Sunday, November 29, 2015

Your Grandpa Wasn't a Saint: What Are You Gonna Do About It?

As a transplanted Southerner I have mildly conflicted feelings about the whole row over the Confederate battle flag. I have no affection for the thing, as to me it's the flag waved by gangs of ignorant squares who threw tomatoes at black children as they tried to enter public schools in the early 1960s. That said, I do have a good deal of affection for many perfectly kind Southerners whom (according to my social media feeds) feel very differently about that flag and what the entire history of the South means. Many of them it seems, do not like confronting the idea that maybe their sweet ol' Me-maw might have lobbed a tomato or two in the direction of a black toddler, or maybe that their kindly and genteel grand-pappy might've lynched a teenage boy and set his corpse on fire.

I'm reminded of Ben Affleck's embarrassing discovery of his slave owning ancestry and Chelsea Handler's realization that her grandpa was a Nazi. Both struggled to find ways to either revise history in their own mind, or shamefully obscure it from the light of day.


What Affleck, Handler and a good number of my Southern friends are suffering from, is a symptom of 'identity politics', whereby we pretend that inherent flaws in the human psyche are more attributable to certain demographic strains. When we realize that we are descended from a particularly bad strain, we recoil in disgust and try to reconcile our genetic pollution with the enlightened identity we'd rather project.

Nobody wants to be the oppressor. Nobody wants guilt.

Affleck killed the NPR story, Handler tried to find evidence that her granddad was an unwilling patsy, just trying to survive Naziism. And so many of my Southern friends want to completely re-engineer the story of a population that was economically beholden to the fundamentally immoral practice of slavery. A practice that painted white southerners into an economic corner, which forced immorality and self-preservation to occupy the same space. A space wherein defense of self and defense of evil were functionally identical. 

They want to re-engineer the story so that they can preserve Pa-Pa's decency, thereby preserving their own decency. They value tradition and respect, and they see those values as prescriptive for the problems of today. It's a big part of the way they see the world and their place in it. So yeah, they're not too happy about all this flag lowering and 'Dukes of Hazzard' nonsense, because it makes them guilty. It makes them the 'bad strain'.

Well here's the thing people: There is no 'bad strain'. 

Affleck needn't feel ashamed of his slaver ancestry, Handler needn't struggle to redefine the words in her grandfather's military files and Southerners needn't suggest that the rest of America has got it all wrong with respect to that flag. None of that is necessary, and in fact it sets us up to miss the lesson.

Chelsea's granddad wasn't suffering from some genetic condition specific to Germans, thus rationalizing her effort to distance herself from it, he was suffering from mere humanity. Humans are fucked up creatures, friends. We have massive brains that reach all sorts of weird-ass conclusions and that is not a tendency specific to one demographic or another. 

Kind people have the capacity to be mean.

Decent people have the capacity to be obscene.

Those that welcome, also shun.

Those that accept, also reject.

The same heart that can burst with love one moment, can spew hate the next.

This is the human condition we're talking about. Not the white human condition or the black human condition or the male condition or the female condition, it's just humanity. It's our big brains finding detours around moral obligations just because we're confident that we're ultimately pursuing righteousness. 

This is what allowed Huli tribesmen in Papua New Guinea to decapitate a young mother for 'sorcery' when her child contracted tuberculosis.

This is what allowed a young German man to drop Zyklon-B pellets into the gas chamber at Dachau - killing hundreds of emaciated Jews in the process.

This is what allowed Japanese soldiers to sexually mutilate prisoners of war before executing them and leaving their bodies strewn along the trails of Guadalcanal.

This is what justifies slavery, torture, murder and every form of social injustice. 

When our ideological confidence is unwavering and our conviction is deep, we have the potential to become monsters. Its an ugly truth. But if we characterize these basic flaws in the human condition as unique to a particular population, we fail to acknowledge that each and every one of us is susceptible to become the next slaver or Nazi. None of us is immune. We all need to be conscious of how this little pathological chunk of humanity manifests so that we can recognize it in ourselves and halt it's progression. Thats all we can do.

So chill out Ben Affleck and Chelsea Handler. Your ancestors were human beings who did exactly what human beings do, just like mine and everyone else's. And chill out Southerners, your ancestors were normal people too. They were complicit in an evil institution and allowed pride, hatred and selfishness to interfere with the simple logic - which is typical of humanity. It's got nothing to do with you personally so what do you care? And knock it off social justice warriors who appropriate racial distinctions to further your agenda, you are not your civil rights heritage. They were right, you are wrong.

Let's not make any attempts to vilify or canonize past populations as there is no utility in it. Throw away the scorecards and abandon the 'identity politics' narratives because they will not serve any function in the end. 

Narrowing the Definition of Terrorism: Encapsulating The Patriot Act

We need to have some clarity on the definition of 'terrorism'. Not just for the sake of keeping the discourse cohesive, but because this is how our justice system dies.

My preferred definition for terrorism is: 'Violence targeting civilians for the purpose of generating fear'. This is the one I learned from Dr Kleinberg in Poli Sci 334. I'm sure there are others but I think this one wraps it up.

The idea is that civilians are not of any strategic value. It does not make sense to target them for the purpose of reducing your enemy's capability. However, if you attack civilians you create fear amongst that population. Fear can then translate into political pressure on the government to address the agenda of the attackers. Moving their agenda to the front burner is the terrorists goal.

The race of the attacker is irrelevant, the religion of the attacker is irrelevant, the ideology of the attacker, the number of victims, the methodology and weapons used . . . all irrelevant. If the target was random, non-strategic civilians and the motive was to 'terrify' other civilians into affecting the policy process, we have terrorism. Otherwise, not terrorism.

The net effect of adopting this definition is that a lot of events from the past 10-15 years or so that have been characterized as 'terrorism' cease to qualify. Attacks on military personnel or facilities are immediately disqualified. Attacks on US government installations overseas are immediately disqualified. Attacks on individuals or institutions seen as instrumental in some conflict are immediately disqualified . . . yep, this is where I'm going to start losing people.

"Why should we let them off the hook?" some might say. "Why shouldn't we pile as many charges on those assholes as we possibly can?" Here's why...

With the introduction of legislation like The Patriot Act, we have created an off-ramp for our justice system. The otherwise inviolable Contitutional pillars of American justice such as presumed innocence, right to a fair trial, burden of proof, etc. are all overlooked when we feel like charging someone with 'terrorism'.

"But we only make these exceptions in terrorism cases," some apologist might say. "We needn't worry that the precedent set by the Patriot Act will bleed over into other realms of criminal justice."

Unless of course, we broaden the definition of terrorism to include ecoterror, narcoterror, info-terror, cyberterror, terror thought, etc. If we then rationalize that 'hate crimes' are a form of terror we can rope in 'hate speech' and just about everything else until our entire criminal justice system has taken the Patriot Act off-ramp and we're no longer Americans.

The Patriot Act was bad enough with narrowest of scope. Tossing the word 'terrorism' around with casual abandon gently widens that scope until it's all inclusive. Let's not facilitate that with sloppy language.