Muslims destroyed the Twin Towers and Christians hate the gays, or so the Twitters say. In the 1930s it was fashionable to hate Jews, then late in the ’40s, suddenly, dramatically it was not. (When the U.S. waged war on “the Hun,” said a teacher of mine, Americans with German surnames could wake and walk out their front doors to pick the paper off the drive and find a Sanskrit symbol painted on the sidewalk. Some families changed their names.) There was the internment of the Japanese and the hearings organized by Senator McCarthy of Wisconsin. There is the five-hundred-year-long ballad of Americans of African descent.
In Massachusetts way back when, women were hanged for abnormal public acts. In 2013 the gendered set themselves at one another’s throats, invoking grievances as old as civilization as just cause for asshole moves, because in March in Santa Clara one woman publicly humiliated two men who shared a joke that she found, for whatever reason, to threaten her.
America has a long and shameful history but it all reads like old news. History was full of unreasonable objectifications long before the quaint hatreds of American public life. From the chronicles of ancient battle songs and other acts of hoodoo we’ve learned beyond a doubt that human beings have reliable means of projecting convenient ideas into the heavens. We extrapolate vast meanings from the minutia of personal experience. We’re good at it — better at it than we are at most things. It’s bad logic to stretch particular truths into universal Truth, and bullshit besides, but the practice is as real and vital a part of earthly life as the pebbles beneath my toes.
I’m not sure there’s any kind of social program capable of breaking us of our easy habit of chopping the world into us and them, in and out. What’s it take to loosen up the binding feel of an impression? to train a generation of young minds to doubt that whatever appears before them is exactly what they think it is? The prescription reads like a disease!
I’ve met many people who say the answer is science or social justice or some combination of the two, or one or both of them tacked onto some other abstract category of thought. Everybody absolutely gets their say, but they’ve been talking for years and I really want them to be quiet a while. I honestly have no idea what the words mean anymore. I know they go a long way toward rallying support for some political objective or another, which is fine. I can say from personal experience it’s also a fantastic endorphin rush to join up with some great humane cause. People take active part in political causes for all the reasons that people join churches, homebrew clubs, sewing circles, and motorcycle gangs. The cause becomes our cause, the meaning our meaning, the goal our goal. I’ve done the bake sales and the info booths, the cold calls and the rallies. I get the sense of it.
What the words fail to do is to address the basic problem of abstract categories, which is that they’re made up. As contemporary political expressions, words like science and social justice amount to a credo. They convey nothing more than the same old thrilling feelings of unity and purpose of every great common act and every awful social identity movement, caught up with the same crappy zero-sum metaphysic in the assertion that they stand on the “right side” of a history when history is far from finalized. Of course activists might be aiming much lower than ideals — say, at a simple reversal of role and fortune, a mere rejiggering of the mechanisms of production. Such ends would be fine, provided they were pronounced clearly and laid open to critique. Still they would not be anything like an answer to the problem that the advocates of science, social justice, etc., insist the ideals address.
Far be it from me to advocate the social status quo. I’ve met enough pointed interference, in my pursuit of the simple things I want, to feel the urge for large-scale change. It’s a rare thing for me to live a month without hearing how my height or some note in my voice reflects a deficiency in my character. It used to get me down. It no longer pains my soul to find myself before some hipster court of phrenology. On an intimate and personal level I am aware of how attributes can be seen to add up to a positive ID whether there’s any identity or not. John Ames meditates in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead that “We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness.” This works in the negative in addition to his meaning.
Whether data comes from a computer or from an eye, it’s only data to a point. The instant data lodges in a brain, it gains the weight of prior sentiment, and finds itself attached to the cause of argumentation. Time and time again, familiar reductions stand in place for cold hard facts, even among the advocates of looking at the cold hard facts. The world is as we take it to be and there is not a single one of us given over readily to hearing any different from what we already think we know. The acts of hating Muslims, loathing Christians, and despising Jews are all one act; the fear of blacks and the contempt of women share the same movement. If prejudice is part of how we approach the world around us — and it seems to me it is — then our task is not to overcome it and defeat it but to master it and regulate it.
For this reason I was moved by Brian Beutler’s reflection on being shot five years ago. He refused to let the experience harden his heart.