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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Why is Cousin Vinnie So Angry? (Part3)


From Middle English anger (grief, pain, trouble, affliction, vexation, sorrow, wrath), from Old Norse angrǫngr (affliction, sorrow), from angǫng (troubled), from Proto-Germanic *anguz*angwuz (narrow, strait), from Proto-Indo-European*amǵʰ- (narrow, tied together). Cognate with Danish anger (regret, remorse), Swedish ånger (regret)Icelandic angur (trouble), Old English angeenge (narrow, close, straitened, constrained, confined, vexed, troubled, sorrowful, anxious, oppressive, severe, painful, cruel)German Angst (anxiety, anguish, fear).

Grief, sorrow, anguish!  Justified.

But misdirected.

Yes, there are bad people, exploiters, who have suppressed or dismissed their conscience in order to advance themselves financially or politically. Populist polarizers and partisans using slogans that incite fear and clan mentality instead of thought. (I put Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Bachmann, and Sarah Palen at the top of my list here.)

But most, like Cousin Vinnie, are true believers who have little ground experience in minority or poverty communities and are hoodwinked into thoughtless opinions. I do not expect Cousin Vinnie to change. He is too old, too set in ways that are constantly reenforced by what he chooses to hear on the radio, by the barrage of hateful emails and internet sites he has signed up for, perhaps by what he hears at church, and by his desire for absolutes--a right versus wrong, a white versus black, America love it or leave it.

Angry men, white or black, native or immigrant, often do not acknowledge complexities and ambiguity because they are not thinking. (Perhaps some women too, though I do not know any with this kind of anger, except for the exploiters mentioned above.)

Psychologists like Jonathan Haidt and Linguists like George Lakoff demonstrate the roots of polarization and partisanship in the brain and advance new ways of "framing" (not just what you say, but how you say it) and across-group, human relationships to understand the moral foundations that have evolved in all of us. I find such research and discussion helpful, even necessary, but not sufficient.

When John McCain (R) and Russ Feingold (D) worked across parties with Common Cause and other reform minded NGOs to change election procedures that favored big money, they took on an institution that enshrines and promotes polarization in both parties. The plutocrats who run the parties and most of the economy, culture, and politics of the country could not have that and had the reform declared unconstitutional. (Which perhaps it is since the country was founded by slave-owning plutocrats.)

When Nixon (R) and Moynahan (D) and Republican successors worked with Poverty groups to initiate and support the Family Assistance Program which evolved to SSI and the EITC (Earned Income Tax Credit), they demonstrated an institutional way to attack poverty and increase assets (and buying power) of working people.

When Fair Housing reformed FHA and the Community Reinvestment Act, supported by numerous community organizations under National People's Action, pushed financial and governmental organizations to greenline instead of redline vulnerable neighborhoods, these were cross sector, cross party groups focusing on institutional, rather than psychological changes. Hopefully the same will be said for the health Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank Finance Reform Act both of which in earlier days would have been bi-partisan.

Yes, attitudes matter. Fear and prejudice are used by the wealthy and their politicians to sway masses in a plutocratic democracy. Language, empathy, reflective inquiry can make a big difference. But my Chicago Lawndale experience taught me that the very structures within which we are working (including our cultural, economic, and political forms) are what need to be changed more than attitudes. And that takes organizing--the kind that is often nameless, unappreciated, and without fanfare and whose successes are usually attributed to celebrities. And the kind that can even involve Cousin Vinnie.

What are those institutions and how do we involve the Cousin Vinnies who don't consider themselves part of the 47% freeloaders, but also don't consider themselves part of the 1% and who are genuinely concerned about the state of the "middle class" and "working poor"? How do we redirect their justifiable anger?