Starting To See
That night, I told my roommates about the crazy thing I had heard that day. Apparently there were people out there who had never been to something as basic as a real restaurant. Who knew?
One of my roommates wasn't surprised. He worked at a local bank branch that required two forms of ID to open an account. Lots of people came in who had only one or none at all.
I was flooded with questions: There are adults who have no ID? And no bank accounts? Who are these people? How do they vote? How do they live? Is there an entire off-the-grid alternate universe out there?
From then on, I started to notice a lot more reality. I noticed that the criminal justice system treats minorities differently in subtle as well as not-so-subtle ways, and that many of the people who were getting swept up by the system came from this underclass that I knew so little about. Lingering for months in lock-up for misdemeanors, getting pressed against the hood and frisked during routine traffic stops, being pulled over in white neighborhoods for "driving while black": these are things that never happen to people in my world. Not having experienced it, I had always assumed that government force was only used against guilty people. (Maybe that's why we middle-class white people collectively freak out at TSA airport pat-downs.)
I dove into the research literature to try to figure out what was going on. It turned out that everything I was "discovering" had been hiding in plain sight and had been named: aversive racism, institutional racism, disparate impact and disparate treatment, structural poverty, neighborhood redlining, the "trial tax," the "poverty tax," and on and on. Having grown up obsessed with race (welfare and affirmative action were our bêtes noirs), I wondered why I had never heard of any of these concepts.
Was it to protect our Republican version of "individual responsibility"? That notion is fundamental to the liberal Republican worldview. "Bootstrapping" and "equality of opportunity, not outcomes" make perfect sense if you assume, as I did, that people who hadn't risen into my world simply hadn't worked hard enough, or wanted it badly enough, or had simply failed. But I had assumed that bootstrapping required about as much as it took to get yourself promoted from junior varsity to varsity. It turns out that it's more like pulling yourself up from tee-ball to the World Series. Sure, some people do it, but they're the exceptions, the outliers, the Olympians.
The enormity of the advantages I had always enjoyed started to truly sink in. Everyone begins life thinking that his or her normal is the normal. For the first time, I found myself paying attention to broken eggs rather than making omelets. Up until then, I hadn't really seen most Americans as living, breathing, thinking, feeling, hoping, loving, dreaming, hurting people. My values shifted -- from an individualistic celebration of success (that involved dividing the world into the morally deserving and the undeserving) to an interest in people as people.
How I Learned to Stop Loving the Bombs
In order to learn more -- and to secure my membership in what Karl Rove sneeringly called the "reality-based community" -- I joined a social science research institute. There I was slowly disabused of layer after layer of myth and received wisdom, and it hurt. Perhaps nothing hurt more than to see just how far my patriotic, Republican conception of U.S. martial power -- what it's for, how it's used -- diverged from the reality of our wars.
Lots of Republicans grow up hawks. I certainly did. My sense of what it meant to be an American was linked to my belief that from 1776 to WWII, and even from the 1991 Gulf War to Kosovo and Afghanistan, the American military had been dedicated to birthing freedom and democracy in the world, while dispensing a tough and precise global justice.
To me, military service represented the perfect combination of public service, honor, heroism, glory, promotion, meaning, and coolness. As a child, I couldn't get enough of the military: toys and models, movies and cartoons, fat books with technical pictures of manly fighter planes and ships and submarines. We went to air shows whenever we could, and with the advent of cable, I begged my parents to sign up so that the Discovery Channel could bring those shows right into our den. Just after we got it, the first Gulf War kicked off, and CNN provided my afterschool entertainment for weeks.
As I got older, I studied Civil War military history and memory. (I would eventually edit a book of letters by Union Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.) I thought I knew a lot about war; even if Sherman was right that "war is hell," it was frequently necessary, we did it well, and -- whatever those misinformed peaceniks said -- we made the world a better place.
But then I went to a war zone.
I was deployed to Baghdad as part of a team of RAND Corporation researchers to help the detainee operations command figure out several thorny policy issues. My task was to figure out why we were sort-of-protecting and sort-of-detaining an Iranian dissident group on Washington's terrorist list.
It got ugly fast. Just after my first meal on base, there was a rumble of explosions, and an alarm started screaming INCOMING! INCOMING! INCOMING! Two people were killed and dozens injured, right outside the chow hall where I had been standing minutes earlier.