Thursday, August 23, 2012

Blind Spot

If you are a US citizen, a self-described “American,” then, with so many fine essays on my web site, you don’t need to read this particular one. Why not skip it?
SPECIAL WARNING: If you’re a “Yankee,” then go to the bottom of the web page and hit the “older post” (or newer) button. You don’t need this essay.

…Every culture has blind spots, things that, unless you figure it out on your own or some person tells you, you will never know. For example, poet Sylvia Plath, back in the 1950’s, was a passionate young co-ed. (“Co-ed,” a US term, means co-educational student, means a female on a campus with males) Yet according to her journals she was near the end of college before she figured out that in the rock and roll songs of her day “love” or “suddenly we got romantic” meant “we got sexual.” Of course, at some level, society surely knew these things: I have just viewed, at the Scotia Theatre, the 1951 movie The African Queen, digitally remastered. A nice film. Almost the whole story is Humphrey Bogart, a plain everyman, and Katherine Hepburn, a 1914 version of the non-racist Eleanor Roosevelt, floating in their little boat down the river. They have met as distant strangers. At last, abruptly, the two characters on the boat are shown smiling and rubbing shoulders with each other, and talking about grandchildren. They have suddenly “got romantic” after a kiss.

It was some years after 1951—and I am old enough to remember--when here in North America we suddenly found out that women could be reasonable creatures, and hold “traditionally male jobs” and even be leaders. Yes, at one level we already knew, but overall we were surprised to suddenly hear complaints from the women. “What? You’re not happy?” I guess our “blind spot,” despite what we subconsciously knew, was especially from our post-war years, from needing to get women out of the work force, and out of the way of returning veterans. They say that for 1950’s game shows, if a woman said she was a “housewife,” the applause would rise to shake the rafters. I’m glad times have changed; we are healthier now. The change to “more equal rights” was swift: I guess we were ready.

“Readiness” is a reality to be reckoned with. As a (sometimes) chairman for meetings and working groups, I know not to “do group interventions” unless the group is ready. If I have an insight as to what our problem is, a way to break the Gordian knot we are struggling with, then, as professor Herbert Thelen wrote (in Dynamics of Groups at Work) “…an insight achieved by the trainer at a particular time may occur to someone else at the same time, so perhaps the trainer should wait.” (p 175) Then the group will go, “Ah, yes!”

Thelen was at the university of Chicago. Another Chicago native, with a street level skill in group psychology, was Saul Alinsky, the famous community organizer. In very recent years, as you know, down in the US, it has often been said by some people that Alinsky was the mentor of President Barak Obama. I wonder whether these are the same people, the “birthers,” who also say President Obama was not born in the US, or those who say Obama has a secret socialist agenda. Alinsky as mentor, eh? Beats me. I would have thought helping communities lift themselves up by their bootstraps through self-organizing had disappeared about the time of non-violent resistance. Alinsky died in 1972…

Before he died he shared in a countrywide “ah!” insight. Some individual said the Black communities should generate their own leaders and managers. This was for various good reasons, including the nurturing of Black self-confidence. Although racial integration remains an ideal, this made “ah, yes” instant sense, and non-Black folks like Alinsky abruptly stopped working in Black communities.

Some characters might believe that oppressed minorities are simply mirror images of non-oppressed minorities, with the same esteem and confidence, but to me such belief defies street level common sense. Some characters, the “birthers,” might think Obama is born overseas, and a socialist too, but surely they have a blind spot. It seems to me that before one makes such a summary/conclusion as “he is trying to make America socialist,” one would need at least a sketchy list of Obama’s “socialist actions.”  From up here in Canada, while reading vigorous attacks on Obama on the Internet, I have yet to see any such list. To me, the strident attacks don’t feel the same as the whispers of small town gossips. In rural areas people whisper their gossip not because they believe it, but because they would like to believe it. In contrast, the guys who shout “socialist!” seem awfully convinced. In turn, my personal “Ah!” is that certain modern day Yankees don’t have a readiness for a Black president, while at the same time they aren’t ready to agree to be “racists” out loud. I guess, for sons and daughters of overt racists, that’s progress.

I’m no time traveler, but I can read documents. At the time of civil rights, it seems every Yankee, or at least the ones in the US south, had a blind spot. “What? Negroes not happy? Of course our Negroes are happy. Only outside agitators could ever get them to say otherwise.” It was left to Reverend Martin Luther King to say that nobody within the contiguous United States could be called an outsider any longer.

I wonder—I wish I’d asked--whether this was when a Mount Royal College professor of mine, Len Thomas, had the experience of driving in the US. He reported to me in awe. “That’s when I learned they don’t have freedom of movement in the states.” He shook his head. “If we went off the “interstate” we were constantly being stopped by police. Constantly. I wouldn’t have believed it.”

A decade or two after civil rights, after every right-thinking American knew that racism was wrong, I found myself joining a military convoy going down to the US via the “military and interstate highway system.” Our company commander warned us, “Don’t think that just because you watch the same television you understand them.” He said the military police had ascertained that certain saloons on the base were for Blacks only, and we were to avoid them. Of course one of us Canadians, wearing synthetic baggy combat clothing (the Yanks wore starched cotton) and a khaki Balmoral cap complete with pom pom (the Yanks had green baseball caps) went into a “Black bar” by mistake. The Black GIs, perhaps genuinely unable to discrimate a NATO ally from a Yankee, or perhaps blinded by hate, tried to scare him. He told us all about it. Obviously, while the Americans had a level of racism unknown to us up here, their racism wasn’t a blind spot for them, not if they knew about it.

What I’ve figured out on my own is that a certain historical US blind spot—and I believe history is important, being the parent to the child—is hidden in plain sight: They never admit that, unlike in Europe, they had racially based slavery. They will say “slavery,” and “racism,” but never “racial slavery.” Maybe they think it’s an obvious term, or maybe they don’t want to admit that in Europe (I once read) there was both a government agency and a church agency that looked after rights for slaves. Perhaps both European agencies had less power than a modern SPCA, I wouldn’t know, but at least the idea of minimal rights and limited inferiority was there. Maybe too, the US Americans don’t want to admit that in Canada if a slave escaped he would not be devalued by his peers as having become racially inferior, instead, he would be positively valued by both nations, his own and his former captor’s, for he would then be able to be a translator.

I’m sure that down in the US there’s something psychological going on, because US citizens will publish stories of science fiction slavery that are way too corny to ever be published up here. In one story, a young adult novel, the teens stop off at a planet where a human colony enslaves lemur-like creatures. The humans even, like Star Trek’s southerner Doctor, Leonard McCoy, drink mint juleps! Of course the teen heroes resolve to teach folks on the planet the Error of Their Ways. In a magazine short story, from I guess about a decade ago, the human farmers wear space suits. A small native flying life form, tough and zippy, is capable of penetrating metal space suits and tractors, causing death by exposure to native atmosphere. Of course the native slave race has the swift hand-eye coordination to swat these “blue-tailed flies.” They wield stainless steel two-by-fours. Unsurprisingly, the story is about the first slave in history teaching another slave not to swat… I remember back when I was a boy I knew every word to the song “Jimmy Crack Corn, and I don’t care, my master’s gone away.” I wish now I had collected every science fiction slave story I came across down the years.

I think the earliest such story I ever read was in a 1958 magazine, back when such pulps still hosted pen pal sections. Only years later, from hindsight, did I “get it” that the story was symbolic of US racial slavery. In this one, back on earth, the enslaved race is robots. Like some less educated, less empowered women of today, the robots resort to the power of alternative knowledge. As the story opens, a robot is in trouble with his master. To get back on his master’s good side, a robot seeks advice from an older Robot psychic. This robot’s advice, based on astrology—the master’s astrology planet is metal--is to put some metal fragments into the master’s sandwich. Well, the master loses a filling. Well! Back to the advisor! This time the older robot reasons that since Mars, the red copper planet, is ascendant, perhaps a wire on the robot's back should be clipped. “Say, I feel better already!” Not surprising, since the circuit served to ward off aggression. He returns the favor to his friend. “Say, I feel better too!” They decide to help other robots by spreading the news, and the story ends: “And so began the robot wars…” It took me years to figure out what the story was symbolic of. Wow, all those corny sf stories: Surely the US Americans, down the decades, are still, to this very day, psychologically working through something.

Last year an Oprah Magazine mentioned there being white slaves in early America, but I’m sure it made no ripples in US culture. Some things just plop in, and are gone, if the culture is not ready to hear.

Today will be the “history” of our “future.” Now, as I see it, the US is sliding from super power back to major power. Fair enough, that is how things were in my father’s time. But there’s an even worse fate: becoming the least of the major powers, one with a very reduced middle class. I think the writing is on the wall: The launch window (of opportunity) has less than ten years left. Losing the middle class must then accelerate, like a curling stone speeding down an icy slope. Unhappily, if a nation has a marginal middle class, then “citizenship” is very hard. Recently, a British financial expert has gone around the US interviewing prominent leaders and informed businessmen. The consensus? As a gloomy terminator says in Judgment Day: We don’t have much time. For further reading see my June 2012 America Descending essay about the expert’s book Time to Start Thinking. With their blind spots, Lord help them, I fear the US people are distracting themselves from what needs to be done.

The “women’s libbers” knew that everything was connected, saying, “The personal is the political.” This week I’m misquoting them: “The personal racism is the political problem.”

In this new century that I live in I’ve seen the big US federal budget surplus totally squandered after Bush got elected. Then I saw him get re-elected. My buddy Blair despaired: One election is accident, but twice? “That destroys US credibility all around the world!” Years later I read where a father was shocked, just shocked, that his son was voting to re-elect Bush. Then the son explained: Since Bush in four short years had messed up the economy and stuff so badly, he should have to stick around to be accountable. “Oh” said the father. It was not a pretty “next four years.”

Needless to say, any new president, any “the old man” who came next to the White House would have to avoid Bush’s mistake of “punching with both hands,” avoid ever committing any more troops anywhere, regardless of any new provocation. At home, the old man would have to stoop to try to build things up with worn out tools. He would deserve our prayers. But what happened? Not prayers.

Some “economics challenged” folks thought that in less than three years, or less than two, or even (link) within the very first year, a new US president should be able to magically undo all the damage that Bush, before him, could not undo. These same folks, while acknowledging the economy was damaged, spoke not a word against Bush. Seriously, not a word. Probably they needed to be “in denial” about their own culpability for enabling our new century’s first disastrous decade. And maybe right-thinking Americans still believe in racism, as the new boss is Black. (I think technically he’s half-black, but to most people that means Black)

Perhaps the answer to the infamous ongoing problem of “American ignorance and isolationism,” a problem the rest of us have found so baffling, is subconscious: They are trying to preserve their peculiar blind spot. It’s possible. I don’t have any other explanation for how educated people in, say, Arizona, who surely know how to research at the community college, and surely know how to enquire of their new Canadian neighbors who (thanks to the Wall Street melt down) are moving in down the block, are in fact still prepared to believe falsehoods about foreign health care. For such “isolationism” their “pay off” is they don’t have to confront their blind spots. Their consequence is poor health, both medically and politically.

Despite my age—how time flies—I have become a willing member of the 21st century. I’m now accustomed to feature length documentaries being profitable, although I had once thought documentary movies had disappeared sometime around Walt Disney’s The Living Desert. I’ve gotten used to TV channels for just news, like CNN, and I can appreciate World Wide Web journals where people write comments to each other, like the delightful one by film critic Roger Ebert.

This week I’m angry. I’ve come across two Yankee questions of great sound and despair.

First Question: Chicago Tribune critic Roger Ebert, for his web journal, did an essay (A Shot In the Dark, July 26) on how the surviving victims of the latest US massacre, at a movie theatre, are being given a donation of free health care. They needed this donation so very badly because, unlike all the rest of the prosperous, civilized world, the US has no universal health care. One of Roger’s commenters (July 27 12:24 a.m.) related how he argued at length with a conservative’s friend’s mother who was bitterly opposed to health care. At last the mother admitted the truth: She didn’t want her tax dollars supporting the health of someone outside her family and friends. Roger’s respondent despaired, “Why is it that conservatives are obsessed with this tribal sense of unity in the 21st century?”

Second Question: On CNN I saw that British guy, Piers Morgan, interviewing Michael Moore, that guy who’s anti-bullying, anti-massacre, and anti-gun Bowling For Columbine documentary stirred such a tempest… and accomplished nothing. No changes, no hope… nothing! During the interview Moore noted, by the way, that most guns were in the (white) suburbs. I think the two men conversed about universal health care, as well as guns. I felt Moore’s despair when he compared the US to the rest of the world and from his very soul cried out, “Why are we so cruel to each other?”

Some days I feel very tired… I can still recall how after the LA riots—not the latest, I mean some earlier ones—a Black lady said the Whites were asking why they rioted. “If they have to ask, they aren’t ever going to understand the answer.” Yes.

As for the two men quoted above, my heart goes out to them. If US citizens have to ask why they are so separate from the civilized world, then they aren’t ever going to understand they have a blind spot.

Sean Crawford
Still praying,
Still pleased to a member of North America
July, 2012

Update, February 2014
~Here a US American documents what I, as a Canadian, only knew intuitively. I found his  piece through a site by a North American commentator living in Japan. (His site address ends in

~This essay is posted during the August silly season, when I am getting more readers from non-English nations than from the US.

~To use a concept from Senator Robert (Bobby) Kennedy: I’m sure the other contiguous North Americans, the Canadians and Mexicans, have racism too, but that does not console me, and should not console anyone.

~Lest we forget, Martin Luther King, in writing his open Letter From Birmingham Jail, wrote to eight Alabama fellow clergymen:
“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea.”
As quoted on page 125 of Allah, Liberty and Love by Irshad Manji who immediately adds “It’s one of King’s most famous statements, but its significance for the twenty-first century has yet to sink in.”

~If you are a U.S. citizen reading this, you might prefer to hear bad news not from me, but from a fellow American. I  suggest you not view the inclosed video until after reading the essay, in this link.


  1. I'm not sure I have the heart to tell you that CNN is not real...

  2. Nice one, Matt.

    Readers: A "warm fuzzy," at my weekly toastmasters meetings, is when someone's speech will "reference the meeting" by referring to what someone said/joked earlier.
    Matt has referenced an adjacent essay.

    Regarding TV news, (besides the adjacent essay) in 2012, see "Literacy..." in June, and "...and TV News" in July.
    Regarding avoiding TV mistakes by reading, see "Readers like Battlestar Galactica" in August 2011.