A New American Revolution Requires Empathy: Equity for All Means Loss of Privilege for Some

The Women’s March over inauguration weekend in 2017 spurred a great deal of activism across the U.S. and throughout the world.

However, similar to Bernie Sander’s campaign, the Women’s March exposed a problem since data on Trump’s election show that white women, who seemed to constitute the bulk of the march, voted for Trump in a majority:

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Throughout my social media feeds, black women scholars and activists noted that if white women had voted as black women did, there would be no need for the march:

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As well, if anyone is willing to listen and to listen seriously, racially marginalized groups have explained that this new normal under Trump is a multiple generations long reality for them; see Paul Beatty: ‘For me, Trump’s America has always existed.’

The question before us: Is the current move to resist Trump the result of a privileged class responding only when consequences affect them?

More evidence of this disturbing probability has been revealed when Trump voters continue to rail against Obamacare (assumed that is for the Others) and simultaneously embrace the Affordable Care Act (ACA), under which they are covered.

Now consider Donald Trump’s Authoritarian Politics of Memory in which Ruth Ben-Ghiat offers another incredibly damning observation:

The founding moment of this era came one year ago, when Trump declared at a rally, “I could stand on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and not lose any voters.” Trump signaled that rhetorical and actual violence might have a different place in America of the future, perhaps becoming something ordinary or unmemorable. During 2016, public hatred became part of everyday reality for many Americans: those who identify with the white supremacist alt-right like Richard Spencer openly hold rallies; elected officials feel emboldened to call for political opponents to be shot (as did New Hampshire and Oklahoma State Representatives Al Baldasaro and John Bennett, among others); journalists reporting on Trump and hijab-wearing women seek protection protocols and escorts. The bureaucratic-sounding term many use for this, “normalization,” does not fully render the operations of memory that make it possible. Driven by opportunism, pragmatism, or fear, many begin to forget that they used to think certain things were unacceptable.

Trump’s pronouncement may have seemed extreme, but it has mostly proven to be accurate.

At the core of this disturbing reality may be several factors: a cultural norm of self-first thinking, a garbled understanding of government and public institutions, and thus a poorly steered democracy that fails to function as a democracy for the equity of all.

If we return to considering who and why protests emerged after Trump’s election, and factor in how misinformed many Trump supporters have proven to be, we can conclude that being misinformed and self-first is a tragic combination.

However, the U.S. breeds self-first (and self-only) thinking by falsely claiming the country is already a meritocracy (it isn’t), and combining that with a blind commitment to competition, a society grinding up its citizens in Social Darwinism.

To view life as a competition is antithetical to democracy and equity for all.

The dirty little secret of social justice and fighting for equity is that those with privilege (and all the power) will necessarily lose their advantages when equity is achieved; in other words, there is no way to avoid the “winners” (who now believe they win because of their effort and not their privilege) viewing equity for all as a loss for them.

Therefore, the current winners-from-privilege are the most vocal proponents of universal competition and the eradication of government as intrusive and totalitarian.

The racial tension spurred by the Women’s March highlights how we have yet found a common ground to honor the plights of the marginalized, to fore-front those historically ignored voices, and then to behave with empathy for anyone, regardless of the consequences to the self.

There is a reason the powerful elites vilify communism, socialism, and Marxism—all of which are grounded in ethical pursuits of equity, all of which call for revolution based on the exact empathy competition destroys—and conflate “government” with totalitarianism to mask the potential for public institutions to ensure equity:

I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free. (Eugene V. Debs: Statement September 18, 1918)

A new American revolution requires empathy, a groundswell of people who believe and act as Debs expresses above.

If any white people, including the uprise of white women marching, fear the specter of Trump’s administration, they have now experienced the fact of life for many “deliberately silenced [and] preferably unheard”—black, brown, poor, born outside of the U.S., LGBTQ+, Muslim, etc.

A people dedicated to community and collaboration, and not competition, a people grounded in empathy and not “me first” or “me only”—these are the soldiers ready for a new revolution in which equity for all can be realized.

 

Harrison Bergeron 2016

Along with Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron” is one of his most taught, and thus most read, works. Both narratives also represent Vonnegut’s characteristic genre bending and blending—notably dark satire with science fiction.

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“Harrison Bergeron” is the second story in Kurt Vonnegut’s iconic Welcome to the Monkey House collection of short stories.

However, as I have examined, “Harrison Bergeron” is often misread and misinterpreted, reflected in the film adaptation 2081.

In 2016, just days before the presidential election, how and why the story is misread and misinterpreted—forcing on it American faith in the rugged individual and refusing to acknowledge Vonnegut’s principles grounded in socialism and free thinking—is a powerful commentary on U.S. politics broadly and Donald Trump specifically.

Misreading, Misinterpreting “Harrison Bergeron”

Vonnegut’s fiction and nonfiction are anything except simple—even though he practices a style that can be called “simple” because of his accessible vocabulary, mostly brief and simple sentence structure, and staccato paragraphing (which he claimed mimics the structure of jokes).

Yet, many impose onto “Harrison Bergeron” a simplistic theme (anti-communism) and a simplistic reading of Harrison as hero.

“If ‘Harrison Bergeron’ is a satire against the Left,” however, as Darryl Hattenhauer details, “then it is inconsistent with the rest of Vonnegut’s fiction.”

The misinterpretation stems from expecting narratives to have heroes and from careless reading of what the story says about equality; Hattenhauer clarifies:

But the object of Vonnegut’s satire is not all leveling—“any leveling process” that might arise. Rather, the object of his satire is the popular misunderstanding of what leveling and equality entail. More specifically, this text satirizes America’s Cold War misunderstanding of not just communism but also socialism.

Vonnegut’s enduring real-life hero was Eugene V. Debs, possibly the most well-known and influential socialist in U.S. history. Vonnegut was a lifelong advocate for socialism, and “Vonnegut’s concern for the working class eventually blossomed into a full-scale political outlook that was inspired by a combination of Midwestern populism and home-grown American socialism,” explains Matthew Gannon and Wilson Taylor.

Yet, the short film 2081 adapts “Harrison Bergeron” painstakingly true to Vonnegut—except for almost entirely missing that the story itself satirizes both the totalitarian state (embodied by Handicapper General Diana Moon Glampers) with its militaristic police force and Harrison Bergeron as megalomaniac would-be “Emperor!”

Again, as Hattenhauer emphasizes: “Like his fiction, Vonnegut’s non-fiction also satirizes the Right and endorses the Left. And the Left it endorses is not liberalism (America is one of the few nations where liberalism is not centrist).”

Therefore, “Harrison Bergeron” defies both being simple and America’s cartoonish hatred of communism as forced equality (a cultural failure to distinguish between brute equality and social equity). The story, Hattenhauer examines, has an unreliable narration, which describes a dystopian totalitarian state in which “anti-intellectual leveling” is satirized—not “income redistribution,” which Vonnegut as socialist endorsed.

Vonnegut attacks, then, the exact American myths that many who misread the story claim it endorses, as detailed by Hattenhauer:

According to the proponents of the ideology of America’s dominant culture, equal income redistribution would contradict the fact that some are smarter than others (the corollary: the rich are smart and the poor are dumb), and also contradict the fact that some are better looking or more athletic than others (the corollary: attractive and athletic people deserve wealth).

Nonetheless, “Harrison Bergeron,” understood as Vonnegut intended, proves to be a powerful commentary on the 2016 presidential election and the rise of Donald Trump.

Harrison Bergeron 2016

Vonnegut’s writing never fits neatly into clear genre categories, but like Margaret Atwood, he constantly plays with and within genre conventions both in loving devotion to the forms and in ways that defy those conventions.

As well, Vonnegut’s fiction resists traditional portrayals of the hero and main characters. Billy Pilgrim and Harrison Bergeron, for example, are not heroes—but they are not anti-heroes or everyman main characters.

In many ways, Vonnegut keeps an even focus on many characters throughout his works, and tends to include a mixture of positive and negative qualities in even the most static characters—mostly because nearly everything and everyone in Vonnegut is open to satire.

Charles Shields and Gregory Sumner suggest Vonnegut is nearly always the main character in his work, as authorial voice overseeing even identified narrators.

As a result, Harrison Bergeron is presented through an unreliable narrator as larger than life; at 14 years old, Harrison is seven feet tall and “a genius.” But the reader soon learns, as a fugitive, “Harrison’s appearance was Halloween and hardware.”

In short, Vonnegut’s dystopia and Harrison as a character are cartoonish.

“Clanking, clownish, and huge” as well as “wear[ing] at all times a red rubber ball for a nose,” Harrison bursts into the story with “‘I am the Emperor!'”

Misread as rugged individual hero, Harrison is, in fact, a megalomaniac—his bombast a sour joke.

Yet, as a genius and a renegade, he remains a threat to the totalitarian state; thus:

It was then that Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General, came into the studio with a double-barreled ten-gauge shotgun. She fired twice, and the Emperor and the Empress were dead before they hit the floor.

Vonnegut’s dark, dark cartoon of a story ends with a joke worthy of a drumroll, but the story cannot be read with a smile in 2016 because Harrison Bergeron has been manifest in reality as Republican candidate for president, Donald Trump.

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Trump as faux-billionaire, bombastic failed business man, and reality TV star stands before the U.S. as a threat as well—although to the promise (albeit tarnished) of democracy.

Enough Americans misread Trump as a hero to suggest why so many misread “Harrison Bergeron” as some sort of anti-communist propaganda: our rose-colored rugged individualism lenses are powerful, like the “spectacles with thick wavy lenses” worn by Harrison “to make him not only half blind, but to give him whanging headaches besides.”

The flaw in the American character that makes so many misread Trump is not simple either. Yes, there is racism and misogyny—but there is also a profound tension between a valid fear of totalitarianism and a simple-minded blurring of communism/socialism with totalitarianism.

When government actually is indistinguishable from the military (Diana Moon Glampers), a people have lost their precious freedom.

But Vonnegut’s cartoon dystopia omits entirely the utopian possibility of democratic socialism and free thinking that Vonnegut championed his entire life—and that many, if not most, in the U.S. remain unable to embrace.

“Harrison Bergeron” does speak to the center-right politics of the U.S., in which the so-called left is represented by a classic Republican (Hillary Clinton) and the so-called right has been reduced to a clown (Trump).

If this were a Vonnegut story or novel, it would be goddam funny.

As real life, the presidential campaign of 2016 is a metaphorical “double-barreled ten-gauge shotgun” aimed at our heads, and it is in our hands with our fingers on the trigger.

Snow Blind: “Trapped in the Amber of This Moment”

What is wrong with the following claims?

  • The rich and successful are rich and successful because of their work ethic.
  • The poor are poor because they fail to take advantage of the American Dream.
  • Women are paid less than men because they choose fields/careers that pay less and choose family over career.
  • Prisons are overwhelmingly populated by African Americans because they are trapped in the cycle of poverty.
  • Work hard and be nice.
  • Education, especially college, is the main path for rising above the conditions of any person’s home or community.

Before I examine the answer, consider this enduring claim:

  • In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and thus, Columbus discovered America. [The original poem ends “The first American?  No, not quite./ But Columbus was brave, and he was bright.”]

And how about this blast from the past:

Dewey Defeats Truman

As Lienhard explains:

Gallup brought science to that process. Richard Smith tells how, by the time Landon challenged Roosevelt, the prestigious Literary Digestmagazine was America’s leading pollster. The Digest featured a regular poll called “America Speaks.” It drew samples from phone books and auto registrations. Gallup knew that such samples were biased toward people with means….

Then, in 1948, Gallup blew the Truman-Dewey prediction. How? His mistake was to quit polling two weeks before the election with fourteen percent of the electorate still undecided. After that humiliation, Gallup went back to analyze his error. He emerged with the maxim, “Undecided voters side with the incumbent.”

By 2012, then, you’d think polling would have reached some higher and clearer process for predicting presidential outcomes, but instead, we had the Nate Silver element, yet another case about how the science of polling has flaws, human flaws.

Even, it seems, as science inspects itself—acknowledging and addressing confirmation bias, for example—we are always “trapped in the amber of this moment,” since the human condition is itself necessarily a subjective experience.

And now, in order to answer my initial question, I want to turn to history; while history as a discipline is distinct from the hard sciences, both are dependent on evidence and then the conclusions drawn from that evidence—conclusions I call narratives (more on that below). Consider Howard Zinn on Christopher Columbus:

My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been, The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.

Thus, in that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history, I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott’s army, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills, of the Spanish-American war as seen by the Cubans, the conquest of the Philippines as seen by black soldiers on Luzon, the Gilded Age as seen by southern farmers, the First World War as seen by socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists, the New Deal as seen by blacks in Harlem, the postwar American empire as seen by peons in Latin America. And so on, to the limited extent that any one person, however he or she strains, can “see” history from the standpoint of others.

In other words, shaping narratives bound by evidence does not insure that those narratives are pure and certainly does not insure that those narratives are above bias or absent the urge to mold them in order to secure someone’s agenda (likely someone in power). [1]

Snow Blind

Misleading narratives around Columbus or “I cannot tell a lie” George Washington—and the whitewashing of Steve Jobs to promote the “grit” narrative (compare the Jobs lesson to the original 1492 poem about Columbus)—are not problematic because of the evidence, but because of the lens through which the narratives are shaped and by whom those narratives are created and in whose interest.

Consider Billy Pilgrim in a telepathic conversation with a Tralfamadorian in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five:

“Welcome aboard, Mr. Pilgrim,” said the loudspeaker. “Any questions?”

Billy licked his lips, thought a while, inquired at last: “Why me?”

“That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?”

“Yes.” Billy, in fact, had a paperweight in his office which was a blob of polished amber with three ladybugs embedded in it.

“Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”

And that brings me to the “grit” debate, one in which advocates point to scientific research and prestigious grants. From that evidence, we have three contexts of narratives: disciplinary narratives (Angela Duckworth, Carolyn Dweck), popular narratives (Paul Tough, Jay Mathews), political narratives (Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee)—all of which are trapped like bugs in amber, or as I prefer to suggest, that “grit” narrative advocacy is snow blind.

If evidence and the narratives surrounding the evidence appear to support a privileged agenda, and since the privileged have a larger megaphone in a culture, then that evidence and narrative are disproportionately likely to gain momentum—regardless of how accurate they are in the context of the oppressed or marginalized (consider again history and the Zinn points above).

And that inability by the privileged to see beyond their privilege is, I think, a state of being snow blind.

Thus, my answer to the initial question at the beginning is that those claims as narratives built on evidence are ideological distortions of the evidence. The “grit” narrative is similar to the education = income argument that falls apart when analyzed: Education is a marker for privilege (since privilege leads to advanced education) just as “grit” qualities are markers for privilege.

Systemic Inequity v. Rugged Individualism

In Slaughterhouse Five, the work of Howard W. Campbell (previously the main character in Vonnegut’s Mother Night) is quoted:

America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves….

Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue….The most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame an blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times. (pp. 164, 165)

Snow blind and bugs trapped in amber, the privileged by their privilege and the impoverished by the blinding but misleading promise of the American Dream—the narratives become the product of those who shape them and for whose benefit, regardless of the evidence, the artifacts, the data.

Let me end, then, with a couple of points to consider, one from the 1973 satire Sleeper  [2] and the other from Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.

First, a scene from the film:

And then, John and Mona in Cat’s Cradle discuss Boko-maru (a sacred foot ceremony) and their culturally-bound and conflicting perceptions of love:

“Mona?”

“Yes?”

“Is—is there anyone else in your life?”

She was puzzled. “Many,” she said at last.

“That you love?”

“I love everyone.”

“As—as much as me?”

“Yes.” She seemed to have no idea that this might bother me….

“I suppose you—you perform—you do what we just did—with other people?’

Boko-maru?”

Boko-maru.

“Of course.”

“I don’t want you to do it with anybody but me from now on,” I declared.

Tears filled her eyes. She adored her promiscuity; was angered that I should try to make her feel shame. “I make people happy. Love is good, not bad.”

“As your husband, I’ll want all your love for myself.”

She stared at me with widening eyes. “A sin-wat!”

“What was that?

“A sin-wat!” she cried. “A man who wants all of somebody’s love. That’s very bad.” (pp. 207-208)

John is trapped in the amber of the moment, his patriarchal and possessive love leaves him snow blind to Mona’s perspective. He either cannot see, or refuses to see.

So I have made a decision—one shared by Zinn, expressed by Eugene V. Debbs, and reflected in the research of Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir—that the perspectives of the marginalized must be honored in the context of systemic inequities.

This is a position of humility and a recognition that any human arrogance—whether it be scientific or not—is likely to lead to the sort of pettiness captured in the Sleeper clip: both the satire aimed at the foolish dietary beliefs of the past and the incredulity of the scientists in the film’s present (“You mean there was no deep fat…?” exposes that despite the scientists recognizing the misguided stances of the past, they remain trapped in their own certainty).

Both the “grit” narrative and the “grit” research fail that litmus test. They both speak from and to a cultural norm that privileges individual characteristics (rugged individualism) as if they are indistinguishable from the systemic context of privilege (again, a claim refuted by Mullainathan and Shafir, but that narrative doesn’t serve the privileged, and thus, isn’t embraced as the “grit” narrative is).

Many novelties have come from America,” the cited monograph from Campbell notes, adding:

The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor. They do not love one another because they do not love themselves. (p. 165)

The human intellect is a wonderful thing, and thus, we must pursue our efforts to understand the world and the human condition—a thing we call science. But as humans, it is not ours to somehow remove our basic humanity from that process (the folly of objectivity), but to choose carefully just how we shape the narratives from the evidence we gather.

I am then compelled to manipulate Einstein once again. His “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind,” I think, is a call for the necessity of human kindness, decency, and compassion in the shaping of our narratives. The “grit” narrative does no such thing. It is a snow blind story that is also deaf to the basic human dignity shared among all people.

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

Eugene V. Debs: Statement September 18, 1918

[1] See Robert Pondiscio’s citing of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” a misleading use of Vonnegut in the name of choice that is well outside Vonnegut’s ideological leanings; see my posted comment.

[2] While citing a Woody Allen work is problematic, I am in no way endorsing Allen or any efforts to absolve him of guilt or responsibility in the ongoing controversy surrounding him.

The Socialist Objective: “I can see the dawn of the better day for humanity”

Under a pen-name for a newspaper in 1943, George Orwell wrote about Christmas, veering into a declaration of the Socialist objective, predating by many decades Kurt Vonnegut’s career of making similar and powerful claims about the need for human kindness:

The Socialist objective is not a society where everything comes right in the end, because kind old gentlemen give away turkeys. What are we aiming at, if not a society in which ‘charity’ would be unnecessary? We want a world where Scrooge, with his dividends, and Tiny Tim, with his tuberculous leg, would both be unthinkable. But does that mean we are aiming at some painless, effortless Utopia? At the risk of saying something which the editors of Tribune may not endorse, I suggest that the real objective of Socialism is not happiness. Happiness hitherto has been a by-product, and for all we know it may always remain so. The real objective of Socialism is human brotherhood. This is widely felt to be the case, though it is not usually said, or not said loudly enough. Men use up their lives in heart-breaking political struggles, or get themselves killed in civil wars, or tortured in the secret prisons of the Gestapo, not in order to establish some central-heated, air-conditioned, strip-lighted Paradise, but because they want a world in which human beings love one another instead of swindling and murdering one another. And they want that world as a first step. Where they go from there is not so certain, and the attempt to foresee it in detail merely confuses the issue.

Eliot Rosewater in Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater implores:

Go over to her shack, I guess. Sprinkles some water on the babies, say, “Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—:

“God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” (p. 129)

With both Orwell and Vonnegut, we should hear echoing behind their words, Eugene V. Debs, from his Statement to the Court (September 18, 1918):

Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free….

I believe, Your Honor, in common with all Socialists, that this nation ought to own and control its own industries. I believe, as all Socialists do, that all things that are jointly needed and used ought to be jointly owned—that industry, the basis of our social life, instead of being the private property of a few and operated for their enrichment, ought to be the common property of all, democratically administered in the interest of all…

I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence….

I can see the dawn of the better day for humanity. The people are awakening. In due time they will and must come to their own.

When the mariner, sailing over tropic seas, looks for relief from his weary watch, he turns his eyes toward the southern cross, burning luridly above the tempest-vexed ocean. As the midnight approaches, the southern cross begins to bend, the whirling worlds change their places, and with starry finger-points the Almighty marks the passage of time upon the dial of the universe, and though no bell may beat the glad tidings, the lookout knows that the midnight is passing and that relief and rest are close at hand. Let the people everywhere take heart of hope, for the cross is bending, the midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning.