Racism 2020

Read this article. It may seem at first like just another outrage of the type that has become so common these days that we’re becoming inured to them. But there’s so much to unpack here that it’s worth spending a few minutes on this one:


First, if you want to know why it’s important to keep saying, “Black lives matter,” consider this statement from this election official: “The blacks are having lots (of) events for voter registration. People in Mississippi have to get involved, too[.]” Notice that she considers “The blacks” and “people” two different categories. If Black Americans aren’t people, their lives don’t matter. You won’t find a plainer statement of racism, or a more cogent justification for BLM.

Next, consider her “explanation” when called on her racism. First, she said she intended her message to be private—as if it is a defense to racism to say you didn’t mean for other people to find out. Second, she says she merely intended to encourage voter turnout. But how does expressing concern about Black registration encourage voter turnout? By stoking white fear, obviously. She’s trying to encourage white voter turnout, not voter turnout generally.

Third, she seems to realize that her “explanation” is such complete B.S. that it is incoherent. Her post, she says, “wasn’t intended to be anything.” Right. Did she have a seizure that caused her fingers to type randomly, and did that random typing just happen to result in complete sentences that just happened to relate to her official duties and just happened to express racism? Because otherwise, her post was intended to be something. She just can’t articulate a non-racist explanation, because there is none.

Last but not least, I first saw this story when it was posted to Facebook by a friend. His post cited an article in the New York Post, which I consider so trashy that I thought it worthwhile to corroborate the story from a more reputable source before reposting. I found local news outlets in Mississippi that reported it, several articles in African-American outlets like BET and theroot.com, and this article from the UK. I could not find an American national news outlet that reported this story. That is where we are in this country. A few short years after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act on the grounds that it isn’t necessary anymore, open racism on the part of election officials in the former Confederacy apparently is so ordinary that it is not even considered national news.

When Joe Biden wins in November this kind of racism will go back underground, where it festered before Donald Trump. It will not magically disappear. Racists will not suddenly find enlightenment. Most of them will be more articulate than this woman. They will rationalize and explain, and many people who don’t want to believe racism is a problem will be convinced because they want to be convinced. That’s how confirmation bias works. When that happens, remember what it was like when white supremacists felt it was safe to speak their true feelings aloud.

Macedonian Lives Matter

You guys would not believe what has happened. Last month, Linda asked me to transplant a rose bush in our backyard. I was out there digging a hole for the bush when my shovel hit something solid. I dug around it until I could pull it up. It was an earthen jar. Inside the jar was a scroll. On the scroll was writing in a language I could not understand.

We brought the scroll to experts at U.C. Davis, who have verified that the writing is a previously unknown dialogue written by the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato. It must have been in the possession of the previous owner of our house (a UCD professor) who forgot where he’d hidden it before he moved away.

The work has been translated. I am able to present it to you here for the first time. Enjoy.

The setting is the square in front of the amphitheater. Socrates has finished giving a lesson in philosophy to his students and is preparing to leave when he is approached by Phaedrus, a former student and longtime friend.

Socrates: Phaedrus, my dear fellow! How good to see you again!

Phaedrus: And you, Socrates, my teacher.

Socrates: But Phaedrus, you look upset. What has furrowed your brow so?

Phaedrus: Socrates, I have come from the agora. What I saw there has upset me terribly. A great wrong was done to a blameless citizen of Greece. I do not know how to make sense of the events I have witnessed.

Socrates: Tell me what you saw Phaedrus. Perhaps we can make sense of it together.

Phaedrus: I would be most grateful, my wise friend. I was just at the marketplace, where I saw a man shopping for fruit. His clothing distinguished him as a Macedonian. I saw several of our fellow Athenians eyeing him with suspicion—for what reason I do not know. When the man picked up several olives to look them over and set them back down, the merchant berated him. ‘Keep your filthy hands off my olives,’ said the merchant. ‘No Athenian will buy olives that Macedonian hands have touched.’

The man looked shocked at these words, but I fear the merchant was right. For when the Macedonian put down the olives, I saw looks of revulsion on the faces of nearby shoppers. Nevertheless, the Macedonian stood his ground. ‘I am Greek,’ said he. ‘I have as much right as any Greek to shop here, and to inspect your goods as any Greek would.’

Socrates: Indeed he does. Our laws provide for the equal treatment of all Greeks.

Phaedrus: Tell that to the Athenians I saw today! Socrates, the olive merchant was so enraged by the temerity of the Macedonian that he came out from behind his stall with a mallet, chased the man through the marketplace, and beat him to death! No one lifted a hand against the merchant.

Socrates: That is horrible!

Phaedrus: Yes, it was truly shocking. But I was equally disturbed by what happened next. Once it was clear that the Macedonian was dead, citizens of Athens who had witnessed the killing turned away and resumed their activities as if nothing had occurred. Now as it happened, the killing occurred in front of the stall of a woman selling amphorae. I turned to her and said, ‘Does this man’s life mean so little that his killing is as nothing to all who have seen it?’ She shrugged and said, ‘He was Macedonian.’ ‘But Macedonian lives matter,’ said I.

At this the woman rebuked me, saying, ‘All Greek lives matter. You should not say Macedonian lives matter, lest you denigrate the value of all other Greek lives.’ I had no response to this, and this is why I find myself so disturbed. I find no fault with the belief that all Greek lives matter—how could I? Yet it does not seem appropriate to respond to a specific crime with a statement that conveys only a general truth that is already known, and that demands no particular action. I find myself beset by confusion, Socrates. Do not Macedonian lives matter? Do not all Greek lives matter? Why is one statement made in response to the other as if they are opposites? Does the belief that Macedonian lives matter imply that others do not?’

Socrates: I understand your confusion, dear Phaedrus. Will you walk with me so that we may reason together?

Phaedrus: I would like nothing better, Socrates. But now I must visit the temple of the Oracle. My wife is with child, and I promised her I would seek the wisdom of the Oracle regarding the course of her pregnancy.

Socrates: Meet me tomorrow then, at the temple of Hephaestus. There we shall discuss this matter further.

Phaedrus: Until tomorrow, Socrates.

Socrates and his student, Phaedrus, meet on the steps of the temple of Hephaestus. There they continue the conversation begun the previous day.

Phaedrus: Good day, Socrates!

Socrates: Good day, Phaedrus. How propitious that we meet in this place. As Hephaestus molds elemental metals into objects of great strength and ingenuity, so do philosophers create strong and ingenious truths out of reason and logic.

Phaedrus: May it be so today.

Socrates: Do you remember, Phaedrus, when I first began to teach you the elements of logic?

Phaedrus: I do indeed.

Socrates: You recall, then, that we began by examining the relationships between specific things and ideas and the general categories into which they fall, in order to then discover their relationship to each other.

Phaedrus: Refresh my recollection, my teacher.

Socrates: How is the state of your farm, Phaedrus? Does it prosper? Do you still grow oranges and pine nuts there?

Phaedrus: My farm is well, and I still grow those crops. Why do you speak of such things now?

Socrates: Is it correct, Phaedrus, to say that an orange is a specific thing, and fruit is the general category into which it falls?

Phaedrus: It would seem so.

Socrates: Is it also correct that fruit can itself be described as a specific item in an even more general category; namely, produce of the earth?

Phaedrus: That is also true

Socrates: Is it further correct to say that all oranges are fruit?

Phaedrus: Yes, certainly.

Socrates: And is all fruit produce of the earth?

Phaedrus: Of course.

Socrates: Does it necessarily follow, then, that all oranges are produce of the earth?

Phaedrus: It must be so.

Socrates: Let us describe this as a general logical proposition, independent of agriculture. If all A’s are also B, and all B’s are also C, then it must follow that all A’s are C. Is that correct?

Phaedrus: I do not see how it could be otherwise.

Socrates: Nor do I. But tell me, Phaedrus, is the reverse also true?

Phaedrus: I do not follow.

Socrates: Is all produce of the earth fruit?

Phaedrus: Certainly not! My pine nuts are not fruit. Eggplants and beans are not fruit. Yet they are all produce of the earth.

Socrates: Are any of these items—pine nuts, eggplants, or beans—oranges?

Phaedrus: Of course not.

Socrates: So then, not all produce of the earth is oranges, is it?

Phaedrus: No.

Socrates: So if all A’s are also B, and all B’s are also C, all A’s are also C. But if only some A’s are B, and only some B’s are C, then we cannot say that all A’s are C, can we?

Phaedrus: No. I remember this lesson now, Socrates. It is among the first you taught me.

Socrates: Now then, Phaedrus, tell me: Is Macedonia in Greece?

Phaedrus: You know it is.

Socrates: So a Macedonian is Greek?

Phaedrus: Yes.

Socrates: Remember, Phaedrus, we said that logic is a way of establishing the relationships between things, but also of ideas. Do you think that incorrect?

Phaedrus: No, it seems correct to me.

Socrates: Would you also agree that the statement “Life matters” is an idea?

Phaedrus: That seems right. The notion that life matters might not be subscribed to by all peoples. It is an idea that animates certain belief systems and cultures, but perhaps not others.

Socrates: Now we have already established that all Macedonians are Greeks, because Macedonia is in Greece. Do you agree?

Phaedrus: Yes, we have established that.

Socrates: We might say that “Macedonian” equals “A,” and “Greek” equals “B.” So all A’s are also B, correct?

Phaedrus: I think so, yes.

Socrates: We might also call the idea that life matters “C.” So if all Macedonians are Greek, and all Greek lives matter, then all Macedonian lives matter. Is this not so?

Phaedrus: It would seem so, Socrates. Yet I find that your logic does not clarify things for me, and in fact leaves me more confused than ever.

Socrates: Tell me why you are confused, so that we may find a remedy.

Phaedrus: There are two things that trouble me. First, if all Greek lives matter, and this necessarily means that all Macedonian lives matter, than to say that all Macedonian lives matter is a necessarily correct statement. No Greek should ever be opposed to the saying of that which is necessarily true. Thus, no Greek should ever disapprove of the statement, ‘Macedonian lives matter.’ Yet some clearly do. I believe I understand the reason for their disapproval, and this leads to my second concern.

All Macedonians are Greek, but not all Greeks are Macedonian. Some are Athenian, others Spartan, still others hail from Rhodes, Corinth, or elsewhere. If I say, ‘All Greek lives matter,’ I necessarily include Macedonians. But if I say ‘Macedonian lives matter,’ I do not necessarily include all Greeks. Does my omission of other Greeks not imply that their lives do not matter? It seems legitimate to object to singling out particular Greeks for special concern while dismissing others.

This is my conundrum: It seems impossible for those who believe all Greek lives matter to object to saying that Macedonian lives matter, because no one may object to the saying of a thing that necessarily is true. Yet it also seems that saying that Macedonian lives matter implies something untrue; namely, that other Greek lives do not matter. Thus, the statement, ‘Macedonian lives matter,’ seems true and untrue at the same time. How can that be?

Socrates: I believe we can resolve your conundrum. But we have spent enough time in conversation for one afternoon. Go to your home and tend to your family and fields, and meet me here again tomorrow so that we might continue.

Phaedrus: I will see you tomorrow then.

It is the next day. From across the agora Socrates spies Phaedrus coming toward him. Socrates ends his lesson, dismisses his students, and greets Phaedrus.

Socrates: Greetings, Phaedrus. I believe we have a conundrum to resolve. Do you recall that we began our discussion by relating specific things and ideas to the general categories into which they fall?

Phaedrus: Yes, I recall.

Socrates: Are specific things identical to general categories?

Phaedrus: Of course not.

Socrates: So an orange is a fruit, but “orange” and “fruit” do not have the same meaning?

Phaedrus: No. An orange is but one example of a fruit. There are many others.

Socrates: Do you like some fruit, and dislike others?

Phaedrus: Yes, and I suppose I am like most people in that regard.

Socrates: I suppose you are. Do you like the oranges you grow, or do you grow them only for sale?

Phaedrus: I like them a great deal. On our farm, we usually keep a certain portion of the harvest for our personal use.

Socrates: I envy you your abundant supply of fresh oranges. I like oranges, too. Now tell me, Phaedrus, what do you know about my taste for grapes?

Phaedrus: Nothing. How would I know?

Socrates: Well, you know that I like oranges. Oranges are fruit. Grapes are also fruit. Does my taste for oranges mean I necessarily like grapes?

Phaedrus: No.

Socrates: Even though both are fruit?

Phaedrus: That does not determine your taste.

Socrates: Does my taste for oranges mean I dislike grapes?

Phaedrus: No.

Socrates: Even though both are fruit?

Phaedrus: Again, that tells me nothing. An orange is only one type of fruit. It may be that all fruit share certain characteristics that you enjoy. If so, you may like all fruit. But it may also be that fruits share certain characteristics but differ in other characteristics, and those differences may result in your liking some and disliking others.

Socrates: And this is because a specific thing is not identical to, or fully congruent with, the general category to which it belongs?

Phaedrus: I suppose you could put it that way.

Socrates: So, if I like all oranges, and all oranges are fruit, but not all fruit are oranges, we cannot conclude that I like all fruit.

Phaedrus: That is correct.

Socrates: Neither can we conclude from my like of oranges that I dislike any other specific fruit?

Phaedrus: Again, that is correct.

Socrates: Now, imagine that my former student, Xenophon, were here with us. Imagine that I said to you, ‘Phaedrus, I like oranges so much that I wish I had one to eat right now.’ And suppose Xenophon replied, ‘Socrates, why do you dislike grapes?’ What would you make of Xenophon’s apparent belief that I dislike grapes?

Phaedrus: I would think he had no foundation for saying any such thing.

Socrates: And that is because . . .

Phaedrus: Your taste for oranges implies nothing about whether you like or dislike grapes.

Socrates: Exactly. And so—

Phaedrus: Wait, Socrates. I think I understand. ‘Macedonian’ describes people from a specific city-state. ‘Greek’ is a more general category to which ‘Macedonian’ belongs. ‘Macedonian’ is not identical to, or exactly congruent with, ‘Greek.’ Therefore, if I say I like Macedonians, I have revealed nothing about whether I like or dislike other Greeks. If I say Macedonians are coarse in their manners or pleasing in their dress, I make no statement about the manners or dress of other Greeks. And if I say Macedonian lives matter, I do not denigrate the lives of other Greeks. To say that Macedonian lives matter is not say that the lives of other Greeks do not. It is only to assert that Macedonian lives matter in circumstances where others seem to believe Macedonian lives do not matter.

Socrates: You were always a quick student, my friend. Have we fully resolved your conundrum?

Phaedrus: Perhaps. I can see now that no one who believes that all Greek lives matter can object to the statement that Macedonian lives matter, because the former necessarily implies the latter. And I understand that saying Macedonian lives matter does not say imply any negative feelings toward the lives of other Greeks. Therefore, it is illogical to counter the statement ‘Macedonian lives matter,’ with ‘All Greek lives matter,’ because the two are not inconsistent. Thank you, my friend. You have almost put my mind at ease.

Socrates: Almost? Surely there cannot be more.

Phaedrus: Alas, Socrates, there is still one aspect of this matter that concerns me.

Socrates: My friend, it is late and I am tired. May we conclude our discussion tomorrow?

Phaedrus: Until tomorrow, Socrates.

Phaedrus and Socrates meet the following day in the agora to conclude their discussion.

Socrates: Tell me, my friend, what still troubles you about our discussions of the past few days?

Phaedrus: I understand now why it makes no sense to respond to the statement, ‘Macedonian lives matter,’ with the statement ‘All Greek lives matter.’ The former may be an important statement to make in appropriate circumstances, and the latter does not constitute a refutation. Yet the latter statement is, in fact, offered as a refutation to the former. Why? Are we Greeks so illogical that we cannot reason?

Socrates: No, Phaedrus, we Greeks are not illogical. But tell me, why do you think we study philosophy?

Phaedrus: I suppose we study philosophy so that we may know the world, and ourselves.

Socrates: That is certainly an admirable goal. But is that all? Suppose we know the world, and ourselves, and we find ourselves to be execrable. Has philosophy served its purpose in those circumstances?

Phaedrus: That seems doubtful. Philosophy must be the pursuit of knowledge in service to the virtuous life.

Socrates: I agree wholeheartedly with that definition. But tell me, would you presume to teach seafaring to the captains of the Athenian navy?

Phaedrus: No, I would not.

Socrates: Why not?

Phaedrus: Because they are already accomplished sailors and navigators.

Socrates: Would you attempt to improve the athletic skills of an Olympic champion?

Phaedrus: No, he needs no instruction from me.

Socrates: Would you try to teach farming to those whose fields overflow with the bounty of the earth?

Phaedrus: No, they are already experts.

Socrates: Why then, do we need to study philosophy?

Phaedrus: I see. We study philosophy to learn virtue. We need to learn virtue because we are not already virtuous.

Socrates: Can you name the ways in which people are not virtuous?

Phaedrus: They are so numerous that I doubt anyone could name them all.

Socrates: Too true, I am afraid. Allow me a momentary digression, Phaedrus. How are your children?

Phaedrus: They are fine, thank you. Zeno is an active and pleasant boy, and Dimitra is wise and comely.

Socrates: I seem to recall at one point that Zeno hated to eat vegetables. Is that still true?

Phaedrus: Yes, we still argue with him over his diet. He is fond of meat and fish, and he loves a crust of bread. But he turns up his nose at vegetables and will not eat them.

Socrates: Do you offer him instruction?

Phaedrus: Of course. I tell him that vegetables are important to his health.

Socrates: Why would you tell him that vegetables are important? Are not all kinds of food important?

Phaedrus: Of course they are. But he does not need encouragement to eat meat, fish, or bread. I talk to him about eating his vegetables because that is where the problem lies.

Socrates: Suppose I admonished you not to tell Zeno that vegetables are important, because to do so implies that other kinds of food are not important. What would you make of that?

Phaedrus: We have already resolved this issue. ‘Vegetables’ are a specific subset of the general category ‘food.’ Offering guidance regarding the importance of vegetables implies nothing about the value of other kinds of food. Thus, there is no logic to your position, and I would tell you so.  

Socrates: If you could not specifically address the importance of eating vegetables with Zeno, how would that matter?

Phaedrus: I would be prevented from naming and directly addressing a problem. I suppose I could address it indirectly by talking about the benefits of a balanced diet, but that would dilute the message. Zeno would not understand that I am concerned about his refusal to eat vegetables.

Socrates: I have no quarrel with what you say. But suppose I insist, in contravention to the reasoned conclusions at which we have arrived, that you must not tell Zeno specifically that eating vegetables is important. Does that seem sensible to you?

Phaedrus: No.

Socrates: Nor does it seem so to me. Tell me, Phaedrus, do you believe that we Greeks could have achieved what we have in mathematics, the arts, architecture, politics, and philosophy if we behaved in a wholly insensible manner?

Phaedrus: No, I do not.

Socrates: Tell me then, why a sensible people would insist on framing an important issue in a wholly insensible manner. Tell me why anyone would want to prevent you from talking to your son clearly and plainly about the deficiency in his diet. Tell me why people would insist that ‘All Greek lives matter’ is a sensible retort to ‘Macedonian lives matter,’ when logic and reason demonstrate that it is not.

Phaedrus: I do not believe this is a difficult question, Socrates. In your hypothetical, you would prevent me from naming and directly addressing a problem with my son by forbidding me to talk about vegetables. There must be a reason why you would do that. You must have an interest in doing so, whether or not I ascertain that interest. 

So too must there be a reason why people would prevent others from naming and directly addressing the problem that Macedonian lives do not matter in Athens by chastising them for saying that Macedonian lives do matter. I do not know what those reasons are, but I do not have to know what they are in order to see that people who act in this manner must have some interest in preventing a discussion of the problem.

Socrates: Have we now addressed your concerns in full?

Phaedrus: Yes, I believe we have. Socrates, I find myself once again in your debt. Thank you for your counsel and instruction.

Socrates: I believe we have reached the end of our discussion. My students are waiting for me to engage them in today’s lesson. Please give my regards to your dear wife, and I pray to the gods that we may see each other again soon.

Black Lives Matter. Damn Right They Do

I watch the news and see footage of the protests. I go online and read the blowback: “Why do black people complain about every little thing?” (Apparently murder is a little thing.) “Why does everything have to be about race?” (Apparently being murdered because of your race is about . . . something else.) I see the video of police officers advancing on demonstrators who are standing still and pepper-spraying them for no reason. I have seen this before.

Fifty-seven years ago, a poet asked, How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see? Fifty-seven years! And still we turn our heads and pretend.

People are angry. That’s good; anger is a great source of energy for those who would effect change. Me, I’m angered out. I’m too old for this. The things that used to make me angry now just make me want to weep. Everything we’re talking about in these days we’ve already talked about. The lessons we are pledging to learn today we were supposed to have learned long ago. Why didn’t we? Will we ever?

Get up, stand up. Stand up for your rights.

These words should be relics of a different time. They should be nostalgic. They should not be relevant today. We should know better now. Instead, we make the same mistakes over and over and over again. Then we’re surprised by the consequences. Then we pretend nothing happened.

I see so much white anger at being made to face ugly truths—so much denial. Then the Idiot-in-Chief tweets that Confederate names on military bases symbolize the great American tradition of “Winning, Victory, and Freedom!” I’m pretty sure those are three words you can’t associate with the Confederacy. Losing, defeat, and slavery? Sure thing. Those seem to be the opposites of winning, victory, and freedom, though. I used to wonder if he knew who won that war. Now I’m not convinced he even knows who fought it. Still, I’m sure his base reads that tweet and thinks, “Right on, bro.” After all, history is for weak-kneed Euro girly-men.

And you tell me over and over and over again, my friend, you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.

Sometimes I think we need to be more German. Education about the Holocaust is mandatory in Germany. There is no evasion, no turning away. German students are taught, “We did this. Not someone else. Not some long-dead ancestors who aren’t us. Don’t ever believe we’re not capable of monumental evil. Look at what we’ve done. We could do it again if we forget.”

We enslaved people. When we weren’t allowed to do that anymore, we used law and government to dehumanize them, make them invisible, and impoverish them for another hundred years. Now that we aren’t allowed to do that anymore, we deny we ever did it, or claim it doesn’t matter anymore. And still we dehumanize them as thugs and predators so that we can kill them in the street with impunity. Don’t ever believe we’re not capable of monumental evil. Look at what we’ve done.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees

Minneapolis is not a Southern city. Neither is Cleveland (Tamir Rice). Neither is New York (Eric Garner). This is not someone else’s problem.

I don’t want to relive my youth. It doesn’t thrill me to listen to old protest songs and think that we finally get to feel that sense of purpose again. No, I just wonder why we don’t learn—why it is so important to resist learning.

Around and around we go. We protest and organize and write letters and run candidates, and still we end up right back where we started. Fifty-seven years later, we have to ask again: How many deaths will it take ‘til they know that too many people have died?