What is a civilian? A common idea is that a civilian is non-military. Civilians get trapped in wars, but they are not warriors. That is a common idea of what they are not, but what are they, and would you like to become one?
I don’t think it is a full-time position. There are too many other things to do—to provide for one another, to protect one another, and to create and maintain a meaningful life with others. Still, being a civilian may fit quite well with these activities.
I imagine a civilian as someone who belongs to the civic; someone who does civic work. And what is the work of the civic? In brief, civic work emerges from conversations on how we should live together; conversations based on our common humanity and that seriously explore our social differences. These conversations could result in policy proposals for various forms and levels of governance.
Our common humanity is quite empirical. We can see that all of us are contemporaries. We all participate in the biosphere, and all our grandchildren will inherit the planet we bequeath to them. We all experience similar emotions—fear, anger, joy, disgust, surprise, and sadness—even though we may feel quite differently about them. Finally, we all seek security and freedom, but, of course, we have quite different ways of pursing them. There is a common humanity, but it has been violated and needs repair.
The violations are intertwined with our social differences. In the West, white male power has provided unacknowledged advantages to some at the tremendous expense of others. The multiple experiences of exploitation, oppression, and aggression have created a deep chasm between our social differences. The common humanity that could serve as a basis for bridging this chasm will only become available to us when we work together to repair its violations. This work, I would like to propose, is civilian work.
To be a civilian, in a positive sense, is to engage with others in working through our social differences from the civic space between our common humanity and our social differences—the space that holds us as we learn how to live together. Would you like to be a civilian? That is enough work for everyone.
Because white power does not understand itself in terms of its relationships with people of color, it has a distorted view of itself and of the world it thinks it controls.
This distortion results not only in a misreading of our social connections, but also a failure to truly understand the current threats of climate change. This distortion, in other words, prevents appropriate responses to the challenges of justice sand sustainability.
The distortion results from the white power assumption that one can separate one’s self from the other, and understand one’s self by one’s self. The source of one’s identity as “white” and as “power” has been severed from its social, historical, linguistic, and natural context. Whiteness is not recognized as a manifestation of Black/White relations. The fact is that just as you cannot understand Black people in the United States without understanding White people, you cannot understand White people without understanding Black people. Whiteness is one side of Black and White.
The same is true about Western history. Just as you cannot understand Africa without understanding Europe, you cannot really understand Europe without understanding Africa. There are some stories, of course, that are particular to Africa or Europe, but what we might call the “grand narratives,” or the “big picture” stories require that we include both Africa and Europe. From the American perspective, that means that such stories have their primary context in the Atlantic triangular trade among Europe, Africa, and the Americas. This trade was based on the acquiring of slaves in Africa and the taking of land in the Americas. Human and non-human nature became a commodity in the hands of Europeans. Our current condition is that instead of white European/Americans understanding ourselves in this Atlantic context, we understand ourselves as “individuals.”
Individualism assumes that there exists a self below all of one’s social relations. In his book, Inventing the Individual, Larry Siedentop attributes individualism to the West to the replacement of family and local gods with Christian monotheism (2015). One god meant that all persons had souls in need of salvation. This “soul” was deeper than any family and social identity. Siedentop’s historical analysis ends with the beginning of the modern age when secular thinkers borrowed this religious individualism to develop what we know as modern liberalism.
What Siedentop does not say is that the context of modern liberalism changed from the Mediterranean Sea and the European continent to the Atlantic Ocean. Most Europeans failed to take this new Atlantic context into account in their thinking. Adam Smith, for example, didn’t write about the real source of wealth he enjoyed in Scotland, which was the business of importing and exporting tobacco from American plantations. John Lock, who many consider the philosopher of American ideology, not only invested in the Atlantic slave trade, but also served on a board overseeing African trading. His view of freedom, in fact, is merely the opposite of being a slave. You either owned yourself or you were owned by someone else. If liberalism has been successful in anything, it has been successful in hiding the role of African slavery in its understanding of itself. In fact, this has been the primary privilege of white power.
Ignoring these relations does have its consequences. It means that white people in Europe and America have a distorted view of themselves and the world in which they live. White power cannot see what needs to be done to establish just social relations, nor can they see what we must do to save the planet. We have their plans, but most of our plans will remain just plans until we begin to restore and repair our relationships with each other and with the planet.
I have been thinking for some time about the notion of an invitation, and I began to wonder if anyone had invited me to say what I have to say. Most white people, like myself, probably assume that others want to hear what we have to say. That’s why we talk and write so much. I came to realize its not so simple, especially if you want to engage in a conversation with others. I tried to imagine how such a conversation might begin. Here it is:
I would like to share my ideas about how we should live together.
You want to talk to me about how we should live together?
Did I invite you?
Well, no. I do assume we have to live together. Right?
No, not really, and I am not sure if you know what you are asking.
What do you mean?
Do you know enough about me to know whether or not you want to live with me?
Probably not, but I could learn about you if we engage in a conversation about how we want to live together.
Do you really want to learn about me?
Of course, at least as much as you want to know about me?
I already know enough about you.
How can you say that? We have not started sharing.
I know that you think you can engage in a conversation with me whenever you want to.
I guess so. What is wrong with that?
It indicates that you don’t really understand our social differences. Did you notice that I am a different gender and skin color? We really do live in different social worlds. I would never approach you as you have approached me.
Because you remain unaware of things that are different for us, so I cannot really trust you.
My goodness, I didn’t know that. I assumed that I could express my ideas and then you would respond with your ideas, and we could then continue an interesting exchange of ideas.
Sorry, I know I will lose if we engage in such an exchange of ideas. You are really good at dealing with ideas.
You make that sound like a liability.
It’s only a liability when it diverts us from paying attention to what is preventing us from developing a relationship.
I thought we are relating.
Well, we are talking, but so far we have been sending messages to each other, not really engaging in the creation of a conversation that unites us—a conversation that allows us to really see and feel each other’s presence.
What needs to happen for us to move into that kind of conversation?
I need to invite you.
People need an invitation to their common humanity. Without the invitation, we remain trapped in our social differences.
And what is preventing you from inviting me?
As I said, it is a matter of trust.
Listen. We really are in this together. We are both persons who at this moment are engaged in this conversation.
We are not in this together. I live in a legacy of violations of our common humanity through racism sexism, and imperialism, and you do not. In fact, your family has benefited from these inequalities.
OK, I can admit that. Still, I didn’t choose my parents any more than you did. I am not responsible for how things happen.
I am not blaming you. Your privileges make my realities invisible to you. I am expressing the need to repair the violation of our common humanity. Without repair, we will never really be able to invite each other into a truly civic conversation.
I find this really humiliating.
I’m not guilty for what happened years ago. I wasn’t even born, and my parents may be white, but they worked hard for what they got.
Let me ask you something. What makes you feel humiliated?
I feel so presumptuous.
What does that mean?
I assumed I could help improve things. I do have resources. But I didn’t have any idea you would give me so much flack. It’s just uncomfortable.
And why do you feel that way now?
It’s the way you look at me.
You mean the way you see yourself in my eyes?
I don’t know, I just feel vulnerable.
I will not harm you.
Will you protect me?
We have had to protect ourselves from the likes of you for a long time.
I am sorry.
We both live in a violent world, a world that harms some much more than others. These violations of our common humanity need to be repaired.
So, what should we do?
Can I ask you a question?
When you were growing up, did you Mother tell you that you were special?
Well, you are not special. You’re one of us. Just another person
(long pause) That’s a weird idea. I was just accepting the idea that we are different.
We are different, and we are the same. To engage in a meaningful conversation, we must be open to learning what this means. Can you do this?
I can try?
So what do you say?
The New York Times today (12/9) reports on the role of Bill Gates in getting keys nations to commit to spending billions on research and development to limit the production of greenhouse gases. This approach has a long history. The idea is that if you don’t like the way things are going, just wait until we find some new technology to fix it. This is very convenient for the 1 percent and their fans.
On the other hand, the documentary Cowspirary, provides compelling evidence that cows and animal agriculture produce more greenhouse gases than the burning of all fossil fuels. Decreasing the environmental harms of animal agriculture, of course, would require a change in our eating habits, and in the whole system of providing food. This is something we can do now. It would not do much for global economic growth, but it might save the planet.
Trump claims that he will make America great again. Have you been wondering when it was great? Here are some options
- It was great during the era of Jim Crow and lynching
- It was great in responding to the depression in the 1930’s
- It was great in defeating Germany and Japan
- It was great before the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-war movement, the feminist movement, the gay rights, movement, the Chicano movement, the Black Power movement, and the environmental movement.
Some might say America was great in responding to the devastation of the 1930’s by establishing a multitude of government programs that protected citizens from despair. The government provided jobs, built a national infrastructure, created public spaces, and gave millions of people security from destitution. My guess is that this is not Trump’s idea of greatness.
I doubt if Trump would select the movements of the 60’s and 70’s either.
So we are left with events of white economic growth in the 20’s, of winning a war (Atomic bombs are really great), and of white prosperity of the 1950’s.
These episodes might have been great for a lot of white people, but times of segregation, exclusion and misery for others. Is Trump’s promise a promise to create an America ruled by and for white people?
Trump’s racism is not so much that he despises people of color, but rather that he believes he is superior. He probably would not say that he is superior because he is white. He doesn’t have to. His followers understand him as an emblem of white superiority. They don’t have to say so either because white superiority is something that goes-without-saying.
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