Politics, race, police brutality — these are just some of the topics Bruce Jacobs thinks Americans need to be openly discussing as a means to counter the culture of fear and paranoia that has hijacked public discourse.
A poet and writer, Jacobs is the author of Race Manners for the 21st Century: Navigating the Minefield Between Bland and White Americans in an Age of Fear. He speaks Tuesday at Antioch College in Yellow Springs.
"A political arena of fear and loathing and paranoia about the 'other' since 9/11 and a media arena in which political disagreement as having to be a form of personal abuse have combined to leave Americans feeling you cannot talk about politics with people you know," Jacobs says. "You have to keep your feelings to yourself because it's too lethal and too dangerous to get into this stuff in public. So a lot of Americans have shut down when it comes to political disagreement and discourse and they, in effect, let their favorite mean-mouthed talk show host talk dirty for them."
Jacobs will discuss how to combat this dysfunctional approach.
"I'm going to talk about the need to reclaim discourse from what I call the dictatorial climate of today's media and today's political arena," he says. "There is a majority of us in America who are being screwed by a small group of people who have shut down this interchange, and we just can't allow that to happen.
"What I mean by interchange is the ability to look a neighbor or a friend or their relatives in the eye and say, 'That really offended me' or 'I can't believe you really believe that about Arab Americans' or 'How could you vote for Bush when he's done X, Y and Z?' or "How could you not vote for Bush when he's done X, Y and Z?'
Whatever it is."
Describing his book as a "kitchen table guide" to being "an opinionated citizen," Jacobs believes a cessation of conversation has put the fate of the country in jeopardy.
"American democracy is hanging in the balance," he says. "I think that this sort of 'us vs. them,' running roughshod over other people's rights — only talk to people you agree with and show people you disagree with the iron fist — that whole mentality is a fascistic mentality that is eroding the idea of democracy in the United States. If that sounds like an overstatement, I don't think it's one iota of an overstatement."
Nasty talk radio, labeling contrary opinion as anti-American, creates an obstacle to addressing critical issues such as race relations, Jacobs says. People are inundated with lies disguised as news, have little exposure to life experiences different from their own and lack access to good information. As a result, blacks and whites are stuck in a vacuum of silence that perpetuates stereotypes and myths.
"The air of these white citizens is being polluted by the Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reillys of the world, who are telling them, 'Ah, these black criminals are too lazy to work. They're too lazy to go to school. They deserve to go to jail. Everything they tell you about police brutality is a lie.' In the absences of experience to tell them differently, they believe it. Somebody's got to tell white citizens that they're being lied to. I'm one of those somebodies.
"Most of us are good people struggling under the burden of bad ideas. That's the central truth that I think we've got to get to in Cincinnati and elsewhere in order to start to believe one another's story. There isn't any bad faith on either side; there's just bad information."
'Burden of bad ideas'
An African American and Harvard graduate, Jacobs relates experiences of being racially profiled by narcotics agents in Boston and similar situations faced by poor and successful back men alike, including Miles Davis, who was stopped by police while driving his Ferrari in L.A. Jacobs blames the militaristic mentality of the policing that began with the war on drugs. Describing that effort as the "greatest failure in police policy in the past 20 years," he says police officers have been trained to identify the "enemy" and "do battle" instead of providing service to the community.
"What it did was give permission to police to treat the entire community as the enemy, to sweep in under the guise of trying to root out the drug trade, to treat everyone in that community, whether law abiding or not, as a suspect," Jacobs says. "The war on drugs legitimized that kind of police work. That has done even more to heighten abuse of citizens by police, to heighten and harden this militarized attitude. Policemen and women of all colors are subject to incredible pressure within the culture of police work to adhere to this 'arrest or shoot first, ask questions later,' when it comes to black males, ethic."
Pointing to parallels between police violence in L.A., Cincinnati and other major urban centers around the country, Jacobs believes demilitarizing policing and talking and listening are critical steps toward change.
"There's got to be active protest and agitation in the communities where these abuses are happening," he says. "The folks who are being abused and treated illegally and abusively, sometimes fatally, need to be filing lawsuits. They need to be in the street, they need to be doing anything that's necessary to attract attention to the ongoing reality of what's happening to them.
"You need a series of truth-tellers saying to whites, 'Look, man, you're being lied to about what's going on in these communities.' And to say to blacks, 'Look, man, these whites would be your allies if they had access to better information.'
Acknowledging that the United States was founded as a racist country — killing off native inhabitants and enslaving other people of color — Jacobs still believes it's possible to overcome this past.
"My only question is: are we willing to try? Are we gonna give up and say, 'Well, the nation was founded in blood and it's going to drown in blood?' " he says. "We could say that, and it might be true. But we can say, 'This is a beautiful country full of essentially good people and damn it, we need to find a way to make this work.' I choose to fall down on that side of the argument. Otherwise I couldn't stay here."
Bruce Jacobs speaks at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Coretta Scott King Center for Cultural and Intellectual Freedom in Yellow Springs. Admission is free. For information, call 937-769-1787.