Updated: Jan 28, 2020
This essay was first published on the website of Fools Mission, a volunteer lay ministry of supportive companionship that I co-founded in 2012.
In the past, I’ve described Fools Mission as a “radical” social experiment; yet I’ve recently come to think differently about that language. The original sense of the word radical comes from French and Latin: “of or pertaining to the root, having roots.” One possible image is a return to foundational ideas or principles in the past. Another is linear cause and effect. People speak of “root causes” to assign them more weight than peripheral causes, or deceptive causes associated with rhetoric and spin.
My purpose in writing this is to show that that the liberal activism we’re familiar with today neglects rhizomatic insights; that is to say, policy and legislative demands uninformed by direct human relationships with the “underprivileged” don’t reflect the deeply entangled reality of our situation. Without a fool’s sense of the primacy of relationship, our attempts to “fix” social problems through coercion and control will be met with continuing cycles of frustration, burnout, and failure.
Before attempting to tie all of this into a bow, I offer three brief vignettes to illustrate the point:
1. An intake appointment with a lawyer
While it’s an otherwise congenial July day in 2016, the interview isn’t going well. A member of Fools Mission has been charged with crimes she didn’t commit, and we’re looking for an attorney to take her case. The stakes are high. If convicted, she will lose her green card and likely be deported. If deported, she will probably spend the rest of her life running from the drug cartel that murdered her father — one of a multitude of rhizomatic causes behind her immigration to the U.S. nearly thirty years ago. She works as a nanny, and the infant child she’s caring for lies sleeping in a carrier by her side. I’m on the right, getting a real-world education.
Not all lawyers are sleazy, of course, but this one wears the stereotype proudly. His stocks-in-trade are intimidation, threats, and fear. He conducts the meeting more as inquisition than interview, peppering her with a barrage of condescending and insulting questions designed to set her off balance and soften her up for capitulation, signature, and retainer. “Why did you do THAT?” he demands, in a stunning presumption of guilt. “You’re looking at serious jail time,” he lectures her, secure in the certainty of his convictions and the inevitability of hers. If we retain him, the prosecution will have a zealous partner, indeed.
Though visibly irritated by my presence, he doesn’t inquire into the reason I’m there or the nature of our relationship. As my sister fool will relate to me later, he already knows the answers: I’m white; the baby is white; so, I’m the father of the baby. Quod erat demonstrandum. Why else would a white man accompany a brown-skinned Latina from Mexico? Something is wrong, here. So, he starts directing his cross examination at me.
His next presumptuous question is my final straw. “I won’t be answering any more of your questions today, but thank you for your time,” I smile at him, as I stand up to leave. His all too predictable response? “Get out of my office!” Authoritarian personalities hate to be beaten to the punch. “Let’s go,” I beckon to her. Now he’s shouting: “If you ever bring him with you to another interview, no lawyer will ever take your case!”
On my way to the outside door, I realize that my haste to vacate the premises is premature. My dear sister fool is still sitting across from him, immobilized under the spell of the man behind the desk. The lawyer’s associate is bringing the carrier out of his office, and I ask him whether she authorized him to take charge of the baby. He hands the child over to me without comment. I walk back into the office, collect the beleaguered defendant, and we make our way to the front door before the apoplectic boss can summon security.
2. Same story, different day
As though to punctuate the first event, a week later I find myself invited to another law office to accompany a mother and son—also cherished members of our community of fools—to their own “interview” with a different attorney. The encounter smacks of deja vu. As he reviews the charges against her son, the lawyer wastes no time getting down to the intimidation stage of his interrogation. In response to their plaintive pleas for help, he exclaims, “You’re guilty, aren’t you?” and proceeds to threaten them repeatedly with the dire consequences of their sins.
At one point in the meeting, he turns to me and blurts out, “You have a look on your face like you don’t believe a thing I’m saying!” “You really know how to read a room, Counselor.” I reply. As before, my friends remain paralyzed in their seats. Do they think of this abusive treatment as their inescapable lot in life? In their minds, is this just the way the world works? In their experience, probably so. Inexplicably, the lawyer refrains from kicking me out of his office, and continues his torrent of insulting behavior as if it were the only game in town. In his world of patriarchal presumptions, plentiful prey, and obscene threats, it probably is.
A rhizomatic pattern is emerging. My privileged expectations of respectful, professional advocacy from an attorney I might hire to defend me spring from different nodes of the rootstalk, and don’t apply to those who struggle with poverty, skin tone, or the English language. Authoritarian personalities encounter these struggles and see only subordinates and inferiors to prey on. As the logic goes, “If domination strategies fail to bludgeon them into working with you, break their spirit so they can’t work with anyone.” I exit with the family, increasingly uncomfortable with their apparent willingness to consider this guy — and praying that this sort of experience doesn’t always come in “threes.”
3. An asylum hearing
In April of 2018, another of our privileged fools joins me at a hearing in San Francisco immigration court that will decide the fate of an asylum seeker who requested our accompaniment. Walking with her and her three children has been challenging for us fools. Raised in rural Mexico, the mom didn’t have access to a Western education. She’s a trauma survivor who’s been subjected to unspeakable treatment at the hands of a drug cartel. She’s also functionally illiterate, even in Spanish. She’s found work as a house cleaner, but has trouble holding down a job because she’s unable to communicate with co-workers over text messaging.
Life hasn’t prepared her to embrace an organized life, drive a car, or maintain a calendar; so our efforts to offer the family transportation to our meetings are only sporadically successful. Increasingly, when we pull up to their doorstep, no one is home — yet for a time, we manage to connect them with a therapist who was able to provide a psychiatric evaluation for the court. Alexander, Augustus, and Isabella haunt her story as surely as Juan Pizarro, Emiliano Zapata, and Milton Friedman. Is her origin story root-like, or rhizomatic?
Her time with the judge today is what’s called an Individual Hearing, where the court reaches a decision on an asylum claim after a series of Master Hearings. They put the mom on the stand for a grueling hour of testimony characterized by increasing frustration for petitioner, judge, prosecutor, and defense attorney alike. The court-appointed interpreter struggles valiantly to help her understand the questions, but she’s unable to respond directly. Instead, she repeatedly changes the subject and wanders off on tangents. The prosecutor and judge ratchet down to an excruciatingly slow and methodical pace intended to disclose a single factoid at a time and elicit a coherent story, as only skilled prosecutors can. Despite the absurdity of expecting a trauma survivor to deliver coherent testimony on cue and under duress, I find myself strangely inclined to believe that everyone is doing their best to get a fair hearing on the record. Eventually, her anxiety and stress reach a breaking point and she experiences a moment of confusion about her own children’s birthdays.
The judge abruptly calls the hearing to a halt and clears the room, sending us into the lobby so the parties to the case can have a private conference. In about twenty minutes, her lawyer comes out with an explanation of what took place. The court is willing to grant the family time to retrieve school records and photos from Mexico to prove that the kids are actually her children, and a new hearing might be scheduled after reviewing the documents. But the judge’s first thought is that she is sexually trafficking the kids, and we privileged fools in business suits are the traffickers. Maybe we’re all aliens and perpetrators on this bus.
A rhizomatic social experiment
To have concrete learning experiences like these requires direct personal relationships. When we apply root-like thinking to a rhizomatic world, we reinforce the old stories of ourselves that cast us as solitary, separate root structures in competition with the rest of life in a world of Other. This vision of the world has no future that includes happy or free human beings.
While it may feel easier to avoid relations with vulnerable people whose lives spring from different roots and shoots, our avoidance exacts a price. For one thing, we conduct our advocacy for the “underprivileged” in the abstract. We make easy judgments about people we don’t know, aside from arms-length encounters over business transactions. We fail to challenge assumptions that would soon unravel if interrogated by experience.
It doesn’t help at all to retreat into silos of privilege. As hard as it is, it’s also necessary to confront our own worst prejudices and fears in the mirror of reflection. Frustration, self-loathing, depression and despair can be dogged companions on the journey of an activist, and reflection in community is powerful medicine. It’s so easy to underestimate the power of water and sunlight — which fall on the just and the unjust alike — to nourish the destructive roots and shoots in our minds. Authoritarian shoots in the thrall of power and control are weeds; sadomasochistic shoots reinforce the world of pain; necrophiliac shoots persist in the service of all things death. To those who feed these tendencies and project them onto others, anyone and everyone starts to look like an alien or a perp.
Generally speaking, social legislation that aims to protect the most vulnerable members of society is fiercely debated and opposed in the legislature. Well-intentioned policies and rule-making face similar opposition in boardrooms and executive offices. Space doesn’t permit me to relate all the stories we’ve encountered on our journey as fools that illustrate this disturbing truth: our best efforts to create justice are as vehemently opposed in the administrative offices of bureaucracy and service providers as they are in the halls of power. This isn’t to say that decent and humane people aren’t at work in the system; it’s to acknowledge the existence of the rhizomatic reality.
Lawyers are supposed to advocate for their clients; not work for the prosecution. They are supposed to counsel and console them; not demonize them to their face. It would be nice if immigration judges read the psychiatric evaluations of asylum petitioners and took them into account instead of jumping to conclusions. The best efforts of activists to create justice on a state, national, or global level are thwarted time and time again, because coercive actions are soon followed by reaction and reprisal. To misunderstand the rhizomatic structures in play is to ignore an entangled multitude of wounded souls who have more power over that pesky implementation stage than one might imagine.
For fools like us, audacious enough to declare every human being as sacred, the takeaway is clear enough. Until we populate the landscape with many more “fools with a mission,” revulsive reactions to solidarity like those described here will continue to be the norm. Quoting Unitarian Universalist minister Molly Housh Gordon:
One way we white liberals fail in our engagement with the movement is our insistence upon policy demands and measurable goals at the expense of relationship-building and personal transformation. I see this at play in white activist circles: a rush to move past the discomfort of individual, embodied relationships into the systems-level work of policy change. The systemic work feels easier, because it is a way to control our unjustly entangled relationships. For example, we are eager to legislate an end to bias in policing, but less eager to police the bias in our own psyches.
Things will change for the better in a world where showing up and standing up for each other in public is the norm. This rhizomatic vision of a human future worth living in calls us to a change of heart. Fools are here to offer water and sunlight to the roots and shoots of love.