May 10, 2008

Choosing Sides (III): Let the Victims Speak

[Updated at the end.]

Part I: "Why America May Go to Hell," and Feeling Young Again

Part II: Killing Truth and Hope -- The Fatal Illusion of Opposition

I want to begin a discussion here of a very complex subject. I'll be exploring these issues in considerably more detail in some planned upcoming essays, so this theme will hopefully become clearer in time. But I need to introduce the subject now in connection with these articles about the Wright-Obama controversy, and as a partial prelude to my series on tribalism, which will commence shortly.

In late March, I published an essay entitled, "Bullied, Terrorized and Targeted for Destruction: Our Children Have Learned Well." That article concerned a horrifying NYT story about a young boy who became the target for continual, viciously cruel, often physically damaging bullying beginning when he was only 12 years old. In urging my readers to consider some broader connections, I wrote that, "The United States government has bullied, terrorized and not infrequently destroyed a long series of nations and peoples of numerous nationalities for over a century" -- and I then listed a number of examples of this policy, with links to earlier pieces describing various atrocities in detail.

I also wrote:
As I discussed in my essays about the high school students who protested the Iraq occupation, and who were threatened with suspension and expulsion for displaying a seriousness and humanity that is absent in most adults and in almost all our political leaders, the central lesson imparted to children is the necessity of obedience to authority. See "Careful the Things You Do: Wishes Come True, Not Free," and "When Awareness Is a Crime, and Other Lessons from Morton West" for the details. The high school students were taught that the idea of impartial and "blind" justice is a lie -- they learned that adults are usually lying when they insist the cruelties they inflict on children are for the children's "own good," just as our political leaders insist the horrors of Iraq are for the "good" of the Iraqi people -- they were taught that institutions of authority and the people who implement their policies will lie about anything and everything -- and they learned that the extent of your awareness of the world around you, and the extent of your sensitivity to and concern for the sanctity of human life, will be the extent to which you are punished.

They learned that cruelty and violence are not to be condemned, but constitute the coin of the nightmare realm of our culture: cruelty and violence are enacted many times every day in films, on television, in our personal lives, and by our government on a national and international scale. You will be rewarded for cruelty: the crueler you are, the greater the reward.

Our culture teaches children that, if you are perceived as "weak" or "fragile" or "delicate" or "sensitive," and if you are a boy or a man -- well, then, you are probably a queer, a faggot, a freak. Freaks are not fully human, which makes them excellent subjects for laboratory experiments. Endless cruelty can be inflicted on freaks, and your friends -- and many adults -- will honor you for it. And freaks certainly cannot get married. Even Barack Obama says that he prefers "civil unions" to gay marriage, for civil unions are more than good enough for freaks. Separate and not equal is fine for freaks. Obama is also not above more vicious instances of ridiculing freaks.

Our children learn all this, and many more lessons of the same kind. Of course, they are often vicious bullies. Our government is a murderous bully on a scale that beggars description; most politicians are bullies; the majority of adults are bullies to varying degrees. Why wouldn't these children be bullies? It's what they've been taught. In the most crucial ways, it's all they've been taught.

These children are the perfect embodiments of the central values of our culture. They have learned well.
The Times published some illuminating letters about its article, letters that are often very painful to read. Some of those letters are excellent:
Your article ponders why Billy Wolfe is a victim: is it his learning disability, his physical appearance, his attitude? No. The truth is that there is nothing about Billy, or any bullied victim, that justifies or legitimizes deliberate, repeated physical violence. Bullying is learned early and practiced often in schoolyards across America.

Everyone involved suffers: bullied kids, like Billy, who feel unsafe and alone; bystanders who learn the code of silence; and even the bullies, who may enjoy that momentary feeling of power, but who long term also pay a huge price, if the primary way they know how to connect with another person is with cruel words and their fists.

Starting early, parents and schools, in partnership, need to make it a priority to quit blaming the victim, and to teach lessons of empathy, every day. It's the only way to make school safe for every child.

Hang in there, Billy. It's not your fault.
Keep these issues and the details of this awful story -- only one story out of countless similar stories -- in the forefront of your mind. And then imagine my horror as I read this letter about the Billy Wolfe story:
The fortunate thing for Billy Wolfe is that he has supportive parents who are showing him acceptable ways of fighting back. The tragedy is that there are far too many kids in similar situations who, for one reason or another, can't turn to their parents.

As a former teacher in the New York City school system, I know how reluctant school officials often are to take definitive action in such circumstances. Yet, when a victim explodes or acts out in unacceptable ways, these same officials are shocked and indignant.

Why can't the bullies who make Billy's life miserable every day be suspended from school until they learn that intimidating and tormenting their peers will not be tolerated?
Focus on the critical sentence: "Yet, when a victim explodes or acts out in unacceptable ways, these same officials are shocked and indignant."

What exactly are these "unacceptable ways" of exploding or acting out? Who decided they were "unacceptable"? Why is it that "reluctant school officials" will not "take definitive action" against the bullies -- thus tacitly conceding that the bullying itself is not all that "unacceptable" -- while the same officials are "shocked and indignant" when the victim protests too strongly?

This pattern, and certain of its origins, will be found throughout history, in every culture around the world. The pattern is a simple and deadly one: the oppressor -- that is, those who are in the superior position, whether they are parents, school officials, or the government, or in a superior position merely by virtue of physical strength -- may inflict bodily harm and/or grievous, lifelong emotional and psychological injury, but the victim may only protest within the limits set by the oppressor himself. The oppressor will determine those forms of protest by the victim that are "acceptable."

You see this pattern with regard to many helpless, lonely children in addition to Billy Wolfe:
RICE, Texas - A fifth grader with a rare deformity says two teachers put him on display for a science lesson.

Robert Will Harris has Stahl's ear, which causes points to form on the ears. He and family say two fourth-grade teachers at his school used his deformity to teach a lesson in genetics.

The boy says the teachers pulled him from his class twice in one day and took him to their classrooms to show his ears.

Officials with the Rice Independent School District acknowledge the incidents happened, but say the teachers meant no harm. They say the teachers were simply trying to teach genetics and family traits.

The family says the boy's ears have nothing to do with genetics. His parents say they no longer want their son used for show and tell.
I recounted this story in "We Are Not Freaks." About the child in the story, I wrote:
You should think about what the boy in this news story felt. If he allowed himself to experience fully the humiliation and the shame, and the immense rage to which he was fully entitled, and if he felt it for more than a couple of minutes, it would kill him. That's how the repression begins in the case of the innocent victim: it is the only way he can survive. And that is what this culture, and what many of you, do to gays and lesbians, just as it was done and continues to be done to women and African-Americans, to many immigrants in our past and again today, and to far too many other groups to name.
It is true that victims of this kind of cruelty, especially when they are children, cannot allow themselves to feel their justified rage and anger completely for too long. Such extreme emotions are terrifying to experience, to a degree that most adults have entirely forgotten and never understand. In the next few days, I will republish an essay of mine from several years ago that recounts how I relived certain of those emotions myself. You will see how frightening and disorienting the experience is.

But there is another reason the victim cannot fully experience and give voice to his anger -- and that is his certain knowledge, conveyed by parents, teachers, the government and everyone else in a position of authority, that displays of such emotions are not permitted. If you go ahead and reveal how angry you are in defiance of the prohibition, you will be severely punished for your transgression.

Think about this very carefully for a moment. The oppressor may inflict unimaginable cruelties on innocent victims -- but the victims may only protest in ways which the oppressor deems "acceptable." The profound injustice is obvious, but not in itself remarkable or unexpected: this is how oppression operates. But ask yourself about the deeper reason for the prohibition. This is of the greatest importance: the victims may only protest within a constricted range of "permissible" behavior because, when they exceed the prescribed limits, they make the oppressors too uncomfortable. They force the oppressors to confront the nature of what they, the oppressors, have done in ways that the oppressors do not choose to face.

The fifth grader in the story would have been fully justified in screaming at his teachers for minutes, even hours. He would have been fully justified in demanding to know why his teachers humiliated him so mercilessly in front of his classmates, and why they exposed him to cruel scrutiny and mockery in this way. He had every right to ask why his teachers -- his teachers, who are supposed to protect him from gratuitous cruelty and who are supposed to be devoted to his well-being -- would so deeply betray their role. But what do you suppose would have happened to him if he had reacted in this way? As in the case of Billy Wolfe, his teachers would have been "shocked and indignant." The boy with Stahl's ear would almost certainly have been punished again -- for identifying the nature of the cruelty perpetrated against him and protesting against it.

In "The Limits of Politics," I summarized some of the dynamics involved, drawing on the work of Alice Miller:
There are several interlocking parts of the mechanisms that Miller describes that must be kept in mind -- and these parts help to explain what is missing from our political debates. The first part is obedience to the demands of the parent and/or other authority figure -- the second part is denial of the pain experienced by the child himself, when he is made to "conform" to arbitrary edicts and to suppress his own spontaneous, genuine emotions -- the third part is idealization of the parent and/or additional authority figure, since the child depends on the parent for life itself and dares not challenge the parent or the parent's "good intentions" -- and the final, inevitable part is the denial of the pain experienced by others. If we fully acknowledge the injuries sustained by others and the pain they experience, it will call up our own injuries. Because this would call into question our most fundamental sense of ourselves, this cannot be permitted. In this manner, the deadening of the soul -- which began with our own souls -- must expand to deaden us to the full reality of the selves of others.
You will find much more on these themes in my Alice Miller essays, and in the final installments of my series "On Torture." See the last two parts of that series, in particular ("The Truth that Lies Within, and the Truth that Many Will Not Face").

The most common justification for the endless cruelty and violence inflicted on innocent victims is that the oppressor acts as he does "for your own good." This alleged justification will be found in every episode of America's intentionally provoked wars of aggression. It was used to justify the Mexican-American War:
The simple truth was, Polk wanted more territory. No president in American history had ever been so frank in his aims for seizing real estate. ...

Perhaps to dignify the nakedness of Polk's land lust, the American citizenry had got itself whipped into an idealistic frenzy, believing with an almost religious assurance that its republican form of government and its constitutional freedoms should extend to the benighted reaches of the continent then held by Mexico, which, with its feudal customs and Popish superstitions, stood squarely in the way of Progress. To conquer Mexico, in other words, would be to do it a favor.
The same view was voiced during the brutal war of occupation in the Philippines:
At the end of the Spanish-American War, we collected Puerto Rico as a colony, set up a protectorate over Cuba, and annexed the Hawaiian Islands. President William McKinley also forced Spain to cede the Philippine Islands. To the American people, McKinley explained that, almost against his will, he had been led to make the decision to annex: "There was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and christianize them as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died." McKinley was either unaware of or simply chose not to inform the people that, except for some Muslim tribesmen in the south, the Filipinos were Roman Catholics, and, therefore, by most accounts, already Christians.
Today, after the U.S. government launches a criminal war of aggression against a country that never threatened it, and sets in motion actions that have led to the slaughter of more than a million innocent people, almost every leading politician utters obscenities such as the following:
Our troops did the job they were asked to do. They got rid of Saddam Hussein. They conducted the search for weapons of mass destruction. They gave the Iraqi people a chance for elections and to have a government. It is the Iraqis who have failed to take advantage of that opportunity.
Hillary Clinton may offer an especially offensive version of this line, but the same line is peddled by most others of national prominence. This is American exceptionalism at its most nauseating: the U.S. government murders over a million people, unleashes chaotic violence that will almost certainly continue and get still worse, and it's all the Iraqis' fault. It can never be the U.S.'s fault, not with regard to Mexico, the Philippines, Vietnam, Iraq, or the many other interventions and wars of aggression in which the U.S. has engaged -- for the U.S. is the oppressor, and the oppressor sets the terms of debate, and the "acceptable" terms of protest. (You will find many more examples of this sort of thing in "Racist Nation.")

Hillary Clinton is an entirely awful politician in my view, although no more awful than almost all the rest of them. But whatever one's opinion of her and of the way in which she has managed her campaign, the extent of the mockery, cruelty and even implied violence directed toward her is astonishing. It is also sickening, for it is obvious that much of that mockery, cruelty and implied violence is directed at her because she is a woman. The comparisons to a psychotic Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, the threats that someone should take her into a room and "only he comes out," and all the rest proceed from the view of women embraced by a power structure whose nature and operations have been established and are still dominated for the most part by white, affluent, straight men. Yet when women complain about any of this, they are variously told: "Oh, it was only a joke!" Or: "Well, yes, it's bad, but it's not that bad." Or, to put it in starker terms that many men would use if they expressed the truth of their own view: "For God's sake, be a man about it! Suck it up!"

For to be a man under the prevailing view, and to be the United States government, means that you fully embrace the casual, unprovoked, indefensible use of cruelty and violence to get what you want, even and especially when you have no right to it whatsoever, while you deny your own pain and the pain of everyone else.

This returns us to the matter of Jeremiah Wright, and Barack Obama. I have explained in detail the manner in which Obama has chosen to embrace the American exceptionalist myth that is the life blood of the past and current power structure. This is a matter of considerable moment: in this manner, Obama has chosen to embrace not just one lie, but a long series of bloody, awful lies. Obama has thus chosen to deny the truth of racism in the United States and in its history, and the fact that racism remains embedded in almost all major institutions of power in this country.

In the second part of this series, I excerpted an article by Margaret Kimberley. Once again, I emphasize part of what she wrote:
Black people are and always have been the largest group of truth tellers in the United States. Our history proves that the country's most beloved mythologies are shams. Our every day lives tell us that racism persists, and that our political leaders lie constantly. We were always very difficult to fool, that is until Barack Obama ran for president.

Our commitment to truthfulness has been tested and found to be severely lacking, all in the name of seeing a black president. Obama's campaign has been filled with a laundry list of lies. Obama burst onto the national scene after his speech at 2004 Democratic convention. In that speech he famously said that "There is no black America." His statements during his presidential campaign have since gone from bad to worse.

First there was no black America, bad enough, then he acknowledged our existence but claimed we have no problems because "we are 90% of the way towards equality."


The omens don't look good. While Wright is generally supported, black opinion makers have urged him to shut up because they fear that the truth will damage Obama's chance to win.


It will be a sad day when black people stop telling the truth, all in an effort to elevate one ambitious man to his dream job. If Obama's support in the black community is any indication, most black people will end their historic progressive politics and applaud this country's criminal activity just because the head criminal looks like them.
The title of Kimberley's article is, "The End of Truth." And this is one of the major reasons why Obama is so enthusiastically supported by certain Americans, including many liberals and progressives -- for he protests the grave injustices perpetrated against black Americans, but only in the ways that are deemed "acceptable" by the white establishment.

Obama's view of race relations in America will not provoke shock and indignation on the part of those in positions of authority, or those who wish to be -- for Obama says that black Americans have nothing to be shocked or indignant about themselves any longer. Perhaps black Americans are entitled to be angry about the past, but they shouldn't be too angry. Yes, terrible injustices were committed, but that's all behind us now. Now, we can comfortably move into a "post-racial" future, simply because we say so. The institutionalized racism that still permeates much of American life will vanish, because we will pretend it is no longer there. You should just forget about the generations of black American men who have been imprisoned, the numerous ways in which doors are slammed in the faces of other black Americans, and the lives that are blighted and sometimes ended by the murderous racism that continues to this day.

Never mind any of that. It's time to "move on." If you don't, it's your fault.

This is the same message delivered to many children, to the Iraqis, to women, to gays, to every other group that is oppressed by the institutions of power in this country. Don't be too angry or too upset, and never confront those in power or who enjoy a privileged position in this society with anything close to the full reality of the injustices they have committed, and that they continue to commit.

People should understand that this message is deeply damaging, and potentially deadly. We can only move beyond terrible pain and injury after we fully acknowledge and understand the damage that has been caused. Among other things, this requires that we explicitly identify what has been done and do so in detail, so that the effects can be discharged in ways that are not destructive and violent. If the victims are forbidden to go through this process -- as those in power forbid them to do -- the damage does not miraculously vanish. It goes underground, for such feelings do not disappear because you wish them to. When they are driven underground, they will inevitably surface at some point -- and when they do, the consequences may be terrible indeed.

Acknowledge the truth. Understand the grievous damage that has been done and that continues today. Talk about it as much as may be required, even if it takes years. Those who enjoy privilege and power have had their turn, as they still do. It is long past time to let the victims speak. If what they have to say makes you uncomfortable, that's too goddamned bad. Let them speak -- and listen to what they have to say.

It's not the fault of the victims. It's the fault of those in power. They ought to understand that, finally, and then they ought to fix it -- which is to say, they ought to fix themselves.

UPDATE: I've already started receiving all-too-predictable complaints that I have committed a mortal sin by mentioning the misogyny directed at Clinton, while failing to document the pervasive anti-black discrimination directed at Obama. I may write more about this in the near future; for now, a few brief points.

First, there is certainly a great deal of vicious discrimination directed at Obama. It may be very widespread. In fact, I have more than a slight suspicion that such discrimination may finally deny him the presidency, assuming he is the nominee. I have documented the racism inherent in the American political system, and in American culture and society generally, in numerous posts; follow just a few of the links above to my many essays on this subject. It can hardly be said with any degree of seriousness that this is an issue I have neglected. (And I have not even mentioned in this postscript what I say on this subject in the above essay itself. Now I've mentioned it. Perhaps certain critics of mine should reread the above article, paying particular attention to my specific reasons for criticizing Obama's denunciation of Wright.)

Second, and this is a very serious problem with regard to Obama specifically: as I discussed in detail in earlier essays (again, linked above), on most critical issues, Jeremiah Wright was correct. He spoke the truth. But Obama has denounced Wright's views on all the major points. Obama has emphatically stated that it is not the truth. As noted above, Obama thus embraces the American exceptionalist myth -- which is, to be precise, a white American exceptionalist myth. It is the myth of the ruling class, which throughout most of our history and still today is a white ruling class. The comparatively few black Americans who rise to national prominence do not change this reality -- and, like Obama, many of those black Americans also adopt the American exceptionalist myth. Moreover, as Kimberley notes, Obama has declared that all these problems are 90% solved.

This places Obama's would-be defenders in an unusual predicament: they want to defend Obama on an issue about which Obama refuses to defend himself. Obama has told us there is nothing of any significance he needs to defend himself against. In this way, Obama has removed the weapon from his defenders' hands. He has told them -- as he has told Wright -- to shut up and keep quiet about it. Obama doesn't want Wright to discuss it, and he doesn't want you to discuss it.

This is a monumental problem. Because Obama seeks the highest elective office in a society which is based on and still revolves around the myth of American exceptionalism in numerous and often complex ways, it is probably the case that he has to deny the truth. That does not change what the truth is. If you choose to defend him against viciously discriminatory attacks, and if you go so far as to suggest that those attacks are systemic and widespread, you call into question certain of the critical premises underlying Obama's campaign (that he is the "post-racial" candidate and similar claims).

He doesn't want you to defend him too strenuously on this issue, if at all. Think about that, and get back to me.