“In all things purely social we can be as separate as the five fingers, and yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.”
—W. E. B. Du Bois
Mom noted today that I’m not doing anyone any favors by spewing anger concerning the COVID lockdowns. She said it more nicely than that, but I kinda got her drift. Love is better than hate and Little Pitchers Have Big Ears and all that.
I did, tonight, appreciate our insanely good fortune. My family sat outside on the beautiful patio, where we ate a delicious dinner that I had the luxury of being able to cook with high-quality ingredients purchased with money that Jeff is earning for us from a job that is Still Existing. Our kids are healthier overall than they’ve been in years, and we have each other, plus all this good luck, and the scent of junipers and sage brush and a wide-ranging mealtime-discussion concerning theism vs. atheism (vs. Nuanced Other Possibilities), plus eventually, why we humans behave the ways we do (largely differing opinions offered by different parties at the table).
Our dinnertime conversation made me think that _maybe_ I could channel my Feelings into non-angry verbiage (good for catharsis).
I want to discuss three things: why I think feminism (mostly) failed, the state of systemic racial inequality, and the relation of these things to COVID lockdowns.
I’ll say right now that I come up short on Good Solutions to Big Problems. I end up heading into the kitchen to make dinner for my family, and hoping inspiration will someday strike. But I don’t seem to stop thinking about it all…
At the beginning of the Black Lives Matter protests, I started wondering. “Why has it been over 400 years since the beginning of slavery in the USA, and we’re still dealing with such entrenched systemic racism? Other things have gotten a LOT better in the last 400 years…haven’t they? Like, women’s rights! How come the feminists just sort of had their revolution, and now things are so much better, and it happened so quickly? Why hasn’t it happened for African Americans?”
A couple days later I had this other related thought (and I recognize that my previous thoughts are WAY oversimplified): Feminism has mostly failed.
I know this sounds like heresy. Obviously women have massively more rights than they did a hundred years ago, and obviously either of my daughters could someday become president of the United States, and obviously Girls can grow up to be Anything They Want To Be. Right??
But what has REALLY changed? Women can wear pants, or pretty much any other clothes they want. There are some laws that give women more legal rights than they had before (although surprisingly few of women’s big collective problems, including domestic abuse, are significantly addressed by our legal system). Women are significantly more able to express socially validated thoughts on varied topics, even when these contradict opinions held by the men in their lives.
And virtually every single other change to the status of the Average Modern Woman in the USA (that I can think of) concerns her relatively-newly-gained right to join our American Brand of Capitalist Enterprise. That is, following the “success” of the women’s movement, women were finally recognized as an asset by a system of economic wealth acquisition and power management that depends on pyramid schemes of resource depletion, damage externalization, and impossibly exponential math (infinite growth, anyone??), a System that had been failing the average working male since well before the women were invited to the party. “Yup, c’mon in, Women!! We suddenly realized that we were wrong all these years, to exclude you and keep you Stuck In The Home. We were TOTALLY wrong! You can be any career you want to be! Come join all the other cogs I mean Men At Work, and keep the economic machine cranking away!” It looked like a huge change, and felt like a huge change, but the system didn’t have to change at all in order to accommodate so many new cogs I mean workers. Growth is what the system is all about!
Okay, so yeah, I know - MANY things have changed for women collectively over the past century, but I argue that the social changes wrought by feminism failed to cause society to value women AS WOMEN - instead, we are valued (like men) only by virtue of our collective tithing to the corporate capitalist machine. Think about it: traditionally women’s work is not honored by our economic system any more now than it was valued a hundred years ago. Childbirthing and childbearing and childrearing and homemaking, as far as our System is concerned, are tasks best ignored (six weeks of maternity leave, anyone??), off-loaded (school and after-school programs, plus daycare, plus split it with your spouse since you’re both overworked equally now), and/or (best of all, according to capitalism!) monetized: daycare again, plus the newly corporate control of what used to be the domain of women, such as growing and processing and cooking food, cleaning, and producing the Stuff a family needs, not to mention practicing basic healing arts. As far as our System is concerned, it is MUCH better to pay corporations to cook our food, make Products for us, provide Pharmaceutical Interventions, and raise our children. This not only contributes to economic growth, but it frees up women to get paying jobs of their own.
And how free are we, really? Sure, there are some lucky women (and men) who find jobs “doing what they love,” and these folks have it all! They write books and give TED talks and talk all over Youtube about Following Your Passion. But what about the 98% of us who don’t have a passion that pays big enough bucks to live on, or who question the idea of spending most waking hours working at a Job, or who actually want to do those “old fashioned” things like raising a family? Or who, especially, never have the luxury of choosing, because the economic odds are so stacked against them that they must LITERALLY try to do it all: take care of a family while barely treading water because they were born into economic inequality (otherwise known as “poverty”), work one or three jobs that barely pay the bills, and have few opportunities for any way up the ladder because our version of capitalism is so much like an extremely subverted game of President (the drinking game more popularly called “Asshole,” at the beginning of each round of which the player in the lead gives his worst two cards to the player in the last position…while the losing player must give her two best cards to the President. But in the case of our economic system in real life, imagine that the loser pretty much gets the entire handful of worst cards, while tithing her ten best cards to the System…)?
It is hard to wrap ones brain around it, but even though we have been raised to believe that certain kinds of work have “value” while others have “less value” or “more value”…these are ALL purely human judgments. It is literally impossible to prove that one person’s ability to unclog a drain is more or less valuable to society than another person’s ability to type code into a computer, care for an elderly parent or a newborn baby, grow arugula or butcher a chicken, walk along a path in the woods, or simply get out of bed to face the health challenges in that individual’s day. We are used to assigning monetary values (or a lack thereof) to these activities, but there is no absolute law of the universe saying that It Must Be So.
I know that many people will say, What?! You wanna go back in time and give up the rights that Susan B. Anthony and Betty Friedan et al fought for?! And the answer is, of course not. But I think it is important to see that much of our new “rights” are incidental and/or small, and that the overall system - the one that was failing working class women and men and families well before the Women’s Revolution - is mostly unchanged, and is still mostly failing most of us.
I want to make it clear that when I say “system,” I am referring to our monetized economy, NOT any specific individuals within it. It is a relatively new system in the context of human evolution. Ten thousand years ago, things were a heck of a lot different, yet we weren’t significantly different animals back then. It’s not like our genes have hardwired us for capitalism. Hierarchy? yes; corporate oligarchy? no. Unfortunately, our genes are subverted by the currency of money and power and Authority, and I think of it kind of like the “evolutionary mismatch” that occurs when our genes meet the Modern Processed Foods of Commerce. Our taste buds don’t start out much differently than they did 10,000 years ago, but when confronted with Corporately Engineered Foods Designed to Subvert our Instincts to Make Us Buy Them….these tastebuds are likewise subverted. There’s a reason the Average American Per Capita Sugar Consumption has increased to its current level of 130+ pounds per year over the past couple hundred years: we’re mostly a product of a system that is extremely hard to escape from.
I’m not saying that our ancient forebears were all angelic, egalitarian, nuts-and-berries-and-venison eating citizens residing in True Utopia. I just think that the binary idea that we should EITHER accept what we’ve got and kowtow to the corporations and be grateful and call it progress; OR we have to go back to the dark ages that we can only imagine our minds, is disingenuous. Our “inherent” racism and sexism and ecological exploitation and all the other Human-isms is largely dependent on our cultural programming, and while this SEEMS immutable, it’s only one possibility among countless others.
I do not claim to know how to move toward a culture with human values and away from a culture that first of all values Money. But I do think it’s useful to think about what shapes our behavior. There are root causes! And “Human Nature” feels to me like much more of a top-level behavioral trait than a “cause”, something that can be vastly different depending on context.
Knowing who we are, and valuing our own contributions to our society (as separate from the value placed on us and our contributions by our monetized economic system), is a really important thing to try to sort out, for those of us with the luxury and luck to have the time to do so.
From Ken Danford’s recent and entirely worthwhile and relevant blog post:
“[in] the film ‘Eye of the Storm’…Jane Elliott powerfully demonstrates the impact of prejudice and power by treating her second- grade students differently based on their eye color. This documentary deeply affected me as a teen… Jane Elliott has gone on to do trainings with adults in all walks of life, and there was also a reunion film of the students from the original Eye of the Storm watching themselves a number of years later. There are too many links to include, but several are floating around social media right now.
“These videos are enough to center a graduate program or a lifetime’s work. In this space, I want to focus on one aspect of Jane Elliott’s work: the impact of racism on those deemed ‘better.’ In her exercises, the way the ‘superior’ individuals behave is appalling. One young student suggests she carry around a yardstick as a tool to keep the ‘inferior’ kids in order. Other remind her to tell the lunch workers that the ‘inferior’ kids have to go to the back of the line and can’t ask for seconds. Another ‘superior’ boy teases his now ‘inferior’ friend during recess until they come to blows.
“It is mind-boggling. When you see Jane Elliott do her work with adults, the same behaviors emerge. She has found a way to shine some light on the impact of racism on the ‘superior’ group. It made me cringe then. It alarms me now. It can be hard to put into words, but the simple ‘meanness’ is outrageous. The impact of systemic racism on the attitudes and behavior of the falsely empowered is often overlooked, as analysis of racism often focuses (rightfully) on the victims who suffer the abuse. Jane Elliott forces us to notice and consider what happens when we offer people inflated status. These are ideas I have carried forward in my life since that time.
“This film connects powerfully for me with Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment. Zimbardo created a simulated prison and randomly assigned the roles of prisoners and guards to his college student volunteers. The behavior of the ‘guards’ turned so horrifying that he had to call off the experiment. There is much in Zimbardo’s experiment that has been questioned or challenged over the years, but the basic premise still resonates for me. In fact, whenever I say that sometimes when I was a school teacher I felt like I was expected to act like a prison guard, I think of this study. While my transgressions were relatively petty, my feelings about my worst behaviors in that school culture are certainly among the factors that led me to resign and create a different system in which to work with teens – one with very different power and authority dynamics.
“The power of Jane Elliott, Philip Zimbardo, and other social psychologists supports the conclusion that in reaction to the police brutality we are seeing, it doesn’t make sense to talk about ‘good cops’ and ‘bad cops.’ In schools, in terms of abuse of authority, we can’t talk about ‘good teachers’ and ‘bad teachers.’ All of us can act badly in certain circumstances. Those circumstances include, among other items: being unobserved, knowing one won’t be held accountable, viewing the less powerful victims as less human, witnessing peers model bad behavior, and having a system of rules and leaders that encourage punitive enforcement.
“I add my voice to those who insist that instead of looking for ‘the one bad apple,’ we need to look at the barrel itself. We need to avoid putting ourselves in circumstances that allow for anonymous, power-based behavior, and we need to eliminate such settings out of existence as much as possible.
“The shocking part of the George Floyd murder is that so many of the elements we would want for harm reduction were in place. The officer knew he was being videotaped, he had three colleagues with him, and there were many witnesses on the scene. The knowledge that there are so many more videos, and deaths, and injustice is overwhelming. For me, the video of Walter Scott running away with his hands up in the air is haunting. There are so many names to be said. And yet, as people protest, the police brutality continues, boldly.
“The solution cannot be limited to a case-by-case holding of the perpetrators accountable, as necessary as such accountability would be for a first step. Include me with Jane Elliott and Philip Zimbardo and others who contend that we need to investigate the conditions that lead those in authority to abuse their power so viciously and so frequently. And let us take this conversation beyond law enforcement to our own field of teaching: what leads teachers to sometimes abuse our power and act in hurtful ways? What needs to be changed within schools to minimize and ultimately eliminate these moments?…”
At the beginning of the Black Lives Matter protests, I got a little bit excited again. “Maybe it’s time for some Real Social Change!” I thought. I decided to look up the civil rights protests of the 1960s, because pundits kept drawing parallels. I wanted to find out what changed after those protests, to understand what might be hoped-for in terms of possible changes now.
The very depressing thing I learned was that….not a whole lot of big changes emerged from the ‘60s. In fact, it sounded a lot like the “women’s revolution,” although even less successful. Yes, there was more social awareness of overt racism. Yes, more individuals became less likely to use racist epithets and many of the most egregious jim crow laws were allowed to fall into disuse. Many social opportunities dropped their obviously racist admission criteria. But ultimately, in terms of real, systemic change? There wasn’t much. There wasn’t much widespread acknowledgment (in the white economic culture) of the enormous economic impact sustained by those whose recent ancestors were formerly enslaved. The average black household did not see an increase in wealth in the decades following the sixties and up until today. The average black man did not become less likely to be incarcerated. People of color on average did not gain a greater chance of achieving the American Dream of Increased Wealth, Education, and Power.
In short, my very brief and obviously not super educated stint as Google Historian did not make me very hopeful for systemic change after this round of protests. What the civil rights’ movement yielded was…a strengthening of Big Government and a continuing “welcome” of People of Color by the Capitalist Regime, which had always “valued” oppressed people’s cheap, disposable labor for a wide variety of tasks and had no incentive to change. Sure, “everyone” was welcome to climb the corporate ladder if they wanted! But in general, the System had been failing Blacks and people of color and minorities of all descriptions since its flawed and biased inception, which was largely a way to preserve wealth for the (white) Ruling Elite…and this remained radically unchanged after the 60s, just as it did after the women’s movement had its day.
After I read about the historical futility of the civil rights’ protests, my excitement drained away. And I hope sincerely that I am very wrong in what I surmised from my reading. I want to see great, enormous changes following these current protests! I want to see the dismantling of systemic racism - and systemic sexism, and systemic inequality of all varieties. I believe this is very relevant to the situation in which we find ourselves today: in the midst of global pandemics not just of infectious disease, but modern chronic illnesses, driven by the same System that fails us on so many other counts. People in this country are pretty much the sickest compared with every other industrialized country, and the poorer you are, the sicker you will tend to be. COVID is killing more Americans (and especially more BIPOC and poor and elderly Americans), and Americans also have exceptionally high rates of cancer, heart disease, autism/ADHD, mental health disorders, obesity, diabetes, etc. etc. etc. Things are Really Not In A Great Way in this Great Nation of ours, all things considered.
We are lucky that COVID is, as infectious diseases go, relatively benign. There will be other pandemics, ecological crises are already increasing, and there is, in my opinion, no amount of technology and pharmaceutical interventions and political bluffing and blaming that can save us from some mass extinction events unless we look beyond the crisis of the moment and toward the crisis of our Systems.
There is a concept in functional medicine that is often described as Searching for the Root Cause. If we, for example, take a painkiller to reduce the symptom (pain) caused by stepping on a tack, we are treating the symptom. If, on the other hand, we search for the REASON we have the symptom, and instead remove the tack, this “root cause resolution” is much more likely to bring about lasting change than the symptomatic approach that is basically the definition of Western Medicine Today.
It is obviously ridiculously simplistic to imagine our complex economic machine as analogous to a tack. But I think that all of these aberrant human behaviors - racism, sexism, corporate control of our bodies (via a system that pumps cheap, shitty food and subsidized, often toxic pharmaceuticals into our bodies) - are symptoms of a much greater Problem with our economic system. At the end of the day, we Gotta Have Money. And our money system breeds inequality and dis-health to a degree that our ancient ancestors never, ever evolved to deal with.
I guess I succeeded at writing tonight without a lot of anger. But the sadness didn’t really go away. I feel caught in a whirlwind of Separatism during these lockdowns, which feel like a wrongful assignation of priorities…but I don’t get to choose. Whether or not COVID is worthy of 99.9% of our collective attention, we must join together by staying away from each other, and Choose To Think About COVID 24/7. I want to disrupt the status quo, start a revolution, Help Make The World a Better Place…and once again, as usual, the only clear, compelling task exists in the kitchen, where I can cook food for my family in a lonely sort of way, and wonder: What is Next?