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Questions for Those Seeking Freedom

I recently gave a "diversity talk" at a large public university, and I reiterated a point that I've been making whenever I get an opportunity. Namely, I believe there are two primary ways one can enact social justice activism. One is to recognize that injustices occur along various axes such as gender, race and physical ability, and then stake out a position on a perceived high ground from which you identify the Bad People who are responsible for those injustices. People taking this approach are the ones who seem to always have a story to share about a racist uncle on Facebook, or a sexist dude at work, or the person who made an insensitive remark in a meeting. While it is important to identify these types of actions and those who are prone to do them, if your activism ends at naming these actions and people, then I don't see how you can accomplish much. This is because the problematic actions of individuals are not inherent to those people. Rather they are symptomatic of a culture that gives sanctions to detrimental actions. I don't believe that the serial sexual harasser is born with a proclivity to abuse their power. Instead, their behavior is learned through trial and error, where "errors" are permitted rather than discouraged. 

The second approach involves honest introspection motivated by recognition that culture is created and recreated by those who make up a social group. Those people include you, and as such, your actions matter just as much as anyone else's. Further, your actions, habits, mindsets and proclivities are informed by the same societal influences as the person next to you. That ableist offhand remark made during a seminar talk was informed by the same forces that you are susceptible to. So while there is value in pointing out the wrongs of others---yes, we should speak up and speak out---there is equal, if not greater value in inquiring whether you implicitly hold similar misinformed viewpoints. Have you recently made similar problematic comments, perhaps along other axes of privilege/oppression? If so, what have you done to ensure that you don't do so again in the future? I strongly believe this is the sort of radical introspection that ultimately leads to sustainable changes and a more just society. 

I'm very fortunate to have a number of people in my life who regularly ask me challenging questions that lead me into a process of introspection. I'm not saying that this process is easy, pleasant or immediately welcomed. Indeed, when my deeply-held beliefs are called into question, I'm just as resistant as any other human to honestly confront them. But I eventually yield, at least often enough, and the resulting process of finding answers is vital as I evolve into a more self-motivated, autodidactic learner and critical thinker. Note that I am not claiming that I have arrived anywhere. But I am saying that in the time since I made an intentional decision to take the second approach, have evolved away from my default, American settings at a more rapid and sustained rate than at any other period in my life. So while having my beliefs challenged regularly isn't always comfortable, I am extremely grateful for it.  

With that, allow me to share some key questions with which I have recently wrestled:

Does the value of Black lives decrease at the US border?

The statement that Black lives matter is based on the radical notion that human life is equally valuable, regardless of race. Indeed, lives are equally valuable regardless of whether a person is following the instructions of a police officer or not, armed or unarmed, or in violation of the law. There should be no double standard here. It is always wrong when a mother is killed in front of her children in her home by a police officer. A 14-year-old has every right to live, no matter his height or skin tone or others' notions of his criminality. A society that cannot figure out how to preserve life while enforcing the law is a society in need of reform.

#BlackLivesMatter is a radical statement about the sanctity of life, and the right to live rather than to die, especially at the hands of the state.

So if the life of a 14-year-old Black child matters as much as the life of a wealthy white man, then what about the life of an Iraqi woman, or a Syrian man, or a Yemenese baby? Is it correct or just to say that wars waged on these people by the United States should be filed under "foreign policy" while the movement for Black lives be consigned within this country's borders? Is there not a direct link between police militarization here, and militarism abroad? 

Is a world led by a Black president truly a step toward justice for all when that Black president authorizes the drone assassination of an Arab-American teenager who happens to be in another country? Did not Abdulrahman Anwar al-Awlaki have the same right to life as Trayvon Martin? 

Pursuing the answer to this question, and questions related to it, has caused me to recognize that there is nothing much in American society worth aspiring to. As such, there is nothing to motivate me to believe in American exceptionalism of any kind, even the exceptionalism of Black bodies within American borders. This is especially true in light of this country's actions in the world. Martin Luther King accurately noted that there is no greater purveyor of violence in the world than the American State (it's military, intelligence agencies, and policy makers). As such, there is no reason to believe that justice, or the pursuit thereof, should stop at our artificially constructed borders. 

This is not some sort of all-lives-matter nonsequiture distraction. Black lives matter. And if I am willing to unapologetically make such a declaration, I must take a step further and assert that Brown lives in other countries matter just as much as my own. Thus, when a drone strike is authorized by our favorite president, that is an unspeakably evil action that is directly related to the State sanction of police violence at home.

Should your activism be entwined with loyalty to a US political party?

Speaking of our favorite president, does your vision of justice depend on the Democratic party being in control of the government? When said aloud, it sounds ridiculous. However, I've found the wedding of justice and electoral victories for Democrats implicit in far too many of my past conversations. I'll readily admit that I was deeply enmeshed in this sticky trap for a long time. 

Look, I'm not gonna do some big lead-in to something that should be obvious. The simple fact is that the Democratic party ain't here for  me or the general population of this country. The way I've reached this conclusion is that I've shifted my axiom from "the Democrats are the good guys, the Republicans are the bad guys in government, and the government works for me when the Democrats are in power," to "the Democrats work for the same people as the Republicans, and those people don't include me or anyone I know." 

We live in a country ruled by wealth, and the vast majority of wealth is owned by a few hundred people who comprise a corporate oligarchy. We live in a corporatocracy where money equals power because money is constitutionally-protected free speech that can be used to persuade politicians to enact policies that the powerful/wealthy want. You and I can call a congressional office and maybe, sometimes speak to an aide. Does anyone doubt that Jeff Bezos has a direct line to any congress person with whom he'd like to speak?

So to rephrase this particular question: Do you think Jeff Bezos is here for your freedom? If not, you need to escape from thinking that Team Blue are the good guys holding the keys to your liberation.

What does your just society look like?
For a long time I claimed to be an activist for social justice, while not spending much time envisioning what a just world would look like. As such, I was implicitly imagining a country that was structured as this one currently is, but with the gaps between white people and people of color removed. This seemed like a noble goal: turn white-male privilege into a privilege that all people enjoy. After all, isn't that the American ideal?

This may sound nice, but it falls apart upon closer inspection. The structure of our society is such that the three (3) wealthiest people have more wealth than the bottom half of the US population. Sit and ponder that just a bit. If the 10-to-1 wealth gap between the median white family and median Black/Latinx family were removed, the historically unprecedented wealth gap I quantified in the previous sentence would remain. That action would not result in justice. In fact, I believe it would be impossible to argue that it would move us anywhere closer to justice. 

Since the 2008 economic collapse, there has been a growing willingness in US society to openly criticize our economic system. However, this criticism often comes with conspicuously odd qualifiers. For example, people inveigh against "crony capitalism," "unregulated capitalism," and "runaway capitalism." This language implies that there is a capitalism that exists without wealth concentration, capture of political power, and general corruption. Such a capitalism is just as much a fiction as an ocean without water.

Look, at it's most basic level, capitalism rests upon the existence of a minority group who owns jobs, and a majority who sell their labor to these owners. The profit generated by the workers is split between them and the owner. But what did the owner do to deserve any portion of this product? Well, they had enough wealth to own the business. By virtue of having wealth (or access to wealth) they "earned" the right to pay workers less than their true value by taking a portion of their surplus product for themselves. Not only that, but they get to make the decisions that have the greatest impact on the lives of workers: what to produce, where to produce it (here or in another country?), and what to do with the profits (invest them in collateral debt obligations and crash the economy for short-term profit; or invest in universal healthcare?). This is a great deal of power that a few hold over the many, and it is held in for very arbitrary and undemocratic reasons. 

Does justice look like equal representation among the owners, such that all people regardless of race, gender, sexuality and physical ability have an equal representation among the wealthy power establishment? Does justice look like a Black, queer woman making the decision to move manufacturing to Guatemala because the workers there can be paid less, with fewer rights, and fewer regulations, such that her company's profits can be maximized while some town in the US is left destitute? Should she, rather than the standard-issue white man, be trusted to make "fair" decisions about employment, tax rates, and regulations placed on her company by using her vastly superior political influence, while the rest of us cross our fingers that she does so in a way that benefits us?

Or should we perhaps investigate alternatives to this irrational, unjust, and inherently undemocratic economic system called capitalism?


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