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The Easy Way Out

Electricity, Water, People….

 

Name three things that follow the path of least resistance.

Some things are funny, some things are true, and some things are funny because they’re true. Most things are funny when Johnny Carson says them, and I used to love those old sketches where he puts on his ridiculous turban, reads three seemingly random words, and then gives the punchline, some unexpected commonality or question that they all answer. Funny or not, it’s hard to deny that most people do the easy thing in most situations. People are always looking for easier ways to do almost everything, and that isn’t a bad thing. That’s why we have all kinds of technology, everything from smart phones to jet airplanes. Almost every invention represents a successful attempt to make some aspect of our lives easier. It’s all about getting more results for less effort. We even have an economic statistic to measure it, productivity, basically the total of our economic output divided by the number of people. People are more productive than ever before in history, and getting more productive all the time. In fact, we’re so productive that at this rate, we will soon reach a point where our various inventions do so much of our work that there isn’t enough work to keep everyone employed, at which point our leaders may just throw up their hands and give everyone money to spend (universal basic income), because it’s…wait for it… easier than coming up with some scheme to give everyone some kind of life sustaining job. It’s kind of funny when you think about it. We wouldn’t be so productive and efficient if we weren’t so unfailingly lazy.

Unfortunately, our tendency towards laziness isn’t always a good thing. There are some problems that, by their very nature, defy easy solutions, problems like racism. Nobody can honestly say racism isn’t an issue in our society. It’s a problem, and it’s not a uniquely American problem. It’s a human problem, and like most other aspects of human nature, it’s hard to change. Changing a person’s mind is harder than building a robot, or an army of robots. There’s no instruction manual, no algorithm, no surefire way to change somebody’s attitude. There’s no shortcuts, no quick fix, no way to increase your productivity. Some people can be persuaded to change, and others can’t, and there’s no way but one mind at a time.

So, when I hear things like “We need to eradicate systemic racism”, I’m skeptical that such a goal is realistic, or possible at all. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Some battles are worth fighting even when they can’t be won. In such battles, we should be wary of our own tendency to take the easy way out. Our current climate of racial awareness sprang from the death of a black man at the hands of a white officer. The officer has been arrested and one hopes he will be punished for his crime. Still, this example is hardly an isolated incident. Racism, felt or subconscious, among police officers seems to be a serious problem, and the fix won’t be easy. It isn’t something that can be fixed by Congress passing a law or the President issuing a statement. There’s very little actual law enforcement at the federal level. It’s a few departments like the FBI, or ICE, with a very limited actual jurisdiction. Some law enforcement is at the state level also, but the vast majority of officers, and the vast majority of incidents, are locally controlled, by whatever city or county. That’s thousands of people serving in hundreds of cities and towns throughout the US. Some are better and some are worse, but none of them are the same and all will have unique problems based on local laws and conditions. If this problem is ever going to be solved, it’s going to be solved slowly, one department, one officer at a time. There will be no declaration of victory, no major news story, just a lot of individual people doing the hard work one policy shift, one city council vote, one police chief replacement, at a time. Forget about eliminating racism in society. Even the limited task of reducing racism in policing is difficult, a long hard slog of unrewarding, unheralded slow and steady progress.

That doesn’t stop people from looking for an easy way out. NASCAR bans the confederate flag, The Washington Football team changes its name, Confederate statues being taken down.

Name three easy things to do that show an opposition to racism but don’t actually do anything to improve the lives of minorities.

I suspect that the only thing the above three things will accomplish is to make a few (probably white) people feel better about themselves. Knocking down a statue is pretty easy. All it really requires is a truck, some rope, and the permission of whoever owns said statue, or if you don’t mind going to jail, just the truck and the rope. It won’t change the historical fact that slavery happened. It won’t erase any of the real prejudice and discrimination that black people of today face. It won’t change much at all really, but it’s clearly anti racism, and it’s easy. Banning a symbol like the confederate flag is almost trivially easy. It just takes the leaders of an organization agreeing to ban something. It won’t really change the attitudes of any of the people who fly that flag. It won’t make them less racist. It’s more likely to just piss them off, which may or may not be constructive in the larger picture. Changing a team name just requires one person, the owner, to make a decision. Even if the owner doesn’t want to budge, it’s a business and enough financial consequences will probably change his mind. It won’t change the historical fact that European colonization decimated native populations with disease and conquered them one by one over a span of several centuries. It won’t give any Native Americans any of their land back, nor will it erase the results of several centuries worth of legitimate grievances. Still, it’s easy, so why not?

Don’t get me wrong. I actually favor two of those three things. I’m leery of banning Confederate flags because censorship sets a dangerous precedent. True, it’s not the same as the government banning flags, but for many reasons, some discussed below, we shouldn’t get into the habit of reflexively banning things we don’t like. The Washington team name should have been changed years ago because the entire issue is trivial and meaningless. Changing the name puts an end to it forever and we can all move on to more important things. I particularly favor the removal of confederate statues, because I always considered them rather ridiculous. It’s odd when you think about it. After all, the south lost, and the world is better for the result. The USA that won two World Wars and defeated Nazism and Communism would not exist if the south had won. Maybe that’s a biased view, but the victors always write the history, and we don’t honor the leaders of any of the other countries we’ve beaten in wars. I doubt anyone would favor putting up a statue of King George III, or Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, despite the fact that both of them could legitimately claim, like the confederates, to have ruled part of the historical United States at some point or other and could legitimately claim to enjoy the support of some significant segment of the local populations of the territories in question.  I suspect a lot of these confederate statues were put there as a way to remind outsiders (including white outsiders) that even though the south lost the war, we still don’t like you. They couldn’t carve a giant middle finger pointing northward so they settled on statues of generals and soldiers instead.  They probably should never have been erected in the first place. That, at least, was the opinion of General Robert E. Lee, probably the most commonly depicted confederate leader. Yes, in what is one of those little ironies of history, Lee opposed confederate memorials and would probably want the several hundred statues of himself in various small southern towns taken down. He wanted America to reconcile as a nation and not carry the seeds of division into the future. If the man himself didn’t want statues of himself, who are we to argue. Lee’s objections aside, I doubt, the statues mattered much then, or will matter much now. Putting up statues didn’t make the south any more racist than it already was. Taking down statues won’t make our country any less racist now. Neither will banning confederate flags or changing team names. There are decent arguments to be made for all these things, but the idea that these things will really make a difference against racism should not be one of them. Symbols don’t create the things they represent. It’s the other way around.

The bottom line is this. Erasing the symbols of racism won’t change racist attitudes. It’s not a new tactic. The Soviets tried to ban symbols of religion. There’s still plenty of religious Russians but not too many clamoring for the return of the Politburo. The Chinese government is still doing this, in Tibet, with Falun Gong, and worst of all, in Xinjiang ‘education camps’ for Muslims. Despite their Orwellian, high tech surveillance state and brutally efficient government, they won’t succeed either. This never works, yet no matter how much history passes, some things mankind never seems to learn. All the way back to Egyptians, Hebrews, Assyrians, and Babylonians, numerous conquerors have tried to replace the gods and traditions of conquered people with their own only to create militant minorities that never really go away. The few conquering empires who tolerate or incorporate the beliefs and traditions of locals, like the Persians, Mongols, and Romans, last centuries. Still, many before and since refuse to heed the lesson of history and continue to try because it was, and always will be, pretty easy to knock down a statue.

Our modern life, with all its devices, technologies, and conveniences has gotten all of us used to getting things the easy way, so we’re confused when confronted with something that can’t be solved that way. Changing attitudes, shifting cultures, is very hard. Our instinct is to treat those who hold differing views as enemies, suppress their attitudes, censor their speech, punish their beliefs. It’s a fault we all share, rich or poor, black or white, religious or nonreligious, Democrat or Republicans. It’s our tendency to take the easy path that dooms us to fight the same battles over and over. Really changing attitudes like racism is hard. Tolerating people whose attitudes turn your stomach is hard. Listening to opinions that make your blood boil is hard. It’s easy to love your friends, your family, the people that look, act, and think like you. Even the wicked love those who love them. Loving your enemy, tolerating the thing you can’t stand, listening to the words you will never agree with; that’s the harder path, and the only true path to peace.  The end of racism won’t come at the behest of kings, popes, presidents, or pop stars. Change like that only comes from the people. People will either change it themselves, or they won’t. Destroying symbols of hate doesn’t destroy hate. Only love can do that. We should remember that before we pat ourselves on the back for knocking down statues.

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