My very favorite movie of all time was the amazing 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. In it, two protean geniuses, Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick, offered a glimpse of what contact with an alien species might look and feel like. No movie has ever blown my mind like ODYSSEY, or probably ever will. But all stories have to begin with the Backstory, the way things were before some pivotal change. And 2001 began with the pastoral, bare-survival world of Moonwatcher and the Australopithicines, before the introduction of tools. Technology. Once it is demonstrated how a simple club changed the equations of hunting and fighting, they flash-forwarded through five million years of history, because in terms of the thematics, everything between THAT moment and the moment of contact is just the acting out of a single set of emergent instructions: survive, eat, kill the enemy, dominate the environment, using the tools that give advantage.
In real life, of course, there is no convincing evidence that aliens gave us those tools. All that happens is that every human being uses tools a little differently, and some of those differences are cool and useful. And if we live close enough to look over the shoulders of our neighbors, we get to adapt their coolness, and they get to adapt ours, such that at certain population densities very very interesting things start happening.
And technology not only allows us to dominate the natural world…but also allows us to release our fear and ask new questions. And some of those questions can set us free.
A few days ago, I had an email from a gentleman who couldn’t understand why I found “The Green Mile” offensive.
You know, I’d really rather not dive into this stuff again and again, would rather deal with issues on higher levels of human interaction, but I suspect that would be slightly cowardly of me. These conversations are going on, overtly or subtextually, a million times a day. I am told I have a kind of clarity on it that people find valuable. Therefore, it is in alignment with my values and commitments to continue to speak out.
I found the series of responses sufficiently typical of a particular type of thinking that I thought I would unpack it. The following are not precise quotes: they are combinations of responses on this subject I’ve gotten over the past year from a number of different people.
Q: why can’t you see this as an individual film, and not part of a racial pattern?
A: Because I see a pattern: films where all black characters, or all black male characters die, while whites don’t. There is no American film in which all white characters (people with at least one line of dialogue) die, while members of other races survive. I find this significant. If you don’t, fine: this conversation isn’t for you.
Q: But they made John Coffey a spiritual figure. Couldn’t this be a sign of respect for black people?
A: Not if you disregard what we say about it, no.
Q: Are you saying it is some kind of conspiracy among studio executives?
A: No, I’m saying it reflects unconscious values and preferences on the part of those executives, and the audiences who responded positively. That this same preference is basic tribal programming, present in most human beings, and responsible for a vast amount of pain in the world.
Q: For instance?
A: the BLM concerns: disproportionate shootings, incarcerations, exclusions.
Q: I’m glad you mentioned BLM! That is a racist concept. It implies that white lives don’t.
A: It implies that to YOU. To people who think that way. There are plenty of white people who understand instantly that it simply means what it says. That if I say “Redwoods matter” it doesn’t mean “Bamboo doesn’t.” If I say “my house is on fire” it doesn’t mean “your house doesn’t matter.” If you don’t understand that, you are either saying that YOU would mean “white lives don’t matter” if you said this…or that blacks are less caring and reasonable. And if you think we’re less than you, you automatically exclude yourself from the category of people I take seriously on the matter of race.
Q: But blacks are shot disproportionately because they commit more crimes, proportionately.
A: Let’s follow that logic. If you believe that to be true, WHY is it true, from your perspective?
Q: It’s not racism. It’s because of poverty.
A: And why are blacks disproportionately poor?
Q: Because of the breakup of the black family.
A: And why is this disproportionately a black problem?
Q: Because of Liberal social policies. Welfare.
A: Ah. And since these are income-based programs, why do they hurt black people more?
And here things often break down. Because if the problem is welfare, and you ask why so many blacks were on welfare, you can either trace this back to slavery and Jim Crow…or you can suggest that not all people have the same innate capacity. The simple definition of racism is “the attribution of differential value or capacity on the basis of race or ethnicity.” Not hatred. And I don’t care if you admit SOME X’s are all right. If on average you think a racial group has greater or lesser value, especially in the arenas of intelligence and morality, you fit very comfortably into the category “racist.” Doesn’t make you a bad person. It does mean that you belong to a group that has done very, very bad things.
Of course, you can try to say that racist Liberals targeted blacks out of sheer evil. O.K.
But that demands that you discount the fact that blacks reported the greatest racism in the days of early Great Society as the former slave states, not exactly bastions of liberality. If you deny this, aren’t you saying that blacks cannot be trusted to evaluate and relate their own experience? That they have less of this capacity than whites?
Sorry, but you can’t blame this on their history and simultaneously say their history doesn’t matter. Back to racism again.
Well, what about the fact that white people have been enslaved and “got over it.” Sure. And you and Bill Gates both have bank accounts. Why can’t you buy the same stuff?
Because differences concealed by the general term “bank account” make a huge difference. The word “slavery” covers a vast number of different circumstances and realities. I have no interest in educating you about this: you are laying the ground for an argument about differential innate capacity, and were HIDING it behind the “Liberal policies damaged the black family” argument. Once you start asking “why did that work disproportionately?” either you have to answer that black families were more fragile because of their history…or something else.
Those are your only real choices. History, or Genetics. Never seen an argument that didn’t come down to one or the other, ultimately.
Now, if you want to, you can say: “O.K., Southerners needed slaves, and they kidnapped Africans to do it (another point at which the implication of genetic inferiority is offered by the ignorant), but EVERYONE enslaves people…we weren’t some special evil.”
Never said you were, but this suggests part of what is going on: the thought “if we did that, we’re a special evil.”
To think that, you have to be the kind of person who thinks “better than/worse than” on a racial level, because someone who believes in human equality just has to sigh and say: “Damn. Human beings do this shit to each other. I wonder why Europeans were able to do this…?”
Which leads to either “Guns, Germs and Steel” or “The Bell Curve.”
You make your choice. But if you go with “Equality” then all of this makes sense. It’s all just the way history worked out, and there is no special human evil or incapacity on either side. But there IS special human evil in damaging people and then implying they are responsible for the damage.
That is precisely like a pederast saying hisvictim was ” the most seductive child you’ve ever seen.”
My theory is that slaveholders and their descendants wished to get the benefits of slavery (using human beings as machines) without ever having to face the responsibility for what they did. The heirs of Moonwatcher, they used their technological jawbones to capture rather than kill, enslave rather than simply consume. This is why a “Truth and Reconciliation”/”Nuremburg Trials” type confrontation between slaves and masters would have been such a powerful, healing thing: more painful short-term, but in the long run vastly healthier. It would have prevented most of what I call the “Current Southern Apologia”, the vast raft of excuses and evasions to avoid a simple statement:
“We fucked you over because we could, and invested the profit in our own children.”
That simple statement, even if accompanied by “and we won’t give it back. However, we’ll stop lying about what we did“, while ugly, would have been much better than what we have, which is a web of lies and evasions to conceal a simple noxious belief: “white people would have survived slavery better than you did.”
Say it bluntly, and we know what you are.
And we don’t need you: there are plenty of people, black and white, who believe in equality. That means that black people aren’t less, and white people aren’t evil. It’s just human shit. And there are similar equations around gender, sexual orientation, and the rape of the natural world.
It’s just human shit. Yeah, we did it. We can do different now. BUT WE HAVE TO BE ABLE TO ADMIT WHAT HAPPENED. LOVE OURSELVES ENOUGH TO FORGIVE OURSELVES. Extend our humanity to others enough to admit we (as individuals or groups) would say and do the same things under the same circumstances. And the people who can do this aren’t the ones railing against BLM, or SJWs, or blame people for not enjoying cinematic depictions of symbolic genocide and martyrdom. They can see through the eyes of others. That’s all it takes, really. Extending your own humanity, and loving yourself enough to forgive yourself and your ancestors…
And then move on.
So let’s build this up from the beginning again, shall we?
Once upon a time there was a hairless ape who wanted to survive. He and his children spread out from eastern Africa around the world, where those children began to look differently. Those connected by trade routes exchanged information more rapidly, allowing them to advance in technology, in use of those jawbones and other tools, at an accelerated rate, especially along coastal regions.
They each thought themselves the center of the world, each thought their tribes superior, and as they developed ideas about God and Creation (and all of them did) they assumed they were closer to that God than anyone else. And when they expanded out, they considered that it was that God that loved them that commanded them to do it…and not simply the desire of living things to survive, expand and control the environment.
Many basic principles evolved, but none more powerful than OUTBREED THE OTHER TRIBES, TAKE THEIR TERRITORY IF YOU NEED TO. This led to sexism (lock males and females into reproductive/protective roles), homophobia (shame those who do not reproduce. Attribute these rules to God to lock it in on an unconscious level) and tribalism/racism, as well as dominating the natural world (there aren’t enough of us to make a difference: kill everything, chop everything down. Survive!)
And as mankind spread, this hairless ape also asked deeper questions about what he was, and concluded that the hierarchical structures he had evolved to protect him also limited him. “Freedom” began to replace “hierarchical servitude” and “love” became a viable alternative to “fear”. Even “stewardship” and “cooperation” instead of “dominating the nature that terrorizes us.”
When these apes colonized the last large section of arable land on the planet, the Americas, they encountered natives who had been separated from the main trade routes that accelerated technology, and destroyed them while proclaiming their innate superiority and right to do so: Manifest Destiny. They imported labor from another such land, while proclaiming their right to do so: The White Man’s Burden to “civilize” the savages.
Because they taught freedom, and love, to their own children, they couldn’t admit they were simply acting out an old, old pattern common to Moonwatchers for millions of years: survive, dominate, control or be controlled.
And after centuries, when they became wealthy enough, when Jawbones grew advanced enough that they no longer needed the labor, they had the luxury to question the “rightness” of that imposed servitude, and fought a great war to decide how closely to their stated values they were prepared to live. And those who had clung most tightly to the need for slavery lost that war, but then fought to preserve as much of that institution as they could (economics and social stability), and also to justify what they had done so that they would not feel the guilt, and not suffer the fear of wondering when those enslaved people would seek justice.
Generations passed, and the lies and justifications were concealed beneath deeper and deeper levels of polite discourse, until they could often not be detected without digging. But the same core instructions: “survive, expand and control” could be seen in the political, economic, educational, military, and media structures, broken down one slow step at a time by people who believed in the dream of love over fear, equality over hierarchicalism, the future over the past.
One slow step, each step fought against by those who feared change. Moonwatcher and his children crawling toward the future one length at a time, both stretching fingers and dragging toes invested in survival, but having different priorities.
No evil on a grand scale. Just survival. Little conscious conspiracy, except a conspiracy of silence and blindness to the lessons of history and the power of those basic survival drives.
And after more decades, much of the damage had been clawed out of the formal legal system, but still remained in cultural memes and hearts of those hairless apes. Some of this will never leave. But some will, as generations move further and further away from the cold necessities of survival that drove their ancestors. And those on either side who view humanity as a whole can reach out to each other, understanding, gaining a common language and seeing that they would have behaved the same, if the script had been flipped.
And if they are on the side that has been winning for a few centuries, remembering that that won’t always be true, and demanding a set of principles and values that will protect THEIR children when the change comes.
And oh yes, make no mistake…it will.
Those barriers and horrors, once so bald and obvious, can be seen today mostly in unconscious aspects: media images, the split-second judgement of law enforcement officers, the choices made in the privacy of voting booths and the conspiracies we suspend logic to cling to. Remember: we don’t make decisions logically. We make them emotionally, and then JUSTIFY them with logic.
Those enmeshed in the lies and myths, will not yield to reason, and that is fine. Most are good men and women…just asleep, and afraid of the future.
What is the path forward?
- Love yourself. Enough to forgive and protect yourself. To see that fear does not protect you. AWARENESS and READINESS protects you, and these can be and must be uncoupled from unreasoning fear.
- Love another person. Which forces you to begin opening your heart and seeing your own soul behind the eyes of other human being.
- Understand history without guilt, blame or shame. We’re just hairless apes doing the best we can.
- Find your tribe. Don’t waste your time with trolls. Find those who share a common language and perspective. You can have your own standards for determining when someone is asleep…or a Smiling Monster…but once you choose those standards, adhere to them. Remember that trolls will tag-team you into exhaustion if you allow them to.
- Win. With honor. Using values and rules you would want applied to you and your children.
Because trust me: one day, they will be.