.

Inside the narrative matrix the best way to help marginalized people is to fight discrimination.

Outside the narrative matrix the best way to help marginalized people is to eliminate poverty.  That’s not to say fighting discrimination isn’t important, but it is small solace to hear fewer racial slurs if you still can’t afford rent.

Inside the narrative matrix it is very important to believe that race and other identities are the primary basis of human oppression.  To suggest otherwise is to fail to “center” marginalized identities.

Outside the narrative matrix it is becoming clear that Power no longer depends on racism or other identity-based oppressions.  Neoliberal economics alone now ensures that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and those who have Power would much rather throw down some ladders for a select few marginalized people to climb than face the collapse of their towers.

Inside the narrative matrix neoliberal economics is carefully defined as natural law, like gravity or magnetism.  A free market determines prices and wages, and those prices and wages are by definition fair and good, and any attempt to manipulate those prices and wages is TERRIBLE SOCIALISM.

Outside the narrative matrix it is eminently clear that neoliberal economics is entirely a product of human decisions and that the humans making those decisions are the ones with Power.  It is equally clear that making different decisions could greatly improve quality of life for a majority of people.  And making different decisions does not require embracing socialism or communism with their associated failings.  This “slippery slope” argument is a complete logical fallacy.

Inside the narrative matrix COVID-19 is a plague of unprecedented severity which must dominate the news cycle, disrupt society, and inflame preexisting fault lines to the greatest possible degree for an indefinite and ever-extending period of time.

Outside the narrative matrix COVID-19 is a pandemic with an expected severity recurrence interval of 50-ish years that has the potential to kill one to perhaps three out of every thousand people.  A healthy society would choose to either suppress it effectively if possible (a la New Zealand) or else allow it to spread with protections for the most vulnerable (a la Sweden).  The US response has combined the worst of societal disruptions with very little effective control of disease spread, thereby generating a double-whammy that generates continual fear and suffering and distracts people from confronting Power.  It’s worth noting that a much worse pandemic in 1918 was officially ignored (never mentioned by then-President Wilson) at a time when the Power narrative was focused on proving the US as a world power in WWI and the virus was an unwelcome distraction.

Inside the narrative matrix we debate how to handle illegal immigration.  One side prefers compassion and amnesty while the other fears job competition and cultural change.

Outside the narrative matrix it seems strange that these human beings only become worthy of our attention or compassion when they succeed against harrowing odds in crossing our border.  It becomes equally clear that US foreign policy and imperialism are in many ways responsible for grinding poverty and political instability across the global south, and that perhaps the best solution is to confront that Power and invest our resources in helping these nations to thrive, so that their citizens do not arrive penniless at our borders begging for menial work.

Inside the narrative matrix we support drone strikes and geostrategic pre-emptive wars in the name of “national security” and the “war on terror,” and we praise the politicians and pundits who promote them.

Outside the narrative matrix the reality of these wars entails around 30,000 bombs dropped every year, leading to thousands upon thousands of civilian deaths and lifelong injuries, and thousands of newly-aggrieved families lending support and donations to terrorist organizations.

Inside the narrative matrix Yemen is never mentioned and might as well be on another planet.

Outside the narrative matrix Yemen is probably the single worst humanitarian disaster on Earth at the moment, with 24 million people facing starvation or a lack of basic needs, and the US has the power to end it by confronting our “ally” Saudi Arabia.  But we don’t because allying with Saudi Arabia serves Power.

Inside the narrative matrix Tulsi Gabbard is a discredited and forgotten also-ran who is friendly with brutal dictators, has made homophobic remarks, embraces a  strange cult-like religion, and might even have been groomed by Russian agents to run as a third party spoiler.

Outside the narrative matrix Tulsi Gabbard was a rising star in the Democratic Party until she dared to confront Power, returning from her military tours with a dubious assessment of our eternal “regime change wars” and promising “a government of, for, and by the people, not a government of, for, and by the rich and powerful.”   Rather than giving airtime to her views on government and foreign policy, the narrative matrix published a series of distortions and hit pieces and effectively silenced her.  This is how Power eliminates dissent, and no one is immune to these sorts of half-truth, out-of-context, discrediting attacks that sidestep the important issues to render the messenger persona non grata.

Inside the narrative matrix we are in the midst of a fight for the soul of our nation between “liberal” Democrats and “conservative” Republicans.  We are divided so bitterly along these ideological lines that we can no longer feel empathy for the other side, and we dread sullen Thanksgiving dinners with not-quite-disowned family.

Outside the narrative matrix it is apparent that both Democrats and Republicans serve Power and that the policies offered by both sides have been carefully scrubbed of any real threat to Power.  At the same time, it is oppression by Power –corporatizing, offshoring, union-busting, labor devaluing, money-grabbing, rent raising, debt creating Power– that is directly generating the suffering and anger which must be funneled into the culture wars – wars that can have no victor because the blame is misplaced and the suffering will continue no matter which party wins.

Inside the narrative matrix we just had a Very Important Election, and depending on your perspective we either rejected racism and fascism while evicting a narcissistic bully or else sold out Main Street and rural America to government bureaucracy and morally bankrupt urban values. 

Outside the narrative matrix we just had an election between two Agent Smiths.  One represented comfort, status quo, stability, pretense that everything will be OK if we just make a few minor tweaks.  The other was a talented narrative manipulator who reached out to those harmed by Power and offered them not actual empowerment but association with an image of wealth and a myth of national greatness; who offered his supporters a collection of scapegoats, of disempowered people somehow responsible for their misery.  The latter might be more dangerous to the fabric of society, but neither will confront Power and both will bluster about improving quality of life while supporting policies that actively decrease quality of life for a majority of people.

Inside the narrative matrix we fear the Other Party, COVID-19, and those few rogue nations which have not capitulated to the US-centered world order:  Russia, China, Iran, North Korea.

Outside the narrative matrix those concerns appear small alongside the specters of nuclear war, resource limits, climate change, mass extinction, US-sponsored military violence, ignored humanitarian crises, and the ongoing immoral extraction of wealth from the vast majority of humanity in service of Power.

This is the narrative matrix.  The reality we are offered.  The lenses we are given to interpret that reality.  The stories we are told and not told.  The statistics that are gathered and not gathered, cited and not cited.  The ways in which we are sold a world where most of us see the fruits of our labor accrue to others, to Power, and yet remain indifferent.  The changes we believe are possible and the changes we do not even consider.  The ideas we are taught about what it means to succeed, to be a good person. 

The narrative matrix serves Power.  It does not serve us.  It does not serve humanity.  It most certainly does not serve the biosphere or planet Earth. 

It is time to step out of these stories.

It is time to escape from the narrative matrix.

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Escape from the Narrative Matrix

Part II: Follow the Power

What is inequality, really?

Most of us feel warm fuzzy feelings when we read proclamations of human equality.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”

And yet we inhabit a world of mansions and trailer parks, high-rise offices and sweatshops, four-star hotels and homeless camps.

That ought to create intense cognitive dissonance, but somehow it feels normal.  Such is life in a world where Power controls the stories and defines acceptable worldviews.  We claim to be fighting for a more just and equal world, but “just” and “equal” are carefully defined to allow vast and growing inequalities to remain unexamined, to be viewed solely as the natural outcome of a free and fair market.

We fling hatred at each other across political divides, and yet somehow neither side ever opposes Power.  That is intentional.  Narratives that oppose Power are quietly and effectively silenced, cancelled, invalidated, debunked by “experts.” 

It’s time we took a good hard look at this Power.

Power is unequal exchange.  Any time labor or wealth is coercively extracted from one person or one nation for the benefit of others, Power is in play.

Power is not the same as wealth.  It is entirely possible to become wealthy, to a point, without invoking Power – by, for example, writing a book that millions of people choose to read, or inventing a technology that millions of people choose to buy.  Power enters the picture when there is no real choice; when the profit is collected in exchange for basic human needs like food, shelter, medical care, or education; or when workers are paid less than a living wage for full-time employment.

Power is a continuum, and that continuum includes both institutions that are considered perfectly normal and acceptable, and institutions that are deemed outdated and morally bankrupt.

“Hard imperialism” here refers to the globe-spanning colonialism of the British, French, and Spanish Empires in the 16th-19th centuries, while “soft imperialism” refers to the standard US foreign policy of installing/supporting puppet governments that create the same sort of impoverishment and resource extraction but under a guise of sovereignty.

Power represents unearned wealth and the systems that facilitate the transfer of unearned wealth.  Although we have the unfortunate habit of counting all income as “earnings,” truly earned wealth is acquired through transactions in which both parties benefit equally.  Unearned wealth is acquired through transactions in which the one who pays has no other reasonable options.  It is not so much earned as it is taken.

“No one ever makes a billion dollars.  You take a billion dollars.”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

A history of the United States of America, perhaps more than any other nation, is a history of expanding Power.

We are a young nation, and one that has risen from conception to global domination in the span of a few human lifetimes.  We have not done that because God ordained it so, or because we are especially virtuous and intelligent.  We have done it because we swore an allegiance to Power, and from the Trail of Tears to Wounded Knee, from the Alamo to the banana republics, from the forests of Vietnam to the deserts of Iraq, we have showed no mercy to those people who dared to demand sovereignty and self-determination in the face of this Power. 

In our commitment to growth, control, and Power, we have not placed a high value on the well-being of our own citizenry.  And as we have begun to run out of foreign wealth to extract, and economic growth rates have slowed, the Power has come to bear ever harder on those on the losing end.  We can look more closely at the last 50 or so years, from the perspective of economic Power.

Medical care and college tuition have been increasing much faster than wages for decades now.  In many regions, housing costs have been increasing as well.  The Reagan years saw the adoption of neoliberal economics – with the aim of an unrestricted global market.  Coupled with the soft imperialism that had already devalued labor and currency in “developing” nations around the world, this led to a vast offshoring of manufacturing jobs.  Those companies that kept US factories open had to compete with cheap foreign goods, which drove down wages and benefits. 

Beginning in the 1990s, multinational corporations catabolized small businesses around the nation.  Small-town hardware stores lost to regional Home Depots and Walmarts.  Hometown bookstores lost to Amazon.  Local coffee shops lost to Starbucks.  Small farms either failed or grew to thousands of acres.  And the list goes on.  In all cases, jobs were either lost outright or else squeezed (longer hours, more responsibilities, fewer benefits) to remain competitive.

Following the Great Recession of 2008, the jobs that returned were primarily low-wage, and a greater proportion of work was fulfilled by “gig” arrangements:  part-time, uncertain and unpredictable hours, and no benefits.  Taken together, these trends have created what I call The Great Squeeze:  a situation in which a majority of younger Americans are financially insecure.  Many are one medical emergency away from losing their housing, and few are able to save for a down payment on an overpriced house, let alone for eventual retirement.

None of these things just happened, in the way that the weather, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions just happen.  They resulted from human decisions, and some humans purchased yachts and retired to seaside mansions as a direct result of those decisions.  It is a testament to the power of Power that we talk about these things like the weather, as if we have no choice, as if there is no other option.  Power controls the stories that are told, and in so doing it controls the way that we think, the way that we see the world, the problems that we focus on, the futures that we believe are possible. 

It is time to confront this Power. 

It is time to understand the narrative matrix.

It is time to escape from the narrative matrix.

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Escape from the Narrative Matrix

Part I:  Reclaim Your Narrative Filter

Take a moment with me to examine who and what we are.  We are alive.  We see, touch, hear, smell, taste.  Time passes, second by second.  We have certain skills, certain routines, certain patterns of activity.  Such is the substance of our objective reality, and on its own it has no meaning whatsoever.

Thought and meaning are the intersection of perceived reality and narrative.  To be conscious is to inhabit a world of stories.  When we see a face that we recognize as Mother, what we experience is a personal story of what Mother means to us – a collection of memories and emotions that is unique to each person.  What we consider to be ourselves, our identities, is an exquisitely complex tapestry of stories – layer upon layer – without which we effectively would not exist.

Human existence, then, is a many-dimensional interwoven tapestry of tapestries:  stories that contradict, that reinforce, that evolve and coalesce and crystallize into shared interpretations of reality:  beliefs, movements, philosophies, religions, mission statements, political platforms, and ideologies. 

Sit with that thought for a moment.  Examine the stories that make up your life, your identity, your personal politics, your joys and hopes and dreams and fears. 

Then take a step back, if you can.  Rather than seeing the world through the lens of your stories, shift your focus to the stories themselves.  Why do you believe them?  What does each particular story contribute to your sense of self?  How did each story find a place inside of you? 

Take care, for this way lies madness.  Our stories define our reality.  If we question too many of our stories, we can lose touch with reality.  At the same time, this way lies enlightenment and personal growth.  To change our personal stories is to change our lives.  To change our collective stories is to change our world.  And while we might not agree what change is needed in the world, nearly all of us are convinced that we cannot simply continue in the direction we are going for much longer.

The stories we are told and that we tell ourselves may be objectively true or false.  But very seldom is a story entirely true or entirely false.  Nearly all stories – scientific theories, religious teachings, even our own memories – contain elements of truth and elements of falsehood, degrees of certainty and uncertainty.  And furthermore the truth of a particular story may be relative; it may depend on other stories.  For example, whether or not we believe abortion is murder in a particular context depends on when exactly we believe a developing fetus becomes a human being. 

Of course, each of us feels that the stories we choose to embrace are true and that conflicting stories must therefore be false.  To critically examine our narratives we must also relax this conviction somewhat.  We need to explore our cognitive dissonances – the ways in which our stories contradict each other or place us at odds with our values, our sense of self, our stated goals.

Just as our visual cortex must construct a meaningful picture from the nearly infinite optical detail we perceive every second, our minds must construct a meaningful identity and worldview from the infinite cacophony of narrative that surrounds and envelops us.  We all have narrative filters, and they operate almost entirely subconsciously.  Stories that mesh with our existing stories are more likely to get in, as are stories that are delivered by someone we trust, or that speak to our ambitions, our hopes, our dreams, our fears, our uncertainties. 

It is possible to intentionally jam or overwhelm someone’s narrative filter.  We call this gaslighting, manipulation, or abuse.  Stories of shame or self-doubt can mask real experiences of pain and suffering.  Stories of loyalty, love, or affection can erase past experiences of harm. 

It is also extremely tempting to outsource our narrative filters.  Gurus and religions and dogmas and political parties offer us entire narrative frameworks that reduce uncertain complexity to confident simplicity.  I might choose, for example, to embrace Catholicism, an entire collection of stories, and then my priest might tell me to join the Republican Party.  If I accept his advice, then by making just two choices (Catholic, Republican) I now have stories and positions about just about everything:  God, life after death, abortion, sexuality, role of government, gun rights, foreign policy, immigration, and the list goes on and on. 

There is a major problem with this, however, which will become clearer in Part II.  Aside from the fact that outsourcing our narrative filters limits our potential for self-actualization– for discovering who we really are as unique individuals – we are also giving away our power.  And because there are no gods or angels here on Earth – only human beings with the same flaws as ourselves – we sometimes find ourselves giving away our power to pedophile priests, to sociopathic politicians, to biased journalists, to self-described “experts”, to people who abuse our trust in their stories to manipulate us for their own ends. 

So, I ask of you, reclaim your narrative filter.  Rather than focusing on who is telling the stories – and your predefined perceptions about their integrity and trustworthiness – focus on the stories themselves.  Ask yourself:  Is this story consistent with my experience of the world?  Will believing this story help to improve my life, and to improve human coexistence?  Does someone else want me to believe this story, and if so why?  Is this story meant to distract me from a different story?  If so, what stories am I being distracted from?

And take a moment to consider those people, in your community and around the world, who your stories say you ought to hate and distrust.  Ask yourself:  is it reasonable to think that they really want to attack my religion or take away my guns or install a theocracy or destroy the environment?  Or is it more likely that they want to bake cookies and raise children and grow gardens and spend too much time on Facebook?  Is it possible to begin to rehumanize each other, to build common ground, by focusing on our similarities and shared interests rather than exaggerated caricatures of our differences?

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Blessed Rain

Blessed rain
On smoldering fires
On fields of wheat freshly sown
Germinating
Reawakening
Calling chanterelles from the Earth
Blessed rain
Reminding us that fires end
That droughts end
There will always be some new crisis
Some new horror
Somewhere on this giant planet
To be funneled onto our little screens
To lay claim to our empathy
To prevent us from experiencing the joy
Of blessed rain
Blessed rain
Reminding us that we are not in charge here
That we could never move this much water
With all of our fancy technology
And that we will never have that power
We fashion ourselves as gods
Claiming dominion
Over land, sea, and air
Over disease
Over each other
And yet we are anxious gods
For we cannot even control the weather
Or the ever-evolving biosphere
Or the intricate workings of our bodies and minds
Or our own inevitable mortality
And so we live in fear
It is sadly ironic
That we have created our greatest dangers
In pursuit of comfort and safety
Nuclear weapons
Fossil fuels
Plastics
Chemicals spread far and wide
So many creations of human ingenuity
Each useful in a reductionist sense
But harmful to the whole
In ways that we do not see
When we pretend to have dominion
That is not ours to claim
Blessed rain
On Trump flags
And Biden signs
On bankers’ mansions
And the tents of the unhoused
On skylights above children peacefully asleep
And windshields of night shift truck drivers
On pastures
And forests
And city streets
On a community of humans
More committed to seeing differences
Than shared experiences
More committed to fear and suspicion
Than acceptance
So divided
That we fail to acknowledge
Our common humanity
So distracted
That we fail to notice
Blessed rain
Like the seed extending first roots
Raising fragile leaves to greet the autumn sun
We too are beginning to awaken
From the trance that has kept us
Distracted
Afraid
Divided
Blessed rain
Bringing us back
Into the present
Blessed rain
Softly dissolving
The illusion of control
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A house divided against itself cannot stand

–Abraham Lincoln, 1858

My last post on our national anxious frenzy provoked a number of strong reactions – mainly from those who felt I was invalidating their personal experiences of anxiety in this time. It was not my intention to cast judgment on personal experiences – only to question the larger media-driven echo chamber fear narratives that are running full-tilt these days.

I am personally not particularly anxious about Covid-19, or the conservative shift of the Supreme Court, or racial bias, or our actions and policies surrounding immigration, or the abortion debate, or gun control. That’s not to say I don’t care about these issues. I do care, as I have for all of my life. At the same time, our current contentious-compromise positions on all of these issues are well within historical norms. We have, as a nation, had both more liberal and more conservative policies surrounding abortion in the past, more laissez-faire and more vehemently xenophobic immigration policies, more serious pandemics, and more dramatic ideological shifts in the Supreme Court.

I am, however, anxious about the decade or so ahead of us. But the primary factor of concern to me is not any of the issues discussed daily in the fear-news, but rather the increasingly crystallized polarization of our populace into two opposing camps, approaching the bounds of historical record in the United States. Two camps who so hate each other that states are openly considering secession, that partisan anger supersedes family ties, that the opposing side is blamed for disasters and problems with no evidence, that gun-toting opposition groups are facing off in the streets of major cities, that cross-partisan disaster response coalitions are met with criticism rather than praise, that it is often seen as traitorous and unacceptable to maintain empathy and friendship across this divide.

This level of division has very dangerous precedents. When a group of people loses all respect for another, effectively dehumanizing them, previously unthinkable violence becomes possible and, at some point, inevitable. When one group has a numerical or technological advantage, the result can be a genocide along the lines of the Holocaust or the destruction of Native American cultures. When there is a clear geographical divide between ideologies, the result is a civil war. When the divide is geographically patchy and the power difference unclear, the result is insurrection, guerilla warfare, and breakdown of the rule of law with an attendant rise in criminal warbands (e.g. Mexico and much of Central America), and potentially failure of the republic (e.g. Somalia). Given the demographic makeup of the United States – pockets of liberal and conservative dominance, with both factions present in most places – this latter fate would be the most likely dystopian future for our nation.

We are making ominous steps in that direction. Increasingly, it seems, we are seeing rogue individuals act to produce chaos and destruction. Arson, school shootings, drug-fueled crime sprees. Earlier this year a UPS truck driver was shooting at cars along Interstate 5 for months before he was caught. It doesn’t take many of these acts to inject fear into the population, and when that fear begins to be projected falsely against political enemies we have a major problem. Claims that “antifa” started Oregon’s destructive wildfires were widespread on the political right, despite a complete lack of evidence and well-documented sparking power lines.

Such a descent into chaos and violence is not inevitable. Our nation has seen similar levels of division before – around 1770, 1860, and 1930. There is a cycle to this, it would seem. Unlike in 1770 and 1860, we don’t have an overarching insurmountable divide (English monarchic rule or a slavery-based economy, respectively) that tips the scales toward war. And I think most of us would, given the choice, rather live in a nation where our adversaries have their way than in a failed state. Most people who are pro-choice would rather live in a nation where abortion is illegal than in a country with militia checkpoints on the highways and bribes owed to cartels for the privilege of conducting business. Most people who are pro-gun would rather have a ban on assault rifles than a world in which assault rifles are an essential tool and dodging bullets is a daily survival skill. That gives me hope for de-escalation in the years ahead. Most of us, regardless of our political leanings, do not wish to experience the endgame of our intractable divisions.

The economy behind the scenes

Although the rhetoric that leads us into war is often based on moral or social issues, the discontent that renders us vulnerable to such rhetoric is almost inevitably economic. In the 1770s, it was extraction of wealth by the English crown – “no taxation without representation” was a rallying cry of the revolution. In the 1860s, it was in part a conflict between a blossoming industrial economy in the north and a slavery-based agricultural economy in the south, resulting in irreconcilable differences in desired national policy. In the 1930s, the Great Depression brought misery and austerity to a large proportion of the populace.

Today we are in the midst of a snowballing economic crisis that has no name and is seldom officially acknowledged, but is patently obvious to anyone earning less than six digits in annual income. It is not reflected in the stock markets, which have bounced back from the so-called “Great Recession” to all-time highs. I’ll call it the Great Squeeze, because that’s what it feels like. Every year health care costs go up by 5-10%, tuition goes up by 5-10%, housing costs (rent or purchase) go up by 5-10%, and income goes up by 2-5%, if we’re lucky enough to avoid having our jobs downsized, outsourced, or eliminated by Covid restrictions. So every year, despite getting an annual raise, we have fewer financial resources at our disposal.

The Great Squeeze has generated some sobering statistics. Sixty percent of Americans do not have enough savings to cover a $1000 financial emergency. Fifty-two percent of young adults aged 18-29 now live with their parents – the first time this has been over 50% since the Great Depression. A healthy majority of US citizens are financially insecure, living on the edge of solvency, anxious, and angry at the system that is failing them.

From my perspective, the Great Squeeze is a direct result of a longstanding imbalance between the financial economy and the real economy of goods and services. This has occurred as growth in the real economy has been slowing toward steady-state – an inevitable result of the human population beginning to stabilize and the world beginning to confront resource limits on a finite planet. We simply cannot, after a point, farm more land, cut more timber, sell more iPhones, or build more factories. In order for the financial economy to outpace the real economy, it must necessarily transition from being coupled to the real economy to extracting wealth from the real economy.

Here’s what that looks like. During widespread economic growth, investing in a company was a win-win proposition. If business plans are successful, companies can use investment funds to hire a large workforce, pay them well, plan for the future, and still provide a hefty return to investors. Nowadays, many of the better investments are directly extractive. Mortgage-backed securities. Credit card debt. Student loans. Personal loans. Rental housing. These generate returns not proportional to the success of the debtor or renter, but simply by extracting a fixed amount of wealth from them regardless of their ability to meet their other financial needs.

Even corporate stocks have become extractive. As an example, ask anyone who works for a railroad what they think of “Precision Scheduled Railroading”, an oxymoronic corporate-speak buzzword that is all the rage these days. In theory it means an increase in operational efficiency. In practice, it means mass layoffs, facility closures, deferred maintenance, reduced train velocity, increased employee responsibilities, decreased morale, decreased emergency resilience, and customer dissatisfaction. It means, in short, driving the company into the ground in pursuit of short-term profits and shareholder value. This sort of thing has become ubiquitous across corporate America, as shareholders demand financial returns that the real economy simply cannot produce.

Whether we are paying returns promised to pensioners based on unrealistic market predictions, or maximizing shareholder value by laying off employees, or making millions off of student and consumer debt; we are hollowing out our real economy, bankrupting our government, and neglecting our critical infrastructure to maintain the truth of the economic doctrine that money must always make money, in the face of a real economy that is facing hard and insurmountable limits to growth. This simply cannot continue much longer without transforming us into a third world country, and quite possibly – through social unrest – into a fractured or failed state.

Fight the story, not the people!

One of the lessons we can learn from Nazi Germany is that – under the right circumstances – almost anyone can believe any story. A majority of German citizens, enamored by Hitler’s passionate orations of national glory, either actively supported or turned a blind eye to his murderous and inhuman pogrom of ethnic cleansing. We could tell ourselves these were all bad people, but to do that we would need to convince ourselves that – in their position and experiencing the grueling economic fallout from WWI defeat – we would have chosen differently. The only other option is to believe that a majority of Germans alive at that time were somehow genetically defective or morally bankrupt. We might all believe that we are better than that, but history tells us otherwise.

If good people can be seduced by bad stories – if our own children can sometimes be indoctrinated into cults – that means we must fight the stories rather than fighting the people who believe them. To fight the people is to reinforce the story, as a person under attack will cling to their beliefs and will most certainly not embrace the beliefs of the folks doing the attacking.

Perhaps my greatest frustration in the Trump era is that Donald Trump has successfully goaded Democrats into playing his dangerously divisive rhetorical game, on his terms, and that Democrats have almost no self-awareness of this. Whether it’s Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” remark or the continuous blue-media assertions that support for Trump is an outgrowth of racism and bigotry, the effect is to condemn all of those people who believe Trump’s story, and thereby ensure that they will cling to that story even harder. What Democrats should be doing instead, of course, is telling a different but equally convincing story to the same people – one that speaks to their anxiety and financial insecurity and offers real change rather than empty promises.

Donald Trump, like Adolf Hitler, is a narrative-mastermind conman who can tell a convincing story to people who are feeling abandoned and insignificant. His business success arose more from the brand and caricature he was able to create than from sound financial decision-making, and he naturally expanded into pageantry and reality TV. Like Hitler, he offered a vague but grand vision of national revival (“Make America Great Again!”) and a collection of false scapegoats (illegal immigrants, antifa, fake news, etc.). Associating with Trump brought a connection to his glitzy wealth and power and his celebrity family – the same sort of motivation that inspires ordinary folks to read People magazine. Unlike Hitler, his interests do not appear to extend beyond narcissistic self-aggrandizement to mass death, so I am not convinced by fears on the left that he is a despot-in-waiting, but nonetheless he is playing a dangerous game.

Although Trump’s tariffs have helped a few manufacturers, and his carefully-orchestrated factory and mine reopenings make good news bites, his story is 99% hollow. Trump, a real-estate speculator, is a professional wealth extractor, and he has no interest in recoupling the real and financial economies and redistributing wealth in a way that would truly return a sense of security to his constituents. Instead he speaks like a farmer rather than a lawyer, tells a convincing story, taunts the other team, and maintains a tenuous alliance with the traditional platform of the Republican party. That was enough to give him a narrow victory in 2016 and – absent any sort of effective counter-narrative aside from “Orange Man Bad!” – may well keep him in the White House in 2020.

Wherefore art thou FDR?

Joe Biden is not the leader we need in this time. Neither, unfortunately, is Kamala Harris. Both are moderate democrats who embrace social progressivism and neoliberal economics. They are, in a way, Obama-Biden 2.0. Trump gathered a following and furthered our descent into dangerous territory by naming the true problem but offering a false and divisive narrative as a solution. We can’t handle too much more discord before the street fighting begins and progression toward failed state status becomes difficult to reverse. I’m pretty sure we can make it four more years if we can get past this election, regardless of who wins, but by 2024 we had damn well better have a candidate who is able to offer real solutions, who sidesteps the hot-button social issues and talks about real economic change. Affordable housing. Living wage. Affordable healthcare and education. Respect for the working class. And not as campaign buzzwords but as scalable solutions. And not by driving the government further toward bankruptcy but through austerity for the wealthy. Limits on rent, loan forgiveness, changing corporate focus from shareholder gains to employee compensation and morale. If a rising tide lifts all boats, then a slack tide had damn well better level all boats. Because if the yachts keep rising and the canoes take on water, then we have a big problem. And the slack economic tide – in terms of real goods and services – is here to stay.

We need a candidate for the history books. Washington, Lincoln, FDR. A shakeup of the two-party system or a takeover of the left. Not socialism, communism, or any other such crazy idea, just democracy as it was meant to work. Listening to the needs of the majority and making it happen. New Deal 2.0. And for those of you who earn top-level salaries, or who have investment portfolios or retirement plans or who make a living managing other people’s wealth, this is going to hurt. It has to. The current level of return cannot be maintained in the absence of real economic growth without hollowing out our country to a breaking point that it is in everyone’s interest to avoid. So yes, the sort of change we desperately need is going to hurt, but it won’t hurt nearly as much as the alternative – criminal gangs marauding through burned out cities, or militia checkpoints on highways, or the anxiety of living in a nation at war with itself.

If we are going to stand a chance of addressing climate change, of transitioning away from fossil fuels, of adapting to the challenges of the 21st century, we first need to make sure we still have a nation in 20 years. And to do that we need to reach out across the barriers that the narrative-masters have used to divide us – race, religion, pro-life/pro-choice, urban/rural, white-collar/blue-collar – and create the change that we really need.

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Spreading hate is not OK; spreading anxiety shouldn’t be either

Ask almost anyone about their experience this year – myself included – and you will hear tales of anxiety – of obsessively washing hands and avoiding social contact, of outrage at those whose COVID habits don’t pass muster, of lamenting our nation’s supposed descent into racism, fascism, or anarchy, of terrible futures where The Wrong Party wins the election and our democracy is irreparably doomed, of late nights spent “doomscrolling” for news of the latest catastrophe.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that anxiety is a logical and reasonable response to a perfect storm of events, and that we are all justified in our fear. However, a historical perspective will quickly poke holes in this idea. There is arguably very little happening in the year 2020 that will be remembered a century from now, and we have lived through far more challenging times without being transformed into quivering puddles.

COVID-19, a novel respiratory and cardiovascular virus, has so far killed 200,000 Americans and caused lengthy and occasionally chronic illness for quite a few more. It turns out that 200,000 is approximately 10% of the number of deaths in a typical year. Or to put it differently, nine out of ten people who die this year will not have died of COVID-19. Logically then, we ought to be 10% more concerned about death than usual. But instead, we are 200% more concerned. Even in the face of evidence that relaxing restrictions will not create a tidal wave of death – from countries like Sweden – we insist on living in a state of perpetual anxious disruption and treating each infection as an avoidable tragedy.

Contrast this with the year 1918, when not only were our young men fighting in the horrendous trenches of WWI, but we experienced a pandemic nearly an order of magnitude more severe than COVID-19, and much more likely to kill young and healthy people. The “Spanish Flu” killed 600,000 Americans out of a population 1/3 as large – the equivalent of two million people today. Those were trying times, to be sure, and yet moving farther back we can find plagues that wiped out 50% or more of the population in affected areas. The survivors made it through those times, and we will make it through 2020 and the years ahead.

Anxiety is an experience of pain or suffering that is not actually occurring. When we fear something – whether it is death or loss or illness – we experience the same emotions we would feel if those things were actually happening. The problem being of course that those things are not actually happening. If we examine life as a finite sequence of present moments, we will find that a very small proportion of those moments have actual pain and suffering. Add anxiety, however, and we can fill a majority of our waking moments with painful or unbearable future narratives that are not currently happening and in all likelihood will never enter our experience. This might be partially justifiable if anxiety helped us to avoid the experiences and situations that we fear, but in most cases this is demonstrably untrue. So anxiety makes us miserable and does not make us safer. Therefore we should be able to agree that anxiety is not useful and is in fact a severe impediment to a joyful life.

How is it then that we have transformed from a society that stoically endured pandemics and world wars to a society of perpetually anxious worry warts? How is it that we have allowed fear of loss to eclipse the joyous, miraculous experience of being alive?

I believe there are two answers to these questions. The first, which I have occasionally discussed previously, is that we have embraced a mythology of technological progress that holds that we ought to have dominion over disease and perhaps ultimately death itself. Whenever nature reminds us of the fallacy of that myth, of the fact that we remain intelligent primates subject to the limits and conditions of biological existence, we experience cognitive dissonance and anxiety.

The second answer seems to be an outgrowth of unrestricted global capitalism. Inducing anxiety, it turns out, is a very effective way to sell things – from insurance plans and beauty products to books and news stories. When we feel anxious, afraid, and insecure, we are more apt to buy things that we don’t really need. This has given rise to a media and advertising landscape where we are continually bombarded by anxiety-inducing narratives, which makes it difficult for even the more level-headed among us to filter out the noise and embrace our in-the-moment experience.

Related to this is the vast spatial expansion of real-time news, from within one’s own small community 500 years ago to nearly an entire planet of seven billion humans today. Our capacity for empathy allows us to feel emotions in response to others’ experience, and this is generally helpful in building relationships, sustaining communities, and avoiding sociopathic behavior. However, since the pool of available narratives is now effectively infinite, some sort of filter becomes necessary, and the filter – that determines which stories are told and which are not – can easily introduce bias.

When we receive all of our stories from within a small community, we get a sense of the true nature of that community. To some extent, this was my experience growing up in rural Minnesota. Every day there are fundraisers for families in need, neighbors checking on each other after storms, graduations, weddings, potlucks, and expressions of human goodwill. Once every year or so there is some sort of violent crime, and maybe once every decade someone is murdered. These events create anxious empathy waves that crest and pass, as faith in human goodness is restored.

Expand out to a city, state, nation, or global society, and it becomes more difficult to obtain a balanced view. It ought to be the responsibility of journalists to maintain this balance, but anxiety sells stories in a way that warm fuzzy feelings don’t. And so we hear about all of the murders, all of the COVID-19 deaths, all of the racist attacks, all of the crime reports, and very few of the positive stories. This leads us both to experience a continuous empathic anxiety response to personal stories of pain and suffering and to imagine the world as a much darker and more dangerous place than it actually is. It also leads us to project those visions of darkness onto our political enemies and to believe that our differences are much greater and more irreconcilable, and our commonalities far fewer, than is actually the case. This means the anxiety-based media narrative filter is actively contributing to a dangerously polarized society.

(The media is also actively filtering out some anxiety-inducing stories – particularly those related to the gruesome effects of US military activities abroad and the impact of rising economic inequality on everyday Americans. I’ll save that discussion for another post and just refer to Caitlin Johnstone who reports on this daily, but the unfortunate reality is that media fear narratives serve not only to generate clicks and sales but also as a distraction from discussion of real avoidable suffering and a real need for redistributive, equitable socioeconomic change.)

Anxiety will not motivate the change we need

Evolutionarily speaking, anxiety probably evolved to inspire forward-thinking individual action: gathering food ahead of winter, or taking action against hostile neighbors. When there is a clear course of action that can eliminate the threat, then anxiety can be an effective motivator. Unfortunately, this doesn’t apply to most modern predicaments. We cannot individually or even in small groups ameliorate climate change, or restore faith in democracy, or stomp out racism, or bridge the divides that threaten the fabric of society. So if these problems make us anxious, the anxiety never fades. Unfortunately, continuous anxiety tends to make us unhappy, and so we hunker down, hoard what we think we need to survive, and don’t have the energy to address these challenges in a real or effective way.

We have laws against hate speech; perhaps it is time to eliminate fear speech as well. Narratives that induce anxiety divide us, diminish our potential, and prevent us from achieving the change we supposedly seek. During World War II, rationing and victory gardens were not primarily promoted with fear but rather with appeals to loyalty and hope (“Join the war effort”, “Do your part to ensure victory”). Contrast this with 30 years of failed climate change activism, which has been almost entirely fear-based. “Drive less or DOOM!” “Cut emissions by 50% immediately or EVEN BIGGER DOOM!” And still we never change, because we are either too paralyzed by fear or else reacting emotionally and irrationally against the fear narrative. Whatever happened to positive messaging? “Build a better world for our children by driving less and conserving energy.” “Invest in the future of your company, your community, and your country by taking action against climate change.” Might that be more effective and less divisive?

We all need to do personal work to let go of our fears and to live more fully in the moment, but this would be much easier if we could silence the media narratives that shout “BE AFRAID” every day, whether the fear du jour is COVID-19, gun owners, gun control advocates, rioters, racists, Trump’s tweets, liberals, conservatives, immigrants, ICE, wildfires, hurricanes, crime, or whatever is sufficiently sensationally scary and alluring to our pre-existing anxieties to generate clicks and advertising revenue. What would it take to tell more positive stories? Of communities coming together across ideological lines to fight wildfires and save homes. Of those who have survived COVID-19 against long odds. Of new farms starting and bringing in local food in times of need. Of neighbors helping neighbors, friends helping friends, friends helping enemies. Of forgiveness, of reconciliation, of loyalty, of love.

We may have reached peak anxiety in 2020, but the world outside is not the source of our fears. We have found the enemy, and it is…us. Peddling fear stories to anxious people is like serving alcohol to drunks. It is destructive, immoral, and ultimately dangerous if it leads to a fracturing of society and a breakdown of democracy. If we can censure hate speech can we do the same for fearmongering? I think it is high time that we try, or at the very least stop listening.

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I Hope We Choose Love

Toward a More Equal America, Part 8

Where do we go from here?

If we remove the blinders and the filters that prevent us from seeing the whole story, if we understand the ethical arguments that change is imperative, how then do we act?

Do we put the blinders back on, retreat into ourselves, our favored communities, our comfortable realities? Or can we act courageously, change ourselves, and change the world?

We have four possible choices, when presented with a request for empathy: individualism, factionalism, distortion, and love.

Individualism

Individualism says that empathy doesn’t apply because we are all in a fight for survival and are justified in doing what it takes to get ahead. It is the theory of natural selection applied to humanity. A world of individualism is is a lonely world, where we must be on guard at all times, because other people will crush us at every possible opportunity. And it is not really a prevalent worldview, outside of a few true sociopaths. Most of us care about our parents and our children. And if we extend our empathy that far, how can we justify not caring about our grandparents, our children’s friends, our wider community?

Factionalism

Factionalism says that there are Important Distinctions between humans, and that those Important Distinctions determine which humans are worthy of empathy and respect, and which humans are not really fully human after all. These are the axes of oppression discussed in Part 7.

The trouble with factionalism – aside from its moral indefensibility – is that if we are willing cause harm to other groups, we must be constantly on guard against those groups causing harm to us. As with individualism, we are never safe.

Does it feel to anyone else that the United States is being governed by a high school bully? Has it occurred to anyone else that this might be a direct result of those segregated high-school cafeteria rooms, where college-bound kids looked down their noses at working-class kids – the ones flipping burgers, fixing cars, driving tractors? That Donald Trump might be giving voice to an anger that has been repressed for years? We don’t care what your so-called experts say, they are saying. We won’t stand for your so-called social justice that defines our oppression out of existence. We don’t give a rat’s ass about you or your feelings, because you never gave a rat’s ass about us or ours.

If we embrace factionalism, then we must also embrace the possibility of defeat. As long as we are dehumanizing others, we can expect them to dehumanize us, to fight against us. And that kind of conflict is always destructive to humanity. Great buildings and works of art destroyed in battle. Lives lost, in war, or because we cannot agree on how to respond to a new virus spreading among us, or because we cannot work together in response to climate change or any of the other crises facing humankind and planet Earth. Great ideas and initiatives flushed down the tubes of history because they happened to belong to the losing side.

Distortion

Do you know any of those positive-thinking people for whom life is sunshine and rainbows and ecstatic dance festivals, and any negativity is brushed away? Who respond to real personal stories of harm experienced with answers like your harmful thoughts are manifesting as physical suffering? Change your thoughts, change your life, they suggest. We each create our own experience.

That is one form of distortion, of embracing a version of reality that obfuscates the ethical dimensions of our interconnectedness. We do, in a sense, each create our own experience, but we do so relationally. That is to say that my ability find joy, respect, security, and abundance in life is dependent upon my position along all of the axes of oppression, and that within the context of an inequitable system my own actions and choices are likely to be constraining the ability of others to create their own experiences. A failure to acknowledge this is a denial of reality, and is deeply unethical.

Another form of distortion that I have seen is enabled by spiritual belief systems that devalue our physical existence. This world is just a dream, some say. Our mission is to transcend physical reality. Or Jesus is coming soon to take the true believers up to Heaven. I can’t theologically disprove any such statements, but I can confidently state that it is ethically problematic to devalue our current lived experience, if doing so also devalues harm and suffering, and the ways in which our own choices in this shared “dreamworld” are resulting in nightmares for some and happy dreams for others.

Love

Love is a commitment to acknowledge the humanity in all people. It says, I may not agree with you, but I respect you. It may even say, I cannot forgive you for the harm you have caused me, but I understand that you were acting out your own pain, your own lack of love. It is not warm and fuzzy, it is not absolution, it may not always seem kind. But it is real.

Love is the opposite of “cancel culture” – a phrase making the media rounds these days. Cancel culture is vigilant, watchful, waiting for anyone to make an irredeemable mistake, which will instantly transform them from a Good Person to a Bad Person. Cancel culture serves neoliberalism. We have all made such mistakes; we could all be “cancelled.” So we are careful not to step out of line; we allow our fear to keep us contained, keep us manageable.

Love does not search for a reason to dehumanize people: color of skin, country of origin, even evidence of past or ongoing harms committed. Love listens, in order to understand. Love does not accept prejudice, but neither does it condemn people for their words or opinions. It persistently tugs at the heartstrings to understand prejudice, unwind it, deconstruct it. So you say you don’t like the Somali people in town, tell me why? (Not, goodbye you fucking racist.) I miss the way things used to be too, but change happens, we all have to adapt. Have you tried their new restaurant downtown? I’ll take you there, the food is delicious, and the owner is a friend of mine… Such is the way of love.

This began as a series about economics, about building an economy of, for, and by the people, and we ended up talking about love. There’s a good reason for that. I don’t believe that we will be able to build such an economy until we can choose to love and respect one another, to fully accept those aspirational words written 244 years ago: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all (humans) are created equal, that they are endowed…with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

I borrowed the title of this essay from a book that I highly recommend to anyone who has been involved with social justice but is feeling disillusioned by the lack of real, transformative change: I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl’s Notes from the End of the World, by Kai Cheng Thom. I will leave you with her words:

We must love ourselves. We must encourage love – love that is radical, love that digs deep. Love that asks the hard questions, that is ready to listen to the whole story and keep loving anyway. Love for the survivors, love for the perpetrators, love for the survivors who have perpetrated and the perpetrators who have survived. Love for the community that has failed us all. … We can choose to consume each other, or we can choose love. Even in the midst of despair, there is always a choice. I hope we choose love.

Kai Cheng Thom, I Hope We Choose Love, 2019, p. 91.
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Invisible Axes of Oppression: How Neoliberal Social Justice is Gaslighting America

Toward a More Equal America, Part 7

In Part 6, I highlighted voices from the Black and transgender communities which are critical of mainstream social justice. These voices point out that social justice activism is rich in demands for emotional work, attitude adjustments, minor policy changes, and opportunities for a select few representatives from marginalized groups to join the comfortable classes; and yet notably deficient in demands for the sorts of structural economic reforms that would be necessary to meaningfully improve the lives of a majority of Black or transgender people. It’s nice if the cops won’t kill you, in other words, but that provides slim solace if it remains impossible to earn a living wage, afford food and housing, and escape a life of petty crime in the name of survival. Because mainstream social justice represents no threat to the neoliberal agenda, these voices argue, it actually helps to perpetuate neoliberalism.

In this essay I return to my own voice. Before I begin, I would encourage everyone to read On Gaslighting, by Nora Samaran. For anyone unfamiliar with the term “gaslighting” or with the idea of unintentional-but-still-harmful gaslighting, I quote her opening paragraphs:

I keep having the same conversation over and over.

That thing where someone undermines your perception of reality, and says you’re crazy, or denies that something is happening that is in fact happening?

When people we love and trust do that to us? It really messes with our minds.

Over time, or when it is about important things, this experience of having words deny reality can fundamentally shatter our sense of self-trust and our ability to navigate reality.

“There’s a word for that,” I say, hearing yet another such story from a female friend. “It’s gaslighting.”

Friend says “What’s gaslighting? I’ve never heard of that.”

“It’s when someone undermines your trust in your own perceptions and you feel crazy because your instincts and intuition and sometimes even plain old perceptions are telling you one thing, and words from someone you trust are telling you something different.”

“Oh.” (looks it up).

“Oh,” friend says again, reading. “But gaslighting seems to mean when someone does that to you intentionally. I don’t think he was doing it to me intentionally. Actually, it’s even harder to pin down because I don’t even think he was fully aware he was doing it and he got upset when I talked about it. But he was. And it makes me question my sanity.”

Do you understand the depth of the harm of making someone question their sanity? This is serious shit. This is not like “whoops I brought you the strawberry ice cream and forgot you like banana better.” It is poking a hole in someone’s fundamental capacity to engage with reality. Understand it in a context in which women have been being told every day for their entire lives that their perceptions cannot be trusted – when in fact our perceptions are often bang fucking on – and you have a systemic, pervasive, deeply psychologically harmful phenomenon, insanity by a thousand cuts.

Nora Samaran, “On Gaslighting

I believe that neoliberalism is using a social justice narrative to gaslight the entire United States, and much of the world.

The nature of this gaslighting is as follows. Social justice paints a national narrative of progress toward greater equality, beginning with the original sins of slavery and colonization and proceeding through abolition, women’s suffrage, civil rights, gay marriage, transgender equality, and the ongoing (and likely to be successful) Black Lives Matter protests against militarized and racist police practices. This is in direct conflict with the lived experiences of a majority of Americans, who – as I discussed in Parts 1 and 2 of this series – have found themselves squeezed between stagnant wages, skyrocketing costs of living, and a profound absence of respect or empathy from those in positions of power, and have logically concluded that equality is decreasing.

To counter such claims, neoliberal social justice offers one of three answers:

  1. Your experience is not real (because statistics show that America is more equal than it was in the past).
  2. If you are white and male, your perceived suffering is actually just an overdue pruning of your unearned white male privilege, so deal with it.
  3. If you are anything other than white and male, your suffering is due to the white supremacist patriarchy, and the solution is to continue the work of social justice.

Most people on the losing end of neoliberal economics don’t find these answers very satisfying. For one thing, if equality is improving over time while lived experience of quality of life is declining, it’s difficult to argue that remaining inequality is the cause of that decline. For another, most of these people have direct experiences of oppression that, according to the logic of social justice, does not and can not exist.

The result of prolonged gaslighting, as Samaran clearly describes, is a loss of sanity, and I would posit that this national insanity is at least partially responsible for the election of Donald Trump, a narcissistic and divisive man with little talent for leadership who rose to power by giving voice to the simmering anger of millions of gaslit, downtrodden Americans.

The mechanism of this gaslighting remained a mystery to me until recently. The people involved in social justice work – from authors and activists to my own friends and acquaintances – all seemed to be good people with honest and moral intentions of changing the world for the better, of being better ancestors to their own children and the children of the world. When I delved deeper into the work of rooting out implicit bias and understanding privilege, I could find little that I would disagree with. At the same time, I felt strongly that something was amiss, that the ideology of social justice could not explain many of the inequalities I observed in the world and that it was actually serving to distract attention from them. Finally, I came to a realization: what if the framework of social justice was not wrong, but rather incomplete?

High on the recommended reading list for white people during the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests is Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla F. Saad. In this book – intended as a guide for journaling and reflection – Saad, a Black woman, describes the many ways in which a culture of white supremacy is oppressive to people of color, and encourages readers to reflect on their own attitudes, biases, and behaviors in this regard.

I had an interesting experience working through it, because I discovered that aside from a fear of encountering Black men on dark urban streets gleaned from too many childhood 10 o’clock news crime reports, I could not identify much in the way of deep-seated racial biases within myself – which I attribute to primarily inhabiting racially homogeneous (mostly white) communities in which race did not serve as a major point of distinction. I did, however, reflect more broadly on her journaling prompts. How have you felt superior to others? she asks in the context of race. How has that feeling led you to act in ways that are harmful to others, or to fail to intervene when you observed others committing harm?

It turns out, upon self-reflection, that I have felt superior to others. I have acted in ways that privileged myself at others’ expense, I have been on the losing end of oppressive attitudes and behaviors, and I have observed similar behaviors in others. And yet somehow very little of the oppression that I have perpetrated, experienced, or observed fits neatly into racism, misogyny, or any of the other categories of social justice. At first I doubted whether it was therefore of any importance whatsoever, but then a little alarm bell went off in my head. Remember gaslighting? That essay I read telling me to trust my own intuitions, reflections, and perceptions even when “experts” that I trust are telling a different story? Might that be going on here?

We are all familiar with the intersecting identities that form the axes of oppression in social justice theory:

  • Gender (male/female and cis/trans/nonbinary)
  • Race
  • Sexual orientation
  • Religion
  • Ethnicity
  • Disability status
  • Age
  • and a few others.

If we define oppression in the same way that Saad defines racism – prejudice in the context of a difference in power – then we must ask: why must oppression occur only in the context of identity? Might other axes of oppression exist, and if so is there any ethical reason not to include them within the framework of social justice? Might these “invisible” axes of oppression help to explain how neoliberal social justice is gaslighting America, telling a story that is in conflict with citizens’ lived experience?

Invisible Axes of Oppression

Based upon self-reflection on oppression I have observed or experienced in my own life, I posit that there are at least six important intersecting non-identitarian axes of oppression in American society, all of which are fully deserving of social justice activism.

These are:

  • Occupation
  • Education
  • Family status
  • Class
  • Intelligence (mathematical/analytical)
  • Origin (native to an area vs. immigrant)

I will discuss each of these in turn, based upon my own experiences and observations. Within each one, I will attempt to identify the nature of the power difference, the parties involved (who is oppressing, who is being oppressed), and the method by which oppression is occurring.

Occupation

I have very few working class friends. That number might even be zero, but it depends on how exactly the distinction is defined. I have friends who earn minimum wage or slightly above, but I do not consider them working class for reasons I will explain below. This is a problem, I suggest, because it highlights one of the greatest divides in American society – at least on par with race in terms of significance.

For me, this divide dates all the way back to the beginning of high school. In Me and White Supremacy, Saad discusses the way subtle racism leads to black kids sitting together in the cafeteria, away from the white kids. We had only one black kid in our small town school, and from my viewpoint at least he was reasonably well accepted, so that wasn’t the divide that I observed. Instead, from about ninth grade onwards, we had college-bound kids and work-bound kids: those who were studying advanced math and literature in order to get a high SAT score, and those who were taking shop and welding classes and planning to carry on the family business or find work around town after graduation.

The divide itself is not a problem. The problem is that we (and I say this as one of the college-bound kids) did not respect them. We weren’t especially mean to them, but we considered ourselves better, and – in a graduating class of 61 students – I can sadly say I remember the names of all of my college-bound classmates, but few of the rest. We were taught this disrespect by our families – most of whom were themselves college-educated. We were told that we ought to work hard in school, or we might end up flipping burgers – as if flipping burgers were a worthless occupation and not a meaningful contribution to society.

When I discuss oppression based on occupation, I am referring not specifically to rate of pay or type of work, but whether the work – and thereby the person doing the work – is respected by members of the financially comfortable, educated classes in society. From the perspective of the comfortable classes, respectability of work in current American society looks something like this:

From the perspective of the comfortable classes, i.e. the privileged people along this axis of oppression:

  • Other members of the comfortable classes are people worthy of respect.
  • People working service jobs that serve the comfortable classes are also people worthy of respect, albeit slightly less. These are considered acceptable jobs for young adults born into the comfortable classes, as they apply for better jobs or make plans to pursue further education. The comfortable classes interact with these folks in a friendly manner, leave generous tips, and occasionally offer suggestions as to how to move up in the world. These jobs act as a relief valve to accommodate the fact that there are more children of comfortable-class people graduating from college than there are available jobs in the comfortable classes, and they save the comfortable classes from actually having to interact with working-class people on a regular basis. Younger people in these jobs – who are seen as using it as a stepping stone – are treated with more respect than elders for whom it is a career.
  • Members of the skilled working classes are respected for their labor alone, not for their humanity. We might talk about having a good mechanic or a good electrician, but chances are they are not our friends and we do not really value them as people. If we have a few friends and family in these roles, we consider them a bit odd but honor them for “following their own path.”
  • People working “unskilled” service jobs – in call centers, as big box cashiers, or as fast food workers – are seldom regarded as people at all. We treat them like machines, and if they make a mistake we inform them rudely and expect contrition. Chances are we have no personal relationships whatsoever with people working these jobs, and if we do have a friend or family member in these roles we consider it a tragedy in need of correction.

This occupation-based dehumanization parallels and perpetuates the neoliberal commodification and devaluation of human labor. There was a time – 40+ years ago – when most of the unskilled service jobs did not yet exist (no Amazon warehouses, no nationwide Walmarts) and when the skilled working-class jobs were mostly unionized and commanded respect and a living wage. That this change should be completely ignored by social justice efforts is a reflection of the fact that social justice ideology is a product of colleges and universities, which themselves are occupied by present and aspiring members of the comfortable classes. The fact that the comfortable classes do not regard the working classes as worthy of respect allows us to ignore wage stagnation, benefit cuts, rent increases, and all of the other trends that are making survival increasingly tenuous for this segment of the population.

Education

We do not wear our education credentials on our sleeves; oppression based on education occurs primarily at the level of hiring, and in particular in the vast number of job applications that require a generic college degree. Just as I argued in Part 3 that the only ethical function of an economy is to facilitate exchange of goods and services, I would argue that the only ethical function of higher education is to provide necessary preparation for a career. I would further argue that there is no job or career for which an adequate apprenticeship and passage of any necessary certification exams cannot substitute for a formal education.

Thus I find it ironic that so many job descriptions have a nondiscrimination clause directly adjacent to a requirement for a college degree. The job announcement always spells out exactly the skills and experience required. If an applicant can demonstrate that they meet those requirements, they should be hired. Requiring a degree only ensures that the applicant had enough resources to pay for college or a good enough family credit score to secure college loans.

Having been through four years of college at a well-regarded liberal arts institution, I can attest that it was a positive experience and a good preparation for graduate school, but in no way necessary to perform any of the degree-requiring jobs that I did after graduating. The near-universal requirement of college degrees for well-paying jobs with benefits thus represents a form of discrimination. It is a statement that the employer would prefer to hire someone from the comfortable classes, and that fully capable working-class applicants – for whom college was not financially a viable option – need not apply. Education-based oppression therefore directly serves the interests of class segregation and neoliberalism.

Family Status

Growing up in a small town, I quickly learned that some families had status. Typically that meant that they had wealth, but it also meant that they had history – members on the city council, farms or family businesses dating back three or four generations. My family was at the bottom of the status pile. My parents were never married and separated (this matters in a Christian community), my father was not raised in the community, and he had no wealth or business to his name. I cemented my lack of status in high school by ratting out a high-status basketball player for cheating on an exam, resulting in his suspension from sports for a few games and bringing shame to his family. I managed to partially overcome my lack of status through intelligence – see below – but my lack of status in my community was central to my decision to leave town after high school.

Status confers access to social capital that brings opportunities for success and career advancement, providing unearned privilege to some children in a manner analogous to inherited wealth. Status is as old as human civilization, nearly impossible to address politically, and not uniquely neoliberal in any way. Even so, it is worthy of mention as an axis of oppression that serves to perpetuate inequality, and a potential target for social justice activism.

Class

I have already used the word “class” in the context of “working class” and “comfortable classes” to describe groups of people. In describing class as an axis of oppression, I am referring to all of the subtle and not-so-subtle indicators that we belong to one or the other of these tribes. These include word choice, patterns of speech, demeanor, clothing choices, and even our given names. It has been proven that job applicants with traditionally Black names are interviewed at a lower rate by white hiring boards. Though I’m not aware of any parallel study, I would wager that the same would be true if we compared traditionally working-class names (e.g. Tanner, Dakota) with traditionally upper-class names (e.g. Joseph, Christopher).

Classism makes it difficult for working-class people to succeed in comfortable-class spaces like colleges because they perceive – usually quite correctly – that they are being judged negatively. It adds one more barrier to upward mobility; even if a person is able to “escape” the working classes by possessing high intelligence (see below), attending college, and landing a comfortable-class job, it can remain difficult to fit in and feel comfortable.

Class discrimination is insidious, continuous, unconscious, and structural. In confronting it we will need to use all of the tools developed to confront racism: understanding implicit bias, identifying microaggressions, avoiding tokenism, saviorism, etc. Given that people of color make up a significant proportion of the working classes, there is a substantial overlap between racism and classism in the United States, and I would even go so far as to hypothesize that – in regions where the comfortable classes are predominantly white and the lower classes are predominantly people of color – some of what appears as racism may actually be classism in disguise. That is to say that if we were able to determine what was going on in the minds of people when discriminating based on race, it might be less “person of color = not worthy of respect” and more “person of color = working class = not worthy of respect.” That doesn’t make it any less impactful to those affected, of course, but it may alter the nature of the activism required to effect change.

Intelligence

Modern society privileges a certain variety of mathematical, analytical intelligence of the sort that can ace the SAT exam. This is far from the only variety of human intelligence; some people have linguistic, musical, artistic, literary, emotional, or social genius, to name a few, and all are valuable to a flourishing human community. But mathematical/analytical intelligence is useful for the sorts of jobs that oversee a global, technological economy, and so it has been granted special status among the comfortable classes.

This happens to be the way that my brain works, and it was my ticket to success all through my years of education. It also constitutes unearned privilege. I did not construct my brain. Too often I watched others work twice as hard to receive lower grades and thought “I am a winner!” School became a competition, with top marks as validation that I was worthy of respect.

I don’t want to get too far off into the weeds here, but I will say that when I reflect on the ways in which my privilege has caused harm to others, this is an axis of oppression that comes to mind. I seem to have developed some bad habits, in terms of using my intelligence to gain respect rather than to teach and empower others. I have noticed that those who are closest to me seem to become less confident in their own analytical intelligence over time. I feel I am at least partly responsible. My tendency is to identify problems before others recognize them, devise and implement a solution, and then tell others what I did. This is helpful and can quickly render me valuable and even indispensable, but it ultimately plants seeds of self-doubt in those around me. I also feel that my suggestions and criticisms are given undue weight in everyday life by virtue of my intelligence; that I am assumed to be right even when there is no obvious reason that I should be. I wonder if there might be a way – if I were to operate from a greater sense of security within myself – that I might be able to use my intelligence in a way that is empowering rather than disempowering to others.

Returning to a discussion of intelligence as an axis of oppression in general, an emphasis on knowledge and intelligence creates the illusion of a meritocratic society – anyone who passes the test can succeed – while tacitly acknowledging that this sort of learning is readily fostered among the comfortable classes but not lower on the economic ladder. So in reality, these knowledge- and intelligence-based hurdles and incentives impose another mechanism to perpetuate the class divide, while also devaluing those whose natural intelligences are not in the mathematical or analytical arenas.

Origin

Origin – which I will define as whether a person is native or new to a community – is distinct from the previous five axes of oppression. It is unique in that oppression can flow either way, depending on which group has more power. I want to discuss it here, however, because it is also excluded from the framework of mainstream social justice, with origin-based oppressions typically simplified as identity-based oppressions.

We live in a world of human migrations, which are likely to increase in the decades ahead as climate change renders some regions less habitable. People move fleeing oppression and violence, seeking opportunity, or for a hundred other reasons. When enough new people enter a community that social dynamics or economic realities begin to change, a predictable and understandable resentment arises in the native people of that community, the ones that were born and raised there.

We give this dynamic different names, depending on which group has more power. When the new (usually white) people have more power and the existing people (usually of color) are devalued or displaced, we call the process gentrification and the resistance community preservation. When the new people are refugees or economic migrants (usually people of color) and the existing people are white (and usually lower-class, but with more power), we call the process immigration and the resistance racism. When there is no clear power differential, the resentment and divide usually goes unnamed. I moved to my current area twelve years ago, a place where in-migration (of mostly comfortable-class white people, into a mostly-white community) has resulted in significant population growth and increases in housing costs. Even now, I find that very few of my friends were born and raised here, and that there is a real resentment-based barrier to friendship between natives and newcomers.

This is another area in which neoliberal social justice is guilty of oversimplifying oppression to fit into an identity framework. In the past 20 years, the rural area where I grew up has seen a significant influx of Latinx immigrants and Somali refugees. This is a region that has been declining economically for decades, thanks to industrialization of agriculture shrinking the number of jobs overall while simultaneously creating a large number of employment opportunities in the lowest-respectability, lowest-pay range (meat processing, industrial-scale animal production and beet sugar production). The immigrants and refugees have taken these jobs and have begun to revitalize the town centers, opening Mexican and Somali restaurants, clothing stores, and gathering places.

Understandably, many of the residents of my hometown are not happy about these demographic changes. When they express their feelings, mainstream social justice tends to label them as racists. And it’s true that if we define racism as any bias by white people against people of color, then it fits the definition. That said, to really understand whether these people are racially biased or just expressing nativist resentment, we need to ask ourselves if they would feel differently if the newcomers were French (with a language barrier), or even white New Yorkers. Knowing my old friends and neighbors, I suspect they would find such an influx equally troubling.

I’m not suggesting that racist attitudes don’t exist in my hometown, or that oppressions experienced by immigrant communities should be more bearable if they have nativist rather than racist origins. I am simply making a plea for empathy, clarity, and open communication. If someone is grieving change in their community due to immigration, it is not helpful to label them as racist. It is important to understand that human migration will nearly always lead to resentment of newcomers by those native to the area, and that this can be its own axis of oppression independent of the identities of those involved. We will need to work through this conflict many times as migration increases in the years ahead.

Joseph, Jack, Jill, and Jezebel: Examining the effects of social justice and neoliberal economics along axes of oppression

This can all seem incredibly complex; if we examine occupation, education, status, class, intelligence, and origin in addition to the identities of traditional social justice, we all have our place in a 13-dimensional landscape of privilege and oppression.

For the purposes of understanding exactly how an incomplete framework of social justice is gaslighting America, let’s condense some of these axes and consider four hypothetical people.


Joseph is a straight cisgender white male investment banker, born into a wealthy well-known family and still living in his hometown. He is widely regarded as brilliant and holds a Ph.D. in economic theory from an Ivy League school.

Jack is a straight cisgender white male grocery worker who earns minimum wage restocking shelves on the night shift. He was born into a downwardly-mobile working-class family, where paying rent and putting food on the table left no money for college and a bad taste for debt. He left town to find work in the city, where he is currently living out of his car and hopes to someday be able to afford an apartment with roommates or maybe even a spot in a trailer park.

Jill is a queer transgender woman of color who is a tenured professor at a small liberal-arts college near her home city. Her grandparents immigrated to America and worked their way up to the comfortable classes (that was still possible in their generation), and her family is proud that she has been able to overcome the odds, even if they feel conflicted about her unconventional identities. She was awarded a prestigious scholarship to earn her Ph.D., is the author of several well-read books, and is often interviewed as a success story in the movement for social justice.

Jezebel is a queer transgender woman of color who is currently living with five roommates in a run-down apartment in a big city. She grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, with no money for college and no time to devote to school. Her parents supported her identity but lamented that it would make her already-bleak prospects even bleaker. She left home at 18 seeking an accepting community, and while she has found good people she has not be able to find a stable job that pays anything approaching a living wage given the astronomical cost of housing. She has been homeless several times, has occasionally resorted to sex work to make ends meet, and has contemplated suicide in particularly hopeless moments.

Let’s assume that all of these people are 30-40 years old, and let’s look at how the world has changed since their birth.

Joseph’s life has always been good. He knew from boyhood that he was destined for success, and he just had to play his aces right – with his family’s sound advice – to maintain his position at the top of all of society’s axes of oppression. In the last decades he has noticed that more of his colleagues are women and people of color, which makes for more interesting boardroom discussions but is no threat to his place in the world, which he feels that he has rightfully earned through hard work and family success. He plans to retire young, maybe buy a yacht, and spend more time exploring all of the places he has visited on business trips.

Jack’s life has been a story of diminishing expectations. When he was born, his father earned respect and good wages working at a factory, his family had a mortgage on a modest home, and they hoped to save enough to send their kids to college – or for their kids to build a good life working in the factory. But the factory closed when Jack was about 10. Factories were closing across town and all over the state, as companies moved manufacturing overseas in pursuit of cheaper labor. They lost the house and moved to a small apartment, and Jack’s dad took up drinking. Eventually his mom found work at the local gas station and his dad earned some money as a freelance mechanic, and the family survived, but the dreams of a college fund were gone, and the feeling of being respected for a good day’s labor was gone along with it.

Jack watched with some envy as his classmates, the children of the town’s teachers and lawyers and dentists, took their SATs and submitted their college applications, but at the same time he noticed how little they respected him. Why should he try to play their game when he had already been branded a loser? So he stuck it out, graduated high school, drank beer with his buddies on the weekends, bought an old beater car that he could sleep in if necessary, and took off in search of work. And there he has been stuck for the last ten years, living out of his car, traveling city to city, occasionally renting an apartment, living paycheck to paycheck. Whenever he has gotten close to saving enough to afford a down payment or to go back to school, some major expense – a new engine in his car, a root canal, an emergency surgery – has wiped it away. He dreams small now, hopes to maybe meet someone, find a spot in a trailer park, raise a child or two, probably never retire. He reads about how social justice is supposedly creating a more equal, more prosperous America, but it seems like so much smoke and mirrors, and it has never done a lick of good for him or his family.

Jill’s life has been one of expanding possibility, but not without struggle. Her immigrant grandparents lived the American Dream during that era when hard physical labor paid real financial dividends, and her parents worked respectable jobs in accounting and hotel administration that kept the family afloat and paid for their kids’ college tuition. She struggled with her queer and trans identities as a child – they were seen as shameful in her community – and was ostracized and bullied by her classmates. She avoided some parts of town where white people shouted rude things and occasionally more ominous threats. In college, though, she discovered people like herself and a whole movement to empower people of color and normalize queer and trans identities, and she finally felt welcome.

Jill really found her voice as an advocate for queer and trans communities, and felt like a trailblazer. She rejoiced when queer people were allowed to marry, held a lively celebration with her longtime partner, and they bought a house together and adopted two children. She felt lucky to find a tenure-track professorship shortly after earning her Ph.D., and her ability to translate science to a popular audience made her a minor celebrity in academic circles. While she knows there remains work to be done – she still faces insults and threats in some parts of town – she looks forward to sending her kids off to college and to a long retirement filled with volunteering and world travels.

Jezebel’s life has always been hard, staying alive, day-by-day. She grew up in one of those ghettos that the freeways cut in half, that the white people liked to pretend didn’t exist. She was the oldest of five. Her parents worked the sorts of service jobs where you talked to people all day long and they talked at you, talked through you, yelled at you, blamed you for things that weren’t your fault, demanded you fix their silly little problems. No one paid them any respect whatsoever, so they weren’t above stealing a few items from time to time. Her dad went to prison when she was 16 for shoplifting; he wanted to buy her a dress for her birthday but couldn’t afford it. The cops found a little weed in his car, threw the book at him. A white man probably would have gotten off with a warning. Whatever. No one ever cared about them.

She dropped out of high school then to care for her younger siblings. She felt safer at home anyway, and food stamps and a welfare check complemented her mom’s meager income and kept them fed and housed – just barely. She left home when she could, bought a one-way bus ticket to the nearest big city. There she found other survivors, castaways, beautiful broken unloved young people of all races and identities, but quite a few like herself. They were her family. They survived together, loved together, hurt each other, acted out their repressed pain and trauma together, blissed out on drugs together. Sometimes they broke the law, sometimes they found a place to live, sometimes they lived on the street. Sometimes her friends didn’t survive. Suicide, overdose, homicide. She grieved them all, but no one seemed to care.

Jezebel heard about “social justice” on the news, about trans “liberation,” about gender confirmation surgery, bathroom equality. As if she could afford surgery. As if that were even in her top ten priorities. A home would be nice. A job that paid enough to afford it. People who looked her in the eye and said “thank you” instead of looking through her as though she didn’t exist and telling her she wasn’t working fast enough, smiling enough, telling every customer about the new credit card the company had to offer. Maybe, she hoped, social justice would get around to caring about people like her. But hope was a dangerous thing to feel, it always led to disappointment. Better to just survive one more day.

How Neoliberal Social Justice is Gaslighting America

This, then, is reality as I see it. It is viewed through my lens, of course, but I encourage each of you to re-examine reality for yourselves, to remove the filters that the media and politics may have given you.

Social justice ideology is gaslighting America not by being wrong, but by being incomplete, by ignoring some of the most significant oppressions occurring all around us, every day.

The Josephs of the world, the ones with the most privilege, are not threatened by social justice activism, even as white privilege and male privilege are deconstructed. Their power lies in their status, in their occupation, in their class, and social justice as currently envisioned is no threat to that power.

The Jills of the world, the ones at the top of the invisible (nonidentitarian) privilege ladder and the bottom of the identity-based privilege ladder, have seen real improvement in quality of life due to the work of social justice, and they have also been privileged by neoliberal economics.

The Jacks of the world, the ones at the bottom of the invisible privilege ladder and at the top of the identity-based privilege ladder, have seen a marked decline in quality of life due to neoliberal devaluation of the working class. Social justice activism has done nothing for them, deeming them to be fully privileged.

The Jezebels of the world, the ones with the least privilege along all axes of oppression, have not really been helped by social justice. In effect, the decreasing oppression along identity-based axes and increasing oppression along non-identitarian axes cancel each other out, with the result that the Jezebels of the world remain in a precarious state of societal disrespect and daily survival.

A Plea for the Expansion of Social Justice

It is high time that we expand our conception of social justice to include all axes of oppression.

If you don’t care about Jack, do it for Jezebel, the one who you claim to care about but who you have not helped, because you have not dared to challenge neoliberalism and the unearned privilege that it provides to you.

If we do not expand our conception of social justice, it is likely to be defeated, and a great deal of good work will be lost. I mean this quite seriously. The Jacks of America are Trump’s base, and they are chomping at the bit to spite “social justice warriors”, who they (quite rightly, it would seem) see as blaming the Jacks of the world for identity-based oppressions while remaining blind to the neoliberal destruction of the working class. They are not a majority, but a less divisive populist voice than Trump could unite the Jacks and the Jezebels against neoliberalism, and if social justice remains tethered to neoliberal ideology then out it will go, the baby out with the bathwater.

Furthermore, it is ethically inconsistent, i.e. hypocritical, to privilege some forms of oppression over others. I cannot think of any argument to support it that does not boil down to “but I like my privilege, and those people don’t deserve it.”

There should be no those people. We are all people. We all deserve love, respect, support, basic human rights, a living wage. Is that too much to ask?

We need to focus on respect in place in addition to providing opportunities for advancement. Equity in this context is not just about providing scholarships and grants so that children of truck drivers and farm workers can go to college and join the comfortable classes. That only results in a few “success stories” in the media while some new oppressed group of “not-really-people” – refugees, undocumented immigrants, downwardly mobile manufacturing workers – takes those jobs because they have no better options. We need truck drivers, farm workers, and cashiers every bit as much if not more than we need lawyers, professors, and administrators. So we need to respect the people who perform that labor, pay a living wage, offer benefits, pay enough to compensate for the dangers of the job. People should be able to choose their path in life, not be forced to compete in a rigged casino and ultimately take what they can get. This means that some of the jobs with the toughest conditions or the highest likelihood of injury might need to pay several times their current wages.

The modern institution of higher education has created a gated community around the “good” jobs – the ones that generally pay well, provide health and retirement benefits, require less physical risk and discomfort, and confer societal respect. College is the gate, and the guards are the admissions committees, the administrators that set tuition rates, the student loan officers, the standardized tests that together decide which humans are worthy and which humans are not. It is high time that we break down this barrier. If we can accomplish that through free college for all or a relaxation of degree requirements – or both – it will be a victory for equality.

So…do the work to stomp out racism and misogyny within yourself, but also:

  • Stand up for a living wage for all work.
  • Stand up for universal health care as a human right.
  • Stand up for affordable housing. And not just a restriction on rent increases but rent reductions. You know, actually affordable housing for people earning minimum wage, to allow them to save money and move up in the world.
  • Respect everyone you meet. Cashiers and fast food workers included. Look them in the eye. Thank them. Do not judge them. Do not pity them. Do not blame them for mistakes that they make. How many mistakes would you make if you did that work all day?
  • If you’re a member of the comfortable classes, cultivate friendships with people in the working classes, if possible. They will expect you to be condescending, and you might come across that way without intending to. Ask them what they need to improve their lives, and then use your privilege to help make it happen.
  • Be willing to pay what it costs for people to earn a living wage. Yes, that means food and clothing will cost more. If you’re a member of the comfortable classes, you can afford it.
  • Be kind to homeless people, and support efforts to provide them with jobs, housing, and adequate mental health care when needed. Don’t stigmatize them or try to NIMBY them out of your neighborhood.
  • Be willing to accept enough. Enough money, a big enough house, enough stuff, enough travel. You don’t really need more, and other people need some too.

Can we do this? Together?

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The Trouble with Social Justice

Toward a More Equal America, Part 6

In Part 4, I alluded to the fact that “there is emotional work to do here as well,” in the context of creating a more equitable economy. In the final three parts of this series, I want to dig deeper into what that emotional work entails, and at the same time examine why the emotional work that we are doing doesn’t seem to be addressing our overarching neoliberal economic inequality in a meaningful way.

That means that it’s time to take a hard look at social justice – the ideology that seeks to overcome identity-based oppression and that has become firmly entrenched on the leftward end of the American political spectrum. Admittedly this puts me in an awkward position; as a white, cisgender, heterosexual man, social justice etiquette would dictate that I ought to shut up and listen, and most certainly not criticize the overall framework in any way.

So, I offer a critique of mainstream social justice not in my own words, but in the words of three others. Cedric Johnson, a Black man, is an associate professor of political science and African-American Studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Adolph Reed, also a Black man, is a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. Kai Cheng Thom, a transgender woman of Asian descent, is an author, speaker, and cultural worker based in Quebec.

Reed expresses the problem succinctly:

(A)lthough it often comes with a garnish of disparaging but empty references to neoliberalism as a generic sign of bad things, antiracist politics is in fact the left wing of neoliberalism in that its sole metric of social justice is opposition to disparity in the distribution of goods and bads in the society, an ideal that naturalizes the outcomes of capitalist market forces so long as they are equitable along racial (and other identitarian) lines. As I and my colleague Walter Benn Michaels have insisted repeatedly over the last decade, the burden of that ideal of social justice is that the society would be fair if 1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources so long as the dominant 1% were 13% black, 17% Latino, 50% female… etc.”

(T)he focus on racial disparity accepts the premise of neoliberal social justice that the problem of inequality is not its magnitude or intensity in general but whether or not it is distributed in a racially equitable way. To the extent that that is the animating principle of a left politics, it is a politics that lies entirely within neoliberalism’s logic.

https://nonsite.org/editorial/how-racial-disparity-does-not-help-make-sense-of-patterns-of-police-violence

Johnson expands on this line of reasoning, critiquing the prioritization of emotional antiracist work over concrete policy changes that would necessarily challenge both economic and racial privilege.

Whiteness studies has produced a form of anti-racist politics focused on public therapy rather than public policy, a politics that actually detracts from building social bonds and solidarity in the context of actual organizing campaigns, everyday life, and purposive political action.



The interpretive problems and faulty political assumptions of whiteness studies have become entrenched through the emergence of a therapeutic industry dedicated to rehabilitating interpersonal racism and addressing white privilege through acts of contrition, and have grown more dangerous as they have been amplified and degraded via social media. There is not much evidence that the expansion of this mode of anti-racist trainings over the last few decades has produced a different politics, a willingness to take risk, to sacrifice one’s privileged position to make substantive changes in society, or even altered day-to-day behavior.

If anything, whiteness deprogramming provides a ready means of egress, a way to demonstrate sympathy without making more difficult, sustained political commitments that might entail contesting institutionalized power. Neither does it require shedding or sharing the actual trappings of middle class privilege, i.e. better salaries, savings and assets, high performing schools, the capacity to travel, social networks, etc., which are codified in popular speech as white privilege, even though these same goods may be shared by other middle class and wealthy ethnics. Whiteness training encourages sharing one’s origin story, failings and sense of torment, but beyond charitable giving, it does not necessitate sharing resources at the level of redistributive public policy, i.e. through expansion of the universal social wage, commuter taxes, consolidation of urban-suburban school districts, revenue sharing across metropolitan divides, federally-managed public works projects etc.

There is also a millenarian and liberal individualist dimension to the kind of anti-racist politics embodied in whiteness studies, notions of white privilege and the like. We are told individuals must correct their flaws before they can participate with others, a view that runs counter to what should be conventional wisdom about human behavior and social movement dynamics. The assumption that the therapeutic work needs to happen first is simply wrong, and there are plenty of examples throughout history and in our own times where we can find imperfect people working to realize and advance their common concerns.

The work of building solidarity lies elsewhere, not in therapy aimed at self-actualization, but in lived social relations and sustained political work that transforms participants’ social consciousness and collective sense of historical possibility. Those everyday social relations and the context of political work are always defined by the presence of differences, whether those are differences of background, perspective, maturity, knowledge, insight, power, capacity, and passions, and none of these are calibrated strictly in concert with racial, ethnic, gender or other corporeal identities.

We should be able to talk about situated-class experiences, i.e., ascriptive gender and racial hierarchies, sectoral and regional variations in working lives, unique occupational subcultures, idiosyncratic worker concerns and daily issues, without losing sight of the fundamental capitalist class relation of exploitation, and the dependency on wage labor endured by the vast majority of the U.S. population. Moreover, when we discuss what are often treated as discrete identity-based issues, i.e. matters of hyperpolicing, health disparities, urban unemployment, environmental racism, the gender gap in wages, affordable housing crises and gentrification, we should be clear that those problems originate from the tremendous power capital wields over all of our lives, and contesting that power is essential to addressing those specific concerns and creating a more just state of affairs.

Excerpts from https://nonsite.org/article/the-wages-of-roediger-why-three-decades-of-whiteness-studies-has-not-produced-the-left-we-need

One effect of this is that we collect data on racial, ethnic, gender, and other identity-based discrepancies across a wide array of areas of concern: wages, hiring, college admissions, proportion of various workforces, deaths in police custody, deaths from various causes, and just about every aspect of society where data are collected. By pre-defining these identities to be the variables of interest, we can fail to properly determine causality when many other variables may be involved.

For example, we know that Black women experience pregnancy-related mortality at a rate three times that of white women. We can hypothesize that it is due to the stress of experiencing racism and underlying health conditions exacerbated by racism, but without further information as to the cause it is difficult to know where to focus activism. If it is due to direct experiences of racism, then antiracism training may be the answer, but if it is due to – say – poverty and lack of health insurance, then it would be better to focus on lifting these women – and all impoverished women – out of poverty and providing universal health care.

We can determine, in this example, that women in “poor” counties (>15% poverty) are twice as likely to experience pregnancy-related mortality than women in “rich” counties (<5% poverty), but all counties have a wide range of income levels and we don’t actually collect income data on an individual basis to assess whether poverty might be a more explanatory factor than race.

In the wake of the recent Black Lives Matter protests following the police murder of George Floyd, Johnson penned a critique that I highly recommend reading: The Triumph of Black Lives Matter and Neoliberal Redemption. In it, he notes that large corporations that were facing intense scrutiny and condemnation for their labor practices during the Covid-19 pandemic received a public relations windfall from their support of the Black Lives Matter protests. I quote some excerpts below.

Nearly all of the Democrat leadership who “took a knee” against racist policing, have openly opposed Medicare for All, free higher education, and the expansion of other public goods, but their technical reforms to reduce excessive force incidents and prosecute police for misconduct are the perfect way of displaying commitment to racial justice, while perpetuating the very pro-market logics and class relations that stress policing and mass incarceration were invented to protect.

Black Lives Matter sentiment is essentially a militant expression of racial liberalism. Such expressions are not a threat but rather a bulwark to the neoliberal project that has obliterated the social wage, gutted public sector employment and worker pensions, undermined collective bargaining and union power, and rolled out an expansive carceral apparatus, all developments that have adversely affected black workers and communities. Sure, some activists are calling for defunding police departments and de-carceration, but as a popular slogan, Black Lives Matter is a cry for full recognition within the established terms of liberal democratic capitalism. And the ruling class agrees.

During the so-called Black Out Tuesday social media event, corporate giants like Walmart and Amazon widely condemned the killing of George Floyd and other policing excesses. Gestural anti-racism was already evident at Amazon, which flew the red, black and green black liberation flag over its Seattle headquarters this past February. The world’s wealthiest man, Jeff Bezos even took the time to respond personally to customer upset that Amazon expressed sympathy with the George Floyd protestors. “‘Black lives matter’ doesn’t mean other lives don’t matter,” the Amazon CEO wrote, “I have a 20-year-old son, and I simply don’t worry that he might be choked to death while being detained one day. It’s not something I worry about. Black parents can’t say the same.” Bezos also pledged $10 million in support of “social justice organizations”…..

The leadership of Warner, Sony Music and Walmart each committed $100 million to similar organizations. The protests have provided a public relations windfall for Bezos and his ilk. Only weeks before George Floyd’s killing, Amazon, Instacart, GrubHub and other delivery-based firms, which became crucial for commodity circulation during the national shelter-in-place, faced mounting pressure from labor activists over their inadequate protections, low wages, lack of health benefits and other working conditions. Corporate anti-racism is the perfect egress from these labor conflicts. Black lives matter to the front office, as long as they don’t demand a living wage, personal protective equipment and quality health care.

Excerpts from https://nonsite.org/editorial/the-triumph-of-black-lives-matter-and-neoliberal-redemption

From the perspective of transgender equality, Kai Cheng Thom writes, in Trans Visibility Does Not Equal Trans Liberation:

Our revolutionary fire burns bright as always, but I am afraid that it is being misdirected, co-opted. Neoliberalism, the deadly, advanced stage of the capitalist system in which we live, is stealing trans liberation.

Instead of being able to gain access to resources, we are given representation in mainstream media – a perk that helps us enjoy television and movies while continuing to suffer homelessness and joblessness. Instead of being granted freedom, we are being sold a product: an illusion of “equality” that is ultimately empty.

To achieve trans liberation, we must turn our gaze to ending neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism erodes human-rights movements in an insidious way. It co-opts the thinking and operations of human-rights activism by creating fear and scarcity, so that our political goals are forced to focus not on envisioning a better future for all but on personal survival. Hoarding resources, assimilation into the status quo, and no-holds-barred individualism are second nature to neoliberal thinking.

In my practice as a social worker, I see more and more wealthy, usually white, middle-class youth and children coming out as trans. It’s beautiful. They are brave and resilient; and sometimes, their families actually support them in transitioning and advocating for their access to school, healthcare, university.

Yet I see just as many trans youth, mostly of color, who are estranged from their families, living in shelters, blocked from accessing the resources they need for day-to-day living, let alone medical transition and higher education.

Trans visibility is brighter than ever, trans rights awareness is at an all-time high. Yet the class divide between trans people grows and grows.

The myth of exceptionalism has always been a cornerstone of neoliberal philosophy – this is the idea that since a few people can “make it” under capitalism, then everyone else can do the same. It is a myth that conflates the success of an individual with the prosperity of their entire class, and it is used to hide the barriers of systemic discrimination and violence.

https://www.them.us/story/trans-visibility-does-not-equal-trans-liberation

If we view the American Casino (Part 2) as a rigged card game played with predetermined good hands and bad hands, then the strategy of neoliberal social justice is equivalent to handing out aces to people with marginalized identities. For those whose hands are already good, the ace can make a difference. For those whose hands offer no chance of winning, adding an ace usually doesn’t help. The deeply unethical rules of the game remain unquestioned.

Thom closes with an impassioned plea for a society in which trans people don’t just have representation among the elite, but freedom to thrive:

I am not the first trans person to make these arguments, and I will be far from the last. As a diasporic trans woman of color, I come from a history of brilliant thinkers and fierce activism.

As a generation of young trans people like myself with access to education and a public platform emerges, we will each have to ask ourselves the question: What battles will we choose to fight, and for whom? Will those of us with the greatest chance of succeeding as a part of the neoliberal status quo fight for our piece of the pie alone, or will we try to overturn the table of capitalism and white supremacy, as our revolutionary foreparents did before us?

I know that I don’t want to live in a world where trans people can access medical transition care only if they have the insurance to pay for it. I want everyone to get the healthcare they need.

I don’t want to live in a world where middle class trans people can use public washrooms, but homeless trans people are barred from public spaces. I want to live in a world where everyone has a home.

I don’t want to live in a world where trans people can join the military or the police and join in the violent oppression of people of color around the world. I want to live in a world without wars or police brutality.

I don’t want to live in a world where trans people are put in prisons that match their gender identity. I want to live in a world without prisons.

I don’t want to live in a world where a handful of trans celebrities make millions of dollars while the rest of us struggle to survive. I want to live in a world where we all have what we need to thrive.

I don’t want to live in a world where some trans people are considered normal and others are considered freaks. I want to live in a world where all of our freakish, ugly, gorgeous magnificence is celebrated for its honesty, glory, and possibility.

My dear trans kindred – weird sisters, brothers grim and gay, siblings-in-arms: What kind of world do you want to live in?

https://www.them.us/story/trans-visibility-does-not-equal-trans-liberation
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