The Larger Problem: The Birth of Racism from the Spirit of Musical Chairs.

A lot of attention has been focused recently on eradicating racism from American culture. That’s a laudable goal but a much larger task than I think anyone has yet acknowledged. The problem is not simply that racism is very deep in American culture. The problem is that it emanates from something that is even deeper and hence harder to eradicate: misanthropy. 

We don’t care much for human beings in the United States. We don’t want to feed or clothe them if, for some reason, they can’t do that themselves, don’t want to pay to educate them, or to protect their health. We’re the only economically-developed country in the world without free, or nearly free public healthcare, and free, or nearly free, higher education. We see work as a duty rather than a right and punish those who are unable to find work, even during times, such as the present, when there isn’t enough work to go around.

Many years ago, when I lived in Denmark, I listened to a debate on Danish radio about whether Denmark should lower its minimum wage. Denmark had both high unemployment and a very high minimum wage. There was a theory circulating among economists (or was it just among politicians?) that a high minimum wage could be partly to blame for high unemployment and that lowering the minimum wage could therefore raise levels of employment. 

Every speaker, or at least every speaker I remember, rejected the theory. 

“We’ve heard that theory before,” responded one, “and it doesn’t work. We’ve seen places lower their minimum wage without experiencing any rise in levels of employment. We have to accept,” he continued, “that increasing industrialization and the mechanization of tasks formerly performed by human beings mean there isn’t going to be enough work for everyone. Our challenge as a culture is to make sure that everyone has the same quality of life, independently of whether they have a job.” 

I’m paraphrasing, of course, because this debate took place more than twenty years ago, so I no longer remember it verbatim. I remember the substance, though. I will never forget that. I think my jaw actually dropped when I heard an obviously rational adult, who was not actually a member of the clergy, assert in a political debate, that the unemployed should have precisely the same quality of life as the gainfully employed and that it was the duty of the nation and its people to make that happen. 

No one could ever say such a thing in a public debate in the U.S. The notorious “socialist” Bernie Sanders never said anything remotely so radical. If you said such a thing in this country, even only privately, among friends, you would be viewed as eccentric in the extreme and would likely elicit the suspicion that you’d become completely unmoored from reality.

Danes worry about the suffering of the unemployed. We worry they don’t suffer enough. Danes worry about the erosion of self esteem that so often results from the inability to prove oneself useful to the larger community. They worry about the boredom and loneliness of the unemployed and devise myriad programs to address these problems. 

We worry the unemployed have it too good, that if we don’t make sure that being unemployed threatens both one’s material and social wellbeing, that no one will ever want to work again. We think the unemployed should be anxious and afraid and ashamed, that they should worry about paying the rent or the mortgage. How else will we get them back to work?

We make only token efforts to help the unemployed, efforts that are grotesquely inadequate to meet their real needs out of a fear that if we really do meet those needs, they’ll never go back to work again. We think people don’t want to work and will seize upon any excuse to avoid it.

Americans have a very negative view of human nature. We just basically don’t like people. Even if the poor could actually be blamed for being poor, their children certainly cannot be, yet we condemn these children to overcrowded and underfunded schools, to inadequate education and healthcare. We campaign against legal abortion on that grounds that it fails to respect the innocent lives of the unborn.

Once children are born, though, they’re on their own, proving that it isn’t really children’s lives we value, but our ability to limit people’s choices. We don’t want people to have choices unless those choices relate to consumer goods, goods we promise unabashedly will make them happy when we know they will not. 

We defend the legal institutions of strict liability for things such as drug possession and felony murder, that can convict an individual of murder for participating in a felony that resulted in someone’s death, even if that participation had been unwitting or unwilling. We defend these institutions on the grounds that they save money because we don’t have to look into the details of such cases to see if the individuals charged are really guilty. We know, however, that precisely because of this, they result in a high number of convictions of innocent people. 

Yet our concern for economy vanishes when it comes to the death penalty which is actually considerably more expensive than life in prison. Not only is it more costly, like the aforementioned strict liability and felony murder, it is now well documented (as if such a thing were in need of documentation) that our judicial system is far from infallible and that hence not only have we falsely convicted many innocent people of murder, we’ve actually executed some of them. 

So what do strict liability, felony murder, and capital punishment have in common? The reason we have them has little to do with the relative expense of each and everything to do with the fact that they conspicuously violate what are arguably basic human rights. We claim to be committed to the principle that people are innocent until they are proven guilty, and yet we endeavor to undermine our stated commitment to that principle at every turn, from inadequately staffed and funded public defenders to legal institutions, such as those mentioned above, that trap what ought to be an unacceptably high number of innocent people in our horrifically inhumane penal system. 

So what, many Americans think, if some innocent people are sent to prison, or even executed? People are scum. They probably deserved what they got, even if they weren’t guilty of the crimes of which they were convicted. 

Bullying is not a behavior specific to children. Workplace bullying is a venerable American institution. Many people seem to think it’s a recent phenomenon. It isn’t. Watch Rod Serling’s television play “Patterns” from 1956 if you want to see a particularly graphic depiction of it. Just as we think the best way to get the unemployed back in the workforce is to embarrass and humiliate them, so also do we think that embarrassing and humiliating people is the best way to motivate them in the workplace. Despite the fact that there is an enormous body of evidence that positive reinforcement is much more effective at motivating people than is negative reinforcement, we continue to opt for negative reinforcement, or the stick over the carrot. 

We are the people of the stick. Is this because we think so ill of human beings that we simply can’t wrap our minds around the data of what truly motivates them? Or is it that we think so ill of them that we don’t care about the evidence, that we’d actually rather embarrass and humiliate people than get the best work out of them? 

How do you eradicate racism from a fundamentally misanthropic culture? How do you teach people that black lives matter who don’t think anyone’s life really matters? How do you get people to treat everyone decently and respectfully who don’t treat anyone decently and respectfully (unless you count the obeisance people are often forced to show to their bosses for fear of losing their livelihoods and being suddenly destitute as decency and respect)? 

Racism is a horrific problem in the U.S., as recent events have made all too clear. The larger problem, though, is that we’re a nation of people haters. We hate ourselves as well because, after all, we are also people. We hate our lives and the world we live in, filled as it is with contemptible beings. We are full of rage and hatred and constantly searching for someone to vent it on. We attack the weak, the vulnerable, the different. We desperately attempt to elevate ourselves by tearing down everyone around us. 

Many years ago, I attended a large international conference business ethics where the discussion turned at one point to the subject of the children’s game musical chairs. The game had to be explained to a couple of scholars from Japan who were unfamiliar with it. 

“We would NEVER play such a game in Japan,” one exclaimed after the explanation was complete. “It’s antisocial!”

Yes, it is. Who in the U.S. thinks about that, though? We teach our children from a very early age to play a game that involves the successive elimination of their playmates until there is only one child left—the winner! There’s something profoundly wrong with that, isn’t there?

How do you eradicate racism from a culture that promotes egoism as a medicine for self-hatred, a medicine that only masks rather than cures the disease? How do you eradicate racism from a culture that is bound and determined to find someone to beat up on? That’s the real challenge. Until we face that challenge we will never eradicate racism. or sexism, or ageism, or any other -ism. “Difference” will always be seized upon as a convenient excuse for persecution.

(The essay originally appeared in the 25 September 2020 issue of the online political journal CounterPunch.)

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