Rediscovering the Circle of Empathy – Part II

Writing about this stuff is not easy. Last week I got stuck in my own anger once again. So I missed the point that WEB DuBois appears to be developing at length in Black Reconstruction in America, or at least the point that inspired me to “rediscover” the idea of a circle of empathy one last time. DuBois’ historical perspective differs radically from what I learned in school. Partially because I bring a different perspective now, but it’s primarily because DuBois’ analysis (as stated in his introduction) treats Black people like any other people, rather than as less-than-human aberrations or commodities. The latter perspective was still common in the 1930s, when this book was published, and didn’t really begin substantive change until the social change movements of the 1960s began to challenge it. DuBois’ approach, however, seemed to bring out the humanity in everyone he wrote about. His imagery of five million poor Whites living in the antebellum south, alongside four million enslaved Blacks during the Civil War and Reconstuction era is riveting. Despite having basic human rights and protections (some quite considerable, such as the freedom from being legally and openly tortured at will) that Blacks did not, these Whites often lived in a state of hopeless and absolute poverty, just as bad and in some cases worse than many of the enslaved.

The key takeaway for me came in reflecting that US politicians described as “populist” such as previous presidents Andrew Jackson and Andrew Johnson,  Alabama Govenor George Wallace, and current president Donald Trump seem to build their power bases by pitting poor Whites against poor or disadvantaged people of all other ethnicities (especially Blacks) rather than building a potentially much larger and stronger power base across Blacks and Whites, or across all poor or disadvantaged groups. It appears that in some cases, populist politicians actually started out with broad cultural perspectives, but eventually to chose to pit Whites against Blacks because it helped them win elections. My own anger at such madness, and at the massively untold suffering and grief that it has caused and continues to cause, was as far as I was able to get in the previous post. A couple of people who I discussed this with said it was just my first stage of awareness, but I really wasn’t hearing it at the time. I was feeling angry. I needed to scream, to emote! Might those be the feelings that so-called “populist” candidates tap into for success?

Now that my tantrum is out of the way, I can finally stumble through to where I was intending to take this reflection in the first place, to the profound suffering and grief that such populist success has caused far too many people for far too long. The point is that until we can take the time to feel and share each other’s grief—particularly when my supposed windfall benefit is a direct result of (and perhaps also in direct proportion to) someone else’s grief—nothing changes. This is the bottom line in the empathy alluded to in the previous post as ultimately making both land and labor truly free and healing for all involved. I don’t believe that such understandings or ways of living are unique to any particular culture or heritage. I also don’t know to what extent such capacities have been lost among human societies or are yet to be developed. Maybe the grieving I’m talking about is mostly just for old people like me, in part due to reflecting on past life experiences, and in part due to (often) reduced involvement in the day to day crises that greedily consume time, we might otherwise spend in reflection and grieving.

Even as an adolescent, I was struck by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s decision to broaden the Civil Rights Movement into a Human Rights struggle against poverty, and against Imperialist warfare as well. I recognized then that I wouldn’t have wanted to have to make that kind of decision. King broadended his focus to embrace the poor and disadvantaged, not just in America, but throughout the world and was killed while helping to secure a living wage for Black sanitation workers in Memphis, TN. Malcolm X was also killed, during my adolescent years, when his message and social change efforts broadened to take on an international scope. Is that why the most succesful populist politicians seem to have pitted one race against another rather than uplifting the poor, disadvantaged, and common laborers of all races and ethnicities? I don’t know the answer. I’m sure the answer is complex.

I am also quite sure that until we take the time to grieve, to take real “memorial days” in which we feel each other’s pain and sorrow (more often than once a year and not just for wars), we will not learn from our mistakes, and the problems will keep getting worse. Nowadays when so many statues are getting torn down, maybe we ought to replace a few of them with statues of grieving. Instead of commemorating victorious generals, we may need statues of “unknown” soldiers or sailors, surrounded by statues of family members they left behind to protect and never came home to. The problem with such an idea (of course) is that we have no time to grieve, because we are always in one state of crisis or the other. I personally feel as if I was born into a world where even making a living is an ongoing all-out crisis. I don’t know for sure, but I keep asking myself whether or not this ongoing state of crisis might be actually caused by our lack of grieving.

So it goes. My circle of empathy goes round and round, until I realize that Columbus did not discover America. Columbus was the first successful American populist. He exploited the people he found in the place that came to be called America, for what he mistakenly thought would become his own benefit. The “freedom” that the “founding fathers” wrote about (but did not quite live) was already here when they got here, and it’s still here. We are now both the people in the place that came to be called America, and the explorers who are discovering this place (along with the people in it) for the first time. Divisive populist doubletalk cannot help us here. We can either continue killing and enslaving our mirror images in search of imaginary gold and spices, or we can embrace the courageous vulnerability, the open-hearted empathy, that it takes to live freely. The Thanksgiving Holiday and Indigenous Peoples Day observances do not conflict when both are embraced within a season of remembrance and grieving, remembrance and grieving of the now-institutionalized crimes against the very same humanity that fed us rather than letting us starve to death, when we showed up foolishy looking for gold.

Such a season of deep grieving and remembrance might prepare us to come forth and see ourselves and this land, to see Americans and America, with new eyes: New eyes that appreciate the unfathomable mercy that has allowed us to continue even to this moment; new eyes that appreciate our continued and fundamental complicity in the evils that oppress us; and most importantly, new eyes that humbly embrace the unfathomably great challenge of courageous vulnerability, of open-hearted empathy that is the only true American heritage. I have come to understand my own true American heritage as the hard and thankless labor of an unseen founding grandmother, who can only be requited through dedicated continuance of her courageous vulnerability, of her open-hearted empathy.

That said, it’s now time for me to stop writing and to start voting the reigning “populists” out of office, “from sea to shining sea.”

Rediscovering the Circle of Empathy – Part I

I’ve discovered what follows several times before, over the course of a couple of decades, but each time I got tripped up by the same mistake Columbus made. He discovered a new opportunity and then set about turning it into a bigger and more grievous manifestation of the problem that had sent him exploring in the first place.

Columbus and those who came after him discovered abundant “free” land in the Americas, but they did not discover the indigenous ways of life that were maintaining the freedom of the land. So then they had to discover “free” labor to keep the land “free” for them as well. In doing so, they also did not discover the spiritual strength that empowered enslaved Africans to make a European heaven out of the American hell that European immigrants were making for their African captives.

European people in Columbus’ time needed land, because the old-wealth holdings of landed aristocrats and the new-wealth acquistions of emerging investors were wedging the common people into an economic situation in some ways analogous to Africans caught between America’s industrialized north and plantation south.

When Europeans immigrated to America, however, they by and large found themselves unable to reap all of the opportunities (or what today would be referred to as the “privileges”) they had expected upon leaving Europe. They quite regularly relieved their resulting frustration by blaming and viciously abusing both Native people who were still attempting to live freely on the land, and Africans whose forced “free” labor gave birth to the American economy.

Nowadays, as the modern Western world seems to follow an American lead back toward despotic medieval Europe, it appears as if Columbus and those who followed him have indeed proved the world was round in ways that even they could not have imagined. They have traveled full circle, but rather than solve the problem that sent them forth, they have spread the problem globally, like a massive deadly pandemic.

All of us, who willing or unwillingly have been drawn into the legacy of Columbus, are approaching 360 degrees of travel on a circle whose name is empathy. Meanwhile the lack of empathy that Columbus began it with shouts “TRUMP NATION” in large and bold type from a gaudily colored roadside billboard. Is the billboard suggesting a new name for, or perhaps just cursing, America? The mid-day sky is darkened and too thick with wildfire smoke to breathe. The billboard also calls attention, like an old “Burma-Shave” ad, to a massive homeless encampment that appears a minute or so later on the same side of the same freeway. Who could plan this? Once abundant “free” land, now afflicted with foul air and rampant homelessness? Once abundant “free” labor, now still forced but in prison industries, and also more freely available from long-term and essentially structural unemployment?

The madmen (and mad women) who orchestrate such tragic absurdity are fighting a battle that they cannot ultimately win. Empathy is a lesson that nature teaches… nature that Western religion long ago separated from God. So the Western believer does not believe in disease pandemics, environmenal catastrophes, or even economic collapse as evidence of human malfeasance, simply because the modern terminology for such plagues does not specifically match the language in canonical works of Western scripture. Nonetheless, even the most stridently anti-religious observers have for some time both realized and preached that the fundamental cause and aggravator of such problems is the greedy aggregation of wealth and resources by a small minority that refuses to release such resoures for the public good, even in times of overwhelming public crisis. Might that be why interest in traditional Western religion seems to be on the wane?

This is definitely not a protestation of sainthood on my part. I, and I am sure most others, struggle with greed and failures to be even reasonably empathetic more often than I care to admit, even when brutally honest. That’s life and life is a learning process. But there is a big difference between struggling with difficulty to manage our lessons and simply joining the class bullies in overturning the entire educational enterprise, essentially attempting to blow up the school. 

Columbus and those who followed him may have conquered American and African lands and peoples, but the spirit of the people that made those lands free and prosperous has yet to be reckoned with. So those who now seek to return modern global civilization to feudal and despotic Europe, and to force all of us to go back along with them, are likely to discover (with the clarity of 2020 hindsight) that they will not be able to stop there. The spirit of free land that they discovered in America and the spirit of free labor they discovered in and stole from Africa will not allow them to do so. As I learned growing up in New York, “What goes around, comes around.”

Just about every time I rediscover the truth, beauty, and power of what is coming around, I at first (like Columbus) mistakenly imagine that it is humanly possible to discover anything other than a little bit more of my own limitless ignorance. The good news, however, is that Mother Nature (which includes all of our fellow human beings whether we like it or not) remains fully and inextricably dedicated to our mutual and ongoing education. Oh yeah, and Mother Nature’s school system, by the way, cannot be crippled by funding cuts to public education. Such cuts seem to actually increase the intensity of Mother Nature’s curriculum.

Trump nature?

The thoughts above are not at all new. They were inspired in large part by reading Black Reconstruction in America by W.E.B. DuBois, from which the quote below, based on a December 1865 address to the 1st session of the 39th US Congress by Thaddeus Stevens, was drawn:

This was the cogent, clear argument of Thaddeus Stevens, the politician. But Thaddeus Stevens was never a mere politician. He cared nothing for constitutional subtleties nor even for political power. He was a stern believer in democracy, both in politics and in industry, and he made his second argument turn on the economic freedom of the slave.

“We have turned, or are about to turn, loose four million slaves without a hut to shelter them or a cent in their pockets. The infernal laws of slavery have prevented them from acquiring an education, understanding the commonest laws of contract, or of managing the ordinary business life. This Congress is bound to provide for them until they can take care of themselves. If we do not furnish them with homesteads, and hedge them around with protective laws; if we leave them to the legislation of their late masters, we had better have left them in bondage.”

He then resolutely went further in a defense of pure democracy, although he knew that in this argument he was venturing far beyond the practical beliefs of his auditors:

“Governor Perry of South Carolina and other provisional governors, and orators proclaim that ‘this is the white man’s government.’… Demagogues of all parties, even some high in authority, gravely shout, ‘this is the white man’s government.’ What is implied by this? That one race of men are to have the exclusive rights forever to rule this nation, and to exercise all acts of sovereignty, while all other races and nations and colors are to be their subjects, and have no voice in making the laws and choosing the rulers by whom they are to be governed.…

“Our fathers repudiated the whole doctrine of the legal superiority of families or races, and proclaimed the equality of men before the law. Upon that they created a revolution and built the Republic. They were prevented by slavery from perfecting the superstructure whose foundation they had thus broadly laid. For the sake of the Union they consented to wait, but never relinquished the idea of its final completion.

“The time to which they looked forward with anxiety has come. It is our duty to complete their work. If this Republic is not now made to stand on their great principles, it has no honest foundation, and the Father of all men will still shake it to its center. If we have not yet been sufficiently scourged for our national sin to teach us to do justice to all God’s creatures, without distinction of race or color, we must expect the still more heavy vengeance of an offended Father.…”

Music Student

For many years now, people have tended to refer to and think of me as a musician. So much so that nowadays when I tell people that I'm not really a musician, they usually laugh and roll their eyes. Turns out that I find myself increasingly in the company of real musicians nowadays. I managed to get myself accepted into a bonafide university-level music program a while back. My fellow students are so knowledgable, talented, skilled and young, compared to me, that I can now state unequivocally, regardless of what others may say or think, that I am not now and am not ever likely to become a real musician, even if I remain a music student for the rest of my life--which is essentially what I intend to do, even after completing my academic program. Completing the academic program, by the way, is by no means a fait accompli. I find the work quite challenging, to the point at times of questioning if I even have what it takes to do it. I keep at it, however, because it feels to me like learning to breathe really deeply for the first time.

The other reason I am not likely to ever become a real musician is that becoming a real musician is not my goal. Increasing my capacity to understand and relate to myself and to my world musically has profoundly enhanced my quality of life and continues to do so. I'm not talking about material success. I'm talking about appreciating my fellow human beings, my own collective identity, and the complex worlds in which we all live. My studies focus on the music of my own African Diaspora cultures. So I find myself, asking on an almost daily basis, "Why didn't somebody tell me this five or maybe six decades ago?" The answer of course is that numerous people and circumstances most certainly did, but I had not yet learned to listen. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say I was so busy doing all of the things I was "supposed to do" that I didn't feel as if I had time to listen. So now at last, I'm retired and am finally taking the time to listen, without needing to feel guilty about it. Initially, I kept getting angry, sad, frustrated, regretful, depressed and so on with myself for having gone through so much of life without listening. But the more I listen, the sillier my negative feelings seem to get. So I continue to listen.