Isolation is a bitter pill. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, it is becoming clear that I will look back on my life before the outbreak of Covid-19 as one belonging to someone else. Essentially every one of my daily routines has been disrupted. Where before I would meet with the Austin LotR Group every Thursday, we have struggled to keep the group alive through OCTGN. It’s nice to have software to help maintain some kind of contact, but it’s not the same as face-to-face interactions around a table and playing the game with actual, physical cards. This shift from tangible to virtual environments has come to pervade life so totally it is sometimes overwhelming. Whether it was chatting with coworkers in the break room, social board games, or playing in my basketball league, everything in life has changed.
I’m grateful for my health and the health and safety of my loved ones, but the quarantine can still be draining. It’s nice to have the community as a sounding board, or somewhere to go when I need a break from every day responsibilities which have continued unabated. This is all a long-winged way of saying that it’s nice to see everyone coming together to support each other. The support of a vibrant community becomes all the more important in light of an event like the death of George Floyd.
In polite circles, speaking about “politics” or controversial subjects is considered gauche. In the case of systemic racism, “polite circles” are part of the problem; ignoring injustice to others does not make it go away. The fact that we have let human rights become a forum for political signaling is abhorrent and should make us question our priorities and fundamental assumptions.
For those who only read this blog for the (infrequent) rambling about card games, I invite you to check out my previous articles. Better still, check out the work of my more prolific and better qualified compatriots. What follows is me attempting to collect and synthesize my thoughts about the last few months. I cannot promise that it will be coherent, but I shall endeavor to find some meaning in all of this upheaval.
For those who are still with me, thanks for joining a weary traveler on the road. I’ve expressed my thoughts about racism in the past. It remains a point of bitter-sweet irony to me that my highest rated deck on RingsDB is a satirical commentary on the antagonistic immigration policy of the current US administration. It boggles the mind to think that the last year has been so over the top that stories about families being split apart on the US border and stuck in camps has now fallen off of the news radar. Our collective distractibility is understandable, when every day brings a story more shocking than the day before.
All well and good, but “what does immigration have to do with George Floyd?”, you might ask. The systematic mistreatment of Latino immigrants is much more closely related to the tragedy of George Floyd’s death than many would imagine. Tribalism is how society formed to begin with. The first city ever founded was undoubtedly a group of related people who wanted to stay in one place for mutual protection. This made all kinds of sense, when we were discovering fire and using pointed sticks to keep the wolves away.
Culture and nationalism are fickle. One minute, they give us strategies to survive and prosper, the next they give us a reason to hate and mistrust. Tribalism can even be the seeds of our self destruction. In the name of pride and a flag, we send each other off to fight unjust wars against enemies with which we have no quarrel. Few people have the strength of character to question the gravity of the culture in which they have lived, to see through the rhetoric and realize that their leaders are just as flawed (often more-so) than themselves.
Human nature is sadly one of habit and inertia. A strategy which works well for a time quickly becomes engrained. These engrained strategies, or traditions, live on long after they are no longer relevant. Traditions, like the buildings which birthed them, crumble into ruin. Sadly, it is easier for us to see in these physical edifices the relics of an earlier age. We are surrounded by anachronisms which, while at times posses beauty to inspire us, should not dictate our future. More often than not, the buildings of our “civilization” are built on the bones and blood of innocents.
For some reason, we lack this same insight into our culture. Abstract concepts are always more subtle, and there is a latency in our collective ability to transcend our past. Moreover, a simple desire to evolve a culture is not sufficient. Every society includes a subset – often the older statesmen – which appoints themselves the defenders of the old ways. When this involves keeping a language or art form alive, it is a healthy instinct and brings enrichment to a people. When this devolves into using violence or coercion against the vanguard of a new way of being, it is often the sign of a corrupt and decadent culture.
Where they prevent us from deepening our understanding of ourselves and others traditions are a trap. A siren song, they would lure us to smash ourselves against the rocks of barbarism. As beings of consciousness and conscience we are commissioned to overcome our base nature, to find a better way of being. Compassion is not easy, especially where our cultural baggage gives us ample excuses for mistrust and resentment.
At its worst, this cultural damage is carcinogenic. It festers in us, short-circuiting our ability to see others outside of our tribe as worthy of compassion. Power-hungry leaders might even foster these tendencies. It is easier to control a populace when you can give them a common enemy to hate. This is a cynical strategy employed by countless despots throughout history. Once a people no longer sees their enemies as human, all manner of atrocities become not only possible, but inevitable.
This is where, after many winding and turnings, the conversation comes back to George Floyd. The history of the African people in America is horrific. Slavery was an institution so base, it inculcated in generations of Americans that an entire group of people were less than human. Our culture made it normal, even moral, to treat other human beings as no better than animals. This kind of cultural damage is deep, and pervasive. It is not something which goes away in a generation, particularly when some refuse to admit that the damage is there to begin with.
Slavery was one of the many issues holding primacy over the American Civil War. The end of war did not magically heal this cultural damage. One would assume that something called “The Emancipation Proclamation” would bring freedom. The longer the name, the more it hides the truth. Abraham Lincoln made the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1st, 1863. The right of African Americans to vote was not constitutionally protected until the 15th Amendment in 1870, but organizations like the Ku Klux Klan intimidated and violently attacked African American voters. Next, a wave of oppressive laws (“Jim Crow” laws) were enacted in response to this amendment, to systematically disenfranchise African Americans.
As an aside, the fact that it took 15 edits to our founding document to mostly answer the question of “are all people really equal?” should be a reminder of our fallibility. Each generation implicitly believes that it is the height of human civilization. Even in the rare cases where a society has achieved noteworthy progress, we will inevitably be looked back on by future generations as naive savages, stumbling in the darkness of our own ignorance. To be human is to be flawed, we can only hope to be better than those who came before us. Often true progress must be passed on for several generations before it pervades and shapes a society.
It wasn’t until the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s when African Americans were able to fully exercise their rights as American citizens. That’s 100 years after they were “freed” in the Emancipation Proclamation! Predictably, there remain groups fighting tooth and nail against what they perceive as a threat to the “American Tradition”. This tradition is a tradition of bigotry, of rationalizing the treatment of other humans as things to be bought and sold. This tradition, and all traditions of dehumanization must be allowed to die out and crumble into the dust of history.
The dangerous thing about culture is that it is invisible and unconscious. The officer who held his knee against George Floyd’s neck was not thinking about the Emancipation Proclamation. He wasn’t thinking about Jim Crow laws, or the Civil Rights movement. He wasn’t thinking about the hundred plus years – after the end of the Civil War – that African Americans had to fight just to be treated as human beings.
From his actions, it is clear that the officer felt entitled to treat the person in his custody differently. Once we categorize the “other”, we can rationalize all nature of atrocity as “normal” or “standard operating procedure”. It is easy to demonize the officer, and indeed his actions were atrocious. But the protests sweeping across the United States right now are not only about the actions of a few police officers in one city.
These protests, and the anguish and outrage which drives them, are a desperate cry of “enough!”. Enough with a system which repeatably undermines one groups right to be treated with the same dignity, respect, decency, and compassion which is due to all human beings. History does not progress in one smooth line. Like nature – with its punctuated equilibrium – history changes in fits and starts and huge seismic moments of upheaval.
The World Wars, the Cold War, the invention of the internet, these events all mold and shape our history. Even today I can trace the echoes of World War 2 and America’s ill-conceived conflict in Vietnam in the history of my own family. With Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests, history has reached another inflection point. We must not stumble in taking this opportunity to shape a more just society.
We have an opportunity to transcend our base nature, to reach out a hand of compassion and shed the anachronistic tribalism which has burdened our culture and turned us against each other. We can seize this moment and prove that we have the emotional maturity to reject the traditions which no longer serve a purpose. In their place, we can craft new traditions, of inclusion, and compassion, and mutual respect for all peoples. I sincerely hope that we take this opportunity and make history for the better.
Below I’ve included an image which has profoundly affected me. I encourage everyone to read through this list and imagine these as the last words of your loved ones, your brothers and sisters. This is the kind of compassion we need to understand and support the protestors and help them fight for a better future. We all deserve to live in a world freed from the isolation of tribalism, to reach towards each other with love and understanding.