FLOTSAM & JETSAM: Some tips for our times

Monday, June 15, 2020

Some tips for our times

Sam Smith

Organizing is better than analyzing: As liberals have become better educated, they have increasingly adopted the academic presumption that analysis produces change. But while analysis can support change, it doesn’t typically cause it.

Let history inform but not define life – Yes, the grievous errors of the past are important knowledge but the goal is to put  them behind us, not assume we are trapped by them. One reason so many offspring of dysfunctional families need therapy is because they can’t put the past behind them. Our activism should be based replacing the past, not reliving it.

Teach about cultures in school: As our school systems display less interest in social studies, our children suffer from this in many ways, not the least of which is not being educated in the true nature and  variety of cultures in our nation and our world. This failure contributes to our tendency to regard cultural variety as a problem to be solved rather than an asset to appreciate. If more children early learned the true complexity and nature of different cultures, they would become more sophisticated and decent in dealing with diversity as adults.

Organize around issues as well as identity: One of the great shifts in activism over the past 50 years has been the increase in organizing by identity rather then by issues. A problem with this is that fewer people may be attracted to your cause. As the 1960s organizer Saul Alinsky explained, “If we could manage to organize all the exploited low-income groups – all the blacks, chicanos, Puerto Ricans, poor whites – and then, through some kind of organizational miracle, weld them all together into a viable coalition, what would you have? At the most optimistic estimate, 55,000,000 people by the end of this decade – but by then the total population will be over 225,000,000, of whom the overwhelming majority will be middle class. . . . Pragmatically, the only hope for genuine minority progress is to seek out allies within the majority and to organize that majority itself as part of a national movement for change.”

End the silence about mixed-ethnicity: While about 15% of marriages these days are cross-ethnic, the media and others tend to treat mixed-ethnicity as non-existent. If we regarded it with more respect and talked about it more, it would take time away from over-simplistic ethnic analysis. For example, did you know that Kamalia Harris’ mother came from India? Or that Barack Obama spent more time at Harvard Law School then he did with a black parent?

Trash the powerful, but convert their followers: There’s a tendency these days to use sweeping criticisms of other Americans such as accusing them of. “white privilege.” Since there are 65% more poor whites than poor blacks, it’s not a great way to win support for your cause. A good rule of thumb is to attack the powerful but transform the rest. As Wlliam Barber put it the other day, “Let’s remember our history: It was black & white coalitions that caused abolition, the women’s suffrage movement, the labor movement & the civil rights movement. We’ve not seen it on social media before, but transformation in this country has always been multiracial.” Or as Martin Luther King put it, “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.”

 National politicians are reactivists, not activists – In choosing a presidential or senatorial candidate  think of it as selecting a battlefield, not a saint. National politicians reflect the change that has occurred between elections, witness the shifts thanks to the Black Lives Matter protests. The politicians you chose won’t solve your problems; but they can make it easier for you and your allies to do so.

Think ethnicity rather than race. As Jonathan Marks of Yale University describes it: “The scientific study of human biological variation has consistently produced knowledge that contradicts widespread popular, or folk, wisdom…  Classification of people into races involves cultural, not biological, knowledge.” And in 1950, UNESCO issued a statement on race that said: “For all practical social purposes 'race' is not so much a biological phenomenon as a social myth. The myth of 'race' has created an enormous amount of human and social damage.” In my book, The Great American Poliitcal Repair Manual, I put it this way:

There is simply no undisputed scientific definition of race. What are considered genetic characteristics are often the result of cultural habit and environmental adaptation. Julian Huxley suggested in 1941 that "it would be highly desirable if we could banish the question-begging term 'race' from all discussions of human affairs and substitute the noncommittal phrase 'ethnic group.' That would be a first step toward rational consideration of the problem at hand." Anthropologist Ashley Montagu in 1942 called race our "most dangerous myth."
Yet in our conversations and arguments,  in our media, and even in our laws, the illusion of race is given great credibility. As a result, that which is transmitted culturally is considered genetically fixed, that which is an environmental adaptation is regarded as innate  and that which is fluid is declared immutable.

Defund economic theory – The current pandemic has revealed some usually hidden principles that challenge traditional economics. For example, moral, cooperative and sensible behavior is as likely to save your life these days as how you handle your money.  Private healthcare may be fine as long as you have a job, but with mass unemployment millions are finding its weakness. Economics professor  Sanjay G. Reddy put it well:

On a more fundamental level, the pandemic also shows the inadequacy of the conventional economist’s understanding of individual rationality. In some measure, the control of a pandemic aims to avoid results that are damaging to all, at least among those who are similarly positioned in terms of risks from the disease. Achieving the collectively rational outcome does not require departing from individual rationality, as the standard framework would suggest … Rather, it requires viewing individual rationality differently and more expansively than economists have typically preferred. … Moral philosophers, in particular Immanuel Kant, underlined that a reasoned approach to morality required evaluating one’s own actions by how they would be judged if undertaken by others. All of these thinkers believed that rationality, properly understood, must include reasons that lead away from the relentless and myopic pursuit of individual advantage.
… Implicit in this overriding of economic priorities is the importance of an idea of common citizenship and shared fate. Many societies pay little heed to this idea in normal times. But the pandemic underlines that the public health is a consequence of regulations, institutions, policies, norms, habits, and economic and social arrangements. As a result, state and societal action, or lack thereof, becomes paramount.

And it’s not just the little bugs behind pandemics that are a problem. We are moving towards an automated society in which traditional standards of employment may be drastically changed. It’s well time to consider things like a guaranteed national income and national healthcare.

Ways to improve the police:
Get cops out of their squad cars into the communities they should be serving, not just controlling. The lack of regular contact between cops and real people, spurred by replacing street beats with patrol cars, has been one major cause of the police-people problem.
    Establish elected neighborhood commissions: DC has had these since the 1970s. As one commission explains its role: “Their main duty is to be their neighborhood’s official voice in advising the District government (and Federal agencies) on things that affect their neighborhoods. Although not required to follow the ANC advice, District agencies are required to give ANC recommendations ‘great weight.’ District law says that agencies cannot take any action that will significantly affect a neighborhood unless they provide 30-day notice to ANCs.” Here’s from a report of another ANC: “It’s no surprise that the ongoing neighborhood violence was the main topic of interest during the [police department’s] report.  Captain Franklin Porter said that the police have been investigating the situation aggressively. So far, they have identified three main ‘crews’ or gangs that have been involved in the activity and shootings. One problem that they are running into is that all of the members of these crews are young men.  Without the presence of “old head” leaders, it is more difficult to get the crews to de-escalate.  He also mentioned that the city’s violence interrupters have been working the cases, separately from the police department.”
     Assign lawyers and social workers to police stations to train, advise and consult with officers. This would help officers gain a  more sophisticated, and less warrior, view of their jobs as well as helping them do their work better.