In Which I Am a Traitor to My Own Kind


Two blogposts with a common theme came my way this morning having to do with consideration for others. I found them both galvanizing and each in their own way inspirational.

This, more introspective one from from Sheila O’ Malley:

And this typically fired up yet ice-cool screed from Jen Dziura:

These two powerful pieces attached themselves to a train of thought I’ve been following for a number of weeks having to do with race. It occurred to me that whenever I post something about shows or films that are well known to have a problematic racial element (oh, Amos ‘n’ Andy, Uncle Remus, it’s a long list), when I (invariably) attach what I consider to be an obligatory (as the price of civilization) disclaimer about the nature of the material, I’ll typically receive several comments and responses to the effect of “Why apologize for it? I don’t see anything racist about it at all!”

These responses are always from white men.

Now: I’m a white man. I come from a long line of white men. If you want to read an attack on white men qua white men, you won’t find it here.


(And it’s kind of hilarious that this might need pointing out) That hardly negates one’s obligation to try to be respectful and sensitive, does it?

Similarly, with this controversy about this Duck Dynasty guy and his horrendous remarks. When someone hurts someone’s feelings, how is defensiveness ever the appropriate response? (The dude himself is acting somewhat contrite for what that’s worth, but the outcry from his supporters is obscene).  Where I come from, you don’t have to agree with people, but you do try not to hurt their feelings, and when you do, you apologize: end of story. You don’t say say “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings, therefore not only do I not apologize, but I’ll now hurl some denunciations”.

Some people who’ve known me a long time will find this post amusing and ironic. Defensiveness was my middle name about 20 years ago on some of these issues. It’s not just that I’m older and now lack fire. I have the same amount of fire. It’s just that I learned a few things.

The turning point was undoubtedly a certain history museum where I used to work, where I got to see two competing models of interpretation and teaching and leading and management and behaving as human beings.

The first example consists of the people I worked alongside for most of my time there. I’ve never claimed to be a historian (I wince like Eddie Bracken in Hail the Conquering Hero whenever anyone introduces me with that unsought and unearned distinction). But such “Philosophy of History” as I do possess unavoidably came from working alongside these curators and historians (many or most of them women) and unavoidably by osmosis my own work began to reflect their values. It’s not about being forced to be politically correct (Believe me, I still rankle at any idea of enforcement or group-think or muzzling). It’s about working on YOURSELF to adapt a habit of mind that is open, inclusive, generous, respectful, responsive, morally responsible. It’s, uh, simply, good manners to listen to other people, and to other kinds of people? The credo of Atticus Finch: “you never really know a [person] until you’ve stood in his shoes and walked around in them”.

The OTHER model of interpretation and teaching and leading and management and behaving as human beings arrived not long before I was shit-canned out of there, when a group of rich, white men (guys who looked very much like ME), most of them shady financial titans who bought a controlling share of the board, and brought along their own posse of academic lickspittles, and they came in and steamrolled over the place, axed a bunch of extremely valuable people, and began dictating their will in no uncertain terms. Where once the place had been devoted to a long string of critically acclaimed exhibitions of a populist, inclusive nature, it now did a 180 degree sea change and signed on for the “Great Man” theory, with a series of exhibitions on Washington, Hamilton, Lincoln…men I much admire as personal heroes, by the way, but whom perhaps could stand to make a little room at the Dinner Table of Greatness. But it was the ugly, ruthless, heedless way the new leadership  behaved as human beings that made me take serious stock of what mattered to me. “Heads will roll,” the new power behind the throne warned, and they did, and the people responsible exhilarated in that. They thought it was really cool. Have no illusions: a guy just like that ran for President in 2012. Some people want to run our whole society in just that way.

Men are bulls and the world is a china closet. I know this. I’m guilty of it all the time. I don’t mean anything by it. I am just BEING. I’m not trying to control anything. Or, yes I am, I absolutely am, but it’s done with the (often mistaken) assumption that a) EVERYONE is doing the same thing, and b) I have no advantage in that free-for-all.  In collaborative situations I generally understand only the binary choice of “dominate” or “submit” (hush!) and I’ve often had a hard time understanding when close creative partners have withdrawn, because “Well, if you have a problem with my style, then why don’t YOU dominate, then?  SOMEONE’s got to dominate! So unseat me, unhorse me, overpower me if you can. What’s the problem?”

Sorry! That is how I am WIRED.

The problem is, of course, that this isn’t a wolf pack. Nor, is it any longer even a Viking Raiding Party. We are trying to build a civilization here. If we are going to survive as a species, there needs to be some evolution in the direction of cooperation and empathy and generosity and listening. We need to behave like the boy in Sheila’s piece (whom I knew by the way, we all went to the same high school, although I certainly didn’t provide his kind of example).

Though it’s proven to be much easier for me to put myself in the shoes of others than you might think. A few months ago I went ballistic when some privileged-looking executive type dudes breezed on the elevator and superciliously asked (but it was really a casual order) “Hey, hit the button for me, buddy?” (This is why Jen Dziura’s post about the post office line struck such a chord with me). While I may LOOK just like the rich white dudes, in the area of economic class, I’m just “passing”. I’m strictly working class. I can be extremely touchy if I feel like I’m being spoken to in a condescending, patronizing, commanding way, if I hear it just the right way, and take it just the right way. And it’s occurred to me over time that A) I probably come off like those dudes on the elevator quite often; and B) women, people of color and others must feel the same kind of indignation I felt on the receiving end all the time, if they’re the type to let it bother them.

When “they” do let it bother them, and express it, the reaction of the Me’s of this world is often: “Why is everyone so sensitive?”

But that’s the wrong question, or it’s the wrong way of asking the question (i.e., rhetorically, stopping it dead with no effort to regard it as a real question or ferret out the answer, because there happens to be one). Just because you don’t NOTICE something doesn’t mean it didn’t happen or it isn’t there or that someone else’s concerns aren’t legitimate. It’s kind of hilarious (but I’m sure it’s not) that that even needs to be brought out.

It’s kind of like we’re maniacs with buzz saws running through a department store going “I’ll cut off a slice of THAT and THAT and THAT and THAT” and then, on the way out,  still high and benumbed with the buzz of our spree of carnage, we pass a triage center containing the people we wounded, and we’re just kind of dimly aware that something is happening “over there” and we go, “Gee, why is everyone moaning and howling? Surely you’re exaggerating about what I just did, what with your ‘bandages’ and your ‘I.V. drips’. Can’t you let me enjoy this rightfully-acquired booty in piece? Go get some of your own booty!”

At any rate, feel free to call me on my shit. I’m liable to create some from time to time.

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