An Ongoing Haunting

Both ‘home’ and ‘haunted’ share the same Indo-European root, ‘tkei-, ‘ meaning ‘to settle, to dwell, to be home.’  I think it’s easy enough to see the connection. Your home is, of course, the place you’ve settled, where you dwell, where your presence is felt and that presence is recognizable to you.  A house is a house, but a home is a place where you recognize your own ongoing presence.

A haunting is then, obviously, the recognition of an ongoing presence that is not you.

Though, clearly, it’s not just a presence.  Haunting has to do with something being simultaneously present and lost, because, obviously, if it were just present, it wouldn’t be so freaky.  If actual one hundred and sixty year old men were coming into my kitchen and borrowing my can opener without returning it, it would be bothersome, annoying, and–if they were still armed–possibly very scary.  But it wouldn’t be freaky (or, yes, unheimlich).  The suggestion though, that the ghosts of the Civil War stole my can opener, while funny in broad daylight, is something that pulls my feet off the floor and under the blanket in a hurry in the middle of the night.

So, maybe we call a haunting the unsettling recognition of an ongoing presence that should be absent that is not you.

I’m struggling with this because, as much as I pick on my beloved conservatives, I’m confused by them.  On the one hand, they call themselves conservative, which, presumably, means they want to conserve something, to keep something the same as it is or, often, as it was in the past.  I don’t think, for the sake of this discussion, it’s important to define what that something is.  My point is that, it seems, they look to the past and see elements of it that seem better than how things are now and where things are going and want us to be like that.

Now, I don’t think any of my conservative readers mean that things should be exactly like that.  You know, they may say that society was better off back when it was harder for people to get divorced.  But it was harder for people to get divorced in the 1950s, and I don’t think that my conservative readers are eagerly awaiting a time when we can go back to institutionalized and government-sanctioned discrimination against black people.

I think they mean we should pay homage to the past, in some sense.  That we should act in a way that shows that we recognize the good ideas our forebearers had, while disregarding the bad ideas.

Is that a fair assessment?

If so, then we’ve established that conservatives are aware of the past and believe that the past should have some influence on the present.

So, what I’ve been trying to understand is why, if conservatives are aware of the past and believe it should have some influence on the present, why so many of them are resistant to the idea that slavery still matters or that we owe a debt to the people who were on this land who we removed.

Because, I have to say, that I look around this land, this land I live on, right now, the place I make my home, and I see hauntings everywhere.  Right out back, those are the train tracks the Union soldiers camped out along, in front of me, the concrete and steel six-lane vision of some engineer for the State.  I drive on roads that were old Indian trails that were old buffalo trails before that.  I have to dodge two stone pillars marking the entry way to a grand old subdivision that no longer exists to get onto West End.  I watch brown people put up buildings on land decimated by white people fighting over the black people who cleared the land after it was taken from other brown people and so on.

Everywhere I look, I see the past haunting the present.

And so I’m really genuinely confused when conservatives say that they, for instance, aren’t directly benefiting from slavery.  Do you not live in this country?  We have things, as they are right now, because of those years of unpaid labor.  And that debt is as obvious as the landscape around us.

So, I guess I don’t understand how one can be oriented to the past and yet deny how the past lingers.

I’ve been thinking, though, that maybe I’m wrong in understanding that.  Maybe it’s not about a desire to deny the past, but a desire to keep from stirring things up, especially when those things are unappeasable.

This is, anyway, what I’m beginning to suspect that conservatives know and are afraid of–that many ghosts cannot be appeased, once called forth and recognized, there they are, a constant reminder of a debt that can’t ever be paid.

My folks understood this threat.  It used to be that, if you killed a person, you could settle it with the family, you could pay a monetary price for his life; unless you killed a member of your own family.  How could that debt ever be made right?  A life has been lost and shuffling money from one branch of the family to another can’t ever fill that hole.  In fact, this situation, a family member killing another, was so dangerous–precisely because there’s no way to make it right–that when it happens/ed among the gods, it brought/brings about the end of the world.

We might understand this as meaning that you can’t actually incur a debt within your own group.  If there is no “not-us” to pay or be paid, there can be no balancing of the scales.  There can be no way for two parties to incur an equal loss, because there aren’t two parties.  Any further loss is just that, a further loss.  If it can’t actually be repaid, it isn’t a debt.

Hmm.  Since this is already the world’s longest post, let’s switch from talking about race to talking about gender, where the problems are more obvious.

What if women started asking for the money society owes us based on the free labor we’ve contributed over the years.  How many positions–diplomat, President, CEO, minister, etc.–have historically been conceived of a man paid to do business and a woman who acts as unpaid social director?  Or what if we started some kind of class action against all the companies that let us go after World War II in order to hire men?  Or what if we demanded to be paid for our housework?

That’s a good one.  Let us say housewives suddenly demanded to be paid for their housework.  A man earns $50,000 a year, let’s say, that all goes to supporting his household.  His wife stays at home with the children and contributes to the household her unpaid labor.  So, she doesn’t bring in a salary, but she also spares the household the cost of daycare, maid service, and a cook.  Let’s say that she demands to be paid for her work–the going rate of a live-in nanny, maid, and cook and let’s say that that comes to $50,000 a year.

If the husband pays her and she then turns around and uses that money to support the household (in other words, all the money ends up going to exactly the same places), how has the household benefited?  Since the folks in our story conceive of themselves as a unit–a family–the husband’s “paying” of the wife has no monetary benefit to the unit.  He earns $50,000 a year and she earns $50,000 a year, but the family is not bringing in $100,000.  (If they conceived of themselves as individuals first, we can see how the husband would be making out poorly and the wife would be making out well, but they don’t.)

Because they operate as a family, the husband cannot become indebted to the wife.  For one, as we’ve shown, it makes no sense.  The husband has no money that isn’t also the family’s and the wife could get no money from him that isn’t also the family’s.  The family cannot owe the family money if the family has that money. 

And for another, once the wife conceives of herself as someone to whom the husband owes money (or to whom the family owes money), the wife has taken herself out of the family, which, obviously, is an enormous threat to the family.

Hmm.  I’m not sure where I was going with this, but I’ve ended up here instead.  I’m coming to believe that maybe part of the conservative mindset is to make things right where you can, pay your debts, treat others as you’d want to be treated, and, most importantly, cling to some notion of rugged individualism.

Therefore, when we start talking about past injustices, it bugs conservatives–even though they love the past–not only because it threatens their idea of rugged individualism, because it suggests that we have collective responsibilities to try to make right what our forebearers made wrong (paying debts that aren’t yours), but also because the best way to refute that suggestion without looking like a clueless nincompoop who thinks we all spring from the earth with equal opportunities and a fair shot unmolded by the past is to argue that a group (in this case Americans) cannot be indebted to itself without destroying itself, which would, again, threaten this idea of rugged individualism.