Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New York. Here we talk about the the health of the socioeconomic status of America and the constructive channelling of legitimate rage.
*Interview conducted on June 1, 2020.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, today, based on some pre-talk, I want to focus on what you were terming “hate.” I want to scale that up to more “rage” that could be channelled constructively or destructively. At present, it is an admixture. As an American, as someone living in New York City, as someone seeing the developments of 2020 so far, what are you seeing in terms of the destructive channelling of this hate or rage? What are you seeing in terms of its constructive manifestations as well?
Jonathan Engel: On the destructive side, it is a distraction and an excuse for people who don’t want change. What we’re seeing, one of the things most destructive about the violence is ‘the powers that be’ will use it and are using it to attack any ideas of constructive change. If you can say, “These are destructive violence thugs,” it hides the real issue. There are weaknesses in this country in police violence, obviously, and in income inequality and health inequality. This Covid-19 shows the health inequalities based on health insurance and other individuals who are middle and upper class and can stay home. However, the people flipping burgers, the transit workers, etc., they have no choice; they have to go in and work and have to subject themselves to this. Yet, for many of them, they cannot make a living wage based on the pay. They don’t get health insurance. They don’t get paid sick days. From the negative point of view, this stuff is being distracted from, by the violence. Our so-called president is saying, ‘Get tough! We have the most amazing weapons. If they reach this place, the Secret Service has the best dogs and the most amazing weapons!’ What is he talking about, ray guns? Is this Star Trek? That’s the problem in terms of the rage, the violence, and the destruction.
It can be an easy distraction for the ‘powers that be.’ In fact, it is one of the ways that Richard Nixon got elected. Trump’s advisors are hoping that he can do the same with “Law and Order.” They never talk about law and order in the Board rooms.
Engel: They never talk about law and order on tax returns; it is only when it is a black guy. He is losing. But he is hoping to win as the “Law and Order” guy, ‘I am not namby-pamby. I am a tough guy.’ When the rage is channelled into the destruction, it is something bad for the goals, I think, of most of the people who are protesting, but channelling the rage in a positive direction means keeping on public officials, keeping on them constantly like white on rice, as they say, to make sure these concerns are dealt with; also, to me, the biggest thing is get out and vote. In fact, today, I heard George Floyd’s brother. It is a very moving speech. He said exactly that, ‘Tearing down the neighbourhoods is not a memorial to my brother.’ He also said, and this is important too. He gave a very inspiring talk. ‘Get out and vote, not just for president, but also about district attorney, attorney general, these are all of the important people in bringing about change in this country in both policing, which is the immediate, and in terms of the basic inequality finding black and brown folks at the bottom of the heap.’
Jacobsen: Killer Mike made similar statements or sentiments when providing his own reluctant speech to some of the public of Atlanta. He made the notion or motion towards voting rather than violence against property or destruction of property. This, he meant as a democratic norm and a constructive proposal for the sincere rage of many American citizens across the board over the murder of George Floyd and others. It didn’t happen in a vacuum. It didn’t happen all at once. It happened throughout this presidency, but rooted in a long history of American society. If we take the 30th of May, there was the launch of the joint SpaceX and NASA astronauts to the International Space Station, which was the first time since 2011. While, at the same time, there have been the single largest protests for women’s rights, for the protection of civilian people of colours’ lives in the United States with disproportionate state violence on them. Also, acknowledging the general trend line of a reduction of violence in the United States over the last decades, it is a strange dichotomy. It has been seen before with riots with strange figures heading up technology for advancements in different aspects of what human beings can be and can do together. Richard Pryor had an old sketch with the first black president in the 70s [Ed. 1977]. He was noting, ‘It’s about time black people went space. There’s a been a lot of white people who have been going to space. And you could say, ‘They’ve been spacing out on us.’‘
Jacobsen: [Laughing] I think it’s similar. Most of the people focused on the SpaceX-Nasa joint venture. How ever positive with the advancement of the species, and a first since 2011 for Americans, it does represent a disconnect with what is happening on the ground socially, politically, and economically for most Americans, in terms of who has access to get an education in STEM or who have the finances for such expensive projects.
Engel: I agree with you. One of the issues here is the democracy is broken. I could give you lots of examples. We have this ridiculous Electoral College with one candidate winning three million more votes than the other candidate, and then the loser wins the presidency. That doesn’t look like democracy to me. You have gerrymandering in some states. One party can win 60% of the vote in general legislative elections and only get 40% of the representation because of the ways in which the districts are drawn cleverly to ensure democracy does not reign. The part who draws the districts wins. There is all sorts of voter suppression in this country. Since 2018, or January, 2019, when the now House of Representatives was sworn in, in the democratic house, they passed hundreds of bills that have gone to the Senate. It goes to the Senate. Some of those bills have bipartisan support. If you vote, then they would have passed. But if one person, and not a particularly decent one, Mitch McConnell, who is the leader of the majority in the Senate, if he decides no vote on the bill, then there is no vote. The House passes the bill. The Senate would pass the bill, but Mitch McConnell says, ‘I don’t like it. So, I’m not bringing it up for a vote. That’s that.’ That doesn’t feel like democracy.
If people feel as if they do not have a stake in society, then they are more willing to tear it down. Everyone needs some skin in the game. If you are walking down the street full of rage, and if you feel the society isn’t for you, if it works for the richest people and white people, and if it doesn’t “work for me” as a black or a brown person, then “this society is not for me. I do not have a stake in it. If it burns down, then it doesn’t mean anything to me.” That’s when I think rage gets translated into violence, “What do I care if this burns down? There’s nothing here for me. No one will listen to me. My vote won’t care, anyway.” That’s when rage gets channelled into violence. When people feel as if they have a steak in society. They will be heard. There is a reason “why I do not want this burned down, seeing a future for myself, seeing a job paying enough to live on and raise a family, and have a decent and middle-class life.” You say, “I don’t want this burned down. I am somebody. When I make demands, that we have a fair system in this country, then they will be heard.” If you don’t feel that way, “Nothing here is for me. It is for somebody else. What the hell? I might as well burn it all down.”
Jacobsen: Is the core of the argument: a bulky middle class is a buttress against self-destructive impulses towards a society, when I am making a conflation between the individual middle class person and the society?
Engel: I think so. I think the middle class is the bulwark. But we have been losing the middle class. People have been finding it harder to move into the middle class. The cost of higher education is too high. We are losing that. We have been losing that for years. Yes, the middle class, a reasonable middle class aspirations are important. I’ll tell you an anecdote Mitt Romney has become everyone’s favourite Republican down here. He stands up to Trump, the one Republican. Back in 2012, when he was running against Obama, he paid a visit to this guy John H. Schnatter. He went to the home of him. He was the founder of Papa John’s Pizza. He is no longer affiliated, but he founded it. He went to this guy’s house. This huge complex and mansion with the golf course; Romney looks around and says, ‘This, my friend, is the American dream.’ I saw that. I said, ‘You know, if that’s the American dream, then 99.999% of Americans will never reach it.’
How do you expect them to care about society? How do they expect people to care about society if you’re saying that is the American dream? How many people will reach it? In my opinion, the American Dream is start with nothing, get a good public education, work hard, get a decent job that pays you something to live on, has healthcare, can take a vacation once in a while. That’s the American Dream. It is reachable. It is, basically, a description of the middle class, which has been eroded in this country because the rights of workers have been taken away. There has been an effort to destroy unions. The tax rate keeps going lower, and lower, and lower. People can only talk about lowering taxes towards the richest people in the country. You end up with people who think they were middle class and slip into poverty themselves. A good middle class that is reachable and having the ability to reach aspirations for the average person, reasonable aspirations, not John H. Schnatter mansion, but a decent place to live with decent schools. That’s the type of thing; I think it is a bulwark against violence.
If you’re in the situation, then you can see how you have a stake in an orderly society. But also, if you feel, ‘If I say something, my vote counts, my vote matters.’ If gives you a stake in society and a stake in non-violence, we don’t want things burned down. We want them improved; we will be listened to. I think that’s a bulwark in steering the rage into constructive change as opposed into destruction and nihilism.
Jacobsen: Jon, thank you for your time.
Engel: Hey, Scott, take care of yourself.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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