UNRAVELING THE KNOT

ALLAN G. JOHNSON'S BLOG

It’s Not about You

One of these days I’m going to have a bumper sticker that reads, It’s not about you.

I don’t know why, exactly, it keeps coming into my mind. It could be just a note to myself, but, then, of course, it would be just about me.

I’ve also been wondering if it’s an accident that the country that made individualism a sacred principle, also invented solitary confinement as a form of punishment.

I find that when two things present themselves like that, one after the other, they’re often connected, which is what Roxie and I are down here this morning to figure out.

roxie5I should note that she can appear to be sleeping when she’s not. This is work, and yet she has an uncanny way of maximizing her efficiency by making rest and labor simultaneous. She reminds me of those ducks I read about who can put half their brains to sleep while the other half is wide awake.

But enough about her.

I want the sticker because it seems that everywhere everything is all about you, the universal me—your me, my me, their me—which wouldn’t be a problem, if everything was about me and you, which, in case it needs to be said, it is not.

I might mention, for example, the global pandemic of men’s violence against women, and there will always be a man protesting in an injured tone that he’s never raped anyone.

Okay, I say, well done. But so what? I wasn’t talking about you.

Which he doesn’t grasp because he cannot see past himself, as if something can involve him only if it’s about him. The curse of individualism. And the refuge.

Like the white person so earnest about not wanting to be seen as racist that it can be easy for a person of color to feel invisible in their presence. Because, in the thick of that white preoccupation, what racism does to other people’s lives is not the point.

Which is why a black friend of mine once said that the most useless thing she could think of was a white person feeling guilty, because guilt can so easily take us to that place where it’s all about me and how I feel about what I’ve done or failed to do.

My effect on you is reduced to an occasion for my own feelings, which, come to think of it, might give me reason to reconsider whether I really hurt you after all, or how much, or was it really necessary to make so big a deal of it, considering how bad you’ve made me feel.

Teenagers can be especially artful in this, countering your complaint by resenting you for making them feel bad because of what they did. If only you’d been good enough to keep it to yourself.

And who knows, maybe you even had it coming.

Slippery, isn’t it?

How making it all about you can make it not about you at all.

I’m surprised there aren’t places where you can sign up for lessons. Then again, maybe we’re automatically enrolled the moment we’re born.

By which I don’t mean just men and whites, this being a general product of our cultural madness for the individual. It’s just that systems of privilege give dominant groups more opportunity to put it to use, including those who are sincere in wanting to make a difference.

I’m recalling a group where a conversation about race turned to the subject of hope, and I said something about not believing in that, it being too close to despair. What I do believe in is faith, by which I mean our capacity to not be afraid, to not become the fear that would keep us from what needs to be done.

What I remember most is the silence that followed and the very different reaction of whites and blacks in the room, with black people nodding in agreement as they looked about, and white people staring down at the table and shaking their heads.

I don’t know what they were thinking, because I didn’t ask, not knowing them well enough and too taken by what I saw. But I have a hunch about what was going on.

Hope and despair are for quiet moments of solitary reflection when you’re free to wonder about the meaning of it all. Like depression, despair is a private thing that does not seek company, as in the middle of the night when you’re feeling helpless, that there is nothing you can do that will make a difference you can see.

Out of the darkness, hope appears as an antidote, but suited more to the feeling than the problem, for it does not so much galvanize as soothe. Hope comes riding to the rescue, its banner whipping in the wind, promising to lift our hearts, that things will work out, somehow, someday, against the odds.

Whether we do anything or not.

Which can make hope into a luxury, a refuge from despair, that does not hold us to account.

But faith is what comes of having to wrestle with the angel of fear, whose power faith would harness into action. Faith is what turns a crowd of individuals into a march and then a movement. Where hope is passive and content, faith has an agenda and makes demands.

I suspect that people of color cannot afford to spend themselves on hope, because oppression is too immediate, every day, and has forced them to pull together, to find strength in solidarity built on faith. Because they know that in the moment of confronting power, the kind that hurts and even kills, the choice is not between hope and despair, but faith and fear.

White people have the luxury of being able to watch from the sidelines, or to know that at any moment, they can withdraw to the relative safety of being white. And hope it will turn out okay.

In other words, for people of color, racism is more a matter of we and us, while for whites, sliding down that slippery slope, it’s more likely to be all about me, or not at all.

Which brings me, oddly, to solitary confinement, first introduced as a form of punishment almost two hundred years ago in Philadelphia, famous for the Declaration of Independence and the Liberty Bell. If ever there was a place devoted to the principle that it’s all about you, it would have to be one of those tiny cells, little bigger than a closet, where prisoners may be confined for years or even decades.

Why, I wonder, has it taken so long to consider how barbaric and inhuman this is and, even now, with arguments on either side? I have a hunch that such punishment has persisted because it is seen as a natural extension of what we’ve been taught is the normal condition of a human being.

After all, if it’s all about you, what else is there? And how much room does it require?

Which sounds to me like the loneliest, most desolate place there is, the modern self, a tiny cell just big enough for me. And yet, we are supposedly the point of it all, not together, but separate—the you and the I—and this singularity is what it’s all about, the reason to exist, to be celebrated and defended at all costs, the freedom to be lonely, imprisoned by the illusion that a single human being could possibly be enough to make a life.

We are snookering ourselves into hell.

For in the moment that I make it all about me, I make you invisible, and turn myself into a ghost.

Which is not what it is to be a human being, which I know from how it makes us crazy.

Crazy in the prison cell, crazy in the frantic pace of the ‘individual’ life racing around so as not to pause long enough to see the emptiness we have become. Crazy in all the desperate measures to deny our embeddedness in other people’s lives, to escape the loneliness and insufficiency of self, with drugs and alcohol, compulsive sex, the sculpted body, the endless text, the 70-hour week, the next thing to buy. Does it not occur to us how pervasive it is, the desire to escape, to be anywhere but here, trapped inside the fiction that who we are goes no further than our skin?

Roxie looks at me, puzzled that anyone would choose to be this way. It is so simple, so obvious, and yet, why so hard, to see through the paradox that I am not the point, even of myself.

I remind her that she is a pack animal, which makes her the Queen of knowing it’s not about her, not that she won’t occasionally blow me off when I call. Still, there is always the moment when she turns and comes running, as if that’s what she had in mind all along.

Or I look up from my thoughts to see her standing off in the woods, still, intent, as she looks at me, always knowing exactly where we are.

We think we are not pack animals, the human beings, making it easy to imagine that I stand alone, autonomous and independent, when I do not. To think that what happens to you does not happen to me, that my life is a simple function of who I am, as if there were such a thing, separate and complete, that there is nothing larger than myself connecting my life and yours, that my end of the boat can sink while yours does not.

Every indigenous people has known what our ‘civilization’ would have us deny and forget, and then tell ourselves we are superior for having forgotten, which may be why we have worked so hard to make them disappear.

Roxie sighs.

What?

It’s not about you.

Hijacking the Middle Class

The recent news that the middle class is no longer a majority of the U.S. population, makes me think of the Eifel Tower.

Because the Nobel Laureate economist, Paul Samuelson, once figured that if you stack a child’s blocks to make a pyramid of the distribution of income, with each layer being $1,000, the wealthiest would be far above the 1,063-foot Eifel Tower. And almost everyone else would be crammed within just 3 feet of the ground.

Not even room to stand up. And that was 1948. A half century later, things were so much worse that he switched from the Eifel Tower to Mount Everest. But I have a nice picture of the tower, and it makes the point pretty well, so let’s stay with that.

Somewhere in that compressed mass of humanity, a foot or two off the ground, is the so-called ‘middle class.’

I don’t need my Webster’s to tell me that ‘middle’ is halfway from one point to another, and I make out the middle to be somewhere between the second deck and the champagne bar at the top, which is a long ways from pretty much everyone.

The simple fact is that the middle class is not and never was, middle. And, just for the record, if you ask people to describe themselves in terms of class, in the 43-year history of such research, ‘middle’ has never outnumbered those who identify as working or lower class.*

Still, we recognize the term and imagine it to be the middle of something. Which raises the question, of what, and why should we care.

Two things come to mind.

The first is the hopeful boost that ‘middle’ gives by suggesting as small a distance to the rich and powerful up there as to the poor and struggling down below. Which, of course, it is not, not even close. I would provide a picture of Mount Everest for effect, but something of that magnitude cannot be captured by a camera. This gives some idea of the scale of what we’re talking about, which the ‘middle’ in ‘middle class’ serves to obscure, and is why we’re encouraged in its use.

Still, even though most people identified as middle class are only a divorce, a layoff, or a serious illness from not being middle anymore, so long as they can look down at the demonstrably destitute, the struggling, the disposable, and not see themselves, they can identify with what they see when they look up, which comes tantalizingly close to imagining that they matter.

Which brings me to the second reason for a ‘middle’ class—to name that in-between place where you don’t want to be when it looks like there’s going to be a fight.

While the top of the pyramid is taking the lion’s share of income and wealth, everyone else is left to compete over the rest. This means a sizeable portion of the population always winds up with some degree of not enough. And for the wealthy to protect themselves from the demands of ‘those people,’ the unruly masses, they need a counterweight, a buffer, to keep things under control.

In other words, someone in the middle, whose belief in the status quo gives them reason to keep everyone else in line.

They need teachers, for example, to instruct kids to be good workers who show up on time and do as they’re told. They need bureaucrats and lawyers, managers and administrators, bankers and realtors, police, judges, soldiers, the FBI, not to mention politicians and professors, journalists, doctors, economists, engineers, psychologists, therapists, social workers and a whole lot more to hold it all together.

This is the middle class that politicians wax rhapsodic about bolstering and strengthening, as in keeping a levee or a dam in good repair. It’s not that the wealthy care more about the people in the middle, but that there is a middle, a solid and dependable in-between to prop up the appearance of democracy, to enforce the law and bust the unions, to suppress dissent and manage the poor, and to pathologize, therapize, and anesthetize the human inability to stand it anymore.

In short, the middle class has been hijacked by the interests of wealth and power—the power elite, the upper class, the ruling class, the oligarchs, the one percent, all of the above, take your pick. The middle has been coopted and groomed to affirm that everything is decent and fair—look at us!—encouraged to congratulate itself for its steady habits and respectability that elevate it, if nowhere near the top, at least far enough from the bottom to note the difference, as if those below, the lower and working classes, the majority of the population, are unworthy losers who have only themselves to blame.

Being superior, however, does not mean being less disposable, not to be ignored along with everyone else when push comes to shove. Because, after all, from the champagne bar atop the tower, not to mention the mountain peak, all those tiny figures near the ground look pretty much the same.

And now the data show that the ‘middle’ is being ‘hollowed out’ as the wealthy continue to enlarge their share of the pie, there being not much more to take from everyone else. A few are rising, many more are falling, shocked at how close they have always been to the ground. A recent Federal Reserve study found that if they had to come up with $400 in an emergency, 47 percent of the population could not, including many who identify themselves as middle class.

Middle schmiddle.

There are two class systems in America. There is the one contained in the first three feet off the ground, a game of musical chairs to decide who gets to eat and who has a new car and are you better off than the person in the checkout line and does that let you feel a little better, if only for a while.

But in the other, at the top, as they jockey for window seats in the champagne bar, income and wealth are not really the point. How many houses, after all, can a person live in? How many cars can they drive?

What matters at the top is the power to act with impunity, unaccountable, as if they own the world. Because, as far as such a thing is possible, they do.

And will, so long as there is a middle to hold it all together.

Which reminds me of the poet, William Butler Yeats, and how things fall apart when the center cannot hold.

____________________________

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity. . . .”

Excerpted from William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming,” in Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921).

*In 2014, for example, the breakdown was lower class, 9%; working class, 46%; middle class, 42%; upper class, 3% (less than 1% gave no answer). Source: National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago.

The Truth about ‘Preaching to the Choir’

Having been invited to speak at a university on the subject of men’s violence against women, my heart sank when I found myself standing behind a podium at the front of an enormous auditorium—it must have held a thousand seats—in which was scattered an audience of maybe thirty people in all.

I could blame my host’s lack of skill at turning out an audience, but there was still the struggle not to take it personally, and then the challenge of filling so large a space with the energy of so few, the bulk of it expected to come from me. And then, of course, there was that old feeling of here we go again, another audience of the dedicated, the ones who always show up.

And those stalwart few will complain that the ones who ‘really need’ to be there, the ones you’d give your eyeteeth to change their minds, are not.

“You realize, of course, you’re preaching to the choir.”

I’m glad to say there are frequent exceptions—the crowd of more than a thousand in Milwaukee, when the subject was race, and standing-room-only in Oregon, New Hampshire, and Maryland. But, still, it is a challenge getting people into the room to focus on difficult things.

Except, of course, for those who are drawn to sing.

I used to share their disappointment and frustration, but lately I’ve come to change my tune.

I’ve been considering, for example, the longing for all those people who ‘need it most’ to show up. I think it’s based on a misplaced belief in the power of conversion, that can suddenly persuade someone into a completely different point of view. I suppose it does happen, but if I tried to recall a time when someone just sat me down and talked me out of a reality I was invested in, I don’t think I could.

My worldview, of course, has gone through many changes over the years, but it’s usually a slow and messy business—two steps forward, one back, sometimes three—and it needs something to shake things up enough to loosen my death grip on old ways of seeing.

That something is rarely a speech in an auditorium, unless much else has happened to prepare the way, which leads me not to count on persuading those with no interest in being persuaded. At best I will insert a grain of sand into the oyster, that may someday down the road irritate it just enough to produce a pearl.

But, for that, they must be in the room, and I suspect the disappointment I detect in members of the choir, is that more people do not manage on their own to overcome their shyness or disbelief or fear or whatever else it is that keeps them away. But this is not the kind of species we are, in my experience. Generally speaking, we are not that visionary or brave. We need someone to help bring us along.

Let’s be optimistic anyway, and imagine that we draw not only the choir, but a small group of wannabes and the sufficiently curious. A somewhat larger choir, perhaps, but still, the choir.

What I’m coming to see that I haven’t before, is that this amounts to more than we may think. In fact, most of the time it may be exactly how it’s supposed to go.

That those who most need to be there, and are most needed, are the ones in the room.

The choir, after all, shows up when it’s not convenient, when they have other things to do, make time to rehearse and do the singing, whether the tune is testimony and persuasion or argument, protest, and demand. The choir does the heavy lifting and takes the risks, to speak what others will not, to stand their ground and block the door or fill the hall, staying up into the night to analyze and strategize and organize.

To do that, they must be fed and inspired. They need to hear their voices joined together to remind them who they are and that they’re not alone. They need to learn and practice new ways of understanding both the world and themselves that they have not imagined before. To be encouraged by example.

Because they are walking into a stiff wind as they sing toward a world that does not yet exist.

A while ago, I came to speak at a large university, and the evening before, I met with a group of faculty and grad students and activists from the community. In the room was a young black woman who spoke of her anger and frustration, every day coming up against the wall of white racism, inertia, and indifference. She did not know what to do with all that anger, and was afraid of what she might do that she’d regret.

As I listened, I could feel how young she was, struggling to form and contain and direct the power and intelligence so evident as she spoke. Afterward, as people lingered in knots of conversation, she came up to me and we talked for quite a while, brainstorming things she might do in those difficult moments, such as with the white professor who is clueless on the subject of race, but convinced that he is not.

The conversation was lively and I remember her smiling and even laughing as we strategized and fantasized our way from one thing to another.

And, I think, in the lightening of her spirit, she was beginning to see not a particular solution, but a range of possibilities, that she was not helpless after all, that her anger was a form of power that she could harness and measure for effect, and I remember how energized she became, not because of me, but what was happening between us, the old man in the choir and the newly emerging voice.

I think you could say we had a good time.

And yet, at the start of that meeting, there had been the familiar sight of people looking around to note the friends and colleagues who had not shown up in spite of being invited.

But, in a way, I realize, it did not matter, because whatever she got, it will be multiplied many times over in the course of her life. And for me there was one more reminder of why we go on.

She makes me think of the young woman boldly challenging the president of the University of Missouri to define systematic racism, an exchange that not only led to his undoing, but, more important, created another opening for the kind of larger, critical questions that writers and activists have been working for so many years to bring to a culture that cannot see past the individual.

I ask myself, how did she come to that moment? To know what she knew? To have the courage to speak, to focus the power of her anger with such clarity and purpose? What were those times when she decided to show up, to engage in the conversation, to come to the event or enroll in the course or read the book someone mentioned the other day?

There she is, fifth row back, sitting with a friend she persuaded to come. And while others might be wondering about the empty seats, that’s not what’s on her mind.

I think about her and that moment when she confronted the president of a university and, then, in such a loud, clear voice, how she did sing.

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