A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Friday, July 19, 2013

Post-racial Racism: Barack and Trayvon

There is a mystery as to why a distressing number of white Americans are defending George Zimmerman. This is written in the voice of a not completely reconstructed educated southerner in an attempt to bring some understanding to this question.  To a large extent it is my voice: it is honest and it is sometimes objectionable.  But it is the voice that needs to be heard, as much by the speaker as by the listener.  Anger, fear, racist bias all need a language that can clearly and successfully display the confusion that informs, unawares, so much of our behavior.

While nothing is ever as simple as it might appear to be within the confines of a single mind, several of the confusions of the people living in the geographical space called The United States of America seem to be based on a common cause: a person identified with the historical underclass has seriously stepped out of his place. 

It is easy to be magnanimous to one’s inferiors so long as they remain in an inferior position – even as that position might be defined away in fact.  The successes of the subservient races in the US have not contributed to too terribly much cognitive dissonance so long as the successes can be seen to be in the activities of service.

The Danny Glovers, Arthur Ashes, Bubba Smiths and Will Smiths are still the descendents of Stepin Fetchit (Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry); still the descendents of the house nigger.  The Angela Davises, Bobby Seales, Malcolm Xs and Martin Luther King Jr.s are out-lying criminals, nothing but run-aways mollycoddled by softheaded abolitionists and liberals.  The existence of Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, Paul Robeson and Alice Walker is either ignored or written off as sort of “monkey see monkey do” accidents – like “behind every successful man there is a good woman,” white superiority must be the nest within which the inferior races copy the skills of flight.

But Barack Obama cannot be ignored, cannot successfully be seen as Stepin Fetchit accidentally, or solely through criminal intrigue, tossed into the presidency – THE PRESIDENCY: the actual and undeniable ruling center of power.  The dissonance is overwhelming and, worse, the reverberations from that primary disturbance challenge how all of the underclass is seen: in the manner of dissonance, they are “elevated” as more inferior, more dangerous, more covetous, more immoral, more evil than they were when reliably, and entertainingly, subservient (Obama’s blackness comes directly from unrepentant Kenyan political and intellectual sources, for God’s sake – just how are we to make sense of that!).

The very most salient proof of “post-racism” in the US becomes the source of a new virulence of racism.  Clarence Thomas is OK as long as he can be seen as Scalia’s boy – no challenge there – but the hackles go up when a black man walks in and puts on the crown, not as the court jester, but as the King .  More than half of the white people in the US are not quite ready to marry off their daughter or their son to a black person even though ‘they are no longer racist;’ not being a racist in the south means that you don’t agree with lynching, that little black babies are cute and that just as long as the blacks remain subservient to white privilege they should have their own areas of town to do in as they wish – subject, of course, to the wishes of the white community.  Blacks are absolutely equal just so long as they know their place.

That there is a pathological character like George Zimmerman who would create a situation in which he could kill a young black man, evil as it is, is not the most disheartening part of this story.  From a sociological point of view a national pathology was re-exposed by this murder (exposed to the white world – the black world confronts the pathology everyday): millions of people have taken Zimmerman’s side; hundreds have sent him money for his legal defense. 

And yet there really isn’t any question about what happened: Zimmerman stalked the Martin boy, put himself in direct confrontation with Trayvon and shot him in the middle of the chest.  Only a twisted mind can make Zimmerman other than a, at least, tepid-blooded murderer; and it takes a yoga master twist of mind to make Trayvon Martin the criminal.  Still, a significant number of people in the white population have greedily taken on the fantasies spun by the likes of Hannity, Limbaugh, Zimmerman’s family and defense team and Fox News (sic).

Of course, this is not a post-racial society.  Racism had just been finding its level, was smoothing out the more obvious edges.  And racism was also slowly going away with all that that means to those who need it, not nearly so fast or so completely as has become the common political (self-serving) wisdom – voting rights still need protecting, affirmative action is still needed, inequity and failures of social justice are still rotting the core of the nation – but young people today show less prejudice on average; there is an increasing recognition that people of all races are worthy of full human standing.

What the election of Obama and the murder of Trayvon Martin point out, and are even related by, is that there is still the expectation that blacks will keep to their place – that they should know their place and when that expectation is violated, their rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness are all forfeit. 

When these issues are presented in the abstract, and in a social climate of decreasing overt racism, it is easy to present – and believe – a non-racist view. However, when presented with concrete reality: a daughter comes home with her black boyfriend, a black woman applies for a job in the front office, Obama is elected president, a white man kills a black young man in a high profile case that begs an opinion, the abstraction quickly melts away and the racism deep in the American experience is stirred and released in remarkably unattractive ways. 

I am suggesting here that the reaction to the murder of Trayvon Martin has been potentiated by the cognitive dissonance created in a large part of the society by the Obama presidency.  It is not the motivation of George Zimmerman that I am speaking of, but the disturbance of “good order” created in so many “good citizens.” The north may have won the military side of the war between the states, but the south seems to be winning The (un)Civil War – a war still being fought out on battlefields of human need and emotion that are largely unrealized or denied.

That a black man could be in a position of real and true power, that this black man is as intelligent, as capable and as worthwhile as any white man or woman – and that he should take on this superior position unapologetically – has just been too much for a large segment of the white population.  But there is nothing to be done but to endure the dissonance; to answer its distress with all the craziness we have seen from the tea party to congress.  And now comes the pathetic George Zimmerman, his clear and flagrant murder of a young black man who, in Obama’s own words, by appearance, would look like the president’s son if he had one.

So in this one event the pathology of a nation is crystallized.  The momentary relief of the dissonance comes in seeing Trayvon as a dangerous aggressor and Zimmerman as the victim just as many see themselves victimized by another black man who doesn’t know his place.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Zimmerman Jury

I'm no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in the jury system -- that is no ideal to me, it is a living, working reality. Gentlemen, a court is no better than each man of you sitting before me on this jury. A court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up. Harper Lee

“Clients tell us our involvement adds unique value to the trial team by reducing the uncertainty in jury selection.  We draw upon case-specific research and our experience in similar litigation to construct juror profiles and tools for eliciting bias.  Through well-constructed Supplemental Juror Questionnaires (SJQs) and voir dire questions, we help counsel draw out the attitudes and experiences that predispose jurors against our client, so that peremptory strikes can be exercised intelligently.  Our training as social scientists and experience interviewing thousands of mock and actual jurors gives us unique insight into what goes on behind closed doors in deliberations, and how to identify the most dangerous jurors.” Introductory statement from a jury selection firm website

I don’t want to write this piece; was hoping that someone would write about the forces working on the jury.  But, other than a piece by Bruce Jackson in Counterpunch, using a quote by Bill Kunstler dismissing what will soon be my argument, I have not found a discussion that absolves me of the responsibility.

Here is what I know about the Jury: 6 women (five called white and one called Hispanic), all from the Sanford area, anonymous now and wishing to remain anonymous in the future.  I assume that one or more them may be a mother.  I know that the jury asked for a listing of the evidence early in the deliberations and that later there was a question about the charge of manslaughter option; that they deliberated for about 16 hours.  The jury was sequestered for the duration of the trial.

The jury members were selected, at least in part, because they didn’t report having strong feelings about the case at hand or much detailed knowledge of the case.  I suspect that the defense wanted all women and that the prosecution didn’t fully appreciate the value of such a selection for the defense.

The key elements are: (1) that the jury members were from the Sanford area; (2) they were all women (my guess is that all were married, something that would have been important to the defense); (3) that they were sequestered; and (4) that there was no way for their anonymity to extend to family, friends and immediate community: their decision would be known to their communities, but their identities beyond their immediate communities would be less likely to be known, at least for a time.

The jurors, therefore, would not be making a decision in a vacuum of public opinion – with the blindfold of justice – but with the certainty that their decision would be answered for in their homes, schools, churches, jobs and grocery stores.  These women were not free agents; they had husbands, brothers, fathers, and uncles whose attitudes were there in the courtroom with them.  They had children to protect.

They were part of a community whose legal system would not have even questioned George Zimmerman beyond his initial story, much less charge him, except for “outside agitation.”  These women did not have to be racist in any way to behave with racism for self-protection.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

A Natural History of Patriotism

[As the country was going mad in 2002 – looking for someone or something to blame, to hurt, to mutilate as “we” felt we had been mutilated – I was trying to understand some of the forces that were motivating and directing this movement.  The following essay was first published in the OnLineJournal in October, 2002 which accounts for the several ‘out of date’ references.]

Conceit, arrogance and egotism are the essentials of patriotism…. Patriotism assumes that our globe is divided into little spots, each one surrounded by an iron gate (sic).  Those who had the fortune of being born on some particular spot, consider themselves better, nobler, grander, more intelligent than the living beings inhabiting any other spot.  It is, therefore, the duty of everyone living on that chosen spot to fight, kill, and die in the attempt to impose his superiority upon all the others.   Emma Goldman

The noblest motive is the public good  Virgil

Note: Patriotism, the word and its understanding, has been and is being used to influence complex behaviors: to motive self-sacrifice, to stifle dissent and to define the conditions of debate. Patriotism has been one of the best of human emotions and for that very reason is sought as a tool for the worst of purposes.

To properly understand what humans do today it is vital to understand that whatever we do has an origin in our origin. The relationships between evolutionary beginnings and present manifestation are complex and nonlinear. All of our human design today takes place in an environment so unlike the world in which and to which we evolved that much of what we do is "biological behavior looking for a means of effective expression." This leads, in varying degrees, to a constant state of maladaptation and disorder. Our increasing population, separation from the natural world and technological subtlety and power exacerbate our disconnection from biological expression (there is a world of argument here, but for other times and places).

Arbitrary cultural conditions have taken the place of landscape, climate and ecology as our forming and guiding principles.  Life on this planet has always been organized by those aspects of the planetary surface that integrate all of the forces of the universe in this place. We must understand human culture in this context, not assume that we and our ways are independent of those forces.

If we examine patriotism from this perspective, there are three directions from which to approach an understanding: (1) present uses and designs, (2) the recent period of written history or (3) ‘eternal’ natural history as it flows out of the evolution of the species. It is the last that I find ultimately sensible.  The first two seem to me inherently misleading, beginning as they do either at the final result or halfway there.

Patriotism might be thought of as ‘love of country’ ("love and loyal or zealous support of one's country," Webster's New World College Dictionary), but not so many years ago in human life there were no countries. We could talk of love of village or, earlier, love of family group. Did the patriotism of today form as a new human ability when the collections of people and the space occupied became large? Or did basic human sensations and behaviors, evolved to function in the family groups of our origin, become applied to the larger collection, but receiving a new name for feelings that were, in fact, the same as those that occur in any display of loyalty and selflessness? Certainly inherent in the concept of patriotism is selflessness -- giving up of personal interest for the benefit of some larger entity than self.

I believe that the feelings that we call patriotism originally derived from the close and personal affections and associations that the person had with the people in the community and with the land that sustained them. A person with such strong associations is the natural patriot, knowing and acting with powerful intuitions of selflessness and sacrifice for the protection of community and region. Such feelings can be easily seen as useful evolutionary products sustaining communities that display them in appropriate proportions.

If we jump to the present, how do we explain such original patriotism resolving into the form that we see functioning now? In the above case everyone was affected by group feeling:, commoner, leader, shaman, etc., all felt and acted out similar feelings: selflessness, sacrifice, group good; the living struggled for the unborn future in ways that were generally understood as necessary.

Today we are still the same creature with the same capacities for feelings and intuitions, but community has changed; region is no longer the intimately known “homeland.” Both community and place have become abstract. We say ‘love of country:’ how does that relate to love of known people and lived-in place? What is the process that substitutes the abstract experience, that there are millions of unknown people and vast unseen unappreciated places, for the intimate experience of community and place?

The immediate experience of one's fellows and home-place automatically (biologically) attaches feelings of belonging and protection.  What is it that creates these feelings in the form that is called patriotism when there is no immediacy of experience? What is the form of experience that serves this function? Clearly our knowledge of such attachment has become secondary, coming from other than primary sources – human abstractions intervene as intermediaries in this experience.  We are taught in school and by the designs of other institutions. We are taught to believe things that benefit others and not ourselves.

This accounts for the two major competing views of patriotism: (1) as a natural appropriate and even expected attachment to one's place and people, and (2) as an irrational exuberance for arbitrary and even false qualities associated with one's place.  These two views can combine into an expected (required) exuberance for what are essentially unsupported qualities of one's place and people – one’s country.

The design of the present world virtually requires that the natural human attachment to place be subverted by increasingly complex human needs. By substituting artifactual experience for primary experience the quality of patriotism (and other human behaviors) becomes determined by human manufactured and ultimately arbitrary experience. When “patriotism” is taught as a secondary experience, the ‘teacher’ is not commonly going to teach beliefs that benefit the student to the dis-benefit the teacher.

Whenever humans serve as intermediaries they color events by both their level of understanding and their perceptions of their own needs. We have so come to expect that humans will mediate all experience that we have lost the last of the sense of connection and trust in primary experience. That which is essentially informing of our very basis is wholly ignored. Left with only human mediated experience we are completely adrift, pushed by the currents and winds of our increasing numbers, technological products, mental and emotional adjustments and maladjustments, all squeezed through the narrow nozzle of immediate need to act.

Patriotism seen in this way is not love of or attachment to family group or country, but is a pattern of expected behaviors that differ for different orders of people based in their place in society. This "patriotism" uses the biological foundations of love and attachment, but is only weakly based in them. Today, expectation of others, group process and pressure and ultimately the dangers of group disaffection underlie most attitudes, patriotism among them. The invocation of patriotism is now always a tool of the elite; ‘us against them’, ‘for me or against me’, ‘my way or the highway’ are its forms.

The co-option of patriotism by a political, economic elite is class based. The patriotism of the lower classes is expected to be different from that of the middle and the upper classes; is taught and reinforced in different ways. It is patriotic for the poor boy to do as he is told, to work at a job, go into battle, to be maimed or die for his country. It is patriotic for the upper class businessman to modify production to make war material, if such production can be made to pay a profit, i.e., the upper classes are not asked to take lower wages, live more frugally or send their children in harm's way for the good of their country. Some do, but most do not.

Patriotism has become a collection of specific beliefs associative with times, places and social classes. This “practical patriotism” has become, not love of country, but shortsighted acceptance of the pronouncements of titled leaders (titles like president, senator, general, CEO, etc.).  Communism was bad!  Saying so was patriotic. Asking why communism was bad and questioning the often poorly formed answers was unpatriotic. Saddam Hussein was good in 1986; saying so was patriotic. Saddam Hussein was bad in 1991; saying so was patriotic.  Pointing out that he was the same in 1986 as in 1991 was unpatriotic. Avoiding a military draft for the lower and most middle classes was unpatriotic. Avoiding the military draft for the upper classes was clever and accepted as appropriate -- not unpatriotic. The simple ‘love of country’ that would result in a demand for truth or for explanation of consequences would be called unpatriotic, especially if the results were inconvenient for elites.

It is patriotic to support the views of the elite and unpatriotic to question those views.  Like any behavior or concept that has lost its original defining conditions, it's meaning is only what we agree to call it. What was patriotism yesterday is treason today and vice versa. What we call patriotism in another person, we may call treason for ourselves.  Who has made selfless acts of love of country: Scott Ritter or Dick Cheney?  Sen. McDermott or Sen. Daschle?  George Monbiot or Ari Fleischer?  David Berrigan or J. Edgar Hoover?  How do we decide?

Let us understand that there was once love of people and place naturally arrived at in the process of living. We still have those slots to be filled in our human design, but in today's world the normal mechanisms that attain true and natural patriotism have been destroyed by our numbers, complexities and disturbed relations, though we are still motivated by such feelings -- today, manipulated would be better term. So, we must stand back and gather perspective before we dedicate our action to any cause, rejecting patriotism in all its present guises, no matter how unnatural this is for such a passionate animal. In so doing there is some chance of true patriotism, real love of people and place selflessly expressed. And perhaps there will be a struggle for the unborn future worth feeling a pride of patriotism, formed from the depths of human spirit, fighting for all of life and a whole world for it to live in.

Addendum (2008):

The narrowness of the human ability to identify with others and to care about place will always be a danger. We will not overcome that danger by rejecting its natural human origins the way that we have attempted to reject our biological nature because our animalness is inconvenient.  We will either learn to see all of life and all of this planet as our community and place or we are ultimately doomed.

Patriotism has come to mean that certain classes of people are not to question information from their betters and not to act in their own interest, while those ‘betters’ act with as clear a perception as possible in their own interest.  In fact, if the greatest number were to recognize, as a group, and act in their own larger interest much of the power, influence and wealth currently associated with the elite would be used equitably for the many, and much of the social program stipulated by that elite would be seen as disadvantageous to the many.  It is only the state of confusion, in which patriotism plays a part, about what is in their best interest that prevents the many from having the clear power to control their own world. Elites do communicate, organize and act collectively. The many, simply because they are many, do this far less well.

Commonly called patriotism, the positive feelings of longing and the negative feelings of disintegration are very strong in many people, so strong that otherwise honest good people join racist organizations, support genocidal wars and act to suppress their neighbors in response to those feelings.