My Summer of 75 Things

On June 2, 2020 Corinne Shutack published an article on Medium, “75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice.” Quick on the outrage of George Floyd’s killing, with a long pandemic summer before me, I decided to make a project of the long yet relevant listicle. Over three months, I carefully read Ms. Shutack’s list, hit all of her links, watched all of her recommended videos, and read several of her suggested books. Given my engineering nature, a spread sheet was required. Seventy-five rows by three columns: Action Item / What Have I Done? / Resolution.

By Labor Day Weekend, I had gone through every item on the list. Which is not to say that I completed them all. Rather, I considered and investigated each; acted on a majority of them, and deferred action on ones that feel inappropriate for me/for now. The beauty of a long list is its inherent customization-ability.

I’ve written letters to my local police department, city councilors, state and federal representatives and senators, as well as my governor; inquiring about police procedures, advocating penal reform, bail reform, sentencing reform, parole reform. Reform being the common thread. I’ve watched more Spike Lee, read more Ta-Nehisi Coates and even more James Baldwin. I’ve fallen deeply in love with Amber Ruffin, whose “Amber Says What!” proves that woke can be hysterical while forging common bonds among disparate humans over truly important things: like Stanley Tucci.

But I digress. I joined the Boston branch of SURJ (Stand Up for Racial Justice) and participated in a slew of (online) discussions and trainings about structural racism, my role in sustaining it, and opportunities to lean my shoulder toward bending our arc toward justice.

This being the United States, activism, like everything else, is tied to money. Bye-bye Bank of America and indexed mutual funds, hello local community bank, social investment funds, and deposits in Black-owned One United. Hold steady traditional social service philanthropy, while I fuel organizations with activist agendas. I selected ones that resonate with me; there are plenty that will speak directly to you.

There is certain satisfaction in checking off a list of personal action items in response to the societal canker exposed by the pandemic and systematic racism. I need the education, my elected officials need my opinion, these organization need my money. But if I mistake personal enrichment for real change, I am missing the point. Brandon Kyle Goodman’s worthwhile You Tube video, addresses the difference between reactive and systemic change. Tabulating a list of actions and addressing each is a viable reaction to the ugly belly of our society so brutally exposed over the past four months (four years? four centuries?). Reactive tasks, no matter how numerous, cannot create systemic change. However, they are the catalyst from which systemic change can emerge.

If we do something often enough, long enough, focused enough, we form a pattern. The deeper we track a pattern, the more it seethes into our being, until it becomes integral to us. We each nurture healthy patterns and questionable ones. Good thing I walk 10,000 steps a day, since I gobble a sweet after every meal—I mean even breakfast. The value of studiously attending the list of “75 Things a White Person Can Do…” cannot be found in any particular item. The value accrues from spending time, every day, for three months thinking about people whose lives are very different from mine, trying to better understand how the singular deck of economic and cultural cards that makes my life so satisfying, is stacked against them. The value is in forming a pattern of thinking about—and appreciating—other ways of being. I don’t beat myself up for being a white male. Nor do I pretend that I will be the tipping point of change. But if I keep my pattern going, keep learning and acting as an anti-racist, I will contribute some small part in a shift towards equity.

Kara Springer’s A Small Matter of Engineering, Part II is the featured image of Corinne Shatuck’s post. My initial reaction to the image was discomforting. What makes these four words (white people. do something.) on a black canvas, art? And why is it that white people have to do something? Haven’t white people already done enough—good and bad—in this world? Aren’t we in a mode when white people ought to step aside and allow others take their turn steering? This blogger, convinced the world will be better when the humans do less, had to wrassle with the notion of white people doing more. Until, of course, I realized, we are not being challenged to do more. We are being challenged to do different. And since white people developed the systems under which our society operates, either we take the lead in unraveling them, or face the revolutionary anthems our oppression will deservedly inspire.

Ms. Shatuck keeps adding to her Medium list. By mid-summer it was “97 Things White People Can Do…” Last I checked it was “103 Things White People Can Do…” There are plenty of things I can do to feed my pattern of conscious anti-racism, to make it stronger. Which is what it will take to turn a spreadsheet of action items…into systemic change.

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The Measure of All Things

Pat Barker’s 1992 novel, Regeneration, is about many things. The futility of war, the assumptions of Freudian psychotherapy, the defacto caste system of early twentieth century Britain, the absurdity of England’s attitude towards homosexuals. An anti-war novel without a single shot; the love story between Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen without a single touch.

Almost nothings happens—except talk—within the cloistered mental hospital where WWI British officers are sent for however long it takes for them to ‘recover’ from shell shock enough to return to trenches in France. Then, abruptly, in the final chapter, another talking head—this one actually named Head— takes us on a late night detour in recounting a long ago trip to the Solomon Islands.

“I don’t know whether you’ve ever had…the experience of having your life changed by a quite trivial incident…I was on the Southern Cross—that’s the mission boat—and there was a group of islanders there—recent converts. You can always tell if they’re recent, because the women still have bare breasts…I started asking questions. The first question was, what would you do with it if you earned or found a guinea? Should you share it, and if so, who would you share it with? It gets their attention because to them it’s a lot of money, and you can uncover all kinds of things about kinship structure and economic arrangements, and so on. Anyway, at the end of this…they decided they’d turn the tables on me…What would I do with a guinea? Who would I share it with? I explained I was unmarried and that I wouldn’t necessarily feel obliged to share it with anybody. They were incredulous. How could anybody live like that? And so it went on, question after question. And it was one of those situations, you know, where one person starts laughing and everybody joins in and in the end the laughter just feeds off itself. They were rolling round the deck by the time I’d finished. And suddenly I realized that anything I told them would have got the same response. I could have talked about sex, repression, guilt, fear—the whole sorry caboodle—and…they wouldn’t’ve felt a twinge of disgust or disapproval or…sympathy, or anything, because it would all have been too bizarre. And I suddenly saw that their reactions to my society were neither more nor less valid than mine to theirs. And do you know that was a moment of the most amazing freedom. I lay back and I closed my eyes and I felt as if a ton weight had been lifted.

“…the Great White God dethroned…We quite unselfconsciously assumed we were the measure of all things. That was how we approached them. And suddenly I saw not only that we weren’t the measure of all things, but there was no measure.”

Within that sideways vignette exists, for me, the essence of all human understanding; illumination upon the chasms that divide us. Every person measures the world around her and establishes identity from the actual position he occupies, as well as her relative relationships to others. An origin point at the spine is the only way a sentient creature can measure their place in the world. Which leads, logically, to misunderstanding, self-centeredness, narcissism, selfishness, prejudice, dominance, the whole sorry caboodle of distrust and violence.

 

The way through this conundrum is, of course, through education and travel: witnessing other ways of being and acknowledging their validity. I believe there are fundamental truths that must apply to all of us if we are ever to attain a civil society (the Golden Rule, anyone?) But I also realize that the parameters that guide my world are not the same as the ones that guide others. And I can be alright with that.

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Two-Way Affirmative Action

 

Recently, I completed a survey from Beth Israel Lahey Health, the mother ship of Mount Auburn Hospital, where I volunteer three days a week. It was a simple, two question survey from the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Career Advancement.

Q1: How have recent Black Lives Matter activities affected your work? (A: They haven’t.)

Q2: How can BILH improve opportunities for all our staff?

My initial response was boilerplate affirmative action stuff: make more opportunities for BIPoC to advance in their careers; have more BIPoC in positions with authority and responsibility, blah, blah, blah.

Then I took off a tangent, not entirely knowing where it would go. “At the hospital where I work, virtually all the transport staff are Haitian men; the housekeepers LatinX women. Why is that? Why isn’t there more diversity at all levels of the job spectrum?”

I offered nothing more specific. But in the days that followed, I realized there could be real advantages to implementing affirmative action in both directions; requiring that, at some proportionate level, every job is filled by a cross-section of our local population.

The knee-jerk response to this idea is obvious. How are we going to get white people to do the jobs that BIPoC’s do when white people don’t want them? Besides, isn’t the whole idea of affirmative action passe? How or why would we ever require more?

Yet there’s beauty nested within the idea of two-way affirmative action. If employers needed to hire a certain number of white people to push stretchers and clean hospital rooms (and process meat and collect garbage and pick crops and do all the other activities that white people rarely do) then employers would have to improve the conditions of work. They would have to increase wages and provide better benefits and improve working conditions to attract white workers. All of which would lift the standards of work for people of color.

Sure, I want to see more BIPoC in professional and managerial positions. But we will actually change the living conditions of the broadest number of people if we elevate the grunt jobs that are almost exclusively the province of Blacks and Browns to include some white folks as well.

A crazy idea, perhaps, and hard to set into law in a country where we can’t even mandate a minimum living wage. But a worthy objective that would raise a whole lot of low-tided boats.

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Pool Paddle

 

A few years ago a friend of mine was minding his sister-in-law Adelaide’s son for the afternoon. The day was hot and sticky, so Mike took five-year-old Zach to a local pool. When it was time to go home, Zach ignored Mike and refused to get out of the water. Mike’s temper flared. In a pique of anger, he lifted Zach out of the pool and slapped the boy’s behind.

As quick as the impact landed, so too arrived Mike’s regret and remorse. They were not a family who hit their kids. Zach’s cry registered surprise as well as sting, though the sting was obvious: a red mark emerged beneath the boy’s bathing suit.

Mike told Zach he’d made a mistake. He apologized to Adelaide and her husband Tom when he took the boy home. Mike drove away, sincerely chastened.

The next day Mike was arrested. Zach’s parents had called the police and filed a complaint. Thus began the spiral of officers, attorneys, and social workers. Thus ceased civil contact between two segments of the family. As a white male without a previous record, Mike’s punishment was light: a fine; counseling; probation with the eventual possibility of a fully expunged record. Mike’s action prompted other changes. A long-time high school teacher, Mike decided to change careers for fear that his impulsive temper might flare in the classroom. And though Mike voiced consistent penitence, sometimes the consequences of that afternoon turned him belligerent, for however light his sentence might have been, it added up to a whole lot of wrath for a single slap.

At the time of the incident, my concern for my friend centered on his logistical challenges in navigating the criminal justice system. Mike completed the checklist of activities required for his punishment. By any objective measure the case is successfully closed: Mike will think twice before raising his hand again. Yet the rift between the two families has hardened.

The events chronicled here are true. Everyone’s name has been changed, even though no one is fully innocent.

Mike’s story came stampeding back into my head during a recent Zoom training about transformative justice. This summer’s agitation about police brutality has, belatedly, made me question how exactly police ‘protect and serve’ us. I’ve also begun to understand more deeply the structural flaws in a justice system premised on punishment. Under the guise of protecting the victim, we basically freeze the relationships of all parties to a crime at the worst possible moment. Restorative justice offers a positive direction; it seeks to bring parties together, address what transpired, and shape punishment in the form of amends. But transformative justice takes a step beyond. Transformative justice contends that the judicial system cannot address the root causes of criminality because it is rooted in a system that’s inherently unbalanced—the United States of America. Transformative justice empowers people to seek justice outside of existing systems. Not as vigilantes. As engaged neighbors and citizens, who mutually take care of one another.

As a white person living in a safe neighborhood, this idea is foreign to me. When we are harmed we call the police, and they ‘protect and serve’ us. However, that mindset does not apply to poor communities and communities of color. These sectors of our society don’t see police as a solution. Police represent the problem, and they represent it with guns on their belts.

As the ramifications of transformative justice sink into me, my friend’s tragedy has reemerged in my mind. Mike and I rarely talk about his abusive act and subsequent punishment anymore; or whether he misses teaching, hanging out with Adelaide and Tom, or watching Zach grow up. In Mike’s case, the police did the right thing: arrested a man who struck a child. They acted appropriate to their role from the moment they were called on the case.

But the precepts of transformative justice redirect the pertinent issue in this story. Why were the police called in the first place? Mike will never know what Zach told his parents when the boy returned from the pool; he will never see how bad that bruise turned, or why Adelaide and Tom decided to call the police. What he does know is that they chose to hand the situation over to the law rather than communicate directly with their brother-in-law.

Somewhere between the 1950’s and 2010’s we, as individuals and as a society, began offloading the difficult task of getting along and taking care of each other to government authorities. I pick the year 1950 only because there was no way, when this rather fat, clumsy, bullied boy was growing up, that my parents would call the police when a neighbor slapped my behind. No way. Yet in 2020 many Americans make a libertarian cry for less government and more individual freedom, and then defer a family dispute—serious, yet completely internal to the family—to the public arena.

We have grown to expect social agencies to provides services that families used to provide themselves. Our schools provide lunch, and breakfast, as well as a Friday backpack of weekend food for undernourished students; senior programs provide meals, social activities and rides to appointments. The same expectations apply more and more to our policing. Adelaide and Tom had every ‘right’ to call the police; their son had been struck. But what they did wasn’t right. It was safe, non-confrontational, even easy. In calling the police, they avoided the hard work of having to address a difficult problem within their own family. As a result, the family is permanently diminished.

Reshaping how the police protect and serve us—all of us—requires all of us to reconsider how we lean on the police. Call them less. Communicate amongst ourselves more. Even, especially, when it is difficult to do.

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Measuring Experience

Toni Morrison once told Hilton Als that being a black woman writer is “…richer than being a white male writer because I know more and have more experience.” (The New Yorker, October 27, 2003).

Immediately upon reading that phrase, I recalled my grad school professor, Jack Myer, who had a penchant for expanding the contours of architectural education to encompass, well, everything. Jack once said, “The extent of any person’s experience is determined by only one thing: how long they have lived on this earth. The person who’s traveled wide has a certain kind of experience. The person who has lived quiet and constant has another. Each individual’s experience is different; there is no way to quantify or compare.”

Scott Fitzgerald’s antics informed a particular type of writing; Marcel Proust’s ruminations quite another. Can we say that F. Scott Fitzgerald had more experience? I don’t think so.

Most of us lead lives that ebb and flow between activity and contemplation. Marlene Dietrich was the world’s highest paid movie star, then a World War II heroine, then a Vegas chanteuse before spending the final twelve years of her life in isolation. Fading glamour may have been a factor in her decision to trade the experience of action for solitude, and her withdrawal from life was extreme; yet for many the trajectory of active youth and adulthood gives way to a natural slowing down and corresponding reflection.

 

When we experience periods of life lived intensely, our senses are more acute, time expands, we remember more specific detail. Fighting in war, demonstrating for peace, bearing a child, engaging in a foreign culture. Certain experiences etch deeper in our psyche. Four years have passed since I completed my year-long bicycle journey through the United States, yet I can still recall every day: who I met; where I slept; what I saw. But I’d be hard-pressed to tell you the specifics of three weeks ago Wednesday. That does mean I had ‘more’ experience then compared to now. The character of my days is completely different. Actually, the quietude of my present state allows me to continue to review and analyze that previous period of heightened sensation. Prior activity informs the passive state; the passive period graces the active with perspective.

At this moment, we are living through a collective time of diminished activity and interaction. The COVID-19 pandemic has lulled us into a pattern where every day seems the same. Many—most—of us are itching to get more active, more connected. Yet the experience of so much down time has intrinsic worth. For contemplation. For consideration. For every plant, animal, and ecosystem on our planet to breathe easier because we humans have slowed down.

 

It is presumptive of me to say that Toni Morrison chose a wrong word, but she did. Her writing is not richer than a white male’s because she knows more and has more experience. To proclaim to know more than another is elitist in its own peculiar way. Toni Morrison’s knowledge and experience is important because it’s singular, fresh. She delivers a voice not enough heard. A voice unencumbered by the assumptions and blinders of the dominant culture. Equivalent in experience and knowledge. Neither more than nor less than. Welcome and important. On par with every other human that carries the memory of how many years it’s inhabited this earth.

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August Recess

I received an email ripe with despair from an activist mentor the other day, her festering rage deflated by exhaustion and lost hope. Instead of rallying her to carry on, I took a different tack. Told her to take a break, relax, and reboot. There will be another day to sally forth, stronger.

The Awkward Poser, like most of us these days, is completely over sequestering and social distancing, hand washing and face masking—though he still does them all. He’s sweaty from a record hot summer—though it will likely seem cool compared to summer’s ahead. He’s fatigued from delving ever deeper into our nation’s systematic abuse of people of color, and frustrated by how difficult it is to change. And he’s totally over a country whose leaders teeter on autocracy while our morals plummet so far from mutual respect and caring, they dangle from a mere dollar sign.

If you share my exhaustion and that of my friend, take a break. Kick back and enjoy the joys of summer that come to all, regardless of virus-status or political inclination. Breath in all the good that nature provides. Sit in awe at an impressionistic full moon. Marvel at the sweet breeze. Appreciate the abundant daisies, warbling birds and howling coyotes. The earth is still a wondrous place, and humans are still its most wondrous creatures.

I wish everyone leisurely moments to bask in summer’s glory.

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Let Equality Evolve into Equity

Equality is the foundation of a just society. In theory and in statute, everyone is equal in the eyes of the law even as, in practice, we often fall short. However, even if fully applied, strict equality will not deliver the optimal society.

Why? Because even though we may be equal under the law, no two of us are alike. What each of us can best offer—and what we most need—varies. Every person makes different economic, intellectual, and cultural contributions; each requires different benefits. Which is why, when I envision the world I’m working towards, I more often speak of equity. Equity is the foundation of a fair society: one in which everyone has the resources to become his or her best self.

The value of striving beyond equality—to equity—became clear to me while observing the most fair-minded humans I know: kindergarteners.

My two children are a rare breed; they actually grew up Cambridge. The city renowned for over 20,000 college students nurtures very few youngsters. Which is unfortunate, because I found their public-school experience excellent.

When my children were in grade school, I walked around the corner and picked them up from school three afternoons a week. Note the privilege of time, safety, and flexibility nested in that single sentence. Every time I entered the Haggerty School I was struck by the genial buzz of incipient chaos. The place bore no resemblance to the ordered silence of St. Joseph’s School, which I attended as a boy. I dismissed my incomprehension quick as it registered. I don’t pretend to know anything about progressive educational methods. What I did know was that my children seemed happy, curious, thriving. That seemed enough.

A quick chat with their teacher, greeting other parents, stopping at the mom-and-pop across the street for a snack. Collecting another child or two for afternoon play, or perhaps farming out mine own. Even at the time, our urban neighborhood seemed idyllic. In retrospect, it assumes the aura of dream.

It takes a lot of rules, discussion, and general gnashing of minds for a place like Cambridge to retain its progressive liberal chops. That’s particularly true in the public schools, which are integrated by race and socio-economic status. Every public grade school includes the same percentage of children of color and those who qualify for free lunch. This objective has led to a complicated system of magnet schools, neighborhood schools, and immersion schools. Before our eldest began kindergarten, we learned how the system worked, yet chose the simplest path: our neighborhood school.

The Haggerty School had a particular niche within the Cambridge system: a focus on mainstreaming that resulted in a high percentage of inclusion students. In the 1990’s, about quarter of Haggerty students had IEP’s (Individual Education Plans). From the start, my children’s classmates included autistic boys and Downs syndrome girls, as well as kids distributed by skin shade and household income. The great thing about this mélange of four- and five-year-old’s is that Kindergartener’s acute sense of fairness can figure out how to all get along much better than us jaded old folks.

Apropos of its inclusionary focus, the motto of the Haggerty School is: ‘Everyone is different. Everyone belongs.’ A simple statement that conveys that equity is more complex than equality. Even for kindergarteners, equity can be a tough sell. Everyone getting the same thing is clearly fair. Everyone getting what they need is fair in theory, but results in children getting different amounts: of attention, of latitude, of snack. Why Josie was allowed to behave in class differently than my son took a lot of explaining, on the part of his teacher, and me.

Which gets to the crux of why equity is so much more difficult to achieve than equality. If everyone’s inputs and outputs are not the same, who decides that they should be? If everyone’s needs are different, who decides who gets what?

This is the point where my ideology soars beyond the practical; where I transcend the history of human experience to reach beyond selfishness, avarice, insecurity, and fear. I believe that each person should be able to determine what they will contribute, as well as what they need. Rubbish? You say. Anarchy? Complete societal breakdown?

Possibly. Probably, in the short run. But consider this. If people truly believed there was enough to go around (which there clearly is) and that it would be distributed fairly (which it clearly is not), then we wouldn’t feel compelled to save and hoard. If we actually trusted that we’d take care of one another, we could stop reacting to each other in wary suspicion. If we could participate meaningfully in our society, we’d realize it’s healthier to be engaged than to be a passive consumer.

This is a distant dream. One that requires more than a complete overhaul of society as currently structured. It requires evolutionary rewiring to stop eyeballing each other in fear and instead abet each other in sympathy. It won’t happen in my lifetime, or in any of yours. But I’d rather strive toward a positive direction than capitulate to the divisive posturing of our current so-called leaders.

We live in a society that provides equality in theory, if too often in name only. Let’s work to lock that equality in and make it real for all. Then, let’s move beyond equality, and work towards equity.

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The Long Blue Line

“It shall not be lawful for any negroe or other slave to carry or arme himself with any club, staffe, gunn, sword or any other weapon of defense or offence, nor to goe or depart from his masters ground without a certificate from his master, mistris or overseer, and such permission not to be granted but upon perticuler and necessary occasions; and every negroe or slave soe offending not having a certificate as aforesaid shalbe sent to the next constable, who is hereby enjoyned and required to give the said negroe twenty lashes on his bare back well layd on, and soe sent home to his said master, mistris or overseer…that if any negroe or other slave shall absent himself from his masters service and lye hid and lurking in obscure places, committing injuries to the inhabitants, and shall resist any person or persons that shalby any lawfull authority be imployed to apprehend and take the said negroe, that then in case of such resistance, it shalbe lawfull for such person or persons to kill the said negroe or slave soe lying out and resisting.”

  • Virginia Slave Code, 1680

For over a hundred years now, the United States has fancied itself the standard bearer of freedom throughout the world, even as it maintained that illusion through military force.

At home, the land of the free—for some—was the built upon the oppression—of others.

The dichotomy between our ideals and how they’re practiced is at the core of historian Jill Lepore’s excellent article, “The Long Blue Line: Inventing the Police.” (The New Yorker, July 20, 2020).

The police’s stated objective is to protect and serve. Yet, how often they pursue that objective through violence against people—too often Black—who reside outside the dominant culture—defined by Whites.

It’s doubtful whether in protecting an elite subset of our population by inflicting violence on others, the police best serve any of us. Ms. Lepore’s article is necessary reading for anyone seeking to learn from, rather than repeat history. Because right now, events in 2020 too closely mirror Virginia’s Slave Code from 340 years ago.

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STOP Trusting Polls

Independence Day is in the rear-view mirror. Labor Day looms, and with it, the final laps of this Presidential marathon.

Biden leads nationally by eight percentage points. Biden and Trump are tied in Wisconsin. Biden widens gap in crucial Pennsylvania. Biden ten points up in Texas. Every day the pollsters report more and more support for Biden. Do not believe a word of it.

Four years ago, as I bicycled the byroads of America, every poll indicated that Hillary Clinton would be elected our President. Right up until she wasn’t. The day after the election, Trump signs bloomed like dandelions on previously apolitical lawns.

What went wrong? The basic assumptions of American electoral politics, that’s all.

Consider the representative Trump supporter, circa 2016. All in for the guy who was going to Lock Her Up and Drain the Swamp. What do you tell a pollster who calls you on the phone, or pops up on your Internet feed? The most disruptive response you can conjure: “Hillary Clinton.” There was no upside in revealing the election booth truth, that you will pull the Donald’s lever. Much more effective to feed the media’s story line that Trump is a barely credible candidate, even as the media’s fixation on the man made him credible by dominantly covering him.

Hillary Clinton is not in prison, and unlikely to be there anytime soon. The swamp is still murky, even as the Trump International Hotel soaks in nefarious influence and greed. I don’t know what claims Donald Trump will make during his second Presidential campaign, though I suspect the man will do or say anything to succeed.

What I do know is, there’s still no reason for a Trump supporter would tell a pollster the truth about his or her vote. General disruption is better served in professing support for Biden.

 

Recent media stories describe how the ‘shy Trump’ effect was inaccurate, and that it does not apply this election cycle. As if, after misleading pollsters, Trump voters have any incentive to be more forthcoming to the social scientists who follow in their wake. More consistent stories report that soft-supporters of Hilary Clinton sat on their hands election day because her victory seemed a foregone conclusion. Thanks, in large part, to polls.

It’s time we ascribed polls to their quaint place in history. To a time when people accurately revealed their opinions and action. When speaking the truth was the default thing to do.

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Painting Our Pandemic

““E pluribus unum,” a magnificent ideal, thuds on “unum” every day throughout the land.”

That sentence, in Peter Schjeldahl’s magnificent review of Edward Hopper: A Fresh Look at Landscape (The New Yorker, June 8&15 2020), stopped me short. Not just because it’s such a political statement for an art review. Also because it’s so true.

The review unfolds in a hop-scotch of art description and real-world bizarreness. Like when Mr. Schjeldahl confesses that he has not actually seen the exhibition he’s reviewing (due to COVID-19 lockdown). His review is based on the exhibit’s catalogue, and his memory of Hopper’s viewed past. “Once you’ve seen a Hopper, it stays seen, lodged in your mind’s eye.”

Of course, he’s correct. A photograph of a Jackson Pollack just conveys mess, while the tactile spread of actual, in person, paint unnervingly sucks you in. A reproduction of a Vermeer cannot convey the glistening quality of the real thing, hanging in the Rijksmuseum. But Hopper, flat and surrealistically accurate, maintains its power through the filter of page or screen.

Often, Hopper paints us looking in on someone unaware of our intrusion. A person alone, so alone. A person made isolate by the fact of being so fully rendered. A person for whom the relative comforts of mid-twentieth-century American life leaves him or her exposed rather than comforted. Women liberated from their kitchens, ill at ease in broader habitats. Men equally awkward away from toil. Electric light so harsh, city structures so solid yet so constraining.

Even during the Depression, Hopper understood that solitude was the essential attribute of America life; an attribute that came into full flower only later in the twentieth century, when our unparalleled affluence made solitude available to so many. Stirred to autonomy and independence (in no small part by the corporate urgings of a consumer society) without regard for their consequence, we neglected to heed the aloneness inherent in Hopper’s paintings. We created the loneliest human society ever known.

“We are alone—together” is one of the many signs of hope we see taped to the inside of windows during this pandemic. I don’t buy it. If our uncoordinated, individualistic response to COVID-19 illustrates anything, it’s that we are not together. We are simply alone. With Edward Hopper, via catalogue, to illustrate that the mere comfort of shelter cannot salve the trauma of isolation

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