Technology and Privilege

20 03 2017

“Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
Ephesians 6:14–17

Technology too often gets associated purely with computers and electronics when it applies to the most simple of implements as well, like a spear or a tent. Technology is the result of methodical, iterative crafting of a tool. And its purpose is to amplify already-present capacities, behaviors, and social dynamics. It is not the smartphone that brought maps to our fingertips — rather, it was our insatiable need to know where we are and where we are going. Smartphones’ mapping technologies amplified that behavior, just as the cartographers of old did through sextants and compasses. These amplifications make minor tendencies appear larger than life precisely because small differences play across orders of magnitude. The thrill-seeker that once jumped from high cliffs into waters below can now plummet towards the earth from thousands of feet in the sky. The writer whose writings were read by the literate few can now share their thoughts with millions with the click of a button. The murderer wreaking havoc on a township by killing one person at a time over the course of weeks can now, through technological advancement, wreak the same quantity of havoc in mere seconds. Such developments may make the underlying causes of such behaviors more immediate, terrifying, and hotly debated, but they were always there.

As he approached Lehi, the Philistines came toward him shouting. The Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon him. The ropes on his arms became like charred flax, and the bindings dropped from his hands. Finding a fresh jawbone of a donkey, he grabbed it and struck down a thousand men. Then Samson said, “With a donkey’s jawbone I have made donkeys of them. With a donkey’s jawbone I have killed a thousand men.”
Judges 15: 14–16

It is a well-covered topic, and rightly so, how technological advances confer privilege upon those with the access and means to use them. This can range from a new means of protecting a waterhole, to a novel use of clay for documenting transactions, to an updated commute system that grants economic and social opportunity to those otherwise isolated. There is no denying that countless aspects of daily life, especially in the West, are privileged because of the plethora of technology at our disposal. However, I cringe at polemics against the evils of technology, as if the tool bears responsibility for its users. Rather, the focus ought to be on usage by those employing the tool, and access to the tools themselves. Are they used for the enrichment of others or for selfish gain? Who can get to the tool and who cannot? What behaviors are revealed, enhanced, or enabled by its implementation? That last question cuts to the heart of technology-as-privilege: technology itself often exacerbates the very capacities, behaviors, and social dynamics of privilege since it amplifies the already-present, socially-endowed benefits. To see this in an historical example, let’s look back at the phenomenon known as White Flight.

The post-war boom of the 1950’s led to countless African-Americans flocking to cities for the economic opportunities found there. Consequently, White Americans fled to the suburbs to escape this influx. This social movement by Whites was made possible by, among other things, the proliferation of the Interstate Highway system and Whites’ access to cars for the family. Thus, while urban centers remained centers of industry, the vast majority of wealth and political power moved to the intentionally homogeneous, White suburbs. As poverty and social dislocation consumed urban centers, the suburbs flourished and became the idyllic emblem of the American Dream. In this social dynamic, it is not difficult to see the already-present preference for Whiteness over and against Blackness in America being played out economically, socially, and politically. The desire of Whites to maintain their way of life is enacted through redlining, blockbusting, and other de facto segregating mechanisms (including municipal, state, and federal laws themselves). The capacity for putting one’s self and one’s in-group above others plays out on a national scale through massive social movement. We see racial superiority, community gatekeeping, and social mobility are examples of technology-as-privilege all encapsulated in the phenomenon of White Flight. More tangibly, we also see highways, cars, and home ownership as tools of privilege being employed to marked effect.

“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?”
Luke 16:10–12

But I would like to flip this script, not to disagree, but to offer yet another lens for understanding the crucial-yet-divisive concept of privilege. Rather than thinking of technology as privilege, consider privilege as technology. While the analogy breaks down, as all do, with over-reliance upon it, this may help bearers of privilege employ it justly and rightly. While both immutable and mutable aspects of one’s being and social location unequivocally confer privilege, the conversation often gets mired in defensiveness against the accusation. Usually the defensiveness revolves around two axes: either the person of privilege has had an undeniably hard life and therefore it rings hollow/condescending to be told they benefit from privilege, or there is an outright denial of the entire notion as the person of privilege’s worldview is (professed to be) meritocratic.

As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
Luke 21:1–4 NIV

Imaging privilege as technology means, rather than privilege inhering to one’s very being, it is a tool. A tool that can be used actively or passively, like a scalpel or a dwelling, to either maintain oppressive and unjust social realities or dismantle them. This is not to suggest that social categories deemed desirable aren’t still inextricably bound to who one is. This does not externalize privilege so that it can be simply discarded like a conductor’s baton; for example, skin color, sexual orientation, or your first language cannot be set aside and ignored. Such realities are carried daily, as mantle, spectacles, noise-cancelling headphones, and winged shoes. The goal is for the frame to shift from questioning if society has benefited you unduly or not, to discerning how the implements in your toolkit enable you to combat injustice and inequity. Rather than thinking privilege somehow protects you completely from adversity, think of it more as a shield: it deflects a lot, though not everything. Something as simple as a mundane American accent can prevent countless antagonistic interactions, thereby shielding you from the emotional duress, economic costs, and relational strain they can otherwise cause. Will that accent guarantee you’ll get a job for which you interview? Of course not. Does it fail to raise flags or question marks in the listener? Of course. Your ordinary accent is privilege-as-technology precisely because it is an innocuous tool of communication.

And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” ’ “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”
Luke 12:16–21

In conversations where someone calls out a privileged action, filter the charge through this privilege-as-technology sieve. “The producer of La La Land does not deserve praise for simply doing that which is expected: vacating the stage for the rightful winners, the cast and crew of Moonlight. That he is heralded for this unremarkable act is White, Male privilege.” This critic is pointing out that the intersections of White and Male privilege are being used as amplifiers of what is otherwise a completely unremarkable action. They are technologies being employed to enhance the rudimentary actions of a human being. The fact that this entire event occurred to the detriment of an African-American cast and crew makes it all the more stark. Rarely did you hear a commendation of the grace of Barry Jenkins, despite him showing more.

The tools of privilege are used to amplify, to elevate, one action, one person over the other, thereby telling (confirming) a story to the world of whose grace, whose behavior, and whose presence is socially desirable. The question to ask yourself then is, “What tools do I have at my disposal to mitigate injustice now and prevent it in the future?” It may be your Whiteness, it may be Maleness, or it could be a TV show you write for; an Internet forum you participate in; or a conversation with a group unaware of the layers involved.

“A rebuke impresses a discerning person more than a hundred lashes a fool.”
Proverbs 17:10

“The institution of marriage is for only one man and one woman.” This declares that those who wish to participate in the institution of marriage and together constitute a “man” and a “woman,” are used as a means of highlighting the differences between heterosexual relationships and every other kind. Emphases on procreation, tradition, or the nuclear family make each of these institutions into technology. They all, in turn and in unique ways, get employed in the efforts to amplify certain capacities, behaviors, and social dynamics to the detriment of others. Privilege is an implement that must be regarded with the same seriousness as the countless instruments we recognize as carrying both great power and great danger: weapons, transportation, communication, etc. It is not a matter of whether the tool exists, it is a matter of how it is used.

Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.” “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”
Mark 3: 31–34

Just like the more conventional forms of technology we all interact with regularly, privilege is born out of the same process of systematic iteration that gave us rocket ships and water desalination plants. It is a methodical, though not linear, historically-conditioned crafting that builds upon, and goes beyond, its products. Privilege constantly manifests in forms familiar yet novel, that exaggerate, undercut, overwhelm, or minimize perennial aspects of our shared humanity. It is incumbent upon those who have privilege-as-technology at their disposal, whichever they possess, to apply diligence, responsibility, and empathy in their implementation even unto the point of actively forsaking their benefits. Especially if there is an adverse pattern to their use, effects, or availability. To do otherwise ignores the amplification of injustice flowing from the very capacities, behaviors, and dynamics that make us human, together.

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good — except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
Mark 10: 17–23


16 01 2017

This past Sunday’s homily was, rightfully and predictably, made to connect with Martin Luther King, Jr. The priest talked at length about him, without a hint of animus, yet something about the sermon felt off. I dutifully waited my turn to greet him after the service and, while we shook hands, I said to him “I may have missed it, but I do not think I heard you use the word ‘race,’ ‘racist,’ or ‘racism’ once. May I ask why not?” His response: “You’re right, I did not. Dr. King was one who did not seek to shame anyone. And I wanted to honor that while I invoked his name.”

I was bewildered and wished to follow up, but the Father had to attend to other folks. I walked home working over his choice. It felt to me, initially, to be a sin of omission, but the more I thought on it, the more it became clear that this was a sin of commission. The priest actively chose to avoid speaking to the issue of racism, and he did so in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Church leaders of countless denominations fall into this trap often, and despite good intentions. It is particularly baffling when it’s done to Jesus, but it’s done to numerous historical figures: they get domesticated into pocket-pets, pulled out when calendar, event, or whim dictates. Jesus is made into a blonde, blue-eyed shepherd and Dr. King gets made into a colorblind, docile orator.

To combat this, in one particular, insufficient, and not-remotely-exhaustive way, is to make it clear that shame was most certainly a tool employed by Martin Luther King, Jr. Without further ado:

“A second basic fact about [nonviolent resistance] is that it does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding. The nonviolent resister must often voice his protest through noncooperation or boycotts, but he realizes that noncooperation and boycotts are not ends within themselves; they are means to awaken a sense of moral shame within the opponent. The end is redemption and reconciliation.” – The Current Crisis in Race Relations, 1958

First, note that the title of the article includes the phrase “Race Relations” so we already can see that omitting race from an MLK sermon does not do him justice. But, more to the point, Dr. King explicitly names shame as a means to an end, and he demarcates it from humiliation. This is the key difference that white people (or people protecting whiteness) confuse. Dr. King himself does not define nor clarify the difference between these terms, but given the context, I offer the following:

Shame: the emotion following realization one’s conduct has caused a loss of respect

Humiliation: the emotion following realization one has been disrespected

The former is a cornerstone of nonviolent resistance and arises in the oppressor, the latter of bullies and tyrants and arises in the victim. The problem is that white people think that when they feel shame, they are being humiliated. While these emotions can be causally linked, it is not a necessary connection. On the one hand, I can give a drunken toast at my friend’s wedding and humiliate myself, which, upon sobering up, leads to shame. On the other hand, I can forget a dear friend’s birthday and feel shame for having done so, but not humiliated. Or, more to the subject at hand, you could try to arrest someone for social deviance (say, a Black person daring to tell you their life matters), and they could respond with such grace and aplomb that you lose your peers’ respect.


Now, if it were left just there, then a significant problem would be perpetuated: the mechanism of nonviolent resistance would be the left to the oppressor and the oppressor only. The “peers” in the above scenario would be the white actors or white onlookers. On the contrary, the protestors become peers through their self-assertion and self-esteem. Martin Luther King, Jr. consistently spoke to the Black imagination being renewed and the consequent radical reevaluation of self-worth.

“In time many Negroes lost faith in themselves and came to believe that perhaps they really were what they had been told they were — something less than men. So long as they were prepared to accept this role, racial peace could be maintained. It was an uneasy peace in which the Negro was forced to accept patiently injustice, insult, injury, and exploitation.

Gradually the Negro masses in the South began to reevaluate themselves — a process that was to change the nature of the Negro community and doom the social patterns of the South. We discovered that we had never really smothered our self-respect and we could not be at one with ourselves without asserting it. From this point on, the South’s terrible peace was rapidly undermined by the Negro’s new and courageous thinking and his ever-increasing readiness to organize and to act…. We Negroes have replaced self-pity with self-respect and self-depreciation with dignity.” – Our Struggle, 1956 (original emphasis)

Thus, it is, in fact, the Black person who becomes the true peer, the true arbiter of the oppressor’s conduct while the white actors and onlookers are forced to recognize what was moments ago an object has become a Subject. And it is in this mirror created by courage and protest that we, the oppressor, come to feel shame. The parallels to today’s Black Lives Matter movement are plain and easily drawn. However, again, the white power structures of the US are emotionally (not institutionally) fragile and swift to circle the wagons. They convert shame into humiliation at every opportunity. Consequently, whiteness continues to protect itself through opprobrium at every challenge, whether nonviolent or otherwise. This plague is also endemic to white allies, such as myself. Shame is unsettling. Shame is challenging. Shame is necessary. But its necessity is usually sacrificed on the altar of comfort, and so shame is converted into humiliation, which leads to white anger and racial resentment, which leads to the centuries-old cycle of racial relations in the United States.

Someone demanding their humanity be afforded equal opportunity, liberty, and protection ought to induce shame because the demand should never have been necessary. It should not, however, produce humiliation because the demand is for equality rather than superiority. White allies and enemies alike, however, often mistake a challenge by someone claiming equality to be an insult by someone claiming undue special treatment. This can range from the Civil War over the right to own people to the 60’s fight for Blacks’ voting rights to #Oscarssowhite of 2016 and down to you getting called out for unconsciously only responding to or Liking white people’s thoughts on race and racism (especially when a person of color is in the conversation).

Do not neuter Martin Luther King, Jr. He was disliked by the vast majority of white Americans before he was murdered by one. He was eloquently insightful and remarkably brilliant, and he was also ceaseless in his critique of racism in the United States, which is to say that he did not mince words with whites in America.

“Yet the largest portion of white America is still poisoned by racism, which is as native to our soil as pine trees, sagebrush, and buffalo grass. Equally native to us is the concept that gross exploitation of the Negro is acceptable, if not commendable. Many whites who concede that Negroes should have equal access to public facilities and the untrammeled right to vote cannot understand that we do not intend to remain in the basement of the economic structure; they cannot understand why a porter or a housemaid would dare dream of a day when his work will be more useful, more remunerative and a pathway to rising opportunity. This incomprehension is a heavy burden in our efforts to win white allies for the long struggle.” – A Testament of Hope, 1969 (published posthumously)

To take race out of conversations about him is to remove the soul from his life’s work, which is, unsurprisingly, what fragile whiteness loves to do. Shame.

Intention vs. Impact

26 11 2016

To oversimplify a complex issue, I am going to bifurcate bigotry into two major camps. This thought experiment will break down very quickly, and likely even fall prey to itself. It is supremely logical to want one’s intentions, when acted upon, to lead to the desired impact. So this is not a criticism of the internal coherence of bigotry per se, but rather to draw attention to the interplay between (bigoted) intention and (bigoted) impact.

On the one hand, you have the folks who are vocally and unabashedly bigoted. These are folks who pursue, publicly, policies and communities that persecute, discriminate, or exclude based on prejudice. This may be the white supremacists who have thrived in America since before its inception; it may be the homophobic priests and politicians who liturgically and legislatively force LGBT folks to stay in the closet; or it may be the CEO who actively surrounds himself with only men to run the company because the board room is no place for a woman. These are people whose intentions are to segregate and discriminate for their, and their communities’, sake. Their greatest frustration is when their intentions are prevented from bearing fruit. The Civil War is a classic example of what can happen when outspoken bigotry is threatened from without: secession and war are preferable to having one’s discriminatory intentions stymied. Thus, in these cases, the impact not fitting the intention is perceived as unwelcome intrusion. The rallying cry around “states’ rights” in all of its variations has its roots in this line of thinking. In effect, bigots who discover a mismatch between intention and impact blame everyone and everything else before removing the log from their own eye.

On the other hand, you have folks who present themselves as allies and outspoken moderates. These are folks who pursue, publicly, politics and communities that support, defend, and include those treated otherwise. In this case, the intention is to integrate and welcome for their, and their communities’, sake. Their greatest frustration is also when their intentions do not bear the intended fruit. However, the obstacles to enacting their will are twofold: the ever-present bigot and the inalienable right of self-determination on the part of the marginalized. For example, not only would someone seeking to combat homophobia have to contend with an outspoken bigot, but also the LGBT person/community they are trying to help. And this is where moderates often become their own worst enemy. Rather than acknowledging and accepting the work of reconciliation and alliance is twice as hard, they assume their good intentions are sufficient. In other words, the aforementioned threat from without for the bigot is similar in dynamic for the moderate, but the moderate must also be prepared for a threat from within. This is not a negative antagonism, but rather a necessary one. The intentions of the privileged ally are inherently flawed and, ultimately, sabotaged; we all fall short of the glory. Consequently, when those intentions are expressed, in action or in speech, and the impact is critiqued by the intended beneficiary, an all-too-common response is to blame the circumstances or recipient for the error, or to ignore the feedback altogether. Thus, in these cases, the impact not fitting the intention is perceived as a transmission or translation problem. In effect, moderates who discover a mismatch between intention and impact blame everyone and everything else before removing the log from their own eye.

The bigot makes their intentions plain, and can be overcome through direct challenge. However, the moderate shields their intentions from scrutiny and therefore their impact issues from an ivory tower. This means that they, like their intentions, must be challenged indirectly. Therefore, the marginalized have two opponents: the bigot whose intention is to keep them excluded and silenced and celebrates when that impact is achieved, and the moderate whose intention is to help, but on their terms, and washes their hands when the true impact is revealed. In the final calculus, this means the moderate can be indistinguishable from the bigot when it comes to impact. If so, scrambling to prove the benevolence, or innocence, of your intentions only digs a deeper hole.

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’” – MLK, Jr., Letter from Birmingham City Jail

Identity Politics Enriches Everyone

22 11 2016

Marcus Johnson’s excellent piece on substituting “civil rights” for the term “identity politics” helps liberals in particular, and everyone in general, recognize how misguided it is to use the latter as a pejorative. It is rather through embracing identity politics (read: civil rights), making them explicit and respected, that we will further values such as justice, inclusivity, and equality. Does this mean the coalition required to make these values a reality will win every election, poll, or argument? Most assuredly not. The moral arc of the universe is long, but it does bend towards justice. Panicking in the wake of a political defeat and running back to the Siren of subsuming difference under a palatable banner (economics, being the modern favorite) does not better our society. It, at best, stagnates us in the mire of “foot in the door” politics, or, at worst, retrogrades us into the abyss that is slavery, internment camps, and all other devices used to utterly degrade and separate people based on prejudice.

Building on Mr. Johnson’s work, the challenge I have for my fellow allies (be ye white, male, Christian, straight, or any combination thereof) is to seriously interrogate the belief that advancing the needs of minorities comes at the expense of the needs of the majority. On the contrary, and I cannot stress how deeply this must sink in, the words of Howard Thurman are what must guide our inquiry:

“I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.”

A timely example of this can be found in the lack of outcry and action with respect to the Voting Rights Act being gutted by the Supreme Court in advance of this election. Due to allies not stepping up in the wake of that terrible decision, we failed our brothers and sisters who were disenfranchised in this Presidential election. And the number of people potentially denied access to the ballot were more than likely sufficient to put Hillary in office rather than her opponent. Thus, by us not working to guarantee the poor and people of color (not necessarily the same thing, mind you), we may have cost ourselves this election. And, it is with pride that I mention Hillary’s campaign did sue the state of Arizona for engaging in this kind of behavior.

But the examples of this fundamental truth, that my well-being is intimately bound to those unlike me, run the gamut, from the most idiosyncratically interpersonal scenarios to the aggregate struggle to influence our national identity. What too often happens is that people in positions of privilege perceive efforts towards justice and equality as a zero-sum game. Nothing could be further from the truth. When the LGBT community gains, it is to my gain. When they lose, it is my loss. How? Because their sexuality being controlled means mine is too. If their liberty to love whomever enriches their life is threatened, so is mine. Their freedom to marry their partner gives greater meaning to my own liminal passage.

My Muslim brothers and sisters are facing increasing pressures regarding their worship and their faithful living because of those currently in positions of power, both elected and not. The hijab is an invitation to harass, a mosque a vandal’s canvas, and Islam an ideological punching bag. However, this is to our collective detriment. The regulation of dress, worship, and religion are dangerous to even the WASPiest of churchgoers, for it does not take much to cause internecine strife within religions, denominations, or a local parish. And then should one side gain the upper hand, schism and, historically, terrestrial treatment mimics the expected eternal one.

It is at this point that caution must be urged. Too easily can the formula Thurman offers be toxically misinterpreted. On the one hand, it can become a means of centering the experience of the privileged and powerful. “You must become what I am, for us to be who I want us to be” would be the formula so corrupted. It is the white person telling the black person they should just vote for their candidate, since they would anyway should their first choice lose. It is the cis person wanting the transwoman to use the bathroom of the gender assigned at their birth. It is the Christian decrying the bogeyman “Sharia Law” while simultaneously enacting laws explicitly based on their own religion.

On the other hand, it can become a tool of self-abnegation for those who already have virtually nothing to give. “I will never be what I ought to be, because you always ought to be more” would be this misinterpretation. This would be the theological sin of despair on the socio-political level. We all have unmet needs; it is a truism but one to keep in mind in the face of electoral defeat. Just because some are more vocal about their needs, and have better access to the microphone, does not mean we must therefore forsake those who have finally been allowed onto the stage. Again, this is not a zero-sum game. Pushing people of color to the back of the bus because white people want to choose where we go next is as foolish as it is reactionary. But, should the marginalized internalize a misinterpretation of Thurman’s wisdom, then they will all-too-willingly give up their power and agency to the whims and wills of others, who claim to have their interests in mind, but whose impact leaves much to be desired.

Anyone who finds fault with identity politics, with civil rights, being a motivation for political action is indeed pushing people of color, LGBT folks, and non-Christians to the back of the bus. To decry civil rights as a source and animator is to assume they are not still an issue. And it is only those for whom they are not who can make such an assumption. It is to those people, like myself, that the words of Thurman must be directed:

“You can never be what you ought to be until the marginalized are what they ought to be.”

Penultimate Concern

2 09 2016

In a Presidential Election year typified as Establishment v. Insurgency, the typical deify/demonize rhetoric takes on a sharper tone. Both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party are at odds with themselves as much as the other due to the perceived flaws of their candidates, let alone their opponent’s. Furthermore, I use the deify/demonize dichotomy intentionally as that device is made all the more striking by another unique facet of this election (thus far): the atypical role of religion.

Without either nominated candidate centralizing “faith” in their campaign, and with both candidates having inconsistent pasts on some of the stereotypical issues religious-minded citizens clamor about, the entire subject has been virtually dormant. This is highlighted even more so by the leak of a DNC email that raised Senator Sanders’ faith as a possible-but-dismissed means of undermining his campaign. That he was unexpectedly popular, but insurmountably behind Clinton the entire campaign, made the move moot at best, self-sabotaging at worst. The Democratic Party likely prefers religion to be mitigated, if not absent, in this election as it has been a cornerstone of Republican electoral success for decades. But do not let the lack of formal references, religious surrogates, biblical language, etc. obscure the fact that religion has indeed made its way into this seemingly atheistic affair.

Rather, note instead how the anti-establishment candidates are cast as savior, pure, and universal. Consider how establishment figures are cast as Pharisee, corrupt, and particular. Observe how the term “apocalypse” works its way into assessments of the candidates, or at least into the predicted results of their election. Indeed, with Bernie Sanders drawing large crowds to stadiums for his rallies, I was reminded of the apocrypha of Paul Tillich, the famous Protestant theologian, visiting Yankee Stadium and experiencing the huge, vibrant crowd. He beheld it all and said to his colleague, “This is their ultimate concern.” It is easy to get carried away in the spirit of the campaign season where each candidate becomes a canvas onto which we splash our demands, dreams, demons, and deities. It is a malady that befalls people of all ages, parties, and persuasions though I observed it most often in Bernie’s camp, especially when his mathematically-assured loss did not deter his adherents. But it is also notable within the Democrats in their efforts to avert the End Times by stopping Donald Trump and within the Republicans via their ceaseless witch hunt to undo Hillary Clinton.

However, when a political process, a candidate for political office, or even a political document is cast as the author and perfecter of one’s faith then the age-old sin of Idolatry has laid hold. Expecting salvation through a politician will invariably leave one disappointed, disgusted, or, that word everyone’s throwing around, disaffected. And it will be serial disappointment; for even if your salvific candidate is elected, there is no way they can behave as you, individually or collectively, expect. Or, if every election cycle you place your faith in another savior [the Outsider, the Experienced One, the Third-Party, the Technocrat, the Every(wo)man, etc.], you will always taste the bitterness that comes with falling short of the glory.

In contrast, if a political process, candidate, or document claims to be the Source of Justice, the Bringer of Light, or the Avatar of Truth then they commit another age-old sin: Pride. Creating expectations of deliverance through their election will invariably leave their supporters disappointed, disgusted, or disaffected. And it will be serial disappointment; for even if they are elected, there is no way they can behave as they have promised, to individuals or to the nation. Or, if every election cycle they anoint themselves anew, they will always find their wings melting when they need them the most. Also, be wary of those who claim they can cast out demons by fiat. This is also Pride manifest.

Finally, if you are made to feel there is nothing you can do, the status quo is all-powerful, or that you are not a worthy reason for change, then you succumb to the age-old, oft-overlooked sin of Self-Abnegation. Despairing in the face of labyrinthian bureaucracy, centuries-old traditions, or social stigma is painfully understandable, but neglects a fundamental truth that undergirds this enterprise we call life: Hope. Should you neglect Hope, yours will be a serial despair, for change does not come if it is not demanded by individuals and communities. Or, if every election cycle, Despair claims you before the contest even begins, then everything is meaningless. This is not to shame anyone burdened by low self-worth, but rather to name the debilitation so you might cleave to Hope even when justice is delayed, restitution is denied, or you must justify your very existence to worldly powers. This election will have material effects on this country and those with power and privilege must look to the poor, the disadvantaged, and the socially unwelcome to gain insights into those effects.

There is another aspect of this election that has proven unusual: the high unfavorability ratings of the two candidates in the electorate. While disheartening to many, I have found a curious solace in it. Perhaps, through the harsh light of dislike will folks remember that these are human beings seeking to represent, and ultimately lead, an ever-growing and always-diversifying nation. They offer competing visions for how to do this best, with differing narratives, evidence, and philosophies. There is indisputable, terrestrial significance in the decision to be made come November. There are stark differences between the candidates’ qualifications and competence. But it must not be, nor be upheld as, a matter of ultimate concern. This does a grave disservice to the candidates themselves, to our democracy, and to our body politic.

Creating Space

2 08 2016

When a tragedy or despicable person exclusively or disproportionately affects minorities, it appears to be a necessary step for well-intentioned folks to mistake centering their privilege for centering the injustice. I have been guilty of this countless time over the years in sincere, but consequently regressive efforts. Often these missteps come from a place of outrage combined with helplessness, or substituting the particular for the universal, or confusion mixed with anxiety to understand; whatever the motivation, it has become abundantly clear to me that “ally” is primarily a verb rather than a noun because it is active, never-ending, and messy.
I’ve noticed a common article title appears after that tragedy or despicable person gains enough media attention: “What Privileged Allies Can Do About X.” The word “Privileged” can be replaced with “White” or “Straight” or any topical category of social capital. These articles are usually written by someone of the affected group because of how many unaffected folks express shock over an egregious display of an otherwise mundane injustice. You’ve seen the posts: “I cannot believe I live in a nation where this can happen. We are better than this.” Do you see how that sentiment, and its ilk, centers the person posting it while erasing the injustice? And do you see how that person can also think themselves an ally, but could prompt an article directed at them?

Usually in these articles, the phrase “creating space” is used. This is an incredibly powerful concept but, in my opinion, one hamstrung by a fluffy, amorphous metaphor. I would define “creating space” as sacrificing a significant opportunity or resource afforded you to allow another, who is otherwise denied that opportunity or resource, to take advantage. The key is that creating space is a sacrifice; if it leaves no mark, then it is paternalism, which has been a hallmark of white liberalism. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed into law by a Democratic president and led to whites Demexiting in droves, was creating space. That inaugurated a significant electoral realignment that gave Republicans the White House in five out of the next six elections. Democrats have not won a majority of the white vote ever since. However, as Obama’s election, Hillary’s nomination, and Sander’s defeat have shown, the Democratic Party is thriving because of and guided by nonwhites’ civic participation. But it’s taken decades of sweat and tears and defeats.

In effect, this reflection is the product of my applying to this election the question of how I can ally. And like I said, it is a question that has raised itself numerous times over the past year. I’ll put it bluntly: is not aligning my vote with those of marginalized people an act of creating space? If the overwhelming, and I mean OVERWHELMING, majority of people of color and women and LGBTQ folks prefer one candidate over another, and I am an ally, then how is there any doubt as for whom to vote?

Now, my initial reaction was hesitance that something so precious as my vote should be determined by the preferences of others. I should make my own reasoned decision about which candidate is in my best interests, a calculus into which I factor my alliances. That, right there, painful though it is to admit, is paternalistic. Putting my own interests primarily and my alliances secondarily is centering my privilege and thinking I’m doing right by my allies because they were a factor. This can also take the form of subsuming my allies’ needs and voices under my own, thinking theirs are adequately mediated or filtered through me.

The dawn of the Democratic Primary found me favoring Bernie Sanders. His rhetoric and principles appealed to me even though I had only previously heard of him in passing. I even switched my voter registration to Democrat to make sure I could vote in their party’s primary. However, as time wore on, I found his broad but shallow promises less and less appealing. I became less and less impressed with his record as it and he failed to show aptitude for getting things done. But what really made me cast my vote for Hillary in the primary was how she was convincingly supported by an impressive coalition of folks different than myself. She was better supported by LGBTQ people, people of color, women, and folks over 30. This acknowledgement sealed the deal. I’m With Her, but was not so initially.

Now, part of my delay in coming to support another candidate was buying into the general narrative of Clinton’s malfeasance and untrustworthiness. I felt a sense of frustration that these candidates were what our political system, with its two-party approach, could offer. Never mind for a moment that the criticisms against Hillary are overstated and many (not all) don’t stand to reason, facts, and testimony. There is a pervasive sense of being forced to choose the “lesser of two evils” between Trump and Clinton for many, and many people resent that. I should say, many white people resent that. I should say, many white men resent that. Because if you are not white nor male, then hoping for the lesser evil has been a reality for centuries; choosing one has been a right for far less time. It is yet another painful admission to make, but holding my vote hostage, or casting it conscientiously for a doomed candidate, centers my privilege while ignoring the voices of the peripheral. While I will endure four years of any candidate available to us, there will be significant choices made by this president that will have lasting effects. Be wary of the candidate who makes the privileged think theirs is the precarious existence.

Enter the third-party. The perceived salvation of the two-party system’s allegedly flawed and biased existence. However, this again centers whiteness as both the problem and the solution. The Democratic Party, since the 1960’s, has steadily grown to be the Big Tent Party. Whereas both parties took advantage of the political clout of white, Christian men for centuries, their influence is waning. Noticeably so. Meanwhile, the political influence, hard-earned, of people of color and women has been on the rise. Not linearly and not without substantial obstacles and setbacks, but inexorably so. The Republican Party needs to win greater and greater shares of the white vote to win precisely because the Democratic Party has gained so much through all of the other demographics in the US. The number of Independents has swelled in recent decades, but even within that population, nonwhites vote overwhelmingly Democratic. Whites are the demographic that feel split between presidential candidates; in other words, third-parties are a product of, and another source for, white anxiety. Sticking it to the Man through voting a third-party is the choice of those who can afford the consequences of their vote helping no one but themselves.

And it is at this point that I can feel my own hackles getting raised. There are so many reasons that can be marshaled for voting third-party, or for protesting (what some are melodramatically calling) the Stockholm Syndrome of our current choices, or for using your vote for your own interests first and foremost. This is why this has been a long, uneven exploration of what it means to be an ally. For me, allying requires me to align my vote with those with whom my well-being and self-interest are inextricably bound. It may feel like I am voting against my gut, my sense of how the world works, or how I think candidates ought to be. But that is me setting aside my privilege to deeply listen and acknowledge the undeniable voices of my allies. And you know what? When I got to this point, this fulcrum, the cloud of anxiety and uncertainty dissipated. When it settled into my political bones that I can take their lead because historically they’ve been required to take mine, then my vote became less a choice and more a commitment. Voting became yet another means of embodying Howard Thurman: “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.” Precisely because my vote feels invaluable does this consideration feel mandatory. If my vote represents my values, then I feel more than ready to create some space come November.

The Second Amendment

17 06 2016

The scope, brutality, and hatred of the Orlando shooting, while it is but one in an inconceivably long list of mass killings, has struck a now-raw nerve of America in a way that is finally leading to action. Each time we underwent this nearly-routine tragedy, it pushed us closer to doing something different but the Second Amendment stood absurdly impenetrable. Will Orlando be the last of its kind? We can only hope, but it is unlikely. There is more to this problem than guns (mental health, racism, various phobias, sexism, depression, etc.), but, to quote Eddie Izzard, “Guns help.”

In the midst of the pain, the grief, the soul-searching forced upon the nation by the blatant homophobia of this domestic act of terror, we are groping for actionable solutions. For now, it appears the Democrats have set their proverbial sights on increased background checks and making more use of the No Fly List. The latter is worthy of significant pause. While gun regulation is a necessary one, evidenced by their lethality and ubiquity, this effort is misguided.

The ACLU has this to say about the No Fly List:

“Because of the extreme secrecy surrounding the No Fly List, people generally only discover that they are on it when they are denied boarding on a flight — often very publicly, at the airport. The public does not know how many people are on the No Fly List, and the criteria for inclusion are so broad and vague that they inevitably ensnare innocent people engaged in First Amendment-protected speech, activity, or association. The process the government has established for people on the No Fly List to challenge their blacklisting is grossly insufficient and violates the U.S. Constitution’s due process guarantee. The ACLU and its affiliates in Oregon, Southern California, Northern California, and New Mexico are challenging that process in court.”

Are there terrorists on the list who should be stopped? Probably. But to take a Constitutionally-problematic list and add to it a definite contravention of a Constitutional right makes for a murky problem. This will require some unpacking.

The lack of Due Process for being placed on the list, kept on it, or removed from it is conspicuous. At present, since flight is not a protected right, the list is just meddling with the First and Fourteenth Amendments. But now we’re proposing expanding it’s vague reach to include mucking with the Second.

Yes, the Second. That horribly-worded Amendment that I’m pretty is not a complete sentence. Hate it though folks might, the Heller decision of 2008 made it the law of the land that individuals have a right to arm themselves. While there is a lot in the decision that gets overlooked (for example, Scalia’s curious neglect of analyzing “well-regulated” and his explicit acknowledgment that the right is not absolute), the Court made it clear that individuals can keep guns for lawful use, including self-defense. Yes, this decision bucks a lot of jurisprudence and has a bizarre grasp of grammar, but it is now the law.

Now, perhaps the idea is this legislated expansion of rights-deprivation will go to the Supreme Court and provide an opportunity to undo Heller now that the Court is down a conservative justice. I haven’t heard that strategy put out there, so I am grasping at justification. But it cannot be taken lightly that this move seeks to strip both the presumed guilty and the innocent-wrongly-accused of Constitutional rights via a secret list. While one may look at the current makeup of the government’s branches and think this to be fine, the precedent is worrisome in that it gives this rights-curtailing power to countless administrations to come.

And let us not forget that the overwhelming majority of the mass shootings we’ve grieved in the past few years would not be impacted by this law change. The background check expansion may help, but the popular “No Fly, No Buy” mentality does not address the population of shooters wreaking mayhem all over the nation. This makes it all the more dubious of an approach.

Now, some may point out that citizens’ conduct or position can lead to forfeiture of other rights. For example government officials and military officers have their First Amendment rights restricted. Felons, in some locations, lose their right to vote. Other examples exist. So, the issue is not whether rights can be curtailed; the issue is which rights and how. If the right is directly tied to the occupation, title, or threat, then it would be appropriate. And if there is due process or it is voluntary, then the process is fitting. If either of those are missing or off-target, so to speak, then the effort is misguided and will cause more problems than it solves.

The ways forward are numerous. But the legal challenges are fraught.

A popular approach is to make gun ownership analogous to car ownership: tests, insurance, and a license are all required with regular registration fees and recertification. However, at what point is this an undue burden on a Constitutional right? Defenders of the Second Amendment will draw parallels to the fight for abortion access.

Another approach is to require gun owners to join the military or a state-controlled militia. This would facilitate training, oversight, and community. But this would require careful construction as people of color have all-too-often been excluded from their right to arm themselves and this method cannot lead to state-sanctioned segregation of armed citizenry (it’s already segregated with whites being far more armed, hence the key phrase “state-sanctioned”).

We’ve already discussed the problems with using the No Fly List.

Banning specific models or modifications would be a never-ending project. The market will adapt too quickly to make the effort worthwhile. Maybe a version of this that functions categorically (e.g. a few states prohibit magazines that hold more than 10 rounds), but even this is difficult to enforce (e.g. the rifles used in San Bernardino were purchased in legal forms but modified after-the-fact). Likewise, banning the amorphous term “assault rifle” leads to more confusion than clarity. Few of the weapons used in these terrible tragedies fall into the category of “assault rifle,” even though they look like and are related to ones.

Some folks want to read the Second Amendment as only applying to muskets and other weaponry of the late 18th-century, since those are the weapons the Framers had in mind. I’m sure this approach is tongue in cheek, but the logic falls apart when you then say the only forms of speech protected are the spoken word and words written with quill and ink.

An absolute ban will not work for multiple reasons, of which I’ll list a few: the current political climate, it leaves only the law-abiding defenseless, and the historical precedent of Prohibition.

Related, it may be tempting to use the Twenty-First Amendment as precedent here, but there is a key difference between a prohibition being lifted and one being implemented. The Eighteenth Amendment attempted what striking the Second would aim to do. And the Eighteenth Amendment ultimately proved too far and too Puritanical of a pendulum swing.

Don’t misunderstand me: I am for smart gun laws and I am not for dragging feet. I think the key here is that the Second Amendment represents a different category of a right than the others protected by our Constitution. The First Amendment, amongst other things, protects speech. The Fifteenth, Nineteenth, Twenty-Fourth, and Twenty-Sixth all protect voting (remarkable it’s taken so many to combat genuine disenfranchisement, yet it is ongoing). Unlike other protections codified by the Bill of Rights, the Second Amendment (as interpreted in Heller, again, the current law of the land) gives individual citizens the right to own lethal tools. Speech and the vote can incite or enact terrible things. But a citizen’s single voice or a citizen’s single vote cannot do harm whereas a citizen with a single gun can visit irreparable harm. Any discussion that equates the Second with other Amendments and/or does not take this significant difference into account will perpetuate gun-related violence.