Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Cave Men

For this essay, I want to look at a single incident through the lens that the readings and discussion of this class have helped to formulate:

The Incident

Late night on the subway, Leah and I found ourselves the target of a verbal and near physical assault from a 16ish African-American boy accompanied by four or five friends. At first we attempted to ignore them, which seemed to work as they eventually switched cars. However, they quickly returned followed by a white man our age trying to get his just stolen phone back. Once again, the leader picked up hurling threats our way, edging ever closer towards physical confrontation. We still refused to engage him, and then this boy attacked the other man. At this, we jumped up, and they released the man and returned their attention to us. (They shouted at Leah, “What are you going to do Wonder Woman?” Out of nowhere she displayed a kick picked up from Kung Fu movies, perhaps bringing a bit of levity to this increasingly ugly exchange!) Before anything further could happen, the train stopped and they took off. It was over.

Although likely lasting less than two minutes, the incident raises questions that continue to linger and speaks on a personal, in your face level (literally) to the issues we’ve been discussing. I’m not angry at the boys, but I’m overwhelmed by the conditions that make such incidents inevitable. Frank described me as a meaning maker, and I want to use this incident to look at prevailing myths (to borrow Barthes’ usage) that shape our existence. Although we think we crawled out of the realm of myth long ago, in fact it seems we just dressed them up in new clothes – and it’s important to use our readings as a sort of x-ray vision.

Myth of Othering

The creation of a division of we/they, of an “other,” makes it easier to hate and feel justified in doing violence to another. The boys on the train didn’t see us as people like them, but as white and thus a part of the privileged, ruling class responsible for their own circumstances. Whoever we are, whatever we do, however much we might actually be able to connect to these boys in a different situation, none of this matters. With the myth of black/white, of otherness, the opportunity for dialogue, for common ground is denied.

Myth of the Power Elite

While the boys may not use C Wright Mills’s term, they definitely see us as a part of this group – the people who drive history and keep others down. This is very real to these boys and what they experience. (While we might argue our inclusion in this group, here I am at Columbia, with a brother who went to Harvard, I have a seat at tables these boys won’t. I appreciate the analogy Fran Liebowitz proposed, that being white was like being the children of celebrities, it gets us in the door, a door not open to those who don’t look like us.) That such an elite exists and that they possess the power to make decisions over a mass of people are not myths. What is a myth is that the Power Elite’s ascendancy to such a position of authority is natural. Mills writes of the notion that “they are elite because of the kind of individuals they are. The rest of the population is mass, which, according to this conception, sluggishly relaxes into uncomfortable mediocrity.” (13) But as Mills points out, this is wrong, “People with advantages are loath to believe that they just happen to be the people with advantages.”(14) In a recent NYTimes column Bob Herbert describes William F. Buckley, champion of conservative mythology, who he says “took a scurrilous stand in the aftermath of the Brown v. Board of Education decision that desegregated the nation’s public schools. Whites, being superior, were well within their rights to discriminate against blacks, according to Buckley. ‘The White community is so entitled,’ he wrote, ‘because, for the time being, it is the advanced race ...’” The perpetuation of these myths justifies treating others as inferior and thus poorly. Understandably, our assailants are raging against that, even as they’re a part of it.  

Myth of the Leisure Class

Part of being the elite includes membership in what Veblen calls the leisure class and having the means for conspicuous consumption. Again, to the boys we represent the upper echelons of this class. I might deny it, yet I work at a private tennis club in Manhattan. Although I came to tennis on cracked courts in a farm town, I know it’s seen as a sport of the privileged (the sight of a luxury car behind the courts at a pro tournament does nothing to dispel this image) – the term “serve,” in fact, comes from the fact that servants used to put the ball into play. Tennis is definitely a means of conspicuous leisure, and looking around at where I work that’s easy to see. I have one student who spends a thousand dollars or more a week on tennis (and routinely shares stories of nights out in Manhattan where he spends five times that much at posh clubs.) It’s an interesting line to walk between worlds. On the other side is our maintenance/janitorial staff who come from a different position altogether. While sketching this essay out in my head at a break at work, I end up talking to Darnell – an African American kid who’s twenty and does various menial jobs around the club – who I find crying in the hallway. It turns out his best friend was shot in the leg and the head and is now in a coma. This friend and a group of guys got in a shouting match with another bunch and it turned to shooting. Even at this intersection, we are worlds apart. And this is the world these boys on the train live in.

Myth of Need

These myths of the leisure class and conspicuous consumption are not just limited to the elite but extend to everyone else, all trying to compete. It’s on great display on a Friday night walk home in Harlem, women are objects to be acquired, (which speaks to Veblen’s theory of the origins of ownership starting with women) and the cars are loudly conspicuous. Caught up in the myth of the leisure class, it’s a contest to collect booty, have the biggest horde, rather than seeing value in taking care of one’s community. It’s harmful. Marcuse terms this the pursuit of false needs – material needs as opposed to ones we truly need for our survival. They are used as a distraction, for “The most effective and enduring form of warfare against liberation is the implanting of material and intellectual needs that perpetuate obsolete forms of the struggle for existence.” And as such stand in the way of our true freedom: “All liberation depends on the consciousness of servitude, and the emergence of this consciousness is always hampered by the predominance of needs and satisfactions which, to a great extent, have become the individual’s own.” (7) Racing to keep up, get the next thing, we don’t take care of what’s needed.

Myth of Democracy and Expectations

Voting gives the appearance of democracy. Yet as Marcuse writes: “Democracy would appear to be the most efficient system of domination.” In fact, “Under the rule of a repressive whole, liberty can be made into a powerful instrument of domination. … Free election of masters does not abolish the masters or the slaves.”  (7) Born into captivity of a system that treats people like probabilities from the day they’re born, we can begin to assume it’s natural – that’s just the way it is. I’m not sure that these boys know better, but they do know they’re supposed to have a place in this system and it’s not to be in charge, and it’s not to have a voice. Democracy isn’t extended to them as more than a meaningless token. Barbara Bush’s comments regarding Hurricane Katrina were telling of what the ruling class thought of the rest of the people: And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this--this [she chuckles slightly] is working very well for them.” It’s a myth of expectations, explicated well by Heath Ledger’s “Joker” in “The Dark Knight:” “Nobody panics when the expected people get killed. Nobody panics when things go according to plan, even if the plan is horrifying. If I tell the press that tomorrow a gangbanger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics. Because it’s all part of the plan.” I think of the shooting of Darnell’s friend, not front page tragedy, just something that happens. 

Myth of the Market

These other myths are propped up by the myth of the free market, which Polanyi describes as being essentially a religion “a crusading passion” (143), sacred and holy (139). The mythology of the market says that it would take care of people, yet Polanyi suggests that this is a “fiction,” a myth, and leaving their fate in the hands of the market “would be tantamount to annihilating them.” (137) And it has indeed destroyed people. For “under the rule of the market the people could not be prevented from starving according to the rules of the game.” (168) The myth of the market also brings to rise Social Darwinism and facilitates the myth of the natural ascendency of the elite, and the othering of the poor to keep them in their place. Obeying the myth of the market, people can be unemployed and destitute, and their constitutional liberties lost all “judged a fair price to pay for the fulfillment of the requirement of sound budgets and sound currencies, these a priori of economic liberalism.” (148) The market destroys people’s cultures (164) and few know this better than people ripped from Africa to serve as slaves under one system and now to be slaves under a more subversive system, a system where humans are reduced to parts, “commodities, as goods produced for sale.” Essentially the human can be less than human.

(I want to note that this separation between people extends to the foods we eat as well. While I travel far to pick up organic this and that, what’s available at the markets in my neighborhood is not conducive to health. I want to tie this into the myth of the market and the loss of aura of food in the culinary arts in the age of mechanical reproduction, but this sidenote will have to suffice for now.)

Myths Keep Us from Talking

Under the sway of these myths, we’re unable to talk to one another. Myths impose meaning on us rather than allowing for us to make meaning ourselves. Therein lies the value in our reading – to provide perspective to see beyond the myths that dominate our field of view – liked being trapped, as Benjamin suggested, in front of the movie screen.

Tearing Down Mythology

The arc of the term suggests that at the core of these myths is Plato’s allegory of the Cave, by which some privileged folks can step out of the cave and attain higher knowledge. It sets up the “out there/in here,” “otherness” duality and has since been a bedrock of Western thought. By following this myth, people see knowledge, power, and creativity as denied to all but a few select individuals, as is the case of Barthes’ myth of “Einstein’s Brain” – being smart is mythical and thus inaccessible. This has effectively disenfranchised people from engagement in their own lives. If your actions are insignificant and of no consequence, why should you care?

In order to establish a truly participatory democracy, Latour sets out to hack down the myth of the cave along with those other myths built upon it that have prevented us from achieving such a thing. He redefines politics: “Just as we have distinguished Science from the sciences, we are going to contrast power politics, inherited from the Cave, with politics, conceived as the progressive composition of the common world.” (18) In this “Progressive composition of the common world,” lies the potential to empower people to realize that they can have a say in matters, and that it makes a difference to become knowledgeable and educated in order to participate. In being able to have true public discourse, this vision approaches what Habermas defines as the public sphere: “a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed. Access is guaranteed to all citizens. A portion of the public sphere comes into being in every conversation in which private individuals assemble to form a public body.” (350) Latour’s conception of democracy turns the world on its head, and puts the possibilities of people’s futures in their own hands. It resembles the path not chosen 2500 years ago when Democritus suggested: “Poverty under a democracy is as much to be preferred above what men of power call prosperity.” Marcuse describes such a state of freedom where “The individual would be free to exert autonomy over a life that would be his own.” (2)

How to Get There?

This new idea of freedom is difficult to imagine, old myths are powerful. It starts with as Dewey suggests, remembering that the State isn’t “Sacred.” (170) In fact, the author of the State is “nothing but singular persons, you, they, me.” (P37) We make the State, it isn’t the mysterious or holy collective – but ALL of us signing off on it. Seen for what it is – not obscured behind the curtains of myth – the State is an invention of people and can thus be dismantled and reinvented by people too.

We reinvent through education. According to Dewey: “Every care would be taken to surround the young with the physical and social conditions which best conduce, as far as freed knowledge extends, to release of personal potentialities.” (200-1) In treating people with care, we can release their possibilities, rather than the probabilities that mark a person’s life from the day they’re born. (200-1) As Marcuse wrote, “it must first enable its slaves to learn and see and think before they know what is going on and what they themselves can do to change it.” (40) The boys on the train know something is wrong, they see it all around them, but without education, what Dewey calls the “signs and symbols” they lack the means to do anything about it in a productive way. Instead, all they can do is lash out, which ultimately feeds back into the myth that they’re less capable and deserve their lot in life.

It is only through communication can change come about and only through education can the means of communication be acquired. As Dewey wrote, “Democracy will come into its own, for democracy is a name for a life of free and enriching communion. It had its seer in Walt Whitman. It will have its consummation when free social inquiry is indissolubly wedded to the art of full and moving communication.” (184) Democracy happens when people can communicate the “common interests” between us all on an equal level. “The man who wears the shoe knows best that it pinches and where it pinches, even if the expert shoemaker is the best judge of how the trouble is to be remedied.” (207) As Frank, Kruschev-like pounded on the table – they need to be able to say in a voice others can hear “My feet hurt!” Armed with signs and symbols, in a progressive discussion as Latour proposed, voices are heard and carry the weight of their experience – no single voice of an elite can trump the rest. It’s important to remember, as Dewey stressed that there are no absolute right answers. As with continually striving for a better state, he wrote, “thinking and beliefs should be experimental, not absolutistic” (202) We need to always subject our ideas to continuous inquiry in order to prevent the myths of the ideas from becoming as harmful as the myths they displace.

Get on the Bus

I like public transit – the train, the bus. I avoid cabs, in part because I’m cheap, but more so because I like the idea of interacting with my community, even in the limited way that this is. This is different than Detroit, where I was more actively involved in the community, yet didn’t engage with the larger population – I got in my car, and safe behind steel and glass I could go to my next destination and be similarly enclosed. Not here – it’s hard to hide. And that’s our world today. If we learn something from how water and air link our planet, today our economy and technology flow like rivers linking us all. We can’t build walls high enough to keep climate change out no more than we can keep the problems of the bottom billion from being our problems. If we didn’t see it that way, the events of 9/11 shattered the myth of isolationism and showed how interconnected the world is. Security and health won’t come from separating, from othering, but through communicating and educating. I’d like to see a world where my children grow up free from fear, and that means other people’s children need to have that same sort of assurance as well. And that includes these boys on the train.

In this, there’s another particularly American myth we need to dispel, that of the rugged individual being more free. It is in fact the reverse, for the collective can bring about the personal liberty we seek, rather than constraining it. As Dewey wrote, “They may think they are clamoring for a purely personal liberty, but what they are doing is to bring into being a greater liberty to share in other associations, so that more of their individual potentialities will be released and their personal experience enriched.” (193-4) He continues, “Organization as a means to an end would reinforce individuality and enable it to be securely itself by enduring it with resources beyond its unaided reach.”(216) We can be more free together.

Think Global, Act Local

Dewey emphasized the importance of community remaining “a matter of face-to-face intercourse.” (211) it’s a dialogue between one another at the local level, that leads to a dialogue with those at larger level – keep in mind the global as we act local. In his view, peace on earth is only achievable by understanding “peoples of foreign lands.” (213) Yet to do this, we need to first understand our neighbors, remove the “otherness” about them, which in turn helps us conceive of neighbors more distant. As Maxine Greene wrote: “Is it not the imagination that allows us to encounter the other as disclosed through the image of the other’s face?” Dewey suggested that “Vision is a spectator; hearing is a participator.” (219) If seeing, in this regard, stops at the surface, we need to learn to hear each other, that is truly understand “others,” person by person, day by day, to build a great community.

And so in trying to make sense of the incident on the train, I turn to action – what can I do? It has to start at community, in small ways that have the chance to become big things. For me, this means helping write a newsletter for the Tenants Association where I live to give some sort of voice to the people here. I’m now starting to think about writing on the Bartendaz – a Harlem-based group that does gymnastic-like strength training for kids and adults on playground equipment, and “Peace on the Street” a Karate/Meditation organization in Spanish Harlem also working with youths. These are encouraging means of educating, enabling people with the tools to have a voice, to follow their own curiosity. The “before” stories of the students in these organizations read like the boys on the train and Darnell’s friend – angry, ready to fight, seeing no alternatives. The “after” stories are open to possibilities.

Let’s make a final turn from the physical arts to the cultural arts. Dewey wrote “Artists have always been the real purveyors of news, for it is not the outward happening in itself which is new, but the kindling by it of emotion, perception and appreciation.” His words speak to the idea that artists are pioneers seeing things in ways that we don’t yet, and that they offer voices of continual questioning, essential to building community. Is it true what Adorno said, “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” I don’t think so. We need to make sense of things, and as Charles McGee says, “Any artist that’s worth his salt has to learn to speak the language of the day.” Which means art evolves, stays relevant, and continues to challenge how we see – and that’s what we need, and we can turn to the “Falling Man,” in Delillo’s book. This fictional performance artist is a wakeup call to look up, to look at what’s happening, to not tune it out and shut it away. I think of “Object Orange” in Detroit who painted burnt out houses in Detroit “tiggerific orange” to draw attention to the blight that is the city. After Benjamin, all art is political. And in that way, Delillo’s book and Project Rebirth is an attempt to keep us looking up, to not hide that day, those abandoned buildings away, or dismiss the boys on the train. In showing people as real, as just like us, we have a chance to rid ourselves of othering, see past myths, and join in the conversation. – Nick  

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