Tag Archives: difference

Ta-Nehesi Coates: “Thinking They are White”

Ta-nehesi Coates’s book on racism was one of the most provocative books I read last year. Mr. Coates grew up an impoverished black child in Baltimore, Maryland, managed to escape with an education, and wrote this very revealing book about what it is like to grow up under the tyranny of racism in ’70’s and 80’s America.  One line that really grabbed me a class of people who learned to “think they are white” and the power that comes with that understanding.  For, being white in America did carry, and still does to a large degree, implicit assumptions of power, i.e. prerogative.  Growing up a poor white boy in Arkansas I clearly remember discovering early the “black-white” distinction in my culture, the blacks being known, of course, as “N…….s” and viewed with great scorn and contempt.  Looking back I now recall distinctly how important this was as a poor white, having a class of people who were lower on the totem pole than we were though we were very low socio-economically.  Learning to “think I was white” was one of the most important early discoveries of my life, very much a formative part of my identity the early stages of which involves drawing distinctions between self and others, including between my group and other groups.

But Mr. Coates’ observation, “thinking they are white” really cut to the quick with me, conveying to me what he had seen about the smug observations we make early in our childhood which become solid bedrock in our cognitive grasp of the world.  And with my grasp of my “whiteness” I knew that though I lacked many things, no one could take away from me my “whiteness” and with that status came the power of eating on the right side of the diner, using the nicer bathrooms, drinking at the white water fountains, and going to the better white schools.  It was nothing I thought about…consciously.  It was a given, a basic assumption, an implicit part of the template through which I viewed the world.  I had a power that many others did not have, regardless of how powerlessness I might feel otherwise in my life.

Though I have long since gone beyond this racist view of the world, I know the template is still there in the depths of my heart thought quite faint.  In the past decade as I’ve aged I have recognized faint racist imagery and thoughts creep into my consciousness, an experience which has not alarmed me because I see them for what they are.  The earliest imprints from our culture, even those “burned in” on our pre-conscious soul, never leave us.   People may vehemently deny being racist but very often their behavior and passing thoughts betray them.  For example, note the Republican Party which is quick to deny racism but has systematically and persistently sought to deny blacks the right to vote in recent years.

Racism is only the surface of a deeper problem, an intrinsic dimension of identity formulation already alluded to.  For an identity to begin to organize and to escape the matrix in which it first existed, that “blooming, buzzing, confusing world of sense experience” spoken of by William James…it must draw distinctions between it and the “other”.  Blacks in my early life, and in most of my generation, was one of the earliest “others” that we found and when we “othered” them it was done with great emotional intensity.

So racism is merely an essential part of American identity and all cultures and tribes have some similar process at the bedrock of their collective psyche.  But I’ve discoursed here only as an introduction to my next blog post, the Christian faith utilized as a contrivance for identity formulation and, devoid of maturation, serving only to “other” masses of people.

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My “Skewed View of the World” and Marriage

Marriage has been so important to me, a gift from the heavens designed to penetrate my isolation and introduce me to reality.  When we married 27 years ago, I quickly realized just how skewed her view of the world was and at times wondered, “Now what in the hell have I gotten myself into?”  But almost immediately the first of many life lessons was on the table for me, “Lewis, look how skewed your view of the world is.”  That was disconcerting for I had been comfortably ensconced in my uncomfortable life of isolation and suddenly it dawned on me that my very view of the world was skewed, including my view of myself and of my wife.  This process of disillusionment is now a 27-year journey into the world of “reality” which my life experience had taught me to avoid, a “reality” made up of billions of people all with their own “skewed” view of the world.

Another way of approaching this phenomenon is as the discovery of “difference”, that the difference I had always known, superficially having achieved “object separateness” (more or less), extended much further than I had thought.  For “difference” included the realization that someone who I dearly loved and was devoted to, and thought I knew, was always beyond the pale of that ego-ridden cognitive apparatus through which I viewed the world, my ego.  Conrad Aiken described it this way, “We see only the small bright circle of our consciousness beyond which lies the darkness.”  Aiken realized that to engage meaningfully in any relationship is to venture into darkness, to recognize that one is approaching a “darkness” and that the approaching one is in turn a “darkness” in reference to the other.    Marriage, and any close relationship, might be described as two “darknesses” bumping into each other and beginning the process of venturing into another world, penetrating the barriers that each had set up to protect his/her splendid isolation.

“Difference” is a difficult phenomenon to comprehend.  For, if we begin to realize just how “different” another person is, it will entail the understanding and experiencing of just how profoundly alone we are in this overwhelming and incomprehensible void that we live in.  It will be venturing into and exploring the existential solitude that each of us is plagued with, a solitude which the owning and experiencing of can provide the only meaningful human connection.

So, how does “a hand reach across the abyss” and make contact?  Well, it requires body and soul, but the body is often the easy part as it provides physical intimacy and the various contrivances of culture–gender rules, sexual mores and sexual politics.  And these physical “contrivances,” though essential, can be an obstacle to true connection. For the soul part of the equation is more challenging as it will include language; for it is with words that we can reach across that abyss and learn that, “Hey, there is somebody out there.”  This involves “wrestling with words and meanings”  (T. S. Eliot) including…to put this in personal terms…who exactly is “Lewis” and who exactly is “Claire.” This entails understanding that to some degree I have no idea, for “I am not who I ‘think’ I am” and she is not who she “thinks” she is.  For, personal identity is not a rigidly defined quality; it is quite amorphous, and can never be captured with a mesh of words and conceptual formulations.  The individual, and the other person is always a mystery if there is to be a dynamic quality to the relationship.  Auden had this in mind when he posed the question, “Suppose we love not friends or wives, but certain patterns in our lives…?”

Marriage by Wendell Berry

How hard it is for me, who live
in the excitement of women
and have the desire for them

in my mouth like salt. Yet
you have taken me and quieted me.
You have been such light to me
that other women have been
your shadows. You come near me
with the nearness of sleep.
And yet I am not quiet.
It is to be broken. It is to be
torn open. It is not to be
reached and come to rest in
ever. I turn against you,
I break from you, I turn to you.
We hurt, and are hurt,
and have each other for healing.
It is healing. It is never whole.

A friend has proof read this posting prior to publishing and I’m going to include a poem that he shared with me in response to the Berry poem.

A love poem by Bertrand Russell to Edith Finch Russell (his fourth and last wife: )

To Edith

Through the long years
I sought peace,
I found ecstasy, I found anguish,
I found madness,
I found loneliness,
I found the solitary pain
that gnaws the heart,
But peace I did not find.
Now, old & near my end,
I have known you,
And, knowing you,
I have found both ecstasy & peace,
I know rest,

   
After so many lonely years.
I know what life & love may be.
Now, if I sleep,
I shall sleep fulfilled.

 

 

Rush Limbaugh’s Specious Objectivity

I occasionally venture into the dark side, just to recall how it used to be when I had my head so squarely up my backside and thought I viewed the world with objectivity. And it is abysmally dark in there; no light can get in for the light of day would crush the smug world of certitude. And, of course, I’m talking of my occasional venture into Rush Limbaugh’s radio show.

Let me illustrate. Earlier in the week he noted re one issue, “Now, liberal media won’t pick this up because it is not part of their narrative.” Implicit in that observation is that he does not have any “narrative” that he has subscribed to, a narrative for which he “cherry picked” information that would support bias. He thinks he is being objective and is reporting the news as it “really is” while “all those liberals” have an agenda. He vividly illustrates the smugness of those who feel they grasp reality in an objective fashion and seek desperately to maintain the status quo and repudiate anything which threatens the narrow prism through which they view the world. He even noted how the liberals “bend and shape the news, pushing their liberal agenda” without any suspicion that he has an agenda of his own which he is pushing. This is a classic example of the projection that Karl Jung wrote about, ascribing to others the faults that one is actually plagued with him/herself.

Rush proudly announced that he lives in “realville”, not in the “fantasy world” that liberals live in. Well, he does live there but his “realville” is the smug world view that once championed slavery, saw nothing wrong with the corporate excesses of the late 19th century, opposed giving women the right to vote in the early 20th century, vehemently opposed the civil rights movement in the 1960’s, and basically demands that our country lives in the past. His “realville” is merely a version of a template that he and his ilk daily impose on their world, a template that I describe as “the way things are.” They wake up daily and know assuredly that “this is the way things are” and do not consider that their viewpoint is very subjective…as is the case with all of us… and does not definitively describe reality. And their “way things are” is imposed in a tyrannical manner on the whole of their world, including those nearest and dearest to them.

They cannot have the humility to become aware of their own subjectivity, their own inner experience, and know that they can have a confidence in that subjective reality but not with the arrogance they once had. When their subjectivity is recognized, and experienced, they can respect their reality but at the same time recognize that other people have their own subjective world and that many times that subjective world is very different from their own. This is the phenomena of “difference” and “difference” is what makes the world beautiful and exciting.

But, one’s discovering one’s subjective world is a spiritual enterprise. And by “spiritual” I am here not talking of Spiritual (in the sense of God and such—that is relevant but must wait for discussion on another occasion). By “spiritual” I mean becoming aware of the complexities and ambivalences and ugliness of the human heart. Or, to put it differently, I referring to opening up to consideration of an unconscious dimension to the human heart. I am encouraging one to allow the “Spirit of God” (if I might employ that notion) to open up the heart and follow the advice of Shakespeare and allow that Spirit to make that heart “full of penetrable stuff,” no longer “bronzed o’er” with a culturally imposed template of how the world is.

Conservatism is a valid and critical dimension of any culture. But when its extremes are allowed to have undue influence, and the moderates are intimidated into submission, darkness will rear its ugly head. But the real evil is when these moderates do not have the courage to stand up and vote for their convictions, to vote for what they feel is the right, and therefore not worship the false god of “Re-electability.”

 

Paean to the East from a Southern Cracker

The Eastern thinkers really speak to me. Those of ancient eons but those of today, including a handful of you I have met recently in the blog-o-sphere. You just don’t “think the right way.” You deign to look at the world differently. You look different. You sound different. How could that be? How could that have happened?

This world is just not as it was presented to me. It is not static but always intrinsically dynamic, always a “process in a process in a field that never closes.” ( W. H. Auden) It has taken me 61 years to get to this place where humility is teasing me, inviting me into its solace, and I’m absolutely loving it! Sure, I’m still kicking and screaming a bit but I’m gonna get there. And I think of the observation of W. B. Yeats when he “got there,”—Throughout all the lying days of my youth/I waved my leaves and flowers in the air./Now may I wither into the Truth.

Here is a wonderful poem by Bei Dao, a contemporary Chinese poet, with favorite stanza highlighted:
ANSWERS

Cruelty is the ID pass of the cruel,
honesty the grave stone of the honest.
Look, in the sky plated gold,
crooked reflections of all the dead float around.

The glacial epoch is over,
so why is there ice everywhere?
Good Hope was rounded a long time ago,
so where are these thousands of boats racing on the Dead Sea?

I came into this world
with only blank pages, rope and my fingers;
therefore, before final judgements are given,
I need to speak in all the voices of the defendants.

Just let me say, world,
I–don’t–believe!
If a thousand challengers are under your feet
count me as challenger one-thousand-and-one.

I don’t believe the sky is always blue;
I don’t believe it was thunder echoing;
I don’t believe all dreaming is false;
I don’t believe the dead cannot bring judgement.

If the sea is doomed someday to break its levees
my heart must flood with all the bitter waters.
If the land is destined to form the hills again,
let real human beings learn to choose the higher ground.

The latest, favorable turnings, the twinkling stars
studding the naked sky,
are pictographs five-thousand years old.
They are the eyes of the future staring at us now.