I often experience a weird frustration with groups I’m not a part of. The weirdness is that the only way I could be more frustrated is if I were a member of the group.
Such a frustration recently arose in listening to some pundits lament that, since Elizabeth Warren has exited the presidential race after Super Tuesday, it’s inevitable that the Democratic candidate for President will be a white male in his late 70’s. (On this point, listen to the discussion on NPR’s 1A show aired on Friday 3/6).
At that superficial level where emotional reactions are completely independent of thought, I suppose the sorrowful tone is rooted in some vague sense that the election of a woman President would go a long way in bringing down “The Patriarchy” or some other fictional oppressor.
What frustrates me, however, and would frustrate me more if I were a Democrat, is that this shows no concern for the core objectives of the Democratic Party. Democrats pride themselves on being, among other things, the party for gender equality, but what if Bernie’s or Biden’s policies and competencies are more effective than Warren’s in establishing gender equality? Would women be less equal if their equality came about though the policies implemented by a white male in his 70’s?
If I were a Democrat, I would want to say to those miffed about white males, “Being a Democrat means we want more government involvement in regulating business and wealth distribution in order to close the economic chasm between the poor and the one-percenters. We should vote for the person who's best able to make that happen whether it’s a he, she, or a trans-species, gender-nonconforming life force!”
I would also want to say—beg, plead, cry out—"Please, please stop reducing people to labels!"
Being white, male, and older than 70 says absolutely nothing about a person’s political philosophy or competence as a leader or integrity as a person. Believing that these categories tell us anything meaningful about a person is like believing the current color of a two-dollar mood ring can tell you whether you should change jobs or drop out of college.
If this isn't making sense, just try the same approach with any other set of labels:
“Who are the new city council members?”
“Well [dismissive frown], John made it, but the other two are black women in their 50’s.”
“Have you heard who’s the new school superintendent?”
“Yea [sigh], it’s a bald, Hispanic guy in his 40’s.”
“Did you meet the new 5th grade teacher?”
“Yea…some red-headed woman from Iowa. I wonder if we should switch Billy to another class.”
The fact that labels like these indicate nothing about the character of a person suggests to me that those who prioritize such labels don’t care much about the character of a person. Labels are what matter most.
This tendency to reduce people to labels brings to mind an empty-headed teenage girl who says she wants to find “the perfect guy,” when what she really means is a guy with perfect hair, perfect clothes, and movie-worthy one-liners. Thousands of guys can fill the slot. It doesn’t matter who.
Better yet, those lamenting Warren’s exit from the election and the victory of the two suspicious white males are like Russell Crowe’s character, Ben Wade, in 3:10 to Yuma.
Wade’s an outlaw in the wild west who comes to town after runnin’ with his gang. He’s been out on the trail for a while and, well, you know...he needs him a woman.
He eyes a woman behind the bar at the saloon while downing a couple shots of whiskey and then moves in closer as the two engage in a whispery exchange with unambiguous intent:
“You look kinda skinny”
“I feel skinny”
“I don’t mind skinny girls, long as they’ve got green eyes to make up for it. Have you got green eyes? That’s alright. They don’t have to be green.”
In other words, “I don’t care what qualities you may or may not have. I just need me a woman.”
Likewise, it seems that some Democrats don’t care about the real qualities of their candidates. They just need them a woman.
There’s a new add for the Bernie Sanders campaign which features a moving speech by an activist named Killer Mike. I hadn’t heard of Killer Mike, so I looked him up. He’s a rap artist. Even if one didn’t know his background, it’s no surprise that he’s a poet of some sort. His speech for Bernie buzzes with the rhythm of righteousness. It crescendos with a cry for justice. “The time is now!” It is stirring, moving, electrifying, and a perfect example of the kind of mindless, self-contradictory rhetoric that is so effective in politics.
Killer Mike cites the question from the activist writer, James Baldwin: “How long must I wait on rights and equality and liberty?” Mike says, “As a black child, that resonated with me, because I knew I had been denied, my father had been denied, my grandfather had been denied.” In reflecting on this he then realizes that "women have been denied" also, as have many others.
This should evoke some sympathy, but be encouraged. Killer Mike makes it clear in the lyrics to his song “Ric Flair” that he’s no longer denied:
“You detest the fact that I got more cars than most of you have friends!
I got a big house on the big side of town
I got life pretty much the way I want it!”
Likewise, we’re told in “Big Cars, Big Money,”
“Gucci shirt, Gucci jeans, Gucci this, Gucci that
Before I walk out the house, everything gotta match
I ride through this bitch with a pocket full of money
I bet no [racial slur] won't say nothing in front me
I went and bought a Benz and went and got a bike”
Killer Mike’s colleague, Chamillionaire, apparently is also no longer denied. He chimes in to let us know his “garage the square footage of the Georgia Dome. Got imported stones, always order chrome.”
In moving from oppression to prosperity, Mike also seems to have gained insight into the relationship between excessive income and romantic relationships:
“If you chase power you ain't gotta chase women
So take some advice, take cash over ass
When you get money you ain't gotta take s**t
So, long as you broke she ain't gotta take [male genitalia]
Now you know what motivate your bitch
Pay the mortgage or the [female genitalia] up for lease
Income inequality is a big concern in the Sanders campaign, and though it seems at odds with Bernie’s general tone, according to Killer Mike, the upshot of successful wealth distribution for poor men will be to keep their “bitches” motivated.
At first, I thought this sentiment from Bernie's spokesman might diminish confidence in his opposition to misogyny. A man who wants to motivate his bitch with money doesn't seem to me like an egalitarian in the strict sense--not one whose overly concerned about women being "denied." But likely that's just my undenied, privileged status distorting my perception. Apparently, in oppressed rap artist parlance, motivating one’s bitch so her **** doesn’t go up for lease is a way of encouraging equality and respect among the sexes.
It may also be part of Killer Mike and Bernie's vision for equality that women shouldn't be denied strong drugs. This seems to be the case given the words of Mike’s other colleague, Messy Marv, on the same track: “I'm a thug 'til I die. The club ain't poppin' if these bitches ain't high.” Maybe this is why Bernie chose Mike and not Messy Marv to speak at campaign rallies. Those in Sanders’ constituency not totally attuned with the plight of the marginalized might not appreciate the need to keep the “bitches high.”
The travesty of a presidential candidate who has built his entire platform around a concern for gender equality and the plight of the poor allowing a self-aggrandizing, misogynistic millionaire to be a spokesman for his campaign would be ironically hilarious if it weren’t for the fact that there really are people in the world—tens of millions of people, most them outside the United States—who truly are denied basic human rights and the economic means to flourish.
These are people who do not live in a free nation where they can make exorbitant profit by selling the fruit of their talents in the free market and then emotionally manipulate crowds at political rallies with sanctimonious tales of oppression. In fact--shock as it may be to Killer Mike and colleagues--a great number of the economically oppressed are so because so many like Mike have a “garage the square footage of the Georgia Dome.” I thought this was the kind of opulence Bernie Sanders wants to end?
I began writing this with an inkling of optimism in hopes that the points above might make some small contribution to revealing the unimpressive wizard behind the booming voice. But, alas, the act of writing brings a flood of memories and realizations which remind me that as long as Killer Mike is cool, as long as he has a good preacher voice, and most especially, as long as he can wear the right victim labels, no amount of audacity or contradiction or sheer emptiness of thought will cool the zeal of the faithful. After all, what American with the any vestige of decency could deny those who’ve been “denied”?
If anyone has the opportunity to talk with Killer Mike, please don’t tell him you heard this from me. He makes it clear in “Big Money, Big Cars” what he’ll do to those who challenge him:
“That's why my motto to this day is still 'F*** you, pay me'
Any rap [racial slur] acting like he want it with me
I swear to God I'll put his rapping-ass next to Biggie
I swear to God I'll put his rapping-ass next to Pac.”
For those unfamiliar with what happened to “Biggie” and “Pac,” they were shot to death. (Does this mean Killer Mike’s moniker is literal? Is Bernie changing his stance on gun control?)
In any case, I’d like to stay clear of someone like Mike. Judging from his lyrics, he is a multimillionaire, and average-income people like myself aren’t known to do so well when they come into conflict with those in his income bracket.
Pleasure can be unbearable without the right support system. No one should have to face pleasure alone. The best way to see this in clear light is to consider the opposite. Grief overwhelms people when they try to bear it alone. It is the web of close, abiding relationships and outward-focused responsibilities that enables one to handle grief without being handled by it. A web of love and friendship catches grief like a Kevlar vest catches a bullet. It still knocks the hell out of you, but it doesn’t go through.
But the same web that keeps grief from coming in to destroy pulls pleasure in to fortify with joy. Like food to the body, pleasure nourishes the soul. But, like uneaten fruit left rotting on the vine, pleasure is worthless without a soul to nourish. This being the case, experiencing pleasure in isolation from the whole process of character and relationship development will do to the soul what chewing food and spitting it out will do to the body.
Pleasures are meant to be taken in and absorbed into the self to enrich, enhance, enliven. It shouldn’t be too controversial to say that one does first need a life before it’s enlivened, so the crucial question is, what is the character of the life being enlivened?
And this is the problem when it comes to pleasure. Pleasure is the furniture but we treat it like the house. No one would want to live in a house without furniture, but if we tried for long to live on furniture without a house we would soon stop living altogether.
Love—deliberate, willful, sober-minded, love—love which manifests in abiding, life-long relationships, staying on course through all kinds of shifting emotional weather—this is what the human house is supposed to be made of. This is the support system that enables pleasure to be truly pleasurable.
It is the company of the cherished person on the other side of the table that gives the wine and salmon its savor. It is the hum of good will permeating the Christmas morning living room that makes a sweater in a wrapped box something much more than a sweater in a wrapped box. It is the definitive “I do—in sickness or health, poverty or wealth!” that makes sexual contact a transcendent welding of souls rather than a fifteen-minute lust quench. (No one ever said, “I’m going to hate myself in the morning” before sleeping with the person to whom they have committed their future.)
Denying this results in what theologian J. David Franks calls, “the consumerist contraction of the human spirit.” If that sounds fuzzy, just consider the simultaneous rise in STDS and the use of dating apps; the rate of syphilis infection in the state Utah increased 311% since 2008. Those numbers reflect contracted spirits.
Ironically, those most concerned with pleasure are the ones who experience it in its most shallow and diminishing form. As with happiness, those who know the deepest, richest pleasures are the ones who know that pleasure is a component of something far greater than itself.
 J. David Franks, “Tempered Desire,” in Philosophical Virtues and Psychological Strengths