And in the Red Corner, Liberty​

It has come to my attention, evidently moving from one side of my brain to the other, that the words freedom and liberty, that are used both often and liberally, have many different perceived meanings; which are then liberally debated, argued and fought over. To a more conservative minded person, freedom and liberty may have very different meanings than to a liberal minded person. Not to mention the fact that there is also significant disagreement inside both conservative and liberal circles over what these words mean. (I hate the term “not to mention” because invariably, directly after saying it one mentions what is allegedly not to be mentioned.)  Not to mention the fact that these terms are constantly used to describe and define essential elements of American democracy. Sad.

When people use these words, freedom and liberty, they assume they are universal concepts universally understood; they feel certain everybody knows what they mean. But in reality, it’s only what that particular person thinks they mean. It’s the “everybody knows” mistake. Everybody does not know. Not everybody sees liberty and freedom just like you do. It is contradictions like this that gets us into loads of trouble from a societal standpoint. Misinterpretations lead to misgivings.

When we talk about freedom or liberty, and we assume we are all talking about the same thing, we go a little crazy when the other guy says something that clearly shows we are not talking about the same thing. We either think they are stupid idiots or they are trying to subvert and undermine what we are saying. Neither of those things is likely to be true and neither do they lead to anything good.

It’s hella frustrating.

So, in discussions about freedom and liberty, I think it wise to start off by explaining our definition of terms. Rather than creating discord and argument on the backside, it’s a good idea to define terms on the front side, as in a formal debate. When you talk about freedom and liberty, tell people upfront what you mean by these words. For example, don’t say:

“I think people need to be free, but when xyz does abc they are preventing 123 from being 456 and that takes away their freedom”

What does being 456 have to do with freedom exactly? Depends on what you think freedom is.

instead, you could say:

“Freedom means 789 to me and when xyz does abc it stops 123 from having 789 and that takes away their freedom to be 456”

Then at least you know they think 789 has something to do with being 456 and to them that has something to do with freedom.

You may want to read that bit over again.

Anyway, starting a conversation about freedom or liberty with what you mean by freedom or liberty gives the other person a reference point to engage in a respectful, meaningful discussion, rather than reacting negatively to something they think they heard that they think they know which may or may not be true or at all relevant. Unfortunately, when definitions aren’t made clear, contested concepts like liberty and freedom can spark the kind of needless arguments that plague civil discourse and turn a legitimate debate into angry violence, emotional and/or physical.

The contested nature of many contested concepts is not always naturally occurring. Entities with agendas actively foment misunderstanding and will intentionally muddy the waters by promoting their opposing definitions of certain terms. If they feel the use of a certain word doesn’t serve their agenda they will work to subvert the meaning of that word by constantly repeating their alternate definition, constantly repeating it in as many ways as they can to as many people as possible. They will constantly repeat it over and over, by constantly repeating it, over and over. When constantly repeated, over and over, over time their definition will come to be accepted by enough people so that in a discussion there will be contention over the meaning of terms. A strong contention that can engender anger and fighting, spiritual, emotional, mental and often physical.

Therefore, it is crucial that we listen closely to how people use words and to hear their words contextually. We can then discover what they really mean when they use a word, especially when it means something different to us.

We need to listen for agendas. We can’t live in a bubble. If we accept and understand conflicting meanings and find where they originate, then knowing why people define their terms as they do we have a much better chance of reconciling our contentious, gridlocked issues.

Words and their meanings are so important.

I can’t emphasize that enough.

OK, I need to get back to freedom and liberty.

I believe in working with these words it can be valuable to recognize the subtle differences in their natures. I would say that a majority of people use them interchangeably. But freedom and liberty are not quite the same things. If you look closely at the concepts these words describe you will see that freedom is about what, and liberty is about who. Freedom is about being, and liberty is about doing. That is, what is being versus who is doing.

For example, looking at slavery in America, emancipation made slaves FREE to no longer BE slaves, but as things turned out they did not always have the LIBERTY to DO what they wanted. This was the essence of issues faced by freed slaves in the Jim Crow era. They were freed by law from being owned, but the dominant white power structure took away their liberty to do as they desired. Freedom gives us the opportunity to BE a banker if we so choose. But it is in the choice to DO so where the liberty lives. When people talk about freedom, look for WHAT they want to BE FREE from. And when they talk about liberty, look for WHO claims they have the LIBERTY to DO something.

We should remember that freedom is a more concrete word than liberty. Not having a freedom is a clearer concept than not having liberty. It could be why freedom normally trumps liberty in contested situations. And why there is nearly always indignation arising out of those victories.

Looking at it from the standpoint of rights, freedom relates more to a constitutional right and liberty to an inalienable right. Freedom is an earned right and liberty is a birthright. We have freedom from something but have the liberty to do something. Freedom is granted by government and liberty is granted by God. Frankly, although the words mean nearly the same exact thing, the difference is substantial enough that there will always be a battle between that which is given by Caesar and that which is given by God.

A good example of this esoteric struggle is the clash between Cliven Bundy and the Federal Bureau of Land Management. Essentially Bundy claimed that he had the God-given right, the liberty, to graze his cattle on federal land, simply because he could. And the BLM said no, that’s the government’s land and your cattle aren’t free to graze there.  The disagreement originated in a clash between claims of  liberty and assignments of freedom. And in the end government and its bestowed freedom triumphed over Bundy and his claimed liberty. And much indignation arose out of the government’s victory.

As an aside, but relevant, I also see the irony inherent in this relationship of freedom juxtaposed with liberty as the basis for a meaningful contradiction of spirit. It is a contradiction displayed by people who want to supplant civil law with biblical laws, all the while fearing that sharia law will supplant civil law.

As we see, the differences between the concepts of freedom and liberty are subtle and do nothing to help us avoid contention. In this time, sadly, the words are used interchangeably but are understood to mean many and often vastly different things. Yet in a disagreement, yea an argument, understanding those differences just might give you the subtle edge that allows you to establish your definitions, create some movement of hearts, and perhaps change a mind or two. At the very least, understanding that freedom and liberty are contested concepts and the guy on the next barstool over might not hear them the same way you do gives us all a better understanding of how difficult it will be to bridge the gulf of partisanship we now so sadly live with.

Words make a difference.

A big difference.



Thoughts on Privilege

Normally, in my egoism, I give my posts what I consider to be clever titles. This subject does not deserve one.

Most importantly, and I cannot emphasize this enough, (I think I’m going to use this as the first paragraph as well as one of the last) You. Are. Not. A. Bad. Person. For. Having. Privilege. You are not to blame or evil because you happened to have been born white. You just were. Who can possibly blame you for that? And alternately you cannot rid yourself of privilege by rejecting it, or repenting, or doing penance. It is what it is. I would be happy to talk about your privilege with you and show you that I don’t judge you or revile you for it. I would love to help you learn how to easier recognize it, hiding away in the inner recesses of your mind like a virus in your vertebrae. And I’d enjoy giving a few pointers on how to use it to help instead of hinder, like your being able to speak and be heard when a person of color would not be listened to.

The concept of racial privilege goes back to the early 20th century and the insights of black sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois in his essay “The Souls of Black Folks. He observed that while black Americans were conscious of white Americans and racial discriminations white Americans did not think much about black Americans or racial discrimination at all. He called his idea of white privilege the “wages of whiteness” which included things white folk took mindlessly for granted things such as unimpeded admittance to public functions.

The current focus on privilege covers more than just racial privilege but includes any number of hierarchical privileges, from class to gender. The spark that lit the light that shines on these privileges was a 1988 essay by feminist and anti-racism activist Peggy McIntosh in which she listed over forty privileges she, as a white person, could depend on. She described privilege as an “invisible package of unearned assets”. An unearned asset is something like somebody handing you a pair of aces as you walk into the Friday night poker game.

This essay led to an increase in the scholarly examination of privilege and brought it out of the shadows into the light of “political correctness”, whatever that is. McIntosh showed that regardless of how far down the social ladder a group was, they always had some privilege they could use over the next group lower down. And even the lowest group had one or two things they could consider privileges. It’s natural in a socially stratified world for the people in various strata to want to feel superior to those in other strata in some way. Politicians use these people’s desires to wedge demographic groups into rivals who would otherwise be natural allies in order to prevent them from banding together to take over political power. Studying privilege is a significant part of addressing modern social issues.

Recently I have listened to and read several conversations and essays which served to deny that a particular white person or persons could possibly have privilege. This was based on the fact that they knew they weren’t racist, using their past attitudes and actions as proof. One man, in particular, told us how he had fought next to blacks in the service etc. and that everyone in the military is equal and therefore he is not privileged. He expressed his disdain for those who had the gall to say he was. I consistently hear variations of this complaint in numerous venues from a variety of white Americans of all classes.

I bear no ill will toward these people. But I am often at a loss as to how I might convince them that they are wrong about their white privilege without leaving them with the impression that they are bad people who did something wrong. It is quite understandable that when folks are told they possess something that has hurt many people in many ways over many years that they feel personally attacked. I can see why they deny their privilege in most powerful ways, providing a long list of exculpatory evidence that purports to show they personally do not possess it.

Regardless of the nature of these complaints, the reality is that these white Americans simply do not understand privilege. Lest I appear to be judgmental there actually aren’t all that many people who do understand it. It turns out that it’s not a very complex issue. But there are some subtle differences in the perception of the meaning of the language used to describe, explain and define privilege. Different folks hear different things when this language is used and that impedes our mutual understanding of the concept.

I have a quite unproductive habit of writing things and then burying them several layers deep in the bowels of my computer. While looking for research material on this subject I found something I wrote several years ago on this very subject. I think it says what I wanted to say much better than I could today. It only goes to show that every blog has its day. I’m including it here for your perusal. I am absolutely certain that it is not an exhaustive nor even adequate study of the issue. I hope it might help a few of us get a better understanding.

Here it is.

“The thing people most often misunderstand about privilege, whether it’s white privilege, male, straight, Christian or American privilege is that having it doesn’t mean you are bad. Privilege is not something you choose. It’s something you either were born with, born into or changed into. It’s not your fault if you are white or male. It just is. It’s an advantage that you have because of what you are and not who you are. It has nothing to do with whether you are a good person or a bad person. And it’s not about how you act or what you do either. Everyone has a choice about what we do. We don’t have a choice about most privilege. We just have it.

Yes, you worked hard to get to where you are, nobody helped you. But that’s not privilege. Privilege is when someone worked just as hard as you did but didn’t get the advantages you got because of what you are and what they aren’t. Privilege doesn’t mean you should feel guilty or be ashamed for having it. It doesn’t mean you should think people are attacking you when they point out the privilege you have.

The hardest thing to understand about privilege is that probably 99% of it is unconscious. We have never known we have it. We have never thought about it. Therefore, since we don’t know we have it we react negatively when we are told we have it. We feel someone is telling us we are bad when we are sure that we aren’t. Not knowing we have it doesn’t excuse us from having it. But, learning we have it is a great opportunity to use that knowledge to get a clearer picture of the dynamic involved when incidents surface that have to do with privilege. That understanding will help us behave in a way that helps rather than hurts.”

Thanks, Will Servant of the past.

For the current me, the essence of what I said in that passage is that privilege is not about who we are but about what we are. It’s not about whether we are a racist or not, although that is certainly somewhat informed by privilege. It’s not about whether we do good works or cause riots. It’s more like whether you have brown eyes or blue. It’s not something you can change or give away easily. It’s not something you can choose, except perhaps by getting married or changing religion or gender. Those things, of course, are still what you are, not who you are. There is a well-known exercise that uses eye color to show how no one chose what race they are or what eye color they have. No matter how you explain privilege it is difficult for many of us to grasp because of fuzziness about what words mean and how we perceive them. Thus I will try to explain this difference between who we are and what we are several times in the next paragraphs. Please bear with me.

Because there are many different types of privilege over a variety of social and physical hierarchies we are all virtually assured of being both the beneficiaries of certain privilege and the victims of another privilege. So none of us are at the absolute top or the bottom of relative human pecking orders. The actionable thing that can be done is to search for the “invisible package of unearned assets” we have hidden inside us and learn how those assets affect the fabric of society. In knowing them we can use them for good or for poor. It is our choice to do the right thing right in the face of having it called “politically correct” (whatever that is). It is our choice to be part of the problem or part of the solution, without letting incendiary words create a smokescreen to confuse our common senses. It is our choice to stand behind and next to the groups negatively impacted by the ravages of privilege rather than usurping their right to create solutions.

A sidebar about hierarchies. Both conservatives and liberals can be confused by their own hierarchies or lack thereof. Conservatives already have a well developed moral hierarchy, i.e. men over women, women over children, humans over animals etc.. They follow this hierarchy to organize their lives. Thus the use of demographic social hierarchies can ring dissonant to their values, making it tricky for them to understand and accept privilege. Liberals like to think that there are no social hierarchies, that all people have equity regardless of their demographic. This causes some liberals to reject the fact that privilege even exists. So you can see, educating people, gently, about the perils of privilege can be most daunting.

When it comes to privilege of all sorts it doesn’t matter how good your choices have been. It doesn’t matter how well you have treated your Jewish friends or, blacks, Puerto Ricans, women, gays or the disabled. Those choices make you a good person. They make you who you are. When who you are is a good person it is a great thing and a boon to society. But being a good person has little to do with privilege. You still use privilege, maybe less than others, but you still have it. Whether who you are is good or evil, privilege has to do with what you are. What is your color, what is your religion, what is your sexual preference, what genitals were you born with, what is your economic status, what neighborhood do you live in. These things define privilege, not whether you let your wife share in your finances or whether you respect your black boss.

Now one might say that a man is a racist, and that is a what, or that I am a good person, and that is a what. To further clarify, a what is quantifiable. Being a racist is a quality and not a quantity. Likewise a there are many kinds of good people who are good in many different ways. Alternately blue eyes define brown eyes, and in a group of people, you can quantify the blue eyed people from the brown. In a group of racists, you would have trouble quantifying who hates Mexicans from who hates all Latinos or who hates many Hispanic people, which would include Spaniards. And racists include people who in reality should be call religionists.

Who you are is very clear to you. You chose to be that way. But the effects of what you are are mostly invisible unless you look for them. If, as a white family, not judging the Mexican family that moves in next to you, or not worrying about that mixed race couple walking their dog past your house doesn’t change the fact that if you walk into a convenience store you are much less likely to be followed than a black man, or stopped by the police for a minor infraction, like a burnt out tail light. That you, as a straight couple, aren’t offended by seeing two gay men kiss is much different than getting a table at your favorite restaurant ahead of that same gay couple, even though you came in after them. In the former, you are treating someone well, which is who you are. In the latter you are being treated better than someone else, all other things being equal, because of what you are. That is privilege. Some people claim they aren’t racists. There are people who would agree with them and others who wouldn’t. That’s not privilege.

It is those wages of whiteness, the invisible package of unearned benefits, that I as a white person have, just from being born white, that make for white privilege. Most importantly, and I cannot emphasize this enough, (I think I’m going to use this as the first paragraph as well as one of the last) You. Are. Not. A. Bad. Person. For. Having. Privilege. You are not to blame or evil because you happened to be born white. You just were. It is what you are. Who can possibly blame you for that. And alternately you cannot rid yourself of privilege by rejecting it, or repenting, or doing penance. That lends a nobility to who you are; but like the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, it will never change what you are.

I am happy to talk about your privilege with you and show you that I don’t judge you or revile you for it. I would love to help you learn how to better recognize it, hiding away in the inner recesses of your mind like a virus in your vertebrae. And I’d enjoy giving a few pointers on how to use it to help instead of hinder, like being able to speak and be heard when a person of color would not be listened to. Leave a comment and I’ll respond.

Even bearing the burden of white privilege we, as white Americans, can have an active role in making the world a better place. But in order to do that we must look deep, and continue to look even deeper, into our ourselves, Finding the awareness of that buried privilege and understanding it, recognizing it when it rears it’s ugly head, gives us the knowledge to use it differently, as allies. It lets us stand tall next to our neighbors of color in their efforts to no longer have pieces like this written.

So to reiterate, for perhaps the umpteenth time, the essential thing to remember is that privilege is about WHAT you are and not WHO you are. Think of the things you are and not the actions you take. What is a thing. Who is a nature, a concept, a quality. What is concrete, a quantity. Who is abstract. What is static. Who is active.

There, is that confusing enough for you. I certainly hope not. I truly wish we can all more clearly understand privilege and use it or not use it, depending on the circumstance, to make the world a better place.

Remember that these are the words of a white man. I don’t claim to know the struggles of people of color in America. I could be wrong about lots of this. There are those that contend my privilege disqualifies me from saying anything about the subject. But I keep working on learning about my own privilege and how I can be a better ally. Beyond that, I can’t say.

Finally, don’t ever, for one second, think anyone is without some kind of privilege. We all have some sort of blindness, some wages, some unconscious, some assets. Blame our genome if you must. Blame history. Blame language. Just don’t blame yourself.

Pinching me won’t help

I haven’t been commenting much about politics lately. I haven’t been writing much about anything. I have been collecting my thoughts, listening to what everybody else has said and is saying, and frankly have been somewhat in denial about the future of our executive branch and our way of life. But today I must say something. The events of the last several days have sent reality crashing down on me like the famous 1,000 plus-year-old Giant Sequoia we lost just days ago.

We are in an unparalleled existential crisis, not only for American democracy but for the human species and the entire planet. Dark days are ahead and it has already become dangerously difficult to avoid a catastrophic fate.

The confirmation hearings for cabinet and other important administration appointees are like Dad siding with your sister when she says you did it. We can protest with the truth all we want but the outcome is preordained. The gaslighting surrounding the claims and counterclaims of potentially treasonous personal and political behavior by POTUS has left us unsure and questioning everything about his relationship with foreign governments and their possible influence on our most intimate internal politics. Did he do this? Did they do that?

It’s hard to know what to believe, which to my mind is exactly the intention of Trump and his minions. The more mud in the water the less anyone can see clearly the truth. The doubt sewn here will mask the reality of future revelations of impropriety, whether true or false, a security blanket thrown over the chance any future indiscretions might harm his presidency.

Perhaps the least obvious but most damaging result of this telling series of events is that the Trump brain trust was not only able to deny the disturbing, disgusting allegations but was able to use that denial to fire the first volley in an attack on the free press, which, if I am correct, will be a battle that continues to be waged into the future. This is the truly scary result of this whole sick scenario. One of the first things to happen in the establishment of an authoritarian government is the destruction and/or capitulation of the press through lies and intimidation. Be afraid, be very afraid.

This frightening circumstance is accompanied by a thing I have been in complete denial about, the appointment of a murderers row of Cabinet heads and Federal Agency officials that in every case are well known to desire the abject destruction of the very department they will be overseeing. It is not folly to think that over time the federal government will be systematically dismantled. Once a SCOTUS justice is named and confirmed the social justice advances of a century or more will be in danger of being unceremoniously overturned. Draconian laws will be conceived, passed, and upheld.

We, in America, have been insulated from the coups, silent or violent, that have haunted so many other nations. We just don’t think it can happen here. We are the great democracy. We are free. We will never accept a dictator’s rule. Think again. This is the 21st century. The dictatorships of the 20th century no longer are valid save for what they have taught the tyrants of today. The modern totalitarian is an invisible puppeteer who allows the people the illusion of self-government. They sow the same seeds of death as their predecessors, but from behind an OZ-like screen of prosperity promised.

The election of President Obama was hailed in many circles as the hammer that brought down the wall of ignorant racism in America. A new coalition would change the face of American politics forever. But his election only precipitated the fear always present in the hearts of the oligarchs. They had allowed democracy to run its course, save for a little tough prodding when it got off track and their dominance was the slightest bit in doubt. But Obama’s election set off all the alarm bells. The rich white males who run things were truly threatened and now deathly afraid. So they brought down their own hammer, the hammer of ugly hatred, of racial, gender and ageist superiority, the hammer of I have wealth and you don’t.

Perhaps they had hoped to hold off for a while, let things slide as long as they were in control and raking in the dough. But as soon as their existence was truly threatened they knew they could only continue to rule by truly threatening our existence. Aren’t they aware that their gargantuan hubris threatens everyone’s existence? Have they no spiritual compass that tells them the truth about the finite nature of our natural resources, about the arrogant denial of their complicity in hastening the changes to our climate? Do they think they can defy death and take their ill-gotten gold with them when we all fry from splitting atoms, or poison atoms or burning atoms?

I’m at a loss as to what to do to reverse this, save to continue to do what I can, to love my neighbor and give of myself to those in need, to follow the God who speaks to me, who tells me there is a place for me and for all in an eternal kingdom. Perhaps I can start writing songs again. Maybe lighten a heart or two. But like the one percent of the one percent I have my unacceptable fears. I fear my children will feel pain and suffering, the torture of bearing the yoke of injustice. I fear for all the children of the world that they may never be able to become who they are. I fear that the human race will be snuffed out, unceremoniously, stabbed by a thief in the night, strangled from behind by a coward.

I am incensed. I will not accept. I will fight and resist incessantly in my own way. I will seek those real and good human values, values we all share and cast them as far and near as I can. I will become a fisher of men.

This may do nothing to change things. It may only assuage my guilt for allowing this to happen. Humanity can very well be in its death throes.

Damn, I hope I’m wrong