On Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack:
McIntosh writes “White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tool and blank checks.” The knapsack is carried by an individual navigating an entirely open social field. It contains tools that enable the individual to navigate this field with greater effectiveness than those whose knapsacks are comparatively empty. The resources contained in the knapsack constitute whiteness as privilege, because the knapsack is carried by an individual who belongs to the white identity.
[It is assumed that] If the knapsack of privileges is carried by an individual already identifiable as white, then whiteness must be understood as a biological trait. The falseness of this notion is evident: the people who are currently described as white have a wide and complex range of genetic lineages, many of which were previously considered to be separate “races” of their own…In reality, whiteness itself is constituted by the contents of the knapsack. The constitution of whiteness as identity and its constitution as privilege are simultaneous: the knapsack’s provisions confer not only advantages but also identity upon its bearer.
On the “white race”
This racial phenomenon is not simply a biological or even cultural attribute of certain “white people”: it was produced by white supremacy in a concrete and objective historical process. As Ted Allen wrote on the back cover of his The Invention of the White Race: “When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no white people there.”
Allen was pointing to the fact that the word white didn’t appear in Virginia colonial law until 1691. Of course this doesn’t mean there was no racism before 1691. Allen’s argument was to show that racism was not attached to a concept of the white race. There were ideas of the superiority of the European civilization, but this did not correspond to differences in skin color.
The historical record quite clearly demonstrates that white supremacy and thus the white race are formed within the American transition to capitalism, specifically because of the centrality of racial slavery. But we must resist the temptation, imposed on us by racial ideology, to explain slavery through race. Slavery is not always racial…it is a form of forced labor characterized by the market exchange of the laborer. There are various forms of forced labor, and the first form in Virginia was indentured labor, in which a laborer is forced to work for a limited period of time to work off a debt, often with some incentive like land ownership after the end of the term. The first Africans to arrive in Virginia in 1619 were put to work as indentured servants, within the same legal category as European indentured servants. In fact, until 1660 all African-American laborers, like their European-American counterparts, were indentured servants with limited terms of servitude. There was no legal differentiation based on racial ideology: free African-Americans owned property, land, and sometimes indentured servants of their own. There were examples of inter-marriage between Africans and Europeans. It was only in the late-seventeenth century that the labor force of the American colonies shifted decisively to African slaves who did not have limits on their terms of servitude.
The Euro-American ruling class had to advance an ideology of the inferiority of Africans in order to rationalize forced labor, and they had to incorporate European populations into the category of the white race, despite the fact that many of these populations had previously been considered inferior.
 Haider, Asad. Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump. Verso Books, London, 2018: 45.
Turns out the election of 2016 was a declaration of war. America is at war with itself and it’s not clear who is winning. We Americans didn’t recognize it for war at the time, but it’s clear now and clearer every day—with each childish act, each transgression by the populist president and the blind allegiance to him by those who turn the cheek to his lies, indecency, and hypocrisy. They’d rather not see the truth. It doesn’t conform to the reality they’ve invented.
Instead, they make excuses. They claim that journalism is their enemy; and in a way, they are right. Journalism is a purveyor of news—news is the running narrative of the current state of the world. Most news organizations rely on facts and truth to inform the public, to check authority and keep it from running wild with abandon. But these people are not concerned with facts and truth. Perhaps they never were.
They converse in small circles of their own, unable to communicate beyond their self-imposed borders. Their ideas are small; their speech hateful. To them, the mind is not a tool or weapon, but a liability. Their weapons of warfare: guns and faith in a god that would not recognize their warped idea of that god’s intended purpose or morality. Somewhere along the way, they decided their god had a white face and carried an assault rifle.
The religious right got the president they think is a crusader for their religion. But he’s not—he’s lying about being a practicing Christian just as he lies about everything else. The Christians think they have god on their side. I am a reformed Christian, so I know their sad story well. It’s a story in which they have owned the last two thousand years. Yet history is not on their side.
God and guns are their hallmarks, despite their lord and savior’s abhorrence to violence. If their Jesus were alive today they would not recognize him. They would ridicule him, persecute him, expel him, torture him, imprison him, murder him. Those on the Christian Right have deluded themselves. They look out at the world through veiled eyes and do everything possible to avoid seeing what’s really, truly there. They have the vision of a bat—their eyes do not work, and noise guides their focus. But whereas bats were cursed by nature with lack of eyesight, the blindness of the Christian Right is self-imposed.
The two sides prepare for battle in opposite ways. I prepare by improving my eyesight—by reading the sages, by keeping myself informed through reliable, proven news sources (not commentary). Most importantly, I prepare by thinking. As a journalist, I feel the declaration of war more intimately or personally than most. This is a war on truth and decency. The president and his blind followers bring their guns, their anger, their certainty that they are right to the battlefield. Where I come from, only people who couldn’t fight carried guns.
I bring the lessons of history and the sages who have lived through such battles and emerged victorious. Wisdom and open mindedness will always prevail against lies, intolerance, false patriotism, hypocrisy, violence, and indecency. I study the lessons of the past and sharpen my sword by lamplight every night. I urge you to do the same, and above all to participate in the civic discussion by spreading the truth you see all around you.
“Capitalism has always been an improbable social formation, full of conflicts and contradictions, therefore permanently unstable and in flux, and highly conditional on historically contingent and precarious supportive as well as constraining events and institutions.”
“The tensions and contradictions within the capitalist political-economic configuration make for an ever-present possibility of structural breakdown and social crisis.”
“In fact, the history of modern capitalism can be written as a succession of crises that capitalism survived only at the price of deep transformations of its economic and social institutions, saving it from bankruptcy in unforeseeable and often unintended ways…The fact that capitalism has until now managed to outlive all predictions of its impending death need not mean that it will forever be able to do so; […] we cannot rule out the possibility that, next time, whatever cavalry capitalism may require for its security may fail to show up.”
“Why should capitalism, whatever its deficiencies, be in crisis at all if it no longer has any opposition worthy of the name? When Communism imploded in 1989, this was widely viewed as capitalism’s final triumph.”
“My answer is that having no opposition may be more of a liability for capitalism than an asset. Social systems thrive on internal heterogeneity, on a pluralism of organizing principles protecting them from dedicating themselves entirely to a single purpose, crowding out other goals that must also be attended to if the system is to be sustainable.”
“Capitalism without opposition is left to its own devices, which do not include self-restraint…We are already in a position to observe capitalism passing away as a result of having destroyed its opposition—dying, as it were, from an overdose of itself.”
On oligarchic redistribution and the outcome of the economic crisis of 2008: “The possibility as provided by a global capital market of rescuing yourself and your family by exiting together with your possessions offers the strongest possible temptation for the rich to move into endgame mode—cash in, burn bridges, and leave nothing behind but scorched earth.”
“German philosopher Max Weber (1864-1920) drew a sharp line between capitalism and greed, pointing to what he believed were its origins in the religious tradition of Protestantism. According to Weber, greed had existed everywhere, and at all times; not only was it NOT distinctive of capitalism, it was even apt to subvert it. Capitalism was based NOT on a desire to get rich on self-discipline, methodical effort, responsible stewardship, sober devotion to a calling, and to a rational organization of life…Weber’s ethical vindication of capitalism now seems to apply to an altogether different world. Finance is an “industry’ where innovation is hard to distinguish from rule-bending or rule-breaking; where the payoffs from semi-legal and illegal activities are particularly high; where the gradient in expertise and pay between firms and regulatory authorities is extreme; where the revolving doors between the two offer unending possibilities for subtle and not-so-subtle corruption.”
“The Weberian attempt to prevent it from being confounded with greed has finally failed, as it has more than ever become synonymous with corruption.”
“The capitalist system is at present stricken with at least five worsening disorders for which no cure is at hand: declining growth, oligarchy, starvation of the public sphere, corruption, and international anarchy. What is to be expected, based on capitalism’s recent historical record, is a long and painful period of cumulative decay, intensifying frictions, fragility and uncertainty, and a steady succession of ‘normal accidents’ quite possibly on the scale of the global breakdown of the 1930s.”
democracy: a: government by the people; especially: rule of the majority
b: a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections
post-democracy: a society or state that possesses democratic systems but does not fully practice them
theocracy: government of a state by immediate divine guidance or by officials who are regarded as divinely guided
The election of 2016 marked the fifth time in U.S. history that a president was elected without receiving the people’s vote. Some trying to understand what the election results mean in the context of history have turned to Colin Crouch’s idea of post-democracy from his 2004 book of the same name. Crouch argues that Western democracy is in a post-democratic state due to several causes, including globalism, post-industrialism, and the failure of electoral systems, among others. But what does it mean if the U.S. and much of the West is currently post-democratic? Can we define what we are in hopes of seeing where we are going?
The reality is that America is several different “things” at once that lack a cohesive identity. In part one of this series in which I search for a post-democratic American identity in 2017, I argue that the United States has always been part theocracy, and the inequality wrought of our government’s romance with religion has alienated much of its populace, creating distaste, distrust, and dissent.
A Long Romance
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects religious freedoms but also ensures that religion has no place in government. Religion is exclusive by definition—believers set themselves apart in their beliefs from those who believe alternately or do not believe at all. Conversely, democratic government must be inclusive of its citizenry. It must uphold the rights of all citizens, regardless of belief or social stature. Everyone participates in a democracy. Only some are religious.
But the First Amendment couldn’t completely protect the infrastructure from religious infiltration. America has flirted with theocracy since before the Union was legitimized. The word GOD is printed on currency, purposefully placed to penetrate the daily vernacular. John Jay wrote in Federalist No. 2 before the Constitution was ratified: “Providence has given this one connected country to one united people; a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government.”
The founders were all religious. Adams, Madison, Franklin, and Jefferson were Deists, but most were Christians. Quakerism was rampant. The men who drafted the Constitution believed in free practice of religion without fear of persecution, but they also understood the necessity of a divided church and state for a healthy democratic system. Madison wrote to Congress in 1789: “Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience.” Nevertheless, almost every president has been Christian.
Presidents Obama and Trump are Christian. Ninety-eight percent of the Members of the 114th Congress (2016) were reported to be affiliated with a religion. Of the 98%, the vast majority (92%) were Christian.
Equality is at the forefront of the ideals of liberal democracy. But equality is a vague and broad term, and those who wield it must respect its power. Ask five men what equality means to them and each will describe something different. But if those same men were to compare the main tenets of theocracy to the tenets of liberal democracy they would undoubtedly notice the gaping abyss between the two.
Since god was always present in American language, was it necessary for him to be? Theocracy is government by god and for god—god is the primary concern in structuring laws and social institutions. Conversely, the people are the primary concern in a liberal democracy. The people are the sole weapon in the system.
But America in 2017 is not a true liberal democracy. Perhaps it never was. There is proof enough in its flawed electoral college, which has failed the American people again. But there is further proof in its disproportionately Christian-American government. Are Americans as Christian as their government representatives? Are they as religious in general? Can citizens be represented fairly and equally when they subscribe to another religion or to no religion at all, and can this be proven in theory and in practice?
The answer to all of these questions is no. As stated before, Americans have always been religious. The pilgrims of the Mayflower were Protestant Christians from the Old World who sought the New World as a place for peaceful worship without persecution. I point again to the founders and the words they deliberately set in the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence: “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands that have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them …” At its inception, America’s greatest architects placed equal value on man’s natural abilities and those abilities provided to him by god. But do Americans still feel that way?
A 2014 Pew study found that 89% of Americans believed in god, with 70.6% of those identifying as Christians. Pew identified at least nine other active religions in America, illustrating a more diverse populace than its representatives. Further, many Americans do not practice a religion. Religiously unaffiliated Americans—a group that is growing rapidly—comprise more than one in five Americans (22 percent) today. The populace is not as Christian as it once was, and its government fails to reflect this. A lynchpin in liberal democracy is equal and proportionate representation, and the American system must either verify equal representation for all citizens and amend itself to account for them, or the people will need to “dissolve the political bands” as their founders did 241 years ago.
Belief and Equality
Life after death is a common theme in religions of the Judeo-Christian tradition in Western civilization. “In the Judeo-Christian conception, death is real and fearful. [Death is not] thought to be like walking from one room to another. Only through the sovereign creative love of god can there be a new existence beyond the grave.”
Though Jewish people have diverging views on the afterlife, the Talmud—a sacred religious text in Judaism—describes a life after this world in which believers must prepare their souls. Likewise in Islam, the souls of believers in this world are resurrected by Allah, or god, to be judged for assignation to heaven or hell, with either eternal punishment or reward for their actions and beliefs in this world.
Christians also believe in an afterlife. As with the resurrection of Christ in Christian lore, so too are believers resurrected to an everlasting paradise of emotions and sensations upon their earthly demise. The Christian’s struggle in this world is rewarded in the next. Just as with Jews, Muslims, and many other religions, Christians believe that true reality—true salvation—lies in a reality beyond that in which you read these words.
Conversely, the non-believer places no credence in any reality other than the reality in which she lives each day, the reality in which she routinely participates in civic life. It is her right to vote for equal government representation in a fair and just electoral system. She lives in the here and now and values her immediate world and its reality over any other. She would rather choose for herself than place trust in elected officials with alternative views of reality. She does not need her Christian neighbor to decide the legality or legitimacy of her actions because her Christian neighbor is living for another time, another place. She is burdened by the weight of a government that does not value her reality, but a potential future reality in which she plays no part. Just as the Muslim and Jew, the non-believer is alienated—disconnected and distrustful of those chosen to represent her.
Conclusion – Disarmament
Post-democratic America has no identity, but several sub-identities that make up the whole. Its religiose government has forged theocratic ideals into daily reality, sweeping the legs from democratic principles and alienating (and often persecuting) a growing number of citizens with alternate views. America is a diverse populace and the people’s worldly religions are supposedly welcome, free to practice, but always under the eye of Christian scrutiny.
Further undermining the democratic system is the broken electoral structure, which has failed (for the fifth time) to appoint the people’s choice for president. Sabotage of the election by rival states and the impotency of the people’s vote begs for a dramatic overhaul of the electoral infrastructure. Until then Americans float in post-democratic limbo, without a central identity. The time is ripe for faction, which Madison warned about in Federalist No. 10:
Complaints are heard everywhere […] that our governments are too unstable; that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties; and that measures are often decided not according to the rules of justice and the rights of minor parties, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.
The post-democratic reality now facing many Americans has led them to look not within the system to repair it, but elsewhere to disarm it.
Sergio de la Pava is a New York attorney. Attorneys don’t normally set out to write novels, and certainly not great ones. Or so it seems. And yet that’s what de la Pava has done. His novel A Naked Singularity, winner of the 2013 PEN/Bingham prize for a debut work, was written in 2008 and published by de la Pava himself. His second novel, Personae, also self-published, was picked up by the University of Chicago Press along with A Naked Singularity after people began to read Singularity and notice how good it was/is.
Writers like de la Pava (I know of none) are anomalous. Publishers and the major houses in particular have created an archetypal (and exclusive) environment based on a specific business model. Literary agents act as middlemen between writers and publishers and it works well enough for the publishers to be able to publish books and still make a profit. Booksellers get paid and the writer gets paid and thus the agent gets paid and everyone is happy. Unless writers object to this model and choose to wade into the publishing world alone and self-publish, which creates all sorts of problems for publishers and sellers.
Naturally the publishers and agents (and even some established authors cemented neatly in the archetypal model) abhor self-publication. It renders their role in the process irrelevant and removes their share. Thus, when a self-published novel written as well as A Naked Singularity comes along and threatens to sell a load of copies, the major houses cry foul and either look to evolve the business model or continue to crusade against artists. Self-published novels are most often unread and become obscure and nonexistent. With A Naked Singularity, Sergio de la Pava has written a novel so undeniably good that he’s managed to circumvent the business model adopted by the major houses, and he’s the first major voice to do so since the model’s metamorphosis into its current state.
De la Pava is a serious talent whose voice commands attention. He’s earned the PEN/Bingham award, and Personae firmly establishes what readers of A Naked Singularity thought to be true: that de la Pava is the rarest of literary surprises, a writer who doesn’t appear to have set out to write a great novel but has, and a writer who can’t help but make his contemporaries envious of his lexicon, his acute intelligence, and his exemplary storytelling ability. He’s a previously unheard-of writer (he’s an attorney, for god’s sake) who puts his contemporaries to shame and whom, if the major houses had their way, wouldn’t have been discovered, wouldn’t have sold nearly as many copies, and wouldn’t have received the attention his talents warrant. At least not yet.
The publishing world would like readers to believe that there are two types of North American writers: those whose works are worth reading, and those whose aren’t. I posit two completely different classes: Writers who aspire to be great, and writers who ARE great. De la Pava is now entrenched in the latter category. His works give hope to readers who also write literature and likewise aim to challenge the limits of ambition, consciousness, and the status quo.
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness …
Robert Montgomery Bird was 30 years old when Sheppard Lee was published. He’d had plenty of time to scrutinize the human condition, its psychology, and its reaction to and formulation of political structures. He observed the American men and women of his time, the deep social rifts between them, rampant envy and resentment resulting from their differences. He saw the social division as a natural reaction to the American structure, an inherent flaw in the ideals of the Constitutionalists. What resulted, according to Bird, was a society of longing, a desire to strip away one’s identity in search for another. In Sheppard Lee, Written By Himself, published by the acclaimed NYRB Classics, Bird explores these topics and castigates them with comic, satirical brilliance.
When Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, he and the Constitutionalists had in mind a particular end for the individual in a democracy. The idea was to give each individual the right to become their own end via the means they chose for themselves. The rich and the poor alike were given the political freedom to follow their dreams, to self-sustain beneath the umbrella of U.S. government protection. These were the ideas wrought from the Enlightenment, from hundreds of years of political and moral theory, and it was considered to be the best government structure—in principle and practice—in the history of the world. The policies were meritocratic and experimental in nature, molded from the idea that there is no nobler role of government than to allow its citizens the opportunity to safely and responsibly forge their own path in the world.
But what Jefferson and the other Constitutionalists failed to account for was the huge rift that would be created between the rich and poor, “a political complexion […] founded in, and perpetuated by, the folly of the richer classes.” The economic structure was fashioned from the principle of equal opportunity, but what resulted was the rich becoming richer and the poor becoming poorer. Soon the opportunities of the wealthy greatly outnumbered those of the impoverished. This great division among people that were supposed to share an equal place in society created disparate perceptions: “The poor man in America, feels himself, in a political view, as he really is, the equal of the millionaire; but this very consciousness of equality adds bitterness to the actual sense of inferiority, which the richer and rather more fortunate do their best […] to keep alive.”
This situation cultivated a deep and pervading sense of longing unto the poorer classes, the immigrants, the African-Americans. It was a hypocrisy that spawned indignation, for certain injustices were happening in America, the land where every man was supposed to be self-evidently equal, where this sort of unfairness ought not to have been happening. Citizens on the unfortunate side of the socio-political structure were cast further out, excluded from the decision-making process, left only to appeal, “Why should the folly of a feudal aristocracy prevail under the shadow of a purely democratic government?” They found themselves wishing more and more to inhabit the lives of the privileged, hoping to inherit their advantages. The character of Sheppard Lee finds a cosmic loophole where this is actually possible for him, and what results is an absurd waltz into the American psyche where nothing, including the principles of his country, is what he thought it would be.
Slavery was obviously another American hypocrisy. In a land where all men were supposed to have legitimate opportunities for freedom and the American ideal, certain men and women were being bought and sold, treated sub-humanely, their happiness stripped from them before they had a chance to obtain it. To be a slave was to be “the victim of fortune, […] the exemplar of wretchedness, the true repository of all the griefs that can afflict a human being.” These are not descriptions of equality. Bird was aware of the hypocrisy around him. He knew that the real America was a blatant contradiction to the ideals penned in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Sheppard Lee is Bird’s response to what he observed. It’s an attack on the life around him, highlighting the absurdities in order to draw attention to them, a picaresque adaptation of reality.
e He The hypocrisy of the political structure birthed a certain behavior in its citizens. It provoked lasting looks of envy from the poor onto the rich, from the slave unto the free man, it widened the gap between neighbor and friend. It forced people into constant comparative qualification. Equality of opportunity naturally evolved into a sort of Darwinian culture where the weaker or less qualified individuals were exploited by those gaining power with each business day, each acquisition. The character of Sheppard Lee is a symbol of the common American man. He is constantly in pursuit of curing what ails him, namely his imperfections, his insecurities. He feels that the only way to do this, once he has figured out his ability to occupy the bodies of the dead, is to seek out those unfortunate dead whose lives seemed to be better or happier than his. Lee is thus vicariously the jolly hunter, the playboy, the rich man, the morally perfect human being.
As the philanthropist character in Book V begins to see his life of charity and compassion unravel before him due to the ingratitude of his fellow men, he states rather profoundly that “man is an unthankful animal, and of such rare inconsistency of temper, that he seldom forgoes the opportunity to punish the virtue which he so loudly applauds.” One could read this passage straightforwardly as it applies to the narrative, or they could also read it as an analogy about the duplicity in the principles of the United States that Bird observed and attacked. At this point in the book, the reader is well aware of Bird’s pattern of disappointing Sheppard Lee’s efforts at finally becoming content with who he is, whoever that may be. The fact that he is repeatedly upset in his effort to find happiness by infiltrating the body of the most morally pure dead person he could imagine leaves him to believe that, “I had experienced in my present adventure […] doubts as to the reality of any human happiness.”
Bird had keen observational skills to see the contradictions between those engraved in the United States Constitution and the actual daily social rigors in young America. But these things could have been seen even by those who chose to turn their attention from them. I might even make the argument that the rift between the haves and the have-nots is today considerably wider than in Bird’s America.
The novelist’s value in a society is his or her ability to shape and influence the culture. Bird did this by drawing attention to the inconsistencies in his society, pointing the finger at the innate hypocrisy in American idealism. He saw the way social stratification affected the individual in society and diluted their notions of identity, how it forced them to look at others in either envy or disgust. In Sheppard Lee, Bird exercised his acute understanding of the impractical democratic experiment and its effects, primarily the “political evils which demagoguism, agrarianism, […] and all other isms of vulgar stamp [it] brought upon the land.”
What we see in Sheppard Lee, through Bird’s narrative about the blurred notion of identity, is a man chasing his preconceived notions of happiness, jumping from social status to social status in the pursuit of happiness, only to find something wrong, something to lament about his new body and personage with each new identity. It is a narrative both funny and sad, both audacious and absurd, and at times a promotion of prejudice as equally contradictory to the truth as Bird’s America.
 Jefferson, Thomas, in Koch, Adrienne. The American Enlightenment. George Brazillier Press, New York, 1965, 378.  Bird, Robert Montgomery. Sheppard Lee, Written By Himself. New York Review of Books, New York, 2008, 305.  Bird, 306.  Bird, 306.  Bird, 332.  Bird, 271.  Bird, 304.  Bird, Robert Montgomery, 306.