Growing Demons in the Garden (#poem)

They hate him but everyday say his name.trump rally

The insults and mocking are more powerful

Than the most potent growth hormones.

As he grows, he bellows, drawing

Minion demons near, frightening the herd.

Luckily, it seems, the demons are weak

And easily defeated, but each

Lopped off head seems to summon

Ten, 100, or 1000 more automata

Bringing the battle to their betters.

Perhaps someone should have built a wall.

Perhaps someone should have built an entire house.

While flailing at a dust devil in the desert,

The hordes, who previously had little to do,

Were stirred to action—to destruction.

Perhaps it is time to turn away from spectacle

And focus on preservation or even flourishing.

The jokes have grown repetitive, anyway,

And the audience is weary of laughing desperation.

Just say you want to do good, you know what is good,

And you love the others.

Set your shoulder to the stone,

Dig in your heels,

And push.

If Sisyphus can do it,

I’m sure you will be at the crest soon.

Why I Am Not Your Ally

In response to injustice against members of various communities, those affected rise up, thank goodness, against the injustice accompanied by their allies from outside the community. Thus, the black community has white allies, the gay community has straight allies, women have male allies, and so on. I want to join all these communities in the struggle for justice, but I’ve never felt any connection with the word “ally.” Perhaps I over think things (I’ve certainly been told I do), and I can see why some people would see an “alliance” as a good thing, but I really think the idea of an ally preserves the concept of division and otherness.

The source of most oppression comes from this concept of otherness. Simone de Beauvoir told us, “No group ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over against itself.” Thus, she says, “In small-town eyes all persons not belonging to the village are ‘strangers’ and suspect; to the native of a country all who inhabit other countries are ‘foreigners’; Jews are ‘different’ for the anti-Semite, Negroes are ‘inferior’ for American racists, aborigines are ‘natives’ for colonists, proletarians are the ‘lower class’ for the privileged.” It is the distinction between One and Other that is the source of the problem. If the One becomes an advocate for the Other, does this change the balance of power? I argue that it does not. The ally speaks from a position of power on behalf of the less fortunate, often with the expectation that the weaker party will feel and exhibit an overflowing gratitude. At least, that is how it feels to me.

All the same, we can’t ignore our differences from others. It is important to preserve cultural distinctions, for example. Only the Deaf community fully understands the special problems faced by deaf people. Only the Native American community can understand injustices against Native Americans. And so on. What unites us in our struggle, though, is that we all are able to understand what injustice is. Those of us who are outraged, disgusted, and revolted by injustice, will react with those feelings every time we see it, regardless of the specific circumstances or characteristics of the victim. At least this is what I hope. When I react to injustice, I don’t do it because I feel someone deserves my sympathy or respect. I do it because I am offended by injustice. The specific qualities of the victim are not the source of my outrage.

This isn’t to say the specific qualities of the victim are not relevant, especially regarding discussions of how to understand and address the injustice. We need to have conversations so that we can understand each other. As Kwame Athony Appiah put it in his book, Cosmopolitanism, “We take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance.” We must also understand the experiences of others. Through conversation, stories, art, music and language we can share experiences and enhance our ability to imagine the lives of others. By understanding the experiences of others, we are better able to understand that their experiences are morally inexcusable.

Affirming justice requires us to see the common humanity we have with others. Those who harbor feelings of innate superiority are easily enticed to barbarous behavior. David Hume notes that Europeans had such feelings of superiority over natives in America that it “made us throw off all restraints of justice, and even humanity, in our treatment of them.” He goes on to describe similar treatment of women, owing to the fact that men “have in all countries bodily force sufficient to maintain this severe tyranny.” Those who are able to disregard the humanity of others and have the power to force them in to submission feel entitled to exercise their power. It is my contention that the person who does not carry feelings of entitlement will be sickened by the abuse of others. When we recognize our shared experiences with others, feelings of entitlement dissolve. When we feel an innate superiority, entitlement is cemented in our psyche.

The people who are most able to recognize their common humanity are those who have experienced injustice or at least recognized the possibility that they might. I don’t mean those threatened by the loss of their own power or privilege but those who recognize that we are all inferior in someone else’s eyes. The rage against injustice against other races or citizens in other countries is a rage against injustice that could befall anyone at any time. Often marginalized and oppressed groups recognize the oppression of other groups before the privileged can see. Declaring that someone is privileged, however, has its own hazards. A person’s oppression may not be readily apparent on his or her face or skin or other aspects of personal appearance. Religious, sexual, gender, and cultural differences are not always visible on the skin, but these differences often lead to extreme oppression and violence.

Occasionally, people are unable, flawed as we all are, to recognize their common humanity allieseven with those with whom they have no discernible differences. Consider the bitter conflict between the Hutu and the Tutsi in Rwanda. In a 1996 interview with Charlayne Hunter Gault, Professor George Izangola described the lack of differences between the two groups: “In Rwanda, the Tutsi and the Hutu are the same people. They are all people–large grouping or communities which go from seven regions of Cameroon to Uganda–all the way to South Africa, in the same culture. People used to be Tutsi or Hutu, depending on the proximity to the king. If you were close to the king, you owned wealth, you owned a lot of cattle, you are a Tutsi. If you are far away from the king, you are a cultivator, you don’t own much cattle, you are a Hutu.” (I’ve taken this quote from PBS here.)

If some of us can deny the humanity of those who look almost exactly like us, then “otherness” is a phenomenon that goes beyond race and gender. We either recognize that we are part of humanity or we do not. One way leads to freedom and the other to fascism. In “The Ethics of Ambiguity,” Simone de Beauvoir declares that we are each in a subjective struggle for freedom but that we are defined in our relationship to others. Our struggle for our freedom entails a will for the freedom of others. She says the activist “exists only by transcending himself, and his freedom can be achieved only through the freedom of others. He justifies his existence by a movement which, like freedom, springs from his heart but which leads outside of him.”

For Beauvoir’s activist, the constant push for freedom is a push for humanity. In this sense, an injustice anywhere is, indeed, a threat to justice everywhere, as the saying goes. The existence of injustice itself destroys the condition of freedom. Resistance is, she says, the annihilation of injustice. In an apparent paradox, I struggle alone but alongside and in relation to others. As your struggle is yours alone, my struggle is mine alone. Rather than acting as an ally seeking justice on your behalf, we must work together to secure freedom on our own account, which requires freedom for all.

Nussbaum and Rand on the Politics of Love

I’m currently reading Martha Nussbaum’s Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice. Love is an important focus of the book, but it is certainly not the only emotion that Nussbaum considers important to a minimally decent society. Still, love (and its relevant associate, compassion) is an integral part of a stable and humane democratic society.

English: Photograph of Martha C. Nussbaum take...

Nussbaum suggests that it is entirely appropriate for governments to encourage the development of political emotions that are absolutely necessary for a functioning society. Of course, totalitarian, repressive regimes often rise to power on waves of extreme patriotism coupled with xenophobia and violent anger. This is a risk of the state cultivating emotions, but it is also likely that inappropriate emotions arise because we shirk our duty to cultivate the correct emotions. Who decides which emotions are correct? Why, we political liberals, of course. Nussbaum is more optimistic than I about the ability to create a state that will encourage the appropriate arts and literature to cultivate emotions that will engender empathy and promote democratic feeling. Still, we are obligated to make every effort to counter those who would work to destroy both compassion and democracy.

Nussbaum recognizes the potential for paradox in her claim, but she defends her position with depth and detail. The fact that I agree with both her goals and method make it quite easy for me to follow along and hope, against all odds, that is possible to create a more decent society than what I currently see around me, even if I feel we must go it alone without the full support of government.

Ayn Rand

But all this talk of love got me thinking of Ayn Rand, of course, as many things these days get me thinking of Ayn Rand. She said that we should be selfish and never sacrifice ourselves to others. In contrast, many of us have foolishly believed that to love someone was, in fact, to be willing to sacrifice ourselves for his or her well-being. On this point, I think Ayn Rand was able to explain herself quite clearly. When asked whether we shouldn’t be selfless in our romantic relationships, she said,

When you are in love, it means that the person you love is of great personal, selfish importance to you and to your life. If you were selfless, it would have to mean that you derive no personal pleasure or happiness from the company and the existence of the person you love, and that you are motivated only by self-sacrificial pity for that person’s need of you.

She makes a good point. We sacrifice for those we love because we value them so much that their loss is a personal loss to us, and their suffering is a suffering we share. We do not love out of duty; we love for the pleasure it brings us.

For Rand, altruistic concern for strangers entails a denial of self-satisfaction and an indenture to others. By living for the needs of others, we deny our responsibility to determine and seek our own needs. It does not occur to Rand, as it does to Nussbaum, that is possible to value other humans with a love that extends beyond our realm of personal contact. It is possible that I want to preserve the lives of strangers thousands of miles away because I value them, even if abstractly, to the point that their suffering causes me suffering.

I don’t want to live in a world where millions of people starve to death each year, and I do not believe they are starving because of the poor choices they have made. I believe they are starving because of structural economic violence against them. In many cases, the world’s resources have been stolen by brute force (did farmers and fishers in Africa foolishly give their land to oil companies?). Poverty, addiction, and disease are largely a result of violence against people who are not recognized as being fully human, fully deserving of respect.

We don’t have to accept this reality. As Nussbaum says, “We should surely not assume that the form emotions take in the corporate culture of the United States reveals a universal and timeless truth about how things must be.” No, we can work to ensure that our moral imagination can perceive other human beings as beings worthy of respect, dignity, and, yes, love. If we seek to respect ourselves, we must demand respect for all.

Love is possible.