Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Hope and the Tragedy of Transition - A Response to New York Times Columnist David Brooks on his piece by George Packer


A Response to the four Narratives of American Identity Transition as written by David Brooks in his engage of a piece by George Packer

In his New York Times Opinion Pate, Op-ed columnist David Brooks gives his opinion to a speech given by writer George Packer on “The Four American Narratives.” It is a thoughtful, compelling piece which causes one to reflect on the challenges and the gifts of narratives.  David Brooks writes, “In a superb speech to the think tank New America, the Writer George Packer recently argued that there are four rival narratives in America today." 

 "First, there is the libertarian narrative that dominates the G.O.P. America is a land of free individuals responsible for their own fate. This story celebrates the dynamism of the free market. Its prime value is freedom. Packer wrote that “the libertarian idea in its current shape regards Americans as consumers, entrepreneurs, workers, taxpayers — indeed everything except citizens.”

 Second, there is the narrative of globalized America. This is the narrative dominant in Silicon Valley and beyond. “We’re all lifelong learners and work for the start-up of you, and a more open and connected world is always a better world.” This story “comes with an exhilarating ideology of flattening hierarchies, disrupting systems, discarding old elites and empowering individuals.”

But in real life when you disrupt old structures you end up concentrating power in fewer hands. This narrative works out well for people who went to Stanford, but not so well for most others.

Third, there is the story of multicultural America. “It sees Americans as members of groups, whose status is largely determined by the sins of the past and present,” Packer observed. “During the Obama years it became a largely unexamined dogma among cultural elites.”

The multicultural narrative dominates America’s classrooms, from elementary school through university: “It makes the products of these educations — the students — less able or less willing to think in terms larger than their own identity group — a kind of intellectual narcissism — which means they can’t find common ground or effective arguments that can reach people of different backgrounds and views.”

As Packer noted, it values inclusion but doesn’t answer the question, Included into what? What is the national identity all these subgroups add up into?

Finally, there is the narrative of America First, the narrative Donald Trump told last year, and which resonated with many voters. “America First is the conviction that the country has lost its traditional identity because of contamination and weakness — the contamination of others, foreigners, immigrants, Muslims; the weakness of elites who have no allegiance to the country because they’ve been globalized.” 

(From a New York Times Article dated May 26, 2017 by David Brooks) See https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/26/opinion/the-four-american-narratives.html.


While I would tend to affirm Mr. Packer’s assessment of America, I would add, in my very humble opinion, that one of many factors which unified America, the American Dream, if you will, was the dominance of race, racism, class and a tribalism which ensured a dominant narrative reflective of white culture and society.  America was America because of a peculiar dominance, at times violent, of white supremacy and its historical regime of imagination.  That was the single narrative which was the ground of a secure and steady America. America was about being white, period!  According to a 2015 survey by Anastasia Mechan, a Jewish-Peruvian Journalist and Writer, the U.S. was the number one racist country in the world, see http://anastasiamechan.com/103/.  No secret here that the historical narrative of white supremacy which gained ground on the North American Continent, and the enslavement of the African in America, the genocide of the native American, as well as pogroms to attack, marginalize and eradicate Mexican Americans from America, was the narrative that held America together.  A narrative which is the underlying content of “the campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.” That said, I suspect this narrative is experiencing a gradual decline or falling away as more and more people awaken and throw off the colonization of white supremacy.  It is to this end that the rise of Trump was made possible as more and more people, particularly those born at the height of white supremacy feel displaced in a world which no longer mirrors them and their imagination, a world no longer made in their image.  This has also been the cause of a spike in racial and religious incidents against a public becoming more and more polarized.

I suspect that there are some who are experiencing lament or sorrow because white supremacy, as a unifying narrative, and its brand of privilege, may be giving way to a country, and a people in search, rather reluctantly, of themselves after 240 plus years of narcissistic tendency.  This is understandable yet as a nation we must begin to reject this sad truth which has, for good or ill, contoured as a matter of response or reaction American society and culture.    
Historically, it has been the desires, imagination, innocence, ignorance and violence which has shaped much of American society and this has been primarily at the hands of those people who align with white supremacy and its brand of privilege as channeled through some corporations, considered people with free speech, as interpreted by the supreme court. Particularly when you look at some in the corporate media/entertainment, the leading man, the man who saves the world is, often, a white male. One of my favorite movies, “The Matrix” is a movie where the savior of Zion, the last human settlement, the messiah, is a white male. Or Star Trek with Captain Kirk, the always victorious, romantic space warrior, see  https://diversitychronicle.wordpress.com/2014/08/29/star-treks-long-history-of-racism-and-sexism-and-the-new-star-trek-series-planned-for-2015/ White men and women, on average, are often shown in a positive light in comparison to black and brown men and women shown in a lesser or secondary light.  I remember when the Hunger Games came out there was some serious hoopla regarding the leading character.  The complaint was that the leader character was black woman.  See http://jezebel.com/5896408/racist-hunger-games-fans-dont-care-how-much-money-the-movie-made

Transitioning from a narrative, exclusively centered one type of imagination, while fraught with anxiety for many, this should be encountered as a normative matter, is welcomed by many others who long to be free of the exclusivity of that imagination and its gaze.  To move, however complex, into a narrative where all people, as called forth in the book of Genesis and affirmed further in the Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, have significant unencumbered opportunities to exhibit a different more inclusive humanity becomes a means to experience a new liberative discourse on practical reality, and to recognize and embrace the sacredness of God’s creation.  

II

We Resist because we are free, We Resist because we love, We Resist as an Obligation to the Soul

Psalm 125

A song of ascents.

Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion,
    which cannot be shaken but endures forever.
As the mountains surround Jerusalem,
    so the Lord surrounds his people
    both now and forevermore.

The scepter of the wicked will not remain
    over the land allotted to the righteous,
for then the righteous might use
    their hands to do evil.

Lord, do good to those who are good,
    to those who are upright in heart.
But those who turn to crooked ways
    the Lord will banish with the evildoers.

I receive solace from Psalm 125 as I reflect on difficulties impressed by a life precarious, embracing a certain and necessary confidence in God as I move through the proverbial Valley of the Shadow of Death of Psalm 23.  It strengthens my moral fortitude as I and others choose to live into and through cultural and societal transition of ontological and demographic import.  Amidst what some might call the terrifying and horrific, there is a call to conscience, a call to awaken, and to rise in the face of those forces of injustice which seek to return the days of “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.”[1] The Blood of Emmitt Till, Travon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Yvette Smith, Michael Brown, Tanisha Anderson, Mesha Caldwell, and Philando Castile cry out from history reminding me of their ultimate sacrifice and compelling a prophetic resistance (Isaiah 2:1-5).  Today, June 27, 2017 there was a report on Democracy Now that the memorial commemorating the brutal murder of Emmitt Till was vandalized.

Prophetic resistance grows out of divine love and is rooted in an obligation to the soul. It is a moral responsibility. It is a means to live a sacred, holy and authentic life.  In this sense, it is a matter of love. We resist because we love. An obligation to the soul is unconditional and this is the guiding truth of prophetic resistance.  Simone Weil, in her book, “The Need for Roots” writes

“This obligation is an eternal one. It is coextensive with the eternal destiny of human beings. Only human beings have an eternal destiny. Human collectivities do not have one. Nor are there, regarding the latter, any direct obligations of an eternal nature. Duty toward the human being as – that is eternal. This obligation is an unconditional one.”[2]

Obligation is universal and global, queering cultural-historical and religious boundaries thus making justice and its implications towards freedom somewhat complicated. That said, the empire of today, the one of race, and its supporting economic and religious structures is the most personal and powerful empire in human history and it too rests on matters of obligation. Yet this obligation is very different from the obligation of the one striving to break free of the oppression and injustice emerging out of the oppressor’s obligation to their own desires. In this context, the oppressor, the one with race privilege, whether systemic or historical is the empire which must be overcome to liberate and sooth the soul, this should be received as an obligation. 

Obligations, no matter the challenge or difficulty inevitably lead to the tools which are necessary to successfully transition into a different, inclusive and enlightening imagination. Obligations thus becomes the ground of movements which challenge and eventually overcome regimes of oppression.  Movements such as Black Lives Matter, the Occupy Movement, the Arab Spring, the African National Conference (ANC), the LGBTQ Movements and others arise as matters of liberation and this as a matter of obligation to the soul. These movements and others shout loud the words, I have an obligation to my liberation, my freedom and to love myself and others in Christ.

“Forward Together.” Rev. Dr. William Barber

Prophetic resistance, is a means to fulfill an obligation to the soul, it is a divine call to love, it is the life of Christ Jesus and the revelation of his crucifixion. In this sense, prophetic resistance happens in the context diverse spiritual and religious communities of faith, transcending significant barriers intended to maintain profound and manifest injustice.  Prophetic resistance must open the mind to new and different possibilities of liberation which transcend the narrow confines of definition, character and structure. Mindful of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s prophetic resistance was a matter of oneness with God and with those on the journey together as they fought against men like Bull Conner, George Wallace, the KKK, and the White Citizens Council. What Jesus was up against so to his Church would also face similar persecution.

According to John 17:21 Jesus prayed the following prayer, “I pray that they all may be one, just as you and I are one. Father, I am in you. And may they be in us so the world would believe you sent me.”

These tools necessarily lead to spiritual, mental and emotional clarity for those obliged. The implications of this obligation are horizons of hope revealing a new and different inclusive narrative of humanity.  This obligation reveals itself more and more as a oneness engulfs the whole movement of Prophetic Resistance.

III

Historical Knowledge Compels Action, Strategies and the Architecture of Hope

I was recently part of a teach-in at Laney College in Oakland, CA. I was there to sit on a panel discussing issues and concerns of healthcare, education, the LGBTQ community, immigration, and employment. Our discussion reminded me that one of the most critical elements of a discussion on social justice is the historical analysis which must be the starting point of any action to adequately and successfully address issues and concerns of injustice. An historical analysis will reveal systems, processes and the constructs which maintain the grand narratives which dictate and frame life as it is today. Of course, history as a curriculum in public schools, and education in general, has been under considerable pressure for years as budgets focus more and more on subjects more in line with corporate and right-wing interests.

“Simply put, life is a journey through history.”

The sorted history of the United States compels me to be faithful and watchful as day after day grace and mercy become a way of survival in a society not my own. As Lebron James, one of the greatest basketball players of all time said after his house was vandalized with a racial slur, “No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being black in America is tough. We got a long way to go for us as a society and for us as African-Americans until we feel equal in America.” See https://www.theatlantic.com/news/archive/2017/05/lebron-james-responds-to-racist-vandalism-of-his-la-home/528771/. I suspect this experience is encountered by many black and brown people who successfully navigate and even transcend a world imagined and constructed exclusively for white people.  The one who accomplishes particular mastery of this white world, who overcomes Franz Fanon’s white gaze, finds a peculiar freedom and burden which characterizes their pursuit, their divine calling.

That said, it is clear to me that transitions whether personal, familial, cultural, social or political, economic reveal significant fault lines which portend significant and necessary shifts, putting at risk certain grand narratives which have historically defined American society, considered by this writer as a grand overarching structure, as white.

Grand narratives as defined by postcolonial theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid in her analysis of Antonio Francesco Gramsci, an Italian Marxist political theorist, are those authoritative discourses which sustain everyday life.  They identify the common order or common sense of things which are ideologically constructed yet assumed to have a natural and almost biological presence in life.  These are the Cultural, religious, socio-political discourses, economy and science and philosophical cosmovisions.[3]  Although she was referring to Latin America, the same would apply to the United States.

As difficult and fraught with complexity as transitions can be they provide an opportunity for society to redefine itself and its mission and hopes sought. To somehow delink itself from narratives unhealthy for the whole and to move forward together with a new, steady and just inclusive vision for a common good. The process of transition is not easy or at times manageable yet for the growth and maturity of a nation certain navigation of the transitory is necessary.  Unless this is accomplished nations cannot achieve the fullness longed for by their founders.

Conclusion


The true and most sincere measure of a society is how it treats the least of its citizens. It’s not how much money corporations make their shareholders or how big its military is or how many times it can destroy civilization. More so, it is how it treats its children, the infirmed, the disabled, the homeless, those with mental health challenges and the unemployed.  It is how it treats the sacred and divine things of God.  A society which neglects such will soon falter, indeed it will eventually fall. Transitions are that moment in time when societies choose to acknowledge the divine in all people or shrink from matters courageous. As a country of people we must take this time seriously and move steadfastly with intention to a brighter future.





[1] Cone, James, H., The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Orbis Books (Maryknoll, New York)
[2] Weil, Simone, The Need for Roots (Routledge, New York) p. 5
[3] Althaus-Reid, Marcella, Indecent Theology, Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender and Politics (Routledge, London, UK) p 11.