Go with a smile!

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Works Well With Others

I can't really tell a lot of things about my life. Maybe there's a big void there or something. I can name 2-3 years of my life when I lived life with a great intensity – well maybe I dreamed dreams with a great intensity. But other than that, I couldn't really say it's been really that great. I could count on one hand the number of times I did pursue dreams with a passion. To devote myself into a 5 year or a 6 year chase would be a little out of character. I don't even remember being passionate or hungry about things. If I did it, it tends to be a bit like a procession. I wouldn't dash madly towards a goal.

Sometimes I wonder about whether my childhood would have been a little nicer if it had been guided a little better. In my earliest years, the one most responsible for my life until I was about 13-14 was my mother. She was a strict disciplinarian, which was a little unusual because she could be a little sloppy in her general life. But she probably was more attentive to the little details than the larger picture. I tend to think that she was completely clueless when it came to the larger picture in life, about asking the hard questions about what things really mattered.

Maybe there was a bit too much focus on grabbing more money. Playing the stock markets, having me make good grades, making sure that you never got played for a fool. Piano lessons. Swimming lessons. Making sure I got drilled on my assessments books, which were invariably 2 or 3 years ahead. Once they worked out that I was good at mathematics, they were always demanding 95 or higher for me. (Well this was primary 1-3 and it wasn't completely unreasonable.)

I don't really remember much of life around that point in time. But that was probably also the zenith of my mother's influence in the household. But it was a time which I was quite uneasy with. There was a lot of Japanese culture going on around that time, and the 80s was a time when it seemed that the world was willing Japan to succeed. But it was a very scary existence for me – the hard work, the drilling and the conformity that it entailed. The relentless drive towards economic success – I guess that was what slavery was like. You sorda knew that it was excessive, but you were never allowed to question authority. The Japanese had a one track mind when it came to the Samurai running the land. Then after Commodore Perry, they had a one track mind when it came to modernizing and westernizing. Then after that, their one track mind led to the military conquest of the rest of Asia, which was probably one of the most hare-brained operations ever.

Those years were unpleasant for a number of reasons. I had a piano teacher I didn't really like. I didn't like the people I went to school with – maybe they were too yuppie-ish, took themselves too seriously, too conservative. Later on in my life, I might be able to find some common ground with them, but they weren't people I'd have gravitated to. My next door neighbour, the one I might have become great buddies with – was an asshole. I went to my grandmother's house every Sunday, and the fact that both my parents were still close to their siblings was a wonderful thing. But my mother was the only English speaking person among her Chinese speaking siblings, and we were always the odd one out among the cousins. So you can imagine – I spent 2-3 years of my formative years not having any real friends.

After Primary 3, I got selected to go into the gifted program, and maybe my mother let up on the strict discipline, probably believing that that program would be pushing me however they wanted to. And I was doing quite well, probably because the work they were assigning played right into my strengths. That strength was to make that logical leap, that hidden connection that not everybody was smart enough to make.

For the first few years, I thrived. I found that I could be a class clown. (It wasn't possible in my old school because everybody was so ultra-serious.) I don't know if I had any real friends, but I'm sure I was in the upper half of the class where popularity was concerned. It was pretty good, being a class clown who was good with schoolwork.

But the transition towards secondary school would be difficult. First, my mother had a bee in the bonnet that once we reached 13, we were all going to turn into James Dean from “Rebel Without a Cause”, and we had to be clamped down on. It was already difficult enough being the average 13 year old, struggling with his change in identity. It was an uneasy and confusing time. When I did have fun, that came with the guilt that I wasn't putting in all my effort into doing what I was supposed to do. It became a bit hellish. Then maybe my grades started falling because we were reaching the stage where people were supposed to knuckle down, and get more disciplined and study harder.

Around that time, after my first week in secondary school, she got word that I was using a lot of strong language in school. So she got my father to beat the shit out of me, and there was even talk about me being a juvenile delinquent (this was barely 2 years after I had topped my class). Something snapped, I fell into a spiral of depression, and my grades fell even further. To them, it was more proof that I had grown lazy, complacent, and rebellious. So there was more getting the shit beaten out of me. In truth, it was not that complicated. I probably just needed somebody to tell me that everything was going to be OK, I just needed to calm down and do what I had to do. I just needed to understand the higher purpose. Years later, I ended up explaining this to my parents, and they looked at me blankly. How is it possible that our disciplining you could have a negative effect on you? Boy were they dumb.

But no higher purpose was forthcoming, It was just the same thing: do this because we say so. There was one or two terrible years of screaming and shouting, crockery getting smashed against the wall stuff. Eventually, this situation resolved itself by crumbling. My mother was at a loss, so she just decided to do nothing. Naturally, following that, the situation improved. They gave up trying to control and micro-manage, and it just became, do whatever you need to dig yourself out of that hole. The years that followed that turned out to be some of the best years of my life.

You see, there was always a permanent tension going on in my life (and this is one of the currents of tension going on in my household, there were a few.) The different parts of my life were not really in harmony. If I was told to attend music classes, it was because they got to decide that I attended, I didn't have any say in the matter. I liked music, but I hated practicing piano. This shit went on for 10 years, I worked my way up to grade 8, kicking and screaming all the way. I suppose it was an achievement, but also probably the seed for a lifetime of resentment and anger. The assessment books, I hated them too. I hated the way they piled up: if I didn't do the previous week's allotment, the “debt” would pile up. There was no debt forgiveness. Well maybe she did turn a blind eye after a while.

Eventually, there was a pattern that went on in my life: I would just do whatever I wanted. There was no agreement, no negotiation. But I had to sneak around and do it. I could play computer games for 1 hour in the afternoon, but I had to make sure that I did not get caught. My sister made quite a bit of mileage out of blackmailing me and I hated her for that. But things were falling apart, somewhat. There was to be no co-ordination between us. I could do something that was planned out by my mother. If I did something on my own, maybe I could get away with it because I was not tightly policed. But I would have to keep it a secret, and therefore I would have to think and act like a criminal. I was able to amass a sizable collection of cassettes and go wandering around after school on afternoons every other day. But they were almost always solitary activities. That would start me off on a lifetime of being a wanderer and a daydreamer.

I would have been nicer if sometimes my mother would ask me what I would like to do, and we could co-operate on achieving those things together. But that never happened. Everything was an order from above. But I suppose that pattern followed me through my life. I always had an uneasy relation with authority figures. Maybe I also had an uneasy relation with friends. I would say that based on the social aspects of my upbringing, it didn't prepare me well for my ability to work with other people. Then again, it's always a problem when your parents aren't good at a certain something, and if it's on you to work out how to do it.


Saturday, April 01, 2017

Patriarchal and Tribal Racism

The rise of the alt right in the USA and of far right parties in Europe have been met with dismay. When I was a teenager I used to seeth at the skinhead Neo Nazis and David Duke. But what happened in the 90s is almost pretty quaint. Of course, there was nothing to sniff at what was going on in the Balkans back in those days, or in Rwanda. But back then, we could still count on the Western countries to behave civilly towards the other people who lived in their midst. Those were pretty quaint days.

Still, while I don't want to give any excuses for the way that a virulently racist form of populism has emerged in the US and Europe, I can start to understand the frustrations of the white people who have been losing ground for the last 20 years. One day, they were citizens of the most powerful country in the world – actually the most powerful that ever existed. Then following the five big disasters of the first decade (9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Katrina, Great Recession), suddenly they looked like a huge disaster in the making.

Especially as a result of the Great Financial Crisis, foreclosures of homes, predatory lending and emergence of this phenomenon called the “working poor” - people who work for a living but live from hand to mouth – the entire lower middle class of America (white ppl form a sizeable amount of that) are in a fairly bleak situation.

So they'll look around them and see that some – not all – black people are ahead of them in the pecking order, some LGBT ppl are ahead of them, some Asians are ahead of them. It wasn't so long ago that many of them remembered what life used to be like. You could “work” for a living, and back then you just had to show up, do just enough, and you'd be comfortably off. Ahhh, the 80s. No wonder there's such a nostalgia for the 80s. You'd have a job, a car, 9 to 5, a nice house in the suburbs. You could be completely mediocre and unremarkable but you could still say you worked for a living and that would feel good.

Things are different now. You got to be exceptional and differentiate yourself from competition from the rest of the world. You got to be smart and talented, or sly and crafty. And a lot of people got left behind. That's why Trump's message resonated with so many people – not just “make America great”, but “make America great again”. Make NAFTA go away. Make the Latino and Asians go away.

The problem is that when the 99% of the people are left behind, you need to pull them back up. But it's very very hard to do that. And the working class whites don't get a lot of love – there's no compelling narrative. They don't get any sympathy because they were supposed to be the privileged (until they stopped being privileged) and now they get blamed – fairly or unfairly for being amongst the most racist demographic in America. They pay for the sins of their fathers, and in a way their forefathers were responsible for some of the most awful episodes against people of other races – slavery of blacks, genocide of Indians, and exclusion laws against the Chinese.

While I still believe that white privilege exists, I don't think it exists to the same extent that it used to. And because of that, I think we need to rethink a few things about race that we're used to.

I think there are two dimensions of racism. First is patriarchal racism. This means that there is a master race, oppressing many of the other less privileged races. For the last few hundred years, there's been more than a hint of that in the relationship between white people and the others. But there is another dimension, and that is what I'd call tribal racism. Under this system, people are prejudiced towards other members of their own tribe, and against members of other tribes.

In a way, due to the preferential treatment for peoples of their own groups, both forms of racism are very similar. But under the tribal racism, there is some acknowledgement that it is possible for less privileged races to be racist against those with greater privilege, and there is an acknowledgement that this is no less of a problem. Tribal racism is recognising that even when you do away with the problems associated with patriarchal racism, even if the races are equal in standing, even if there were no slavery and relative privileges, there will still be problems between races.

That's why the rise of the alt-right is a reaction to this. There is a lot of toxicity in the discourse, it is very nasty, and it is downright racist – racist as in patriarchal racist. But they have one point, and that is that it isn't right that black people have advocate groups, Jewish people have advocate groups, and they're the only guys who aren't allowed to have advocate groups. That can't be right, although they are paying the price for the mental association with the KKK and burning crosses.

In Singapore, it's pretty clear that the Chinese are the privileged race. But there are Chinese assistance groups. There is this notion that Chinese is both a majority group and a minority group, and it depends on what context you see it.

I have a little bit of sympathy for White people who think that their culture is eroding. After living in a western country for some time – and I don't even consider myself that well integrated – I begin to appeciate what a good thing it was to have grown up in an environment where people have some notion of what their culture is. I think America does not have that at all. You could end up feeling like you're lost at sea for a long time.

And because of globalization, it almost makes it seem as though holding on to something you call your own tribal identity is a bad thing. That is the message of the melting pot. At least if you're a White American, you have a great deal of influence over your own culture. (But remember that American pop / rock music, whether performed by white or black people, has a dominant African American influence). But it's pulling in many different directions now, and there can be a bit of confusion about who you are. If you are a stickler for the rules, and a follower of norms, it can all feel very disorientating.

Everybody knows – or at least this is the conventional wisdom, that in the middle of this century, white people will be less than half of the people in America, that America is turning into a truly multi-racial country. Nobody really knows what it means, and a lot of people are anxious. Every culture has anxieties that they're going to be cast away into oblivion. People are going to see that Australia is swamped with Asians, Europe is swamped by people from the Middle East, and North America swamped by people from everywhere else, and because several White majority places have some of the most open immigration policies, the character of these societies are changing too quickly for their liking.

But I'm not here to do a rah rah thing on White nationalism. I'm just here to point that everybody has their own problems. If you slam the door on immigrants, people assume (correctly) that you are racist. But if you open your doors wide, you might end up with a big mess and you don't necessarily want that either. I don't think white nationalism has to be equated with racism. I think everybody has the right to talk about which parts of their culture they're proud of.

Yes, white privilege still exists, and by and large, in spite of the great steps backwards many white ppl have made over the last few decades, they're still doing better than most other groups of people. But gradually, we can no longer see everything through the prism of white privilege, even though now, more than ever, that notion has gained currency. It is ironic that at this point in time, when this idea has gained more and more traction, it has increasing been the case that it's no longer sufficient to describe the reality.

I would say the way to go forward is that people have to manage this aspect of tribal racism. Manage the kinds of issues that arise when White, Black, Asian and Latinos meet each other as equals. Not necessarily as monolithic group to monolithic group, but people have this way of mentally sizing you up when they see you for the first time. Yes, it has become possible for other groups to be racist against white people. Yes, you have to be a little careful lest you dismiss certain groups of people as “white trash”. Yes, you would want to extend a helping hand to people who are left behind. Communities that face high unemployment, or underemployment, or the opiate scourge.

There needs to be some kind of acknowledgement that the USA is one country united, but very often that does not appear to be the case. It is very difficult when people do not associate certain groups of people with the American flag. There is this unspoken assumption that you're don't really “belong” yet if you're not white. People don't really associate the government of the USA with the nation of USA (not like Singapore). So there's not really much that can be said or done to change peoples' perceptions top down.

The difference between patriarchal and tribal racism is that for the patriarchal view, it's almost impossible for black people to be racist towards white people, because it's almost impossible for the less privileged group to do anything that would harm the more privileged group. Whereas the tribal view acknowledges that wrong can be done on both sides.

It is still very much the case that white people in general live better than black people in the United States. But there are huge enough swarths of white people who are living in times of severe economic duress, and they're apt to compare their plight to a few privileged blacks, especially those in the entertainment industry who are the most visible. And the political will for making life better for minorities is simply not there, as contrasted to what we had in the 60s, when life was good for the vast majority of white people, and that was when they started thinking about levelling the ground for first black people, and then women.

Then again, for Americans, the civil rights movement which was an alliance of the white liberals and black civl rights leaders took place because the white liberals had this abstract concept of fairness. But there wasn't this consciousness that they belonged to the same nation as each other, and perhaps that was a fatal flaw in the civil rights movement. It was a lot of “we'll make things fair for you, and for everybody, but after that we'll leave you alone.” In Singapore it was different: the government wrote it into the pledge that Singaporeans are Singaporeans, “regardless of race, language and religion”.

You would never have the Singaporean equivalent of a Colin Kaepernick kneeling before a US flag. The language of symbols is very different. A Singaporean minority would still complain about unfair treatment, but their allegiance to the flag would not be in question, (although for the last 10 years, it has to be said that the allegiance to the Singapore flag has been, to say the least, extremely compromised). There was a time when Singapore nationalism has always been big enough to embrace everybody. Amongst those who eventually became citizens, you did not question their right to belong, although in the recent years, there have been a lot of citizens who left and a lot of foreigners who came in.

In America, though, the nation is almost too large for you to grasp. There will always be a large swarth of Americans who “aren't really American”. There will always be some people who you suspect don't belong, because you don't ever get to know them or see them. That is the difficulty for Americans. That is the reason why it's easier to make divisions amongst Americans.