8/24/16: slavery and the feel-good myth

The sad truth is that there’s nothing any of us can do at this point to apologize, atone, or make amends for the centuries-long use of slavery in this country. There’s no way to wash away the invisible privilege or the benefits we unknowingly gained as children given countless opportunities, or which we may continue to accrue in our chosen professions. We can, however, step back from the increasingly obvious lie we tell ourselves, which is that if we’d been alive back then, we’d automatically have helped, even though Kathryn Schulz, writing for The New Yorker‘s August 22, 2016 issue, makes it clear that most Northerners did not:

Several ostensibly free states, including Illinois and Indiana, [passed] laws that prohibited free blacks from settling inside their borders. On the eve of the Civil War, the mayor of New York proposed that the city secede from the Union to protect its economic relationship with the South.

We should not be surprised, then, that most people who slipped the bonds of slavery did not look north. In fact, despite its popularity today, the Underground Railroad was perhaps the least popular way for slaves to seek their freedom.

What we can and should do, then, is to be honest about our past, and to ensure that we do not repeat these mistakes–refusing to do the right, but difficult thing, out of economic fear–in our modern day. We should be cautious, too, as Schulz writes, that in our heroic mythologizing of slavery, we do not “minimize over-all white responsibility” by “displacing” the viciousness of these times onto slave-catchers, as opposed to the culture and all those implicit in it. (Consider the way in which Django Unchained allows us to hate DiCaprio’s character just a little bit less when he stands beside Jackson’s.)

It is admirable to want to seek out “the best parts of ourselves and [to] articulate our finest vision of our nation.” But we should not do so by ignoring all of our ugliness, or by doing plastic surgery on our histories (i.e., revisionism). Those who quibble with the racial “authenticity” of Hamilton and ignore the forward-looking message miss the very point of what’s to be gained from our past. So let us read beyond the myths, or at least focus on how to ensure that their moral lessons continue to live today.

8/22/16: terrorism

Old people of color come up to me sometimes and say, “Mr. Stevenson, I get so angry when I hear someone on TV talking about how they’re dealing with domestic terrorism for the first time in our nation’s history after 9/11. You need to make them stop saying that, because that’s not true.”

That’s a sobering quote from Jeffrey Toobin’s profile of Bryan Stevenson in the August 22 New Yorker. It comes up in the broader context of what we deem terrorism in this country, and to our grim legacy of lynchings, the noose that was around so many throats, even if a rope was never actually used. Lynchings didn’t go away, incidentally: they became the death penalty, and, where that’s been barred, it has become life sentences thrust upon minors, or the threat of that moment at which an officer may pull you over and at best only arrest you for you a crime you did not commit. Those domestic acts of terror, the ones that revolve around fear, persist, and we must not allow them to remain invisible. Do not partake in these acts, and do not remain silent around them. Like 9/11, do not forget them.

8/12/16: not one of us

In The New Yorker‘s August 8 & 15, 2016, issue, Jon Lee Anderson examines a few of the indigenous tribes living in the isolation of the Peruvian jungle, raising the fascinating dilemma of how to respect their so-called interior sovereignty without risk to the rest of your society. After all, a country operates on certain social rules that we respect everyone to follow: those who don’t are normally punished, but that’s not a case here with the Mascho. They’re human, too, and not animal, so this really puts to the test Peru’s own humanity, and illustrates the inevitable way in which cultures can avoid assimilation only through total ignorance.

But what struck me here was the way in which this reminded me of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians (OK, so I just saw Oslo, too), particularly when it comes down to those settlers living on what are now the front-lines between Peru proper and the natives. Here’s what happens when the state asks the people to ignore their neighbors:

“So you say if the Mashco come we shouldn’t do anything. But, if they kill someone of mine, I’ll kill them–of course I will! If they come and kill my husband, I will kill them, and if they ask me why I am in prison I will say, ‘For killing Mashco.'”

It’s one thing when you can communicate with your enemy; it’s another when you’re being told to ignore them entirely, regardless of their potential incursions. It makes me realize how utterly adrift we are when we remove language from the table. If we cannot safely assume that even our threats are understood, we can do nothing more than revert to the biblical savagery of “an eye for an eye” for what else can possibly be heard?

In a separate article within the same issue, Lauren Collins wonders “Does each language have its own world view? Do people have different personalities in different languages?” The answer seems clear to me: Yes. Because all the things that come with that language–a sense of culture, an understanding of laws, the clarity of order–are missing without it. We think differently, express ourselves differently. It seems almost obvious, for if without words we have only violence, then with words, we have found a different way to view things, to describe them, to come together. If we could wall off these people to truly allow them independence and isolation, assimilation would not be necessary, just as we have nothing to fear from our neighbors on parallel worlds, given their infinite distance.

But we are here, and they are there, and we share a space, and because of that, it is not enough to set boundaries and attempt to ignore one another. We must communicate.

8/11/16: should there be “no escape from reality”?

When That Dragon, Cancer came out, I remember people greatly admiring the concept but also staying far away from actually buying it. Either the personal narrative wasn’t enough of a game to get them to play it, or it worked fine as a game, but was too real. Therein lies the last great hurdle of video games: the medium is finally able to tackle big issues, but audiences may not yet be ready. They’re perfectly fine with horror movies and jump scares, but something that deals with crippling illness? Nope–at least, not unless it’s told through some sort of filter, like SOMA.

But I’m pulling for the upcoming We Are Chicago to succeed. Jeff Cork writes an interesting preview over for Game Informer’s September 2016 issue, one that basically boils down to answering one question: “Can you tell a true story in a game?” Of course, there are already games paving that road–Her Story, for instance, or Sunset. (Not to be mistaken for Cave Story and Sunset Overdrive.) But We Are Chicago doesn’t have appear to have any gamification, as in Life Is Strange or a David Cage production; instead, it seems more like an extension of The Sims.

The fine line to walk here, of course, is whether the game ends up appropriating and trivializing real-world struggles with this virtual representation, much as Grand Theft Auto V, no matter how well-written, is still ultimately an escape mechanism. Culture Shock Games, the developers, hope that this “gives players a chance to experience a reality they might not otherwise see,” and that’s the optimistic view I’d like to take–games as an entry point to a wider discussion and appreciation for the world. Especially now, when privilege is a trigger word and people seem so unaware of casual discrimination, we perhaps need to find ways simply to expose people. I’d be OK with someone gamifying empathy, so long as they’re not exploiting tragedy to boost sales. That would just sound cool: it would be revolutionary.

8/10/16: how i feel about politics, in another person’s words

Jill Lepore, writing for The New Yorker‘s August 8 & 15, 2016 issue, makes a lot of great observations, but none better than this seemingly stream-of-consciousness one:

The rule inside the [Cleveland, Republican] Convention was: Incite fear and division in order to call for safety and union. I decided that the rule outside the Convention was: No kidding, it’s really awfully nice out here, in a beautiful city park, on a sunny day in July, where a bunch of people are arguing about politics and nothing could possibly be more interesting, and the Elect Jesus people are giving out free water, icy cold, and the police are playing Ping-Pong with the protesters, and you can take a nap in the grass if you want, and you will dream that you are on a farm because the grass smells kind of horsy, and like manure, because of all the mounted police from Texas, wearing those strangely sexy cowboy hats; and yes, there are police from all over the country here, and if you ask for directions one of them will say to you, “Girl, I’m from Atlanta!” and you have to know that, if they weren’t here, who knows what would happen; there are horrible people shouting murderous things and tussling, that’s what they came here for, and anything can blow up in an instant; and, yes, there are civilians carrying military-style weapons, but, weirdly, they are less scary here than they are online; they look ridiculous, honestly, and this one lefty guy is a particular creep, don’t get cornered; but, also, there’s a little black girl in the fountain rolling around, getting soaked, next to some white guy who’s sitting there, just sitting there, in the water, his legs kicked out in front of him, holding a cardboard sign that reads, “Tired of the Violence.”

All of these things at once: unstable, but also whole. That’s the America we must all continue to try to love. And the exhausted denouement to this paragraph really nails it–isn’t it time that we just grew tired of fighting and learned to enjoy the cool water on a warm summer day?

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