Power moves

Most of the problematic tendencies in our disaster-prone society seem to be aspects of one simple principle: being willing to use your power to gain more power is the way to success and general approbation.

I suppose this is an unsupported generalization, and that I’m painting things with a broad brush. I’d certainly be hard-pressed to come up with a large array of supporting instances of this principle, but it is an idea that’s been growing in my mind for some time now.

The most recent events on the national stage that have brought this up for me are the Republican tax bill, which they’ve finally managed to pass–an act of pure power in itself–and the flurry of defensive rationalizations around the men who’ve been accused of sexual predation. Though these two things seem to be unrelated, they share an etiology: abuse of power.

The tax bill is essentially a bold, crass move by the people who hold the reigns of power in the U.S. (the wealthy owner class, not the pathetic politicians who do their bidding for the crumbs from the table) to consolidate their gains as they become more and more in control of everything. They don’t really need more money, but they have an insatiable need for power, and that’s what control of so much of our national wealth gives them: nearly unlimited power. Including the power to keep us convinced that it’s in our interest.

Why they want this power is a question for deeper psycho-social analysis than I’m equipped to make, but it seems to be a product of some pretty deep-seated emotional hurt and fear that just grows as it is fed. I’ve long been convinced that most anger and hatred and evil-doing is based in fear, which usually has come from some kind of hurt. Like most of our negative psychological states, when we feed it the emotional poison of exerting our will over that of another, the negative state grows and requires bigger and bigger doses of power to assuage the pain.

In the same way, the sexual predators are not really interested in sex, they’re much more into the wielding of power over others, because that’s what seems to satisfy the need for self-reification and aggrandizement that drives them. Since sex is, in some ways, the ultimate thing one can give another person, it’s also the ultimate thing one can forcibly take from another person when one has some kind of power over them.

I can’t imagine how such so-called sex could actually bring the kind of gratification that sex does, because in these kinds of forced sex, one would be aware that the only reason it was happening was because of the power relationship. The truly bonding and gratifying aspects of sex, the source of the happiness it brings, are that it is freely engaged in between people who love and appreciate each other and who give of themselves to each other. Willingly. Elements which are totally lacking in forced sex.

Whether the power is physical, as in the normal idea of rape, or some kind of control over the conditions of the others’ life, as with bosses or directors or such relationships, it’s still power, and it’s the abuse of that power that is wrong.

Putting the other person in the position of having to make a difficult decision… assent or lose a vital job, role, or other aspect of ones life, that is the crux of what makes this behavior wrong. Saying, as some defenders have, that the victim should have ‘just said no’ or some other facile notion of resistance and refusal, ignores the true nature of the power relationship between the perpetrator and the victim in these cases.

Digging into this national pathology is painful, but it seems necessary if we are to grow and develop in constructive ways as a society.

White people problems

Ferguson has brought racism off the back burner in the US. A recent article on Killing the Buddha (an online magazine presenting various irreverent religious perspectives on social issues) is probably the best thing I’ve read on the subject lately. Maybe ever. It blows right by the tired old discussions of “let’s just all get along,” sifts through recent lists of “what can we do” and finds them wanting.

White people are going to have to suffer if we’re going to get this issue solved, and most of us are not too eager to step up take our share of the suffering. We want, like the Village Voice columnist of a few weeks ago, to think that we can all just rest in our well-meaning liberalism, avoid confrontation at all costs, and let good will work through the system and everything will be fine.

Briallen Hopper, a professor at Yale University, put things in perspective early on: “… as a white American I do know this: It is a privilege to experience political differences as differences of opinion rather than differences of power. It is a privilege to be able to view all political issues in indistinguishable shades of gray.”

She brings the insight of a 50-year-old documentary film, “A Time for Burning,” to bear on the current discussion about race in our country. She quotes famous black nationalist barber (and member of the Nebraska legislature) Ernie Chambers from the film:

I can’t solve the problem. You guys pull the strings that close schools. You guys drop the bombs that keep our kids restricted to the ghetto. You guys write up the restricted covenants that keep us out of houses. So it’s up to you to talk to your brothers and your sisters and persuade them that they have a responsibility. We’ve assumed ours for over four hundred years and we’re tired of this kind of stuff now. We’re not going to suffer patiently anymore. No more turning the other cheek. No more blessing our enemies. No more praying for those who despitefully use us. …

You’re treaty-breakers, you’re liars, you’re thieves, you rape entire continents and races of people. Then you wonder why these very people don’t have any confidence and trust in you. Your religion means nothing, your law is a farce and we see it everyday. You demonstrated it in Alabama. And I can say “you” because you’re part of the whole system. You profit from it. In fact you make your living from it. … As far as we’re concerned, your Jesus is contaminated, just like everything else you’ve tried to force upon us is contaminated. So you can have him. … I think the problem is so bad that we can have no understanding at all. … You talk about justice and it means something to you, we talk about it and it means something else to us. And it will always be that way.

In 2014, these problems and the truths Mr. Chambers presents here are magnified beyond all reason, and all our good intentions have not made one whit of difference. The power structure is still every bit as racist as it was in 1960 and the impacts are as unjust and destructive as ever.

“What’s truly necessary is for white people to have hard conversations about injustice with other white people, not gratuitous arguments but challenges that count,” Hopper says.

She goes further. She makes sort of a list of her own:

I want to be willing to bear some of the cost of racism, a cost that is so unevenly distributed and that is visible in rates of incarceration, unemployment, hypertension, diabetes, debt, infant mortality, stop and frisk, and death by guns. I want to bear my share of the cost not just in social discomfort but in tedium and tiredness, in my time and my bank account and my body. I love social media and t-shirts with slogans, and I think marches are energizing and photogenic, but I believe the battle is also being fought in the meetings that no one has time to go to: in school board and city elections, in voter registration drives, in budget debates and hiring decisions and referendums on the minimum wage.

This calls us all to task: there are battles on everyone’s doorstep that need to be fought every day. If we are willing, as she says, to live in the struggle, those opportunities will come to us. Then we have a choice: speak up or keep the peace.