Biases in philosophical thought
As we hunt for wisdom, we must embrace philosophy if for no other reason than that word literally means love of wisdom, Philo Sophia. Yet, this creates a paradox between what appears to be true and what is true in existential reality. We can be swayed by argumentation, by answers to the Socratic elenchus that are really one sided yet appear to be a natural, dialectic discourse. The burden is on us to realize that the questions posed are crafted towards proving an end thereby exposing the author’s reasoning which we must, in turn, consider and validate in our worlds and with our own questions. This creates a further paradox between what the author intends us to understand and what we do understand from the text as we read it. It is of course given that works of literature and art quite often convey things that the author was not consciously intending and offer wisdom that transcends period or culture. This is the miracle of human intelligence, that the impact of art and literature exceeds the works themselves. That said, taking literature and art out of their creative cultural “it meant this when it was crafted” milieu, symbols, zeitgeist, and the demographic context of the author can lead to grave error and spurious even injurious application of the text or other work of art as proof.
I spend a lot of time reading and studying translations of ancient literature, ancient history, and works that bring these things together in a cultural worldview that speaks through such literature albeit quite often in subtle form (see my Bibliography Post). When we read histories of the Spartan, it is important to understand that the common people, the helots, are not represented and were feared lest they rebel. Likewise, when we study Plato we must remember that his Gold, Silver, and Bronze classes of persons were a self-declared lie to begin with, and have no place for the common farm hand; he speaks mostly albeit perhaps not exclusively of the landed class.
Cultures have worldviews that do not simply jump off the page, quite often because writings of a period assume that the reader knows the society and its culture. Understanding Voltaire’s apparent mindset and opposition to Leibnizian optimism is not necessary to enjoy Candide, but it is necessary to fully understand his intent, and, frankly, to really apprehend Candide. This then extant cultural subtlety also sets some boundaries on the author’s “true” meaning – not that texts don’t have meanings in any context, mind you, but that the intended meaning for a specific audience should be considered when using such information as a springboard, a starting point.
Worldviews are often not directly stated but, rather, are contained in the symbols of a culture, it’s use of language, whom it considers worthy of passing information and authority to, and its treatment of the other – race, ethnicity, country, and so forth. There are lots of symbols in our world, art including sculptures such as statues on public display, names on buildings, architecture, flags, paper and metal currency, and the like. You may have noticed that most church windows have a curved arch at the top with a peak in the center – this is pointing up to God. Many church buildings are arranged with the officiant (pastor, priest, etc.) facing east in a nod to Jerusalem and the holy land. Symbols can be very subtle; a noose is not subtle to an African American, but a white person might not think very much about it; they clearly have impact.
Symbols often convey or remind us of power – the Roman Eagle, the Roman Arch of Triumph, great buildings, Pyramids, certain flags, certain songs. Military parades, fly overs, mass protests and more. Symbols can be subverted, for instance the Christian Cross symbolizing the transcendence of Jesus over the horror of Crucifixion. Or the “Okay” hand gesture being subverted to mean, upside down, white power; some symbols are subverted for evil purposes.
Likewise, literature is filled with symbols and language that suggests cultural world views of identity, what’s wrong, what the solution is, and where the culture is in the process of overcoming its barriers and woes. Certain words can convey power and contempt, and those words can also be subverted and used to empower those held in contempt. How we deal with new understanding of harm done by such words and symbols of power reveals things about our culture and how wise we are, for while removing oppressive symbols and words may ease the pain of oppression, it certainly neither stops nor remediates the damage done.
Conveyance of Power
Wisdom seeking and philosophy should be much more than abstract argumentation; their value is in practical application of holistic and individual understanding towards the end of the good, of the betterment of the lives of one and all. We may generally agree that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one (I quote Spock in The Wrath of Kahn) however, that notion places burden on each of us to be the few who are courageous and selfless in support of others; it is not license for the many to crush the few. Nonetheless, such philosophical notions create boundless series of paradoxes in the balance between the worldviews, not true needs, of the many and the few, and which have historically resulted in societal acceptance of unspeakable horrors as justified. But here I presume that the many have more power than the few.
The more common state is that the few have more power than the many. Tolstoy concludes War and Peace with a discussion of why so many people would follow one man, Napoleon Bonaparte, or for that matter, any small group of people whom the many could easily overwhelm. He concludes that God somehow guides people to do this, but we can see from nature that there are often dominant individuals that lead the herd. I think that Aristotle and the Bible have it right – people do what seems good to them, not necessarily what is truly good and, because every decision cannot be made by the collective lest society do nothing but deliberate and cease to exist in the process (here I nod to the Wisdom of Sirach), people empower a person or group of people whom they trust to do what is or seems good based on the worldviews of the persons with sufficient power to weigh in on whom the leading group may be. In these United States, the notion is governance by servants of the people, people who make sacrifices in their lives for the good of the many with all citizens having a say in leadership through their enfranchisement – their vote.
The long tenure and wealth amassed during that tenure by many of our elected servants perhaps tarnishes the altruistic intent of service, but the concept remains – nobility and oligarchy are not welcome in a representative democracy such as ours. Neither are codified class structures; all are equal before the same laws, or they should be. Service is voluntary, even – at present – in the armed forces, with the exception of prison labor, a practice that could be rehabilitational and transformative, or could be tantamount to enslavement.
Any time we force people into involuntary service, any time we risk repeating the results of the Dr. Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment by dehumanizing people (examples: the Holocaust, Abu Ghraib, etc.) or by permitting worldviews to do the same, we meddle deeply with the inner workings of our human natures. These are the seeds of racism: the notion that the few, or the less powerful many, are somehow less human than the many or the more powerful few. They are also the seeds of non-racial lines that create similar worldview based and unnecessary enmity and oppression, and murder, based on gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, and everything under the sun, right down to dumb blonde jokes.
Roots of Racism: Enslavement
A piece on the BBC saying that Slavery was America’s “original sin” started my thought process that would become this post. Would that our horrendous performance in establishing justice and equality before the law for all peoples was so simple as an American problem, but it is not. The Western world depended on the brutal enslavement of people for a long time, and while Europe and the United Kingdom may not have had many enslaved persons on their native soil, their colonies most certainly did. It seems virtually the entire world also enslaved persons, and we learned that a resurgence of this horror is part the ideology and teachings of ISIS. I am shocked at how Europeans can sneer at an evil that they fostered and introduced into these United States, the country that dared rebel against European authority to at least attempt the establishment of innate human rights and prevent tyrannical oppression.
To be clear, racism transcends enslavement and discrimination transcends racism. Likewise, slavery transcends the notion of persons as property into the practical state whereby as person may be compelled to work for little pay or under dangerous and exploitive conditions lest the master reveal certain facts to the authorities – for instance, immigration status, or black-ball a person from an industry as we see in the Me Too movement. This post focuses on the results of enslavement of persons forcibly brought to these United States and the impact of unresolved, unjust, and frankly horrible treatment of their progeny. I prefer to discuss slavery as enslavement because the former lends some credence to the notion that people are born slaves which is absurd on its face, and it is enslavement that we will discuss briefly before continuing to modern day America.
Trade and wars are the two primary reasons for technological advancement, and the ring around the Mediterranean has been at war since people learned to walk. Indeed, Rome learned warfare, if we believe Livy which I do, from the Carthaginian wars which were fought largely on Italian soil and the Carthaginians were of course Phoenician colonies in North Africa and Spain, Phoenicia itself being centered in modern day Lebanon. Warfare was constant around the entire Mediterranean coastline. Julius Caesar brought war and domination further to the British Isles, and into Germany. The tides of the Atlantic, many feet as compared with most Mediterranean tides of inches, caused him to rebuild ships and alter strategies; war lead to practical innovations.
In ancient times, enslavement often resulted from the loss of a war or battle and people thusly enslaved were inferior due to a loss at war and, at least in some cases, merited respect as human beings. When battles concluded, the victors sometimes demanded absolute fealty of the conquered, literally making the survivors queue up and pass under a yoke symbolizing the complete authority of the victor. At the head of state level, fealty was often symbolized, especially with the Great King of Persia, by a jar of earth and a jar of water meaning all that I have is yours, including the population if not the rulers themselves. Some of the conquered were left to provide labor and tribute in-country, some were taken to be sold as slaves for profit, and many, many were killed. At times, whole populations were slaughtered or forced to relocate in less habitable areas, their land being spoils of war. In many cases, persons of noble rank, often the young, were taken as hostages to the victorious country (or city-state) where they are treated quite well but where their heads quite literally depended on the obedience of those left to rule their mother country.
Armies, particularly Greek Armies were on their own for food; markets arose around troop encampments and areas of conflicts to sell necessaries. The demands of rapid conquest left little time to deal with prisoners and newly enslaved persons, not to mention the supply chain burden imposed by increased numbers and their inability to pay for rations. Alexander of Macedon “the Great” solved this problem, and the problem of force reduction by leaving large numbers behind in captured cities, by establishing rule of loyal indigenous persons wherever possible, and by generally attacking treasure strongholds in advance of military strongholds to have that all persuasive gold.
The evil of slavery grew into an economic engine and workers were plucked from cultures for the exclusive purpose of being enslaved, the treatment of those persons turned from that of a defeated foe to that of non-persons, as a commodity less important than animals in some cases. These were not the stewards of the household as we read of Joseph in Genesis, no, they were victims of brutality, rape, torture, starvation, murder, and the term slave conveys that somehow these humans were innately so which is a preposterious and evil fiction that we tell ourselves to sooth guilty consciences. I would say the same of indigenous peoples throughout the world and the murderous interactions with the more war-like and thereby more advanced European cultures and the greed of those cultures.
New World enslavement
Enslavement in the new world is as old as European interaction therewith, perhaps older in some indigenous societies. The first slaves of African origin traveled with Christopher Columbus in 1492. Columbus’ murderous treatment of the indigenous population cannot be overlooked, by the way. He was a horrible man, did horrible things, and if a statue needs to be torn down, his should lead. Ponce de Leon enslaved indigenous persons in 1508. Jamestown, Virginia included twenty enslaved African persons in 1619.
These United States of America first began to act against the enslavement of persons by the Slave Trade Act of 1794 banning any American owned or built vessels or American citizens from participating in enslavement and, in 1807, banning foreign persons from so doing within American jurisdiction, this taking effect in 1808. Still, those enslaved in America and their children continued to be legally compelled to labor and treated as sub-humans. This manifest horror led to the Civil war (1861-1865). Along with his contemporaneous critics we, too, should note that President Lincoln’s 1862 Emancipation Proclamation had no impact on Union jurisdiction, on certain Confederate cities (such as New Orleans which was explicitly excluded), or on states having succeeded from the union in the first place, thereby directly freeing no one until or unless those in power in the locations indicated complied, the Union intervened, or the enslaved reached safety from those claiming to own human beings. Enslavement did formally end, but in 1865 and by the ratification of the thirteenth amendment to the constitution of these United States – thereby holding force even for the states that rejected it; ratification was not unanimous with Delaware overturning it’s rejection only in 1901, Kentucky in 1976, and Mississippi in 1995 (at which time, Mississippi failed to formally register this with the Federal government, that being accomplished in 2013), those late changes being purely symbolic.
In 1868, the Fourteenth amendment was ratified, reversing the horrible ruling of our Supreme Court in Dred Scott v. Sanford which held that a former slave could not be a citizen. Following that, the Fifteenth amendment was ratified in 1870 guaranteeing everyone, regardless of race or former enslavement, the right to vote. Reconstruction and full rights for formerly enslaved persons was opposed strongly by Southern Democrats, and necessitated the formation of the Department of Justice in 1870 by Ulysses S. Grant for the purpose of prosecuting the Ku Klux Klan which it did indeed largely destroy, yet, the thinking and a smaller organization still exists as do all sorts of cults and sects living in denial of the truth that we are all one species, that we all came for from Africa, and that the adaptations specific to races are environmental adaptations not evolution in intelligence.
I often hear that this was long ago, and things have improved. After all, there is no slavery in the United States today. Indeed, white folks like me often want to think that the story of John Newton, Enslaver and slave trader, who turned to oppose enslavement and wrote the lyrics to Amazing Grace, somehow redeems the past and present misdeeds of those of us of European descent inflicting present harm on those whom we enslaved, those whom we ostracized and ostracize, those whom we held and hold beneath contempt and justice, those whom we regard as somehow, either less than fully human or endemically flawed, untrustworthy, and therefore voiceless. However, I’ll not broaden this post beyond its current scope to include women, LGBTQ, and the rest of the extended catalog of people oppressed by European domination and, sadly, Christianity. That said, John Newton’s epiphany is not nearly so cut and dried as we are often led to believe and perhaps points to the kind of worldview changes that we must undergo.
Newton’s story is a complicated one. His Pegasus (slave ship) crew abandoned him into the hands of a slave trader in Africa in 1745 and that slave trader sold Newton into slavery in Africa under the rule of Africans who didn’t much like him and treated him accordingly. After his literal redemption from slavery in 1748, he continued in the slave trade on several voyages until his health declined due to a stroke in 1754, making it impossible for him to continue. He had a religious spark on that return voyage in 1748 as the ship foundered but eventually survived a bad storm. Nonetheless, he was still involved in enslavement as that spark and perhaps worldview questioning grew into a risk-taking condemnation of the slave trade. In 1763 he wrote that he had not been fully Christian during the nine years he continued in the Enslavement and sale of humans after his initial conversion in 1748, by which time he was very involved in the Anglican church, being ordained in June of 1764. In 1779, a hymnal including what we now call Amazing Grace, lyrics written by Newton, was published. In 1788, he wrote a paper against slavery and became part of the abolition movement. That movement resulted in the end of Slave Trading in the English Empire (but not enslavement outright) in 1807. Newton died that same year, he was eighty-five.
I, for one, love Newton’s hymn; it was sung at both of my mother’s funeral services (Kingwood, Texas and Hugoton, Kansas; long story). I have quite literally been blind with early onset cataracts and through the grace of God I now see, and my journey toward understanding still unfolds. Seeing, truly seeing, also levies a responsibility, especially on the Christian by which I mean “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” (Luke 12:48 NRS) Accordingly, what we should learn from Newton and this hymn is that our wisdom, religion, and philosophies are very well, but we must act to do what we can in selfless service towards correcting the trajectory of our society and to tend to the damage done by that powerful force. We must indeed cultivate our garden which is also the garden of our fellow humans, just as Voltaire ends Candide. You see, it is not optimism about what the future may hold that is problematic, no, it is the passive acceptance of the current state with its choking weeds that needs tending to.
Let this suffice for the historical treatment that leads to modern day oppression of the African American.
Enduring Racism and Oppression
The stories we tell and promote endure, and meanings are given where none are intended. Take, for instance, the book of Genesis and the creation story, better: stories. Are you aware that Genesis contains two different creation stories? It does, the first being Genesis Chapter 1 through Chapter 2 verse 3, and the second beginning with Chapter 2 verse 4 and running to the end of Chapter 2. The reason I say that these are two different stories is that the order is different. The first story creates heaven and earth on day 1, the sky on day 2, separation of land from seas as well as vegetation and fruit on day 3, stars and the sun and the moon on day 4, creatures of the water and birds on day 5, cattle and wild beasts and finally humans on day 6 with day 7 being the day of rest. In the second story, the order is Man, the Garden of Eden, Animals of all kinds, and Woman. These are not the same creation myths with the second somehow being a more detailed tale focused on the creation of humans, not if we read carefully. By the way, if one ever ponders the Jewish custom of the day beginning at night, it is to Genesis that one goes, Genesis 1:5 “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day”. But I digress.
I bring these creation stories up because certain supremacist groups use this nonsense to justify a racial difference with Jewish peoples – the first order of creation being the supreme race “in God’s image” and the second story being “mud people” – the people created from the dust. Likewise, stories told by people of all ilks over time, incorrect stories, leave enduring legacies because a bell cannot be unrung, and most people are loath to accept correction – if something has been held true by ancestors, there must be something “to it”. Entire systems are built on invalid presumptions based on what later turns out to be nonsense but at the time was considered by those in power to be correct or, more likely, to their advantage.
We must value what our ancestors have learned and taught us in order for the species to thrive – what sorts of food are edible, how to build a shelter, how to defend one’s self, how to build a family unit and reproduce, how to trade with equity, all of these things serve basic human needs. After all, I learn a great deal from ancient writers and modern writers too. The thing is, error is introduced when people rely on what seems good rather than what is good, when people do not contemplate and deliberate to improve understanding. And there’s a plenitude of error, but that’s how we improve at least mostly, by trial and error – if and only if we recognize the error and seek improvement perpetually.
Clearly the stories told of the enslaved, of the African, of the “other”, endure and the notion of innate inequality persists as do the many intellectually bankrupt conspiracy theories involving all sorts of people. To be clear, conspiracies do occur, but a lack of evidence does not in and of itself become evidence. The problem we face here is a legacy, not a conspiracy, and the indignation of many roused by aspersions cast upon heroes. Yet again, we must take people, their words, their deeds, and their ideas in the context of their time, not ours, and refrain from imposing our views, even morals, on our forebears except inasmuch as we learn that certain people, like Christopher Columbus, were horrid in their own time-frame and under the prevailing morals of the day.
That legacy, however, includes symbols of oppression and while we may not have a valid issue with the people being honored by those symbols in the context of their times and the advances they made for humankind, we must needs balance our treatment of the universal good with what appeared to be good historically and is now properly understood to be bad, even evil. To ask the oppressed to live in a society that constantly reminds them of former, and present, bias against them, of horrible deeds done to their ancestors, and of the lack of progress in establishing equity, enabling these citizens to truly have self-determination, and ultimately enable life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is tantamount to asking for public display of Nazi symbols in Israel outside of museum or educational context; it should be unthinkable. Exactly what those symbols are is debatable, and the debate must take care that balance be achieved between what (and whom) is truly a symbol of oppression and what is truly a symbol of human progress.
At the end of the day, symbols and linguistics and texts are important. They tell the story of who we were, who we are, what we believe, what we think our problems are, how we think we can solve those problems, and whom we trust. They not only define but also create the zeitgeist of society, and symbols of oppression that are truly that, must go to enable any path forward to happiness.
What, then shall be done?
One had almost written “fixing the problem” but that very notion oversimplifies what must be accomplished in order to remediate harm done and establish just and equitable treatment among equals. The truth is that we need to improve in many areas and not only due to the results of horrific treatment of the enslaved, the indigenous American, and any of other demarcations of “other” or “less than equal” including women. We need to do this because it is good, it leads to happiness, and in practical terms it allows human resources to flourish and provide amazing skills and insights throughout our various enterprises. We are necessarily limited by our understanding, our ability to agree, and we are necessarily in the current point of historical progression in which we live. That past can neither be undone nor ignored; it persists and must be accurately conveyed and examined.
America is still in the grasp of errors made by human enslavement and the notion, sometimes quite literally as some absurd groups read Genesis above, that various groups are children of a lesser God, that they are defective in some endemic way. The problem is not simply one of understanding an error and changing thought processes but, rather, one of having acted upon incorrect beliefs forcing certain classes of persons to be less capable in society through withholding education and opportunities thus creating a notional yet errant path forward akin to giving a fish versus teaching a person to fish, creating a temporary solution versus doing the hard work of correcting the problems we’ve created.
The error is that the choice is these two options, neither of which can succeed and both of which presume that the oppressed want the help offered in the first place, which creates a disconnection between good intentions and how they are received. Our very thought process becomes entangled in the web of invalid assumptions that led to the current state, which is a limitation that we must impose on philosophers and the wise: the experiential base from which they draw along with rational thought limits thinking.
Stepping back to basics, particularly to the thoughts of Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics, it seems reasonable to presume or even assume that everyone in these United States seeks equitable treatment. I don’t mean equality by that statement; I mean equity which is not the same at all. For instance, Aristotle has assumed that the laws have been put in place for the common good but cannot properly treat each individual case and circumstance. In essence, people stand equal before the law in adjudication of guilt or innocence but the penalty imposed should be equitable inasmuch as the payment imposed (financial, time in jail, et cetera) should have the same impact on all persons when considering their specific existential reality which would, inter alia, mean graduated fines based on the ability to pay, graduated prison sentences based on the impact to livelihood and family, graduated bail bond costs, car impound costs, and so forth and so on. Equity is needed because equity is the ultimate justice. That our system is not equitable is painfully obvious, and this does appear to be something that has occurred over time, perhaps better: worsened, rather than being so from the onset of our country.
If the beginning of our elenchus is “What is good governance?”, our first response then is “Fair and equitable treatment under the law.” The first counter will be “What about laws that themselves are neither fair nor equitable, laws that target specific classes of persons, specific cultural norms that do not pose a threat to other people?” We should answer by stating that the laws must crafted and amended as necessary to avoid such conflicts in a proactive manner as society progresses. Some would correctly answer that this is, in these United States, the role of the Supreme Court, however, it takes massive funding and a long, long time to work a case through the court systems; the law must depend on constant refinement to evolve into the good and away from oppression. That the laws are not thusly and wisely tended is one problem that needs solving urgently.
What, then, is the good and how can it be defined? Again, reading Aristotle, the ultimate good is happiness, and the ultimate cause of happiness is active understanding. Aristotle postulates that the divine is complete and completely active understanding, unchanging, and being the first cause without itself being moved or changed. While we must admit that we are incapable of this universal and holistic understanding, Aristotle encourages us to think beyond the boundaries of our human ontological state, and I agree. Accordingly, the first thing we must recognize is that we cannot understand what is good in the eyes of other persons without their voices being heard with respect and without threat of powerful retribution. The good, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
Our founders “got it” by creating a representative democracy – a republic. What they did not yet envision or understand fully is that this must apply to all humans or it is sophistry. Even in declaring that all are created equal before God, they described the Native Americans as fierce savages in that declaration and continued to permit human enslavement. They clearly held these things as either good, true, or necessary to establish this country and create a union of states with disparate interests, regardless of how repugnant those decisions may now be. Unlike Christopher Columbus, they were not intent on getting rich and powerful but, rather, throwing off oppression from themselves.
Throughout modern and postmodern thought, I posit that we have erred in our approach. That approach has been to treat the other, the less educated (and culturally indoctrinated), the less technically advanced, and those with whom the dominant culture clashes as children lacking the philosophical basics that Aristotle so wisely advises us are not characteristics of youth due to the need for experience and broader understanding. But these peoples are not children; they have adult and wise mental processes. They have the right, the unalienable human right, of self-determination as adults. Yes, the situation demands support and wise guidance but no, the situation is not improved by treating people as though they are immature and childish in their ways or, even worse, as though they were endemically sinister and their existence pejorative. In a way, this relates to the difference between modern thought “we can answer any question and do anything” and postmodern thought “we know nothing”. The unhappy similarity being the thought of “we”, creating a syllogism on that common term. Between the two extremes lies the truth – we know some things, and some things cannot be known to us.
Our problem is like the Chinese Finger Trap – cylinders woven of broad bamboo fibers. Once on two opposing fingers, the puzzle is how to extricate one’s self from the trap, and the answer is nonsensical inasmuch as one must push in to loosen its grip rather than using our instinct to pull away which tightens its grip. Our problem seems intractable because we seek control, and the more intense the problem becomes, the more tightly we seek to control the situation. While necessary at times, such as desegregation, or riots, forceful control tends to leave behind a legacy that rekindles enmity and creates the false appearance of a loss of privilege or status.
Status or, as Julius Caesar and contemporaries put it “Dignitas” is very important, but it must stand on the deeds of the person, not their state relative to others, on birthright and privilege. Our path has been painfully slow, and our excuse tends to be that we have experience and expertise that others lack. Our friend Socrates died for saying, and teaching, that the Demos of Athens were foolish to allow the election of someone without requisite skills to hold office, yet people cannot acquire skills without opportunity and support and sufficient power. And we must face this paradox which we, those in power, have created.
Our approach is, again, errant because the primary approach is to get ourselves out of the problem we’ve created through removing symbols and making other broadly insubstantial changes in order to mollify the angst of the oppressed. What is needed is the recognition that Black and other communities are perfectly capable of getting themselves into a competitive position in our society if the powerful cease obstruction, creation of laws that a common person would know oppress a class, imposing fixes that are not a result of wise deliberation from the parties impacted and then turn to support those communities as those communities themselves see fit. This is perhaps the ultimate communal paradox – that we must give up control in order to have control, an idea that Socrates would refute strongly. Yet, this is what America stands for: a limited federal system holding together sovereign states which, in turn, are composed of sovereign cities, counties, and parishes and with people being free to move from place to place as suits their needs. That sounds good, but the truth is that while the poor may be free to move, they lack the resources and support to do so thereby rendering geographically centric oppression and racism a trap from which few escape. Some wonder why so many stayed in New Orleans during Katrina. They couldn’t afford to leave and stay elsewhere.
Thus, in the end analysis, the problem deepens into one of demographically disproportionate poverty resulting from systemic prejudice and discrimination in education, jobs, housing, laws, law enforcement and other broad categories. These systemic problems impact many beyond the Black community, and for all sorts of reasons, but it must be clear that our system is neither just nor equitable for the poor.
How, then, shall we improve?
A problem cannot be solved unless its existence is freely acknowledged, and a problem must be well defined in order to evaluate solutions and prioritize them. After time, the first errant cause produces a multiplicity of errors which means that there are many problems to solve, not just that of the first cause, racism and enslavement. Indeed, collaboration to resolve the downstream effects may well be necessary to elevate society into a position to virtually eliminate the first cause. Therefore, we need to make a moral inventory fearlessly and in collaboration with the harmed in order to put before us the many problems that exist, acknowledge the need to change, and find the strength to go forward with this path that will of necessity be one of heavy resistance. Of course, I’m quoting some of the Twelve steps; my mother was an alcoholic, and there is much wisdom here. Another thing that we must do is take action to amend prior wrongs that does not cause more harm than good. Then we must continue this forward in all that we do. In other words, we need open and frank dialogue. We need to get the complaints from all parties on the table and before us, to find the truth, and to reconcile differences through specific actions made in good faith and building a trusting relationship between all stakeholders. But how?
As a chief engineer, I am often in the middle of conflicts arising due to cost, schedule, staffing, politics, and performance. Sometimes these are internal conflicts, sometimes they involve the customer(s), and sometimes they involve high level management. I steer for what I know to be true and what advice I can offer based on the truth as best I can know it, my analysis of the situation, and the analysis of my team. While I am diplomatic, I do not bend fact to accommodate what people want to hear; the process is often confrontational and unpleasant, meaning that I get beat up a lot. Fair enough. Quite often, I learn things that I didn’t know, and acquire new understanding of perspectives on problems and what solutions should look like especially when the schedule is critical. That notwithstanding, I always stand for the requirements, for mission assurance and quality, and the letter of the contract. This, too, is often unpopular, but at the end of the day a mutually agreeable solution, often equitable in the degree of dislike by all stakeholders, can be achieved. That’s a large part of what I do in my profession, and we may compare this with Hippocratic theory inasmuch as a crisis must occur and the body must defeat it for wellness to ensue; failure in the crisis leads to death. Likewise, the recurrent disease leads, in his theory, to another crisis state.
The steps we take that, in effect, treat the symptoms and not the disease, can prolong the illness and even increase the severity. Anything that drives stakeholder views and care abouts into a closet and encourages disingenuous dialogue, including fear of retaliation or retribution, is intolerable to the process, including politically correct speech that masks viewpoints. This must be a cornerstone of all dialogue, that no class or group will be silenced, that all will be heard, and within the bounds of a simple construct that all are created equal and that none are born with a rights greater than anyone else.
We must expect that this process, this evolution, will result in painful crises, and we must plan to work through those crises and encourage demonstrations and protests that are peaceful. That there will be exceptions, that there will be violence and damage and harm to bystanders and property, is as horrible as it is regrettable and inevitable. There is little doubt in my mind that this will be the case until a trusting relationship is established where one has never previously existed in many cases.
As for improving, I’ve written a lot, I’ve mentioned few specifics, and after this many words it seems only reasonable to put forth a tentative list of activities that seem beneficial. These notions need not be sequential in order.
Limit ongoing damage
- Force active tending to legislation through a constitutional amendment requiring all laws subordinate to the constitution itself to be invalid if not reviewed and renewed in a period not to exceed twenty-five years.
- Decrease disparity between elected and voters by a constitutional amendment requiring that congress pass no law from which it or other government employees, excepting the military, are exempt except as provided elsewhere by the constitution.
- Force equitable governance by a constitutional amendment defining inequitable fixed fine scales as cruel and unusual punishment, also defining equity in this amendment by limiting methods of apprehension to be no more severe than the maximum sentence of the suspected crime. Further define cruel and unusual punishment to be the infliction of pain unless the suspect poses a clear , present, and grave danger to the apprehending authority, essentially banning the use of tasers. the Japanese use net guns; we should get some.
- Constitutionally refine the Grand Jury process stating that a district attorney cannot present the case concerning violent crimes allegedly perpetrated by employees of his city, county or parish due to an inherent conflict of interest. This would result in independent review of police activities.
- Federally fund on-going problem-solving groups hosted and chaired by traditionally Black universities throughout these United States, with at least one group per time zone.
- Charter those groups with elaboration of specific problems and proposing solutions focused on geographical areas.
- Mandate that each group and committee be led by a person from the African American community. Also mandate that it include diverse viewpoints of stakeholders throughout the region (races, genders, etc.)
- Amend house and senate rules to allow those groups to directly propose legislation to each body and compel these bodies to permit the ideas to be debated and voted up or down on the floor.
- Seek, but do not compel, similar arrangements with each of the several states.
- Require of the groups annual or more frequent suggestions in terms of legislation, changes to legislation, programs, including state, county/parish, and city specific recommendations.
- Federally fund and similarly empower a single group chaired by a traditionally Black university to evaluate demographically disproportionate incarceration and culturally inappropriate legislation toward the end of recommending changes to local, state, and federal laws.
One of my high school teachers, Mrs. Belle Johnson, had a way with words and often summarized her leading suggestions with “and all like that”. That could be said of the potential examples above. It’s also how I shall entitle my closing remarks.
And all like that
We live in an amazing world, in a time when society has reached the stage of maturity that enables us to understand our own follies and attempt to correct them, at least going forward. I see and participate in active measures in the workplace to ensure that people of color and women are considered for advancement and leadership roles. I’ve worked under the directorship of women for over a decade. The once white male sea of engineers now teems with people of color, women, people of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds, and those people are quite often leaders. Given my age group and what I’ve seen, this is extraordinary. Indeed, one of my mentors is transgender, LGBTQ+ persons are celebrated, and I had the distinct pleasure of telling leadership that a major meeting should probably not be held on Juneteenth. It was indeed moved.
That there is progress is clear, that it is insufficient and ill contrived is also clear. The only path evident to me is that of trust building and mutual cooperation, of diplomacy and candor, of struggle and self evaluation, of deeds and words. To accomplish what is before us is to live up the expectations set by this American experiment, to strive to be Reagan’s shining city, and to fight for what is good and right.
It is not a deal that we need, new or green or otherwise. It is a holistic evolution of society to achieve equality and equity, to enable and facilitate the thriving of each human who, in turn, enables and facilitates the thriving of society. That evolution is occurring, step by step, slowly. We need to embrace it and perpetuate it and the thought process behind it. Yes, there are exceptions to almost every rule, yet all are born, all die, and at some point, all suffer. In these things, we are all the same, and that is at least a start.
As for what lies ahead, the one thing I’ve not said that Aristotle tells us is that the aged, at some point and due lifetimes of experience, become less suitable as leaders than those in their prime which we would call middle aged and which our founders set starting at thirty-five. It is high time that the old guard of leaders retire to mentorship and aid fresher people in taking the helm.