Sunday, December 24, 2006

Blue Christmas

"Are there no prisons?"--Ebenezer Scrooge, Christmas 1843

"To all my peoples in the pens, stay up homie"--Ludacris, Christmas 2006

U.S. prison numbers up 35% in 10 years

By Mima Mohammed, LA Times Staff Writer

December 1, 2006

WASHINGTON — About 7 million adults — accounting for 3% of the U.S. population — were incarcerated, on probation or on parole at the end of 2005, the Justice Department said Thursday. Of that total, 2.2 million individuals were in federal and state prisons or local jails, 4.1 million were on probation and more than 784,000 were on parole.

"These numbers are not worthy of celebration. We are becoming more punitive," said James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University in Boston. "We put so many more people into prison — the question is what happens to them when they get out."

California, the most populous state, held the largest number of inmates (170,676). Only the federal system housed more, according to the annual survey by the department's Bureau of Justice Statistics. The total number of inmates rose 35% from 1995 to 2005, but their racial composition was little changed. In 2005, blacks made up 40% of inmates, whites 35% and Latinos 20% — small changes from a decade earlier. Although men were far more likely than women to be jailed or imprisoned, the number of women behind bars increased at a faster rate last year — up 2.6%, compared with a 1.9% increase for men. California had the third highest number of female inmates (11,667), after Texas — the second most populous state — and the federal system. As of the end of 2005, women made up 7% of all federal and state prisoners, up from 6.1% a decade earlier.

The Sentencing Project, an advocacy group that supports alternatives to incarceration, blamed the larger number of women behind bars on harsh sentences handed down for nonviolent drug offenses.

"What is our prison system accomplishing? They are not reducing crime because people are not being rehabilitated," said Kara Gotsch of the Sentencing Project. She cited "a lack of rehabilitative services in programs, especially with limited access to drug rehabilitation."

Saturday, December 23, 2006

A Little Respect

(reason #13—with a new class comes a new vision)

I started writing about Marx 13 days ago as a sort of reprise of my 13 days of Halloween. Though I finished my horror essays with “Why We Need What We Fear, Part 2,” I’m not really near the end of my Marx material so much as reaching a point where I can feel we the need to look back at the connections.

I woke up thinking about this this morning, and I knew I wasn’t going to get anything done until I shared these thoughts with whoever’s been kind enough to follow along…..We’ve reached a point where the purpose in my even starting a blog has come clear. It’s been an intuitive leap since day one, but I can see the outlines of what’s taking shape.

Everywhere around me, I see the culture striving to do what our political organization can’t do—build real connections between those disparate and desperate people being tossed out of the system. It’s there in all of those bands of warriors at the end of all of those horror fantasies—Stephen King’s ka-tet (and even that rag tag band of people in Cell who, ironically, don’t go mad because they can’t keep up with technology), Joss Whedon’s or Buffy’s Scoobies joined by Potentials turned to Slayers, Phillip Pullman’s or Lila’s new alliances that overthrow the Authority, even (especially?) the zombies joined by the have-nots in Land of the Dead.

The Old Order is collapsing and tossing off outriders who have to learn to work together to build a new world worth living in. [I would love it if other people would write in to comments about other examples of this in popular movies, novels and TV shows—does Lost relate to this? Deadwood? Surely V for Vendetta as did the Matrix, although my memories of some of the details are a little fuzzy.]

And I hear this all over in popular music. Silly love songs have almost never been simply silly love songs, and when I’ve heard my recently displaced daughter and my wife (who’s faced some big career frustrations this year) sing along to the Fray’s “Over My Head,” I hear a refrain that speaks to and for this new class. When I hear Pink tell off the President on behalf of people who understand “hard work”--explicitly listing the homeless, those working at minimum wage, and the innocent victims of air strikes—I hear her speaking for this new class, just as I hear T.I. echoing these points with “What you know about that? I know all about that!” I hear Audioslave calling out to this new class when, on “Sound of a Gun,” Chris Cornell sings, “This is for the daughters and sons of the forgotten ones, learning how to stand.” And I hear it in Lil’ Kim, singing in Spanish and English, “No matter where you’re from, put ya lighters up,” and in Beyonce’s reckoning song written with every intention of summing up all the others, “Oh the time has come for my dreams to be heard.

It’s there in the way Ludacris admits he’s never done time but calls out encouragement and calls for solidarity with his brothers and sisters behind bars on “Do Your Time.” It’s there in the portraits of all the lost little girls in his duet with Mary J. Blige, “Runaway,” pledging to meet them out in the street. And it’s there in way Jay-Z raps with defiance on the “Lost One,” and the way Kanye West puts Common back-to-back with the Game on Late Registration, and the way the romantic individualist Andre shows he learns from the street savvy politics of Big Boi on Idlewild. This new class has find new ways to work and dream together.

And it’s there in the music of the very first person I blogged about, Kristie Stremel, a young woman who caught my ear nearly a decade ago singing about her own big dreams and speaking for those just barely getting by in a system that keeps getting meaner day-by-day. In that context, a song like her new one, “It’s Not A Phase,” a song that might have seemed like merely an anthem about sexuality (an endlessly worthy thing to be) in another time, shows itself to be about how nobody will be free until everyone is. It’s in the way the song ties health care into its most fundamental concerns and the way the great rock and roll refrain turns the whole history of the music on its side. “Everyone’s out tonight,” Stremel sings with that classic sense of rock and roll expectation, then follows it up with a perfectly frustrated contradiction…”Everything is all wrong!”

Our culture is struggling, perhaps blindly in the dark, but clearly and in many ways effectively, to build bridges between those being tossed to sea. This is something all of our previously existing political organizations can’t do.

Here’s how I tried to write about why in Monsters, Marx and Music:

Unless this new class organizes, the trends we are seeing today will simply grow more deeply entrenched--the vilification of the poor will continue to be nightly entertainment under the guise of talk shows and "Reality" TV. The court system will be rendered completely ineffectual by the mass media verdict. Anticorporate protests will be legally defined as "acts of terrorism.” Since the poor are being so effectively scapegoated as the cause of all of our social problems, the acceleration of the death penalty will continue through the complete elimination of the appeals process. Anyone who has the money will buy his or her way into gated communities. Big Brother surveillance techniques will grow even more sophisticated, as will high tech crowd control weaponry. We will be convinced that the loss of our individual freedoms is simply part of the price of living in a civilized society.

Unfortunately, the bogus debate between “liberalism” and “conservatism” prevents most of us from seeing our way out of the forest of subjectivity. From the 1960s until very recently, most political dissent revolved around war, race, gender, environmental dangers and threats to individual freedom. To this day, the broad-based coalitions that protest globalized capital tend to coalesce around ideological consistency rather than class unity. The best known groups to raise their voices against capitalism are focused on an agreement around particular issues--the Greens with the preservation of the environment, Food Not Bombs with a pro-vegetarian, anti-military agenda, and various forms of labor organization, concerned with the very real dangers to their jobs wrought by international capitalist cooperation.

This is only natural. People are going to come together to assert their own personal and ideological agendas. But until these factions begin to see themselves as a body first and foremost unified by class, they will not be able to broaden their support and their potential to fight together on an ongoing basis.

Everyone in the labor movement is not going to sign onto a vegetarian program any more than everyone in the environmental movement is going to always agree with the specific concerns of labor. What they can agree on is that they represent the enormous class of people who have no real control over the will of big money. Right now, they are being defined as anti-corporate or anti-globalization, which has the disadvantage of sounding unrealistic and negative. Ultimately, without a vision of something to replace the class antagonism of capitalism, we can't expect to win….

Strategy and tactics for fighting the overwhelming power of globalized capital depend upon understanding the primacy of class. Fighting the wealth of the world depends upon a very clear assessment of limited resources and a clear perception of the shifting frontlines of the struggle. Ideological concerns must be weighed against the common needs of a class of over 200 million Americans, at least a quarter of whom live in abject poverty.

One thing the system does best is obscure the voices of those who suffer the most. Our society's selective hearing has much to do with our subjective concepts of class. It reinforces the greater, objective forces that silence some while allowing others to drone endlessly.

Teaching can be nothing more than a credentialing system for those who belong in positions of authority versus those who are expected to remain where they are. Teaching English, this division is particularly vivid. Who uses the modern equivalent of the Queen's English (Standard Written English) well? For the most part, those who grow up in literate homes and who are encouraged to read and write from an early age.

That doesn't mean my more privileged students write the most interesting essays or that they use the language in the most creative ways, but it does mean they can jump the hurdles of the academic system. A student may have nothing to say, but if she is well read and knows how to speak the language of the dominant class, then she can probably get by in academic writing.

Linda Stout, in her terrific, practical book, Bridging the Class Divide, describes the many ways in which poor people are excluded from political activism. Some of these problems are logistical, having to do with how and where activists organize and the practical barriers to poor people getting involved. The more insidious barriers deal with the subjective walls erected by American concepts of class. She talks about organizational structures in which more privileged participants feel comfortable speaking up, while the poor feel out of place. She also talks about a sense of history shared by liberal organizers.

But the first concern she addresses, and the one most fundamental to the others, is what she calls "The Wall of Language." She writes about how the organizing slogans of the poor were "corrected" by the liberal leadership. One example was a quotation from a child that read, "Something has to be wrong when the government spends so much money on the military and nothing on me." It was "corrected" to read, "I don't understand why the government spends so much money on the military and nothing on me."

The irony was, of course, that the revised statement was weakened from the original because the poor certainly did understand what was going on. Even simpler changes from everyday, slang or colloquial language to something more "proper" rob working class speech and writing of its impact, at the same time sending the message that the poor should not speak up because they don't know the right way to say it--which certainly implies they don’t know the right way to do it.

My greatest gripe with editors over the years has been when they have made such simple edits to my writing. I remember the first time an editor tried to refine my writing, arbitrarily changing "scary" to "frightening.” What sounded familiar in the original now sounded stuffy, and I sensed that minor change in wording put a trace of distance between me and the audience I was trying to reach. Our use of language is one of the most important political decisions we can make as writers. Who are we trying to reach? If we are trying to join hands with the great majority of people being most devastated by our current economic system, we must write in a way that's going to reach the most people. Building cool, ironic distance into what we say cuts our own throats.

It is the conflict in the world around us, the conflict between haves and have nots when we have enough for all, that allows a new way of thinking about just how this world might work. Unlike anyone before him, Marx was able to properly describe the conflict at the root of capitalism which allowed him to reach a theory of resolution.

To carry that science forward, to make a world where no one has to live in poverty and everyone has equal potential for fulfillment, the first step is to realize the potential power of class unity. This world's capitalist class is outnumbered by more than 9 to 1. In other words, those other 9 sell themselves to the 1 for the privilege of living. Meanwhile, 12 million children out of that 90% starve to death each year. If this were a just world, couldn't those 9 workers convince that 1 capitalist to give up his privilege so that their children could live? Of course they could. All 10 people could live together as equals. But in order to create the just world, the 9 have to recognize that they're all on the same side.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Reason #12--It's Not About Conservatives Versus Liberals (or How Many Times Is Charlie Brown Gonna Trust Lucy With that Ball?)

Because of all of the confusion we have about class, average Americans have never been able to broadly organize based on our class interests. On one hand, Howard Zinn's indispensable A People's History of the United States shows that we have a long history of working class-based organization--from Shay's rebellion through 150 years of labor struggle. On the other, critic C.L.R. James wrote the argument American Civilization to show how America’s political struggles have been impoverished by an inability to come to grips with the already socialized nature of modern capitalism.

For well over a century, the wealthy class has worked collectively in its own interests. But the working classes have continuously aligned their interests with a political party that serves the interest of the rich. The most striking example of this is labor’s alignment with liberalism and, ultimately, the Democrats.

Liberalism has a list of appealing beliefs, but the roots of the philosophy lie in the economic needs of the capitalist class. For three centuries prior to the 20th Century, it was clearly understood that liberalism was a bourgeois ideology. Liberals believed in the individual freedom of the capitalist, free trade and free competition.

In the 20th Century, with the fragmentation of old Europe, the Depression and the rise of the Soviet Union, liberalism turned to an economic policy focused on maintaining world economic stability in the capitalists’ interests. For many objective reasons, the Democratic Party recognized the need to support a reserve labor force, use the central government to create new jobs and work to create international good will, but all of this was not as big a break with 19th Century liberalism as it might appear. It was a change in strategy, but the goal was the same—the preservation and advancement of capitalism.

American conservatism has always existed as a polarity to the concerns of the liberal capitalist ideologies. Early in our history, conservatives sought primarily to preserve the rights of religious institutions, aristocratic privilege and the protection of private property.

Depending on the fluid nature of individual concerns, aspects of both of these ideologies have appealed to America's working class at various points in our past. From the 1930s to the 1970s, liberalism's grudging willingness to tackle social problems for the sake of social order appealed to many working people, although the Civil Rights Movement was deeply divisive among this group.

Since then, conservatism has grown more popular because it learned how to create and exploit the working class's fear of losing all that it has, greatly embodied by a fear of crime. But neither ideology can seek equality for Americans while maintaining its prime objective, the preservation of a system that primarily answers to corporate power.

People know this. I'll never forget what one of my conservative students said to me during the Bush/Gore recounts--"I voted for Bush, but you and I both know neither one of those guys cares about us."

To really put the interests of the American majority on the table, we have to form a party unified by class (the class without the corporate dollars). There are now far more of us without any reason to trust this system and its stability, just as Marx predicted there would be.

Americans haven’t named this new class, but we see it forming. It certainly has many of the old "working class" in its ranks, but it also has former middle managers of oil and automobile companies. And—with recession-related downsizing and the number of Internet start-ups that are already beginning to decline-we see this new class growing rapidly.

A Marxist concept of class is really based on that polarity of wealth and poverty and which pole has you in its magnetic field. With the widest gap between rich and poor ever in American history increasing the past two decades, you and I are no doubt growing poorer. If we aren't individually, our friends are.

If we don't embrace Marx's concept of class, we merely resign ourselves to a system that operates with a force greater than any of us alone. Without being unified as a class, we can’t fight the increasingly rapid and inhumane cost of watching our society collapse. In the darkening days of capitalism, when a small band of the super-rich realizes the only way to impose their will on the people is by force, things can only get worse.

Hope lies in the power of the people putting an end to corporate rule. And we know that challenge will not be supported, as the two parties are, by corporate dollars.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Reason #11—We Need Marx’s Class to Learn from History

To see this, it helps to look at how Marx arrived at his definition of class based upon history. He stressed that today’s class divisions have not always existed. He built on the understanding that, for around 100,000 years, deep into pre-history, most of us lived communally with the main division of labor being between the sexes. The female gave birth, raised the children and maintained the home, which made her dominant in most of these societies. The men served her and the family.

With the agricultural revolution, the accumulation of private property made men, those biologically more natural to leave the home and buy, sell and transport goods, the controlling gender. Those men who were positioned to accumulate more private property than others became a ruling class. They became emperors and kings, while others became serfs, and some people themselves became property--they were enslaved. With the development of the Roman, Greek and Germanic empires, fairly fine-tuned concepts of class became matters of legal definition. When American history started, when the merchant classes started overthrowing kings and queens, the ruling class distinction became who controls the money and who sells themselves to the rich in order to live.

About a century later, in The Principles of Communism, Engels defines the most important class divisions as follows:

"(1) The class of big capitalists, who, in all civilized countries, are already in almost exclusive possession of all the means of subsistence and of the instruments (machines, factories) and materials necessary for the production of the means of subsistence. This is the bourgeois class, or the bourgeoisie.

"(2) The class of the wholly propertyless, who are obliged to sell their labor to the bourgeosie in order to get, in exchange, the means of subsistence for their support. This is called the class of proletarians, or the proletariat."

What Americans think of as middle class may be white collar or blue collar, but it is identified by home ownership (well, a mortgage), a little lawn and a few luxury items that are more or less necessities in our electronic society of suburban sprawl. This is not the middle class Marx describes, the bourgeoisie, those who pay others to work for them. Marx's definition of a middle class applies to very few Americans, and, as small businesses lose out to multinational corporations and the contraction of Internet commerce, it will apply to fewer and fewer. About 300 billionaires own more than all of the accumulated wealth of half of the world's people. Marx predicted that, as those billionaires trump one another in business, their numbers will dwindle, and the numbers in poverty will increase.

This is how the division between the haves (bourgeoisie) and have-nots (proletariat) deepens, and as more and more production becomes possible with less labor under fewer corporate umbrellas, Marx projected the emergence of a new class. In many ways, the new class is virtually anyone reading these words based upon our common future. The new class is both those who still have jobs (but no security) as well as those who have, as a group, become permanently unemployed. The proletariat, the old “working class,” is becoming the new class, and others are joining their ranks, including small business owners being thrown out of the capitalist class. Both the proletariat (a term Marx borrowed from Roman society) and the new class are enormously unifying tools as concepts, but Americans have many obstacles to grasping them.

The language of class came from Marxism, but it is so grossly distorted that today, “middle class” means to Americans what Marx meant by “proletariat” (which literally means working class) while we don’t even have a name for what Marx meant by “bourgeoisie,” which doesn’t mean “middle class” in our sense, but the group of people who pay others to work for them. [That’s some people we know, usually small business owners going through financially rough times.] When Marx talks about the alienated worker, he’s talking about all of us who sell our days for someone else’s profit margin. [That’s probably you and me and almost everyone we know].

Americans tend to believe that capitalism is the way things have always been and always will be because we are deliberately taught not to understand our history as a history of such class antagonisms—not block to block differences but huge differences based on who controls the "money" (actually, whatever's making the world go around at any given point).

In public schools, for the most part, the classless societies that predate feudalism are ignored, just as the communism of early Christianity is glossed over in Sunday school classes. We don't see capitalism as a stage of development that liberated a growing middle class from imperial rule while creating and enslaving new classes. Instead, we draw conclusions about human nature without looking at class antagonism, and so we, judge historical choices as a series of individual decisions with no meaningful social context.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Reason #10--American Concepts of Class are Useless (If Not Dangerous)

We have all been indoctrinated with subjective concepts of class (based, for the most part on behavior) that divide families who live side by side in a typical American neighborhood. It’s both ironic and revealing that today’s politicians pounce on any reference to class as divisive and destructive to America. They get away with this to the extent that they do because of the fuzzy concepts of class we tend to share. After all, to Americans "class warfare" sounds like neighbor fighting neighbor, or block fighting block, or eastside fighting westside. Without any concrete meaning for the term class, we remain blind to the forces controlling our lives.

The way we are taught to think about class, at best, is confusing. "Our country is unique in that it has no social classes," my high school American history teacher told us back in the 80s. Students have been told this for generations. And those same students have smelled a lie in such claims. After all, we've been taught about classes all our lives.

The way we’re taught about class in America is subjective, a matter of perception. My mother disliked Elvis because he was "greasy." The family on the corner was "trashy" because they had too much junk in the yard. Trashy people didn't cut the lawn as often as we did. Some people park their cars in a garage, others in a carport, others in the street, and others on the lawn. While we may say all of these people are "middle class" in any given American neighborhood, our cultural prejudices make these distinctions every day.

Looking back, I think I was particularly aware of this difference because my family was usually the odd one in our social context. We were isolated because of the American dream of class mobility. My father was the first male in his family to get a college education. His friends and family back home consistently, if gently, teased him for having lots of book learning but not knowing how to fix his own car.

My mother’s grandfather lost his plantation and the family plunged economically. Her father (a "banty Irishman," he was called with disdain) died young, so her mother worked a series of secretarial jobs. Yet Nana clung to her manners like someone who sensed her very identity depended on it. Thrown into poverty as a child, she bristled around my father's side of the family because it was too loud, and therefore of a different class. She taught me how to pronounce words, hold a fork and sit at the table in the "proper" way. These were all signs of the class I should aspire to be part of. Her influence emphasized the differences between my family and other families.

I was generally perceived as softer than my friends, and I suppose I was. Many of my friends, the ones I most wanted to be like, were either rednecks or poor or both. They talked tougher than me; they were wilder and cooler. They were my mentors in all my teenage rites of passage, from smoking to ducking a fight, and I felt a great solidarity with them. But deeper forces kept us apart.

In high school, being around the family of my best friend, Paul, made very plain to me just how wide the gulf within our class could be. They lived on a country road called Nigger Gap. Paul's mother worked nights in a hospital, and his father was a welder. The kids took care of two invalid grandparents who lived in the home. Paul was learning to be a welder, too, and never voiced a thought about going away to college. Their friends were hard laborers, raised to take their places in a world different from the one I was being raised for. All of them but Paul greeted me with suspicion; Paul’s sister used to tease me in a way that was flirtatious but had a bite, like she assumed that I thought I was better than she was. After I went away to college, Paul, too, became more remote with each visit. The last thing I remember him saying to me was, "It's like we don't have anything to talk about any more."

Both my family and Paul's family were really working class--mine more white collar and his more blue collar, mine with an illusion of security his didn't have. But our society is great at dividing working people into a wide variety of subjective groups.

Among the poor, just a couple of paychecks from where either of our families might be, Americans think of the working poor and those who look for work as one class, and those who've given up looking as another. There are the "salt-of-the-earth" poor and the "good-for-nothing." All of these divisions distinguish between poor people of quality and "trash."

More to the point, these romantic (as in subjective and arbitrary) distinctions distinguish between how we see ourselves and the ways we see others, often as less than fully human. Someone else is always trash. If you’re white, that someone else may be black, and if you're black, that someone else may be darker than you are or might be rednecks or white trash. The divisions between self and trash cut as many different directions as imaginable; they are bound not by laws but only by imagination--for this version of class is a fantasy.

This is the opposite of class-consciousness; it is class confusion. The way we view class is worse than not being able to see the forest for the trees. It amounts to not being able to tell that two trees are both pines because they don't have branches in the same places. The objective conception of class Marx uses is simple, clear and practical.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Reason #9--Old Tools Unmastered May Be Just the New Tools We Need

Like all worthwhile philosophy, Marx's overall theory is not meant to die in the armchair. And it's not meant to be replaced by dogma. It's more like a stance for navigating the details of our existence and how we get from where we are to where we need to be.

Since we've become a world more or less run by private corporations (which Marx sketched out at the dawn of the modern industrial era), we've need new maps to navigate our lives, and Marxism in its most basic forms provides the tools for drafting and following those maps. I tend to think the crucial concept is class, but Marx uses this term so differently than it is usually used in America that it is as if North and South, East and West have been scrambled.

This idea of class affects everything else. In Marx's most concise summary of his theory, a preface he wrote to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, he states, "It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness."

We know this, but I don't think we appreciate it. We are taught to selectively apply this understanding. In school, we are taught to overlook the sexism and racism of leaders from another age because we must remember, "They were men of their time." And yet, we often seem to forget that we are creatures of our own time, place and experience.

Our conditions are not fixed and eternal any more than those in the past, and they are distorted by our individual points of view, just as potentially distorted as the opinions of those past leaders our history teachers ask us to excuse.

To truly understand the times we live in, we need to consider how every idea we have is born out of the comfort and antagonism in our lives, whether it is our own idea based on our own experiences or that of those around us.

Why is it that so many teachers I work with speak so disdainfully of their students (me, too, man; I have my days....), and why is it that we suspect our administrators as much as our students suspect us?

Is it, in the first case, because we are in an antagonistic power relationship with our students, pitted against each other in a battle of wills? Is it because, on the most basic level, we are fighting each other rather than a larger system that has little interest in truly democratic education?

Is it, in the latter case, because we know that the administration and the Board are looking out for the bottom line above all else and, despite the way teachers love to think of ourselves as "professionals" (it helps to justify all that money we spent in school), we are no more important to the system than any other worker?

Is this same realization the reason doctors chafe at receiving their instructions from an insurance company, an HMO? Don't we all know the quality of the job we do matters little to those in charge as long as it serves the bottom line?

[And one of the most valuable things about a Marxist approach is that it allows us to set personality aside for a moment--not ignore it but set it aside. This isn't about nice people or mean people, good guys or bad guys, devoted teachers or burn outs (although it is about the process that creates burn out). This is about the larger forces wearing on these people, on all of us. Bottom line, as I said before, my day job is chair filler and gatekeeper. Everything else I do is my own initiative.]

Faith in capitalism requires a belief that what serves the bottom line is in the best interest of all parties. But try telling that to the cancer patient who can't receive experimental treatment the insurance company won't fund (nevermind those who can't afford insurance). Try telling that to me when I know I could push a borderline writing student past his or her hurdles if I wasn't juggling this students' needs against 100 others.

[And believe me, our writing teachers have had to fight to keep the number of writers we deal with down to a group we can just barely read, a hundred a semester, a number that gets called into question almost every time we negotiate our contracts.]

We all know the truth. The bottom line serves a few people’s interests while it shortchanges most of us who get sick and most of us who seek an education. Unfortunately, most of us are too busy suffering in isolation to see the potential for liberation that lurks in such an observation. We are too alienated to see we are really not alone. We lack the class consciousness to see a basis for unity.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Reason #8--We All Need Perspective

I started doing this daily writing 8 days ago because I needed perspective. The worst part of teaching, for me, is the way the semester seems designed to last just long enough that I lose all perspective. Then there's that crunch at the end when I've got all the term papers and finals to read. Although this year was certainly not a breeze, I do think I got through those last few days with some measure of sanity I don't always keep hold of. The regrets of the end of the semester--the sense that everything has been a failure, or the obsession over the failures--always lead to all these ideas about how I'm going to do everything differently next semester, but this time I think I've got an idea for a qualitative break with the past.

What really eats at me at the end of the semester are all of the tasks that don't mean much to me, but I just do them because that's what I've always done. I don't want to bore anyone with the details. Let's just say some aspects of how I teach remain in my routine simply because of theory that was popular at the time I started teaching, and I have recognized at the close of this semester that my resentment over how futile these efforts seem is reflected in the students' attitude toward them--or vice versa. Anyway, I've used carrot-and-stick methods to maintain certain aspects of what's called "process" method, and I think all I've done is teach students ways to get carrots that express contempt for the process. Somewhere, Alfie Kohn (who thinks carrots and sticks corrode real learning) is saying "I told you so."

The carrot and stick are gone, Alfie. You win.

To paraphrase what Marx said to Bukunin a couple of posts back, what Marxists are almost always saying to other lefties--just because your hypothesis says something ought to be true, or just because you want it to be true, doesn't mean that's how it's going to work out.

At some point, you have to quit trying for a different result from the same old methods. Sometimes, you have to drop your tools, step back and take a fresh look at what you're trying to accomplish and why it's not working.

I got at this some in Monsters, Marx and Music when I began to write about the significance of Marx's concept of class. The idea is remarkably simple, pliable and distinctly different from the way most other people use it, so I will be talking about class over the next few posts. But it's first most fundamental virtue is the way it reminds us of our significance in the big picture.

From MMM:

Karl Marx diagnosed why we have a hard time getting our heads off the pillow in the morning. Why do so many of us dread our work? Why do we spend most days wishing our lives away? Why do we watch the clock? Why do we feel dread when we mean to be having fun? Why do we feel so alone?

He used the concept of the alienation of the worker to describe such conditions. And he actually showed why they were natural symptoms of a sick system. The alienated worker is someone who works all day for someone else’s profits. The basic principle of modern work parallels what slaves learned working in the fields. The harder and faster the slave worked, the faster pace the master expected, and the length of the slave’s life shortened.

For most of us working for a salary or an hourly wage today, the same principle is true. We have to work harder every year to keep our job, but we don’t live better. We instinctively suspect what Marx showed--the higher profits go, the harder our job becomes. In general, the effective exploitation of labor required by competitive business means that the worker becomes estranged from what he or she does, and, at the same time, competition’s increased need for division of labor alienates us from one another. While Marxism’s concept of the alienation of the worker is crucial to appreciating his critique of capitalism, his thoughts on the ties that bind us together show a way out.

Our daily problems threaten to overwhelm us. We don’t need to be told we are working harder and faster for less and less security than our parents before us. Sure, we have color TVs, CD and DVD players and cars that (more often than our parents' cars) start in the winter, but these material advances only reflect the technological advances (and overproduction) of our society.

What we don't have is the peace and security that might allow us to enjoy these things. Real security means job security to maintain our current standard of living, the promise of enough money to keep our kids well fed and clothed, the promise of enough to live on late in life or when we are no longer able-bodied, anything to hedge us against the disasters of illness and injury. Those kinds of security have virtually vanished.

Researchers have concluded that we live with more tension and less sleep than any generation before us. Our epidemics of anxiety disorders and depression only seem to confirm this.

Marx's theories allow us to step back from the confusing details of our daily existence and see their deep causes. Marx's analysis of the evolution of history and the broad outlines of capitalism itself are not particularly controversial. Detractors don’t argue with Marx’s analysis of the evolution of history or his description of capitalism. They reject only his solutions. Still, our system works best if unexamined, and those in power have long known the danger of the objective view that Marx offers.

Like the witches who drew on ancient ideas and thought outside of the narrow parameters of Puritanism, Marx sees human potential outside of the limits of our current society. Everybody who sees the potential of a cooperative society threatens the system in this way—from the early Christians to today's anticorporate protesters.

Marx's writing adds a unique quality to this threat (or hope). It says a cooperative society is more than a noble idea; it is a logical resolution to our current social problems.

Like the first astronauts on the moon, we get a brand new look at our big blue when we read Marx. It allows us to see the past 3000 years of cascading forms of oppression as a brief storm and the potential for the evolution of mankind from our ancient cooperative existence based in a struggle to survive scarcity to a future cooperative society necessary to manage the world's potentially abundant resources....

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Reason #7--It Takes the Objective AND the Subjective

As I mentioned before, I began writing my personal take on Marx when I was spending most of my time lying flat on my back. I was still functioning; I could take a couple of Vicodin and go teach class, grade papers and spend time with my daughter, but the evenings and the nights, as anyone with back pain can testify, were the worst. During one of the first weeks of my pain, before I had a regular prescription for codeine, I grew more depressed with each passing day. I did not care too much about anything anymore. Thank God for the narcotics that were able to at least get me off the floor and engaging in life on some level after that.

But the doctors didn’t have many answers. My physician referred me to a back surgeon, who said that I could probably go on like this indefinitely, but my condition would only worsen. He gave me back exercises to do, and he said that I may be able to lessen the pain with this therapy, but, longterm, the only thing he really had to offer me was surgery.

I wasn’t ready for that, but I was close. I did the exercises religiously. I talked to everyone I knew about alternative therapies, including massage, yoga and acupuncture, and I took their advice. In fact, I visited an acupuncturist a few times, but I couldn’t afford the $60 a session for long, and I wasn’t experiencing any tangible results, so I quit.

One friend of mine told me about a book called Healing Back Pain by a doctor named John Sarno. She said her husband had also been flat on his back, and this book got him up off the floor without drugs. Sarno had found that most people by their mid-20s had herniated and desiccated discs, but they had no pain. He acknowledged that the pain many of us experience was physically real, but questioned whether it was being caused by something other than the apparent injury. After years of treating these patients, he developed a theory that the pain was a genuine physical effect of an emotional cause, generally anger.

My friend explained this theory carefully, but I wasn’t ready to hear it. All I heard was that the pain was psychological, and I knew my pain was real. I’d insisted for three years that my neurological symptoms (skin crawling essentially) had been real, and the outbreak of severe pain as well as the CatScan of my discs was my vindication. As suspicious as I was of Western medicine’s shortcomings, my experiences with asthma had made me very resistant to psychological explanations, and I’d also learned that nothing but a doctor’s shot or prescription was a guaranteed fix. The same could be said for my pain pills.

I accepted her advice graciously, but I didn’t act on it. Instead, I stuck with my neck exercises, and by spring, when I was to be re-evaluated for surgery, my pain had diminished considerably, so I was able to put that off.

But, the neck pain came back for the holidays the following year, and I started going through several pills a day. That's when I finally read Healing Back Pain. I couldn’t put it down because it met me right where I was living. It carefully began by describing the horror of backpain in such a way that I knew Sarno knew what he was talking about, and he was clearly granting that it was real. He made a point of giving a physical explanation of the pain’s causes before daring to speculate about any emotional issues at its root.

Using his own story as a doctor treating back pain for several decades, Sarno eased into how he began to question the relationship between the back injuries and the pain. He noticed contradictions between what should be the effects of the injuries and their place of origin in the nerves. He argued that the pain was caused not by pressure from the disc but by a tension in that area of the back. He called that condition Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS), and it was in his effort to explain this syndrome that he began to tackle an emotional root.

He talked about anger and how we are socialized not to express it and, worse, not even to acknowledge it. He personalized his theory by explaining how he had put an end to his own migraines by listing what was making him angry whenever he had the first visual symptoms of an oncoming attack. His theory of treatment echoed this approach. When pain was coming on, he told patients to think about it psychologically and emotionally. What was going on that might be making them angry?

What he found was that this approach seemed to alert the brain that the cause of this tension was being acknowledged. Very often, the perverse rewiring of the emotional response would cease. He said that many people became better the minute they began thinking of their condition in these terms.

I sat and read his book for about 3 hours straight realizing he had me. I had always been a “nice guy,” an empathizer, who rarely felt I had the right to my anger. According to Sarno, rationalizing away anger didn’t work. If I was angry, right or wrong, the emotion would find expression, and if I did not feel good about my anger (which I rarely did), it made an odd sort of sense that it would turn against me.

In the second hour of reading that book, my pain began to diminish. Sarno said it would grow smaller and begin moving around once I found it out. It did. Though I renewed and sometimes took my pain medication after that day, I knew in my heart I really didn’t need it the same way I did before. When I got the symptoms, I went through a process of listing just as Sarno did for his migraines, and the pain always diminished. I get some restless leg type symptoms still today, and my lower back pains (which predate the neck pains) still flare up at times, but even these can be greatly eased when I think of them as stemming from a tension disorder and an emotional root.

This has even got me pretty convinced of an emotional root to that asthma (which I denied throughout my childhood), and I do know that I can associate various aspects of it with my emotional state at the time. I also know that a strong asthma attack is potentially deadly, so I still treat the disorder with respect, but I no longer see the psychological root and physical reality as contradictory explanations.

I tell this story to complicate things a little in, hopefully, a constructive way. After all, though I associate Marxism with pretty straightforward scientific method, this example shows my personal experience with the shortcomings of conventional science. The important thing to note is that Sarno drew his conclusions based on scientific reasoning. He simply factored in that emotional element of what it is to be human in his exploration of the physical, something Western medicine still has a hard time doing.

In some ways, I think some rejection of Marxist ideas has a similar root cause. The Western mind is not comfortable drawing connections between objective conditions and their social expression. Instead, we tend to relegate science to things scientific (the physical world), and we treat psychological and social illnesses as subjective conditions, as moral weakness. There are exceptions, of course, but the treatment of anxiety and depression as simply physical problems to be medicated also leads down a dead end path.

This division between the rational and the spiritual no doubt accounts for our society’s extreme disconnect between science and spirituality. These ways to view the world co-exist in many unexamined ways, and that's one reason I've wanted to tackle monsters, Marx and music together.

But as my back story testifies, and as most of us quietly know somewhere deep in our hearts, the truth lies in some connection between the outer and the inner world, the objective and the subjective. We cannot solve our objective problems without the will and the vision to do so, but we can also not solve our moral and spiritual problems without an understanding of our objective conditions.

Marxism asks us to identify the contradictions between what we believe and what we collectively perceive to be true. In many ways, our daily lives are simply reactions to forces that bat us back and forth without any apparent rhyme or reason. Because of its focus on the relationship between the subjective and objective dimensions of what it means to be human (that's actually "dialectical materialism" in a nutshell), Marxism hands us tools for rising above the fray. Not grappling with Marx’s theory at all, as Americans in general have not, means attempting to navigate a sea of subjective squalls and objective currents blindfolded....

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Reason #6--Words Matter

We are taught Marxists not capitalists spread “propaganda." They “infiltrate” and they “recruit.” They talk about the “working class” or “the proletariat” revolution against a “bourgeois system.” They talk about the “abolition of private property” and a “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

In these words, we hear the things Americans hate most. In a country founded on “free speech,” “propaganda” suggests lies dictated from above. To “infiltrate” is to undermine the will of the group. To “recruit” is to brainwash. We hear “working class” as blue collar. And “bourgeois” is a stuffy, European word in which many hear a put down to their way of life.

We work hard our whole lives for a few nice things--a house, a car and a little plot of land--and this is what we see as the “private property” the communist wants to steal. “Dictatorship,” too, is an anti-American concept, the antithesis of our democracy.

But what we hear and what is being said are often two different things. In this case, Marx’s use of "dictatorship" (a century before the 20th century fascism we associate with the word) means a stage of authentic political control by the will of the people--the character of that control is up to us. Right now, many would say we live in something close to a global dictatorship run by corporations.

In fact, Marx’s vocabulary sounds so alien because it talks about those things Americans simply learn not to talk about. Our fears of Marxist concepts reveal who we are.

Anyone reading this probably knows we are thoroughly propagandized already.We are propagandized, first and foremost, by family ideas that spring from relationships in the system. Our churches reconcile social divisions and war-making with the often compassionate and peace-loving messages of the prophets. We are propagandized in the classroom by textbooks (generally censored from the right and left). Our politicians propagandize us; this is how they run for office and maintain public support once in office. We are also propagandized by large corporations, which own all of our major media and control its content through the economic vote of corporate advertisers. Wherever we work, the interests of that organization propagandize us.

This is not all bad of course. Propaganda is a neutral thing, neither true nor untrue. Originating with the early Roman Catholic Church in its efforts to spread Christianity, propaganda is simply a term for any mechanism used to intentionally spread ideas. What we believe is generally based on a long history of propaganda that favors the current system, even as we see all the tell-tale signs that it is breaking down.

Narrow systems of propaganda, like gossip, keep us from questioning the system in fundamental ways. It is not the system that is making our life miserable; it’s the damn traditionalists, or the administrators, or the students. It’s not the system; it’s the night crew or the customer or the patient who makes me not want to get out of bed in the morning. Capitalism’s most insidious propaganda is that which operates at the level of tribalism, dividing full-timers from part-timers as slickly as Crips get divided from Bloods.

As Americans, we have been heavily propagandized down to the level of our language while, at the same time, being taught that propaganda is evil. That’s a neat trick. Think about that. If there is a single, clear symptom of just how diseased our system is it is that we have multifold, multilayered systems of propaganda that insist they are not propaganda.

We just choose what propaganda to believe based on that which is embraced by our families, our churches, our schools, our news media and our social cliques. Interestingly enough, the negative connotations for the word “propaganda” started with Protestant propaganda against Catholicism. But propaganda is not denominational--Jesus and the Apostle Paul did the same thing. They were two of history’s greatest propagandists, and that doesn’t mean they were liars; that means they spread new ideas deliberately and effectively.

Christians must recognize the Creator of the universe as a propagandist who used the ingenious tool of an illegitimate child born in a manger as his or her chief propagandist. Judaism has Abraham and Moses and all of the other Old Testament prophets: Islam, Mohammed; Buddhism, Siddhartha or the Dalai Lama; Hinduism, Lord Krishna. Each religion has its priests, ministers, rabbis, monks, shaman, gurus and yogis. Each one a crucial piece in a mechanism for intentionally spreading ideas.

And I am a propagandist as both a writer and a teacher, though both professions deny it. Both professions like to pretend to be objective, but data comes with theory. Information without ideas is meaningless by definition. What most writers and teachers do is propagandize as safely as possible, teaching those ideas generally already accepted by most of society. It's called keeping your job....

....And, of course, that is why one aspect of the relationship between students and teachers is based upon suspicion. The trick is to BS the teacher, writing opaque nonsense or regurgitating what’s been said. Though I'd guess most teachers believe in what they do, students have good reason for the doubt. It goes back to the roots of American education, for instance. In the mid-1800s, the economic incentive behind the spread of public education was to develop an industrial workforce. Howard Zinn, in A People’s History of the United States, describes the cause and its predictable effect:

“ . . . the spread of public school education enabled the learning of writing, reading, and arithmetic for a whole generation of workers, skilled and semiskilled, who would be the literate labor force of the new industrial age. It was important that these people learn obedience to authority. A journalist observer of the schools in the 1890s wrote: ‘The unkindly spirit of the teacher is strikingly apparent: the pupils, being completely subjugated to her will, are silent and motionless the spiritual atmosphere of the classroom is damp and chilly.’”

Our approach to education has evolved a great deal over the past century, but most of us know that chill. Teaching what I know about writing is a daily battle for sincere communication in an atmosphere hostile to such communication on many levels. This atmosphere stems in part from the assumption of the teacher as authority and student as empty vessel. Fighting that subjective game, I try to be honest about my own ignorance. When I don’t have an answer to a question, whether it is a stylistic dilemma or a simple comma rule, I try to admit it. This is a little like throwing blood to an audience trained as sharks, but I know of no better way to get at reality.

My students are just as fearful about expressing their own ignorance, to each other and to me. Both teachers and students are trained to project an idealized image of themselves, which means denying much of what we really know. Since we don't learn unless we make use of what we do know and recognize our limits, breaking down false fronts is essential to real learning....

Friday, December 15, 2006

Reason #5--Reality Matters

“If Herr Bukunin knew even one thing about the situation of a manager of a
workers’ cooperative factory, all his hallucinations about domination would go to
the devil.”
--Karl Marx, review of Bukunin’s “Statehood and Anarchy,” 1875

In the early 80s, my gruff, gray-headed semantics professor passionately railed against the insanity of the world around him. Thumping his critical thinker’s bible--Wendell Johnson’s 1946 book, People in Quandaries--he raged over the blind machinations of the university, condemning the institution for firing two award-winning teachers in a row because they were short on publishing. One period, his lecture sang hallelujah to a Vietnam era speech by Dick Gregory, skewering the insanity that prioritized a piece of cloth, the American flag, over the right of free speech.

All of this passion erupted from a fairly quiet little book. Johnson’s People in Quandaries argued that most of society’s irrational and unhealthy behavior stemmed from what he called “verbal cocoons”—our subjective worldview that sifts through learned abstractions to interpret events in a way that reinforces our preconceptions. Johnson writes:

“Quandaries, then, are rather like verbal cocoons in which individuals elaborately encase themselves, and from which, under circumstances common in our time, they do not tend to hatch. The peculiar structure of these cocoons appears to be determined in large measure by the structure of the society in which they are formed--and the structure of this society has been and continues to be determined significantly by the structure of the language which we so unconsciously acquire and so unreflectively employ.”

If he did nothing more, my semantics teacher dramatically challenged us to take a close look at the abstractions that made up our view of reality, question them and allow ourselves to see new possibilities.

In his struggle for a similar sanity, Karl Marx often reminds me of that Semantics professor. Early in his career, he argues against “setting up any dogmatic flag” and dismisses “sentimental, utopian, mutton-headed socialism.” He’s most impatient with his fellow revolutionaries who want to achieve romantic goals while ignoring realistic conditions. In his final years, his critique of the anarchist Mikhail Bukunin reveals his ongoing exasperation with those who won’t grapple with the messiness of reality. Responding directly to Bakunin’s criticism of his theory, Marx writes, “Schoolboy drivel! . . . He understands absolutely nothing about social revolution; all he knows are its political phrases. For him its economic requisites do not exist . . . . Will power and not economic conditions is the basis of his social revolution.”

Marx insisted the path to realizing our dreams must be traveled with good maps and eyes wide open. Consistent with anyone who believes in scientific method, Marx saw goals for what they were, ideas (subjective concepts) that may only be achieved by a thorough understanding of the workings of the material world (objective conditions). This is the essential difference in Marx’s philosophy and Hegel’s dialectics that influenced him. Hegel believed the history of human ideas evolved through a series of arguments and counterarguments, purely products of the mind. Marx believed this series of arguments and counterarguments emerged and challenged one another based on changing realities. With the industrial revolution, Marx saw the potential for a society run for the benefit of all, but he believed that resolution would only be possible when the impoverished majority took power from the elite minority.

This balancing of the ideological and the material runs throughout his most concise summation of his theory, his famous preface to “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.” Roughly, this is what it says:

*In their workplace, people must assume certain relationships to one another whether they like it or not. These relationships correspond to the development of our technology. As a whole, these relationships make up the basic framework of society, and on top of that we build legal and political systems consistent with our ideas. But our ideas come from our experiences in this structure. At various points, developing technologies make the old relationships obsolete—our outdated social framework becomes an obstacle for the entire system. This is the beginning of revolution. Everything begins to change rapidly. Our ideas change in an unpredictable variety of legal, political, religious, artistic and philosophical ways. The important goal during such upheaval is to understand what’s really going on by asking tough questions and seeking contradictory answers—plain old scientific method. The struggle for revolution shows us just what’s possible, and when people finally run the world in the best interests of all, true civilization will begin.*

For over 150 years, Marx’s analysis of the arch of capitalism has generally been proven accurate. Marx theorized the globalization of capital and the falling value of labor. His forecast saw smaller and smaller numbers of the very rich forced into increasingly barbaric competition while the middle classes began to disappear. The rich divided further and further from the poor, the movement of capital would become more speculative, the pace of financial transactions would accelerate faster and faster to keep the system afloat. This whirlwind of money would not serve the needs of the growing numbers of poor, and it would erode our quality of life, destroy our environment, deplete our resources and rob us of a salvageable future. Marx’s vision of communism was not a vision of a system that could compete against a market economy; it would have to overcome it. We manage civilization cooperatively, or we lose it altogether.
Reason #4—We Need Each Other to Be Ourselves

I started writing directly about Marx at a point when I was literally hurting about as bad as I’ve ever hurt. Heartbroken, financially broken and physically broken, I was pitifully spending many of my days flat on my back on codeine, nursing herniated discs and wondering just how much writing I still had in me.

One day in particular, I remember I’d put off making some doctor’s appointment because I couldn’t drive, and I happened to have a phone conversation that gave me the kick in the ass that I needed. I was talking to a friend who lived about 500 miles away, and she was alarmed by my situation. She asked me if I had called on my friends for help, and I admitted not really. I don’t remember the details that well, but the gist of it was, “You have got to give other people the opportunity to help you.”

At that moment, I realized I was a creature crippled by my self reliance. To hear people talk, especially those the most obnoxiously vocal and lacking in self awareness, you would think everyone in our society was just looking for a handout, or those who ask for a hand are just too busy enjoying their laziness to do for themselves. But I’ve found almost the opposite to be true. Most people I know would (almost literally) rather die than ask for help.

Ironically, and this is one of those perspectives that comes from being a teacher, it’s the ones who argue otherwise who you’ve really got to watch out for. The students who complains about others taking advantage of a class are the ones who time and time again ask me to bend over backwards for them. And don’t get me started about those who like to tell me about their Christianity while showing no respect or compassion for those sitting right next to them.

But I digress (never said that before, kind of fun), the point is right there at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—self actualization is almost always linked to self transcendence. When we are fully ourselves, we turn outwards. Aside from the obvious significance of this in terms of Marx’s vision of a cooperative society, I think it’s also right there in the concept of that old Aristotelian dialectic to get at the truth. We find ourselves through contradiction. We need others to grasp our reality and the reality of the world around us, and we need others to keep us from dying of pride on our living room floor.

Not long after that rear-kicking phone call, I wrote the following, also for Monsters, Marx & Music:

“Our need ties us to all humanity.”
--Headline, The People’s Tribune

Americans have a knee jerk resistance to the idea of working in groups. We joke, “If you really want to kill an idea, just put it in a committee!” We don’t like to think of ourselves as “joiners.” Other people are “joiners”; other societies are filled with “joiners.” But not us, not Americans.

[12/15/06 interruption--As I reread this, all I have to do is look out my window at the workers putting up the building next door to think how silly our myths of individualism really are. We do amazing things in groups, precious little as individuals acting alone. But still we have these myths, for better and worse, and that’s why they’re worth considering as part of reality themselves.]

A great American icon like John Wayne doesn’t “join.” He rides into town alone. He sees a problem, fixes it and then rides out again. The American lone ranger mentality is not only familiar; it’s pervasive. It is the ideal President, the action hero, the singer-songwriter-virtuoso performer. Though it may be particularly associated with masculinity, it is a more generalized notion of success that is part of the appeal of feminine icons from Madonna to Ani DiFranco to J-Lo.

And of course, this concept of individualism is deeply tied to the American resistance to communism. In American Cold War propaganda, the Russian is a person who lives a dull, colorless existence with his individual freedom sacrificed to an inhuman state. It is this sort of prejudice that General William Westmoreland is banking on when he puffs out his chest in Peter Davis’s Academy Award winning documentary Hearts and Minds and explains, “Well, the Oriental does not put the same high price on life as the Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient. And as the philosophy of the Orient expresses it, life is not important.” (Davis cuts this interview with footage of a Vietnamese mother sick with grief, throwing herself atop her dead son’s coffin in his grave.)

Though Westmoreland’s racism is about as disgusting as this mindset can get, the fact that Americans pay great lip service to individual freedom is not a bad thing. We have good reason to be suspicious of groups. As any Psych 101 student learns, numerous psychological studies in the wake of World War II, particularly concerned with explaining the Holocaust, have shown that most people betray their own judgment in groups. People disbelieve their own perception about things as objective as shapes and sizes when a group disagrees with them.

I recently had an experience that brilliantly illustrated not only the reality of groupthink, but also how susceptible I am to its pressures even as I was perfectly aware of what was happening. I was on jury duty, in jury selection, for a man up on marijuana charges.

Screening the jury, the prosecutor asked how many in the potential jury thought that marijuana should be legal. There were at least 50 of us in the room, and not one hand went up. Now, I have no firm opinion on this (and if I were to get into why, it would be nothing more than a distraction), so it was fairly easy for me to wrestle down the bad taste in my mouth as I kept my hand down. But I was surprised because, from my experience teaching English and hearing semester after semester what people have to say about these issues, I would assume a sizeable number, privately, would say that the drug should be legal but regulated.

Then the prosecutor asked how many in the room felt that too many people were in prison on marijuana charges. Now, I do have strong opinions about this. It is injustice, plain and simple, that half the people in our prisons are there on marijuana offenses when well-heeled professional people (perhaps this prosecutor himself) get away with a toke before bedtime on a regular basis. But I noticed no hands going up, and I hesitated, and then I began to rationalize. Should everyone with half a brain that believes these laws are unfairly enforced risk being thrown off of this jury? Sure, we were sworn in, but is this really the elimination of bias or an attempt to guarantee a bias against the defendant? I didn’t raise my hand, but now I knew I was lying.

Then the prosecutor asked how many in the jury pool felt that marijuana should be legalized for medical purposes. 6 hands out of 50, mine included, shot up. What I think is most remarkable about this is not that several hands shot up when one, whoever the leader was, shot his or her up, but that it was only 6. Again, in talking over this experience with my students (and I’ve told it to every one of my classes since it happened), I have not yet heard one person make an argument against the use of medical marijuana, yet only 6 in the jury pool raised their hands. We were all thrown out of the jury within an hour, and my mind reeled over the implications regarding the court system.

Despite the occasional 12 Angry Men scenario, in which a brave individual (again an American hero) challenges the tyranny of the group, this experience drives home the greatest irony of American individualism: the very myth of individualism is groupthink itself. While individuals make very important contributions in this world, a pure individualist is about as desired by the system as the Unabomber. The myth of individualism is little more than a useful form of divide-and-conquer social control.

That’s why our political censors, the politicians--from Joe Lieberman to Jesse Helms, who repeatedly argue that movies, TV, popular music and video games are bombarding our children with too much sex and violence--never speak out against the most insidious, dominant theme in our media, the idea that the path to happiness is individualism. All of these varied means of artistic expression come wrapped in advertising, and that advertising--just like the advertising for everything else we own--almost always has the same message. Buy this SUV, wear this kind of running shoe, visit this website, and you will be happy and free like the actors and models on TV.

Many have attacked various advertising icons, the Marlboro man and the Virginia Slims woman, as examples of the immorality of the tobacco industry--selling mythic American individualism as the outcome of smoking. But the underlying message is not so readily questioned--individual fulfillment as an individual goal to be purchased. Our entire advertising industry sells one message--the American dream is to buy your own happiness. Tough luck if you can’t manage it. Buck up, and remember that philosophy filed under “Plan B”—success is only a state of mind.

To understand our trap, we have to take a close look at our ideal of individualism. Webster’s defines individualism, first and foremost, as “the leading of one’s life in one’s own way without regard for others.” Without getting into the specific doctrines this logic suggests, let’s contemplate that essential philosophy for a moment.

Who really lives his or her life without regard for others? It is a dead end, and it is not even heroic in terms of our culture. This is Ebenezer Scrooge, who lived an isolated life without caring for anyone or anyone else caring for him. Even the mythic John Wayne (or even more pointedly, Clint Eastwood) cowboy took risks to protect a vulnerable township from the malevolence of a band of black hats. Of course, they can and do ride away….but is that their greatness or their tragic flaw?

Among humanity’s most basic impulses (beyond our animalistic instincts) are to love and be loved. In fact, most of us would give up eating a meal or two or sleeping a night or two (or any of our basic drives, including self preservation) for the sake of those we love. We have confused the need to be our own uniquely fulfilled persons with the need to divorce our concerns from the concerns of others. The popular saying that “to love another one must first love one’s self” is no doubt true, but to love one’s self only, to the exclusion of others is a miserable existence. Virtually all of our religions and philosophies counter this idea vigorously with martyrs and teachers who give their lives for the sake of others. In the end, what things heroic or noble come from our individuality unless there is some benefit to others….

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Reason #3—Everyone Has a Right to Bloom

Back when Democrats had to at least pretend to ask tough questions of a man like Robert Gates, one of the men who brought us the Iran Contra Scandal (worth studying simply for its role in all the slaughter in the Middle East today), I met this Vietnam Vet who urged me to avoid settling on a career path too early. He told me to drive down to Nicaragua, experience the connection between El Norte and those countries our corporations have colonized. He said, “Down there, everyone is a poet. You talk to the soldier on the street corner; he is a poet.”

Now the point of this story is not that he was talking about the communist Sandinista government. No ideology has a corner on the idea of individual fulfillment—it’s that thing about America that inspired almost any revolutionary you can think of, including Marx. What mattered was, as an English major in college at the time, this is the first time I ever remember even envisioning a society made up of poets.

It’s true that, ultimately, peace and happiness are subjective things—on a personal level, many of the keys lie within us. On the other hand, whether you are enslaved or your family is being brutalized by a lack of quality, affordable health care, the objective world creates many conditions where the choice to be happy is no more than an escape from feelings of helplessness, on one hand, and often it can be outright insanity. Don’t stand in front of me and tell a victim of Katrina he or she has an attitude problem.

Back in the Halloween posts, I talked about how many Americans have assumed director Don Siegel intended Invasion of the Body Snatchers to be a spoof of communism while Siegel claimed it was a spoof of American consumer society. The point isn’t whether one was right or the other was wrong, but it is the way we don’t recognize a critique of our own society’s mindless conformity. A systems analyst really, Karl Marx, the man who called for a ruthless critique of everything existing, wanted us to look at that contradiction. Why is it that a society that is supposedly about individual freedom systematically creates barriers to that freedom for most of its citizens?

In its broadest strokes, he asks us to look at what drives the system—the accumulation of wealth—and what that means. What’s most valuable for the system? Who’s most valuable to the system and why?

It doesn’t take long to get to some fundamental answers. In a capitalist system, who would be more valuable than those who make profits and those who secure them, profiteers and gatekeepers? Pay attention to these values and we can feel the system’s effects on everything that we do. Believe me, as a community college teacher trying to fill seats and as a representative of that gold key society called academia, I have to fight to limit how much those concerns override real learning in the classroom. My students are suspicious—many of the cynical play the games well; many who aren’t don’t expect to. They have a right to these feelings, and it’s simply part of living in reality that I have to deal with it. Marx at least provides the vocabulary and basic math for me to understand what I’m up against.

Soon after I wrote “2 B an American,” I wrote another essay on Marx and Individuality. Here’s some pieces of that which remain in Monsters, Marx and Music--

When your child gives you a knowing look that seems too mature for her years, when she takes issue with your point of view, when she paints a picture in her 2 o’clock art class with roses and oranges and shading that makes it seem like the most extraordinary thing you’ve ever seen, you are caught off guard time and time again. And now that my daughter navigates junior high and seems to need me less and less, I find myself thinking the same things I’ve thought for years, only magnified in some ways, “Who is this person? Who is that savvy young woman I see arm in arm with her classmates cracking jokes?”

I say one of those parenting prayers all parents must say over and over again in response to these moments:

I hope that she always values herself for her unique contribution to the world she lives in, and I hope that her friends recognize and appreciate her beauty, and I hope that she finds someone to love who values her distinctly from anyone else in the world. I know she deserves these blessings.

I’m afraid, on one hand, that she won’t appreciate what she receives, but I’m even more afraid that she won’t take advantage of the good that comes her way. I’m afraid she’s going to feel as so many of us do, that we don’t deserve it. I want her to know that she deserves the best of what the world has to offer, and I want her to seize it.

That’s what this parent knows and wants, so why am I afraid my daughter won’t know her own value and fight for it?

….I’ve written about music more than any other topic because it was music that taught me to trust the value of my own voice. The oft-quoted line from Bruce Springsteen’s #1 1984 album, Born In The U.S.A.--“I learned more from a three minute record than I ever learned in school”--is provocative for exactly this reason. Musicians pick up their instruments and hone their craft enough to engage an audience because music has taught them to believe in themselves. So much teenage rebellion is tied to music for the same reason; even if the conscious message is so simple we don’t recognize what it means. If rock and rap say nothing else, they validate our vital suspicions of self worth despite what we are being taught in school—a message not unlike that of the giant monster or the twister—“In the big picture, you don’t matter, so shut up, sit up straight, keep within the lines, and do what the teacher tells you to do.”

One of the things I noticed that my students said to me again and again when I first started teaching was that they couldn’t come up with any good ideas for papers. When I would talk to them individually, they would say, “I can’t think of anything to write, nothing that would be good” or they might mention an idea but say, “no one would want to read that.” I believe that the first, most important goal of the writing teacher is to convince students that they do have something to say, and when that happens, the rest begins to fall into place….

….And this hostility to the individual voice should not be a surprising result of our current educational system. After all, as becomes more and more plain with the increased popularity of standardized testing and the tailoring of education to the needs of the corporate workplace, public schools have always existed to deliver, first and foremost, not a potential political opposition but something far more practical, a trainable workforce.

While progressive management theory (dating back to Peter F. Drucker’s work in the 1950s and revitalized with the popularity of W. Edwards Deming’s quality theories in the ‘80s) has begun to embrace the importance of individuality at least as an ideal quality in that workforce, day-to-day experience shows the system wants conformity and efficiency first and foremost, and that is not a quality of the workplace that is at all likely to change for the majority of individuals working there.

One of the greatest ironies of the popular understanding of Karl Marx is that his theories are associated with a loss of individual freedom. In fact, Marx was writing about the reasons most individuals in a capitalist society have no real freedom to live up to their potential. This loss of potential is grounded in the fact that the worker’s entire existence is centered on his or her potential for exploitation by the market.

Marx wanted to lay plain the skeletal mechanics of this. The individual worker is paid wages based on the necessities of corporate competition. An average wage is based on the market value of a generally healthy workforce capable of reproducing itself. Naturally, the owner of a company wants the most productive hours of the workers’ lives and the product of that work to buy and sell on the market--anything less would be less than good business, less than competitive.

As employees, we don't own what we produce (even the profit-sharer is only thrown scraps), and that’s why Marx wrote repeatedly about the alienation of the worker. In Capital, in “The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation,” he writes that the worker is distorted “into a fragment of a man."

He explains:
“...they degrade him to the level of an appendage to a machine, they destroy the actual content of his labour by turning it into a torment....they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the juggernaut of capital.”

Today, we might modify this to acknowledge that not only a dream of economic freedom but increasing economic desperation has transformed the average mother’s life-time into corporate working-time as well, and quality childcare has become one of the system’s looser wheels.

Modern management theory argues that the worker’s mindset is the problem. Rather than individualistically rebelling against our work, we should each see the value of our role in the corporate process. But in our society, we know that we are not seen as equally valuable. At the end of the day, our work becomes the product of a machine owned by someone with the extra dough to spend his days golfing and remodeling the interior of his private jet. The worker’s alienation is closer to wisdom than bad attitude. It is an understanding of what’s real, and that’s closer to what Marx is about than the dogma that has eclipsed his work.

Of course, individual freedom does not come without collective responsibility. Individual growth does not happen without that individual developing socially either. We do not blossom without being nurtured by others. But we cannot find true fulfillment in a system that enslaves us either. To understand Marx, we have to recognize his goal as individual human liberation.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Reason #2—As Americans, Freedom is Our Charge

Arguably our nation’s first great woman of letters, Phillis Wheatley got it. Doubly denied her freedom for her gender and her race, she wrote as if she had no such boundaries and suffered the highest costs when her freedom was bought and she was cast into a hostile system that gave her no place to go. Still, she recognized the promise of America that Martin Luther King Jr would die fighting for 200 years later. A country in which even those enslaved by immigrants fleeing political, economic and religious repression, America’s dream is powerful, and that dream depends entirely on the idea of freedom as a matter of social responsibility.

When I first started writing about why we need to read Marx, back in 2000 in the final days of that romanticized Clinton administration (the one that blamed rap music over poverty and police brutality for inner city unrest, the one that made Americans comfortable with bombing other countries on a regular basis, the one that slashed welfare in half based on the evil notion that poverty is caused by the poor, the one that paved the way for George W), the first 5000 words spilled out in one day long screed called “2 B an American.”

Though I received some very favorable response from those who read it, it tackled too much to be as convincing as it needed to be, and today, in the wake of the Iraq War, the Michigan water wars and Katrina, and with all of the poverty statistics and the gap between rich and poor only growing worse, much of the illustration for my points seems quaint. But I think I got the opening right.

I started by writing about my daughter and what I wanted for her. If she was going to grow up in the sort of anything like a free and open-hearted world, it was our charge as a society to learn the other side of the dialogue about our system. We had to return to the conversation Marx started, and we had to reckon with it as a society. In this era of never-ending war, I’ve never believed it more.

Here’s a piece of what I wrote then—

2B an American

Like most parents, if asked to recall the single most significant moment in my life, I think of the birth of my child. It was a C-section, and I was standing by her mother’s shoulders as the doctors yanked violently behind a green sheet, yanked my wife’s body off of the table, repeatedly, to bring my daughter into this world. It was a horrible violence to watch the woman I loved and the child I couldn’t wait to meet being handled so roughly.

I suspect the importance of this memory starts right here. I was utterly helpless in the face of the fate of my loved ones. Whether it was consciously thought or not, that truth made my own existence unimportant, even frustratingly useless. Ending that horror, I heard my daughter’s first cry. Like a voice from another world, she called me straight out of my body.

I see myself now holding her as her purple body is weighed and her feet are stamped with dark blue ink. I am looking over my own shoulder as I contemplate this mystery in my hands. Hours later, in the waiting room on the phone to a friend, I feel myself re-enter my body, but I am not the same person I was before. Now, I am a father, and the most important person in the world to me is screaming her lungs out in a big casserole dish down the hall.

When my soul left my body (I know no other way to describe it), it discarded baggage that had been weighing me down for a very long time. I was no longer worried about being behind grading papers at work, and I was no longer worried about topping my last writing job. My self-centered ambitions were driven out like demons, and all I cared about was making sure that this little girl was safe, healthy and that she could look forward to the best of what life had to offer in the future. For what seems like the first time in my life, I was genuinely secondary to others--my wife and my daughter.

Of course, this is a visionary experience that passes. I would be wrapped up in the relative trivialities of my own concerns again in no time. But I never forgot that perspective, a spiritual manifestation of the glory of something so simple as my biological imperative, a clarification of my greatest priority in life. Of course, your wife and child cannot be your only priorities if you are going to continue to live a healthy and productive life, and, in fact, my marriage would dissolve seven years later, but even that decision stemmed from concerns over what kind of a relationship we were modeling for our daughter. And I always think of that moment when I am prioritizing my life.

From here on out, my own existence must be measured in terms of its effect on others, in particular, my daughter. If I do something so simple as refuse to wear a seatbelt, I have to consider jeopardizing my own fate as jeopardizing the shape of my daughter’s future as well. What I write I want her to be proud to read. I want my actions to inspire her to make the most of her life. I want to be there for her whenever appropriate. My own existence is not diminished or shackled by these considerations; it is enhanced.

I have come to the (not unique but personalized) conclusion that, yes, human beings are to some extent motivated by their own self interest, but even that self interest only finds completion as we recognize our connection to others. The lesson of my daughter’s birth has been generalized to how I relate to everyone around me. We are all responsible to one another, and only with that perspective can we ever find our own needs met.

If any one quality makes the United States of America potentially great, it is that the country is founded on precisely this compassionate principle. The Preamble to the Constitution calls for a “more perfect Union” based upon justice, security, freedom for everyone and everyone’s descendents.

And, yet, this concrete vision of compassion is exactly what our society discourages in its race for competitive, individualistic fulfillment. Our schools (despite individually heroic teachers) train us from an early age to compete with one another for rewards rather than to work together for the sake of learning. Our workplaces talk about team work and dialogue but our individual, competitive efforts are what bring the greatest rewards and ensure our individual job security. Our political system is based upon personality-driven fundraising and dog-gut-dog competition. Even most of our religious traditions, often sprung from the liberation struggles of oppressed peoples, have a tendency to emphasize the deliverence of the individual soul over that soul’s crucial connection to the suffering of others.

For me, it was parenthood, but I would guess everyone, parent or not, has just such a revelation regarding compassion at some point in his or her life. The trick is, how do you hang onto it when you live in a society that’s growing less compassionate year after year?

…..If I am to have a dream for my daughter’s future in this increasingly mean-spirited world, I have to dream of a world where that vision of compassion, that vision she handed me at her birth, is spread far and wide and eventually becomes the guiding principle in our society….

[Yeah, I still believe in that bit or why would I bother writing?]

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Reason #1--We Can't Afford Any More Witch Hunts

(Starting today, I'm going to try an approach to this blog that I haven't before--because of a personal sense of urgency and time constraints. I will give myself a half hour to write whatever it is I've got to write in the morning, post it, and then, once I've gotten the work of the day done, I will reread it and consider what I might add or subtract from what I've done. For this reason, if you pop in here midday and find something interesting to you, you may want to check back on this date's blog again later in the day, the next day, whatever, to see if anything's changed. I think that system will allow this guy who's used to writing for publication deadlines, one way or another, to feel more spontaneous because I can always go back and "fix" things in a way that I'll be more comfortable with them standing later.)

Morning rough mix--

Standing at O'Hare on my way home Sunday, The New York Times front page gave me a chill. Under a picture of red flags and images of Che Guevara was a caption that said something like "Anti-American Rallies Increase" before explaining that Middle Eastern political organizations like Hezbollah were demonstrating with communist groups, representatives of and those inspired by the defiant voices of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. The protest didn't scare me; the branding did. That picture and headline wouldn't have seemed more menacing to me if it had said, "Run Critics of Capitalism: Hide If and While You Can!"

The reasons for my reaction may or may not be obvious, but that's part of why I'm up writing this morning. I choose to view the future with hope rather than fear (I'm not sure I could get up if that wasn't the case), but the storm clouds on the horizon right now are scarier than anything I wrote about in those 13 days of horror essays I last wrote. And one of the reasons for that is one of the keys to humanity's hope when it's faced with its monsters--that character in every tribe of fearless vampire killers, every band of Scoobies, the keeper of arcane knowledge.

I talked before about one legacy of the Cold War being the erasure of anything but a caricature of Marxist thought from our society's discussion of the issues of the day. When we live in a system where the average individual's cash on the barrelhead value is being driven down to zero (as the WID-ER report shows in my last blog, often below that), and the economy's fuel--the gold standard that keeps things running--is the industry of war supplemented by service industry, the last thing the system (not some Star Chamber of elites but something more fundamentally real, the agreement of all of the forces that keep society running smoothly) wants is anyone taking stock of the situation and suggesting a more humane basis for society.

It is hard to imagine a society getting more dumbed down than the one we currently live in. (And I don't mean the kids people like to blame 'cause they often have far more insight than their parents. The reason I started writing Monsters, Marx and Music was because it's in this pop culture both conservatives and liberals like to attack that some real resistance to the status quo manages to stay alive.) But it will try to get dumber if it can because that's the best way for it to keep the fires burning. That's what Ray Bradbury got right when he wrote Fahrenheit 451, where the books only remained in peoples' minds. And that's what I think Stephen King really meant, whether he knew it or not, when he recently wrote that he'd imagined some pretty scary things in his life, but he'd never imagined Nancy Grace.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Check the Dogma at the Door

"All I know is that I am not a Marxist."


“I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”


Today’s daily reminder of the black hole in our educations where Marx oughta be comes with the release of the new report by the U.N.’s World Institute for Development—Economics Research (WIDER). Measuring components of household wealth often overlooked by similar studies, this research finds, among other things, that the top 2% of the world’s rich own more than half of the world’s wealth, that the United States has a fourth of these people and that the U.S. has twice as much income inequality as most other nations. In fact, despite the U.S.’s great wealth, many Americans have so much debt that they are among the poorest people in the world.

I’m afraid the ultimate price of the Cold War is that we look at statistics like that and shake our heads, but we don’t think we can do anything about it. Marx spent his life trying to convince the world that an economically just society was not only doable but a moral necessity. Hardly the dreamy idealist or zealous extremist all sorts of people picture when they hear the name, Karl Marx was more like some ancient Greek who applied basic intellectual rigor to examining the fundamental nature of the system around him. Like Plato, he dreamed of ideals, sure, but like an Aristotle, he rolled up his sleeves and insisted on working toward these ideals with a thorough examination of the material world. And like Socrates, he didn’t shut up until the breath left his body, working on showing his math in three volumes of his study of capitalism.

Sadly, we live in a society where all of this work has been labeled un-American. Money makes the world go around, and to seriously contemplate an alternative is to be a flake at best, a traitor at worst. It’s tragic. Because while most Americans are waking up to the fact that the best way to run U.S. foreign policy (or, more particularly, a war) is NOT to ignore reality and contradictory opinion, we still do so with our own unexamined assumptions as capitalists. Ignoring half of the past century’s old worldwide debate is not a good way to step into the future, and in the long run, I’m positive the ghost of Christmas Yet to Come has nothing good to show us as long as we continue down this path.

So, I started writing about what I’ve learned from Marx six years ago, and I want to get it out among those I know and love so we can talk, not about capitalist or Marxist dogma but about these unexamined assumptions and how to revisit them. I can’t see any hope as long as our society remains in denial. Over the next few days, I’ll be pouring back over the Marx portions of Monsters, Marx and Music for the dozen or so fundamental reasons I think this. Expect my next marathon of posts to come from this place.

Meanwhile, read the WIDER article--

And spend some time with Kristie (see below). You won’t regret it.