Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Season of Heartlessness

If the following reads like a speech rather than a textual essay, it's because it's my notes for last night's podcast.  It's just some food for thought, and I hope you enjoy it and think about it. 

For a long time it seems we have been in a season of heartlessness. The acts we see, and the omissions we see, are large and small: Invasions and occupations, corporate greed, but also individual acts of ignorance, cruelty, and indifference.
The images that stick out in my mind as iconic photographs of this heartless season include Tea Partiers spitting on people, mocking the suffering of their fellow human beings, and threatening people with implied or explicit acts of violence…But the manifestations are both institutional and individual.  The State of Arizona enacts totalitarian, unworkable, and inevitably racist legislation targeted towards people whose ancestors inhabited the land that is now the State of Arizona. The large is connected to the small. A judge in Texas unapologetically ignores a condemned death row inmate's final appeal because it's a few minutes late. Another man in Texas is put on death row after the prosecutor and judge carry on a secret affair during his trial, and the courts are unsympathetic--and certainly unnecessarily so.

Cruel entrepreneurs pay homeless people to fight, record the fights and sell the videos. Other entrepreneurs lure college girls into exposing themselves. Workers in non-union coal mines are expendable and their death is met with profound concern...about their employers' stock value.

Look at the comments section of almost any mainstream online newspaper where there's a socially, or racially, or gendered, or politically significant story, and you'll see layers upon layers of blind, unapologetic hatred. A Facebook group prays for the death of Barack Obama, Christian ministers pray for the death of Barack Obama, CNN hires a commentator who called Barack Obama an Affirmative Action President, mid-level managers circulate racist pictures of the Obamas via email, a Mormon political commentator calls Obama a racist, and as you know, I've barely scratched the surface.

Soldiers in Afghanistan shoot civilians and cover it up. Intelligent, if ethically blind scholars and statesmen defend torture, even though it doesn't work. They defend it because the part of it that works is the raw assertion of power it conveys, and they are convinced that is the key to victory in a war without end.  When the soldiers come home, they come home to a dishonest, stripped bureaucracy, instability and material deprivation. Some of them become the most militant anti-war activists you'll ever see, but others join right-wing militias and racist groups. Many join no group at all, and many others commit suicide--an unprecedented number, in fact, that competes with combat deaths for a body count based on lies and nondeliberative political processes.

This is the time of distrust. We do not see each other as human. We reduce one another to commodity values or metaphysical enmity and alien-ship.

Some people--some activists, scholars, sociologists, Marxists and other radical analysts, see the collapse of institutional confidence, and the resurgence of the far right, as a sign of the storm before the calm, if you will, the season of violence and chaos that is supposed to precede genuine revolutionary change. But I think that's too simplistic and too mechanistic, even for me, and I frequently find myself the determinist at the table.

It's true that conservatism is dying in the United States, but if there's nothing solid to take its place, we can't pull new ways of thinking out of thin air, and we can't just assume that small intellectual conversations will become mass social and cultural shifts. It's possible that the shrinking conservative movement, the dying and increasingly regionalized Republican Party, and the increasingly embittered and encircled upper classes will die and take the spirit of human love and the social contract down with them, like a gangster shooting as many people as he can before he succumbs to bullets himself. And what I see out there is a group of people determined to do this, and a fragmented, confused Left unable to articulate and defend the vision we want to carry into the tumultuous years ahead.

When I see the Tea Partiers, I don't see coherent policy analysis.  They can't say what's really wrong with Obama's policies per se, they think he's raised taxes, and that, of course, is the least of their erroneous suspicions about him.  When I see the Tea Partiers, I don't see principled or consistent opposition to government spending. Nothing is said about the wars; instead Obama's budgetary transparency on the wars is used against him to make the argument that he has authorized or accommodated unprecedented budgets. Many of the Tea Partiers themselves are on some kind of government support (And there have been instances when rank-and-file Tea Partiers have presented honest answers to these inconsistencies--that they depend on that support, but wish they could make a world where it wasn't necessary. This is one of many points where these conservatives are closer to the truth than they could possibly know. What they miss is the way in which your liberation is necessary for my liberation, where, as the old labor saying goes, an injury to one is an injury to all. For we are not Robinson Crusoe, and even Robinson Crusoe was dependent on others--in sometimes violent ways.)

When I see the Tea Partiers, I don't see an articulated vision of a better world.  Some of this has to do with a philosophical multiple personality disorder. The embrace of Ayn Rand by a certain variety of libertarian or fiscally conservative Republican, but at the same time exploiting their political orientation's common ground with mystically committed Christians, or with neoconservatives who wish to use all the power of the state to remake the world in a particular U.S. image--a series of inconsistencies that give us Michele Bachmann making overtures to Ron Paul; that gives us Ron Paul himself forming alliances with white race warriors such as Lew Rockwell and the late Murray Rothbard; that longs for the return of George W. Bush, whom, if they were principled and consistent, the Tea Partiers would curse alongside Obama and perhaps even curse Bush worse, given the amount of "unfreedom" and wasted resources the Bush administration was objectively responsible for. And although these diverse brands of conservatism are often known to turn on each other, what unites them is hostility to any notion of a material social contract, a hostility to spiritual arguments in favor of equality, and a hostility to, if you will, the integration and pluralism of different cultures, ethnicities, and worldviews. In November, this united hostility will find focus at the ballot box and will push the Republicans forward electorally. In the beltway, it finds focus in reactionary policymaking and, when that's not possible, the obstruction of the modest Democratic reformist agenda. In the mass media, it finds unity on the airwaves.

Some of the Tea Partiers' lack of a coherent vision for a better world has to do with the artificial, engineered nature of the "Tea Party Movement." Now before you accuse me of categorically labeling Tea Partiers astroturfers, without exception, I do not believe that's the case. There is a conservative rank and file--an amalgam of modestly wealthy folks, retired folks, unemployed folks, working class folks, and they're organizing--somewhere between 67,000 and 300,000 of them, by various estimates. Their anger and energy gives them power beyond their numbers. In the 1960s, the Socialist Workers Party, a Trotskyist group with at most a few thousand members, played a huge part in organizing opposition to the Vietnam War, in the civil rights struggles, and other social issues. Small groups can do big things. But while we should never ignore the rank and file, we have to analyze their political direction by examining their material benefactors. In this case, we know --and this is not a matter of opinion-- that the Tea Party activities are funded by fabulously wealthy individuals and businesses, filtered through groups like Freedomworks and Americans For Prosperity, and even supported by Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship. But while the monied class can fund, mobilize, set a context for, and even physically assemble hundreds or thousands of rank-and-file protesters, they can't be held responsible for the intense emotional munitions of the people you see at these demonstrations. People aren't just programmed. We respond to our conditions, and although we do so with the tools and environment we inherit, we have free will, and can define ourselves. Those people wouldn't be there if they didn't want to define themselves.

I believe the real reason I don't see that articulated vision of a better world has to do with the heartlessness that has taken over politics. Oh, it's always been there, but in the past heartlessness competed with heartful politics and social optimism, even among many conservatives. The history happening now may bear a resemblance to histories of the past, but there is a unique anger, cruelty, and heartlessness in the air. It is as if all the divisive agitation of the past, and uniquely post-racial racism of the present, and a profound lack of faith not only in the government, but in the people, by the people, has settled in our midst.

The Left is also capable of heartlessness, though in ways more nuanced than we can often tell. A lot of us make fun of the Tea Partiers without understanding how incredibly close they are to us--there but for fortune, perhaps. Perhaps we do know how close they are to us, and that's what bothers us about them. There is heartlessness among progressive, college-educated liberal elites, in the form of condescension towards those who don't really know any better. We play political sparring games, too, instead of articulating consistent and careful counter-visions.

And we're selective in our outrage, at least some of us are, frequently ignoring the corporate ties to the Democratic establishment. Or we go to the other extreme, like certain anti-war and ultra-left activists have done, and reject all reformism, all traditional political fora, and even fall in with conspiracy theorists who speak of Barack Obama with the same racially-tinged metaphors as the garbage we see on the right. It's because sometimes we just follow the hate track, because we feel like it's the only thing that's there, the only think that's possible, the only thing that makes us feel politically relevant. Where there should be critical solidarity among everyone, reformist or revolutionary, Democrat, Green, Anarchist, Socialist, etc., a way of both criticizing and engaging political institutions and each other, there is divisiveness, because divisiveness gives us the temporary illusion of power and relevance.

The solutions to destructive political divisions, the economics of a spoil system, legalized and semi-legal con jobs, racist violence, sexism, heterosexism, environmental devastation and military adventurism certainly require intelligence, objectivity, expertise, democratic participation, community-building, a whole range of technical and political solutions. But without a massive, confident reassertion of love, an acknowledgement of our interconnectedness and mutual dependence, and a celebration of the beauty of our vision, our potential, our universality, we will lack the will to fight for better policies and better communities.

We must believe we are worth it. I must believe you are worth it and you must believe I am worth it. The white worker in rural Pennsylvania must believe the black worker in Atlanta is worth it. They must see their sameness, and the evidence of that sameness is not always found in a logical argument, or a policy paper. But love can be forged when people sit down together, or fight together on a picket line, or learn about each other in a variety of ways that we can promulgate using any means necessary, and any media we have at our disposal.

We need to assert this love and solidarity with an energy that eclipses the energy of the Tea Partiers. We need to out-perform them. When they enact separatism and alienation, we have to do a better job enacting solidarity and love. Of course, that also means we must love them, and listen to them. I have seen more than one instance of that interaction working, planting seeds that could eventually sprout to better mutual understanding, at least for some people, and right now, that's better than nothing.

We need to be more sure of humanity's ability to make and reform political institutions than they are of humanity's depraved nature.  We need to be more confident of the availability of collective solutions to our challenges than they are paranoid of different-looking people taking away their freedom.

None of this will eliminate all the rudiments of hatred, nor convince those ensconced in privilege that they should share their excess. Nevertheless, the consistency and power of this message--equality, solidarity and universality--is absolutely necessary if we are to get past this angry, unreasonable, heartless, drain-circling un-philosophy that currently dominates political and economic life.  At the very least, we need to articulate that shared vision to cling together through this season of heartlessness.


Christian Prophet said...

Ayn Rand is so thoroughly misinterpreted! You may or may not have seen the article: "Ayn Rand, 20th Century Prophetess."

Pete said...

Thanks Matt. This is very well done. It leaves me with much to honestly ponder, as I fully admit to being caught up in the anger and belligerent partisanship from the "progressive"/anarchist left.

My nemeses in this rift are, at the end, right-wing Mormons. mostly because I used to be one, and I both remember and regret my attitudes and behavior then, and my experience since of being on the receiving end of such from other Mormons as my perspective changed and my "testimony" of the LDS faith was bludgeoned to death.

It's hard not to feel anger and to feel some motivation to lash back. With that said, I can also say that your essay here does give me cause to pause, and consider how i might be able to be more thoughtful and compassionate, and less reactive.

Again, thank you.

matt said...

I know how you feel, Pete.