Politics and Blame

Rev. Meredith Garmon, Liberation, part 1

READING: “Please Call Me by My True Names” by Thich Nhat Hanh
Don't say that I will depart tomorrow—
even today I am still arriving.

Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.

I am a mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.

I am a frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin a bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his "debt of blood" to, my people,
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.

My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up
and the door of my heart
could be left open,
the door of compassion.

Hardly even looks like me.
After President Obama announced his Supreme Court nomination on Wed Mar 16, I received many congratulations from friends and acquaintances. I went along with the joke and posted on Facebook that I was a little surprised to be nominated, but more surprised that newspapers were so consistently misspelling my name "Merrick Garland."

Alas, neither Merrick Garland nor Meredith Garmon appears likely to get a Senate hearing. The Senate majority leader says, “let the people decide,” to which the answer – to repeat what everyone with a grasp of the obvious has said -- is: they did decide. The people decided in 2012, understanding that the term of that decision was four full years. Ah, but it is an election year – and this Supreme Court hold-up is only a small part of the shall we say surprising developments of the campaign season thus far.

I want to talk today about liberation, and I want to talk about it in the context of the issue that, one way or another, underlies much of the campaign rhetoric with which we are inundated. That issue is responsibility, fault, blame, the cause of inequality.

If some group of people is having a hard time, to what extent is that their own fault, and to what extent can we expect that, acting collectively and compassionately, we can establish the conditions for better lives for all our neighbors?

How much of the quality of your life right now is a product of your individual virtue – or your personal flaws – and how much of it is a product of the way the social system is set up?

One line of thought has it that poverty is the fault of the poor. If minorities or women succeed less well, it’s because there’s something they aren’t doing that white men do. Lately we’ve been seeing that now it’s certain sectors of white men who are having a harder time. Mortality rates for white, middle-aged Americans are on the rise – their suicide rate is up, as is their alcoholism and drug abuse, notably prescription opioids. “Life expectancies of non-college-educated white Americans have been plummeting in an almost unprecedented fashion.” (Kevin Williamson, National Review, 2016 Mar 28)

Some writers can at least claim the virtue of consistency. They are sticking to the “it’s their own fault” line, even when the group in question is white men. Kevin Williamson, for example, writes in National Review about “the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy” that is besetting the small-town white working class. He says,
“It wasn’t Beijing. It wasn’t even Washington,... It wasn’t immigrants from Mexico. It wasn’t any of that.... The economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and the incomprehensible malice — of poor white America.... Nobody did this to them. They failed themselves.” (Kevin Williamson, National Review)
So that’s one approach. People just need to get themselves together; do what they need to do. If people aren’t doing that, it's a crisis of values, not of opportunity. They don’t value hard-work. Gumption and determination is all it would take for them to make more of their lives. “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps,” they say. This is, it’s worth remembering, actually a physically impossible thing to do.

The thought that you could pull yourself up by your own bootstraps is a failure to see the whole picture. In the case of literal bootstraps, it’s a failure to see all of the physics at work. It’s easy to see the upward pull of the hands, but when you tug on bootstraps there’s also, necessarily, an equal and opposite downward push of your feet. In the case of metaphorical bootstraps, it’s a failure to see all of the social system at work.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Liberation"
See also
Part 2: Fault Line
Part 3: The Proper Beginning

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