I recently participated in a conversation about Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow. It was civil, although heated at times. Many of us expressed our dismay at being duped for all those decades of the “righteous” war on drugs. We were sold a bill of goods by one politician after another. Journalist Dan Baum’s shocking opening passage in the recent Harper’s article about legalizing drugs provides a fine coda to Alexander’s book. He relates an encounter with John Ehrlichman, one of Nixon’s co-conspirators and inner-circle advisors, who confirmed the cynical intentions behind Nixon’s war on drugs. It’s a sad legacy that haunts us still.
My teenage son asks some challenging questions lately. As I was telling him about the wrangling during the book discussion, he popped this one out: “Why not build a wall between us and Mexico?” He said Mexico built a wall between itself and the country on its southern border. He said he’d looked it up, although he could not in that moment remember the name of the other country. (It’s Guatemala, and a small bit of Belize.)
That’s probably developmentally appropriate for a fourteen-year-old. He has an acute sense of the distinction between self and other, and reliably stark black and white thinking. In the natural order of things, my son will grow up and into more nuanced, multivalent and sophisticated ways of thinking. That he’s asking about the wall, thinking about it and wondering does not worry me over much.
I do worry that this wall idea is so potent on the national stage right now. It’s too easy to dismiss “all those crackpots” who like the idea and others that Donald Trump has been tossing out during his improbable campaign. It’s long been suggested that Americans are stuck at the developmental level, emotionally and cognitively, of a teenage boy. Building walls is the thinking of the uninitiated, of those who fear the Other, and seek to simplify complex situations down to single, usually forceful, control-oriented, solutions.
The moderator of our book discussion asked what narratives we have had to unlearn, as a result of reading books like this. We talked about the all too human desire to simplify complex situations and to believe that we have answers and solutions no matter what the problem. As we cast about for relief, we give in to an unthinking urge to classify and control things. As someone pointed out, if it really were that simple, we’d have it solved by now.
Another unlearning is the narrative that the Other is to be feared. In the case of the war on drugs, there’s a whole underclass of convicted felons that we label “criminals.” This gives us permission to ignore and marginalize our fellow citizens, and to restrict their rights. Fear of difference is a natural, hard-wired response. But it does not have to stop there. We have much greater capacity than giving in to those first reactions that housed in our ancient reptile brain. Humans have since evolved two other brains that give us capacities for bonding and empathy, as well as reasoning and creativity.
Arguments and conflict are forms of opposition. One expansive view of opposition is that it exists to help us grow. Everything is designed to grow only when it has something to push against. A sprout gains necessary strength by having to push that heavy clod of dirt out of its way before it can break through the surface. Weightlifters know that you can only build muscle by pushing or pulling heavier weights and tiring out your arms and legs and abs.
Yet we forget when arguing that the point is not to convince the other person that you’re right, or to defeat them somehow. The point is to grow.
I was never on a debate team. In fact, debating and arguing usually make me very uncomfortable, so I tend to avoid them. Lately, though, I’ve begun to enjoy when someone disrupts my self-satisfied view of things. I am tired of my habit of forming opinions and constructing stories based only on my own experiences. We all do this: collect evidence that supports our opinions and ignore any that doesn’t fit that perspective. Think of how much I’m missing when I don’t seek out or consider opinions that are contrary to my own. I want to unlearn that.
We must also unlearn our ability to be manipulated by our fears. The war on drugs has disturbingly much in common with the war on terror. There are Others, there are perceived risks, there are punishments, there is ramped-up law enforcement and the inevitable trampling of civil rights. There is a narrowing of our field of vision until whole groups of people, most of them innocent, are targeted.
What’s it going to take to unlearn these narratives? How about seeking out the stories of those who are most affected by unfair and punitive policies? One of the participants in the book discussion kept insisting that our country’s problem isn’t racism; it’s classism. I’m really curious to know what is the advantage of maintaining that belief. If the people most affected—people of color, whether poor or not—say they experience racism, who are we white people of privilege to argue?
The responses of weaponizing, of gating, of “bombing [them] back to the stone age,” will never work. When we let ourselves be manipulated by our fears, we end up becoming afraid of ourselves, of our own community. This has happened in communities of color that are under siege from drug dealers and law enforcement, both. It only serves to perpetuate the violence.
Those of us who disagree with building walls, with xenophobia and racism and race-baiting, would do well to guard against our own wall-building tendencies. Do I put up my own walls to beliefs and behaviors with which I disagree, and to those who support them? Sure, I derive some satisfaction from pointing a finger at “those bad people”—corporations that build prisons for profit, politicians who manipulate public perceptions in order to gain power. Or even someone who says that he disagrees with most of the points in Alexander’s book. (Really?)
Our book discussion moderator made the point that, in order to dismantle the cycle of oppression, you have to step off of it entirely and build something new and empowering. That resonates with one of my favorite maxims, from Buckminster Fuller:
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change things, build a new reality that makes the old one obsolete.”
As tempting as it is to stay in my safe bubble of beliefs, I have to acknowledge that there is a world of difference out there. Black intellectuals who argue that racism is a mantle of victimhood and should be dropped. White working-class people who endorse building walls to keep out illegal immigrants. Women who cannot imagine a woman president. Conservatives who say that Obama is weak and ineffectual and that the world only respects a show of strength. Politicians who call climate change a hoax. I’d like to get past seeing them as “wrong.” After all, ignoring them won’t make them go away. Instead, how can I engage creatively in ways that support growth and evolution, mine and theirs?