Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Gift of Turning 60

The most obvious blessing of being sixty years old is that it beats the alternative.

But I've noticed a lot of other benefits, too.

One of the historical anomalies of modern life is that we live a long time. Paired with the great comfort--again, relatively speaking--that most of us in the West enjoy, this understandably leads to a sort of assumption that we have all the time in the world. And that can become a sort of burden. "What'll we do with ourselves this afternoon, and the day after that, and the next thirty years?" wonders a character in The Great Gatsby.

Old age has a way of reminding you that time is short. People your age--or younger--that you care about start passing away, sometimes with scant notice. One's energy level and memory are not what they used to be. Weight is easier to put on, harder to lose. Ailments start creeping in--or sometimes rushing in.

Life becomes more of a gift, less of a burden. One hopes for many more years, especially productive and healthy ones. But clearly most of life is in the rear-view mirror, and the road ahead may be much shorter and more difficult than we hope for. And that is a good thing to ponder.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

How Did This Happen, Conclusion (I think)

In sum, here are my major "take-aways" from the election in terms of what I can do:

1) Although many factors lay behind the election of a person patently unfit to be President, one of them certainly is fear of the unknown or of the stranger. Maintaining friendships with a wide range of people--and seeking to bring diverse people together--can ease those fears.

2) Much of the electorate feels disrespected by liberal or radical intellectuals--and that is partly by design. Educated white people, especially, commonly distance ourselves from our less educated counterparts by mocking their values and intellects, and they have gotten the message.  This sort of distancing, this assertion of superiority, often happens unconsciously, I think, but it is no less damaging for that.

3) A point related to #2, above: I need to remember that people I disagree with have things to teach me, access to truths I have not learned. My knowledge and understanding will always be partial.

None of the above means that I or others should stay silent or passive in our politics. But all of us need to own our part of the current dilemma for us to have the best chance of working our way out of it.

Like a person falling from an airplane without a parachute, most people in the U.S. have had a great ride since World War II, especially. The ground, it appears, is rapidly approaching.

Friday, December 9, 2016

How Did This Happen, Part III

One of the more striking and, for many of us, disturbing developments of the last campaign was the emergence of what is commonly referred to as "White Nationalism," or, more generally, white identity politics.

This growing attraction to or assertion of a white identity is the product of several themes. Part of it is simply demographics, namely that in more and more parts of the U.S. white people no longer constitute a majority. It also reflects a sort of longing for the sort of identity that people of color seem to possess--or at least that white people think they possess. I've run across many liberals who in fact seem to regret being white, as whiteness is associated with not having a culture or an identity.

In academia, being white is in fact commonly interpreted as a sort of mark of shame, or at least being very uncool. A few months ago I read a book proposal on American identities that essentially identified whiteness with privilege and oppression.

I have two general problems with that assertion or assumption. First, it seems to be a sort of (albeit subtle) form of white privilege to assert that only white people are capable of dominating and exploiting others. To assert that white people are more evil than other groups is to at least imply that we are more clever than the rest, that we are the ones with agency. Second, and on a more practical level, many white students will resent the assertion or implication that whiteness can be reduced to unearned privileges and domination. As one pundit recently observed, white people are apt to vote for the party that is not calling them racists.

President-Elect Trump was very skilled at speaking to the fears and resentments of white people across the educational spectrum. "Make American Great Again" was, for many people, code for "Make American White Again"--or at least that America would be "restored" to the sort of place where white men, especially, called the shots and where their cultural references (from "Merry Christmas!" to the Confederate flag) were enshrined as norms.

Part of what progressive-minded people who are concerned about racism and other forms of prejudice need to do, it seems to me, is to find a way to talk about race, ethnicity, and identity in a way that does not simply reduce whiteness to oppressiveness. When I think of my heritage, what my parents and their parents handed down to me, certainly racism is part of the package. But far more explicit and influential, I think, was a ferocious work ethic.

Of course the problem here is that when white people celebrate their ancestors' work ethic, for example, we commonly go on to assert that our work ethic makes us better than everyone else. White Nationalism asserts that only white people have made substantial contributions to the U.S. or to civilization more broadly defined. Some assert that only white people can even do an honest day's work. This is not simply insensitive; it's patently false.

Can white people build a sense of identity, of culture, that is not tied up in disparaging the cultures of others?

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

How Did This Happen? Part II

It is interesting to note that so many public intellectuals are now examining white, working-class people as a sort of anthropological exercise. On the one hand, it's a good thing that highly educated, liberal people are trying to understand their less educated counterparts. On the other hand, it's a bit depressing that there is such a gulf between the two groups. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that many academics in the U.S. today find it easier to understand and certainly to have empathy for someone living in the developed world under very different circumstances from our own than we do with the average Trump enthusiast.

One of the discoveries of these cultural anthropologists of the white working class is that the subjects of the study view themselves as middle class. That distinction is a telling one, for I think it's an assertion of both being at the heart of America's identity (a status they fear is slipping away) and that they are not people who need things--though one of the great ironies of modern American politics, I can't help but point out, is that states and areas whose residents express the most antipathy to government tend to be subsidized, through federal and state taxation and expenditure, by places highly populated by pointy-headed intellectuals.

But I think we pointy-headed intellectuals play a leading role in the modern social, cultural, and political divide between highly and less educated white Americans.

I recall years, when I was a young radical, a friend remarking that she felt like she "could not keep up with" me. By the time she accepted one of my positions, I had staked out a new one, farther away from normal people like her. And of course that was the point, to be more radical than thou. It's a very human and understandable impulse, to wish to "distinguish" oneself, to use Pierre Bourdieu's term. Intellectuals like to turn their educational advantages not simply into cash, but into "cultural capital." We adopt ways of living and thinking that set us apart from--and above--our less educated peers in our taste in food, entertainment, and, of course, politics. Hence we are often perceived, by those we view as our inferiors, as walking around with "stick up our ***."

One of the problems with using one's education to assert superiority is that it so often generates humiliation and resentment in those who are made to feel excluded. Another problem is that if you are determined to be in the minority, you won't win many elections.

Monday, November 14, 2016

How Did This Happen?

I apologize to my faithful blog readers--both of you--for this long pause between blogs.

Like many people, since Tuesday I've been trying to come to terms with the results of the U.S. Presidential election. Though certainly there are millions of Americans, at least, who will disagree with me, I believe that we elected someone who is patently unfit for the office, a fact that a large number of conservatives, as well as liberals, have been pointing out for months.

So that raises the question of how he could be elected. There are of course all sorts of economic and strategic considerations here, a sort of perfect storm of antipathy for Secretary Clinton and economic decline among the aging white working class, especially men, who not so long ago were apt to vote Democratic. But I like to focus on variables that I think I can shape more directly, such as my work as a professor, my teaching.

It seems to me that universities contributed to the election of Mr. Trump. Sure, he did great among relatively uneducated white voters. But he also (thanks to men) won most of the white college graduates. How could so many highly educated white voters vote for a candidate who was not only patently unfit for office by experience and temperament, but who also expressed the sort of racist and misogynistic views that university professors so commonly condemn?

1) Universities do a poor job of teaching and encouraging civic engagement. About 45 percent of registered voters did not even vote.

2) We also do a poor job of teaching students to handle intellectual and moral complexity. Many commentators have remarked on the election's false equivalences, such as the notion that since each candidate bent the truth, they were equally guilty of lying.

3) The very fact that university professors in the humanities and social sciences have become so liberal leads to all sorts of problems, ironically, for liberals. When universities become silos of an ideology (no matter how praiseworthy) that bears little resemblance to what most of the country believes, it loses the capacity to communicate with the rest of society. Too many well-educated Americans don't even know someone with conservative beliefs, let alone how to communicate with one. Not only that, but students with more conservative values may "hunker down" and keep their ideas to themselves during class to avoid being labeled intolerant, backward, or bigoted, but this feeling of being censured and ridiculed fosters a sense of resentment. A large fraction of Trump voters admitted (anonymously) to being reluctant to express their support for the man publicly, just as a large number of university students with conservative views about religion or sexuality will keep quiet during class.

It seems to me that at least part of the solution to the cluster of civic problems we now face is to work to foster a sense of civic engagement and responsibility that includes respectful dialogue with those who have very different views from our own. Years ago I co-facilitated dialogues with Oregon Uniting and Uniting to Understand Racism in which people of diverse racial or ethnic backgrounds met in small groups and discussed their experiences of and beliefs around race. I think it changed and opened a lot of minds, at least when we created an environment in which people felt safe to be candid about their views and experiences.

None of us has all of the answers, and we can all learn from each other--especially at times like this, when our first inclination is to start shouting.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Not Quite Fifteen Minutes of Fame

I was pleasurably shocked a couple of months ago to be perusing the book section of Costco and come across a stack of my textbook on Oregon's history. I bought a copy, since the price was good, and I figured that, well, someone had to do it.

A few weeks later I returned to find that it was gone. Maybe I should have bought more than one.

Being an author is interesting. It tends to bring one a lot of respect, deserved or not, and even status. But it's very rare for many people to read one's book, and if I were to add all the money I've earned from my books, it would come to less than $20,000. If I were to add up all the time I have spent on those books, it would be the equivalent of about five years of full time work. So you can do the math. And I doubt that the few thousand books of mine have been passed around, from person to person. I remember the words of a fellow graduate student many years ago, at Northwestern University, who summed up the life of the scholar with this observation: "You'll spend many tedious years researching and writing books that no one will read."

If I had it to do over again, I might well spend those five years on other things. But every year or two, there's a little unexpected surprise--a warm email or, once in a lifetime, a cameo appearance at Costco.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Miss Farida: Loss, Determination, and Inspiration

A few months ago Elizabeth, Wendy, and I had the honor of meeting Miss Farida at ECG School in Tamale. Farida had recently lost her father and seemed very sad. But the school has a fund for such students that was helping her to stay in school.
A few days ago Mr. Joseph, our fine coordinator at ECG, sent us a photo of her with her new books. It's good to see her smile.

I have some friends in developing countries who believe that the only way to get people in the West to pay attention to their problems is to feature children who look forlorn and hopeless. Certainly I have been tempted to use such tactics when trying to raise money that Yo Ghana! uses to help such schools.

But the reality is that Miss Farida, her family, and ECG School are doing the hard work here. She is determined in school and refusing to let sadness overwhelm her life. Her family, despite losing its main wage earner, is paying most of her school fees. Her school had a fund for helping such families long before Yo Ghana! came along to contribute to it.

And it's really not accurate to say that Yo Ghana! came to ECG School. Rather, Yo Ghana! has emerged from ECG and other schools in Ghana and the Pacific Northwest, a family of inspiring people and institutions. There's not really a "we" and "them" here.

Farida is as much a part of Yo Ghana! as anyone else, and her determination and smile are an inspirational gift to us all.