American Denial & Fear, Courtesy of Family Feud

September 10, 2011

The Culture of Fear cover (audio edition), September 10, 2011. (Source/

It’s been a decade since the largest American tragedy since World War II in 9/11 in New York, Washington, DC and central Pennsylvania. And we’ve spent much of the past week in remembrance of this event, what we’ve gained and what we’ve lost as a society since that tragic Tuesday. Cutting through all of the chatter and bullcrap in the run-up to 9/11 the last few weeks has been a part-time job, especially since most of it is wrapped in one of our nation’s best-selling products — fear.

Second plane, Twin Towers, 9/11, 9:03 am, courtesy of Today Show. (Source/

But a few things are clear. One is that we as a nation have spent the past ten years in constant fear, as if the Cold War wasn’t enough for anyone born before ’74. We wasted trillions of dollars on wars that have done more harm than good for us at home and abroad, ruining the economy, shredding the social welfare state and leaving us with curtailed civil liberties. Most of all, we’ve left ourselves in constant denial of our own fear, xenophobia, racism and religious intolerance, making America look even more imperialistic — if that seemed at all possible in ’01 — then we did a decade ago.

Of all the half-truths and total lies we’ve been told — and told ourselves — over the past ten years is how “the nation came together” in the first few months after the attacks. Really? In a parallel universe, maybe. I had the unfortunate experience of riding a Greyhound bus from Atlanta to Washington, DC two days after the attacks. My one-day business trip became three days, with flights suspended, rental cars gone and trains booked ten days out. Two guys, one White, one Black, “came together” on the back of the bus to insult and threaten a Sikh, all because he had the nerve to wear a turban. I had to get between the two dumb asses and the poor Sikh man to tell them that he wasn’t Arab or Muslim. “What difference does it make,” one of the dumb asses said, implying that I didn’t love America because I wasn’t ready to kill the “m-fs,” as he put it.

We came together, alright. To persecute Arab Americans, Muslims, Sikhs and South Asians and anyone else

They Hate Us For Our Freedom (2008), Claire Fontaine, Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis, December 11, 2008. (Source/

who looked like a potential terrorist. Even now, people like Bill Maher and Rush Limbaugh can agree that because some Arab Muslims are terrorists, that we should suspect the millions here in the US and the half a billion in the Middle East. This makes the Red Scare look like a high school lunchroom fight by comparison.

This is why the reference to Family Feud reference is so appropriate, especially with good-old Brit Richard “Dickie” Dawson as the host from ’76 to ’85. It was a show full of not-so-learned people giving rather folksy answers to questions big and small. I loved the part where one family would get together after a first or second strike, and someone would come up with an answer everyone in the group sounded like it was correct. Then they’d start clapping and yelling, “Good answer! Good answer!” before the buzzer would sound and the audience would say, “Uhhhhhhhh!”

That, and the hillbilly theme music for the show, and Dawson prancing around the set while kissing all of the female contestants, allegedly to wish them luck, were all things I enjoyed about Family Feud. The ’70s were so grand!

So in the spirit of Family Feud, I’ve spliced myself as various characters into an episode from ’81. The topic is about naming the people to blame for our current American mess, at home and abroad. I hope that it’s funny and goofy.

But I also hope that it’s food for thought. For in the end, we are all to blame. For being so entitled and privileged, for worshiping the US dollar and the people who have billions of them. For refusing to believe that America, as great a country as it is, screws up on the international stage, that our politicians have put our nation in a precarious position militarily and economically. For being so willing to buy the idea that the Rapture is upon us, but not the idea that climate change is real and that we can do something about it. For acting as if ours is a Christian nation, despite the fact that Christians, Jews, agnostics, atheists, and yes, Muslims were all part of America’s founding.

I hope that we can somehow find a way to outgrow our petty, stupid, idiotic differences around race, religion and politics and put down the class and corporate warfare against the average person. But our lust for wealth and constant feuding may be too much to overcome. Did those twenty Saudi terrorists win after all? Only if we let denial and fear — and those in power who rely on us voting out of both — lead us over a cliff.

Class Silence

September 20, 2010

Mum's the word on class.

One of the things that has driven me nuts over the past three decades is how we in this country walk in silence around issues of wealth and social class. We must never speak of our wealth, or poverty, lest we risk embarrassing ourselves or appearing arrogant. All Americans with an income between $20,000 and $20 million a year are middle class, not upper middle class, not affluent, not rich, just middle class.

Any mention of the top three percent in income (people whose income is more than $250,000 a year) amounts to class warfare, even though they control some 35-40 percent of the nation’s $57 trillion in wealth. No, poverty and affluence are relative, not absolute, and can only be measured subjectively,

Atacama Desert in Chile. Driest desert on Earth and place to stick our heads. (Public Domain)

through one’s own experience. Which is why any mention of our troubles is closer to sacrilege than declaring that there isn’t a God, especially in a nation that prints “In God We Trust” on its money.

There are ways to measure affluence and poverty regardless of cost of living and inflation. And please spare me the comparisons between the poor in the US and the poor in the Global South (Third World to those of you who like making other distinctions between fellow humans that actually dehumanize). I’ve seen too many corrugated roofs in Arkansas and Louisiana (all before Katrina), too many outhouses in rural Arkansas and Mississippi, too many families sleeping in the streets in San Francisco and New York, too many malnourished kids in Oklahoma and in DC to hear that “our poor are the richest poor people in the world” song-and-dance.

It’s simple really. Truly middle class people own a car and a home, or at least, have the option of doing both, with a steady income from a permanent job or from an established niche for work. If folks have one and rent an apartment or home, and aren’t really in a position to buy, they’re right on the borderline of the American middle class, but not quite there.

Of course, this definition does not mean that everything’s all right. Tens of millions of Americans, including yours truly, are struggling to pay car notes, student loans, mortgages and rent — not to mention credit card and other debt — and maintain a middle class or lower middle class lifestyle. Unfortunately, there are millions more who are working toward middle class, but aren’t quite there. They may say they’re middle class, but they’re really working-class or working poor.

Upper middle class or affluent Americans do more than own a house or a car. They own quality homes and quality cars, a Volvo or an Acura, maybe even a Lexus. They take at least one vacation a year with their families or friends, to other parts of the US, and on occasion, international trips. They eat at restaurants with their families at least as often as they eat a home-cooked meal. When shopping for groceries, sales are fine, as long as the sales aren’t on off-brand products like Faygo or Giant, Safeway or Krasdale. They have life insurance on every family member, 529 plans for their kids and contribute at least half as much to their 401K as their employer does in any given year (more than that if self-employed).

I’m certainly not arguing that the lives of the upper middle class or affluent or sub-rich are like being on Real Housewives or Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Yet so many in our public discourse make their lives now and times growing up sound humble, as if they grew up like me or others I’ve known over the past thirty years. People like Bill Cosby, Bill Gates or Bill O’Reilly, Dinesh D’Souza or Rush Limbaugh. It’s well beyond dishonest. It’s disgusting, and it helps to perpetuate the myth that the only reason all of us aren’t affluent is due only to our lack of hard work.

As the richest country on Earth — for the time being, at least — we’ve never reconciled our democratic ideals with our capitalistic obsessions. What helps maintain some sense of order, though, is our silence and quiet, desperate acquiescence to ever-increasing economic divisions in a country full of allegedly middle class people. As a song from Enigma goes, however, we should “question the absurd” here, as “silence must be heard.”

Race, Racism and Bigotry

August 5, 2010

Seven and a half years ago, at a retreat for a gathering of social justice fellows in Northern California, a lengthy discussion of -isms occurred. The premise was the fact that every human being has prejudices, biases, can come off as a bigot.

At one point, I made the point that there’s a difference between bigotry and racism. The average bigoted person usually doesn’t have the ability to slander, libel or otherwise act on their bigotry in a way that discriminates against the person or a whole class of people who are the object of this individual’s bigotry. Afterward, a fellow insisted that all bigotry rose to the level of an -ism of some sort, no matter how little the power or influence the person harboring this bigotry possessed.

In recent weeks, between the New Black Panther Party, FOX News, Ben Jealous and the NAACP, Shirley Sherrod, the USDA, the White House, the workplace shooting in Hartford, Connecticut, the radioactive issues around race and racism have reared their ugly heads. For a society forty-five years removed from the end of Jim Crow — and 146 years removed from the end of slavery — we’re still much in need of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on race. But in order to have a real conversation on race, we need to understand that there are differences between race, racism and bigotry, that these words aren’t interchangeable.

Take the term race. As defined by so many other scholars over the past 110 years — it’s a social construction based on skin and hair-deep differences between groups of people from various parts of the world.  Not to mention the legacy of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and slavery in the Western Hemisphere. Saying that there are differences based on race between the incomes of Blacks, Whites, and Latinos, for instance, is merely a statement of fact, and not an implication that any individual or group is practicing racism. Nor does race make sense outside of cultural distinctions. Tens of millions of us are living proof that there’s only one human race, genetically speaking, that is.

The word racism involves much more than mere racial distinctions and history. It involves the embracing

in words and deeds ideas and systems that either deliberately or inadvertently discriminate against other groups based on their race. It’s an expression of bigotry, but not just simply to acknowledge or enlighten oneself or others. Rush Limbaugh’s spit-flying session on President Obama in the weeks before the ’08 Election — “It was all about RACE! It was all about RACE!” — is a good example of this. Limbaugh was arguing that Obama was winning the election because of racism. Specifically, reverse racism among African Americans and White guilt over racism among independents and progressives. Limbaugh all but kissed his microphone while hollering out of a rage that can only be described as racism.

Anyone can express racism or be a racist. But where should we draw the line between bigotry and racism? I’ll use my mother as an example. She’s complained for thirty years how “all the jobs been taken by West Indians and Spanish people” in Mount Vernon and other parts of Westchester County. Well, working-class jobs, anyway. There’s no doubt that this is an expression of bigotry. But does this mean that my mother’s a racist? Hardly. For whatever it’s worth, my mother has worked with, gone to church with, and broken bread with folks regardless of their race or ethnicity, and not begrudgingly. Even with the authority to hire and fire thirty years ago, my mother worked to ensure that all under her supervision weren’t discriminated against.

But while all of us have a smidgen of bigotry in our hearts and minds as occasionally expressed from our mouths, many of us aren’t racists or practicing racism. But a racist is without a doubt a bigot. So experience, intent, position in society, and race (not racism, not bigotry) are all involved in making someone’s words and deeds examples of racism, and that person a racist.

These are subjective definitions, and I could be challenged and wrong. However, they’re based on twenty years of work as a writer, scholar, historian, professor, and forty years living in post-Civil Rights America. We need to start somewhere to have a real and serious discussion of race. Maybe this is it.


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