Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Web of Privilege

presented at First Unitarian Church of Athol, Massachusetts
December 9, 2012

Opening Words

"What you believe depends on what you’ve seen, -- not only what is visible, but what you are prepared to look in the face." -- Salman Rushdie


from Leo Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina:

Levin had often noticed in arguments between the most intelligent people that after enormous efforts, an enormous number of logical subtleties and words, the arguers would finally come to the awareness that what they had spent so long struggling to prove to each other had been known to them long, long before, from the beginning of the argument, but that they loved different things and therefore did not want to name what they loved, so as not to be challenged.

He had often felt that sometimes during an argument you would understand what your opponent loves, and suddenly come to love the same thing yourself, and agree all at once, and then all reasonings would fall away as superfluous; and sometimes it was the other way round: you would finally say what you yourself love, for the sake of which you are inventing your reasonings, and if you happened to say it well and sincerely, the opponent would suddenly agree and stop arguing.

First Reading

In Sacred Ground , Eboo Patel quotes Jesse Jackson saying this to a Muslim group in the wake of 9-11: 

You have a choice to make right now: You can talk about an America where your people don't get sent to the back of the bus, or you can talk about an America where no one gets sent to the back of the bus.

Second Reading

Last summer, Wayne Self's Owldolatrous blog suddenly went viral because of a series of posts about the Chick-fil-A boycott.

Chick-fil-A had long supported "family values" organizations that not only work against gay rights in this country, but also try to make homosexuality punishable by life imprisonment or even death in countries like Uganda. The company's policies finally came to public attention when their president, the Founder's son Dan Cathy, went on a talk-radio program and said that supporters of marriage equality for gays have a "prideful, arrogant attitude" and are "inviting God's judgment on our nation". That led to a boycott against Chick-fil-A, which Wayne Self, a gay man, wanted to promote. 

Now normally, the way you promote something like that is you stand on the barricades and yell about what evil bastards the people on the other side are: We're the good people; they're the bad people.

But Self did an unusual thing: He didn't just try to rally the troops who already agreed with him. He decided he wanted to convince people who either hadn't been involved in this issue, or maybe even had been leaning the other way.

So he didn't write rants. He wrote fables, he told stories, he had heart-to-heart dialogs with the commenters on his blog. Most important of all, he did not put himself on a pedestal and demonize his opponents.

Instead, in this post, he talked about an attitude we all have to struggle against,which he called supremacy and defined as "the habit of believing or acting as if your life, your love, your culture, your self has more intrinsic worth than those of people who differ from you." And he focused not just on denouncing heterosexual supremacists, who think their relationships have more intrinsic worth than gay relationships, but also on his own struggle to overcome supremacist attitudes:

I grew up in the rural South. I never hated African-Americans. I never knowingly said or did or voted in any way that hurt African-American people. I even had African-American friends. But I’d be lying to you if I didn’t admit that some white supremacy seeped into my thinking at a very young age. This is a painful thing to admit. Even now, I find I can’t go into specifics, from sheer shame. ...

Some people turn supremacy into an over-arching philosophy. For most, it’s just a habit of mind. As a habit of mind, supremacist ideas can spring up in anyone. Being liberal doesn’t make you immune. Being gay doesn’t make you immune. Being a minority doesn’t make you immune.

You don’t have to hate people to feel innately superior to them. After all, what kind of threat are your inferiors to you? You may be annoyed by them, from time to time, or you may even like them. You can even have so much affection for them that you might call that affection love.

The dangerous thing about a supremacist point of view is that it can accompany even warm affection. [But] supremacy turns to hate when the feeling of innate superiority is openly challenged. 

Like many habits, supremacy can be unconscious. Sometimes you don’t know you’re doing it until someone points it out. ...

I’m 43 years old now, and I’ve had time to change my supremacist habits of mind. I did it by knowing more African-American people, by listening instead of talking, by humbling myself and not demanding that I must agree with everyone in order to support them,and, most importantly, by admitting that other people’s real lives were more important than my mere beliefs

Sermon: The Web of Privilege

I went to college in the Seventies, when feminism was raising women's consciousness about all the ways that traditional gender roles work against them. So naturally, I heard a lot from female classmates about my male privilege. And I couldn't very well argue, because they were right, I did get unfair advantages from being a man. But all the same, those lectures used to annoy me, so let me try to explain why. 

I grew up in a working class family. The factory my father worked in was loud and dangerous and full of nasty odors that stuck to him when he came home. 

He had that job because he didn't go to college. But he had graduated from high school, and he was proud of that, because his father had only graduated from eighth grade. And grandpa was proud too, I imagine, because it probably wasn't that many generations back that the Muders were all illiterate.

My sister and I were the first generation in our family to go to college, and eventually I would be the first to get a Ph.D. I will never forget meeting my parents after the graduation ceremony and seeing my father go misty-eyed. "Dr. Muder," he said, as if only a miracle could have brought those two words together.

So while I was getting that education, even though I recognized the injustice of discrimination against women, it still grated on me that daughters of professors and daughters of millionaires could only see my unfair advantages.


Now, I'm not trying to start an argument about whether classism or sexism is harder to overcome, or how either compares to racism or religious prejudice or some other variety of unfairness. Quite the opposite, I think we've already had too many of those arguments. Throughout American history, it's been way too hard to get people united against unfairness in general, and way too easy for the Powers That Be to play one disadvantaged group off against another.  

Before the Civil War, for example, the abolitionist movement split over whether or not women could hold leadership positions. And after the war, the women's suffrage movement split over the 15th amendment, which gave the vote to black men. (Two famous Unitarian suffragettes parted ways on that. Lucy Stone supported the amendment and Susan B. Anthony didn't.)

As best I can tell, there has never been a widespread movement to treat everyone more fairly, and to battle unfairness wherever it appears. Instead, we typically look at privilege one dimension at a time -- as racism or sexism or some other Ism. That simplifies things by letting us draw sharp lines between the privileged and the disadvantaged: white and black, native and immigrant, straight and gay, men and women.

But today I'd like to suggest that the Isms oversimplify our notion of privilege. Once you have drawn a line, it's easy imagine a wall there. On one side are the victims, and on the other the oppressors. 

Packaged with that metaphorical wall is a complete set of emotions for each side. On the victim side you're supposed to feel resentment, anger, and envy. On the oppressor side, guilt, but also fear of all those angry people, and anxiety about the possibility of losing a privilege that you have had all your life and may not know how to live without.

Fear and anxiety can tempt a person to adopt the attitude that Wayne Self called supremacy. You can start to rationalize that the wall is good and natural, and I deserve to be on this side of it, because I am more important or more deserving than the people on the other side. Nothing personal, but there's a very rational reason why I have to be here and they have to be there.

Today I want to use a different metaphor for privilege and unfairness, one that I think better captures its multi-dimensional nature. 

Privilege isn't a wall, it's a web. 

We all have a complicated relationship to privilege. Everyone, in some aspect of life, is treated unfairly. And everyone also, in some other way, benefits from unfairness. There are many ways to cut that web in two. But depending on who makes that cut and what kind of unfairness they single out, any of us might find ourselves on either the disadvantaged side or the privileged side.


Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not claiming that it all evens out. I stand here today as a straight, white, American male. I am able-bodied, happily married, well educated, and over six feet tall. It would be ridiculous for me to claim that it all evens out, just because I face an occasional disadvantage here or there. No, all I'm claiming is that privilege is a subtle issue. 

And while I believe nearly everyone -- even people like me -- could be happier in a fairer world, that progress will not come for free. We're not going to get to a fairer world just by claiming our rights in the situations where we are treated unfairly. We'll also have to raise our consciousness about the ways that we benefit from unfairness.


One problem with thinking of privilege as a wall comes from the villainous stereotypes we have of the people on the oppressor side: Simon Legree driving his slaves; Scrooge, asking why the poor can't be sent to prisons or workhouses; or even hotel magnate Leona Helmsley saying, "Taxes are for the little people."

If that's how we picture the privileged, then how are we going to react when someone draws the line in such a way that we wind up on the privileged side? 

Not well, probably. You know you don't get up in the morning planning to be a villain, so if someone seems to be saying that you are one, your instinctive reaction is going to be: "No. That can't be right." 

Stung by the charge, it's tempting to turn the whole thing around, to point back at the people who are pointing the finger at you and say, "They're the ones who are being unfair. They're persecuting me with these vicious accusations."

And so, Rush Limbaugh feels terribly persecuted by the people who say he's a racist, and by all the "feminazis" who say he's sexist. They're the villains, not him.

An even better example is Dan Cathy of Chick-fil-A. I don't doubt that he sees a good, Christian man in his mirror. He creates jobs. He generously supports what he calls "family values", but what gays like Wayne Self see as heterosexual supremacy.

So when gay-rights supporters boycott Cathy's restaurants, that just proves to Cathy's allies how oppressed Christians are in this country. Mike Huckabee sees the boycotters unfairly trying to punish Cathy for doing nothing more than speaking his truth and living the values of his faith. A wall of privilege separates Christians from secular society, and to Huckabee it's secularists like Wayne Self who are on the privileged side. Dan Cathy -- that straight, white, male, Christian, millionaire CEO -- is oppressed.


Today I'd like to suggest a different stereotype of privilege, something a little less villainous than Scrooge or Simon Legree. It comes from the movie Pleasantville, which some of you may have seen. 

In this movie, a teen-age brother and sister get hold of a magic remote control and are zapped into a 1950s TV show, one of those family comedies like Ozzie and Harriet or Leave it to Beaver. Suddenly, they are the son and daughter of the Parkers, a perfect TV family living in the perfect TV town of Pleasantville.

Naturally, things start to change all around. The teens learn a few things from their new experiences, and the people of Pleasantville start asking the kinds of questions that characters on such shows never asked, like "Do I like my life?" and "Why do things have to be this way?" In particular, Mrs. Parker discovers that being the perfect housewife is not really what she wants out of life, or at least it's not all she wants. 

And that sets up this scene:

George Parker, the father of the perfect TV family, comes home from work. He opens the door, hangs his hat on a hook like he always does, and announces, "Honey, I'm home", expecting his beautiful, smiling wife to come out of the kitchen and his perfect children to bounce down the stairs to greet him, like they always do.

Today, though, the house is dark and silent but for the thunder of a storm outside. And George looks like a magician who has said the magic words, but is still waiting for the puff of smoke and the rabbit to appear in his hat. 

So he says the magic words again, "Honey, I'm home." Nothing happens.

He wanders through the house, and into the kitchen where nothing is on the table. "Where's my dinner?" he wonders. He looks in the oven, inside the kettles. "Where's my dinner?" Uncomprehending, he goes back outside, into the rain, and pleads with this suddenly unsympathetic universe: "Where's my dinner?"


Remember: George Parker is somebody's idea of the perfect Dad. He never intended to be a bad guy. All his life he has tried to be a very good guy, and he thought he was doing a decent job of it. Society gave him a role to play, and he played it to the best of his ability. That's how he thought life was supposed to be: I play my role, you play your role, and it all works out.

Now, if you could sit George down and make him think about it, maybe he'd realize that his role as a professional-class husband and father is a little easier and more pleasant than some of the other roles in Pleasantville. 

But he doesn't think about it, because he doesn't have to. He's never had to plot with the other professional-class husbands to oppress his wife or the characters who do Pleasantville's menial jobs. That's just how the social roles work out. And he assumes that because he's happy in his role, other people must be happy in theirs.

George's example points out several aspects of privilege that may make our own privileges easier to see. First, the privileged are usually not evil, they're just oblivious.

Saturday Night Live brought that home in a skit a few months ago: Geeks on a technology show are picking apart the flaws of the new iPhone 5, when the host unexpectedly brings out three workers from the iPhone factory in Shenzhen. 

Suddenly, all the complaints dry up.

"We understand," sympathizes one of the Chinese, who makes a tiny wage for doing debilitating work in unhealthy conditions. "Apple Maps, it no work. You want Starbucks, it take you Dunkin Donuts. Must be so hard for you."


You probably don't think about it very often -- I know I don't -- but every time you walk into a store, you are playing a privileged role as an American consumer. All over the world, underpaid people are breaking their backs or even risking their lives so that you can pay $10 for a pair of jeans or have fruit in the middle of winter.

It's so easy to forget that. 

The whole retail environment conspires with our obliviousness.There's no workshop in the back where you can see production happening. You just see a product and a price. The product doesn't come from anywhere. No one makes it. It just appears on the shelf by magic. 


And that points up a second way in which our privilege resembles George Parker's: It's more systemic than personal. 

If you've ever bought clothes at WalMart or Sears, they may have been made at the factory that burned down last month in Bangladesh. Over 100 workers died in that fire because there were no outside-the-building fire escapes. Those deaths were easily preventable if the factory hadn't been under so much pressure to keep costs down.

Now, you didn't want anything bad to happen to those workers. You didn't demand that WalMart squeeze that last fifty cents out of the cost of your shirt. Like George, you just played your role in the system.

George never wanted his wife to be unhappy. He just wanted dinner. And there's nothing actually wrong with wanting dinner, just like there's nothing wrong with wanting an iPhone or a Chick-fil-A sandwich or a good deal on a pair of jeans. What's wrong is that attitude of supremacy, that feeling that our needs, our desires, our inconveniences are so much more important anybody else's.

And because privilege is so systemic, even if you manage to overcome your obliviousness and root out that attitude of supremacy, it's not always clear what to do. 

Last January, a series of articles called attention to the abusive conditions in those Chinese factories that make Apple's gadgets. I paid attention because I have an iPad and a MacBook that might have come from there. In a year or two I might want a newer model.

But what should I do? Throwing my iPad away accomplishes nothing. Buying a competing product accomplishes nothing, because they're all made in similar factories that treat workers no better. And if people like me forgo electronic gadgets entirely, the workers won't be treated any better, they'll just lose their jobs.

If you want electronic gadgets, and are willing to pay someone a livable wage to make them for you … the market doesn't offer you that option. In the comments on the online versions of those articles, many people wondered: Why can't Apple -- or somebody -- make an "ethical iPad" and charge a little more to recover the higher costs?

But of course that would break the spell of the Apple Store. If the ethical iPad were displayed next to the "unethical" iPad,everybody who chose between them would have to think about where these products come from. 

The magic of retail would be lost.

So the market doesn't offer that option. With only a few exceptions -- like Fair Trade coffee or vegetables at the farmers' market -- it rarely does. The workers are treated the way they're treated, and you either want the product or you don't. No personal choice you can make will solve the problem. And if you feel guilty about it, that doesn't change anything either.


So far what I'm describing is more tragic than malicious. So of course it can't be the whole story, because the history of privilege and oppression is full of malice. It's full of wars and riots and lynchings and beating up people who try to organize the underprivileged. Where does all that come from? It starts with how you react when your obliviousness gets challenged, when the under-privileged begin to raise their consciousness and tell you that this is unfair, or when they stop cooperating and disrupt the system of privilege. 

When that happens, I imagine that everybody's initial reaction is the same: We notice our own inconvenience first. George may eventually learn to empathize with his wife, but the very first thing he notices is that he has no dinner. Dan Cathy notices that his restaurants are getting bad publicity. I notice that people are making me feel guilty about owning an iPad.

And because we never planned on being villains, there's a strong temptation to deny everything to tell each other stories that make us feel better. After the fire in Bangladesh, Fox News told us how happy those workers were to have those jobs. People have been telling stories like that for generations: The slaves were said to be happy on the Southern plantations, and 19th-century women were content to let their husbands worry about difficult issues like voting or owning property.

Sometimes the stories even say that the victims deserve what they get, like those evil gays and lesbians who break God's law, or those pushy women and uppity blacks who insist on going where nobody wants them. As Wayne Self wrote: "Supremacy turns to hate when the feeling of innate superiority is openly challenged."

Even when you have to admit that you've been benefitting from privilege, it's tempting to hold up your own inconvenience, your doing-without-dinner, as if it were equal to other people's lifelong oppression. 

In another post, Wayne Self shoots down the idea that Dan Cathy's public-relations problems are in any way equivalent to the problems faced by gays: "This isn’t about mutual tolerance," he writes, "because there’s nothing mutual about it. If we agree to disagree on this issue, you walk away a full member of this society and I don’t."

Yes, the privileged suffer too, but on an entirely different scale. "Men," Margaret Atwood observed, "are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them."


So, to sum up, you were born into an unfair society, just like everybody else. But it's not unfair in just one way. The ways that unfairness works against you are usually pretty obvious. But it's easy to remain oblivious to all the ways it works for you. 

You're not responsible for where in the web of privilege you were born, but you are responsible for whether or not you remain oblivious to it. And you're responsible for how you respond after you become aware. Do you make amends where you can? Do you work for systemic change when personal change isn't enough? Or do you make excuses for your privileges and blame the victims for the inconveniences you suffer when they try to improve their lot? When you are treated unfairly, do you regard those who are privileged over you as villains who don't resemble you at all?

It would be pleasant to think that once you see the light, there's a simple way to go and sin no more. But very often there isn't, because your privilege is baked into the system and you can't just give it back. 

That's why it's so important that when you have an opportunity to make the world fairer, you do something with it. And when suffering people come to you with a plan to change the system, listen hard and give them a little benefit of the doubt, even if their issue seems distant or their plan seems unlikely to work. Because the system does need to change. A lot of the unfairness in the world isn't going to be fixed just by individuals deciding to do the right thing.

And finally, it's important not to forget either side of the experience of privilege. When we benefit from unfairness, it's important to recall how it feels to be taken advantage of. And when we suffer from unfairness, we need to remember how shocking it can be to suddenly recognize a privilege that you never thought about and never asked for. 

Holding both those experiences in mind can help us stay in dialog with those whose privileges are different, and make us more effective in working with them for ever more fairness.

Closing Words   

The closing words are by President Lyndon Johnson. 

In March of 1965, after violence in Selma had killed a number of civil rights demonstrators, including the Unitarian minister James Reeb, Johnson convened a joint session of Congress and asked them to pass the Voting Rights Act. 

Johnson was never known as a great speaker, and many Northerners had trouble believing that anything worthwhile could be said in that rural Texas accent he had. But that day he gave a remarkable speech, and it built up to this conclusion:

"It is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome." 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Whence Cometh My Hope?

In September, I went back to my hometown (Quincy, IL) to speak at the UU church there, as I have several times before. I didn't know about that church when I was growing up Lutheran in Quincy, but in recent years I've arranged to speak there at times when I knew I was going to be in town anyway to visit my parents. Since it's the church where I speak most often (sometimes twice in a year, which I know sounds like nothing to ministers), it tends to be the place where I try out new stuff.

I used to publish the texts on this blog, but the Quincy UUs do such a good job putting up texts (and even audio!) promptly that I've started just linking to the site.

The talk I gave there September 30 (text, audio) was called "Whence Cometh My Hope?", which is a play on "Whence Cometh My Help?" from Psalm 121. It's sort of a sequel to "The Story of Our Deaths", which I gave there in April, 2011. (It later got expanded into "A Humanist Approach to Death" for the Concord Area Humanists.)

"The Story of Our Deaths" is about the problems that can arise when you conceive your life story as ending (or just possibly ending) in death rather than going on to a glorious, eternal afterlife. Stories are an important way that we motivate ourselves to do things that are not pleasant in the moment (like get out of a warm bed when the alarm clock goes off on a cold and dark winter morning). Through stories, our experiences acquire a aura of meaning that is larger than the immediate sensations. (I'm not just driving through monotonous traffic; I'm on my way to something really important or cool. So I'm not bored, I'm excited.)

Just as the moment gets an aura of meaning from its place in the story of your day, the day gets meaning from its place in larger and larger stories, all the way up to the story of your life. But if the story of your life just ends in death, what kind of motivation can it provide? If you obsess unskillfully on that ending, all your stories can collapse like a row of dominoes, until even the current moment (which may not be threatening death at all, and may even be pleasant) can start to seem meaningless. What's it all for, if I'm just going to die anyway?

So "The Story of Our Deaths" is about that problem of meaninglessness, and how to imagine the story of your life in a more skillful way, so that the prospect of death does not unravel all the meaning in life. It comes to two conclusions: First, the fortune-cookie-obvious notion that you have to appreciate moments as they come; if your life is actually finite, you can't keep pushing the meaningful part off into the ever-shrinking future. And second, you have to find a role for yourself in a story that won't end when you die. If you're totally self-centered, then the end of your life might as well be the end of the Universe. But if you have a role in a larger story, your actions can continue to be meaningful right up to the moment you die.

The example I give is from Martin Luther King's "Mountaintop Speech", delivered the night before he died. In that speech he anticipated that he could die soon, but said "I don't mind, because I've been to the mountaintop". King saw himself playing a role in the story of his people's march to freedom, which would go on even if he died.

The obvious objection is: "Well, that's fine if you're Martin Luther King." Most of us can't write ourselves into history that way; the world will little note nor long remember us after we're gone. In "The Story of Our Deaths" I mention this objection and suggest that we can find meaningful roles in the stories of our loved ones, our communities, our professions, and other stories smaller than the kind of history that will appear in textbooks. But I didn't say much more about it.

That's where "Whence Cometh My Hope?" picks up. This talk is more personal; it centers on my own effort to write myself into a larger story. It's about my political blog, "The Weekly Sift", and the story I hope to play some small role in: the battle between journalism and propaganda, which I think is key to whether or not democracy will continue to be feasible.

A number of problems come up, which I'll let you read in the text. But I save the most interesting one to the end: the problem of failure. This turns out to be remarkably similar to the problem of death, in that it threatens to unravel all meaning. How meaningful would Martin Luther King's story be if Jim Crow had come back in his lifetime? What happens to my story if propaganda wins and democracy is effectively over in my lifetime?

Traditional religion offers multiple levels of faith-based responses to this problem: (1) You won't fail because God will help you. (2) Even if you should lose this battle, you can identify with the ultimate victory of Good (as in King's "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice").

I find (1) to be like the afterlife solution to the problem of death: It works fine as long as you can believe it, but I just lack that faith. I almost have the faith required by (2), but it tends to desert me at the worst possible times. (What if the long-term bend towards justice is just a wrinkle in the even longer bend towards injustice?)

Both of those are optimism-based solutions: They explain why the future is going to turn out well. I end up going for a hope-based solution, in which I don't pretend to know whether the future will turn out well or not, but I believe that trying is better than not trying.

Hope, I recognize, also requires a kind of faith. But it turns out to be a faith I have, so I don't have to constantly gin it up or talk myself into it. And that, I suppose, is the ultimate message of the two talks together: Every solution to the problem of meaninglessness requires some kind of faith. But I would rather look into my soul, find the faith I have, and build on that, rather than accept some external authority's description of the faith I'm supposed to have, and try to talk myself into it.

Monday, July 30, 2012

My latest UU World column went up today. It contains my reflections on the Justice GA we just had in Phoenix. You can find it here.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Framing as a Martial Art

With almost all of this year’s GA workshops focusing on techniques of activism, I am hearing a lot about frames. Each thing I am hearing makes sense in its context, but I’m having a hard time making a Big Picture out of it.

Friday, at a workshop sponsored by Starr King Divinity School, I heard Helio Fred Garcia (who is usually given credit for framing the “Standing on the Side of Love” campaign) say that “you have to meet people where they are”, talking in terms and metaphors and frames that make sense to them. When you talk only in your own terms and use only your frames, you are preaching to the choir, or perhaps just talking to yourself.

Former UUA President William Sinkford used almost the same phrasing in “The UU Social Gospel” workshop in the next time period. So many of our potential allies use theistic and specifically Christian imagery that we would be foolish to avoid it or protest against it, even if we do not entirely agree with it. Reclaiming our Christian heritage and asserting our own right to quote and interpret the Bible gives us access to this powerful language and the frames that go with it.

In these two talks, I began to picture the ideal activist having the adaptability of water, able to flow into the available spaces in the worldviews of the people s/he needs to convince. And I thought: People who can adapt and flow like this must have a tremendously strong sense of their own identity. Otherwise they will enter into other people’s worldviews and get lost there.

And that leads to this question: We can teach techniques of framing and reframing. But what are we doing to help UUs build a correspondingly strong sense of their own identity?

Then today (Saturday), in the “Ten Elements of the Doctrine of Discovery” workshop, I saw Tupac Acosta demonstrate the power of not meeting people inside the frames that make sense to them. He refused to acknowledge that Arizona’s controversial S.B. 1070 is an immigration law. “Indigenous peoples are not immigrants,” he said plainly.

I feel like I’m learning a martial art. You have to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. And somewhere in the background is a know-when-to-hold/know-when-to-fold wisdom that no one has yet managed to put into words that I understand.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

A Humanist Approach to Death

[a talk presented to the Concord Area Humanists on May 2, 2012]


A few weeks ago I found myself at a funeral where no doctrine of the afterlife was preached. No one assured us that the deceased was with Jesus now, or in a better place, or had moved on to another incarnation. No one promised that we would meet her again someday.

Instead of speculating about where she is now, the service celebrated the life that she had led, the kind of person she was, and the effect she had on those who knew her. 

I came away from that funeral with two impressions: First, that this woman had really lived. And second, that living a human life is a pretty cool thing to be able to do. 

In short, that funeral was an inspiring, upbeat event.

Now, that description may sound familiar to you, and in fact it has become familiar to me too. But it isn’t what I was brought up to expect. One of the first things my mother told me about “unbelievers” was that their funerals are dark, dismal affairs. I don’t think she had attended many Humanist funerals, so I imagine that she came to this knowledge by deduction: If there is no Heaven, no salvation, no afterlife, then how can a funeral be anything but a bleak confrontation with the fact that death is the pointless end to a pointless human life?

It’s amazing how widespread this view is among the general public, and even more amazing how compelling it seems to people who have little or no experience of Humanism.

Deathbed conversions. If you are a Humanist who was brought up to believe in an afterlife, chances are at some point in your young adulthood you had this conversation: An elderly friend or relative says to you, “Those notions are all well and good at your age, but when you get older, and death starts staring you in the face, then you’ll come back to the Church.”

They’re very confident about this, because they know that Humanism can’t handle death.

Supporting that view is an entire mythology of deathbed conversions by famous free-thinkers or skeptics -- Spinoza, Charles Darwin, Thomas Paine, and many others. A few days before Christopher Hitchens’ death, an article in The Daily Caller asked “Is Christopher Hitchens about to convert?” 

In case you’re wondering: No, he didn’t, and as best we can tell neither did any of the others I listed. But an interesting circularity keeps such stories going: On the one hand, they are offered as evidence that Humanism can’t handle death. And on the other, they are believable because, of course, everyone knows that Humanism can’t handle death.

Sometimes, though, the anecdotal evidence goes the other way. James Boswell wrote this account of David Hume’s final illness:

I had a strong curiosity to be satisfied if he persisted in disbelieving a future state even when he had death before his eyes. I was persuaded from what he now said, and from his manner of saying it, that he did persist. I asked him if it was not possible that there might be a future state. He answered it was possible that a piece of coal put upon the fire would not burn; and he added that it was a most unreasonable fancy that we should exist for ever. 

Boswell, a believer, concluded: “I left him with impressions which disturbed me for some time.” 

But Hume’s friend Adam Smith didn't find Hume’s peace of mind disturbing in the least. He wrote to another friend:

[p]oor David Hume is dying very fast, but with great cheerfulness and good humour and with more real resignation to the necessary course of things, than any whining Christian ever dyed with pretended resignation to the will of God.

A more recent case is that of Randy Pausch, the Carnegie-Mellon professor whose “Last Lecture” in 2007 has been downloaded on YouTube more than 14 million times. “If I don’t seem as depressed or morose as you think I ought to be,” he says as he describes his terminal cancer, “I’m sorry to disappoint you.” He then goes on to give one of the most inspiring talks I’ve ever heard.

Anecdotes like this are not science. But until I see some objective data on the question of who dies well or which beliefs hold up as death approaches, all I can say is that my own experience does not support the idea that a Humanist death is unusually horrible. Elderly or dying Humanists that I know personally do not seem to be softening their positions or returning to traditional religion. Elderly or dying believers do not seem noticeably more serene about their fate.

So I am left with a mystery: Where does this notion come from, that Humanism can’t handle death? What would it mean to “handle death” in a humanistic way?

Living without an afterlife. Now, I anticipate some of you resisting that turn of phrase, because what about death needs “handling” anyway? You just die. Everybody does it sooner or later. Some people do it in their sleep. Infants do it. Dogs and cats do it. Even amoebas manage to die. It’s not particularly difficult.

And yet, for some reason, human beings have never found it that simple. Cultures all over the world, in many different eras of history, have postulated some kind of an afterlife. The society we are living in was built largely by and for people who believed in a particular vision of the afterlife. 

We live in that society, but we don’t share its traditional view of what happens after death. How do we manage?

If you have been living as a Humanist for decades, and especially if you were raised as a Humanist, you may still have trouble grasping the question. “What do you mean manage?” You breathe in, you breathe out. You eat at mealtime, sleep at night, and go to work in the morning just like everyone else. Living without an afterlife is like being a fish without a bicycle. It never occurs to you that you should have one, so you don’t feel the lack of it. What’s the problem?

But when believers look at us from the outside, they imagine a tremendous lack and a huge problem. Much of their world would come unglued if they lost their belief in Heaven and Hell, and so they imagine that we must live in an unglued world.

How do we manage?

The unspoken questions. Let me give a simple example. The first time my father realized that I wasn’t expecting us to meet again in Heaven, he asked: “So you think we just die and that’s it, like animals?”

Like animals. I was fascinated by that, as if the soullessness of animals was a fact observable by any five-year-old.

But then I thought about who I was talking to. Dad has been a farmer all his life. He has killed, seen killed, or sent to be killed countless chickens, pigs, and cattle. And yet, I don’t believe he has ever murdered a human being.

That’s one of the fundamental questions any meat-eating farm culture has to answer: Why is it OK to kill animals but not people? My father’s Christianity answers by putting a great metaphysical gulf between animals and humans: We have eternal souls and they don’t.

There are dozens, maybe even hundreds of issues like that. They aren’t the first questions that come to mind when you think about death, but once the conceptual infrastructure of the Christian afterlife is in place -- once you have souls, salvation, Heaven, Hell, Judgment Day, and so on -- people use it to answer all sorts of questions.

And when you challenge that vision of the afterlife, all those other questions come open again.

So when a believer asks, “What do you think happens when we die?” that spoken question is just one bird in a flock of questions that are unspoken and perhaps even unconscious.

Now think about how Humanists answer questions. Humanism is heavily influenced by science, and so we tend to answer questions the way scientists do: We narrow them down, get the terms defined very precisely, and then answer exactly what was asked.

What happens when we die? Our bodies get buried and they rot.

And while that answer is true as far as it goes, it leaves our questioner thinking that we have somehow missed the point, or that we are shallow people who deal with life’s deepest issues only in the most superficial ways.

Toughness and bleakness. Another aspect of the Humanist character adds to this misunderstanding. Many Humanists glory in the image of mental and psychological toughness: We are the people who have the courage to live without any fairy tales. We face the cold, hard truth, whatever it turns out to be. As Julian Baggini wrote about atheism in The Guardian a couple months ago: “Life without God can be bleak. Atheism is about facing up to that.”

Bleakness. That’s a selling point. Where do I sign up?

Hearing this kind of rhetoric, a believer may picture Humanists living a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max kind of life: Everything is bleak, hopeless, and purposeless, but we can take it. Only a special kind of person can live in the rubble of the old worldview, but we’re up to it.

No we aren’t. Maybe we’re tough, but most of us are not that tough. We don’t live in the rubble of the old answers. We cleared that rubble a long time ago and started to rebuild. And if we can’t support our new structures by attaching guy-wires to Heaven, that just means we’ve had to dig our foundations deeper into the Earth.

That’s where we need to take the conversation. When believers ask us what happens after death, we need to look past the obvious question and unpack some of the assumptions behind it. Perhaps like this: “I have no confidence in any particular vision of an afterlife. But life confronts me with the same issues you face, and I have found other ways to deal with them.”

Answers that don't assume an afterlife. From there the conversation might go in any number of productive directions. Think about all the life-centered questions that traditional religion answers by reference to Heaven and Hell. Yes, those questions come open again when you stop counting on an afterlife. But do Humanists really live without answers to them? Or do we just answer them differently?

Here are some of the most important issues that open up when a believer starts doubting the afterlife.

  • Morality. Without the rewards of Heaven and the punishments of Hell, why be good?
  • Justice. In this life, people often do not get what they deserve. Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. If that injustice is not balanced in the afterlife, how do you make peace with it?
  • Anger. If the people who wrong you are not going to be punished by God after death, how do you let go of your desire for revenge? 
  • Guilt. If you are not going to be punished after death, and if you have no second chance to make up for the ways you have failed people who are now dead, how do you forgive yourself?
  • Purpose. Heaven provides a goal that orients the believer’s life. Without that, don’t you just flounder around?
  • Grief. If you are never going to see your loved ones again after they die, how do you come to terms with losing them?
  • Meaning. If death is the ultimate end, what’s the point?

If I were talking to a non-Humanist audience, I might feel obligated to start at the beginning of that list and work my way to the end, because some people genuinely doubt that these questions have answers.

I don’t think that’s necessary here, and it would even be a little insulting to explain to you how it is possible for a Humanist to be moral. You might find it interesting to have discussions among yourselves about how you answer these questions. But I doubt you need a lecture.

I will say a few words about grief and meaning, though, because I’ve had some trouble with them myself, and a lot of the usual answers didn’t help me very much. So I think that as a community we need to do more work on these questions, and I’d like to give that work a nudge in what seems to me to be the right direction.

Grief. Let me start my discussion of grief by telling a story: Years ago I knew a woman who thought that I understood money much better than she did. So whenever she had a financial decision to make, she’d ask my advice.

But one time she didn’t ask when I expected her to. So I wondered how she figured out what to do. She said that when she thought about asking me, what I would say just popped into her mind. So she did that.

Now, one way to interpret this story is that I have a spiritual double who (unbeknownst to me) goes around giving financial advice to my friends. For all I know, that spirit might be immortal, and might go on talking about interest rates and credit card payments long after I’m dead.

But a more reasonable explanation is that my friend had projected a part of her own intelligence onto me. As she got to know me, she shaped a piece of her own mind to think and talk like me, until eventually she could converse with “me” even when I wasn’t there.

I suspect most of you recognize this phenomenon. Most of us have entire communities of people living in our heads -- parents, siblings, spouses, children, bosses, teachers, friends, and acquaintances of all sorts. When I wonder what my wife will want to do when she gets home from work, I don’t deduce it logically like Sherlock Holmes. Instead, I talk to her in my mind. 

These internal voices keep talking even after death. For example, I know what my mother would think of friends I didn’t meet until after she died -- because her voice in my head continues to comment on them. 

That's a major way that we know other people: We shape pieces of ourselves to resemble them. And when they die, there is a period of confusion, where we don’t really know how far the death goes. Maybe that piece of myself is dead also.

Sorting that out is a big part of the grieving process. My mother is dead, but the piece of me that I shaped to resemble her is still alive. Her voice is in my head and I can continue to consult it for the rest of my life. Those conversations do not depend on her soul continuing to live in Heaven.

Humanists often say the dead live on in our memories, but that’s such an inadequate description of the reality. We don’t just remember people, as if they had been reduced to photo albums and souvenirs of things that happened long ago. We continue to interact. We carry them around in our minds as active presences. 

That isn’t the same as having them in the room as flesh and blood. But day-to-day it is not actually that different from believing they watch us from some etherial realm.

Meaninglessness. Traditional Christianity teaches that meaning comes from God, and that a life cut off from God and the hope of Heaven must be meaningless.

One of the most powerful expressions of this view is a speech that Shakespeare puts in the mouth of MacBeth. At this point in the tragedy, Lady MacBeth is dead, MacBeth’s schemes are coming apart, and given all the things that he has done, he can only hope that there is no afterlife, because if there is, he must surely face some terrible punishment. So this is how he views the human condition: 

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more.

It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

This is what believers hear when you say, “We Humanists are tough. We don’t need fairy tales about the afterlife.” They think you have steeled yourself to deal with meaninglessness on a MacBeth-like scale.

But is that really what a Humanist life is like?

Death and meaninglessness. This issue of meaning first became real to me when I was about 16. I was working at my hometown newspaper -- this really dates me -- carrying typewritten pieces of paper from the newsroom to the composing room where the stories were set into metal type.

I used to read as I walked. One stormy day, the story in my hand was about a man who had been killed in his front yard when a branch blew off a tree. 

I had never thought about that kind of death. I grew up watching westerns and cop shows on TV. People died left and right on those shows, but they died inside plots that made sense. Their deaths were heroic or tragic or the result of their own foolishness. And I had known relatives to die after long illnesses, but those illnesses themselves were a kind of story in which death was a logical conclusion.

But this guy in his yard -- I had never heard of him before, but I was convinced that this branch blowing down was not the climax of any story he thought he was living. He must have been in the middle of a million other things, and then suddenly he wasn't.

Out, out, brief candle!

Here was a guy who literally died in the middle of sound and fury that signified nothing. When the storm came, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Something about that kind of death seemed to threaten the whole meaning of life, and it took me decades to put my finger on what it was. 

Meaning and stories. When we talk about meaning, what are we talking about? What kind of answer are people looking for when they ask, “What’s it all about?”

I think they’re looking for a story. I think they want somebody to frame what’s happening to them as something other than just a random sequence of events.

“What’s it all about?” I might ask as I battle traffic on the MassPike. But if I’m battling traffic because my wife is in labor and I’m trying to get her to the hospital, then I don’t ask what it’s all about. I know what it’s about. This scene is part of an important story, and my actions are turning the plot in a better or worse direction.

That’s meaning.

When people say they want to “make a difference”, that’s what they mean. They want their actions to move the plot of some important story. They want that story to reach a better conclusion because of what they did.

We live inside stories, sometimes dozens of them simultaneously. And when our stories are working, life is good -- even when life is bad. If you’re exhausted and in pain, life is bad. But if you’re exhausted and in pain because you just won the Boston Marathon, life is good.

The story creates the meaning.

But sometimes our stories fail us. Sometimes the conclusion you’re working towards seems so unlikely that it doesn’t inspire you. Sometimes you forget why you even wanted it in the first place. Sometimes you get so alienated from your story that you feel like an impostor in your own life. “Yes, I look like a success, but that isn’t really me.”

That’s when you have a crisis of meaning.

Meaning and the afterlife. Death throws a monkey wrench into our stories. Usually our short-term stories get their meaning from the longer-term stories they fit into. Studying at 2 a.m. is meaningful because it’s part of the story where I ace tomorrow’s test. But the test is only meaningful  as part of the longer-term story where I pass the class. And that matters because of the story where I get my degree, and so on.

But what if the longest-term story I can tell is the one where I die? Doesn’t that undercut all the others?

The fact that I might die at any moment means that the stories I think I am in the middle of may never conclude in any satisfactory way. And even if my life is not cut off prematurely, then eventually I arrive at decrepitude and senility. What kind of climax is that?

So you see the problem. It’s not just that I will die. As I said at the beginning: That’s easy; everybody does it. But given that I am going to die, how can I tell the story of my life in a way that engages me and motivates me and gives me a sense of meaning?

The afterlife is clearly an attempt to solve this problem. If there’s an afterlife, then our stories don’t just cut off. We get to finish them in Heaven. And old age is just a temporary hardship on the way to a glorious eternity.

It’s a fabulous plot device. For Humanists, though, it has just one problem: It’s too transparent to be believable. Of course I want to believe that I will live forever in bliss, that all my questions will be answered someday, and that all my relationships will work out perfectly and then continue forever. Who wouldn’t want to believe that? It’s a wonderful fantasy.

The problem is that I can’t believe it. It’s like the story that tomorrow will be a good day because I’m going to win $10 million in the lottery. Good as it sounds, that story doesn’t motivate me or give me a sense of meaning (no matter how many times I repeat it to myself), because I just can’t believe it.

By the way, I think that’s why I’m not seeing a lot of old-age or deathbed conversions among my Humanist friends. Yes, the approach of death makes us want to believe in an afterlife. But wanting was never the obstacle. Everybody already wants to believe that story. The problem is that it’s not believable, and the approach of death doesn’t make it any more believable.

Meaning without an afterlife. So that’s where we Humanists are: The afterlife plot device isn’t working. What are we going to do?

Personally, I found a solution in a surprising place: The final speech of Martin Luther King, the Mountaintop Speech.

Now, this doesn’t read like a Humanist speech at all, because it isn’t. King was a Baptist minister. The Mountaintop Speech talks about God, and the whole mountaintop image comes from the story of Moses. But don’t let that turn you off. The speech contains the trick that I needed to tell the story of my life in spite of the prospect of my death.

As I read this excerpt I want you to bear in mind that this really is King’s last speech. He doesn’t know it, but he is going to die the next day. It ends like this:

And then I got into Memphis. And some began to ... talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.

And I don't mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so I'm happy, tonight.

I'm not worried about anything.

I'm not fearing any man!

Did you hear it?

Let me explain what I learn from this passage: If the story I’m living in is purely about me, then my death may cut it off short of its conclusion.

For example, suppose the story that motivates me is that I am going to be rich and famous. Suppose I work for years at that, but I’m not rich and famous yet when the doctor tells me I have three weeks to live. Then what was my story all about? How does my life mean anything? It was all a waste.

The mere possibility that my story may turn out that way undercuts the meaning of the whole thing. At any moment, I might find out that it was all for nothing.

Now think about the story Dr. King is telling. I’m sure he also had plenty of personal stories, personal relationships, idiosyncratic tastes, and so on, just like we all do. But in addition to all that, he is living in the story of his people’s march to freedom. That is a collective story that did not begin with him and is not cut off by his death. The contributions he makes to that story do not become meaningless just because he dies before the story reaches its conclusion.

I’m not trying to take Dr. King away from the Baptists, and I assume he did believe in an afterlife. That’s not the point. The point is: If you can pull off the trick in the Mountaintop Speech, you don’t need an afterlife.

If you can become part of a collective story, a story that will continue beyond your death, and if you believe in that story and can find a role in it that gets you out of bed in the morning, then death will not undercut the meaning of your life. You can go on telling meaningful stories about your life right up to the moment you die.

Summing up. So that’s my message: The next time some non-Humanist asks you what you think happens after death, don’t just say, “They bury you and you rot.” Think about what he’s really asking. Think about the here-and-now issues that all people, no matter what they believe, have to address -- issues like morality, justice, anger, guilt, purpose, grief, and meaning. Traditional religion answers those questions by imagining an afterlife, but Humanists answer the same questions in other ways. 

That’s the interesting conversation to have, and it will give your questioner some insight into what Humanism really is.

I left most of those questions up to you, but I did say a few things about dealing with grief, and about how the prospect of death makes it harder to tell an authentically motivating story about your life.

And finally, I told you how I deal with that difficulty, the trick I picked up from Martin Luther King: Some important part of the story of your life needs to be bigger than you -- not because God demands it and not even because that’s how good people live, but because you need to be part of a story that will not end when you die.

If you can do that, I predicted that your life will stay meaningful right up to the moment of death. And I can predict something else, too: Your funeral will be an upbeat, inspiring event.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Join the Losers: Shame, Pride, and the 99%

a talk given January 29, 2012 at First Parish in Billerica, MA

[earlier versions were presented at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, IL and First Parish Unitarian in Athol, MA]

Opening Words:

"If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality." -- Desmond Tutu


There is a web site called "We Are the 99%". Maybe you've seen it. People write their story on a single sheet of paper and then post a photo of themselves holding the paper. By now there are more than a thousand stories on that site.

Here's one:

“I am a 20 year old college student trying to better myself and my family by gaining an education although my husband and I both know that with the way things are, we’re both almost better off working our minimum wage jobs that we have and are barely scraping by with than even attempting to do anything more. we rely on government assistance for food/medical/daycare, work insane hours each week to get by and still cant afford basic necessities.

Our combined 100 + hr work week shows no profit. None of our jobs provide medical (which due to asthma, I cannot go without medications or I will die. Since a stable home for my children is more important that my own health, rent comes before my $150 prescriptions)

My husband is trying to find another full-time job on top of the one he has so we can stop relying on assistance but due to a buy out and closing of the company my dad worked at, so are 900 other people in the area who are suddenly unemployed or like my dad, took a 75% pay cut and can’t afford their bills anymore.”

I AM THE 99%

Here's another: “Got my bachelor's. Got low-paying job. Business went under. Defaulted on 70K student loan debt. I make less than 20K a year -- 2 jobs. Not enough to pay debt. No dental/health. 6 cavities -- used car -- no savings -- no $ in bank.”

There's another web site called "We are the 53%". It's a response to the 99% site, and it uses the same format. The title comes from the fact that only 53% of American households owed any income tax last year. In spite of the fact that most of the other people pay plenty of other taxes, "the 53%" has come to symbolize those Americans who are pulling their weight, as opposed to the rest who are baggage.

Interestingly, the people considered to be baggage are not the idle rich, who need no jobs. They're not trust-fund kids, who have never worked, but live on vast inherited wealth. No, the baggage, the 47%, are often like the folks on the 99% site, who might work two or three minimum-wage jobs, but can't make the minimum amount to get into the lowest tax bracket.

The first 53% post was put up by Erick Erickson, who is actually quite well-to-do and famous. He started, the premier conservative group blog, and now he's a commentator on CNN. He tells his 53% story like this:

"I work 3 jobs. I have a house I can’t sell. My family insurance costs are outrageous. But I don’t blame Wall Street.

Suck it up, you whiners. I am the 53% subsidizing you so you can hang out on Wall Street and complain."

With that post as a model, the site drew posts from people whose lives are much harder than Erickson's:

"I get up at 4:30 a.m. to work a job that pays me to get yelled at. I work around 50 hours per week, but still struggle. I've given up luxuries, shop clearance racks, do not own a new car or a home.

But I pay my bills and my taxes. I work hard to do so. I am an American. I am the 53%."

Here's a similar story that's been shared on Facebook. It doesn't come from the 53% site, but expresses a similar attitude:

"I am a college senior, about to graduate completely debt free. I pay for all of my living expenses by working 30+ hrs a week making barely above minimum wage. I chose a moderately priced, in-state public university and started saving $ for school at age 17.

I got decent grades in high school and received 2 scholarships which cover 90% of my tuition. I currently have a 3.8 GPA. I live comfortably in a cheap apartment, knowing I can't have everything I want. I don't eat out every day, or even once a month.

I live below my means to continue saving for the future. I expect nothing to be handed to me, and will continue to work my @$$ off for everything I have. That's how it's supposed to work. I am NOT the 99%, and whether or not you are is YOUR decision.

So who are the people who aren't making it? Do they deserve our sympathy or our scorn? CNBC's Rick Santelli goes for scorn. In his viral YouTube rant from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade, he raised this question: "I'll tell you what. I have an idea. The new administration's big on computers and technology -- how about this, president and administration? Why don't you put up a web site to have people vote on the internet, as a referendum, to see if we really want to subsidize the losers' mortgages ... or if we'd rather reward people who could carry the water rather than drink the water."

And finally, here's Herman Cain, in an interview with Alan Murray of the Wall Street Journal. And I'm picking on Cain not because what he said is unusual, but because it is typical. Cain just said it more plainly than anyone else:

"Don't blame Wall Street. Don't blame the big banks. If you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself. … When I was growing up, I was blessed to have had parents that didn't teach me to be jealous of anybody, and didn't teach me to envious of somebody. It is not a person's fault because they succeeded. It is a person's fault if they failed."


From kindergarten to eighth grade I went to a Lutheran elementary school, where I spent nine years with the same core group of about 20 kids. We had a lot in common: same small town, same religion, and a lot of the same advantages -- we were all white, from middle-class, two-parent homes, no major disabilities, and so on. In general, we were also pretty good students. Our parents hoped we would go to college, and most of us eventually did.

But in spite of all our similarities, we had a pecking order -- two of them, one for boys and one for girls. God knows how we came up with it or what we based it on, but it stayed remarkably rigid from year to year. I had a place in that order that, but I did not achieve it on my own. I was the best friend of the most popular boy.

Until seventh grade. That year a new kid transferred in. He was athletic and handsome, and he already had friends in the eighth grade class. He very quickly became the new best friend of the most popular boy, and my place in the order plummeted. By the time the reshuffling was complete, I was second boy from the bottom. But at least I wasn't last.

Another kid was. As I said, he was not that different from the rest of us. If you had met us all one-by-one, you probably couldn't have picked him out as the one destined to be the doormat. But there he was.

After my downfall, he was the only one who wanted to be my friend. He tried to sit next to me. He did me little favors. He invited me to his house. Now, I wish I could tell you that I reciprocated, that we had a bunch of great adventures, and that we are still in touch today.

But that's not how I thought in seventh grade. What I wanted more than anything was to get out of being Second Boy From the Bottom, and I was never going to do it by hanging around with him. Better, I thought, to be alone on the lowest rung of the ladder than to form a two-boy leper colony at the bottom.

That grade-school way of thinking often shows up in the adult world of politics. If you are near the bottom of society's ladder, your most natural allies are the people below you. But it is so hard to group up with them. As corrupt and unfair as you know that ladder to be, it is so, so hard to let loose of that one rung you have and make common cause with the people at the bottom.

And so the same pattern plays out again and again. During the Civil Rights era, many of the people who fought hardest against integration were those at the bottom of the white pecking order. Whiteness was the one advantage they had, and they didn't want to lose it.

Similarly, many of those who fought hardest against women's equality were men near  the bottom of the male pecking order. And where do you see those American-flag decals and the bumperstickers with jingoistic slogans? Not so much on Cadillacs and BMWs. No, you're more likely to see them on rusted-out pick-up trucks. The closer you are to the bottom of the American pecking order, the more dearly you hang on to the idea that Americans are better than everybody else.

If you've only got hold of one rung of the ladder, you hang onto it. That's how humans think.


Now, that human trait is very convenient for the people at the top. Because the more people get pushed down onto the lower rungs, the harder it is for them to unite to change the ladder or make it easier to climb.

I doubt I'm telling you anything you don't already know if I say that inequality has been rising in America. The economy as a whole has grown a lot since the 1970s, but (after inflation) the median household income has not grown, and in the 21st century it has actually dropped. And even those statistics are too rosy, because often they compare today's two-income households with the one-income households of decades past. People are working longer and sometimes harder, but not benefitting from it.

You will hear many explanations for the increasing inequality. Some will tell you that people who work with their brains are pulling away from people who work with their hands. Or that the educated are pulling away from the uneducated. Or that those who understand technology are pulling away from those who don't.

And while all those things are happening to some extent, the economists who study inequality say that they are secondary effects. The trend that drives all the other trends is that the people at the very top are pulling from everyone else. It happens at every level. The top 10% are pulling away from the bottom 90%. Within the 10%, the top 1% are pulling away even faster from the other 9.

And if you look even at the 1%, the top tenth of a percent are pulling away from the rest faster yet. The billionaires are pulling away from the millionaires.

In 1965, the average CEO made 50 times the minimum wage -- not a bad paycheck. But by 2005, he was up to 800 times.

The IRS publishes statistics about the top 400 tax returns. Between 1992 and 2007, the amount of money it took to get into that group quintupled. And their percentage of the total national income tripled. Out of every $100 of income in all of America, those 400 households now get a dollar and a half.

That might all be reasonable if the people at the very top had become fantastically more productive, and were being rewarded for the prosperity that they bring to the rest of us. But that doesn't seem to be the case. Economic growth was higher, not lower, when the rich were not quite so rich.

Former Federal Reserve Chief Paul Volcker denies that financial innovations like credit default swaps have added any productivity to the economy. They don't increase the national income, they just capture more of it for the bankers.

Worst of all, it seems that the law itself is different for the very wealthy. When the housing bubble popped, bankers were bailed out but home-owners weren't. When Goldman Sachs was charged with committing fraud, it paid a fine, a small percentage of its profits. No one went to jail.

Bank of America has foreclosed tens of thousands of homes illegally. Again, they will probably pay a fine and no one will go to jail. Will those families get their houses back? Maybe, if they can wait through years of litigation. Or maybe not.

By contrast, when ordinary people protest against this kind of fraud, say by camping out in public parks, their lack of proper permits calls down the full wrath of the law. Police show up in riot gear with pepper spray and rubber bullets. But police never shoot tear gas into board meetings of Goldman Sachs.


In a democracy you would think it would be impossible for 99% of the people to be dominated by 1% or a tenth of a percent or 400 households.

So how is this happening? Well, obviously, the 99% have not been able to pull together to defend their interests.

Why not? That brings me back to the way humans think. If you examine your own mind, you will see the buttons that the 1% can push.

When we are victimized by an unjust economic system, it is remarkably easy to make us feel ashamed of our own victimhood, or to use our pride and denial and resentment to turn us against the system's other victims.

How does that work? Let's start with shame. Rick Santelli had a name for the people who can't pay their mortgages -- Losers. And Herman Cain laid it right on the line. If you're failing, he says, don't be angry at the system or at the people on top, be ashamed of yourself.

Psychologically, shame is the first line of defense of any unjust system.

In 7th grade, I could have rejected the whole idea of a pecking order and been nice to the boy who was being nice to me. But I didn't, because I was ashamed to be Second Boy From the Bottom. I was too ashamed to quit the game while I was losing.

During the Depression, some unemployed men from prosperous suburbs kept dressing for work and taking the train into the city, because they were ashamed to let their neighbors know they were unemployed. Some didn't even want their wives to know.

People who are ashamed don't change the world. They don't protest and they don't organize. They hide.

The 1% would love it if we all hid our losses from each other and kept up appearances and pretended that everything is fine.

To me, that's the biggest significance of the 99% movement so far. Those people who march in the streets or publish their photos and stories on the internet -- they aren't hiding. They are rejecting the system's attempts to shame them into silence. Those pictures on the 99% site are saying: "Look at me. I am losing in this economy. This is what a loser looks like in America today."

If you spend much time paging through that website, you'll probably see that they look a lot like the rest of us. The losers look a lot like you and me.


Now that is a scary thought, and fear tends to evoke another very human reaction: denial. No one likes to be scared.

So when you hear about someone whose situation scares you -- the parent whose child vanishes into thin air, the athlete who suddenly drops dead, the old person who is too frail to keep working but too poor to retire --  when you meet someone whose situation makes you worry about your own situation, the most natural response in the world is to try to find some difference between them and you, some waterline where you can imagine that the tide of misfortune will have to stop.

You may not set out to blame the victim, but still we'd all love to find something that the victims did wrong that we always do right. The woman with lung cancer -- did she smoke? The guy who got mugged -- I never go to that neighborhood. The lifelong employee who got laid off -- that couldn't happen to any of us, because we're different.

And when you find that difference, that waterline, it's so tempting to build an imaginary wall there, to exagerate, to turn a small difference of degree into a clear difference of kind.

So if they stay ten minutes past quitting time and I stay 20, then I am hard-working and they are lazy. If some choice I made has turned out better than their choices, then I am wise and they are foolish. If they broke a single commandment that I have kept, then I am upright and they are sinful.

An unjust system's second line of defense is to help us build those walls of denial, to help us convince ourselves that the people below us on the ladder are of some other species entirely.

And to the extent you accept that separation, you help justify the whole ladder. If losers belong to a different species, then maybe the CEOs do too. Maybe they deserve to rule over us.


But even if your virtues don't make a different species, you do still have virtues. And that's how denial gets mixed up with legitimate pride. If you are managing to tread water in difficult times, then you have a right to be proud of the fact that you haven't drowned yet. But those who are treading water are kidding themselves if they imagine that they are a different kind of person than those who have gone under.

That's what I think is going on on that 53% web site. The woman who gets up at 4:30 to be yelled at, works 50 hours a week, doesn't own anything, and still struggles to pay her bills -- she deserves to feel proud of her efforts. And yet, is her story really so different from the stories on the 99% site?

And why is life that hard? Is that just "how it's supposed to work"? Or is life so hard because our society has made choices that favor the rich? Could we make different choices?

Likewise, that college senior who has no debt and works her ass off is imagining a sturdy wall that separates hard-working people who make good decisions from everyone else. She pictures herself on the deserving side of that wall, and imagines that she will always be there -- because luck plays no role in her world, and decisions that seem wise at the time never turn out badly down the road.

So that is an unjust system's third line of defense: appealing to your pride. They will tell you that what you take pride in only has meaning within their value system. If you deny that the current system is founded on merit and virtue, then you have denied all possible standards of merit and virtue.

The thought of making common cause with the people below you is supposed to offend your pride, because some of the people down there don't share all your virtues.

But of course, some of the people above you don't share your virtues either -- they don't work hard and don't take risks and don't make the world better for others. But you're not supposed to pay attention to that. That's just how life is. Even to bring that issue up, we are told, is engaging in class warfare, in "the bitter politics of envy", and the "resentment of success".

Resentment does play a role here, but not the way the 1% would have you believe. Again, let me illustrate from my childhood. Growing up, I wasted very little time thinking about the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts. Multiple homes in exotic locales did not rouse my envy. But if my older sister got two scoops of ice cream when I only got one, that was not fair.

Resentment tends to stay close to home. It's much easier to resent people who are almost like you, but have some small advantage. Maybe they have just a little more than you, or maybe they have exactly what you have, but didn't work as hard or suffer as much to get it. Those are the people that it's easiest to resent. Not the billionaires.

And so, an unjust system's fourth line of defense is to deflect your legitimate resentment away from the real beneficiaries of injustice and onto your neighbors.

Last spring, when the bill to take away the collective bargaining rights of public employees was being debated in Wisconsin, the Club for Growth blanketed the state with a very effective ad. It talked about the sacrifices that private-sector workers in Wisconsin had been forced to make to save their jobs, and listed the cuts in their benefits and wages.

But where did the ad suggest those workers should focus their resentment? Should they resent the owners, who pocketed those sacrifices as higher profits? Or the executives who raised their own pay while firing some employees and squeezing concessions out of the rest?

Oh no. The ad wanted Wisconsin's distressed private-sector workers to focus their resentment on the public-sector teachers and nurses and bus-drivers who hadn't made equivalent sacrifices yet.

If my money has been transferred to the rich as profits, then my sister's money should be transferred to the rich as tax cuts. It's only fair.


Supposedly, we are the 99% and this is a democracy. If we can hang together, it ought to be possible to re-write the rules so that the economy works for ordinary people again.

But there are big obstacles against us holding together. You don't have to look far to see them, because they are sitting right in your own brain:

the shame you feel in your own defeats;

the denial that makes you want to say, "That couldn't happen to me";

the pride that sets you above anyone worse off;

and the resentment you feel against those who are only one or two rungs higher.

Those impulses sit in your brain for good reasons. In other circumstances they serve you well. You ought to criticize yourself and try to learn from your failures. In the face of adversity, you need to identify reasons to hope. You deserve be proud of all the things you're doing to keep your head above water. And you should stand up for yourself when others are treated better than you.

So I'm not saying you should throw all that stuff out of your head. That would be naive advice, because I can't do it myself. I am ashamed, I am in denial, I am proud, and I resent all the wrong people -- just like everybody else.

All I'm saying is: Pay attention. Watch yourself. Shame, denial, pride, resentment -- those are ways you can be manipulated into working against your own interests and against people whose problems are just like yours.

The manipulators have enormous resources. You hear their message from all directions: The people who want change, the people who are protesting in the streets or in the occupation encampments -- they are losers. They are lazy, jealous, misguided, dirty, disgusting, unreasonable, and violent. They are minions of some dark conspiracy against all that is good. You should be ashamed to have any connection with them. Instead, you should identify with the 1%, because you want to join the winners, not the losers.

Of course you do. Everyone wants to join the winners. And if it were that easy, we all would. Every one of us would say, "Starting right now, I'm going to be a winner."

But it's not that easy. The deck is stacked against ordinary people, and it's going to stay stacked until we all do something very difficult: We need to join the losers. We need to look down the ladder and see not what makes us different from the people below, but what makes us the same.

When we find the courage and the confidence and the compassion to do that, then, together, we really do become the 99%. When we do that, we really do have the power to rewrite the rules, enforce them justly on the rich as well as the poor, and make this country work again for everyone.

Closing Words

"Years ago I recognized my kinship with all living things, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on the earth. I said then and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free." -- Eugene Debs