The first thing you have to understand about Big Bill is that he’s a good kid. I know this because his auntie Marie told me, and auntie Marie doesn’t lie when it comes to things like that – if there’s a bad apple in her family tree, she’ll tell you true about it. But she’s proud of Big Bill, and talks about him a lot. Last time I ran into her – down at the Emeryville Public Market, where we caught up with each other over some ramen and shared a box of macaroons – she got onto the subject of what he was up to these days, and the news was not all good.
Big Bill is one of only four black students at his high school in “upscale” (read: heavily white/east Asian and ranging from upper middle class to Silicon Valley rich) Marin County, just north of San Francisco. Marin County is the galactic center of limousine liberalism – electorally, they’re even further left than San Francisco itself (believe it or not), but that doesn’t stop them from consistently voting down public transit initiatives so that the riffraff don’t have any way to get into their neighborhoods. Big Bill’s family isn’t exactly rich – they get by okay – but they’ve lived in Marin since it was a lot less expensive than it is now, and the house has been paid off since Big Bill’s grandmother’s day. This leaves Big Bill as a token Non-Asian Minority in a school that is highly-rated and flush with cash, which is, all told, a pretty nice situation. Big Bill loves his school, and his school loves him in return. Like I said, he’s a good kid. He gets decent (not exceptional, but decent) grades. He’s popular with his classmates. True to stereotype (and Big Bill is the first to laugh about this himself), he tried out for the school football team and became a star running back in no time flat, which made him even more popular than he already was. Big Bill is happy with everything at school, and so is his mama – or at least, they were until recently.
The trouble started almost immediately after the new school year began. There was an announcement over the PA system calling Big Bill to the office. For a few moments he was genuinely worried – thoughts of a family member in the hospital – or worse – came to mind. In fact, he was being called into a private session with the new school counselor; a white lady in her 40s with short hair, a social work diploma, and impeccably progressive social views. For two solid hours, she interrogated Big Bill, looking for any evidence that he had been the victim of bigotry-driven mistreatment at the hands of anyone at the school. He repeatedly explained to her that he hadn’t. Racism? Nope. Classism? Nope. Homophobia? “No! Look, I’m not even…” Transphobia? “Wait… what?” Toxic masculinity? “I’m on the football team for heaven’s sake…” Bullying? “Did you hear the part about being a football player? I’m 15 years old, 6′ 3″, and 250 pounds, so…” Teasing or hazing? “There’s the normal teammate locker room banter, but I’d feel left out if they didn’t…” AHA! What do they say to you? “Look, it’s not even important. Can I go back to class now? We have a math quiz coming up at the end of the week, and if I don’t…” Are you SURE you haven’t experienced ANY racism? Think hard about this! “Yes! Really! I’m sure! Now can I please just go back to class?!” And on it went. Finally, a deeply dissatisfied counselor sent him back to class, with the pleading assurance that her door was always open if he experienced the slightest degree of bigotry and would like to inform her about it. He promised he would, and other than telling mama what happened that evening, gave the matter no more thought.
Until the event repeated itself three weeks later – this time with both the counselor and someone from the district office (another 40something white lady with short hair, Big Bill noted) there. This time, Big Bill ended up missing something important in class, and at the end of the week, missed questions on a test that he knew he would have gotten right if he hadn’t been in the counselor’s office having to tell her over and over again how fine everything was. Big Bill went home very annoyed by this, but not as annoyed as mama was when he told her about it. They had the good fortune of living in a nice neighborhood, but neither of them was so far removed from the streets that they didn’t recognize someone trying to play Captain Save-a-hoe when they saw it. But Big Bill isn’t a hoe, and didn’t need saving. They both hoped that now that he’d told them twice that everything was perfectly okay, maybe this would be the end of it.
It wasn’t. A month later, he got called in for a whole afternoon, which included missing football practice. On this occasion, a board of five short-haired white ladies grilled him about any possible signs of bigotry, including asking more than a few questions that Big Bill thought were intentionally worded to trip him up. They also gave him some kind of multi-page form with a bunch of questions on it that he had to write out answers to. After they finally let him go, he was both genuinely angry and no longer naive enough to think they would stop until he’d given them what they wanted (whether it was true or not), which he had no intention of doing.
That’s when Big Bill’s mama decided that she’d had enough. She arranged an afternoon off from work (which wasn’t as easy for her to do as it would be for most of Marin’s limousine liberal population), made an appointment with the counselor, put on her Sunday best, and marched up to school to put a stop to all this nonsense. In no uncertain terms, she informed the crestfallen counselor that Big Bill was fine, that the only two personages allowed to save him were 1) mama and 2) Jesus and that all other potential saviors had best mind their own business, and that if Big Bill was pulled out of class at any time and for any reason other than that he was in imminent danger of death and was being rushed to the hospital, mama was going to be back down to the school to make the lives of everyone there extremely unpleasant until they agreed to cut this bullshit out. And with that, she wished the counselor a good day and left.
So far, this seems to have worked. It’s been two whole months, and Big Bill has been left alone to get on with his high school days in peace. When I asked auntie Marie whether that meant the short-haired white lady brigade had simply moved on to one of the other three black students in the school to see if they’d have any better luck at getting them to crack, she shot a worried look down into her empty ramen bowl and said that she sure hoped not. She didn’t sound very optimistic about it, though.
* * *
Much like one of Rod Serling’s protagonists surviving an encounter with the Twilight Zone, Big Bill and his mama seem (for the moment) to have survived their encounter with the zeitgeist of the age. The decisive factor here was both mother and son’s unusually keen understanding of one critical fact: none of what went on was happening in order to actually help Big Bill. There is a difference – and one that perceptive people must always be attuned to – between cause and pretext. Here, the SJW cat ladies’ pretext for all this bother was to help Big Bill overcome the oppression that surrounded him (so thoroughly, in fact, that like a fish in water, he might not even realize it was there). But the true cause of it was that Big Bill’s nonexistent oppression is a force that gives them meaning. Too late in their lives, they discovered that a cubicle and a cat were not emotionally-fulfilling substitutes for a husband and a family, and it makes them quietly miserable. With their innate instincts toward motherly protection unable to be focused on children that they never had, they redirect them outward toward one world-saving cause after another. Where none exist, they will do anything they can to create one – out of thin air if need be. The fact that the external object may either not need help, or that reality shows us they have not really been helped by the actions taken, is irrelevant. Half a century after the “war on poverty” was declared, the nation’s ghettos do indeed like like a war has been fought there, but there is little evidence of any victory against poverty. The effort to save black people has ended up with W. E. B. DuBois’s “talented tenth” being brought high in white society (in the process, leaving blacks without the leadership of their own natural elites), while millions more of them are left to rot in hellish, crime-ridden squalor. As for the effort to save women, the very SJW cat ladies from which Big Bill managed to narrowly escape serve as testament to its failure. But none of that matters to those who began or sustain those moral crusades, which is why bringing their failures to their attention never works at getting them to reevaluate their strategies. If you try, you’re just engaging the pretext instead of the cause, which is all useless.
Nietzsche once counseled: “Beware those in whom the impulse to punish is strong”, and while this is certainly true, it is also true that the history of the world since his time has shown us that those in whom the impulse to save is strong can be even more dangerous. All too often, what is at their core is a misery born of the helpless feeling of needing their own form of salvation, and of being unable, either through bad fortune or (more often) their own limitations, to ever find it. The emptiness inside them makes them desperate to feel important, to feel needed, to feel as if they can save somebody, even if it can never be themselves. Their desperation turns to fanaticism, and that fanaticism inevitably produces more misery, sustaining the cycle infinitely. The only way out is to understand all of this, and to pick your saviors carefully. Know who’s playing that role, and why – and be doubly cautious about it if the one struck with the savior impulse is you, because the impulse to save run amok destroys both those the potential savior and those who they wish to save.
Big Bill is a good kid with a good mama who saved him from the savers. If only she could deliver our whole society from them!
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