Voter Security or Suppression? A Closer Look at the New Laws in Georgia and Elsewhere

There is much consternation about the recent voter laws passed in Georgia and being evaluated in other states. Why are people so upset about a simple ID law? Doesn’t it make sense to verify that the person in the booth is authorized to cast the vote? And how is requiring identification racist?

In order to understand the discontent around voting laws, like many acts of policy or protest in America, the policy must be placed in the appropriate context. Before we get into that history, we must first define election fraud. The term as currently being discussed typically refers to people illegally voting multiple times or voting when they are ineligible, something we should more accurately refer to as “voter fraud”. This is contrasted with after-ballot tampering, miscounting, or tactics that prevent people from being able to vote in the first place, which is all conducted by agents of the state and reflected in most of our voting history in America. When we dispute the charges of election fraud currently being leveled by the Republicans who are pushing nationwide for stricter voting laws, we are specifically disputing the question of whether voters are acting illegally and not the states that count the votes. 

The story for Black voting in the United States starts at the end of the Civil War with the 14th and 15th Amendments. Having abolished slavery except for prisoners with the 13th, the United States Congress went on to ratify the 14th Amendment, which gave Black people citizenship, and the 15th Amendment, which made preventing voting based on race, color, or former slave status illegal. (It was still illegal for women to vote.) In the South, Black people made up nearly half the population in several states, and so a number of states sent Black legislators to the state houses and to DC.

In Georgia, 33 Black legislators were duly elected in 1868. They were subsequently expelled by white supremacists, with some of them being attacked or killed. The newly formed KKK backed the move with a terror campaign where a number of Black Georgians were killed. This subversion of the legal electoral process led to Georgia being kicked back out of the Union, and it was not readmitted for nearly two years. The Confederate remnant in the Democratic Party managed to re-secure control and engaged in an orchestrated terror campaign similar to what happened in other states in the South to eventually disenfranchise Black voters by the 1890s. The politically dominant Democratic Party even went so far as to have White-only primaries. 

Jim Crow kept most Black people out of the voting booth until the 1960s. Poll taxes were in place from 1877 to 1945. All-white primaries were banned in 1946. However, literacy tests and “tests of personal character” were also common, with the passing determined by the voting registrar in the county, nearly guaranteed to be white. Regardless of federal and state laws, local registrars did what they wished, and the state would generally look upon malfeasance with a wink and a nod. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was crafted to target the aggressive voter suppression in the Deep South and affected specific states, and finally allowed Black people to safely vote, at least in urban areas where terror or intimidation tactics could not be as easily applied. 

Thanks in part to the Voting Rights Act, the ideological home of Southern conservatism switched over the next 30 years from the Democratic to the Republican Party. In 2005, after Republicans took control of the legislature and the governor’s seat from Democrats, they passed a law reducing the number of valid forms of ID one could vote with and making provisions for no-excuse absentee ballots, with the knowledge that the absentee ballots would skew rural, white, and Republican. Democrats at the time made some of the same arguments Republicans are making now, indicating fear of fraud, though not alleging that fraud had occurred. Republicans continued to win statewide elections for the next 15 years, and there were no suggestions to change the law. While there did not appear to be malfeasance in the counting of the absentee ballots, catering to the demographic they hoped to obtain seemed to work. Along the way, Georgia also chose electronic systems that came under fire for glitches and possible tampering that favored Republicans.

Stacey Abrams, through her efforts with the organization she founded, the New Georgia Project, registered nearly a million voters over 6 years — 200,000 before the 2018 governor’s race, and 800,000 more after. Those voters were disproportionately historically disenfranchised and disengaged Black voters. Despite this, in 2018 she lost the governor’s race to Brian Kemp, who in his capacity as secretary of state presided over the election as well as being a candidate. The election itself was plagued by allegations of miscounts and problems with the equipment. In the end, the voter registration efforts paid off for Democrats as newly engaged voters who skewed Democrat voted in the election, giving Georgia 2 new senators and giving the Democratic presidential candidate the state’s electoral votes. 

In the wake of the closely contested 2020 election and runoffs, Republicans asserted foul play and again moved to change the laws. The same absentee ballots that were valid 15 years prior were now allegedly sources of substantial fraud. Despite lack of substantial proof, anecdotal allegations and unfounded claims won much of the day in the public discourse. A Republican-dominated state legislature adjusted the voting laws and made several changes. The most notable changes were:

-The state can now intervene and take over county election boards

-The secretary of state can no longer preside over the state electoral board, replaced instead with a person chosen by the legislature

These changes determine who gets to count votes in the large urban counties in Atlanta where there is a significant enough Black population to sway the statewide result. They also ensure that even if a secretary of state is elected from a different party than the legislature, they will not have sufficient influence to determine how the state sets election policies and rules within the laws drawn. A number of other provisions were put in place, including the infamous food and water provision, requiring copies of ID, and restricting absentee ballot drop-off to poll hours.

Restrictions like limiting drop-off to poll hours are intended to make it harder to vote. Georgia gained notoriety as well for uneven distribution of polling equipment, producing hours-long lines in many predominantly Black districts while other districts breezed voters through. The laws are specifically designed to create more hurdles to voting under the guise of solving a problem with voter fraud that has repeatedly been proven not to exist. (The Heritage Foundation alleges over 1300 instances of voter fraud but they appear to be looking at over 2 decades of data nationwide and do not seem to distinguish between malicious intent and people who made honest mistakes.) But why?

Just as the Voting Rights Act was able to target the South without saying “the South” by looking at the percentage of registered voters due to successful suppression during Jim Crow, these new measures are targeting Black voters without saying “Black voters”. There are a number of ways to validate that a person is authorized to cast a vote. We could make state IDs free, and in this digital age, even make them easy to get via manned mobile stations. We could allow voting on Sunday (the new Georgia law makes that optional for counties to disallow, targeting Black churches’ “Souls to the Polls” efforts). We could mandate that any county polling place with the equipment make complimentary photocopies of ID. None of that is being done. 

The economic damage of centuries of enslavement followed by nearly a century of racial terror and disenfranchisement means we see Black people disproportionately represented in jobs that make less money and have less flexibility. Our “essential workers” may not be able to get out of their jobs during election hours. Federal law mandates 2 hours of time off (not necessarily paid) to vote, but in an at will state where you can be fired for any non-protected reason, do you take the chance? Even if you get the time, if you are reliant on public transit, it may be too inconvenient to get to your polling place.

Yes, these hurdles are surmountable. Yes, a sufficiently motivated person can still vote in person, albeit with an hours-long wait time in some areas. However, we should ask ourselves why we are putting up hurdles in the first place if they have been proven to not protect us from anything. When we again lay the list of actions and expected outcomes against a nation that has a long history of racialized policy decisions, the results become problematic, and we’re faced with the choice to either mitigate the racialization or avoid it in the first place by choosing policies that are just and maximize access without compromising security.

Our nation deserves secure elections. And we deserve sufficient access to the tools required to secure them, and sufficient resources to run elections in such a way as to avoid hours-long waits to exercise the fundamental right of a democracy. 

——————————

Additional Reading:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Original_33

https://www.todayingeorgiahistory.org/content/poll-tax-abolished

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/gallery/2020/nov/01/georgia-voter-suppression-in-pictures

https://www.brennancenter.org/issues/ensure-every-american-can-vote/vote-suppression/myth-voter-fraud

https://www.heritage.org/voterfraud

The Epiphany The Lie, and The Feces

Image from Twitter user @walterdellinger

I keep thinking about the feces.

Last week, angry Trumpists stormed the United States Capitol building. The police were overwhelmed and were not given additional support. (It’s beyond the scope of this post to speculate about their heroism, complicity, or the reasons for the lack of support.) Once inside, the insurgents posed with statues, stole artifacts, and smeared feces on the walls of our chief legislative federal institution.

The smearing and throwing of feces is a symbol of defilement and disrespect that probably pre-dates humanity, as any scientist who studies ape social behavior can tell you. I cannot think of a more disrespectful thing to do that doesn’t involve violation of a body or destruction. But the feces was merely a footnote in this story.

I think of a man with a lucrative and promising career who lost it all for having the unmitigated gall to kneel before our flag instead of standing for it, as a protest against police brutality that still showed respect for soliders, as he was asked to by his military friend. I think of the off-duty police in the mob who showed their badges to the Capitol Police, saying “We’re doing this for you,” as they pushed past them to get their mayhem and defilement campaign going. I think of the bombings of 1921 and 1985, in Tulsa and Philadelphia, where domestic perceived threats in Black skin were bombed away. I am not aware of other domestic bombing initiated by government entities, though I am aware of ones initiated by domestic terrorists and insurgents.

All I can see is The Lie, naked and brazen, shameless and flamboyant.

When a Black person is harmed or is killed by a police officer or a self-appointed deputy, we are told that they should have behaved in an orderly and compliant way and they wouldn’t have gotten hurt. And it’s important to talk about harm, whether that’s actual physical injury or psychological terror. We center our language around those who have been killed and have no language to talk about the persistent humiliation and fear cultivated in boys and girls growing up in overpoliced and underresourced neighborhoods. We are tracking the spending of our dollars but not our cents, and the bills add up.

Before anything, Black Lives Matter is first a call for empathy. “Can’t you see that my life also has meaning? Can’t you see that I’m a full human, too? Can’t you see that your callous treatment of my life and well-being is hurtful?” We are somehow, as a society, always able to find this empathy for a rural white farmer or factory worker. We can even find this empathy for the disaffected Trumpists who masquerade as salt of the earth but are actually petit bourgeoisie with second homes and sport boats or pickup trucks. We ponder how we can help them be less sad about the election as they take leisure time from their small businesses, steady union jobs, or comfortable white collar jobs to storm the United States Capitol with weapons and hostage-taking materials. We’re even able to find this empathy for rioters who tear up their cities after sports victories, surely a matter of the least significance to the state of the nation.

Yet, here we are again, facing The Lie and the shards it produces as its fragile frame disintegrates all over the floor. 

We pretend that there is a logic to this. We pretend that the rules are evenly applied and that what we care about is compliance and order. We pretend that there is equal justice in this country despite reams of data to the contrary. We pretend that any differences in outcomes have nothing to do with compound interest dividends on injustice and everything to do with cultural or individual failings. And then, when Black bodies get unruly, we meet them with overwhelming force, and if necessary, smear them across the pavement.

White men are killing themselves at higher rates than any other group in the country, and researchers can’t seem to figure out why. We talk about our increasingly impersonal society and the decline of religion as possible causes. They can’t figure out why Black people, with the stressors they have and the discrimination they face, don’t have higher numbers. While causes are complex, I posit that one major contribution to this disparity is that the people of African descent who were enslaved and made into “Black people” always have known The Lie was The Lie, so while we have fought generation after generation for a better truth, we haven’t placed our hope in the lie that things were fine and that no significant introspection or reconstruction needed to be done. Because of the numbing and confusing influence of The Lie, the people of European descent that were made into “white people” have been left in the wake of The Lie’s demise with a truth that they cannot face.

This January 6, this Epiphany, there was no hiding from the awful, horrid truth. Blue Lives Matter, until they get in the way of white supremacy. All voices are welcome, until they get in the way of white supremacy. Compliance, law, and order matter, until they get in the way of white supremacy. Our institutions of power matter and should not be tampered with, until they get in the way of white supremacy.

The American flag matters, until it gets in the way of white supremacy. 

The only animating force or principle to this movement is the preservation of white dominance through the tools of white supremacy. This is why Pence can be a hero one day and Public Enemy Number One the next for choosing his Constitutional authority over the whims of the mob. This is why even their icon, Trump, can be seen as a betrayer for choosing to comply with the demands of the legislators and administrators that keep a check on his power. The political cults that have risen move the goalposts freely and change the rules at will, because whatever they say they care about is a lie. Dominance and control are their only desires. The spirit of the evil age when the truth was able to move freely and without shame fights to live, and it carries on in our unexamined hearts and in our unreformed institutions.

The truth remains silent, but it persists, smeared across the halls of justice of our country, smeared on our neighbors’ homes, in our banks, on our streets. The truth is smeared across our pulpits and pews, obscuring passages in our holy texts, sticking the pages together so that context becomes impossible to glean. The truth defiles the values we say we hold dear and ruins the complex interwoven fabric of the tapestry that is our nation at its best. 

The truth stinks.

An Apology To Those Navigating The Straits

Image by Anja🤗#helpinghands #solidarity#stays healthy🙏 from Pixabay 

“Do you want to vote for the person that killed your mom, or do you want to vote for the person that beat your dad within an inch of his life?

Go on, choose. If you’re having trouble deciding, then you have a problem.”

Mathematically, I’m a binary choice voter. Essentially, all votes that will produce electors this election will fall into one of two buckets. Setting aside the unnecessary complexity of the electors for a moment, the bucket that has more votes in it will win. “More votes” is based on a difference in votes between the buckets. Removing a vote from one bucket increases the difference, even if I cast the vote on the ground rather than placing it in the other bucket, or place it into a third bucket.

I very much want the incumbent President to be unseated, so I’ve been lobbying pretty hard for a Presidential candidate I’m not particularly enthusiastic about and a Vice-Presidential candidate that I don’t know much about other than the historic nature of her appointment. However, I read a tweet thread from Kaitlyn Greenidge (@surlybassey on Twitter) that changed my mind about how I’ve been approaching discussions on this.
In the thread, rather than rolling her eyes at the browbeating binary choice voters out there or listing Biden and Harris’s foibles, she asks some questions.

“Am I listening to what the other person is saying?”

“Am I really sitting with the inequities / contradictions / sadness / grief / rage / impatience that they are expressing?”

“Am I able to recognize that the offices of the president and vice president of the US have perpetuated real violence in this country and abroad, that is even more hurtful and insidious because we never discuss it as a nation?”

“Am I willing to devote the same level of scrutiny I did to Mueller’s every breath and Trump’s every spelling mistake to the policies coming out of the next admin around policing, education, debt relief, drug policy and mass incarceration?”

Her questions shook me in a way a hundred “crimes” and failures of candidates could not. I realized that my response is mathematically accurate but completely lacking in empathy. I’m asking people to choose a new roommate, with the choices being the person that killed their mother and the one that maimed their father. Worse, I’m annoyed with them for agonizing over the choice and taking so long to make it.

To my progressive friends, to my trans friends, my Native friends, to others who have seen the system fail, willfully neglect, or actively harm them, and who have reached a point where they can no longer hold their noses, I apologize. In my zeal to end the specificity of the nightmare of the current regime, I have not sat with the contradictions, sadness, grief, rage, or impatience you have expressed. As a cis-, straight, tall, able-bodied, probably neurotypical, middle-class Black man who is a US citizen, I have my Blackness to deal with in our nation, which is not a small thing. But most of the other axes of power and privilege broke my way. I have not sat with your pain and with my contradictions because I have not been substantially or obviously harmed by their policies. This is the exact thing that we challenge white people to get right in matters of race — to start with empathy rather than cold reason, to weep with those who weep rather than tell them to dry their eyes because things are not so bad. I missed the mark.

I continue to believe that actively voting for Biden/Harris will create a larger platform from which to move progressive values forward, even if neither of them prove to be particularly progressively inclined. Women wiser and more progressive than me share this belief, such as Angela Davis, without defending the problematic choices these candidates have made in the past. We are fighting a game of inches, and the inches matter. As my friend Christina Springer says, rather than focusing on the highest levels, we should “look down, lift up”. We have local and state level candidates who express an inclination toward the radically humane and progressive values many of us are seeking. We can focus on those candidates, who will have more impact on our daily lives anyway, while at the same time working with the pieces available to create a better platform.

But if you just can’t do it anymore, I understand. I just ask that you don’t descend into apathetic despair or nihilistic attacks on the whole process. Find someone and something local to believe in and work on. If it’s not a political campaign, it can be a community organization, or a local school. The world is broken and corrupted in many ways, but at the one on one level, or the 100 person level, or 1000 person level, there is much good that can still be done. If we are all working on something we can genuinely feel good about, things will get better, even if the candidates at the highest levels are problematic on all sides.

It’s still stinky water vs. sulfuric acid to me. But for someone else, maybe all the choices burn and destroy, and I need to respect that truth.

An American Conversation on Guns and Violence

Ed. Note: All quotes are from actual shooter manifestos. I did not paraphrase or make up anything said by “Shooters”.

Republicans and Moderates: I don’t know what we’re going to do about these shootings. It’s a shame about these boys’ mental health.

Democrats: But you won’t pay for their health care and your Saint Reagan closed the mental hospitals and. . .

Moderates: *holds finger up* Ah-ah-ah. Remember we weren’t supposed to talk politics today. Too divisive. Both sides are to blame for where we are.

Shooters: “This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas. They are the instigators, not me. I am simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.” (1)

Republicans and Moderates: I just feel sorry for these troubled, obviously mentally ill boys.

Shooters: “I am just a regular White man, from a regular family. Who decided to take a stand to ensure a future for my people.” (2)

Republicans: If we prayed more as a people, this wouldn’t happen.

Shooters: “There has been little done when it comes to defending the European race. As an individual I can only kill so many Jews. . . Although the Jew who is inspired by demons and Satan will attempt to corrupt your soul with the sin and perversion he spews – remember that you are secure in Christ.” (3)

Republicans: Well, I mean, the things he’s saying are clearly not right, but he is talking about Christ, so. Shame about that boy’s mental health.

Republicans & Moderates: But it’s not really about the guns when you think about it, is it? Why do they do this?

Shooters: “To create conflict between the two ideologies within the United States on the ownership of firearms in order to further the social, cultural, political and racial divide within the United states.This conflict over the 2nd amendment and the attempted removal of firearms rights will ultimately result in a civil war that will eventually balkanize the US along political, cultural and, most importantly, racial lines.” (2)

Republicans: There’s nothing to be done I suppose. Guns are essential to our life and identity, and besides, who will protect us from the government without our guns?

Democrats: But you ARE the government! All we’re saying is a little more gun con-

Moderates: Stop playing politics. Both sides are the government, and both sides are to blame for this.

Republicans: You’re being too fair, Moderates. The black identity extremists calling everyone racist, and these women who can’t take a compliment and turn everything into a MeToo lawsuit are the problem. We need to go back to a better time when people weren’t so politically correct. That’s what’s creating this climate of violence.

Shooters: “My orchestration of the Day of Retribution is my attempt to do everything, in my power, to destroy everything I cannot have. All of those beautiful girls I’ve desired so much in my life, but can never have because they despise and loathe me, I will destroy.” (4)

Moderates: I guess we’ll never really know. And I guess things won’t get better until we stop playing politics, stop talking about things that divide us, and move forward.

Republicans: Yes, we have to stop playing politics, give every real American a gun, and back the blue. God bless our troops, our police, and our guns. God bless the real America.

Democrats: *presses face into hands and weeps*

____________________________________

1 – El Paso shooter’s manifesto, 2019

2 – Christchurch shooter’s manifesto, 2019

3 – San Diego Synagogue shooter’s manifesto, 2019

4 – Isla Vista shooter’s manifesto (the “incel”), 2014

Who Gets The Surplus?

Who gets the surplus?

We use raw materials and labor to create additional value out of thin air. The materials are paid for. The labor is compensated. The goods are sold at a profit. A surplus is created.

Let’s assume a typical situation with a person with resources purchasing the raw materials and fronting the labor cost. The person with the resources took a risk and presumably should get something. The person who contributed the labor created the value. Should they get anything beyond compensation for their time?

Let’s say that 50 units of raw materials and 50 units of labor (fully loaded) went into creation of a widget, for 100 total. The widget is sold for 200 units. What should happen?

Capitalism as implemented says that the 100 should go entirely to the provider of capital. Labor has already been paid at a market rate (regardless of whether that constitutes a living wage) and is not owed anything else.

Cooperative socialism says that the inputs and surpluses should be shared by the collective of laborers without regard to what the government dictates. Cooperatives can collectively function as capitalists of a sort in a larger capitalist society. Unions are a prototype of this form.

Democratic socialism says the surplus should go to the society at large, with the people of the society deciding where it will be spent, be that social programs, defense, or whatever. Elements of this already exist in how America has historically been run.

Authoritarian socialism (what most people think of when they hear the term) says the state will take direct ownership of the means of production and apply the surpluses as it sees fit per the direction of unelected leadership.

This question of who should get the surplus is at the heart of our economic debate. If you look at our history and our present, we have no problem redistributing the surplus if we think the recipients are “worthy”. Currently, farmers, the military, and the rich are what our country has decided must be subsidized and funded at any cost.

We could make different choices. We could say that medical providers, teachers, and environmentally sound businesses are worthy. We could say a shorter workweek and more workers at the same price is a more worthwhile goal than reaching theoretical maximum profit. But we don’t, for various reasons.

My fellow small business owners will pipe up and say how they can’t afford to pay more or hire more. That might be true in our current context. But we have to look at the quality of our inputs as well. How much does productivity suffer from the anxiety of living in our current construct? And how much more could you get out of people that would be meaningfully impacted by improved corporate financial results?

I’ve frequently been rebutted with stories of how people got out of difficult situations with hard work. That’s great, and I genuinely applaud you. But if you know better than most how hard it was to claw your way out of poverty, why would you think that crucible is the best way to produce winners? Why is superlativity a requirement just to survive?

Inequality is not inherently problematic. But rising inequality where people working 60+ hours are still poor while others are basically living beyond the event horizon of a cash singularity will not stand indefinitely. History is clear that desperation leads to revolution. We will need to consider changes that will reduce the suffering and desperation in our society if we want something that resembles what we know to continue. And yes, those changes will have to mean benefits for non-white people too, unlike most of the historical benefits and subsidies that created mass affluence in America as practically implemented.

s/o to Professor Richard Wolff for helping clarify my thinking about surpluses.

On Bernie Sanders’ Candidacy – An “Un-Endorsement”

I have not done a point-by-point breakdown of where I stand politically relative to the average American Democratic Socialist. I’m pretty open to a lot of their ideas. I am in favor of the Democratic Socialists’ voices being part of the conversation, and them having a place at the table in the Democratic Party.  I voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary precisely for that reason, though I was fine with voting for Clinton in the general.
But I’m honestly not in favor of Sanders’ candidacy at this time. I know my Sanders-supporting friends will be annoyed, but I have questions for you.
  • Why does he have to be President for you to get what you want changed in this country?
  • How much more powerful could Sanders be as sitting senior senator operating as head of a Socialist party with national reach, or as the head of a movement within the existing Democrats rather than as a drop-in/drop-out candidate that uses the Democrats to advance his brand?
  • What have you done with your local democratic socialist organization to advance your agenda at a city or state level?

There’s a lot more I could say, but after two years serving as a post holder in the Democratic Party, alongside centrists, progressives, and proud democratic socialists, I have significant respect for the workers. Not “the workers of the world unite!” workers (though I’m good with them), but the people who quietly work for the principles they believe in, building constituencies, knocking on doors one at a time, arguing passionately about what direction we want to go at a city, county, and state level.

I think about the black women from South DeKalb who ran our party in the years when no one bothered to show up to meetings (including me). The firebrands who backed their talk with action and ran for office or party leadership or supported those that did. The regular people who had just had enough and committed to knock 20, or 50, or 100 doors, just to make a difference.

Bernie’s Democratic affiliation of convenience spits on that progressive legacy, spits on that work. And it pushes forth the myth that Trump ran on: “I alone can fix it.”

As much as I wish there were, there are no heroes. No one will snap their fingers, or give the perfect speech, or wrestle Congress to the ground bare-chested to get through a dictatorship of the proletariat or a golden age of unity and social equity. What I’ve come to realize, even as I have trouble living it out, is something that my socialist friends should understand better than anyone:

Our heroism and our extraordinary capability lie in our collective effort.

So stop waiting on Bernie Sanders or some other media darling to pick up your rose and flag of solidarity. Get out there and fight for equity where you live. And for your President in 2020, vote for a person who has been a Democrat continuously, one who will advance environmentally responsible and socially equitable policies, one who will move the needle in the direction you want to go. And then do what Sanders did before becoming a Senator; set the example in your city for what your movement can become when done right.

Anecdotes from The American Healthcare Front

teacher-kidney.jpg
Teacher at exit ramp looking for a kidney donation

I have some issues with my ears periodically, and over the past week, it felt like one was developing a minor infection. It felt full a lot and started to become painful. I knew that I was going to need to give it some medical attention. I thought about going to my primary care team at Emory, formerly Harken Health. In the Harken days, primary care appointments were included in your insurance and you could schedule to go by any time. They also managed patient load so providers would have time to develop relationships, and they partnered with health coaches that could deal with the para-medical stuff so the medical pros could focus on things requiring their specific skill set. Now that Harken’s gone, Emory still has great staff, but works like a regular doctor’s office – scheduling visits always takes a few days, visits are shorter, and the health coaches, where they exist, are swamped and can’t give the individual attention my Harken coach gave.

The ER was out of the question, that’s a minimum of $2K spend and a distraction from people who need truly urgent, serious care. (Don’t believe me? Stop by an ER and try it for yourself. A friend of mine had stress-related chest pain due to the amount he was working and how little pay he was receiving to cope with the other stressors in his life and got slapped with a $5K bill.)

Urgent care is probably the best option, but that was going to run me a bit as well. Not too much, maybe a hundred or so. But of course I already pay several hundred a month for insurance, so that’s frustrating that my insurance is really more “hit by a bus” insurance than health care.

I ended up repurposing some antibiotic ointment I had for a recent eye injury that unequivocally required a doctor’s visit (that I’m sure I’ll get a hearty bill for soon), and it worked. I’ll keep at it for a few days to make sure it’s good.

Now, I have the means to get decent health care, even if it’s not convenient and a little pricey. What are people who have no flexibility in their schedule doing? What do you do when taking a half-day off work means you may be eating ramen next week, or nothing, because you’ll be fired “at-will”? And what happens when you face a real challenge that’s out of your control, like the teacher above who needs a kidney to live? If he can find the kidney, he will probably have decent health care as a state employee, but what if he didn’t have great insurance? Who would pay for that?

Those who support interdependent community do ourselves a disservice by allowing Medicaid for all, or any of the other public options, to be portrayed as an altruistically valuable but optional program, a gift to the neediest among us. It’s not a matter of kindness and convenience, without which life would be a little less pleasant but still bearable. People are choosing between medical bills and house payments, between medical bills and food. And it doesn’t take a significant condition or a bad decision.

We in the middle class especially make the mistake of thinking that we are where we are because of good decisions. The rich are lucky, sure, accidents of birth, right place, right time, but not us. We scrimp and save. We plan. We forego instant gratification for the long term, and look at our lives as a result. If we can do it, anyone can.

The truth is, we make the same bad decisions as the poor all the time. We buy a car that’s a hundred a month more than we should be paying. We spring for that dessert, or that hotel upgrade, or that extra night out on the town. The only difference is that we are not on the line between sustainable and unsustainable, and have a bigger cushion to absorb those mistakes. If you are making just enough to live on, springing for dessert could make you miss a payment. Missing a payment causes you to hit fees that push up your effective interest rate into triple digits. And the spiral begins.

I listened to a couple on NPR a couple of years ago that ran a food truck in Wisconsin. They were struggling, as the spouse with a corporate job had lost it, and lost their benefits along with it. When asked how they would deal with the cost of health care as they aged, they shrugged (with indecision rather than indifference) and finally stated that their children would take care of it.

I don’t believe this couple was intentionally so selfish as to burden their children with such a responsibility. But the language of American self-sufficiency has backed us into a corner. We cannot conceive of a world where a public good is actually, well, good. However, we readily imagine that a giant corporation motivated by profit will take care of our needs as well as our consumer desires. We respond with a sort of Stockholm Syndrome, where anyone on the wrong side of a law that protects the right to profit without regard to human cost deserves nothing, deserves to be cast aside. We are the worthy ones, because we currently have what appears like favor, but instead is simply utility to a soulless, unfeeling set of economic machinery.

As usual, any critique of the current order by an American must be met with “but I’m not talking about socialism!” So let’s get that out of the way. Public goods controlled by elected or especially appointed authorities who are not accountable to the people is just authoritarianism. This is what we saw in every single country that we love to hold up as inevitable outcomes of socialism. So no, I’m not talking about turning America into a giant commune or turning everything over to the government, certainly not while we have an apathetic republic that won’t hold its elected officials accountable in any consistent way. I’m also not talking about eliminating inequality. Human nature is to be rewarded in a proportion to effort, and any system that doesn’t allow that will eventually be overthrown by one that does.

But why do we think that this relentless pursuit of profit is the best of all possible worlds? We generate money printing machines that consume the landscape and crush the spirits of the people, and aggregate more and more for the machine’s makers. More importantly, we have created a mythology around poverty that causes us to see it more as damnation from a god that has refused your feeble sacrifice, while wealth is a blessing and a reward from a god that respects your hard work. This mythology is why we have the IRS losing money to chase small debts while corporations that evade billions in taxes are ignored. It’s why we won’t pay for Medicaid for All and are trying to dismantle food programs, quality public education, and other portions of the safety net, even though evidence keeps coming back that these investments are cheaper than the alternative.

Where the Christians have it right is that this is a heart issue. America loved the social safety net when it primarily benefited white men in the New Deal era. When the program was expanded to benefit more Americans through the Great Society, subsequent administrations quickly set to work dismantling them. Beyond the cost savings many properly implemented programs could bring, we have to ask ourselves what intangible cost our individual lack of accountability to our community brings. Are we safer when everyone is on their own financially? Are we less stressed when everyone has to work long days in cold environments? Are we happier when our neighbor cannot be counted on to care for us if we’re in need? Are we freer when every gift we give has conditions?

Who is my neighbor? And what is my obligation to them?

Fifty

Fifty years.
Fifty years since one of the greatest theologians and social activists of the 20th Century was shot down.
 
Who is Rev. Dr. King to you?
 
To too many Americans, he is a messiah of cheap grace, who finished the work of racial reconciliation in his blood, because it was too hard for us. In this false good news story, we are now clean, blameless, and above reproach. For this group of us, challenging systems and behaviors that persist is insulting, unreasonable, and unfair.
 
To many more of us, he’s a Great Figure of History, like Frederick Douglass, George Washington, and so on. For this group of us work is important, formative, but vague and disconnected from our daily lives.
 
As I meditate on his life and death today, I think about how far we can progress in fifty years. When I went to my college Reunions parade for the first time in the 90s, the fiftieth anniversary alumni had their first black members. My class wasn’t at the proportion of the country as a whole, but there were hundreds of us. When my father registered people in the Alabama countryside to vote fifty years ago, the experience seemed more like one of the countries we cluck at today, with citizens afraid to vote because what might follow was state-sanctioned murder by the white members of the community. Today, it’s a short and easy trip to Memorial Drive to vote early, or across to a nearby church to vote on the day. I’m far more worried about being late for work or late for dinner as a result of voting than I am about making it back home.
 
Despite this, we still have problems. Racial animus wasn’t erased, it was buried. Individuals who actually got to experience life with people from other racial groups were better for it, as we found none of us neatly fit into the stereotypes and tropes created to keep things as they were, or created to protect the vulnerable. (As an aside, something you must understand is that while white stereotypes can be hurtful and unfair, they were created to protect vulnerable people of color in a system designed to keep them oppressed and to eliminate those who got out of line, while stereotypes about people of color were designed to dehumanize and justify the continuance of same system. So while we should let go of all stereotyping, the hand-wringing and false equivalence should be released as well.) But as black people moved in, white people moved out. Old laws that were explicitly, undeniably racist, were not removed from the books, but simply (usually) not enforced.

Grandparents and parents who grew up in a system designed to protect their benefits and raise their preferences at the expense of everyone else taught their children how unfair it was that these people now were getting such large slices of the pie. Looking at the slivers being cut for others, they’d say, “Why, there’s hardly any left for us! We used to have the whole pie, and now these people who didn’t even help bake it get to eat it up. What about us? We’ll starve!” All the while, their eyes remained averted from the kitchen where the pie was made.

We plow on as resolute and relentless individuals, completely unaffected by the portions of the past we find distasteful, and clinging to those portions of the past we think are critical. We have had no lament about where we have been, no place to process any sense of collective shame or guilt. We have had no reconciliation. Given this, is it any surprise that we have elected leaders at multiple levels of government who are individualistic, who have no sense of shame or guilt, who have no ability to weep with those who weep?We could speculate about what King would do or say if he were still here to guide, to be a conscience, but there are only a few people who have studied him enough to be qualified to do that. What I’m more interested in is what I’m going to do and what you’re going to do.

If you are white, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I in multiple actual relationships with non-white people where we talk about real issues and feelings?
  • Am I under the leadership of non-white people in any aspect of my life? Professionally? Spiritually?
  • When I disagree with non-white people about where we are on race in this country, do I look for other non-white people to validate my beliefs?
  • Have I ever borne an emotional burden about something they’ve experienced regarding race with a non-white brother or sister?
  • Have I ever felt shame or guilt, untempered by resentment or resistance, around the way things are in this country, even if they’re not my fault?

If you are not white, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I in multiple actual relationships with non-white people of different ethnicities than myself where we talk about real issues and feelings?
  • Am I under the leadership of someone non-white of a different ethnicity in any aspect of my life? Professionally? Spiritually?
  • Do I center the pain of my ethnic group and compare it quantitatively against the pain other ethnic groups have experienced, or do I lament with other stories of injustice?
  • To what extent am I complicit in holding up systems of power that unfairly preference those that have historically held power?

The reason why none of these questions are reciprocal toward white people is because since white is the historically dominant group, all of these preference raising questions come naturally. It’s not anything magical about the notion of whiteness; it’s just how cultural dominance works. You will be in relationship with the dominant group in some form. You will be under leadership from someone in the dominant group. You will understand their preferences and cater to them if you want to thrive. So for those of us new to this conversation, please understand this isn’t a finger-wag at something you were born with. This is about being intentional about dismantling imbalances in systems of power.

When I hear King the philosopher and social activist speak, I hear him asking us to seek the Beloved Community. When I hear King the pastor speak, I hear him asking us to lay down our preferences at the Cross and seek the well-being of our brothers and sisters at both an individual and systemic level.

Looking at 2068, what kind of country do we want for our grandchildren? Do we want a country that’s still in a cold Civil War that’s now 200 years old? Do we want a country that sits in resentment, fear, and individualistic separation? Or do we want to make the braver, harder, choice, and plow forward in love, letting lament and a sense of righteous shame break our stone hearts and remake them as flesh, then letting our collective love and intimate knowledge of each other heal and reconcile?

It sounds like a pipe dream when you put it like that. But just sixty years ago, I’m sure someone sat at their dinner table and thought “I appreciate what King is saying, but he’s crazy. Things will never change.”

As-Is

This house is falling apart.
The paint crinkles, bends backward,
ripples like skin on cold soup.
Beneath, drywall experiences ennui,
waits for a purpose beyond demarcation.
The ceiling and the walls recede.
The floor bends, tilts to one side or the other.

The load-bearing wall talked to me this morning.
She’d had enough of the weight.
She told me how, overwhelmed by the pain,
she whimpered at night. The floors creaked
in sympathy, but then were silent.
The front wall said, “me too,” but offered no buttress.

This house is falling apart.
One day, the occupants who so blithely reside
will find themselves awakened to a crash,
as a wall awkwardly ambles down a suburban side street
and facades, shocked by their loss of bearings,
try not to crush them on the way down.

-C. G. Brown
2 April 2018

“God Is In Control.”

Advance Note: You’ll see me use the word “conservative” a lot in this. While there is overlap with the political meaning, I intend it less as opposed to politically liberal and more specifically referring to the traditionalist and fundamentalist perspective of the conservative Christian church in America. I’m doing my best to look at a conservative witness against itself and against the Gospel rather than against a liberal witness or liberal view on the Gospel. 

I recently had an exchange with a friend about the current state of politics in America. Like many, even though she’s not a Trump fan, she downplayed my concern about Trump’s authoritarian leanings, citing that he was just one man. I said “sure, but the Republican Congress is moving in lockstep with him from a policy perspective.” She said, “not always.” I responded, “Name one major policy area where they haven’t. ACA? Consumer Protection? Deregulation? Immigration? Foreign Relations?” We could not identify an area off-hand, and I’m also not aware of any Republican-led initiatives that prompted Trump to use his veto power.

She responded to my restatement of concern about where America could end up with a favorite phrase of comfort among evangelically-minded people: “God is in control. God is sovereign.” I was reminded in that moment of an exchange I’d had in 2016 on social media with a friend who was pretty much diametrically opposed to me politically, where she responded to my fears of a then merely-possible Trump presidency with the same statement.

Another friend with whom I was conversing pointed out that that comforting phrase about God’s sovereignty is seldom used to assuage fears of cultural change, or immigrants, or crime. It only seems to appear when people are expressing concerns about conservatism going too far. Regardless of intent, the phrase can seem to the listener to be saying, “God is in control because I am comfortable, and it doesn’t matter if you are not.”

Like Paul, I can claim the title “chief among sinners” in seeking my own comfort and convenience, though I actively work against it. However, the Church is supposed to be a place where we support each other through the incredibly rewarding but often quite uncomfortable and countercultural life of Christianity. What is this desire that has taken hold in the American Church for comfort above witness? Comfort above compassion?

“God is in control.” is a phrase that reminds me not to worry or obsess about temporal matters, however massive they may seem at the time. It breaks me out of my navel-gazing social media loops and friend circles to recognize that both problems and solutions are bigger than I am. It reminds me to recognize that the arc and scope of God’s goodness is not limited to my narrow view, but expands and unfolds at the periphery and beyond.

Much of the American evangelical church uses this powerful phrase now as a blindfold, a gag, and binding rope. It blinds the speaker to human needs directly in front of them. It silences those that complain about social injustice by telling them that there is a problem with their faith if they don’t see how God’s point of view is aligned with the speaker’s, even if it is hurting the listener. And it ties the hands of both, telling them to be passive and let God’s wonderful plan finish playing out without meddling.

If God’s sovereignty means that I should not take any action to protest against conservative policies that seem to be literally killing people either through hostility or inaction, then why does God’s sovereignty not equally apply when I see abortions being allowed, or cultural changes that I don’t agree with spreading, or when immigrants come across our border to seek a better life? Why is it that when it is a conservative point of view that needs assurance and patience, we need to take action in protest or policy change? But when the concern is that the conservative perspective has become Pharasaic, or that it has become a hypocritical, compromised witness, then God’s sovereignty becomes a call to be still, silent, and show a passive grace.

God is in control. Yes. God is sovereign. Absolutely. But if you’re saying it to reinforce your comfort, your culture, your understanding to someone else who is challenging those things, then it’s time to re-examine your heart. Would you still say God is in control if it were you who was uncomfortable? If it were you who were being persecuted or treated unjustly? And if not, who is?