Thursday, April 26, 2007

Feedback and Response

Today's entry concerns the column I wrote for the April 18 issue. The print title was ©Dr. Wes: What I Don't Know Could Fill a Book, while it ran below as Incomprehensible Post. We received an unusually well written and thoughtful letter regarding the column. The letter was run in the April 25 issue. I'm including it here with a response from me which couldn't be printed in the paper for lack of space.

Dear Editor,

This week's Real Change was the first one I've seen in a very long time. The issue has its bright spots. But in the middle of Dr. Wes's column of April 18 was a low point. It called a power analysis of racism "meaningless, vacuous, rotting from the head down and out its ass bullshit."

This flippant and insulting description is beneath this columnist and Real Change. It doesn't add to a meaningful dialog about race, class, and power but only obscures the issue and demeans fellow community members.

Prejudice and bigotry have been part of human interactions and civilizations in many ways for millennia. Racism is a specific form of systemic prejudice that's developed in the last 500 years or so. Racism as a political, social and economic system relies on the construction and perpetuation of the concept of (supposedly) biologically-based races, with white folk sitting on top of the pile. From what you wrote ("with all that humongous power White Americans have…"), I think we're in agreement to this point.

Where you and I diverge is in the assessment of to what extent and with what "power" people of color (not just "Black" people as you wrote) enforce their race-based prejudices. White people bring 500 centuries of dominance to bear. Whatever incidents of prejudice you're thinking of that justify calling people of color (again, you identify only "Black Americans") racist surely pale in comparison to the sheer volume, longevity, severity and raw effect of racism as practiced by white folk.

Is it worth writing seven superficial paragraphs about a pet peeve in a way that undermines purposeful, heartfelt organizing and community-based education that so many are undertaking daily in Seattle and the nation? Is it worth it to reinforce the idea that anyone can be racist, therefore implying that people of color can be equally culpable for racism? That's one of the unintended results of your column.

We don't have to agree but we need to be in respectful dialog as a community about racism, class and power. Please be mindful of the impact of your words.

Gillian Burlingham, Seattle

Dear Ms. Burlingham

I've been waiting for someone to say all this. All week all I've gotten is "Great column, Wes" and never had the other shoe dropped. When that happens I feel like nobody's really reading the things.

Absolutely it was worth it to bring that pet peeve up. It is my honest opinion that this issue is a major stumbling block to race relations today, and will become more so with time. I raised the issue because of that, and I deliberately included the flippantly disrespectful language to try to draw attention to the fact that I really meant it.

One thing you say about the column doesn't make sense to me. I did not in any way say that Blacks are equally culpable with Whites. I bent over backward, in fact, to make it clear that I was referring to a much tinier and relatively insignificant culpability. But what I said was, to the degree that Blacks DO have power and use it, they may garner culpability. It is a warning as much as anything.

Sometimes I think White Liberals envision a world in which Blacks never gain any significant power, so liberals will always have them to feel sorry for as victims of racism and can always use them as foils to point out what's wrong with the White power structure. Blacks already have considerably more power than most White Liberals have bothered to notice, and some of it has been misused. This fact has to be acknowledged and dealt with by White Liberals, or Conservatives will continue to control the debate and use the denial to fuel backlash.

Honestly I think the failure of White Liberals to recognize that Blacks wield power is a form of racism in itself. You can't nullify it by not refusing to see it, but you can disrespect it. Or maybe White Liberals want to think that Blacks only have the power they gain by having White Liberals allies.

But once you see that Blacks have power you see that it can be abused. What Liberals need to do is admit that that is already happening and to point out that it is an inevitable aspect of progress. People who can act can make mistakes. Only people who are powerless can never fail.

I didn't raise the issue in regard to other segments of the population because the ideology that I'm attacking is rarely heard in connection with others. Nobody says Asians can't be racist. The image of Korean store-owners calmly targeting Black looters in the Rodney King riots have never left the imaginations even of White Liberals, apparently, so that it is easy for them to accept that Asians can be racists (of Blacks only, of course, not of Whites.) With Latinos, issues of racism get lost in the glare of the issues of nationality, immigration status, and ethnicity. There aren't enough Native Americans around to draw the argument out. They really do lack power, for sheer lack of numbers.

As for the colorful language I used, the whole "rotting out the ass" bit, I can assure you that it accurately describes my deepest heartfelt feelings with regard to the ideas in question. I really think that liberal intellectuals have screwed the analysis up royally on this one.

My fear is that no one will listen and the result will be that White Liberals will continue to maintain a myth that Blacks can do no wrong, because they can do nothing of anything. And to the extent that is believed by White Liberals, and known to be flat out bullshit by everybody else, White Liberals will actually stand in the way of further racial progress, to the extent that the Conservatives are able to confound the White Liberal view with Black aspirations. Which is especially likely when Black intellectuals adopt it.

But the fact that Black intellectuals can adopt a philosophy that is inherently racist against their own race, in that it disrespects the power that Blacks are able to achieve, is a reminder that the mistakes of racism I was referring to do not have to be mistakes of racism directed at Whites. Mistakes are mistakes, they go in every direction. Maybe I should have talked about that too. But I only get the 666 words per week.

I am always conscious of the possibility that I could best be of help to the world by being so glaringly wrong as to bring the truth that I have missed into extreme stark relief for the benefit of others wiser than me. if I have done that this time, you're all welcome.

Thanks for writing! I really appreciate the feedback. If no one says I'm wrong, then all I can think is, no one heard me. -- wes

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Why Can't Johnny Buy Pants?

We have to save the weakening dollar!

That's the message I got all last week when they weren't telling me about Imus or the massacre. The picture you get is the cartoon with the poor miserable American dollar reclining in a hospital bed sucking on a thermometer while worried doctors shake their heads. I've been trying to figure out what all the alarm is about. It's paper! As usual, I have a theory, which begins with a familiar example.

John used to work for American Fool & Die for $70,000 per year. When one dollar bought 50 rupees, that company decided it was stupid to pay John so much. Pradeep could do the same job for 500K rupees = $10,000, annually. Today, the dollar buys about 41 rupees, so Pradeep still costs only $12,000 per year, which continues to be a great deal for American Fool and Die. So they like things the way they are. But if the dollar lost so much value that one dollar could only buy 7 rupees, then they would do well to lay Pradeep off and rehire John.

So the issue is, which horse do you want to root for? What are you after? Do you want John to get his job back or do you want a "strong dollar" so you live cheaply at your chalet on the Riviera? Do you care about the American worker, or do you want an affordable Winter vacation on a Thai beach?

OK, I cheated. I skipped over some important details. Let's say you need clothes and the country you live in hasn't had a clothing industry since Eisenhower was president. If the local currency drops in value by a factor of 7, won't that mean you'll no longer be able to afford Pakistani pants?

Gosh-areeno, it sure would, and that would put a lot of clothing retailers out of business. So someone had better see to it that the defunct domestic clothing industry gets the support it needs to get restarted, and local people get rehired as quickly as possible to make clothing.

Who might that someone be, who could bail us out, and save us from going naked? It would be the same someone who makes sure we have deodorants we need, and iPods we can't live without, and Nikes and Adidas without end. It would be our friendly neighborhood Capitalist.

I can see no reason why an unrestrained local market can't meet the challenge of a dollar pegged at as little as a tenth its current value if the fall was gradual enough. It could even benefit the lowest classes in America by restoring America's industry.

My theory so far hasn't explained where all the hand-wringing is coming from. I'm just now getting to that.

We don't have a local market. There is no friendly neighborhood Capitalist. This country is already owned by foreign investors, who don't care about your stinking money.

The reason there is homelessness in this country is that years ago the government and the American investor class decided that the part of the economy represented by the poorest Americans was expendable. They didn't want the little bit of earnings the poor could bring them. They decided they weren't worth investing in.

Foreign investors can just as easily write off the American middle-classes. The United States has less than 5% of the world's population. So in a global economy, we're no big deal.

The people who pushed world trade on us and who sold our assets to foreign investors are getting scared that we are about to catch on to the long-term harm they've done to us. There's where my theory says the hand-wringing is coming from.

Questions for further discussion.

1. Do you really need clothes? Make $10,000 a month working in your own home, naked!

2. Foreigners are coming here soon on vacations. What languages will you be learning?

3. If capitalism is the answer, what's the question?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Incomprehensible Post

I don't know everything. But, like Socrates, I stay ahead of the crowd by knowing that I don't know. Just last Saturday, as I was at the vendor desk, a vendor asked me if I was in a good mood. I didn't know! But I KNEW that I didn't know, so I could ASK. I also knew that Anitra "High Maintenance Babe" Freeman was somewhere within earshot, diddling on some computer. So I shouted, "HEY ANITRA! AM I IN A GOOD MOOD? FRANKLIN WANTS TO KNOW!" She answered back directly to Franklin. "His mood is pretty good today. He's not horrid."

I mean, really, how can I know if I'm in a good mood or not? I don't have to suffer from it. You might as well ask me if I'm tolerable to look at. What, do people think I stare at mirrors all day? I know my hands aren't a freak show.

Sometimes not knowing a thing is smarter than knowing it. One of my pet peeves is aroused by people who know that "racism is about power," and conclude that "Black Americans can't be racist."

First of all, you can't even tell how racist you are by looking in a mirror, because the face in the mirror is you looking at you. You need to see how you relate to others.

First and a half, note I said "how" racist, not "if." You ARE, and the questions are only: In what way? To what extent?

Secondly. The statement "racism is about power" is precisely the kind of meaningless, vacuous, rotting from the head down and out its ass bullshit that makes me wonder if the people in this country who want to be educated don't want to bother being there when it happens. Of course racism is about power. Anything that isn't static is about power. Verbs are about power. Giving, taking, walking, talking, and singing are about power. Even standing is about power. Stand up for what's right!

Third of all, for the conclusion to be valid, the reasoner is required to accept the unstated premise that Black Americans have no power. None. Whaa?

Think about it. If Black Americans have any power, and they do, 'cause I've seen them have some when they didn't know I was looking, then they are able to have that much racism. OK, maybe they can't be as racist as White Americans, what with all that humongous power White Americans have, seeing as how White Americans own Disneyland, Idaho, South Dakota, and most of the McDonalds, but Black Americans can at least be a tiny bit racist with the little bit of power they have.

A good, smart, starting answer to the question, "How much is that tiny bit of racism?" might be, "I don't know." Such an answer might demonstrate the readiness to begin to know.

Another smart time to not know something is when you're faced with events beyond all human comprehension. I'm writing this the morning of April 16. Yesterday was not only Tax Day but Israeli Holocaust Remembrance Day. Originally it was meant to commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which began April 19th, 1943, speaking of oft unspoken power. It's a good thing, I am sure, to remember the Holocaust, but not a good thing to comprehend.

My promise to one and all: If anyone can convince me that he truly and completely comprehends the Holocaust, I will worship him as a stupid god. I will carry him around on my shoulders and use his aura to heal the sick and the lame.

No, I'm not in a horrid mood, even though Kurt Vonnegut died last week, and losing a smart one pissed me off. "The firebombing of Dresden explains absolutely nothing about why I write what I write and am what I am," he once said. Well sure. The firebombing was incomprehensible; incomprehensibles illustrate one another, they don't explain. He knew that.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Don't You Dare Duck, Either

Family dysfunction. You don't see me discussing it much because I'm a little bit raw from it. On the one hand, reliving pain is the best source of humor. On the other hand, reliving pain is the best source of relapse, which is the best source of a med-adjustment, which is on the road to Zombie Town and/or a new room at Harborview with built in straps, and new friends bearing needles for those all-important around-the-clock blood tests.

But I think I can avoid all that by not actually making family dysfunction the subject of my talk, but rather the day's primary source of analogies. Therefore I will not be talking directly about such situations as occur such as where Mommy "lovingly" corrects you too hard and breaks your brain permanently. Instead I'll talk about other stuff that happens and only refer to those situations by way of illustration.

So my goal today is to piss away the rest of my column space talking about things that resemble family dysfunctioning that I've known.

How 'bout that Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness?

We're all one big happy family at the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness! Why wouldn't we be? We're ending homelessness! In ten years! We've said so!

Turns out that's a bit like promising to honor and obey until death do us part. After about two or three years a promise like that has a way of morphing into, "You expect me to do what? You want to die?" Which if you think about it is the same thing.

Some of you might recall that back in January I had fun laughing about a thing, in the planning of the ten year's planning, called the Ten Year Plan dashboard. That was a document, or maybe it was a 'device', which was not finished, which WHEN finished would tell the big shots at the top of the planning process when the planning car was in need of oil or gas or a tune-up, so they could order their underlings to take care of that.

It turns out that it was totally dysfunctional of me to -- using the day's primary analogy source -- "snicker at Daddy that way." You're not supposed to snicker at Daddy when Daddy is busy telling you how things are going to happen around here in the future. You're supposed to hold your tongue until Daddy has made a new rule, and then, when you are spoken to, you may say what you think of the new rule, provided you speak respectfully.

It was especially dysfunctional of me because such things as governing dashboards are common in organizations. Even Real Change has been working on one. So I had snickered at Daddy for doing something all Daddies do. Next thing you know I'll be laughing at Daddy for breaking wind.

In a slightly different vein, last week our director Timothy "My Cage Is Too Dirty" Harris smelled something bad coming our way from the Seattle weekly named so. A writer at that weekly was asking questions of Real Change folks that made it seem like either a bogus 'expose' was being manufactured, or that someone had a bean and cheese burrito for breakfast.

We've seen these things elsewhere. A local 'investigation' reveals that some vendors at a street paper make so much money they can afford apartments, and they aren't fired for it! Some vendors meet the conditions of incentive programs to get guaranteed turf and other vendors don't! Vendors are caught drinking alcohol in their time off, as if they were ordinary people, and the director does nothing to stop them!

So Tim did a dysfunctional thing. He had the audacity to use his blog, Apesma's Lament, to object in advance of anything actually happening. The writer hasn't even written a story yet!*

What have we learned today? 1) Never giggle at your Betters. 2) You're not supposed to scream before your Betters hit you.

* That was when I wrote this. The article under discussion, by Huan Hsu, is out now.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Necessity is the Mother of Camo

When I first heard “it necessarily follows” as a kid, it sounded fishy. It sounds like “it’s necessarily successive.” How can it be cessive and not cessive at the same time?

It turns out the “cede” in “succeed” means “yield,” as in sub cedere: “to yield [the card that was] under [the last one].” And the “cede” in “necessary” means “yield,” too, and the “ne” means “not", so “necessary” is about being unyielding. So the expression looks even more oxymoronic than ever. But it’s not, because the expression is saying that the Fates unyieldingly deal (yield) that next card.

In fact, “it necessarily follows” apparently sums up the Romans’ view of the Fates. The Romans considered Necessity to be the Mother of all the Fates, rather than of Invention, as we do. The Daddy of the Fates skipped.

I’ve been thinking about the Roman Necessity since I attended the unveiling of the new King County logo in the likeness of Martin Luther King Jr., a success in a modern sense of the word. The Necessity in that case is evident in the more than 20 years of political work, involving nudging, dragging, provoking, and the occasional voting here and there, plus the fated presence of the right people on the King County Council, plus the right people to design the new logo, plus the good will of most people involved, and the vanishing will of those not.

But Necessity doesn’t always give you so much warning. Take desegregation, for example.

Mention desegregation to most people born after WWII, and they think of the South. They’d say the first big breakthough was 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education. That decision came about in the same way our new logo did: Folks drove straight at it ’til they got there.

But I grew up in the Army and I have a terrific childhood memory, so I clearly recall that the U.S. military, which is a large national and not at all regional institution, needed desegregation and was already desegregating before the Southern schools had to. Not being very political when I was a toddler, I don’t recall how the Necessity played out, so I’ve since looked it up.

Here’s how it went down, courtesy of the Truman Presidential Museum and Library and others. In July 1948, Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which called for “equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.” Three days later Truman clarified the order, saying, yes (to General Omar Bradley, especially), that means desegregate.

Next, the generals dragged their feet. The Secretary of the Army said, the following month, that segregation had to go, but not immediately. Committees were formed to study how segregation could happen before the continents re-merged. Later, the Secretary admitted to favoring segregation. By December 1949, there was a new Secretary of the Army, but he was still saying we have to go slow.

Then, in April 1950, the Army ended its 10 percent quota of African-American recruitment. That quota had not been an Affirmative Action quota. It served to maintain African-American troop at a steady level to prevent fluctuations. In a segregated system, fluctuations of the segregated minority could create pesky logistical surpluses and shortfalls.

No one, including Truman, thought that the inefficiencies expected to arise from dropping the quota would have any noticeable immediate impact. In fact, until late June there wasn’t a problem. No chaotic fluctuations of Black troop levels, no logistical nightmares.

Then, before dawn, June 25, 1950, so much hell broke loose over the 38th parallel in Korea that Truman thought WWIII was starting. By the end of the next month, the U.S. and South Korean forces were almost driven off the peninsula, and everybody there needed everybody else’s logistical support. By the time the war was a year old, the Army was integrated in Korea and throughout its Asian outposts.

Necessity had arrived in camouflage.