Responding to the Outrage I Haven’t Seen: clickbait

If the content of your story is that someone reacted, or is reacting to, something else, I am going to need you to cite the specifics of said reaction. Simply stating that someone is reacting to something, and then giving me your view on the original things that everyone is upset about, is not only bad reporting, but it is propaganda. Biased PR (redundant, I know) and in my unscientific experience it mostly happens with the intent to mislead the reader.img_1586

For instance, I have seen Facebook friends repost links to headlines reading “Someone Does Something, Liberals are Furious!” Or perhaps “Liberal Does Something Awesome, Republicans are Furious!” I of course click on the bait and read all about what the someone did or what was awesome in the Liberal’s actions, but the specifics in the fury is often a bit fuzzy.  Now bait is bait, but I find this specific worm extra annoying; probably because I see it so often.

Now there are of course plenty of occasions, or subjects, or events, where there is some serious and tangible uproar. There are in fact protesters protesting, as in holding signs and blocking traffic, in reaction to Trump’s election. That is actual uproar. But then there is that other stuff…

“New Evidence Shows Bush Did Something Good, Liberals Dismayed.” “Black Person Cast in Movie, White People Upset.” “Police Officer Rescues Baby, Black Lives Matter Explodes!”

Now maybe I am a bit extra leery about such claims in large part because of my own Facebook feed. You see, my list of friends consists of mainly two groups: super religious conservative white people who live in very white places, and extra socially conscious and proactive Black Americans. Not everyone on my feed fits one of these descriptions, but most do. Consequentially, in general, if there is in fact an outrage coming from either the political left or the right, I have a front row seat. I see it. No one has to tell me it exists because it is right in front of me.img_9018

I have seen plenty of posts both for and against Colin Kaepernick, #BlackLivesMatter, and Donald Trump. I have a pretty good idea when one side or the other is upset, and trust me, they are… just not always about the things the other side says they are mad about. I cannot tell you how often I read of a scenario, or an event, that is being reported as having created some firestorm of apocalyptic levels from one side or the other, yet strangely, I never actually see this specific firestorm. One side is telling me what the other side is doing or thinking, and when I look to the other side-nothing. This happens all the time. And this bothers me. A lot. Like, a whole lot.

It bothers me because this telling ourselves what someone else thinks or feels for the purpose of solidifying what we ourselves think and feel is both dishonest (or maybe just inaccurate) and counterproductive. There is no solution seeking in such arguments. There is more often self-righteous meanness.

So please, before you hit “share” or “repost”, or even as you just read to yourself, if there is in that article this element of “they are upset”, unless this “upset” is described in very specific details of actions and events, just don’t. Stop- and do not.

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Sea of Sweet: I have no idea what that stuff is but it works

So there is this place in Rancho Cucamonga, CA (yes that is an actual place), where all diets go to die.I would describe it as a middle eastern creperie that specializes in calories. Like, Olympic levels of calories.img_8538

The place looks harmless, like some suburban strip mall afterthought, but do not be fooled. The Nutella double chocolate Twix crepe will send you to a joyful early grave.

But that is just for the average “I want extra helpings of the sugar I know” palate. They have other stuff too. For instance, if you want to overdose in calories derived from things that should otherwise be healthy, you can indulge in any one of their fruit cocktails.img_0134

This thing took ten days to build, not because they are slow, but because the guy behind the counter just kept stuffing things into that glass.

Then there is this stuff I had never heard about called “ashta”. I would describe it as something in between heavy cream and cottage cheese. Apparently it can be turned into ice cream, like a less-sweet vanilla, and then be piled on top of a crepe then sprinkled with rose water, then dusted with pistachio and then drowned in honey, then devoured by me.img_8602

I saw behind the counter they have baklava, and dates, and every combination of phyllo dough stuffed with sweet stuff imaginable and I want all of it.

It is a bad thing that I found this place. Curse you JJ. Curse you.

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The Invisible Hand is White

Adam Smith wrote that the actions of individuals seeking their own self-interest will have an added societal consequence of wealth distributing itself in line with the greatest societal good. This natural wealth distribution has come to be personified in the idea that there is an “invisible hand” controlling the market. This hand steadies, balances, and distributes wealth and resources. This hand is not regulated by any government or body of law, it is natural.dsc02460

Sometimes we believe that in America, this invisible hand is called “meritocracy”. This market force distributes wealth and resources to those who work hard, who are smart, or in other words, to those who have merit. This idea of making our own way or reaping the rewards of our own labor is one of the founding ideals of the American dream.  In America, if you work hard enough, you can be anything you want. I like the idea and I would even say that in large part, at least compared to many places in the world, we (America) do a relatively good job.

But merit is a funny thing. It can be hard to identify, hard to develop, even harder to measure. Quite often merit is in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps really, merit matters but not in as much a way as we think, or at least it doesn’t matter most. It is difficult for any individual’s merit to carry them outside their sphere of relationships; hence the adage that success hinges on who you know, not what you know. Who you know matters.

Who you know, or better yet, who knows you, matters because that is often who judges what “is” and “is not” merit, and who possesses it.  In a system where individuals and institutions are free to exchange goods or resources as they see fit, those who have the most resources have the most influence on deciding what constitutes merit. Their biases, preferences, and needs are empowered to move, or at least nudge, this giant invisible hand. Consequentially, opportunity and achievement are often based on proximity, availability, reputation, network, and experience.  Merit may play only a sustaining role as opposed to a driving one. It has been that way for a long time. Take George Washington for example.

By all accounts General Washington was full of merit. He worked hard as a surveyor, proactively took risks as a soldier, and his writing shows a more than respectable measure of learning and brilliance. Thanks in large part to this merit he became one of the richest men in America, and even makes the list of one of the relative wealthiest Americans ever. Yet we could, and I would say should, also consider that the one thing Mr. Washington did that had the most direct influence on his wealth and position, was to marry a rich widow. Before that, George was on track to be Nathaniel Green. Mr. Green is respectable by all accounts but he isn’t carved on Mt. Rushmore, doesn’t have a state named after him, and no currency features his face. Washington is the one we all remember yet, by most all accounts, Green was a better general than Washington.

But George was born and lived in a hugely influential tidewater Virginia, and thanks to both inherited and married wealth, George enjoyed a continual revenue independent of his day to day actions which freed him up  to become George Washington rather than Nathaniel Green. But that was a long time ago, things have changed.

People today have infinitely more means and access to build new networks and accrue merit. Public school, Facebook, college, loans, and internships are everywhere and excepting Facebook, have been around for several generations. One result of such network broadening opportunities are instances like the Supreme Court which currently consisting of 8 people, includes 3 women, a Latina, an African-American, 5 Catholics, and 3 Jews. We have come a long way since George Washington. Yet even still with these 8 people with varying backgrounds they all went to either Harvard or Yale. It is not written that one must attend Harvard or Yale to be a Supreme Court Justice, nor is there a class at either school designed to give a student the specific skills they need to be supreme, yet this remains the path.  How and why it matters leaves plenty of room for argument.

Sticking with schools for a moment, when looking at the background of billionaires it is noteworthy that there are groupings of what college these rich people attended. The University of Pennsylvania counts 21 living billionaires among its alumni. Harvard and Yale both have 14. As we move down the list of schools the richest people are largely coming from, or at least passing through, the oldest, richest, and most prestigious universities. Again, is it the curriculum that is creating graduates who go on to such wealth? Do they learn something there that translates to money? Some, like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates who both dropped out of Harvard, don’t ever graduate so their merit cannot be directly tied to their degrees. Yet still there is that clustering or concentration of wealth and success.

We could easily assume that going to college, marrying rich widows, and becoming a billionaire is all part of our meritocratic country where this invisible hand is scooping all the best and brightest into certain schools, is rewarding suitors who are best suited to manage dowries, and simply rewarding those who do the work and are most deserving. But then what about those who catch a bad break? There are of course many who through no fault of their own, are born in unfortunate situations. How does this hand deal with such? Our lore says this hand simply rewards their merit. Meritocracies allow for individuals to pick themselves up by their own bootstraps.

Abraham Lincoln was uneducated and failed at election time and time again. But Honest Abe worked hard reading books and got back in the race after every defeat. Sure he also benefited from a fortuitous marriage, but we could easily argue that he earned that too (winning Mary Todd’s favor and whatnot). Abraham Lincoln was without a doubt, a great man. I make no argument that he did not earn or deserve his renown and place in history.

So does this mean that this free market invisible hand and meritocracy work? Maybe.

But then there is Abraham’s contemporary, Frederick Douglass.

Mr. Douglass, born a slave, was not only never taught to read, but was legally prevented from doing so. But he did. While Abraham Lincoln might have given out country’s most well-known speech, most every one at that time would have agreed that Douglass was a better orator. Douglass escaped slavery, educated himself, and become the first free black man to visit the white house when he went to go plead with President Lincoln for the better treatment of black soldiers. Douglass was indeed able to accomplish great things with his merit, yet he isn’t the one carved on Mt. Rushmore.

Mr. Douglass and Lincoln lived in a time where the law of the land dictated that the rewards for a black person’s merit were expected to be delivered to white people. In fact, in many, if not most cases, the merit of black people itself, not just the rewards, were ascribed to their white masters. For instance, when modern visitors tour George Washington’s home, they are told of Mrs. Washington’s prowess in the kitchen, you can even buy her cookbook in the gift shop. But she wasn’t the one who did the cooking. Black people were doing the cooking but their skills, or merit, were attributed to Martha. A visit to the website today further illustrates how the invisible hand of the 1700’s still effects the modern memory. http://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/martha-washington/mistress-of-the-household/

But today many Americans see slavery and segregation as unfortunate blips in our ideology or system bearing little effect on our situations today. As if in those days the invisible hand had a finger on the scales of justice, but not anymore. Now the hand is back to balancing markets and allowing merit to be rewarded freely. We have set a new starting point, new zero, called “now” and we just move forward. Is free always fair? Of course not.

I argue a better question is if this modern freedom is just.

If we are living in a true meritocracy then we can assume that those who are rich deserve it, and those who are poor deserve that too. I do not argue that our society believes this specifically, but it does appear that we believe it generally. This belief drives how many of us vote, what we choose to study, and many of the decisions we make in life. It is a foundational idea in the American philosophy. It is part of who we are…

If we are white.

Do black Americans live in a meritocracy? (Do women?)If they do is it the same one as the white men?

For centuries the flow of resources and opportunities were artificially steered away from black individuals. This was not done strictly through laws and regulations but also through ideas. For example, when Thomas Jefferson was writing to persuade the world that a society where all men were created equal and should be free to pursue happiness without being obstructed, he also wrote that this freedom need not apply to black people because they were inferior (Notes on the State of Virginia). Jefferson argued that black people possessed less merit by nature and were incapable of managing resources directly. After reconstruction politicians were quite overt in campaigning on the idea that governing was best done by white people. Many were afraid that black people lacked the necessary skills and intelligence (merit) to govern, or even vote, and that allowing them either would lead to national destruction.Even when laws did not dictate segregation or discrimination, there was an idea that black people were not only less than white people, but were/are also more dangerous. This idea has been rampant and persistent in literature, music, news, business and media since our foundation.  This is not to say that all messages have been so, but these messages have always been in the environment.

This affects our meritocracy not only in that the spheres of influence and opportunity been limited for black people, but also in that the minds of those who determine and measure merit have been marinated in an ideology of white superiority. We as a nation believed that white men naturally possessed more merit.

Most of us are uncomfortable with this idea-that our minds are tainted- so much so that we have re envisioned how we collectively remember Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohammed Ali. We have honored Rosa Parks and lauded Booker T. Washington. We have worked hard enough to remove this mental poison that many of us now believe ourselves inoculated.  We in, large part, believe our society is free and safe from smallpox, mumps, and racism. Perhaps there may be the odd case or diagnosis, but they do not apply to the public. The meritocracy is safe.

Is this true? Are we a meritocracy?

When neighborhoods and schools are segregated both racially and economically, but laws do not require such, how do we explain or interpret the situation? When there is a disparity between black and white along the lines of wealth, academic achievements, and health, how do we explain that? Why the gap if our meritocracy is sound? Why are black people stopped, arrested, and incarcerated at rates higher than their white peers?

Why?

Are we all just getting what we deserve? Are we all simply rising to the appropriate level with regard to our merit? We have had black doctors, a black president, black secretary of state, black Supreme Court justice, and black billionaire, so there is apparently no strict cap on American black achievement. But yet that gap. These success stories are not the statistical or relative norm.

Why?

Maybe the invisible hand is white.

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Racism Without Even Mentioning Race

Joan owns a house. She isn’t rich, she works hard, she doesn’t have a lot but she has that house. Sarah and her family move in next door, and now Joan’s house is worth less money. Sarah isn’t bad, she works hard as a stay at home mother and her husband is a plumber. Joan doesn’t hate Sarah, but that house represents everything she has and if the price goes down any more, her retirement is ruined. Joan cannot risk that. She cannot risk another family like Sarah moving in, so Joan puts her house up for sale.

Is Joan a racist?street

The whole reason Sarah moved into the neighborhood was because the schools were good. Education is Sarah’s passion. She has pinned her hopes for her children to those schools. After Joan left, another family just like Sarah’s moved in. This happened all across the neighborhood and the school district. Before long the whole area has turned over. House prices hit the basement and more and more people who wanted that good school moved in; motivated hard working people.

But now the school wasn’t the same. Many of those who moved out were the teachers. The school was funded from property taxes but now that property values had plummeted, so had school funding. Word got out real quick that the school wasn’t the same and now hiring good teachers to replace the ones who left got harder.

Sarah still owed 25 years on her mortgage and the real estate agent just couldn’t find her family anywhere else near enough to her husband’s job.

Meanwhile Joan lives a bit further out in the suburbs and is struggling to adjust to her new surroundings. She misses her old neighborhood, but at least here, her family and retirement are safe and the schools are good.

So again, does this make Joan a racist?

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The question isn’t meant to be a setup, and no, the scenario didn’t even mention race at all, so how could anyone, Joan or otherwise, be called a racist? So no, I’m not asking the question to trick anyone but rather in hopes that we might all truly consider the scenario. Of course in the real life American scenario, whether I say it or not, Joan is white and Sarah is black, or Latino, or Asian, or something not white. When non-white people move in to an area the housing prices drop, no matter what Joan or anyone else thinks or feels. Joan and Sarah could be best of friends, soul mates of sorts, and the market would still react. It is our economic reality.

No one has to use the words black, or white, or even race, but school funding shifts, people move, and reality changes.

So the question isn’t only whether Joan is racist or not, but does it even matter what Joan thinks?

At the end of the day, almost no matter where Sarah and her family go, this reality follows them. Sometimes there is, or was, financial shelter if somehow a black Sarah moves in and then no one follows, the market stabilizes. For the most part Joan will always be alright, but not always. Sometimes Joan’s don’t get out in time and they lose a nest egg. Or they are stuck in a school that they see sinking into the abyss through no fault of their own.  All of this without anyone saying they hate anyone because of their skin.

But this is how race functions.

So today…img_0844

I see and hear so many white people, the good white ones not the crazy ones, the ones I think are just like me (because we all think we are the good ones), reacting poorly when  black people complain about racism. We get up in arms or defensive and reactionary pointing out that we don’t hate anyone. We look around at each other in wonder because so many of us have never called anyone the N word and we almost never even talk about race and cannot fathom why ‘they’ keep bringing it up. We want to know where all the racists are because they aren’t us and we don’t know them. We get so caught up in who does or does not hate who and why.

But all the while the Sarahs of the world live in sub par housing markets with bad schools and if they call it race, they are asked to name a name and point a finger and none of us are willing to be pointed at. We are so concerned that it not be us, because we don’t hate, that me get annoyed at the conversation and frustrated and say that parents just need to be more involved in ‘their’ kids’ lives. We say that all lives matter. We say that microagressions are just another word for thin skin and we are tired of being blamed for all your problems and why is it always about that when no one is even talking about that. I mean Joan has problems too. Joan had to move, Joan has to work hard, Joan might lose her job but all everyone cares about is race and I want my neighborhood back!

So at the end of the day is Joan racist, and really, does that even mater to Sarah?

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The World Has Ended Again!

In 2008 many people I knew and loved were declaring the apocalypse. But every day the sun came up and fire balls did not rain down from the sky. For eight years, this has happened over and over; the sun came up and fire balls did not rain down from the sky.passed-out-subway

This morning I am not declaring the apocalypse and the sun was shining as I drove to campus. I am guessing the same will happen tomorrow.

In a little more than a month, our current president will peacefully leave office and a new one will be sworn in. We have some very real challenges ahead, but this is not new. So much of this right now… really isn’t new.

Sunshine and blue skies are pretty, which can be good or bad depending. Because Sunshine and horror can exist simultaneously. We can be distracted from very real trouble, causing us to ignore it at our own expense, or maybe that sunshine can give us a little bit of hope and comfort while we endure and engage the struggle.

Either way the trouble exists- and the sun comes up. And fire balls do not rain down.

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Nov 4th, 2008

On November 4th, 2008 I took the day off from work, strapped my 4 year old daughter into her car seat and drove our minivan to the Obama campaign’s North Philadelphia headquarters. There I was handed a list of people who needed rides to go cast their vote for president. We made five trips that day, carrying about 20 people.marleevotes-2

It was mostly old black ladies who gushed with gratitude and beamed with pride. Two of the ladies commented on how strange the neighborhood looked, they hadn’t left the house in years.

No one in the long lines complained as I wheeled a lady in a wheelchair past them to the front of the line.votersinline-5

I followed one address down a trash strewn street, up to a corner being patrolled by the usual crowd of young men in hoodies and white tees. As I pulled up, one of the guys in cornrows and saggy pants, punches a buddy in the shoulder, throws up a deuce to the others, and hops in my car. He smiled, shook my hand, and said, “I haven’t done this in a long time. Could you kinda show me how the voting machine works?” I left that act of helpfulness to a poll worker. When I gave the guy a ride home he had no problem letting me drop him off right in front of his crew, as opposed to “around the corner” like an embarrassed teenager.phonebank

Looking back 8 years later, that day still holds all of its power and meaning. There was such a positive spirit of hope and cooperation that no long line or inconvenience could bring us down. It was a day full of meaningful acts. It was like seeing a world monument, the Eiffel tower or Mount Rushmore in person for the first time. It was the sort of thing you read about in books, but now confront in real life. It felt like that. We knew, in the moment, in real time, that this was that sort of day. The sort people would read about for years to come. It felt great.

It still does.marleevotes-5

On this coming Tuesday I will go to the polls and vote. Though this election could be remarkable in similar ways, it doesn’t feel anywhere the same. I didn’t go knock on anyone’s door this go round, or volunteer my time. Perhaps it is my latent misogyny, or some sort of patriarchal bias. Maybe. I’ve tried to dig pretty deep to see if that is what it is. Perhaps. But I think it is more than just that. While that event was so uplifting, this one is packed with pure anxiety. Apprehension. Fear. I would wager everything I own, that every one of those people I drove 8 years ago, would do it all exactly the same again today. Nothing, not one thing, in my rear view mirror looking back takes even the slightest bit of shine off that day.

Maybe it is because I no longer have a mini van. More likely, it is because there isn’t a current equivalent of this song.

 

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I Once Saw a Black Man Hug a Cop

I once saw a young black man hug a Philadelphia cop, and the cop hugged him back. It was almost midnight, in the middle of what could be described as a riot, and the Phillies had just won the world series.champs

It was the make up of a rain delayed game 5 and John Hollingshaus convinced me to go down to the stadium without tickets. He thought that maybe some of the ticketholders from the day before wouldn’t show up leaving a bunch of empty seats. MLB doesn’t like empty seats on TV so maybe they would let us in. About 5,000 other people had the same idea and we all watched the game on the jumbo tron as we were smashed up against the gate.broadst-2A fortuitous rush at another gate allowed us to enter for the final pitch. It was bedlam. Wonderful, joyful, bedlam. The stadium eventually emptied out onto the street and everyone kept marching up Broad st. toward City Hall. Everyone was cheering, old men were crying, and strangers hugged each other.broadst-4While some kid without a shirt was pulling a potted tree out of the sidewalk someone else was launching fireworks that bounced off the skyscraper walls exploding in the urban canyon. Everyone cheered.

And that is when I saw the young black man and the cop hug.streetsignIt blew my mind.

I am not truly a baseball guy but that sight, that whole experience, taught me something about collective experiences. It taught me something about the power of elective common identity to occasionally cross boundaries otherwise insurmountable.

Sometimes there are snapshots in time, though temporary, where we glimpse a possibility.

Happiest riot ever. Congratulations Cubbies!

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