Saturday, April 24, 2021

The Source of Our Discontent

 "Trump's America" by FotoGrazio is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Conservative media and politicians whip their audiences into a frenzy, crying that the sky is falling: that we are losing our birthright as a nation because “hoards” of dark-skinned “aliens” are invading our country. They accuse liberals of being godless heathens for questioning the “natural order” of things in terms of who is should be in charge, what it means to be a man or a woman, who we can love, the list goes on and on.

In a word, these instigators  are fueling moral panic, pitting us one against another, making us ever more polarized as a nation.. Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociologist and prominent public intellectual, has done brilliant work illuminating the root of our discontent.⁠1

It all stems from the categories of thought we use to navigate in the world. The human brain  is limited and can’t cope with the infinite stream of incoming stimuli we receive without establishing some sort of order. The brain does this by establishing categories, defining apples as one category of fruit, oranges as another; women as one category of human, men as another; and so on. It is through these categories that we make sense of the world. They can be interpreted in two ways.

We can view these categories as immutable because they are baked into our biology or passed down from God, or we can see them as more porous and changeable, varying widely between cultures. Conflicts between these two views of reality are often explosive because they can threaten bedrock values. Challenging them can lead to moral panic. That, according to Cottom, is the underlying dynamic driving our polarization and moral outrage.

Liberals tend to view these categories as socially constructed, differentiating over time to include more categories of  folks who previously were marginalized or left out. They see that as progress. Conservatives, however, tend to see these categories as sacrosanct, written in stone, ordained by a  higher power. Changes for them, therefore, are seen as a moral violation threatening their deepest values.

Every person has prejudices and blind spots, whether we admit it or not. Having them outed can be disorientating, shaking us to our very core. At that point, we have a choice: We can either be like ostriches, sticking our heads in the sand by passing laws making it illegal to talk about the source of our distress. Or we can join the conversation by participating in community dialogue, all-inclusive without blame or rancor, to find a way forward to further the American dream.

It can seem comforting to look back with nostalgia for the ‘good ole days,’ But as Cottom reminds us, we usually can only do so by glossing over past inequality and injustice. Watching “Father Know Best” as I did as a child glossed over the unequal treatment of women while completely eliminating people of color. Growing up watching cowboy and Indian shows from the 50s and 60s –as I admit I did with relish – glossed over Native American genocide.

 To me, it is undeniable: We are unfinished beings at birth. We become, in large part, who we are through being socialized into a specific community. That means we are largely socially constructed, woven into exquisite beings of vast complexity by the warp and woof of our evolution. 

For long stretches of our history, things have stayed the same; at other times we experience rapid change. But never before in our evolution have we ever faced, as we do today, such dizzying change in so many realms: social, technological, and environmental. As our national prophet and Nobel Prize winning poet has sung “The Times, They Are A-Changin:” 

And you better start swimmin’

Or you’ll sink like a stone.



Saturday, April 17, 2021

Rediscovering Who We Are

Hampton Beach ©Jean Stimmell

Elementary Forms of Religion

I’ve written about this before in this space: We think we act rationally with the cold logic of a computer, but beneath, we remain mere animals driven by instinct, habit, geography, time, and mystery. Toward that end, there’s even a new book entitled How to Be Animal.

We are not solitary but social animals, though not always the cuddlesome creatures seen on Animal Planet. We can get swept up in the moment and do terrible things, prompted by something sociologists call “social contagion.” There’s a new book about that also, entitled The Delusions of Crowds: Examples include the mass delusion behind the Salem witch trials and the recent mass assault on Congress, back on January 6th.

But all is not lost.

Under most circumstances, our social nature is our savior, driven by an altruistic instinct to promote the welfare of the species. We see this in action when a regular person spontaneously, without thinking, jumps in a raging river to save a child. The extent that altruism is  fundamental to the human condition has recently been proven in experiments by the psychologist Alison Gopnik: her research shows that children are naturally empathetic from birth and tend to exhibit altruism from the age of one.⁠1

Our altruism, I think, is related to the ecstatic sense of wonder we feel by witnessing the emergence of new life or being soothed by the gentle murmurs of an endless sea caressing the land. But, more than just observing, we have a compulsion to share, prompting our forbearers to translate  their sense of awe into breath-taking cave art, found all around the world, thousands of years before communication became written.

Written language is a recent development, originating independently in four places around the world around 5000 years ago, fueling what the civilized world has called progress –  and, indeed, it has bestowed on  us many gifts. But, in a Faustian bargain, it filled our heads with dictionaries, separating us from our most precious birthright: the immediacy and purity that comes from being fully alive in the moment.

While Indigenous folks stand transfixed in the mere presence of Mother Earth, modern westerners stand tongue-tied and impotent, reaching desperately for words that are only crude approximations, sullying  the moment like reading pornography as opposed to making love.

While social contagion has a nasty component like a pack of dogs gone wild, it isn’t always so. Most often, it is positive and restorative, as when we stand silently together with friends experiencing a full moon: That  can be a revelatory epiphany, a mysterious joining together with each other within the embrace of all that is.

Such social solidarity was everpresent in indigenous life, but not so much today. In my opinion, our inability to connect  to  each other and the earth intuitively with deep inner feelings are at the root of what ails us today.  

  Emile Durkheim was a well-known 19th-century sociologist who is a hero of mine. He believes humans hold in common a social consciousness that has evolved within us across our long evolution; while most of it lies beneath our awareness, it determines much of what we do. Most important, it is intimately connected to the divine. Durkheim makes a strong case that the awe and sense of mystery we are capable of feeling is the wellspring of religion before it becomes regimented and institutionalized.

As he writes in Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, these collective representations are “the result of an immense cooperation which stretches out not only into space but into time as well; to make them, a multitude of minds have associated, united, and combined their ideas and sentiments; for them, long generations have accumulated their experience and their knowledge...infinitely richer and complexer than that of the individual.⁠2” 

Rather than using words like cudgels to divide us from one another, we need to reconnect to these elementary forms, accruing since the dawn of humankind. “It is only by tapping into these collective social realities that individuals can “understand each other and intelligences grasp each other. They have within them a sort of force or moral ascendancy.”⁠3




1 The Philosophical Baby: What  children’s minds tell us about truth, love, and the meaning of life by Alison Gopnik, 2009.

2 The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life by E. Durkheim, New York: The Free Press, 1965: page 29

3 The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life by E. Durkheim, New York: The Free Press, 1965: page 485

Monday, April 12, 2021

Mother Earth's Text

A special stone on my land
CC Jean Stimmell" 4/8/21

A sacred stone talked to me today
in the native tongue of Earth
with groovy glacial alphabet and
shadows of gently swaying branches
in shifting auras of light and dark
nurturing ancient growing lichen –
along with the rest of us.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Working Class “Woke"

Occupy Wall Street, NYC, 10/8/11
CC Jean Stimmell

"Woke" has become synonymous with political and social awareness among activists in the Black Lives Movement. This innocuous word has become a rallying cry for conservatives, claiming “becoming woke” is part of a sinister plot to privilege blacks and minorities at the expense of white Americans. But it wasn’t always so. Woke used to refer to any class of people who – becoming aware they were given the short end of the stick organized and fought for justice.

I thought about this while reading about Tillie Olsen, an early feminist writer and working-class activist during the Great Depression. She wrote about how life was stacked against working folks, particularly women, whose every hour of the day was consumed with struggling just to survive. They had no time to stop and think, to say nothing about having time and energy to create. As a result, even “the gifted  among women (and men) have remained mute, or never attained full capacity.” She brought to light the vast silence of “those whose waking hours are all struggle for existence; the barely educated; the illiterate; women. Their silence the silence of centuries as to how life was, is, for most of humanity.”⁠1 

Tillie was writing about the poor and working-class travails amid the great depression when the future of our democracy was increasingly in doubt. An ideological war was raging. It was dawning on the working class that America’s economic and political system wasn’t working for them. Alternative like socialism and communisms started to sound appealing. She was a voice ahead of her times. Today, we could say she had become “woke.”

On the other side, many prominent individuals and business interests were increasingly drawn toward authoritarian models in Europe like fascism: A top-down system that could restore law and order and keep out the riff-raff. One of those prominent Americans was Charles Lindbergh, who became the leading voice of the American first Committee. Does that sound familiar? It was a group that opposed U.S. Intervention in World War II and was characterized by anti-Semitic, pro-fascist rhetoric.

Much like today, rightwing forces considered politics a zero-sum game, blaming blacks, jews, and immigrants for stealing jobs away from white workers. Even though African Americans were already suffering massive unemployment, some Northern cities called for blacks to be fired and replaced with out-of-work whites. Racial violence became more common, particularly in the South, where lynchings surged.

But blaming fellow Americans for our difficulty only made things worse, threatening our very democracy. Into the breach marched Franklin Roosevelt, who held fireside chats to remind us of what we had in common. Rather than divisive rhetoric, he proposed specific remedies to improve our everyday lives. His New Deal lifted the boats of working people and  downtrodden minorities, leading to significant reforms and increased prosperity for most Americans, a trend that continued through the 1960s.

But then, the situation reversed, encapsulated by Ronald Reagan’s declaration that government was not the solution but the problem. Perhaps, by then, government had,  in  some ways, become bloated, but relentless tax cuts, year after year, coupled with deregulating the guard rails on business that protected the public, soon caused the pendulum to swing the other way, back toward the way it was in the 1930s. As working-class lives have become more precarious while the affluent prospered, workers have once again become “woke” demanding change. 

As a consequence, in 2016, we elected a president who promised to address these grievances to make American great again. Unfortunately,  he was not interested in instituting policies promoting economic justice for white working folks, or most anyone else.  Instead, he ruled by pitting us against another to no good effect except to enrich the monied class, reward his cronies, and flatter his ego by preening in front of adoring audiences.. 

Now, finally, we have elected a new president who, like Roosevelt, can heal our divided nation. He understands the root of our  malaise is the same as it was in the 1930s and the stakes are high: once again, our very democracy is at stake. Toward that end, he has come up with a set of practical policies to put wind in all our sails.

Tillie mourned the vast silence of generations of marginalized poor and working folks of all genders and races, who were never able to contribute their creative gifts to the American experience because life was so difficult that just surviving was a triumph. Now that more of us are finding our voices, it is imperative that we support President Biden’s sweeping proposals to lessen the burden on those of us still left out.

It’s time we all woke up.



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