Tag Archives: Racism

An Equal and Opposite Reaction

21733868_10214068171760956_1726168460_oOne of the fundamental maxims of physics is that “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” For everything that is said or done something of equal vigour must be in order. By this logic then, for every fascist, far-right, or white supremacist threat to American society and we the American people there must also be an equal reaction by the far-left, by the Anti-Fascists as they have deemed themselves. Yet what good does the threat of violent action do? What is the point of bringing one’s guns to an anti-fascist protest? What is the point of eradicating the memory of all who have had some dirt upon their hands, who committed evils in their lives?

This moment, at the closing years of the second decade of the twenty-first century, is a moment of immense change, of tribulation not unfamiliar to our predecessors from a century prior. We are living through the waning hours of a period of unprecedented social change and extraordinary wealth for many in our society. We have witnessed a plethora of forces at work in their efforts to bend our society to their aims. Some have sought to bend the law in order to further their own wealth and prosperity to the detriment of others. Still more have fought against those egotists in the defence of the common good and the wellbeing of all.

Now, as we look ahead towards the last months of 2017 and the new year 2018 we are beginning to recognise as a society how uncertain our future is. We are realising that our children will probably not be better off than ourselves, that our generation as well will probably fall in economic standing in a way unseen in the past century. It is natural to react to this with fear, to curse the political, economic, and social systems that led us to this moment. But in our present culture we celebrate fear, overreaction, and anger far too much. We have accepted extreme behaviour on television as normal, and in so doing have accepted that same extremism into our own lives.

We have reached a moment in our history when both the right and left are afraid; afraid of losing what they have; afraid of each other. We have reached a moment when the politics of fear have duped millions into electing a man entirely unfit for the duties to which he is oath-bound to serve. We have reached a moment when lies are far louder than truths and accepted as real by sections of society.

We have reached a point where at long last the old Confederate sympathies are being brought into the light of day as racist echoes of a failed rebellion from 150 years ago. Yet the zeal of the most outspoken on the far-left has created its equal reaction to the zeal of the far-right. Both now have sizeable factions at their rallies who are armed, ready to fight.

Extremism in any form is unnatural and unhealthy. Yet in the current moment in American history it is the extremes of our society that are the most vocal. I cannot deny that our political system is flawed, it absolutely is. I cannot also deny that American capitalism favours the rich, that is how the playbook has been written. I would be an idiot to ignore that our society is rigged against anyone who is not male and of European descent, there is a racial hierarchy in this country that has existed since the colonial era. But I would be blind to also deny that we can change things for the better. We can fix our corrupted political system, we can rewrite the codes that govern our capitalism, we can stand up everyday for the rights of all in this country and day by day continue to chip away at those old biases. But we cannot do these things while we are taken hostage by the far-right and far-left of our society. We cannot fully achieve the great work of our society while our society is a hostage to the militant few willing to kill their fellow Americans in defence of their extreme convictions.

We must continue to march, to protest, to organise, and to vote. We must carry on the good work that our predecessors undertook in generations past. We can make this country a better place for our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren to live in. But we must walk the middle road of moderation to do so.

We must understand the full consequences of our actions, we must learn from our history so that we do not make the same mistakes again. There are many who are opposed to the removal of the Confederate monuments because that is “erasing our history.” I disagree. By removing those monuments to a rebellious movement in our history, we are forcing the book closed on that chapter that has yet to settle. After all, we still see the way in which Americans continue to threaten one another with violence at the slightest hint of progressive reform. To make our society better for the next generations we must rid ourselves of this disease of extremism. We must show those who want violence that through peaceful debate we can achieve far greater things.

“For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” When the far-left responds to the far-right’s threats of violence with equal threats the far-left only continues that same cycle of violence. Consider that maxim again: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Threats of violence may well be equal on both sides, but the threat of violence on the left is not opposite to the threat of violence to the right. It is not the positive to the right’s negative. Only peaceful protest, nonviolent refusal to play by their rules of violence can achieve that. Through peace and nonviolence we find our equal and opposite reaction. Let’s try it for once. You never know, it might just work.

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Quantity over Quality

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When we hear many politicians try to add weight to their arguments, they often will add references to their own lives, “I served in the Army for 20 years,” or “Having been a lawyer for 35 years.” In this way, they seek to promote their argument through the weight of what they possess. One of the most common that was used by Congressional Republicans in order to prove they are not misogynists like Trump was to bring their “wives and daughters” into their argument. This is a technique that I like to call rhetorical quantifying, a way of attempting to prop up a fairly weak, or entirely unoriginal argument by showing how one’s relates to the topic, whether it be through family, friends, acquaintances, or personal possessions.

 I’ll be completely honest; this tactic really annoys me. A valid argument will always be able to stand on its own without the help of some extra quantitative fluff. It doesn’t matter that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is married to a woman, nor that he has a daughter, what matters is that his argument is valid. Yet what makes this tactic go by with so little press is that the general public has largely accepted it. People in all situations will attempt to bolster their position in a discussion, argument, or even a fight by trying to show how much better they are than someone else.

 On Saturday, at the height of the chaos unleashed by White Supremacists on Charlottesville, Virginia, a 20 year old from Ohio named James Fields drove his car into a crowd of counter-protestors killing one and injuring nineteen others. Upon hearing the news from reporters, his mother in the spur of the moment used this same technique pointing out that her son “had an African American friend.” While she was certainly in the early stages of processing all that her son had done, and the fact that he will quite possibly spend the rest of his life in prison, the way in which she attempted to counter his white supremacist actions by bringing his African American friend into the conversation shows the weakness of this argument. It does not matter that he was friends with someone who is not of European descent, what matters are his intentions and actions.

 Rhetorical quantifying rests heavily upon two particular issues, firstly the use of non-consequential evidence within an argument, that is mentioning one’s connection to a certain group of people or things in an attempt to bolster one’s argument and secondly the inherent possessiveness of quantifying. In regards to the argument itself, both issues are inevitably overshadowed by the fundamental reality that quantifying distracts from the main argument. A listener who should be paying close attention to a politician’s weak denial of misogyny is instead distracted by the sudden appearance of all of the female members of that politicians’ nuclear family.

 Rhetorical quantifying is just one of many tools a speaker can use to distract an audience away from a main point that might be rather unseemly. Though not as irritating as pivoting, an art form exhibited beautifully by Senator Al Franken on The Late Show on 1 August, rhetorical quantifying is a tried and true way to avoid answering the question and attempt to cover one’s tracks. Undoubtedly there will be those in Congress and in many state houses across the country that will use rhetorical quantifying to distance themselves from any of the white nationalist groups that partook in the rally this weekend in Charlottesville. Yet while they may gather together all of their connections to both religious and ethnic minority communities, these individuals will still be wolves in sheepskins.

 Rhetorical quantifying is a deceptive tool used to distract. Yet it is a deception that has become so commonplace we hardly notice it. We should consider our arguments carefully and consider whether what we say contributes or distracts from what we are arguing. In my book, rhetorical quantifying is a quasi-boastful tactic to be avoided at all costs.

Reflection on a Year Overseas

London – Eleven months and eleven days ago I moved from Kansas City, Missouri, USA to London, England. Eleven months and eleven days ago I left home and went on a great adventure that has forever changed the way I see myself, and the world. In the past I have said that one of the best ways to begin to know oneself is to understand the places from whence one comes. And, while time away has given me a greater appreciation for all the trappings and comfort of home, it has also given me the chance to explore some of the places from whence my own ancestors came: particularly in Ireland, in England, and in Finland.

As a historian, but perhaps more importantly as an American, this was a rare opportunity that very few of my fellow countrymen could ever hope to achieve. On the last Friday of May 2016, I quite possibly became the first descendant of my third great-grandparents, Juho Heikki and Anna Sophia Kuivaniemi, to return to their hometown of Rauma, Finland since 1879. On the other hand, I followed in the footsteps of my grandparents and was able to walk the roads and visit the town of Newport, County Mayo where my grandfather’s parents were born, and visit the nearby cemetery at Burrishoole Friary where the ancestors of so many of my relatives are buried. So many names from America are carved into those tombstones, yet here on the shores of Clew Bay they are in their original setting.

Yet perhaps most importantly over the past year I have had my beliefs, my understandings, my very philosophy of life and nature challenged time and again by friends and colleagues alike. I am eternally grateful to them all for those discussions, for those opportunities to think anew, opportunities which one day will lead me to act anew. Those beliefs, those views of mine which held water remain, while others have been left by the wayside, abandoned after much debate and discussion. I hope I am all the wiser for the people that I have met, and the great friendships that have been forged. We come from such different corners of the world, with different backgrounds, different views, different languages, yet respect abounds amongst us far more than contempt.

Next week I will at long last be returning home, to Kansas City, Missouri, in the heartland of the United States. I will return to the heat and humidity, and the allergies. Yet I will also be returning to my family, to many friends old and young. I am excited to be coming home once again, and looking forward to being surrounded by all those familiar things, sights, sounds, and smells. I did not realise it until I had been away, that even the softest sensory detail can be missed. Whether it be the sound of the wind whirling through the branches of the trees, or the familiar voices on NPR’s All Things Considered set to the backdrop of Kansas City at sunset, its streets filled with cars heading to and fro. In London I found that on winter nights, when the sky was clear and the street lamps glowed in a distinctly mechanical way, I missed hearing the familiar voice of Kai Ryssdal on Marketplace coming over the radio as I’d often hear at a similar time of night back home.

Yet I return to a country on edge, a country that has seen so much anguish, so much anger, and so much fear over the last year. The signs have been about for a while now. Since President Obama was elected in 2008 nearly every racist, closeted or not, has come out of the woodwork and ensured that the rest of us would have to hear their nonsensical cacophony rattling on. We could ignore racism as the rantings of the mad if it were not for the reality that words plant seeds, seeds sprout actions. Once again, around the world bigotry seems to be in fashion like it was in the 1920s and 1930s. There is always someone available for people to hate or fear. As Woody Allen put it in a recent interview with Catherine Shoard of The Guardian,

It’s in the nature of people to have someone to scapegoat. If there were no Jews in the world they would take it out on blacks. If no blacks, they’d move over to Catholics. No Catholics? Something else. Finally, if everyone is exactly the same, the left-handed people would start killing the right-handed people. You just need an other [on whom] to vent your hostility and frustration.

I know that bigotry has been around for a long time, and probably will still be around long after I’m dead, but I honestly did not really experience it until when I was at least around thirteen or fourteen. I remember some of the boys at school using the word Jew as an insult, which didn’t make sense to me, as I had always gotten along well with my Jewish friends and neighbours. I also never really had anything against African Americans, but after years of hearing from my classmates and friends that “Troost was dangerous,” I was less willing to go to the African American neighbourhoods east of Troost Avenue in Kansas City, MO. Subconsciously or not, I was accepting a racist ideology that I consciously abhorred.

Perhaps the best example of my reaction to bigotry comes from a strange experience that I had when I was fourteen, where an individual who I was working with at the time told me to my face, “I don’t like Catholics” knowing very well that I was a Catholic. I was shocked by this, not necessarily because he was saying that he didn’t like me because of my religion, but more so because his dislike for Catholics simply didn’t make any sense. Over the years as I have been exposed to a variety of opinions and ideas, and I have found myself adopting some similar views, whether it be a dislike for one particular nationality, or religion, or political philosophy, or a preference for a particular country over another. Yet each of these blanket opinions have been swiftly overturned as soon as I have met someone who fits into one of those categories.

How can I say that I hate someone or fear someone simply based upon their nationality, religion, politics, or even based upon the colour of their skin? It makes no sense. Bigotry of all kinds makes absolutely no sense!

I am proud of who I am. I am proud to be Seán Thomas Kane, or Seán mac Tómas Ó Catháin as it is in Irish. I am proud to have been born in Chicagoland, and to have lived most of my life in Kansas City. I am proud to be my parents’ son, and my grandparents’ grandchild, a nephew of my aunts and uncles, a cousin of my cousins, godson of my godparents, and a friend to all my friends. I am proud to be of Irish, English, Welsh, Finnish, Swedish, and Flemish descent. I am proud to be an American citizen. I am proud to have been a resident of the City of London for the past eleven months and eleven days. I am proud to be a historian, a writer, a filmmaker, an occasional musician and sketch artist. I am proud to be a Catholic.

But beyond all of these categories and more within which I fit, I am most proud, and most humbled to be human. We are all unique, we are all different, yes, as the crowd shouted up to Brian, “We are all individuals!” But most important of all is that we are all human. If we consider less what separates us and more what we have in common then surely we will be nicer to each other, and have better lives. If those in my country screaming against immigrants, African Americans, Muslims, Latinos, and all others considered what they have in common with the rest of us then surely they would think twice about their words and actions.

I am not proposing any sort of edifiable change, any sort of reform for our prisons, our city planning, our law codes, or our schools, all that will come next. What I am proposing is the essential necessity for any reform to happen. We must have a change of heart. We are all human.