Thomas Paine:

“Reason obeys itself; and ignorance submits to whatever is dictated to it.”

Monday, October 20, 2008

Little Lies and Big Lies

Derrick Jensen is right:
our way of life requires a taboo against telling the truth.

      Let me tell you a little story, to start. It was during the weeks after the attacks of 9-11, when it seemed my entire city was waving the U.S. flag and wanting to bomb the hell out of somebody, anybody.
      I was skeptical about it all, from the start. I hated the flag-waving and the lack of any sort of historical self-awareness that would temper the blood-thirsty patriotism all around me. (I live near Camp Pendleton, after all.)
      A huge American flag was pinned to the wall in the lobby where I worked; tiny flags went up at our stations, and patriotic posters were put up on the walls. One poster in particular caught my eye. It was a photo of a Marine, saying good-bye to his little daughter. While I appreciated the sadness of the reality depicted there, I also recognized the poster as propaganda: left out of the picture, but present in my mind, was the horror about to be inflicted by that soldier and his army on innocent Iraqi children, mothers, and sons; left out of the picture was the uselessness of trying to fight cult criminals with an army.
      But my main problem was with the company’s response to 9-11, what I felt was the imposition of right-wing politics and jingoism on our environment, as if all the employees had to be gung-ho for the war or just shut up.
      My mistake was that I let slip my disapproval to a temporary supervisor. I didn’t say much, only that the picture was sad, but it was propaganda, and I thought such propaganda had no business being up on the walls in a work place.
      A week later, I happened to drop in to talk to our manager for a separate reason. I walked in rather meekly, as I remember, for this woman had demonstrated a capacity for ruthlessness on many occasions, and I didn’t want to rile the beast. She looked up when I spoke and gave me an amazing stern look. I remember she said, “That’s interesting...I’ve been mad at you for an entire week!” Cindy had told her what I’d said about the poster.
      So, still recovering from treatment for breast cancer and not wanting to lose my health insurance, I lied: “Oh no...not at all...” I said, and she took that to mean I was as gung-ho for the military as she, and the whole thing was a misunderstanding.
      Needless to say, Cindy got the cold shoulder from me for awhile. “But they told me I had to report everything!” she said.

      In A Language Older than Words, Derrick Jensen writes, “In order for us to maintain our way of living, we must, in a broad sense, tell lies to each other, and especially to ourselves.”
      There ya go, Cindy...
      While I was maintaining my way of life, that is, working, and telling my little lies to management, I noticed the lies told by management as well, and the internalization of those lies by employees, all of which then became a blueprint for conflict—gossip, cliques, power struggles, shouting matches, cold shoulders, reprimands, and various degrees of verbal and psychological abuse.
      The first big unspoken lie that seemed implicit in corporate life, among the many, is that profit-making is the highest virtue. Within that lie is another: “we are an aggressive, predatory, ruthless and competitive species.”
      Another lie is that people are motivated by “self-interest,” that such interest is without of concern for others, entirely selfish and focused on the base values of the first big lie.
      Then there’s the hierarchy lie—that we are pack animals and must, in service to our basic natures, organize according to our sacred texts: upper/middle/lower; top/bottom; winners/losers; leaders/followers; victors/the vanquished, stars/average Joes/flunkies. (It's not that I think the notion that some people are better endowed than others is a lie; it's that such "superiority" entitles those with higher rank to humiliate others and deprive them of human dignity—that's the lie.)
      The most obvious lie behind management rules is that employees are stupid, lazy and wicked, and management’s job is to manage them—control, teach, discipline, exploit.
      None of these are new insights. I realize that.
      But I think even those of us who claim to have better values, at work or at home, behave in ways that honor those lies. It is nearly impossible to be free of them. Thus a relationship that could have provided human comfort and peace in an otherwise nurturant culture not bent on “success,” or productivity, or victory over others, instead goes cold, or hostile, or violent, or hateful, or, at the very least, passive-aggressive.
      Prof. George Lakoff claims that 95% of thought and emotion is subconscious. If true, this would explain why it is impossible to confront indirect hostility, because people who do it are hardly ever aware they’re doing it; thus you might hear your friend say to you, “But they said I had to report everything!” but you don’t want to lecture her on what should have been her loyalty to her peers, rather than to management—after all, that would be patronizing.
      You felt the stab in your back, but you would not convince her it was a stab in the back; she didn’t mean it that way, not consciously. And, anyway, could you possibly expose the lie that she supported by betraying my confidential remark, the lie that tells her that thinking for herself is a no-no and will get her fired? You cannot. You must instead protect the taboo against recognizing cooperation with power as a lie, as a detriment to well-being.
      Derrick Jensen concludes the same paragraph by saying, “And so we avoid these truths, these self-evident truths, and continue the dance of world destruction.”
      This means to me that all the little lies are like cells in the body of the big lies of our monster system, all serving to support the life of denial, our way of life.
      The myth of self-responsibility serves such denial too, it seems to me, on behalf of the system at large. Take, for example, my attempt to include the competitiveness feature of our culture as blameworthy in family conflicts as well. In a conversation with a family member, this notion had to be immediately recognized as “not taking personal responsibility” for one’s choices, behavior, personality flaws and so forth. This to my mind is the lie of personal power and responsibility that we all buy into, while ignoring all the factors in life that have the power to crush personal power and personal will—the fear of getting fired, for example, or poverty, inequality of education, opportunity, encouragement; cruelty, unfairness, injustice, competition, and hierarchy itself—all creating low self-esteem, discouragement, depression, helplessness and hopelessness. In such a system, somebody always has to be the loser. This lie of self-responsibility is among the lies that block consciousness, collective or not, of the truth about a way of life that is destructive of authentic happiness.
      Thus, the system functions freely, without exposure of its lies, and at our expense. Then happiness becomes something you have to drug yourself to achieve, especially if you’re not “happy,” according to the definition of happiness in our culture: rich, successful, famous—but, it was your choice not to be “happy,” anyway. Which reminds me: that definition of happiness? Another lie. (a reminder not to take blogging too seriously as a means to happiness)
      What it comes down to is this: we simply must not think certain thoughts, among them the primacy and possibility of nurture—in families, between friends, in business and in government—as fundamental to our character and values; nurture, not as from parent to child, but between co-equals, with interest in the well-being of both ourselves and the other, with respect for each other’s human rights, and each other’s psychological, emotional, and physical needs.
      We must not have this thought: that above all else we are nurturant, altruistic, and equal by virtue of our basic humanity. To have it, to express it out loud, is to invite accusations of being “soft” on...whatever—communism, drugs, crime, and blah blah blah. Essentially, to have it is to threaten the god of masculinist capitalism, for want of better words, and all the lies that occupy that territory.
      Consider, more specifically, on the microcosm level, the wife-beater, how his definition of masculinity includes the lie that to be a man is to control and dominate —be above— a woman, or women. Nowhere listed in the sad, furious wife-beater’s definition of manhood will be the word nurture. This is why, to my mind, he is more pitiable than vile—think of the curse he has taken from his culture, a curse that condemns him to relentless evidence to the contrary of his “masculinity,” and perpetual slavery to having to disprove such evidence.
      It is no less true of our way of life, it seems to me. Corporations are not in the business of nurturing employees, or customers; policy-makers are not in the business of nurturing indigenous peoples in other countries, or sentient creatures, or the living world; war-makers are not in the business of nurturing the enemy—it’s kill, kill, kill, then drill, drill drill.
      Have you noticed McCain’s rapid and continual blinking? That’s beacuse he’s lying, constantly.
      I’m thinking it might be a good idea to start nurturing corporate CEO’s, to find a way to combat the lies embedded in our way of life. After all, they have grandchildren too. I have to believe it is not too late to raise the consciousness of even the most blind among us. It’s a bit patronizing, but can it be helped? Better to be patronized than bombed, right?

That’s all folks, for today...


Thursday, October 16, 2008

That Was the Final Debate? Were they Joking?

Here’s Ninja Granny’s WhoopAss Report:

      John McCain, eyelids a-flutter, lurched into a spry attack from the start. “Why would you want to put tacks on anybody right now?” he asked. “We need to encourage entrepreneurship, so that people can start reproducing by machine as soon as possible.”
      McCain also bore in on Obama’s support for the right to privacy and Roe v Wade, saying, “What a joke that is... or maybe it’s a, a, it’s a hysterectomy, and we know you’d be speaking in Islamic pentameter too!
      “Worse that that, nobody’s talking about how you voted for the Emasculation Proclamation,” McCain insisted, while continually slapping the tireless hamster in his cheek.
      Both Obama and McCain addressed their remarks directly to “Joe the Golfer,” who had lost his balls in gopher holes on his favorite golf course, all because of “those extremist, environmentalist gopher-lovers.”
      “It’s pretty surreal, man, losing my balls down gopher holes,” Joe had told both Obama and McCain. And each candidate commiserated with great and profound sympathy, acknowledging the horror of it all.
      But the candidate’s shared-compassion was short-lived. McCain, barely able to restrain his eye-roll reflex, responded to Obama’s reference to Nicaraguan deaths of labor organizers, by saying, “Damn, don’t you know anything? The Constitution of the United States was adopted to secure domestic hostility, both here and abroad!”
      Obama couldn’t resist: “Why John, you’re sounding more and more like George W. Bush every day!”
      “Hey you,” McCain retorted, “I am NOT President Bush—well, I do come from a long line of rapists and pillagers, proud servants of the Empire, but how dare you question my character—my mother died in infancy! Not too many people know that. And not too many people know I was born in a log cabin which I built with my own two hands!”

      That’s about it, Folks, except for that damn echo— “Where’s Ralph...where’s Cynthia...where’s Ralph...where’s Cynthia...?" the ghostly vibes of democracy long gone. Heck, can you imagine the difference, if Ralph Nader had been there? Can you imagine the joy of watching McCain’s face as Ralph exercised his unfailing ability to cut the crap and focus on the essential truths of the day, as he did today on Democracy Now? Can you imagine how he would shine next to Obama’s tongue-biting, pale congeniality? Can you imagine the bright moment, when he told the world who the real terrorists are —George W. Bush and Dick Cheney— and what they deserve, with a call for accountability for corporate and state terror?


Friday, October 10, 2008

The Progressive's Rorschach Test

What do you see in this picture,
and what does it make you
think about?

      In her most recent post at Toddlerspit (well worth reading), Jen wrote about an interview she heard on NPR: “...He was talking about how the new books were inspired by a drawing his five-year-old made on a restaurant napkin, of an elephant dropping flowers on the head of a pig. ‘Why is he dropping those flowers on the pig?’ Breathed asked. ‘Because the pig is sad, and doesn't know it,’ answered his daughter.”
      I mention this because, as most of us know, lacking an explanation from the artist, it is impossible to make sense of art, without projecting ourselves —our wishes, dreams, fears and personal meanings— onto it.
      So here comes my copy of The Progressive this month—McCain and Obama kissing. “Yay!” I said to myself. They got it so right! Perfect. Brilliant. And McCain is clearly enjoying it the most. I thought, “That’s The Progressive’s best, all-time cover,” and I could hardly wait to read the cover story.
      But, I couldn’t find a cover story. I looked and looked, searching for that one article to fulfill my expectations—about how McCain and Obama have merged in a big wet one over increasing the military budget, nuclear power, bailouts for Wall Street, war, increasing troops, continued occupation, tolerance of Blackwater, FISA/immunity, Israel, corporate allegiances, offshore drilling, “clean” coal, the Patriot Act, closed debates, industry-centered healthcare plans, the ignoring of police-state repressions during both conventions, and making various populist noises which always turn out to be lies.
      Other than a few mentions here and there of Obama’s move to the right, that one article wasn’t there.
      I searched for my other possibility— about the Obama-McCain clique, where all the other candidates are excluded from the debates, from the circle of love—media attention, how the election system itself is exclusive and anti-democratic.
      But no. Nothing focused on that, either. (though the article about the Cynthia McKinney campaign does touch on this issue and Obama as a “status quo” candidate.)

Later in the week, I got opinions on the cover from Jen and Nancy, both great people, both Phd.s.

Jen, who adores Obama: “Is that real? Or did you make that? Yeah, it looks like Obama’s sort of forcing himself to do it. McCain looks like he’s been waiting for it. For a long time.”
Nancy: “1. It’s hard for me to believe it doesn’t plan on a kind of homophobia-induced shock for effect, and I find that problematic. I’m sure it merits more reflection. 2. A lovers’ embrace seems like a pretty heavy handed overstatement of their similarities, especially right now. The image is not good especially if there is no clear cover story. 3. I nevertheless agree with the two things you would have liked to have seen.”

      See, we didn't know if there was an elephant in the room, or flowers, or if the pig was sad or happy. And we couldn't find out. All we could do was project, as I did, our wishes, our biases, our fears, and wonder.
      But, the beauty of it all, of putting the illustration out there without a cover story, was to discover just how many literal-minded liberals, Democrats, and progressives would be disturbed about the notion of a black man and a white man kissing. Perhaps —mixing my metaphors a bit here— it was a good time to shake that thing loose and see what fell out, that thing being the unconscious, or unspoken and denied, racism that surely will play a part in the election ....or?


Saturday, October 4, 2008

There’s Plenty of Good Reading Along the Way to Our Final Kaput

         I am in the middle of Derrick Jensen’s, The Culture of Make Believe. This is preliminary reading for me, before I get to Endgame, his most recent book.

         I love this guy.

      In his chapter Giving Back the Land, he writes of a conversation he had with television critic George Gerbner. He quotes Gerbner as saying, “Because most scripts are written by and for men, they project a world in which men rule, and in which men play most of the roles. Television and movies project the power structure of our society, and by projecting it, perpetuate it, make it seem normal...
         Let’s say you try to countercast, or change the typical casting in a typical story. A woman, now, is going to wield power. She is going to use violence. Suddenly, you can’t tell any story other than the one that describes why this is so. The story has to revolve around why a woman is doing things that seem scandalous for her, yet seem normal for a man.”
         This is so true. And it is true whether violence is a factor in the story or not. Take the fact, for example, that the majority of scripts where an older man is sexually involved with a younger woman: the story is never required to be about the discrepancy in their ages; their age difference is often not an issue, may not even be mentioned, and the story —some other issue— functions, regardless. That is because, as Jensen might explain, the predominant “power structure of the society” is not threatened there. In contrast, just try to find a script where the woman is in a sexual relationship with a younger man, but the story is NOT about their age discrepancy.
         Consider two movies, say, Last Tango in Paris (perhaps a loaded choice) and The Graduate. Consider the controversy surrounding Tango: butter. Not rape, not age difference. No. We all sat there, watched the movie, and absorbed —gave tacit agreement with— rape, brutality, and the reduction of a human psyche —the young woman— to that of an irrelevancy, but got upset over the mention of butter. It is clear: Brando’s character had entitlement, except where butter is concerned; his victim was serving in her proper role, and, if I remember correctly, complicit and not terribly damaged by it all.
         Consider, by contrast, Mrs. Robinson’s place in culture, her fate; how she was reviled— remember Simon and Garfunkle’s taunting melody, “Hey, hey, hey...every way you look at it you lose...” and poor graduate, seduced and manipulated by the vile bitch? The thing is, we cannot have this, a woman upsetting the “natural order of things;” how men may use their wiley ways —beguile, tempt, seduce— or mind rape, or even rape, as in Tango; but a woman must remain passive and receptive, or, if she is over the age of, say, thirty-five (and that’s being generous), she must simply fade away.
         There have been exceptions. Harold and Maude comes to mind. But...wait a minute: the issue of their age difference was central to the story! Yes, it was presented delightfully, and Maude is one of my favorite, all-time characters, but, just the same, there you are—how a young man recovers his equilibrium, in love with an old lady. And she had to die in the end. Suicide, no less. Of course!
         Harold and Maude was no exception to the rule; it proved the rule— you cannot tell a story about an older woman and a younger man, without explaining how this heretical thing happened and what the consequences of it must be.
         Further along in the same chapter, Derrick Jensen quotes Gerbner again: “ a demonstration of power, and the real issue, once again, is who is doing what to whom. If time and again you hear and see stories in which people like you—white males in the prime of life—are more likely to prevail in a conflict situation, you become more aggressive, and if you are in the same culture, and a member of a group or gender that is more likely to be victimized, you grow up more insecure, more dependent, more afraid of getting into conflict, because you feel your calculus of risk is higher. how we train minorities. People aren’t born a minority, they are trained to act like a minority through that kind of cultural conditioning. And women, who are a numerical majority of humankind, still are trained to act like a minority. The sense of potential victimization and vulnerability is the key.”
         I watched part of a movie today that illustrated this very point. I say “part,” because, after I got the gist of the horrible thing, I fast-forwarded through the rest of it, stopping now and then to pick up the plot, just in case it got interesting. It didn’t. The movie was Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, with Sting and a pack of actors whose unintelligible British accents required subtitles.
         Here’s what I noticed though: all the characters were men, save two— a pole dancer in the background of one scene and a woman who occupied a couch in a semi-conscious state throughout several scenes, also mostly just as background to the main action; that is, until, in one promising scene, she roused herself to consciousness, having heard a ruckus in the room, seized her opportunity to save the day by grabbing an AK-47, then stood up and battered the room with three or four minutes of automatic gun fire, shredding the room and sending the bad guys diving for cover. While this was happening, I was thinking, “Hey, you go girl...” but when it was all over, and she stood there in rapt silence over the destruction she had wrought, or, hath wrought, the main bad guy stood up, said something like, “Where’d SHE come from?” then knocked her out with one punch. In short, the message was, When women are violent, it’s all so ineffectual, so ineffective; women simply cannot do what men do; in the end, they fail.
         Yuk, yuk, yuk...and the guys watching this movie get to have a lovely moment of male bonding over the reinforcement of their mutual agreement about what it is to be male—which requires, first and foremost, that they are superior to females; and that they are leads, not only in the movie, but in life as well. (Think of that— “the lead” in a play or movie; it’s going to be a man, right?)

         I used to be able to predict the fate of female characters who dared to be freely sexual —death— or at least some other equally damning or degrading end. That’s social conditioning too.
      Or, think of women who dare to fight back or try to defend themselves, after years of humiliation, abuse, and rape: they must suffer similar ends, the ultimate punishment of death. I’m thinking in particular of Aileen Wuornos, the subject of the movie, Monster. The title says it all, doesn’t it? Those of us who felt sympathy for the woman —after learning how most of the men she killed had threatened to kill her first, had raped her, or tortured her— understood the irony of that title. However, it seems to me a more just title would have been, "Monsters," to make reference to the men she killed and the society that rendered those men devoid of conscience, or devoid of a consciousness of women —even prostitutes— as people. Certainly, without conscience, or consciousness, one must be a monster and ultimately do monstrous things.
         And Wuornos? A monster? I don’t think so. Her crimes were crimes of self-defense. But how dare she? So we killed her. Let that be a lesson to all you uppity bitches! Just sit there and take it, and then, shut up about it.
         Jensen offers insight to this injustice to say, in effect, you are not allowed to hit back, UP the hierarchy. The crimes against you by those above you in the hierarchy are sanctioned by society; yours against them are to be condemned.
         Even the sympathetic duo, Thelma and Louise, had to die. Imagine the outrage had they managed to survive, face justice and win, to live out their lives in dignity and respect. No, no, no...we can’t have that!
         The only place we find this paradigm consistently upended is on Lifetime TV, where the victims of abuse, usually women, do manage to have some measure of revenge. But, hey, these are “chick flicks.” The guys know better not to watch those, and they’re usually pretty bad movies with awful acting, anyway; so the powers-that-be are not likely to be threatened, especially since such movies, where women are victorious, are inferior in quality, to match the audience. Still, that’s where women learn a different lesson, behind the backs of their “superiors.”

         I am reminded of Susan Griffin’s, Pornography and Silence. She says, “Yet in order to see our lives more clearly within this culture, we must question the meaning we give to certain words and phrases, and to the images we accept as part of the life of our minds. We must, for example, look again at the idea of "human" liberation. For when we do, we will see two histories of the meaning of this word, one which includes the lives of women, and even embodies itself in a struggle for female emancipation, and another, which opposes itself to women, and to "the other" (men and women of other "races," "the Jew"), and imagines that liberation means the mastery of these others.”
         Sometimes I read this stuff for corroboration of guesses I’ve made as to the why of certain things, not that I don’t also read for the special insights of those authors. For example, I myself had thought about rape as a hate crime, but not as hatred directed at the victim, but as hatred the rapist feels for himself. That is, the femininity he sees in the “other” which he cannot obliterate in himself, which he cannot control or govern, is wished to be obliterated and mastered through rape—a case of projection. Given that no man exists who does not have vulnerabilities, who does not have weaknesses, cares, loves, and all those other human aspects we designate as “feminine;” and given that no man exists in this culture who has not been taught to disdain those qualities, it is no wonder that some men must split off from themselves to become ignorant of the truth about themselves, and, in the process, become less than whole beings; and, when confronted by a being who represents their own denied, humiliating aspects, some men cannot deal with it and become enraged.
         Perhaps as I read more, I will come to understand how we got to this point, how the yin and yang of things, the balance of male and female, got way out of whack in favor of the male side of things. How this happened, and how to correct it, is unknown to me; but I do think if we keep this up, nature, which always strives for the perfect balance, will one day just up and spit us out and be done with us. It’s going to be a huge hacking sound, a rumble in Earth’s chest, then it’ll be, “Spitt-oo-ee!!!” and we’ll all be goners.

         Derrick Jensen is the role model for the required change of mind and heart, it seems to me, the direction all men and women must go, if we are going to live in harmony with a healthy planet. I do love this book, except for one comment there, which I cannot find at the moment, where he quotes Thomas Paine to show him as an advocate of slavery. I would disagree, as one essay of Paine’s shows, where he says, “But to go to nations with whom there is no war, who have no way provoked, without farther design of conquest, purely to catch inoffensive people, like wild beasts, for slaves, is an height of outrage against humanity and justice, that seems left by heathen nations to be practiced by pretended Christian. How shameful are all attempts to colour and excuse it! As these people are not convicted of forfeiting freedom, they have still a natural, perfect right to it; and the governments whenever they come should, in justice set them free, and punish those who hold them in slavery.”
         Still, I am looking forward to Endgame.