Thursday, May 1, 2014


It was a simple enough question, if entirely random: (We had a lot of time on our hands when I was in college.)

"So, aliens are attacking the Earth, and appear bent on destroying humanity. What would you do?"

Ever the misanthrope, I answered: "Ask if they're taking applications."

I've mellowed to only being mildly cranky in my old age, but I still find that the tendency to see humanity as a blight upon existence lurks in corners of my mind, waiting to re-assert itself. And Ta-Nehisi Coates, over at The Atlantic, tends to know just how to awaken it.

As Bomani Jones noted back in 2006, Donald Sterling has long been a practitioner of racism and the NBA could not have cared less. Jones is rightfully apoplectic at the present response. That is because he understands that the NBA, its players and its fans, don't so much object to Donald Sterling's racism—they object to his want of elegance.

Like Cliven Bundy, Donald Sterling confirms our comfortable view of racists. Donald Sterling is a "bad person." He's mean to women. He carouses with prostitutes. He uses the word "nigger." He fits our idea of what an actual racist must look like: snarling, villainous, immoral, ignorant, gauche. That the actual racism that Sterling long practiced, that this society has long practiced (and is still practicing) must attract significantly less note. That is because to see racism in all its elegance is to implicate not just its active practitioners, but to implicate ourselves.
This Town Needs a Better Class of Racist
The words resonate with me, and the misanthropic impulse stirs. Part of me wants to welcome it back. But Mr. Coates makes is clear than ownership of the present circumstance belongs to all of us. So I have to own up to my piece of it, too. I spend a lot of time not caring about issues that I really wish would go away, but am not interested enough in to actually want to see them go away. And through that disinterest, I am implicated.

Owning that is a difficult thing because we've always been taught that only in blamelessness is there morality. Sometimes, even as tenuous a relationship as a single shared belief is enough to mark you, and so we argue against the association. We become caught up in a need to be free of anything that the people around us may find objectionable. And eventually, as we realize that it's simply not possible to completely unshackle yourself from anything that might be less than ideal, we become saddled with an acute understanding of human imperfection.

And when we see those imperfections as transgressions against us, anger sets in. Sometimes, it's anger at a subset of humanity. Sometimes, it's anger at the species as a whole. Always, I think, it reflects on the requirements that we've placed on our own self-respect.

Owning up to the idea that I would likely turn a blind eye to a deal that injured someone unlike me for my own benefit is hard. I don't want to be a bad person. I don't want to be snarling, villainous, immoral, ignorant and gauche (although I am, to be sure, left-handed, which I suppose makes me sinister, as well). But it's the very unwillingness to see these things in myself, and to uncouple them from the economics of my life that allows me to be, whether I want to our not, a racist. Racists are no more intentionally evil than potholes. They understand themselves to be every bit as justified in their actions as everyone else, and so they rationalize.

The only way to not do evil is to recognize that one is capable of evil, and to be okay with oneself anyway. It is our inner critic, pushing us to live up to the impossible standards it sets that drives us to do those things that we should not do, and then rationalize having done them. While, at the same time, prompting us to sneer at those who mirror our feared selves back at us and to envy those who don't.

I've mellowed in my old age because I now understand that I am not owed a certain standard of treatment by anyone. And that includes myself. They are not bad people. There are no bad people. There are only choices.

Somewhere, entwined together, are unconditional respect for others and unconditional respect for self. I don't know that I'll ever find them. I don't know that I'll ever be free of the hint of misanthropy - or the hint of self-anger that goes with it. But I continue to strive for it (and work not to become caught up in the striving). Serenity in the face of oafishness is difficult. But without it, what we have is self-deception, masquerading as elegance.

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