What comes to mind when you see this photo? Crisp air, fresh scent, a stiff sleeve that lovingly conforms to your arm as if softens to your unique form.
I cribbed the image from Heather Cox Richardson’s newsletter. Ms. Richardson, a professor of American History at Boston College, writes the brilliant daily “Letters from an American,” an intelligent blend of current events and historical perspective. Five nights a week she publishes polished essays that put the events of our day in context. On weekends, she frequently posts an evocative image, often from her family camp in Maine. A few weeks ago, she offered this yesteryear photo of laundry on the line.
The photo caught my eye because, not long ago, I created my own, urban, telescoping clothesline. When I posted pics on Facebook, I received glowing comments, like, “there’s nothing better than air-dried clothes,” “heavenly,” and, “reminiscent of grandmother.”
Clotheslines were part of my youth. Behind every house on our street was a slab of concrete in which a vertical pole supported an awkward square of galvanized metal and cotton ropes. I wonder how many, if any, still remain.
It’s been decades since I’ve seen an active clothesline. If you live in a covenant development or gated community, clotheslines are likely prohibited. Even along traditional streets, they’re rare as hitching posts.
If air-dried clothes are so wonderful and evocative, why don’t we see more clotheslines? The answer is easy. American life is the steady march of time-saving convenience over sensory experience. Mechanical dryers are simple and quick. They free us from the uncertainties of weather. So what if they use energy already swirling free in the wind. So what if our clothes smell a bit musty. We add Snuggle or Downy or Bounce to our load; something else to purchase that simulates what we’re too busy to get for free.
I love the image of the clothes drying near the sea. Ms. Richardson apparently does as well. Never mind that there are more grey, drizzly days on the Maine coast than sunny ones; that hanging laundry is an arduous task; collecting it later as well. That air-dried laundry is time consuming work, almost always relegated to women, binding them to the home.
Most anyone would give up their clothesline for a gas dryer. And yet we romanticize laundry on the line. Another picturesque of a bygone, simpler time in when our existence was rooted in rudimentary tasks that, incidentally, bound us to nature.
If you have 45 minutes to ponder the state of this great nation over the upcoming Independence Day weekend, I recommend “How America Fractured into 4 Parts,” by George Packer, published by The Atlantic in Medium. If you don’t have kind of time, I offer these Cliff Notes to a useful perspective on our country’s status.
The melting pot that is the United States of America has devolved into that picky eater who separates his food into discrete piles, and freaks out when runny egg seeps under his bacon or a single grain of rice infiltrates his beans. Each of us falls, with scary precision, into one of four camps. Each camp crafts a narrative that stakes legitimate claim as rightful owner of the 21st century American dream. Yet each dismisses all others as immoral or unpatriotic, ignorant or communist. In truth, each faction is a little bit right, a little bit wrong, and all whole lot obstructive.
Free Americans are the ideological descendants of libertarian backlash to the New Deal that gathered steam under Barry Goldwater, came to full flower under Ronald Reagan, and flourishes as today’s dominant politics insomuch as every policy discussion gets couched in terms set by Free Americans. The individual is supreme. His rights are paramount. The only good government is less government. And that extends to corporations, who fill campaign coffers in exchange for unfettered freedom.
Smart Americans are highly educated citizens who feast upon the bounty of a knowledge/technology-based economy. We are the coastal elites (plus university-town pimples on the landscape like Austin, Texas; Lawrence, Kansas; and Madison Wisconsin). Smart Americans are affluent and motivated, albeit removed from fundamental economic tasks like growing food or manufacturing objects. Globalists rather than nationalists for the simple reason that globalism serves us well. We consult and program and hedge-fund under the delusion of meritocracy’s inherent equity, without admitting that the operating systems are stacked in our favor. We have the answers—and the economic success—that proves we’re right; we can’t fathom why others don’t climb aboard. (I use the pronoun ‘we’ for this faction, since both George Packer and I are, for better or worse, Smart Americans.)
Real Americans consider themselves the backbone of our nation. Rural, in spirit if not in fact. Religious, of an evangelical slant. Traditional in their values, especially those that evoke a white, agrarian past. Hostile to modernity. Allergic to intellectual authority. These are the Americans who catapulted Donald Trump to the Presidency. But Trump didn’t invent this faction; he’s simply a master of tapping into their long-standing suspicions. More than a century ago, populist William Jennings Bryan said, “If we have to give up either religion or education, we should give up education.” Sentiment that echoes the priorities of Real Americans today.
Just Americans—or perhaps they should be labelled Unjust Americans—are typically younger, disenfranchised citizens weaned on critical race theory and identity politics. Mr. Packer dates their emergence to 2014, when Michael Brown’s death became an indictment of our system rather than of bad apples. Just Americans reframe our entire history through the lens of racism. And though that perspective has been long discounted, it alone offers a monocular vision of a complex nation. When society is conceived as a collection of conflicting group identities, there’s no accounting for an individual’s responsibility and motivation. Thus, in direct contrast to Free Americans, Just Americans repudiate our central myth of rugged individualism. The circle of ideological conflict is complete.
Today, Free Americans and Real Americans have an uneasy political alignment, as do Smart Americans and Just Americans. Mr. Packer does not see those affiliations as fixed. However, as his article is centered on describing the state of ourselves—now—rather than speculating how we will evolve, he does not suggest how affiliations might morph and change. His concluding tone remains optimistic, perhaps even Pollyannaish: we’re all in this together and will eventually figure out how to move in sync.
I’m unconvinced of Mr. Packer’s optimism. But it’s summertime, and the living is easy, and our flags are flying high. So enjoy! Own whatever faction of American politic suits you best, but please acknowledge our fellow citizen’s claims. And strive to get along. Whether Free or Smart or Real or Just, we need each other so much more than we’re willing to admit.
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Note: All images courtesy of Lucy Jones and Atlantic Magazine.
In honor of summertime and all things light, I share with you a piece by humorist Simon Rich, which cracked me up.
I used 2 B a typical teenage girl, gossiping with my gal friends on the weekends (I luv U guys!) throwing slumber partis (zzzzzzz!) That was B4 I contracted hepatitis C.
Sometimes I ask myself, “Y? Y has the lord 4saken me? R U there God? Have U 4gotten me?” I’m trying 2 B positive, but it’s hard when U know that your death is a 4gone conclusion. It’s only a matter of time B4 my D4med liver ceases 2 function 4ever.
My innards R swarming w/2morous growths & the pain is excruci8ing. I no longer have any will 2 live. 2morrow I’ll be sed8ed 4 the oper8tion. Secretly, I hope I don’t come 2.
I’ve decided 2 stop praying. Y should I? I h8 god. He sh@ on me & I h8 him,
If there’s a shred of doubt in your mind that the United States is in the throes of endgame empire, look no further than The New Yorker June 7, 2021: The Money Issue.
Every issue of The New Yorker follows the same format: stylish cover art; “Goings on About Town” (which I skip, since I live 216 miles from New York); five “Talk of the Town” vignettes (which I read to confirm how nutty New Yorkers can be); a short-ish profile, “Shouts and Murmurs” (conscious comedy, though hardly the rag’s only humor), three long-ish articles or profiles on various subjects written with a consistently liberal slant; a short story; The Critics (books, films, exhibits, podcasts, television, theater, music); culminating in Cartoon Caption Contest. Round the issue out with a few poems (which I never read), a dozen cartoons featuring neurotic elites (which I always read), interspersed with thumbnail sketches on any page that suffers excessive wordiness. That’s your standard issue.
A few times a year, The New Yorker tacks a title on top of the Table of Contents (The Technology Issue, The Style Issue, etc.) that cues the reader to a thematic connection, usually between the cover art and the four profiles. Not the depth of saturated focus of, say People Magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” issue. Just a nod that the content of one image or article might relate, and inform, the others.
The recent “Money Issue” boasts classic Depression-era imagery: Deco-inspired cover art of blocky figures with gears, T-squares, and shovels; toiling beneath skyscrapers and aero planes. Within are four profiles of men who make a lot of money. Not a gear nor a T-square nor a shovel among them. Millions, billions, earned by manipulating lines of code, fraudulent representation, hutzpah, and greed. Often shrouded by the illusion of public good.
Kurtis Minder, a geek who’s found a career negotiating between ransomware attackers and those hacked, is portrayed as a genial, dedicated guy. One comes away from his short-form profile thinking, “Bummer the world needs this service, but lucky for us, we’ve got this guy.”
The three long profiles are significantly less benevolent.
Joe Freedman, founder and CEO of the California-based private equity firm Paladin Healthcare Capital, purchased troubled Hahnemann Hospital in Philadelphia. Within eighteen months, he closed the closest thing Philly has to a public hospital (which also served as Drexel University Medical School Teaching Hospital), moved back to LA, and bought an eight thousand square foot mansion.
Next up, Chamath Palihapitiya, billionaire former Facebook wunderkind. These days, he pushes SPAC’s (Special Purpose Acquisition Companies) that allow corporations to raise funds without the hassle and scrutiny of an IPO. The deals have left many investors in the red, even as Palihapitiya’s fees run up to 20% of the stake. The article offers equal parts SPAC novelty (i.e. untested and prone for abuse; refer: junk bonds circa 1980) and celebrations of Mr. Palihapitiya’s hubris. The quote unquote Indian minority believes that he has been so ill-treated in tech-white Silicon Valley that he’s on a social mission to change the nature of the game for the small investor. How that mission plays out is significantly less clear than the ginormous bottom line of his personal wealth.
Closing out this fearful financial trio is Rich Paul, LeBron James’ agent, and founder of Klutch Sports Group, which has taken the tactics of championing an individual star’s welfare over any teams to new heights. (Sign a healthy multi-year contract with a middling franchise, play a year, then go sluggish and demand a trade to an upmarket city.) I don’t know, or care, much about the business of basketball. But my son summed up the gist of Rich Paul: “The guy’s great for his star players, and he’s ruining the NBA.”
By the time I finished “The Money Issue,” my stomach wretched at the world we’ve created. Forget the cover art that celebrates a connection between money and honest work. Forget the mild-mannered geek trying to work through criminal activities heretofore inconceivable. The real money guys of our world parachute into a challenged yet essential facility, milk it dry, and fly off without regard for what’s left behind. Or act precisely like the white guys they rant against, while cloaking personal greed in syrupy social pablum. Or maximize the return for the individual, team be damned.
Did no one at The New Yorker think, hey, “How about we profile someone doing good things with their money?” Even better, perhaps an article about the useful limits of money? Or the de facto poverty of a society that uses money as the sole measure of value? I am jaded enough to know that ethics, spirituality, and common welfare are twenty-first century traits for chumps. But as I read these profiles of insatiable, angry, never-satisfied winners, I can’t help believe that our society is too crooked to ever be righted again.
I am writing in support of the Cambridge Missing Middle Housing zoning petition before the city Council at the June 10, 2021 meeting.
Like many Cambridge citizens, I live in a building that could not be built under current zoning laws: an attached four family dwelling in a Residence B district on a 9,000 square foot lot with insufficient setbacks. Yet, the property’s generous light, air, and other attributes are enhanced by the fact that it’s in a walkable neighborhood close enough to shopping and other amenities that I have not owned a car for over five years.
Most laws that grew out of movements to eradicate substandard housing and improve sanitation, such as Cambridge’s zoning restrictions, were well intended. However, as modifications designated less density and more parking, our zoning requirements have evolved from a proactive mechanism to ensure public health into a protective benefit that generates wealth for property owners. Current zoning requirements exacerbate three critical issues we face today: they foster environmentally unsustainable development; reinforce economic inequality; and entrench racial divisions rooted in the historic bias of redlining that’s baked into zoning.
It is time to end this institutionalized privilege and create a more livable city.
Last year the Cambridge City Council approved the Affordable Housing Overlay (AHO), and applied it across the entire city. I applaud this action. As a long-time supporter of local housing developer Just-A-Start Corporation, I know firsthand how AHO is already making it easier to create more affordable housing in our city.
The Missing Middle Housing zoning proposal is the next step toward a more environmentally sustainable, economically equalitarian, and racially integrated city. It extends select incentives of AHO to residential development of all income spectrums throughout the city; reduces parking requirements; and reinvigorates middle-density development such as townhouses and triple-deckers: the backbone of livable urban areas that were our city’s primary residential forms for decades.
The Missing Middle Housing zoning petition is a simple yet bold idea whose time has come. I look forward to your support of this zoning proposal as a solid step to creating the best possible Cambridge for all of us.
Thank you for your consideration and your ongoing service to our city.
Paul E Fallon
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Note: Graphics courtesy of Cambridge Missing Middle Housing
If there’s a single activity that’s promoted and preserved my sanity during the pandemic year—a big if in a year of rocky sanity—that activity is spider solitaire. I kicked off empty pandemic hours with jigsaw puzzles, shifted to Sudoku, even tried crossword puzzles. But once I discovered spider solitaire, it instantly became my default form of soothing mental manipulation.
Conventional, seven-column solitaire dates from the eighteenth century, but the earliest record of spider solitaire isn’t until 1917. Even then, spider was a rare form of solo-card-play until computers arrived because, unlike solitaires that use a single deck of cards, spider solitaire requires two. 104 total cards. A huge wad to shuffle, deal, and collect by hand. Trivial for a computer to sort.
The Internet offers many spider solitaire programs. I use solitir.com, which has a clean interface. Open the program and this is what you’ll get: ten columns of cards, forty-four face-down, ten face-up. The remaining fifty cards sit in an upper-left, face-down pile.
The objective of spider solitaire is to reveal all 104 cards and stack them in sequential piles, same suit, ace-low to king-high. You accomplish this by moving cards onto each other, a lesser value stacked on a higher value. When you create a full sequence, it zaps away from the ten-columns in play, to the upper right. If you compile eight full sequences, you use up all the cards and win the game. Congratulations!
How to do this? Begin by placing any exposed card of a given suit on another exposed card with same suit with the next-higher value. For example, seven of diamonds on eight of diamonds. These form the beginning of a same-suit sequence. Whenever you move the top face-up card in a column, the concealed card beneath turns over. Thus there are always ten columns of cards in play, and you can shift one or more cards from any same-suit sequence to another column.
Once you’ve exhausted the same-suit opportunities, the strategy begins. Spider solitaire allows you to move a card of any value onto a card of one-value higher, regardless of suit. In my demonstration hand above, I decided to put the six-seven-eight of clubs sequence on the nine of diamonds. Note: that does not build toward a sequence. My nine of clubs is unavailable for play until I move the six-seven-eight of diamonds to another column.
How do I decide whether to make that move? In general, an exposed card is preferred to a concealed card. Therefore, I move the six-seven-eight of clubs onto the nine of diamonds because it allows another card to be exposed.
When you’ve exhausted all the same-sit moves you can, and all the alt-suit moves you choose, click on the concealed pile on the upper left. Ten new cards appear, one at the bottom of each column. This provides new cards to play, but also changes access to the same-suit sequences you’ve been creating. In the example above, the ten of clubs landing on the jack of diamonds shuts off that queen-jack sequence. Unfortunately, I cannot place the nine of clubs on that ten, because I moved the eight of diamonds onto the nine in a previous round.
I’ve never won a round of spider solitaire without creating open one or more columns. When you’ve moved every card from a column—the original face-up card and all concealed cards beneath—you can then move any other card or sequence available for play into that space. This is the only way to move a king, which is the highest card in any sequence. Although sometimes it’s more strategic to move another card.
In the case of my example, I move the seven-eight of diamonds from column one to the open column. Why? So I can then move ace-through-eight of clubs from column seven onto column one and create—hooray!—a complete sequence of ace through king of clubs.
Once you have the opportunity to place a sequence in an open column, the opportunities to envision subsequent moves blossom.
My string of ace-through-king of clubs zips to the upper right of my screen. In this case, subsequent moves enable me to create a full sequence of diamonds as well.
At this point you may wonder, where are the hearts and spades? Spider solitaire can be played at three levels: easy (all cards are clubs); moderate (four sequences each of clubs and diamonds); difficult (two sequences each of clubs, diamonds, hearts, and spades). Once you’re familiar with the game, you’ll almost always win a round of all clubs, it’s that easy. On the other hand, playing all four suits is ridiculously hard. I play the moderate level, and, with improved strategy, win about 25% of the time. Often enough to find it challenging without being discouraging.
In my example, by the time I have played the entire concealed pile, I’ve created four full sequences (see upper right). Yet I still have eight concealed cards among my ten piles. So, I carefully shift playable cards onto one another with an eye towards revealing those concealed cards, and eventually creating more full sequences.
There comes a point when you realize, “I got this,” as more columns open up and you create more full sequences. The rest is just moving stacks.
Until You WIN!
Spider Solitaire is easy to play, yet its strategy becomes more challenging as you learn to ‘read’ the ripple moves that come from deciding what to play. My rules of thumb are as follows:
1. Make all possible same-suit moves during initial and first two rounds of play
2. Make moves between different-suit cards if they will expose concealed cards
3. Make moves of different-suit cards if they enable subsequent same-suit moves
4. If there are multiple options of same move, always move the card on the smallest column, to encourage creating an open column.
5. Always fill an open column with cards that will create a full sequence or expose more concealed cards
6. In later rounds, it sometimes pays to make a different-suit play even when a same-suit play exists, if the subsequent plays are worthwhile.
That’s the limit of my strategy now; I will probably develop more as I continue to improve. Although, as the pandemic ends, will I feel the need to fill an hour or more each day with a game whose primary focus is to pass time and soothe my mind? Hopefully, not.
A year ago today, the day after George Floyd was murdered, teenagers across the street stapled black block letters on yellow poster board to the guardrail along Huron Avenue. BLACK LIVES MATTER. That evening, I noticed a family and their dog taking a knee. Next evening, I joined them. As did a few others. Within a week there were a dozen of us, often more. Fresh signs littered the guardrail. Ever practical, I added: “Take a Knee. Nightly. 7:30 p.m.”
Some evenings brought a steady stream of honking horns. Occasionally, a passing driver stopped, bringing all traffic to a halt for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. After the timer chimed, participants spoke, if inclined. African-Americans applauded. On Juneteenth our modest vigil was a designated activity of Movement 4 Black Lives. Over seventy-five people took a knee on that stretch of grass. Our numerical zenith.
We knelt unstructured, leaderless. If Alex was there, he kept time. If not, the task fell to me. Or someone else took out their smartphone. We rose at the buzzer and disbursed. This was a solemn exercise, not social, though the simple act of being out of doors among others in the midst of the pandemic felt rebellious in its own right.
By July the tenor of take-a-knee changed. Counter-opinions manifested along the guardrail. Always under cover of darkness. “We Heart Police.” An American flag with a blue stripe. Followed by counter-counter opinions: someone scripted the names of Blacks killed by police on the flag. The number of kneelers shrunk. Car toots of support were punctuated by long blasts of dissent. When our number was few, a driver (invariably in a pick-up) would pull over and rant. Vitriol spewed at a quartet of gray-hairs from the safety of a metal carcass is pathetic.
One August morning we woke to find everything stapled to the guardrail gone. All messages, pro-police and pro-BLM, painted over flat grey.
By then, of course, taking a knee had become habit. When my alarm sounded three minutes before time, I dropped whatever I was doing and went to the rail. Half-a-dozen regulars, plus occasional drop-ins. Upon rising, we often chatted. Sometimes for longer than we knelt. I met new neighbors. Clarissa and Perron; Leon and Jayne. In the twilight, we shared our histories. They are the sole in-person acquaintances I made during the pandemic.
Fall came. Shorter days. We shifted to 6 p.m. The breeze blew cool. I’m lousy at mediation, but I forced myself, every night, to visualize Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck. To invoke the pressure of why we were touching the ground. One Black driver stopped and chastised us. “This is not what we need; get off your knees and help.” Another pick-up driver’s diatribe planted the seed for my play, Sons of Liberty. Evenings grew rainy, often cold. None of us entertained the idea of stopping.
In early October, Peter became a regular, cementing a core of four. Peter, Leon, Jayne, and me. Peter walks at snail’s pace, thanks to severe rheumatism. His gait solidified our connection, as we flanked his crawl across the busy, darkening street. Fall turned to winter. The cold and rain and ice were often treacherous for Peter and Jayne. Leaving only Leon and me. How many nights would I think, “It’s cold,” or “It’s wet,” and wish to remain indoors. But knowing that Leon would venture forth pushed me out. It only takes a single other person to hold us to a higher task.
Mid-winter surprise: crisp; snow-filled nights induce profound thought. The earth and sky silent, shimmering grey. Flurries muffling the noise of scant traffic. Few braved the winter chill; the rising COVID. My meditations deepened beyond the particulars of George Floyd. To the eternal challenge: man’s inhumanity to man.
As spring emerged, Alexandra Shelton joined us, a local artist and longtime neighbor (our children went to grade school together). Fresh energy was welcome. Fresh creativity as well. Alexandra created a series inspired by the tumult of BLM. Her mother’s visits to the rail (she’s in her nineties!) inspired poetry.
A guy in a Porsche Boxer convertible stopped one night. Vanity plate. Jumped out and joined us. Has stopped several other times. A librarian from a few streets down. A mom with a pair of elementary age boys. We’re a hard group to define.
A few weeks ago, I told the regulars that I planned to stop on May 25, one year after George Floyd was murdered. I posted fresh signs to mark the anniversary. We enjoyed a boost in turnout, and afterward some cupcakes I made, with a flyer of police reforms instigated during the past year toothpicked into the icing. A tangible, if checkered set of accomplishments, none of which even remotely ascribable to our vigil.
As in any endeavor, the benefits I’ve received—enhanced meditation, creative flow, neighbor comradery—are more identifiable than any specific result our actions influenced. Yet, I’m convinced our nightly vigils have value. We cannot know who among the many drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians passing by reframed their idea of Black Lives Matter. To consider that, as Blacks have defined the barrel-bottom of our society for so long, only when their lives truly matter, will all lives matter. One mysterious beauty of life is that we are not supposed to know who and how we influence. Our task is simply to bear witness as the first step to acknowledging deeper truth.
Peter, Jayne, and Leon announced that they plan to continue on. Which makes me kinda doubt that I will stay full away.
My first and most lasting lesson in the power of compound interest arrived on May 24, 1966. It must have been a slow news day. Toward the end of The Huntley-Brinkley Report, David Brinkley announced that 340 years ago, Peter Minuit purchased Manhattan Island from the Indians (as Native Americans were called back then) for $24 worth of trinkets. He continued, “if the Indians had invested that amount at a 6% interest rate, they could buy Manhattan back today…” Then he concluded in his sardonic tone. “…if they wanted to.”
My eleven-year-old-brain swirled at the idea that the most magnificent city on earth could be repossessed whole if only the thrifty natives had maintained a long-hold investment strategy. Quirky though that idea may seem, the 1966 math is apparently still correct (Morningstar: Manhattan Rate of Return). And although the Indians never tried to buy their island back, the idea that the Dutch settlers ‘purchased’ Manhattan lives in our psyche as a more-or-less fair deal. Whereas the English, French, and Spanish simply took whatever wonders of the New World they chose.
Fast forward to any socially conscious Zoom meeting in 2021. After everyone has renamed themselves with preferred pronouns, we round-robin acknowledgements of the land we occupy. I invoke the Massachusett tribe as I envision natives inhabiting the bluff over Fresh Pond that includes the 9,000 square foot plot the Registry of Deeds has filed under my name.
The motivation for land acknowledgment is noble—to honor those who once lived on the land we seized—but the practice rings hollow to me. Over the past year I’ve sat through dozens of land acknowledgments, yet haven’t heard anyone announce giving their land back. Which reduces the exercise to salving a muddy conscience by thumping mea culpa rather than actually righting our forefathers supposed wrong. What’s the value of our confession if we don’t atone to those we’ve sinned against?
The contrarian in me wonders what Native Americans think of this latest liberal craze. Do they feel honored to be acknowledged? Or are we simply picking at their wound with lofty words, while leaving things exactly as they are?
Let’s set aside that snarly perspective and grant that Native Americans appreciate acknowledgment. Perhaps even go a bit further and suggest that land acknowledgments could be an important initial phase—a witnessing if you will—toward increasing our collective conscience of Colonialist violence. That is might, someday, lead to transformation. It’s a cool idea; far beyond even my often-impractical vision. But inscrutable. Because the very notion of how land ‘belonged’ to Native Americans is diametrically opposed to how land ‘belongs’ to us. They ‘owned’ the land collectively, as an integral part of the human/animal/plant/planet interface. We own it individually, with a focus on its extractive capability: how much can we get from it?
This dichotomy is reductive, both in romanticizing Native Americans and demonizing the benefits of private property. It is also impossible to reconcile. Seventeenth century Native American culture could never support seven billion people on our planet. Twenty-first century capitalism cannot support all of us sustainably or equitably. Giving land back to Native Americans four centuries after we took it will not return our world to the bucolic balance we conjure at year Mayflower minus one. The 400 years between our vision of Native Americans living in harmony on the land to becoming marginalized (albeit profitable casino owners) cannot be erased.
The rabbit holes of reparations to all the groups who have been harmed, even eliminated by the Darwinian tide of capitalism are as treacherous as they are—ultimately—necessary. And so, for the present, I will continue to chime in on my turn, and state that I live on land once occupied by the Massachusett tribe. But forgive me if I feel like a cad. For even if someone offered me four hundred years of amortized trinkets, I intend to continue to steward my property for the benefit of the nine current inhabitants and whoever will follow. I have no plans to give it back.
Among the many things I’ve undertaken regarding racial justice over the past year (My Summer of 75 Things), becoming involved with SURJ (Stand Up for Racial Justice) has been the most illuminating. SURJ is a national umbrella organization devoted to ending racism through the lens of white people: the idea being that the people we oppress don’t need to be laden with our baggage, even as it is essential for white people to own our role and participate in change.
Last summer, in the geographically compressed world of Zoom, I attended meetings of Aware-LA. Come winter, I was invited to base camp training with my local Boston affiliate. I switched my attention to SURJ-Boston because eventually, taking action will resume its fundamental meaning as local, physical action.
From November through February I participated in bi-weekly, two-and-a-half-hour training sessions with a dozen SURJ novitiates and two facilitators. Every expectation I brought to the process of being a white person learning about and advocating for racial justice was, frankly, wrong.
SURJ training is not about the facts and figures, or even so much the historical events that define racism in our society. It’s not about labelling any individual a racist. Or trying to scrub every vestige of racism from my pores. SURJ training is about understanding that racism is neither a personal belief nor an isolated action. Rather, racism is mortared into our political and economic systems. This is both enlightening (I am not a racist!) and disheartening (I am completely woven into a predatory and racist system).
SURJ is doubly premised on racial identity: an organization of white people; working to end racism. I am leery of identity politics/identity culture/identity identities. Yet, I have come to view them as necessary transitions that will ultimately fade as we strive toward an ideal world. When every human being has access to all they need and enjoy avenues for full expression, ‘identities’ will be as irrelevant as any other tribal mark. Until then, as a person whose identity labels fall square in the realm of privilege—white and male—I must respect and support anyone for whom identity is dear. Whether they seek equity or simply solidarity, if someone’s identity is important to them, then it is important to me. Still, I brought my identity-wariness to training.
Our first session manifested the usual awkwardness of Zoom, exacerbated by gingerly facilitators. A year of attending Zoom social justice meetings had habituated me to rename myself with preferred pronouns and meditate through the land acknowledgement. Then, we did a surprisingly cool activity: write a brief verse about my cultural heritage. Mine was banal. Which is pretty much the point. When you inhabit the default culture—middle class and white—it doesn’t feel like culture at all. Living the yardstick by which all others are measured is wicked vanilla. For the remainder of the session we engaged ingracious PC-speak, and a clear hesitancy to step on toes. I came away thinking, whoa, that was pretty poor. I could have definitely done a better job facilitating that.
If our training had been in person, perhaps I wouldn’t have returned. But nothing else was happening on alternate Tuesday evenings. So I logged on, and assumed a unique position in our group. The only grey-hair. The only man. By session three I realized an advantage unachievable at in-person meetings: I could be an almost invisible image in our Zoom gallery. As a passive actor, annoyance that I could better facilitate gave way to appreciation of how Jamie and Matoaka facilitated differently. Impatience at the amorphous agendas dissipated under the quiet wonder of observing ‘hers’ and ‘theys’ navigate issues in ways no group of men ever would.
Low-profile became my conscious choice. I became the least active participant. I did not speak in large group discussion, nor lead off in break-outs. Perhaps it was selfish of me to withhold contributions. But restraint made me check everything I ‘knew,’ and the opportunity to observe a group interact unfettered by men proved revealing. I don’t know whether the others actually forgot I was there, but I muzzled my male penchant to fill the slightest void. To clarify. To control. An urge I felt at least half dozen times each session. Yet by silencing my voice, I learned more from listening to others take the platform, without concern for how long it was held, how well they furthered the agenda, or how sustained our subsequent silence. We sat in a lot of silence. So much more than is comfortable for me.
My fellow base group members occupy a middle-ground in the hierarchy of privilege. They enjoy the benefit of being white, yet all experience the barriers, even harm, of presenting as women. Sometimes I found no accord with their experiences; other times they resonated. At some point in every session (often times more than once) their stories sparked inspiration and purpose. To struggle for justice is worthy as it is difficult. I would brim in emotion.
Which is how the I came to see the crux of SURJ training in a different light. The struggle to end racism is a path to reimagine our society. A society that transcends racism and eclipsis identity. SURJ base training is a toe-tip exploration into a completely different way to perceive, organize, and operate our world. A world motivated by the voices here and now rather than a given agenda. A world striving to create a culture in which people don’t need to be articulate, or clever, or efficient. A world that doesn’t grant bonuses for optimizing ‘air time.’ A world in which all voices, however soft, however foreign, are equally heard.
Liberals have an uncanny talent. They shoot themselves in the foot trying to help the less fortunate; their hearts bleed out of the wound; leaving a blood trail for right-winged vultures to reframe good intention as folly. Such I fear, may be the fate of Cambridge RISE, my city’s pilot program for UBI (Universal Basic Income).
Universal Basic Income is a simple concept. Every person receives a direct payment simply for being here. UBI is radical, in that it anticipates the fall of capitalism by acknowledging that humans are no longer required as means of production. That our economy is so efficient (i.e. automated), labor is optional. The direct payment is barely enough for individual sustenance, but folks who prefer not to work could pool resources, thus freeing themselves from economic pursuit.
In UBI utopia, everyone has the security of a guaranteed minimum; social welfare systems like food stamps, Section 8, welfare, and unemployment evaporate as individuals spend money as they see fit; people gravitate to innovative work while robots handle the mundane stuff; personal expression and creativity abound.
In UBI hell, everyone drinks and drugs away their monthly check and society collapses.
As a man of hope in human capability, I am a fan of UBI, and applaud any steps we take in that direction. Unfortunately, no one’s about to implement UBI at scale. However, the idea is getting enough attention for pilot programs. Cambridge, being both liberal and rich, is a great place to kick one off.
Thus, Cambridge RISE. One-hundred-twenty families, selected by lottery, will receive $500 per month for a period of eighteen months, no strings attached. The pilot is a far cry from UBI: the amount per family is far too small; and the time limit extinguishes actual income security. Still, it will make a difference for recipients and perhaps the city can glean useful data in how people spend the money / change their lives.
It doesn’t seem right to hold a general lottery: so many Cantabrigians have more than enough. So, the city limits lottery applicants to families making less than 80% AMI (AMI=Area Median Income, which in pricey Cambridge is $96,250 for a family of four). That seems right to me; the idea behind UBE is not only for poor people.
The City also limits applicants to families with children under 18. I also agree this is also a desirable criterion.
Third, the applicants must be single-caretaker households.
This requirement makes no sense to me. In fact, it immediately raises that ugly specter in my head: reverse-discrimination. Why should a multi-caretaker household that meets the income and child guidelines be exempt from this program?
I write my favorite Cambridge City Councilor, Alanna Mallon, who offers a gracious reply. She cites the recent Cambridge Community Foundation report that 70% of Cambridge families in the bottom quintile are single-caretaker households. She cites targeted pilot programs from other areas of the country. She does not, however, address why the program denies application to the other 30% of bottom quintile families simply because they are headed by multi-caretakers.
It’s easy to imagine multi-caretaker families who could benefit from this program: families with disabled adults; multi-generational households. It is also too, too easy to see how the program will become an target for anyone to proclaim that by discriminating against traditional two-parent families, Cambridge RISE incentivizes single parenting.
If we only used the income and child requirements, a large majority of this lottery-based program recipients would still be single-caretaker households (statistically: 70%). We’d avoid accusations of providing special treatment to families who, for whatever reason, have only one caretaker. We could gather data on how a wider range of recipients use their payment.
Instead we have created a pilot program whose fundamental design enables opponents to undermine its credibility, regardless of data or outcomes. The City deserves a more representative pilot program. UBI deserves pilot programs that better reflect how it might actually succeed. And multi-caretaker families deserve the same —not more, not less—opportunities available to single-caretaker households.