Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Toxic Ideas

Here are two views of the word that are loose in this country:

The way the world works is (or is supposed to be) that you get what you deserve. Make bad choices? You get bad consequences. Your success or failure is completely up to you-- it's the result of the choices that you make. 

And this:

It's not about high ideals or honor or empathy or care for your fellow human. It's about power, and the people who do (or don't) have the balls to take it and use it. 

The first is more familiar, because the myth of the strong, rugged individual who makes it on his own and pulls himself up by his own bootstraps (which he carved out of a tree trunk with his bare hands) is an American favorite. It is every person who clutched their pearls when Obama dared to suggest that they "didn't build that" by themselves. It is every opponent of the social safety net believing that people who are poor are poor because it's their own damn fault. (Heck, I know people who believe that if someone is sick--any kind of sick--has only themselves to blame.) "Cut all welfare," they say, "and Those People will go get jobs and support themselves. They're just taking advantage."

Even the working poor are their own fault. If that job doesn't pay enough to live on, then get a different job. Never mind what the pandemic has made clear-- that there are certain jobs that we absolutely need and expect someone to do, but we expect those people to be poor.

The second is less familiar to us as a society, though plenty of our high level officials certainly get it. It has certainly been a guiding principle of Donald Trump's life. It doesn't matter what the norms say or the rules say or any supposed virtues dictate-- the only boundaries are what you want to do and what someone can make you do.

Combine the two, and you achieve maximum ugliness-- if you are powerless in this world, it's because you deserve to be, because you weren't strong enough to gather any power for yourself.

For people who believe these things, violations are the worst. You can see it someone like Betsy DeVos who is so very disturbed that Those People might use loan forgiveness rules to get "free money" aka "money they don't deserve to have." It's in the anger of those conservatives who rail against "takers," who are, again, people who wouldn't be poor if they didn't deserve to be poor, so letting them take things is a crime against God and nature. Taking power and money that you don't deserve, or giving power and money to the undeserving-- that's far more alarming than the suffering or hunger or death by disease of the poor. It's in a President who in the midst of pandemic and poverty and unemployment and murder and a pain so great that it spills into the street--that President who in that moment does not call for unity or empathy, but demands that governors call out the big guns, set loose the dogs, and use raw power to put Those People back in their place.  Or, as it now turns out, to sic the US military on US citizens in an attempt to install Martial Law Lite.

It takes willful ignorance to believe these things-- well, willful ignorance and a failure of human empathy. The racist version of this worldview includes the notion that there was slavery, then the Civil War, and that basically reset America and from that point on, it was a totally level playing field. It requires ignorance of things like red-lining and other real estate ricks that blocked Black families from building wealth in the same way that white families could. Or things so simple that white folks don't even think about, like being able to take an overnight trip without wondering if you can find a place to stay. And jobs. And pay. And the accumulation of social capital that occurs over generations in white families so that each new generation has a leg up before they are even potty trained. Or the systemic racism of the education system, from excessive discipline through denial of access to accelerated courses. There is just so much you have to blind yourself to in order to support the notion that all Black folks have just as much chance to get ahead as all white folks.

Power worship should be uniquely un-American; Thomas Jefferson enshrined the principle that power comes from the consent of the governed. Which we promptly forgot as we set about extending power by brute force. Jefferson, hypocritical prick that he was, could still have predicted our current mess. Stomp on people enough, and eventually they will kick back, and once you've passed a tipping point, you won't be able to stomp them hard enough to stop them.

Teachers need to understand all of this so that they don't let these toxic worldviews into their classrooms. Hint: if you think that all your students could be top achievers and the only reason some aren't is because they're too lazy or too irresponsible or "you know how Those People are," you are a problem-- not just in your school but in your world.

White students need to be taught about all of this so that they don't grow up to be the problem, and so that students of color can grow up claiming the power and history that is rightfully theirs. The roots of racism run deep in ignorance, and if the goal of education is to help students be more fully themselves and find how to be fully human in the world, then this is an ignorance that must be broken down. The anti-racist materials, the books, the readings-- they're all out there. Students need to make sense of the mess they're living through today, and they need preparation for the inevitable messes of tomorrow.

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