Day 5: Protests and Anger

As the protests ignited by the murder of George Floyd spread across the country, I am inspired by the energy. I came of age during the protests against the Vietnam War, and have always associated those actions with a positive correction – analogous to running a fever to fight an infection. Racism, corruption, hatred… these are all diseases that, when unchecked, require a strong immune system response.

Anger is an energy.

Rise, Public Image, Ltd.

Not every part of these protests is perfect, of course. When anger is your fuel, it can express itself in destructive ways, especially in groups of people.

In the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear?

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Many will continue to refuse to hear. They will focus on the negative: the looting, the destruction, etc., and completely ignore that which pushed people to react with such intensity. They will clutch at straws that somehow explain why it was necessary to kneel with your full weight for 9 minutes on the neck of a man who was handcuffed and face-down on the ground.

Kick over the wall, cause governments to fall

How can you refuse it?

Let fury have the hour. Anger can be power!

Do you know that you can use it?

Clampdown, The Clash

Growing up, I watched the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, and by the 70s I thought that that was settled. But those forces of hatred weren’t eliminated; instead, they were pushed to the background. In my naiveté, I never imagined that ignorance like that could persist. I mean, wasn’t it clear that segregation was completely wrong? Wasn’t it clear that people were people, no matter their skin color?

They never did go away, though. They went underground, and spoke in “dog whistle” code to avoid being ostracized, since overt racism was not tolerated by the public. The election of Obama to the Presidency was the moment that galvanized these hateful people, and the Republican Party was all too willing to tap into it. I have written how the ascension of Donald Trump led to these people feeling free to once again be publicly hateful; my hope is that these protests start the pendulum swinging the other way, where racism, hatred, and bigotry are no longer tolerated.

Day 4: Racial Blindness

I’ve always hated the expression used by well-meaning white people: “I don’t see color”. They think that it means that they are open-minded, and treat everyone the same no matter their skin color. It’s a wonderful sentiment, isn’t it?

It’s also one that is only possible if your skin color doesn’t disadvantage you. For everyone else, they have to deal with the reality of being visibly different than those in power, and being treated differently (ok, worse) as a result.

Back in the late ’80s I had a friend who was black. He was in his early 30s, like me, had a young child, like me, and lived in a house he owned in northern NJ, like me. He was also very light-skinned, and dressed, well, like me. His appearance was the furthest thing from the “gangsta” style. We worked together, played tennis together, and got to know each other very well.

At work we were both on the evening shift. Since we lived near each other, we took the same route for the most part, and one particular evening I saw his car pulled over by a cop. The next day when I saw him, I started to give him shit about getting a speeding ticket, and he told me that he wasn’t speeding and didn’t get a ticket. I asked him why he got pulled over, and he told me that the cop wanted to know what he was doing driving through that part of town.

The look of confusion on my face must have been apparent, and he started to explain the problem of what we now call “driving while black”. This was the first that I had heard of such a thing, and told him that there had to be more to it than that. In those days I still hadn’t learned to listen when someone tells you of an experience that you can’t possibly fathom because you aren’t in that group that experiences discrimination. Fortunately, he was patient with me, explaining that this happens often enough that he knew how to respond in as non-threatening a manner as possible so as not to provoke the police, and that they always let him go.

Over the next few weeks we talked a lot about what it was like for him. Me, in my ignorance, assumed that since he was the least-threatening-looking person around, no one would harass him, but he had story after story about just that. One day we were hanging out at his house, and his wife asked him to run to a local department store to pick up something. When we got there, he told me to not stay with him, but stay close enough to watch the store security follow him. Once again, I thought he was exaggerating things, but I played along. He went to one side of department, and I went to a nearby aisle. I saw several people who I assumed were security, and they did seem to be looking at him and ignoring me. He then walked to the opposite side of the area, and sure enough, two of the security people moved with him to keep him in their sight. I walked around several areas, including crossing directly in front of them, and never got a second glance from them. But as my friend moved around, they followed.

From that day on, I always try to see color. Pretending that it doesn’t permeate our experience is only possible when you’re white and ignorant. The luxury to ignore race is what people mean when they speak of “privilege”.

Maybe some of you are feeling a bit defensive, thinking “I’m not racist!”, and I’m sure you aren’t, at least consciously. I wrote about unconscious bias before, and it is really important to be aware that it exists, no matter how kind and loving you try to be.

Don’t be blind to our differences! Instead, recognize them, celebrate them, and embrace them! And if you, like me, are lucky enough to have been born into privilege, don’t feel bad – it’s only a bad thing if you don’t use it to help those who weren’t as fortunate. We can’t overcome the racists of the world by turning a blind eye to these problems.

Damned If You Do

The recent spate of canceled conferences, sporting events, etc., due to concerns about spreading infection of the coronavirus COVID-19 has made me think about what will happen if these efforts are successful.

Back in the late 1990s, people realized that a lot of software written in the mid-20th century had a problem: due to the expense of storage, programmers shortened the way years were stored, so that something like 1978 would be stored as 78, with the century assumed. This was fine, but as that software aged, and the coming change of century approached, it was realized that many critical software problems would go from December 31, 1999, to January 1, 1900. This was the Year 2000 problem, commonly abbreviated as Y2K.

Having recognized the issue, most software companies invested heavily in updating their software to use full 4-digit representations for the year. It was tedious work; I personally had to write a series of tests for my projects that verified that things would continue to work in the year 2000. But because the warning was heeded, by the time that January 1, 2000 came most software had been updated. As a result, all of the doomsday scenarios (such as planes dropping from the sky) had been avoided. Yes, there were some billing glitches that were missed, but because of the intense efforts to address this problem, there were no serious problems.

What was the public’s reaction to this? Did they laud the developers for successfully averting a potential problem? Of course not. Instead, they reacted with disdain: “I thought this was going to be the end of the world! Nothing happened!”.

And that’s the point: because the warnings were heeded, and action was taken, nothing catastrophic happened. It didn’t mean that the problem wasn’t real; it just meant that the tech community understood the problem, and addressed it head-on.

So I’m wondering what will happen if the common-sense steps we are taking now to avoid spreading this virus ends up that not that many people get sick or die: will the Fox News people start complaining that it was all a politically-inspired hoax? That the liberal media tried to make Trump look bad by crying wolf? It almost makes me think that if there is a terrible body count, people will be ridiculed for taking ineffective steps, but if there isn’t such a terrible outcome, the steps that were taken will be ridiculed as overreaction, or, even worse, a political stunt.

Damned if you do; damned if you dont.

Encore

A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to attend a show by David Byrne. I have seen him perform many times before, and he always put on a great show. He didn’t let us down this time either. After the last number, they bowed and walked off-stage to a standing ovation. The applause continued for a few minutes, and was then rewarded by an encore.

Did I worry that my applause wouldn’t be the decisive amount of noise to ensure that there was an encore? Of course not. When you are a member of the audience of a performance, it’s not about you, it’s about everyone. Of course if I didn’t clap they would have done the encore anyway, and if I had clapped twice as hard it wouldn’t have changed anything. The problem is expecting individual effects in a group context.

Voting is the same thing. It isn’t about you, the voter. It’s about everyone, the voters. When an election is held, vote your preference. Odds are, sure, it won’t make a difference. Your vote won’t be the single event that changes history. But it’s not supposed to be. Assuming that unless it is, it doesn’t matter is completely missing the point. Just as applauding (or not) for an encore, it is the response of the group that matters, not any single member of the group.

If you have the privilege to vote, and haven’t done so yet, make the effort to do so tomorrow. The collective action of those who might feel that they are powerless wields a hell of a lot of power.

My Electoral Dread

With the mid-term elections coming up in a few weeks here in the US, many of us are hoping for the “blue wave” that will help to counteract the extreme direction that the Trump regime has pulled this country. But having observed how things have been operating for the past two years, I can’t help but feel a sense of dread about what will happen.

One thing that has plagued politicians is being involved in a scandal. But in the Trump era, there are new scandals every day, sometimes so many at once that it’s hard to keep up. And I think that’s the plan: overwhelm people so that no single scandal gets any attention.

So this dread I feel is that on Election Day, there won’t be a few irregularities about the vote; there will be thousands and thousands. There will be so many that it won’t be possible to investigate them all. We will have no certainty about the results. There will be cries of fraud, but instead of taking them seriously, they will be met with the standard “you lost; get over it”. And as a result, the political arena will become more extreme than ever before.

I have never hoped that I am wrong as strongly as I do now.