The Kantian Rationale for Voting

Why We Vote and Why We Don't, part 2

As discussed in part 1, from a consequentialist point of view, the rationale for voting is very weak. We turn now to the other major school of ethical theory: deontology, most notably the ethical thought of Immanuel Kant.

It boils down to: Ask yourself, what if everybody did that? If you wouldn’t like the result of everyone doing that sort of action, then you shouldn’t do it. You wouldn’t want to live in a world in which everyone lied, cheated, or stole, so you shouldn’t lie, cheat, or steal. The way Kant put it was:
“So act that the maxim of your action can be willed a universal law for all.”
A Kantian rationale for voting might look attractive: we ask, what if everyone did that? What if everyone were to stay home and not vote? The results would be disastrous. Therefore, we have a duty to vote.

But consider the parallel argument: "What if no one was a farmer? We’d all starve!"

Just because we need some people to do a thing doesn’t mean that we need everyone to do that thing.

Here’s an idea that might have occurred to you. However you reason about your situation, there are several thousand or several million others who are in basically your position and will reason the same way. So if you decide to vote, then all those other people, basically like you, will make the same decision. So, you’re not just deciding for you. Let’s explore that.

A striking example of this line of reasoning is described in Milton Mayer's 1955 book, They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45. The book includes the story of one German who is rueful about insufficiently resisting the Nazis in 1935. The man declares flatly:
"The world was lost one day in 1935, here in Germany, and it was I who lost it."
The man tells how, in 1935, Germany adopted the National Defense Law. The man was employed in a defense plant at the time, and the new law required him to take an oath of fidelity. The man opposed it in conscience, was given 24 hours to think it over, and, in those 24 hours, changed his mind. He took the oath of fidelity to the Nazis -- and, in so doing, he recounts years later, "I lost the world."

There was certainly coercive pressure. Had he not taken the oath he'd have lost his job. He would also, he knew, have been blackballed from subsequent employment. He could have left the country and found work elsewhere, but he rationalized that he might be able to help some people from "within" -- whereas leaving the country would make him powerless to help any friends in trouble. How did the oath of one defense-plant employee "lose the world"? The man explains:
"There I was, in 1935, a perfect example of the kind of person who, with all his advantages of birth, in education, and position, rules (or might easily rule) in any country. If I had refused to take the oath in 1935, it would have meant that thousands and thousands like me, all over Germany, were refusing to take it. Their refusal would have heartened millions. Thus the regime would have been overthrown, or indeed, would never have come to power in the first place. The fact that I was not prepared to resist, in 1935, meant that all the thousands, hundreds of thousands, like me in Germany were also unprepared,... If my faith had been strong enough in 1935, I could have prevented the whole evil."
I appreciate the man’s remorse. There’s something admirable about his willingness to take on the whole responsibility for Nazism. But it’s just not true.

The day I decided to become vegetarian was not a day -- or even a decade -- that hundreds of thousands of demographically, economically, and educationally similar people also decided to become vegetarian. It's one thing to test the ethics of an action by asking yourself "what if everyone did that?" -- but it's quite a jump from there to expecting that somehow any sizable number of people actually will do whatever you decide to do.

If I enter my voting booth and have a spontaneous impulse to change my mind from the major party candidate I had been planning to vote for and instead vote for a minor party candidate who has been polling at about 2 percent, that candidate will still finish with about 2 percent of the vote. In fact, I did that once – back in the ‘80s – and the result was: nothing. The spontaneous impulse I had was also had by, to all appearances, no one else.

Moral decisions made in individual isolation are, unsurprisingly, individual and isolated. On the other hand, moral decisions that lead to organizing and building a movement, and pouring a lot of energy into persuading others – that’s something very different. But it's a Kantian fantasy to think that thousands of other people will reach a given conclusion if and only if you do. It's true that thousands of other people will reason the way that you do. But this doesn't mean your reasoning caused theirs -- or that if you change yours, then they will change theirs. To hold that one should vote because millions or at least thousands will reach the same decision simply by you deciding it by yourself is to indulge in Kantian fantasy.

Neither Kantian ethics nor consequentialism provide us with a reason to take the trouble to vote. If ethical argument were all it takes, then increasing voter participation would be easy, and ethical arguments look so tempting because they offer an easy way. But it’s the hard way that will work.

When non-voters are asked why they don’t vote, they usually say something like their vote doesn’t matter: the system is corrupt, or rigged, or won’t make a difference. If the standard for my vote mattering is: the candidate I vote for will win if I vote for them and won’t if I don’t, then these nonvoters are surely right: my vote doesn’t matter.

There was an NPR piece a couple months ago interviewing nonvoters about why they didn’t vote. Buried three-fourths into the 7-minute segment, we hear one interviewee saying that his vote doesn’t matter because in his district or state the race isn’t close. Then the reporter says:
"He told me the one and only time he voted was in 2008 for Barack Obama. He said he wanted to be part of history. But this idea that his vote doesn't matter because of the political leanings of the state he lives in is something we see across the country.”
And I thought: wait a minute! You buried the lede. There’s your story: He wanted to be a part of history.

People don’t vote to make a difference. A single vote didn't make any more difference in 2008 than it has any election since -- but when it meant joining a larger context of meaning, that’s the one and only time that guy voted.

We vote to be a part of something. In this guy’s case it was to be a part of history. For those of us who vote regularly, it need not be historic, but we do it because we see ourselves as part of something bigger than ourselves. We are a part of the body politic, and this means something to us.

I add meaning to my life by placing it in the context of something larger called “the people.” Voting is an act of social-spiritual connection.

This makes sense of why it is that nonvoters tend to be poorer, younger, and people of color. These are people who would naturally have a harder time feeling a part of the larger systems that constitute the body politic. As I listened to the NPR story, what I heard nonvoters expressing was that they don't feel connected to their fellow citizens in one big decision-making body. Without that connection, voting is only about, "Will it make a difference?" And it won't.

But when you do feel that connection, voting is not about, "Will it make a difference?" It's about participating in action that affirms, enacts, and embodies connection. Voting is an expression and affirmation of belongingness, of being a part of something bigger than ourselves.

When we don't feel belonging, we're a lot less likely to vote. Kantian fantasies will not persuade nonvoters to vote. They see right through that. If we want more people to vote, we have to think about what would help them feel they belong and are connected in meaningful community with their fellow citizens. Disenfranchised literally means not having the vote – but it’s no coincidence that the synonyms of “disenfranchised” also include powerless, passive, disconnected.

When people feel powerless – feel like the system, the people around them, don’t care about them – then they don’t feel they belong, and when they don’t feel belonging, of course they don’t vote.

That’s no easy thing to fix. We could change the laws and make it easier for people to vote, but that’s not going to do much to facilitate belonging.

The task of creating belonging and a sense of community is our task – not for Tuesday but for the rest of our lives. LaTosha Brown and Cliff Albright of Black Voters Matter describe how they do it. You’ll notice that the example I started with was a face-to-face conversation. Community building is a face-to-face enterprise. People who don’t see your eyes don’t see their belonging.

Brown and Albright have six other points of advice.
  1. Don’t parachute in. Connect with local leaders, develop local partnerships, work through the structures that are there. To build community, you find the community that’s there and build on it.
  2. “Let the local people lead. Ask people what they care about and what their community needs.” Listening. As David Oxberg says in this month’s issue of On the Journey, “Being listened to is so close to being loved that most people cannot tell the difference.” Listening creates belongingness.
  3. Focus on the primaries. “You can’t just show up in September or October. You have to get your hands dirty in local primaries, which happen much earlier in the year. It’s not sexy work, and the rest of the country isn’t paying attention. But the primary is often what matters most.”
  4. Don’t pack your bags after the race is over. If it’s really about belongingness, then it obviously got to be about not abandoning – not treating people as instrumentalities for your electoral purposes.
  5. Embrace difficult conversations. “We never try to convince people they’re wrong or shame them. That doesn’t work. We listen and validate their feelings. We even admit that sometimes we don’t feel like voting. “
  6. Know the culture. If it’s our tendency – and it is our tendency – to minimize cultural differences, then it’s going to be hard to being open to truly adapting to real cultural differences. So improving our own intercultural sensitivity and competency is part of the picture.
It’s a lot to bite off, but building belongingness – not just as it relates to voting – is our Unitarian Universalist mission. It’s what we’re here for.

As a first step to thinking about the belongingness that would lead others to vote, let me invite you to reflect on why you vote. You can drop the pretense that your one vote makes a difference. You vote because you belong. Take a moment to reflect on that when you’re in the booth on Tuesday.

A vote is a prayer. I vote, as I pray, as a way of expressing to myself the values I want to live by, of reminding myself of the gratitudes that ground me and the hopes that direct me. Prayers and votes don’t affect God or the world, except insofar as they affect me. They change me. And my life, in myriad ways, then changes the world.

So I invite you cast your ballot bread crumb upon the waters.
You alone cause no one’s victory or defeat,
but you join with something larger that does.
You participate in the infinity of history,
Lifted out of yourself into the shared soul of
100 million voters,
7.6 billion humans on the planet,
all life that ever was or ever will be.
World without end amen.

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This is part 2 of 2 of "Why We Vote and Why We Don't"
See also
Part 1: The Consequentialist Rationale for Voting


The Consequentialist Rationale for Voting

Why We Vote and Why We Don't, part 1

In 2008 I was living in Gainesville, Florida. On Tue Nov 4 that year, I went to my local precinct and voted. When I came home, I wrote this poem that expresses the growing sense I have had of the sacred act of prayer that we call voting.
November Tuesday

It felt like church: sacred, moving.
Gathering at the temple/precinct with my neighbors
I say hello to the greeter, am known, identified.
I receive my order of service, the ovals to fill in.
My neighbors and I come here because we, the people, have work to do.
This is our liturgy, “the work of the people.”

Many of us have studied the scripture
The lectionary prescribes:
Press articles, candidate records and statements.
We are ready for worship.

I go into the confessional booth and pray.
Before I pick up the felt-tip marker,
I bring my palms together,
take a moment,
feel the touch of god.

I am aware of my expansive vastness,
My tiny smallness,
And the sacrament before me,
this paper wafer transubstantiated body politic of christ,
this marker-ink wine, the black blood of the people, chosen, choosing.

I know the math.
The chance I’ll die in a traffic accident driving to the polls
is hundreds of times greater
than the chance any candidate I vote for will win by one vote.
Determining an outcome cannot be the reason to take this communion.
A vote is a prayer, and changes things the same way:
by changing the one who makes it.

I cast my ballot bread crumb upon the waters,
Causing no one’s victory or defeat,
Joining with something larger,
Participating in the infinity of history,
Lifted out of myself into the shared soul of
113 million voters,
7.6 billion humans on the planet,
all life that ever was or ever will be.
World without end amen.
How do we get more people to vote? Do you really want to know? There is a way, but it isn’t easy. LaTosha Brown and Cliff Albright are co-founders of the Black Voters Matter Fund. They’ve seen success in turning nonvoters into voters. They write:
"This summer, we chatted with a nursing assistant at a restaurant in Americus, Ga., who had just decided to sit out the midterms. We asked her a few questions and learned that some of her family members didn’t have good access to health care. One even had to drive some 100 miles to get to the nearest hospital; eight rural hospitals have closed in Georgia since 2008, more than in any other state except Texas and Tennessee. We asked her, 'Do you know what’s happening with Medicaid?' She didn’t. So we explained that if Georgia followed the more than 30 states that have expanded Medicaid, rural hospitals could stay open and it could create thousands of new health care jobs. Her face lit up. She walked across the street to our bus and filled out a voter registration form. And she persuaded her friend to do the same."
They have a model and an approach that is one version of what we’re going to have to do to increase voting rates. It’s not an approach that we could start on today and make any difference in Tuesday’s turn-out.

For Tuesday, there’s still time to sign up for phone banks, and groups that are organizing rides to the polls. And if you’re going to be doing those things, bless you, bless you.

There’s also the task of removing barriers to voting. "Hundreds of thousands of nonvoters want to vote, but can't." (NPR) Restrictive voter ID laws, registration difficulties, or ineligibility due to a criminal record are true and real problems. We could work for removing those specific legal barriers. Let felons and ex-felons vote. Allow on-site, day of voting registration. Expand early voting opportunities -- ultimately we could have election MONTH instead of election DAY, with polls open 24 hours a day for 30 days. Once the dust settles from Tuesday’s elections, we face the task of implementing those changes.

But there’s still a deeper issue. A lot of nonvoters just don’t want to vote – and that’s where the long slow work in various forms comes in. LaTosha Brown and Cliff Albright’s organization is one good example, and there are others. It’s the work of building belonging and community.

First, let’s look some of the usual arguments about why people should vote, and why those arguments fail. The truth is, they’re lousy arguments. The great ethical theories fail to provide a compelling argument in favor of voting.

Take, first, consequentialism. Consequentialism says: estimate what the consequences of your action would be. An act is good if it produces good results – or could reasonably be expected to probably produce good results.

The consequentialist has a hard time justifying voting. The opportunity costs alone would seem to make it not worth it. The time it takes to go to and the polling place, wait in line – which might be a long line – and finally fill out and cast your ballot – not to mention the time spent familiarizing yourself with the issues and the candidates – all of this takes time that you could have spent earning money -- or volunteering at a soup kitchen – or playing video games. The chances that any candidate you vote for will win by exactly one vote are vanishingly small. More good would come from spending that time doing anything that produced any good at all.

Sometimes people say they vote for the sake of the winner’s mandate – either to improve the mandate of the one they vote for, or diminish the mandate of the candidate they don’t like. But the odds of one vote having any effect at all on the mandate are as vanishingly small as the chances of one vote determining the outcome. Plus: studies by political scientists find that a winning candidate’s ability to get things done is not affected by how large or small margin of victory is. The mandate argument doesn’t wash.

From a consequentialist point of view, the rationale for voting is very weak.

Next: Kantian Ethics

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This is part 1 of 2 of "Why We Vote and Why We Don't"
See next: The Kantian Rationale for Voting
Images from Shutterstock, free version by permission


Anger's Sacred Place

Holy Anger, part 3

It was hard for me to learn that anger can be expressed without being indulged, and that it can be an important, healthy thing. Hard as it was for me, how much harder must it have been for Yency – the Honduran young man that LoraKim and I adopted 14 years ago when he was 17. Yency grew up with an abusive father. All he ever saw of anger was his father’s rage in which people were going to get hit – often his mom, often him, as when he would step in to protect his mom.

In 2011, Yency, then age 24, was sworn in as US citizen. I was at the ceremony. I was so proud. The next day I drove him down to the voter registrar. This was Florida, so they hide it. But after some searching, we found the address tucked down a recess between buildings.

A couple weeks later, a letter arrived for Yency. He shared it with me. It was a letter from the voter registrar saying his registration hadn’t gone through, and would he provide further documentation. I know that every time you impose one extra step in the process, then a certain percentage of people won’t do that step. Imposing additional steps and requirements and inconveniences on target populations succeeds in reducing the voting representation of those populations. Anger started leaning on my doorbell. "Come on in, Anger," I said to my inner anger. (My Inner Anger is -- as probably many people's is -- voiced by Lewis Black, who was the voice of the Anger character in Pixar's "Inside Out.")

To Yency, I said, “Oh, I’m having some anger about this.” I guess I’d never said that in his hearing before. He stared at me and looked a little scared. He’d only had experience with one form of adult male anger, and it wasn’t pleasant.

But as I went on to express to him, in measured tones, what it was about this that made me angry, and the steps we could take, I could see him being to relax.

Finally, he said, “I’ve never seen that” – meaning, essentially, that he’d never seen anger that was neither repressed nor indulged.

Hard as it was for me to learn to have anger without either indulging or repressing it, how much harder must it be for Yency.

Yency was already 17 when he came to us, so I wonder sometimes whether we did much for him beyond the material help of room and board, and some caring encouragement. But I’ll always remember that moment as among the most hopeful. By some grace, a better way of relating to anger showed itself in me that day. And by some grace, he saw it. To imagine that somehow through me another human being kinda, partly saw a way to relate to anger as part of a full human life, that anger doesn’t have to be wrong and repressed and exiled, that there is a way for anger to take its sacred place in the fullness of our humanity – well, it almost makes me feel my work on this planet is complete. Almost.

Fourth, remember: understanding is a good thing. One very typical thing for the voice of anger to say is, “I just don’t understand how . . .” And that’s a clue that we, in fact, don’t understand – and a reminder to see if we can understand. Anger, for all the gift that it is, makes understanding harder.

Anger distorts our view of other people. That fight-or-flight response gears up our body, and in the process it shuts down the cognitive processes of empathy. This makes sense. When a snarling wolf pack had one of our ancestors surrounded, that wasn't the time to try to see things from the wolves' point of view. The only chance for escaping that mess was to shut down empathy and fight for one's life.

But in human relations, when the threat isn’t direct and immediate, it’s helpful to try to understand the other side, to see things from their point of view. Anger makes that harder.

Moreover, if understanding does manage to break through, then it's hard to maintain the anger. If you’re walking down the sidewalk and someone bumps into you, you might get a flash of anger, and spin around, as any New Yorker would, and angrily exclaim, “Hey, I’m walkin’ here.” Suppose you then see the white cane in the hand of the person who bumped into you. Understanding floods in, and the anger washes out.

So that next day, Yency and I were back down at the voter registrar. The man there was very nice. We found out what had happened. Yency's full name is "Yencis Elijardi Canaca Contreras." He got the "Canaca" from one parent and the "Contreras" from the other. Back in Honduras, his surname is regarded as "Canaca Contreras." He's been dropping the "Canaca" ever since he got to the US. Still, the "Canaca" was on his driver's license, and he didn't write it on the voter registration form he filled out. So they just needed to confirm and clarify. In less than five minutes, a voter registration card was printed out for him on the spot. I understood, and my anger cleared up.

Anger is a gift. Watch out for indulging it. Watch out for repressing it. And remember: understanding, when it's possible, is often preferable.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Holy Anger"
See also: Part 1: Male Anger Won the Day
Part 2: Anger is a Gift
Images from Shutterstock, free version by permission


Anger is a Gift

Holy Anger, part 2

So – my brothers who are accustomed to using anger to assert and reinforce your power, and my sisters who are newly claiming the power of anger – some things that might be worth keeping in mind.

First, anger is a gift. Anger arises when we feel an injustice. Whether the injustice is that your spouse keeps leaving dirty dishes around under the apparent assumption that you’ll take care of them, or a social systemic injustice against a whole class of people, we get mad. And that anger is the energy to confront and correct the injustice.

Rosa Parks used her anger to bring change. Forget the story you might have heard that she decided not to give up her seat on the bus because she happened to be tired that day. Rosa Parks was angry about the way blacks and women were treated and she used that anger to fuel a life of anti-racist, anti-sexist activism. Her action of staying in her seat was planned, and came out of conversations with organizing groups, as a strategy for getting arrested and having a case to take to court to challenge segregation laws – and for catalyzing what would become the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Before that, the anger of the suffragists fueled the drive that got women the right to vote. It took 72 years from the 1848 Seneca Falls convention to the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment. That’s a lot of energy to sustain a drive – keep it going almost three generations – and anger helped fuel that.

Holy anger is the righteous anger to confront power and push it in the direction of justice. It is the anger of the prophet Amos, when he reproves the powers of Israel:
“because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain,...you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate....Hate evil and love good and establish justice in the gate....I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them;...But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Anger is a gift. It arises when we feel an injustice, and gives us the energy to confront and correct the injustice.

Second, watch out for indulging anger. It is not productive but destructive when anger is used as an excuse for abuse, verbal or physical. You might hear: “I was just so angry I couldn’t help myself, and I hit her.” The answer to be very clear on is: No. Anger does not excuse violence. Had there been a police officer standing right there you wouldn’t have hit, even if your anger level was the same, so whatever you need to do to summon an inner officer of the law, that’s what you need to do. I’ll help you in what ways I can, or a counselor can help, but it’s ultimately your responsibility to choose what to do with anger.” Verbal or physical abuse is one form of indulging anger. We indulge anger when we let it be destructive rather than channeling that energy of righteous indignation into action for justice.

Sometimes we can get to a point where some part of us actually enjoys the sensation of anger – and we indulge it just because we like feeling righteous, but we don’t do anything about it.

If we’re getting angry about wrongdoing, but aren’t taking action -- if we just talk and think about how angry we are, how bad people on the other side are – if we only repost slogans on social media, getting angrier and angrier – that’s also a form of indulging anger. It stresses us out, makes it harder to sleep. If it becomes a habit, the energy of anger becomes an obstacle to rather than the energy for positive work for justice. Anger that is doing nothing but making you snarky, mean, and sleep-deprived does not need to be indulged. Watch out for indulging anger.

Third, watch out for repressing anger. My motto is: neither indulge nor repress. This was not an easy motto for me to get to. I grew up – white, educated, middle-class in the 60s and 70s. We didn’t know much about expressing anger except by indulging it – so we repressed it. The only way to not repress it was to indulge it, and the only way not to indulge it was to repress it.

Anger needs to be recognized. Know what anger feels like, and check in with yourself a lot. Is anger there? If so, then you can make a decision about what you want to do with it. You might decide, “I’m going to just set this aside for now because I have these other things to do.” That’s not repressing – it’s not denying that you have anger. If someone were to ask you, “How did you feel about what I just told you?” You can answer, “I have some anger about that. But I don’t see any positive action to take, or I’ll plan to come back to the issue later, so for now I’m just setting that anger aside.” That’s very different from repressing the anger and saying, “I’m not angry.”

If anger is ringing your doorbell, you can say, “Hello, there, Anger. Come on in,” or you can say, “I’m busy right now.” But what isn’t a good idea is pretending you don’t hear the door bell.

Strive to always recognize anger – and sometimes express it. Expressing can turn into indulging if we’re expressing the same anger over and over and not going anywhere with it. But expressing is often a vital element in working out what it means and what to do about it.

Whether you express it in a calm way – “I’m having some anger about that” – or express it in a large and loud way, waving your arms and yelling, “My God, this is messed up!” – is a reflection of how your culture expresses anger. Whatever your culturally preferred mode of expression may be, expressing it can be a helpful stage toward either the anger dissipating or toward focusing the energy on some actions to take.

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This is part 2 of 3 of "Holy Anger"
See next: Part 3: Anger's Sacred Place
See also: Part 1: Male Anger Won the Day
Images from Shutterstock, free version by permission


Male Anger Won the Day

Holy Anger, part 1

Wrote Rebecca Traister:
“What happened inside the room was an exceptionally clear distillation of who has historically been allowed to be angry on their own behalf, and who has not.”
The room to which Traister was referring was the chamber of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday September 27, the day when testimony was heard by that Committee and by much of the nation – first, from a woman, then from a man. The woman was, she said, terrified, but her tone was calm and her language precise. The man, by sharp contrast, was clearly angry, and his language much more figurative.

Whether it crossed over from Holy Anger to Unholy Rage, I will, for now, not comment, but all sides agreed he was angry and showing it.

Male anger won the day. I watched that anger’s success unfold in real-time on the betting market. I listened to the woman’s testimony on the radio that morning, and to the man’s testimony that afternoon. As he spoke, I found myself, checking in at a website called PredictIt.org – which allows people to place bets on all manner of events – and the odds of an event happening are determined by how many bets are placed that it will happen – so the odds are continually adjusted as new bets come in. One of the questions people were betting on was whether that man would occupy the position for which he was then seeking Senate approval.

Those odds were sitting at 40 percent as the man began his opening statement. By the time his opening statement was done, the betting market showed his odds had significantly improved to 50-50, and they continued to improve through the questioning period. Male anger won the day, as it had won the day in the same room in 1991.

Women’s anger, on the other hand, is often discounted. There may be an exception that anger on behalf of her children is granted some weight. But anger on her own behalf is likely to fall on deaf ears.

Hence, Traister’s observation that,
“What happened inside the room, was an exceptionally clear distillation of who has historically been allowed to be angry on their own behalf, and who has not.”
While the featured woman inside the room did not display anger, many women surrounding that room and across the country were, as Traister put it, “incandescent with rage and sorrow and horror.”

She goes on to say,
“On social media, I saw hundreds of messages from women who reported the same experience, of finding themselves awash in tears, simply in response to this woman’s voice, raised in polite dissent. The power of the moment, the anxiety that it would be futile, the grief that we even had to put her — and ourselves — through this spectacle, was intense.”
Physiologically, what was happening in both that woman and that man was probably very similar: something called the fight-or-flight reaction. The fight-or-flight reaction gears us up face a threat – to either fight it -- or run away or hide. Adrenaline kicks up. Cortisol, heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration rate all increase. That arousal will help you fight, or fly.

But which will be? Do you run or hide – or do you fight? If we fight, the arousal becomes the feeling of anger. If we flee or hide, the arousal becomes the feeling of fear. The arousal itself is autonomic, and we then very quickly interpret that arousal as anger or fear -- and that makes a big difference. Anger makes you more risk-seeking. Fear makes you more risk-avoidant. Feeling anger, people overestimate their ability to overcome an obstacle, defeat an opponent, or handle whatever’s coming at them. Feeling fear, people underestimate their ability to successfully confront a situation.

Imagine an attacker or opponent with the same height, weight, age, and physical condition as you. The lens of fear makes that opponent look bigger than you. The lens of anger makes that same opponent look smaller than you.

Fear is: you hear your body telling you “don’t be idiot; run, hide, be conciliatory and submissive.” Anger is: you hear your body telling you, “don’t let this twerp push you around.” Your body, in fact, is saying the same thing in both cases. It’s saying, “We’re aroused!” – and you hear it as either anger or fear.

Often that moment of interpretation happens unconsciously – and we find ourselves scared or angry without any conscious experience of having chosen the feeling. But if there’s time to do so, we can sometimes be talked – or talk ourselves -- out of fear into anger – or out of anger into fear.

The strategies we have developed through experience become a habit – and habit is powerful in directing whether we go more to fear and anxiety or to anger. For men, expressions of ire serve as a signal of strength and power. Anger works for men, so men might form the habit of asserting their power angrily, or they might, on occasion, choose anger as a strategy when it isn’t their habit.

Women have been taught that anger won’t work for them. That may be changing. The #MeToo movement has seen a rise both in women’s willingness to be angry and in their willingness to express that anger.

Last March, a survey by Elle magazine found that 83 percent of women who identified with the Democratic Party get angry at the news at least once a day.
“Many of the women shouting now are women who have not previously yelled publicly before, many of them white middle-class women newly awakened to political fury and protest.” (Traister)
* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Holy Anger"
See next: Part 2: Anger is a Gift
Part 3: Anger's Sacred Place


A Skill, Not an Attitude

Learning to Love Diversity, part 3

A few weeks ago I was introduced to a woman. She was wearing the style of head covering that I associate with Muslim women. When I was told her name, it sounded to my ear like a middle Eastern name. I bowed and said I was please to meet her, and I asked if she shook hands. I asked because I know that many versions of Islam include a practice of not touching members of the opposite sex. I would say that in that interaction, I had one foot in stage 4 and one foot in stage 5. I was like a person who has just picked up a clarinet, without being able to play any other musical instrument, and has had a couple clarinet lessons. Such a person has moved beyond having a respectful interest about clarinets to actually trying to practice it, but after two lessons the best she can do is a halting, uneven rendition of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."

My relationship to middle Eastern Islamic culture is analogous. Next time I’m introduced to a Muslim woman, I’ll probably do the same thing because that’s the best I can do given my current level of skill with Middle Eastern Islamic culture. With a greater level of skill, I’d be able to exchange respectful greetings in Arabic, I’d be able to gesture in ways that signaled the respect and regard that I wanted to signal – I’d be able to detect the cues that signal whether the people I was meeting probably were or weren’t in a more liberalized Islam that allows intersex hand-shaking in social settings. I’d be as comfortable and competent with their assumptions and expectations of their culture as I am with the assumptions and expectations of the pulpit.

But I don’t have those skills. I have the right attitude (I think -- though I recognize that everyone thinks their own attitude is the right one) but intercultural competence isn’t a matter of attitude. It’s a matter of skills – which take time to practice and learn.

LoraKim, my spouse, speaks Spanish and spends a lot of time in Central and South America where she hangs out almost exclusively with people who live there. She got an intercultural competence that I don’t have.

In some versions of the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity there is a 6th stage, "integration." Integration is a matter of increasing skill and fluency at adapting to other cultures. The difference between stage 5 and 6 is like the difference between having learned a foreign language, but still thinking in English, so when you speak, you are translating in your head from English into the other language – versus simply thinking in the other language.

Much of the discrimination I mentioned (in Part 1) is based in unconscious reactions. Changes in conscious attitude can mitigate some of the discrimination, but attitude changes don’t get at the roots that are unconscious. Learning the skills of adapting to African American culture, and Hispanic culture in its main forms helps us be comfortable with those cultures – helps us know we can work productively and communicate effectively – and that’s what allows the unconscious to begin to let go of its biases against those other culture.

At what stage do you think you are? Most people identify themselves at a stage higher than they actually are. People at stage 2, "defense," will tend to self-report as being at stage 3, "minimization." People at "minimization" will tend to self-report as being at stage 4, "acceptance." I think this reveals, at least, that we do want to be more interculturally sensitive. There is an online survey you can take to clarify what stage you are probably at. Most Unitarian Universalists are in the middle – at the stage 3, minimization stage. We love to say people are basically the same.

The Golden Rule itself – "do onto others as you would have them do unto you" – is a minimization because, in reality, what you would have done unto you might not be what someone of a different culture would want or need. After the Golden Rule comes the Platinum Rule: do unto others as they would be done unto. Doing that requires learning a lot about their culture so you can see what will work for the other person.

You might want to ask – or you might have one little voice inside that wants to ask – why should I have to adapt to them. Why don’t they adapt to me? In the book Centering: Navigating Race, Authenticity, and Power in Ministry – a book that was one of the two Common Reads for all Unitarians last year -- the Rev. Adam Robersmith expresses this voice:
“We always talk about meeting people where they are. How about meeting them where we are? When is there ministry to ask people to meet me where I am as a person of color? To ask you to see me for what I am and meet me there?”
Anyone from the nondominant culture has HAD to put a lot of energy into adapting to the dominant culture. So I understand that they can get worn out and long for the ease of other people adapting to them instead of them always having to adapt.

For those of us who are of the dominant culture, the answer is: do what you can. If you can adapt to others, then do. Give them, to the best of your ability, the gift of ease.

And be aware of the brain’s natural self-centered bias: when you think you’re doing all the adapting, you might, in fact, be doing barely more than half of it -- just doing half the adapting is liable to give us the impression we’re doing 90 percent of it.

As for me, I think I’m usually pretty good about being open and curious about differences, but under stress I fall back into assumptions that there is such a thing as universal reasoning and that I can recognize universal needs. I spend most of my time in a cultural bubble of NPR, the New York Times, and my fellow Unitarian Universalists. On the plus side, this culture I'm in does tend to be a culture that's interested in learning, including learning about how different other cultures are and how to get along with them better.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Learning to Love Diversity"
See also: Part 1: Reaction to Cultural Difference: First Stages
Part 2: We Aren't All the Same


We Aren't All the Same

Learning to Love Diversity, part 2

Stage 3, minimization of cultural difference, is not quite as awakened as it might seem. When we disregard real differences, we end up using ourselves as the standard. We thus treat other people as versions of ourselves. We neglect the importance of our own culture in shaping who we are. We’re emphasizing these universals – features universally true for all of us -- but these supposed universals, on closer inspection, turn out to be assumptions of our particular culture.

Once we notice that our assumptions and habits of thought are themselves cultural products – that is, not the natural, universal pattern – then we’ll recognize that cultural differences are more real and important than we had imagined. So, as much as minimization is an improvement over polarization, there’s a stage beyond minimization.

We aren’t all the same, and treating people as if we were is refusing to see the fullness of their humanity. Our different paths are often leading up different mountains. Not respecting real cultural differences amounts to not respecting people.

Stage 4 is a greater appreciation of how deep culture goes. If we assume that we’re basically all the same, then we deal with people by appealing to what we take to be the universal shared characteristics. To move beyond that and honor difference involves an openness and curiosity about differences, recognizing how real and profoundly meaningful culture is. Stage 4 is called the acceptance stage, because here we accept different cultures and accept that culture is a very deep part of who we are and who others are. At the acceptance stage there is an interest in exploring differences without judgment or evaluation.

To get from stage 2 to stage 3, more exposure to different cultures helps. But to get from stage 3 to stage 4, more exposure to and learning about different cultures probably won’t do much, because those at stage 3, the minimization stage, process the information in ways that look for – and find – that other cultures are basically the same. What does help people move from stage 3 to stage 4 is work on cultural self-awareness – recognizing their own culture as a culture, and recognizing how thoroughly the way we perceive everything is a product of our cultural assumptions. Seeing that, we are positioned to be curious about how other cultures work differently.

People at the acceptance stage may say such things as:
  • "The more difference the better -- more difference equals more creative ideas!"
  • "You certainly wouldn't want to have all the same kind of people around -- the ideas get stale, and besides, it’s boring."
  • "I always try to study about a new culture before I go there."
  • "The more cultures you know about, the better comparisons you can make."
  • "Sometimes it's confusing, knowing that values are different in various cultures and wanting to be respectful, but still wanting to maintain my own core values."
  • "I know my homestay family and I have had very different life experiences, but we're learning to work together."
Getting more Americans from stage 2 antagonism toward people who are different to stage 3 habits of universalizing and minimizing difference would help reduce discrimination. Getting more Americans then from state 3 to stage 4 would help us more fully understand the reality of difference, make us better able to empathize, and would get us still further toward reducing discrimination.

But curiosity about something is not the same thing as competence at it. Curiosity about trigonometry is not the same thing as skill at solving trig problems. So there is yet a fifth stage – going from intercultural openness and acceptance and curiosity to intercultural competence. To get to stage 5 means being able to shift cultural perspective and adapt behavior to fit with the other person’s culture.

It’s not assimilation. Assimilation is a permanent change from your original culture to a new culture. Intercultural competence involves the ability to make temporary shifts into a different culture, allowing you to be more effective in a particular situation.

The previous transitions were attitude shifts. From stage 1 to stage 2 involves an attitude of hostility to difference. From stage 2 to stage 3 involves shifting the attitude to one of disregarding cultural differences. From stage 3 to stage 4, our attitude shifts to being interested, open, and curious about differences. But stage 4 to stage 5 is not an attitude shift. It entails acquiring new skills. Being interested in and open to learning how to play the clarinet is one thing, but actually playing a complex melody smoothly on a clarinet is something else.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Learning to Love Diversity"
See also: Part 1: Reaction to Cultural Difference: First Stages
See next: Part 3: A Skill, Not an Attitude
Stock image royalty free from shutterstock


Reaction to Cultural Difference: First Stages

Learning to Love Diversity, part 1

We know that there’s discrimination.
  • Blacks are less than 13% of the populations, yet, as best we can tell since many police departments do not report, blacks are 31% of all fatal police shooting victims, and 39% of those killed by police when not attacking. Yes, it's worth remembering that 61% of the "killed by police when not attacking" category are not blacks. Still, the number that are is disproportionate.
  • Young black males, ages 15-19, are 21 times more likely to be to be shot and killed by the police than young white males.
  • Between 2005 and 2008, 80% of NYPD stop-and-frisks were of blacks and Latinos.
  • Only 10% of stops and 8% of frisks were of whites. 85% of those frisked were black. Only 2.6% of all stops (1.6 million stops over 3.5 years) resulted in the discovery of contraband or a weapon. Whites were more likely to be found with contraband or a weapon.
  • Blacks are 14% of regular drug users, but are 37% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 56% of those in state prisons for drug offenses.
  • Prison sentences of black men were nearly 20% longer than those of white men for similar crimes in recent years.
  • Whites are 78% more likely to be accepted to the same university as equally qualified people of color.
  • A black college student has the same chances of getting a job as a white high school dropout.
  • A resume for a person named Dante Williams is 50% less likely to get a call back than an identical resume for a person named David Williams.
  • Voter ID laws do not prevent voter fraud, but do disenfranchise millions of young people, minorities, and elderly, who disproportionately lack the necessary government IDs.
  • News reporting regards black lives as less significant. African American children comprise 33.2% of missing children cases, but only 19.5% of cases reported in the media.
  • Black car buyers are charged $700 more on average than white car buyers of the same car.
  • When looking for a home, black clients looking to buy are shown 17.7% fewer houses for sale, and black renters learn about 11 percent fewer rental units.
  • Doctors did not inform black patients as often as white ones about the option of an important heart catheterization procedure.
  • White legislators – in both political parties -- did not respond as frequently to constituents with black sounding names.

Discrimination is going on. And there’s a similar kind of discrimination against Hispanic immigrants – often against anyone who is different, who is other. People who are different face discrimination. So it sure would be progress if people weren’t seen as different.

The first stage of dealing with cultural difference is denial or ignorance. One experiences one's own culture as the only “real” one – one just doesn’t know about other cultures. Other cultures are either not noticed at all or are understood in an undifferentiated, simplistic manner. One is uninterested in cultural difference, but when confronted with difference, seemingly benign acceptance may change to aggressive attempts to avoid or eliminate it. This might be the result of, say, being five years old. Or, when an adult is at this stage, it may be the result of physical or social isolation, where one's views are never challenged and are at the center of their reality.

With increased exposure to cultural difference, at first there’s liable to be a hostile reaction against it, and that’s the second stage. Stage two is very “us” versus “them,” with negative stereotyping of “them.” People at this stage experience their own culture as the most “evolved” or best way to live. They will openly belittle the differences between their culture and another, denigrating race, gender or any other indicator of difference. There are openly threatened by cultural difference and likely to act aggressively against it. Their defensiveness about their own culture will come out in saying such things as:
  • "I wish these people would just talk the way we do."
  • "Even though I'm speaking their language, they're still rude to me."
  • "When you go to other cultures, it makes you realize how much better the U.S. is."
  • "These people don't value life the way we do."
There’s a reversed version of this, where they turn against their own native culture in favor of romanticizing some other culture as superior – but it’s still a very polarized attitude about cultures.

To move beyond this stage requires coming to emphasize sameness – seeing that the basic similarity we all have, the humanity – and the animality – we all share. It helps to emphasize the historical context for understanding differences: this culture formed this way because it was shaped by wars, or colonization, or slavery, for instance. It is possible to grow out hostility to differences and into a recognition of commonality we share.

At stage 3, we recognize cultural differences, but we don’t demonize or judge them. We see cultural differences as ultimately superficial because deep down we’re all the same. There are different paths up the mountain, but they all lead to the same mountaintop. Behind some differences of form, there are universal values we all uphold in our own way. We all have feelings – we all get angry, sad, scared, happy. We all have needs: air and food, autonomy, respect, and connection – no matter what the culture.

If everyone at stage 2 would move to stage 3, that would reduce some discrimination. But not all of it.

Next: Why minimization isn't a complete solution for discrimination

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Learning to Love Diversity"
See next: Part 2: We Aren't All the Same
Part 3: A Skill, Not an Attitude


We Missed Our Exit

Discovering America, part 3

What we’ve seen so far in our journey to look for America, is a tale that seems to have a certain sad inevitability to it. Once the Agricultural Revolution had led to standing armies, then all the rest of it -- unending cycles of mass warfare and conquest with attendant rape, pillaging, enslavement -- looks unstoppable. Europe seems to have been bound and doomed to do in the Americas exactly what it did do.

But it wasn't unstoppable. It could have been different -- could easily have been different. It didn’t have to be this way. We had the wherewithal from early on to know better – and that’s the deeper tragedy. We had ideas of social justice going back to the Hebrew prophets. We had ideas of democracy from the ancient Athenians. We had, as we shall see, learned European voices in the 16th century arguing for recognizing the rights and dignity of indigenous Americans. There was a clearly discernible exit ramp off of the dehumanization highway -- but we missed our exit.

As we kicked off one side of the story with one great American poet, Carl Sandburg, we launch this side of the story with another one -- a winner of the Nobel prize for literature: Bob Dylan.

New York city, Columbia Record Studios, 1965
We see Bob Dylan recording a song that will go on his fifth Album, Bringing It All Back Home. The song is called “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” and it describes a surreal dreamlike coming to America.
I was riding on the Mayflower
When I thought I spied some land
I yelled for Captain Arab
I have yuh understand
Who came running to the deck
Said, “Boys, forget the whale
We’re going over yonder
Cut the engines
Change the sail." . . .

“I think I’ll call it America”
I said as we hit land
I took a deep breath
I fell down, I could not stand
Captain Arab he started
Writing up some deeds
He said, “Let’s set up a fort
And start buying the place with beads”

This bit about "buying the place with beads" is a famous part of the origin story of the country. Our search for America has got to drop in on that.

Manhattan, 1626
What we see is that it’s not quite literally true that the island was bought with beads. In 1626, Peter Minuit of the Dutch West India Company, met, by his report, with “the principal chiefs of nearby tribes.” He paid 60 guilders for Manhattan.

Four years later, 1630, the Dutch bought Staten Island, also for 60 guilders, paid in the form of 60-guilders-worth of supplies: kettles, axes, hoes, Jew’s harps, and drilling awls. The drilling awl was very useful for increasing production of the shell-beads that were used as currency, hence the story about buying the place with beads.

Historians now say the Lenape did have a tradition of property rights. They did not, as popularly believed, hold that no one can own land. However, they probably did not understand the transaction to be as complete and permanent as the Dutch did. They may indeed have thought they were merely offering the Dutch hunting rights.

But here’s the thing. Whatever the Lenape interpretation of the transaction, the Dutch believed they had bought the land from someone who had the right to sell it.

Rhode Island, 1630s
We take a short jump over to Rhode Island just a few years later, and there’s Roger Williams purchasing Providence Plantation from the Massasoit, and then an adjoining area from the Narragansetts. He goes back to England to make sure the crown recognizes his acquisition, and King Charles II issues the Royal Charter of Rhode Island that acknowledges that it was the Indians’ land, and they sold it.

It still wasn’t fair – the full terms of the deal were understood differently by the two sides, and the price paid too low, but the point is the Doctrine of Discovery wasn’t the European’s universal approach. Indeed, a general notion of "law of peoples" was a part of European thought -- as we shall see with a quick visit to Ancient Rome, Aquinas' Italy, and 16th-century Spain.

Ancient Rome
Zipping back for a minute to ancient Rome, we see a concept called “law of peoples.” It’s not a body of statute law, but rather a notion of certain customary law thought to be common to all people. Certain basic principles of right and justice are found in -- and may be presumed to hold in -- all human communities, howsoever alien they may seem.

Italy, 1260s
And, staying on the Italian peninsula and jumping to the 13th century, we see Thomas Aquinas developing this concept of law of peoples and integrating it into Catholic thought.

Salamanca, Spain, 1532
Francisco de Vitoria
And then jump over to Spain in 1532, and we see the Roman Catholic philosopher and theologian Francisco de Vitoria writing a work, De Indis – Of the Indians – in which he draws on Aquinas’ development of law of peoples and concludes that Indians are rightful owners of their property, and chiefs have valid jurisdiction over their tribes. We see Francisco advancing an idea that Unitarians would adopt: the intrinsic dignity of humans, and we see him criticizing Spain’s violation of that dignity in the New World.

This is 1532. Europe had within its own traditions the resources of thought and understanding to have done much better than it did. Indeed, those are the traditions of dignity and rights we draw upon today to recognize the moral failure that was colonialism. The roots of these concepts are deep.

Much of Europe turned away from those lines of thought and instead embraced the Doctrine of Discovery: "we discovered it, its ours, the people on it aren’t really people." But not all of Europe. The Dutch and Roger Williams – and also the Quakers in Pennsylvania – understood that the people on the land owned the land, and to transfer ownership, one had to pay for it -- pay at least something.

Back to Washington, DC, Supreme Court building, 1823
So if we swing back by Chief Justice John Marshall’s office in Washington DC in 1823 as he’s getting ready to write the opinion of Johnson v. M’Intosh, we see he really could have gone a different way. Instead of saying, as he did, that the Doctrine of Discovery was universally recognized, he could have pointed to Francisco de Vitoria, Peter Minuit, Roger Williams, and the Pennsylvania Quakers.

He could have interpreted the Doctrine of Discovery not as giving exclusive right to lands discovered, but as creating only an exclusive right, among European powers, to treaty with the inhabitants of those lands. He could have thrown in a little Obiter Dicta to emphasize that those treaties must be negotiated fairly, and the US must be committed to honoring its side.

Our Supreme Court let us down. History hung by a thread that day, and when the thread snapped, the sword fell on Native Americans and all of us searching for an America of equality and justice.

Final stop on our tour:

Phoenix, Arizona, 2012
Youth Caucus speaks in favor of
resolution to repudiate Doc of Disc 
It's the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly. Why, look, there’s me -- holding up my voting card as a delegate. I’m voting for a resolution – which did pass – that repudiates the Doctrine of Discovery and calls on Unitarian Universalists to study the Doctrine and eliminate its presence from the current-day policies, programs, theologies, and structures of Unitarian Universalism. (See HERE.)

In the documentary about the Doctrine of Discovery (below) you will hear Native Americans calling on churches to be involved in this. And so we are. And so shall be. For so we shall discover our truer self – and find a truer America.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Discovering America"
See also
Part 1: Call Me When You Find America
Part 2: The Power of Principle -- For Good and Bad


The Power of Prinicple -- For Good and Bad

Discovering America, part 2

The European powers’ shared Christianity helped motivate them to not fight among each other over the new lands. The earlier history of Crusades had accustomed them to the idea of Christians – despite constant wars among themselves – unifying to fight nonChristians.

Then they started explaining to themselves what principles they were following to avoid fighting among themselves. Explanations, justifications – principles – can take on a life of their own, far beyond the immediate context they were formulated for.

Sometimes this is a good thing.

Philadelphia, 1776
We zoom in on the Continental Congress and see them signing the Declaration of Independence. It says that the colonies are separating from Great Britain, and it explains they are doing so because all are created equal, and all are endowed with inalienable rights: rights of life and of liberty.

Why explain? Why not just pick up the guns, organize the armies, and see if you win? Articulating a justification helped steel their resolve – and this was the justification they came up with.

What was going on was that the rich, white, male landowners were feeling shabbily treated by Britain. The felt entitled to better. Why? "Well, um, . . . because we’re created equal, darnit! We have rights of life and liberty, too!"

It was clear that “we” didn’t mean the indigenous people – which the Declaration of Independence refers to as “merciless Indian savages”; didn’t mean the African slaves, didn’t mean women, didn’t even mean nonlandowners. But once the explanation is out there, once a justification has been advanced, that justification takes on a life of its own.

Scanning through US history, we notice that those principles, once declared, slowly, quietly, yet insistently kept nagging at Americans to mean what we had said. The principle keeps tapping us on the shoulder and saying, "Remember that thing you did, and you said I was the reason? Well, if I'm the reason you did that, then I'm also the reason for some other things you need to do."

It takes generations of nudging, but it can happen. We see slavery ended. Then we see it take new forms in the sharecropping system, and in segregation and Jim Crow, and in mass incarceration. We see women get the right to vote. Then we see patriarchy adapting and continuing its subjugation. Yet we also see critics chipping away at those new forms – nagging, nagging with the principles of equality and liberty declared at the nation’s founding. And that’s a good thing. But if a good principle can push us to be better, a bad principle, also living beyond its original context, keeps making us worse.

Europe, late 1400s - early 1500s
There are the European powers agreeing not to fight with each other – much – over the New World claims – and, uh-oh, they are explaining it to themselves. Whichever European power first conquered an area, it’s theirs, they explained. The rest of us will honor and recognize their possession. They call this the Doctrine of Discovery. As in: if you discovered it, you get to keep it.

Of course, they didn’t discover it, they conquered it, but in their eyes the indigenous people didn’t count. For one thing, they weren’t Christian. For another thing, they weren’t developing the land to its best use. God’s creation cried out to be properly taken advantage of.

The Doctrine of Discovery was not originally a tool used against indigenous people, because having steel, guns, germs, and Christianity, the Europeans needed no assistance of legal doctrines to complete their conquest. The Doctrine of Discovery was a tool the European Powers used on each other, so that European countries would recognize each others' claims.

I’m reminded of Anita Sarkeesian’s analysis of patriarchy in video games. The games reflect broader culture. Sarkeesian memorably noted:
“I've heard it said that, in the game of patriarchy, women are not the opposing team. They are the ball.” (Sarkeesian's "Damsel in Distress" series begins HERE)
In other words, patriarchy is about men pitting themselves against other men – to get the ball, to score with it. Women don’t even rate to be players. It is, of course, a story as old as Helen of Troy – and recapitulated in the Mario brothers going after King Koopa to get Princess Peach.

Likewise with the Doctrine of Discovery, the Native people don’t even rate to be players. It’s entirely about the relation of the European powers to each other. But having explained what they were doing, the explanation took on a life of its own.

It became a principle going beyond its original function.

Washington, DC, the Supreme Court Building, 1823
Chief Justice John Marshall
We jump now to witness the Supreme Court deciding the case Johnson v. M’Intosh. Johnson inherited land, originally purchased from the Piankeshaw tribes. M’Intosh claimed the same land, having purchased it under a grant from the United States. The Court ruled in favor of M’Intosh on the grounds that under the Doctrine of Discovery, it was Great Britain’s land, which the American Revolution transferred to the US government. No one can purchase land from Native Americans because they don’t own it. It was “discovered” away from them.

Today Johnson v. M'Intosh is widely and roundly criticized, but it continues to be law and influence later decisions. Prof. Stuart Banner of UCLA School of Law, writes:
Johnson's continuing prominence is reinforced every year in law schools, where it is the very first case most beginning students read in their required course in Property. The best-selling property casebook calls Johnson 'the genesis of our subject' because it lays 'the foundations of landownership in the United States.' Given current sympathies for Native Americans, the outcome of the case has come to be viewed with disapproval in law school. Johnson has joined Dred Scott v. Sandford and a few others to form a small canon (or maybe an anti-canon) of famous cases law students are taught to criticize. The leading casebook describes the philosophy underlying Johnson as 'discomforting' and quotes with approval the recent view of a law professor that Marshall's opinion 'was rooted in a Eurocentric view of the inferiority of the Indian people.' Johnson, though, might be the only member of this anti-canon that remains the law, and that is still cited as authority by lower courts several times a year. (Stuart Banner, How the Indians Lost Their Land: Law and Power on the Frontier, 2005).

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Discovering America"
See next: Part 3: We Missed Our Exit
Previous: Part 1: Call Me When You Find America


Call Me When You Find America

Discovering America, part 1

Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? These three questions, which together comprise the title of a painting by Paul Gaugin, express the quest to discover ourselves. For those of us who spent most of our lives on this continent, the quest to discover self has seemed interwoven with the quest to discover America.

If you’re my age, and were raised in this country, then you grew up revering Christopher Columbus for discovering America, and in more recent years have learned to ridicule the idea that Europeans could “discover” what was already populated throughout. As one speaker I heard very cleverly make the point:
“I’d like you all to put your car keys and cell phones on the table in front of you. I’m going to come by and ‘discover’ them.”
It’s a fair point. Yet America is still being discovered – or at least searched for. Simon and Garfunkel’s 1968 song “America” starts out
“Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together.
I’ve got some real estate – here, in my bag.
So we bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner pies
And walked off to look for America.”
I used to be a big fan of the comic strip Doonesbury. In the early 70s, a series of strips ran about Mark and Mike going on a cross-country motorcycle trip to search for America. Zonker is unsure about the idea.
Zonker (to Mike and Mark): I tell you, I don’t like this business of you guys biking off into strange and unknown parts.
Mike: Zonker, we’ll only be gone a few months.
Zonker: Man, it’s dangerous out there! Who do you think you are, Peter Fonda?
Mike: Zonker, it’s something we have to do. Both of us want to search for America.
Zonker: (Heavy sigh.) Look, will you call me as soon as you get there?
Mike: I promise.
There’s something of a tradition of people going on similar trips to “find themselves.” Finding ourselves and finding America have seemed to go hand-in-hand – for, indeed, knowing our selves and knowing our place, the land we are embedded in, do go together. As Wendell Berry said,
“If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.”
So let’s go on a voyage, to look for ourselves and for America – to discover what we can discover about discovery itself. On this trip, we’ll journey through space and time, and we’ll be looking at the darker and tragic side of the idea of discovery: the doctrine of discovery, which, even if you never heard of it, is a key underlying foundation of the American experience. Our first stop:

Chicago, Carl Sandburg's residence, 1936.
We peer over the poet’s shoulder as he’s writing the book-length poem “The People, Yes.” Before he’s done, it will be 300 pages, packed with Americana, poetically expressed. We notice on the page before him, the bit of imaginary dialog he has just composed:
"Get off this estate."
"What for?"
"Because it's mine."
"Where did you get it?"
"From my father."
"Where did he get it?"
"From his father."
"And where did he get it?"
"He fought for it."
"Well, I'll fight you for it."
Sandburg put his finger on the basic problem of conquest and legitimacy.

Earth, 10,000 years ago to 500 years ago
As we zoom now back over the last 10,000 years, circling the globe, we notice that there's not one square-inch of land in between the arctic and antarctic circles that has not at numerous times in its history been militarily conquered. Where humans live as hunter-gatherers -- Africa, North America, the islands of Oceania -- the skirmishes are small, and tend to involve a few acres at a time shifting hands between tribes. But where the agricultural revolution has come -- Europe, the Middle East and Arabia, East Asia and the Indian subcontinent, and the Central and South American empires of the Aztec, Maya, and Inca -- large standing armies can be supported, and we see vast empires and dynasties. It seems who we are and where we come from is slaughter and conquest. No wonder Jared Diamond called the agricultural revolution the worst mistake in human history.

We notice that for thousands of years, conquest comes with slaughter, rape, and enslavement. Our word slave is related to the word slav, because so many Slavic people had been sold into slavery by their conquerors. The conundrum that Carl Sandburg would express in 1936 was a familiar one to millennia of conquering powers: how to create legitimacy of ownership, how to justify their possession -- create the illusion, at least, that their new lands were theirs by right and not just by force.

Americas, 1492-1776
When we zoom in on the 16th and 17th centuries, we see the Europeans conquering the New World. It’s a continuation of a thousand years of conquering and being conquered by each other. It’s what they do. It’s what we've seen humans everywhere doing.

These Europeans though, have not only the food surpluses made possible by the agricultural revolution – surpluses that support large standing armies and now overseas voyages of conquest. They have swords of steel. They have guns. And they have immunities developed from thousands of years of plagues and diseases fostered by close living quarters with each other and their domesticated animals. With their swords and their guns and their germs, we see these Europeans conquer more land in less time than the world had ever seen before.

China, 1400s
Checking in on East Asia, we see China in the 15th century starting up what looks like its own age of exploration – armadas sailing west, making their way around India and on to east Africa. But then the voyages abruptly stop. For one thing, they weren’t really explorers – China already knew about India and East Africa. For a second thing, invasions from Mongols and other Central Asian people diverted the Chinese leaders away from continuing those expensive naval excursions.

Third, they weren’t much interested in developing trade routes. (A.) The world coveted Chinese silk and porcelain, so China’s customers came to them. And (B.) In Confucian thought, merchants and traders were seen as the lowliest form of humanity -- parasites skimming off of the labor of those who actually produced the goods.

Back to Americas, 1492-1776
Zipping back to the Europeans invading the Americas and Africa, slaughtering and enslaving, we notice that in addition to steel and guns, in addition to bodily germs and viruses, they have something else "viral": Christianity – or a particular interpretation of it. Their Christianity tells them to “make disciples of all Nations.” It gives them the double reassurance that, on the one hand, the pathetic pagans bereft of God are not fully human so the slaughter and theft is acceptable, and on the other hand, conquering them and forcibly converting them to Christianity is doing them a favor.

See these European conquerors and colonialists sleeping soundly at night resting in the conviction of the noble good work they are doing to make the world better.

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This is part 1 of 3 of "Discovering America"
See next: Part 2: The Power of Principle -- For Good and Bad
Part 3: We Missed Our Exit


Ain't That America?

The American Idea, part 3

The American Idea (1) is a fluke, (2) includes some values worth keeping and building on, and (3) is in mortal peril.

Running through the American identity has been a certain historical account defining what being an American meant. It’s the story that ran along lines typified by Will and Ariel Durant's Story of Civilization – 11 volumes published over 40 years (1935-1975). The Durants,
"basically told human history (mostly Western history) as an accumulation of great ideas and innovations, from the Egyptians, through Athens, Magna Carta, the Age of Faith, the Renaissance and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The series was phenomenally successful, selling over two million copies." (David Brooks)
As Americans, we were the inheritors of these great ideas, the descendants of the Europeans who devised them. The Durants never said, "white people are genetically superior," or "are God's favorite." Neither did they provide any other explanation for why these "great ideas and innovations" did not appear in the pre-Colombian Americas, sub-Saharan Africa, or East Asia. Absent an alternative explanation, readers were left with an impression that there must be something special about people of European descent. What else could account for European dominance? Without ever saying it explicitly, narratives of which the Durants' Story of Civilization is typical facilitated a self-justifying loop: we are dominant because we’re superior, and the proof that we’re superior is that we dominate.

It took awhile, but cultural anthropologists gradually worked out the specifics of an alternative explanation. Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel came out in 1997, and helped popularize and spread what cultural anthropologists had been learning. Diamond told a story of the rise of European wealth and power as rooted in geography. From the fertile crescent westward, temperate climates, suitable soil, and an unusual availability of domesticable animals created the conditions that freed a little time for technological development and that gave rise to population centers where proximity of humans to each other and their domesticated animals led to diseases and eventual immunities not found among other humans. The technology (steel, guns) and the immunity (germs) were the key means by which Europeans came to dominate the globe.

Diamond helped many of us with the concrete details of how it could be that Europeans became so dominant even though Europeans are neither smarter or more virtuous by nature – nor more violent, vicious, and dominating by nature -- than other peoples. Europeans are just the products a particular geography along with some random flukes – and that geography gave us a bit more wealth, a bit more opportunity to play around with ideas for new technology. In the process we had bigger population centers, more disease, and eventually immunities.

It’s a fluke that Europeans ended up with guns, germs, and steel – but once they had them, they had the power to overrun much of the world.

I do believe, though, that some of those "Great Western Ideas," really are great. Particular favorites of mine include liberal democracy (free elections; a free press; an independent judiciary) and the modern scientific method, both of which began taking shape among Europeans in the mid-seventeenth-century.

Can we be vigorous in defense of liberal democracy and science while acknowledging that these Great Ideas appeared where they did because of a geographic fluke rather than the beneficent smile of divine providence upon people with paler skin? Can we hope to address Western civilization's problems -- ameliorate the evils it has perpetrated and reduce oppression and exploitation -- by advancing, rather than retreating from, norms of truth and justice?

Instead, we are seeing retreat from democratic norms and scientific standards of assessing truth. Turning around will require renewed commitment to those ideals – even as we accept that our ideals are contingent accidents of history. When it comes to the United States of America – the land and the people that made me -- I am equal parts misty romantic and indignant critic.

The Declaration of Independence, adopted by the Continental Congress on 1776 July 4, declared the signers' intent to “institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.” Those were radical principles. The Declaration said: “All...are created equal,…endowed...with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness….To secure these rights, governments are instituted..., deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

These inspiring principles are my core aspiration for my country, and the ground of my criticism of it. The shame and pride go together.

I came of age during the Vietnam War, when there was good cause for being ashamed of my country. At the same time, I was proud of my friends and mentors (most of whom I knew through my Unitarian Universalist church) who marched and demonstrated to end that war. I'm ashamed of our consumptive greed -- of the rapacity of one-twentieth of the world's population consuming one-fourth the world’s resources. Yet I’m proud to inherit the tradition of environmental consciousness of Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Duane Elgin, Bill McKibben, Joanna Macy -- writers whose turn of mind could not have come from Europe, or Asia, or South America, or even Canada.

I'm proud of our independent judiciary, as secured by Marbury v. Madison (1803), our finest innovation of government, and grievously ashamed that this judiciary's highest court could have produced the Bush v. Gore decision. There have been other horrible decisions -- Dred Scott (1857), Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), Lochner v. New York (1905), Buck v Bell (1927), Korematsu v. US (1944), and Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), among the worst -- but none so baldly devoid of jurisprudential principle and so nakedly in service of a partisan outcome. On the bleak day in December 2000 when William Rehnquist, Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas opted to erase the line between interpreting the law and preferring a candidate in an election, I felt a key part of the American Idea die.

I'm proud of our Statue of Liberty, with its open-armed invitation of welcome, and ashamed that so many of my fellow country-men and -women, with willful and passionate ignorance, so approve of revoking that very invitation.

All that. And more. We have a capacity for awe and wonder that is the equal of our arrogance and belligerence. Our inquisitiveness is not less than our acquisitiveness. "American spunky can-do spirit" is not a lie. Neither is our history of terrible theft, injustice, and oppression.

There is a land before us now -- as there has been for 400 years -- with possibilities for realization of rights, freedoms, and opportunity, shared universally and equally, at a level the world has not seen before. It is, as Langston Hughes said, "The land that never has been yet— /And yet must be." Come, and go with me to that land.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "The American Idea"
See also: Part 1: American Contradictions
See next: Part 2: Who Are My People?