Friday, October 20, 2006

Letting the Skeletons Out of the Closets

(Day 3 of Countdown)

In his eye-opening 2003 documentary, The American Nightmare, director Adam Simon juxtaposes footage of the violence on the nightly news in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s with clips from horror movies of the same era.

That famous footage of Birmingham police commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor’s troops turning firehoses on black youth and beating nonviolent protestors is juxtaposed with the footage of the vigilantes hunting zombies and killing the black lead in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and the cadences of the vigilante’s speech recall the dehumanizing manner in which General Westmoreland spoke of Asians at the time (or the patronizing way Donald Rumsfeld talks of everyone who disagrees with him today). Various horrors of the era including the Mai Lai massacre, televised executions of alleged Vietcong, children running naked from napalm attack and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy are intercut with the brutality of Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the filmmakers talk frankly about how their movies helped them to grapple with what was happening in the world at the time.

Horror filmmaker and make-up wizard Tom Savini is particularly notable for his frankness about his terror in Vietnam and how the lens of a camera helped him process what he was experiencing as a soldier. Since then, his make up effects have helped him process what he saw.

All of this is reminiscent of that haunting scene in the James Whale biopic Gods & Monsters where the World War I veteran recalls living in the trenches and watching his dead friend rot on the barbed wire of no man’s land. Director Bill Condon suggests this is the inspiration for Whales’ moving portrait of the Frankenstein monster. Those familiar with Whale’s work may even see this connection more strongly in the film debut of Claude Rains as a beautiful corpse at the end of The Invisible Man.

The horror genre gives us a safe distance to contemplate the things we fear, to in fact contemplate our attraction to that which most scares us. In this exchange, we not only have an opportunity to work through our fears and heal our wounds, we have some chance to tackle problems we might not otherwise. Ghosts and monsters make us want to run, yes, but if we run, the ghost or monster only gains strength. To defeat that thing we most fear, we must turn and look it dead in the eye.

“A spectre is haunting Europe -- the spectre of communism. All the
powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this
spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and
German police-spies.”

--Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848

Just three decades after Mary Shelley made her monster and only 5 years after Charles Dicken’s most famous ghost story A Christmas Carol, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels chose to portray communism as a prophetic spirit “haunting Europe,” a sort of Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. The idea, as it emerges in the opening of the Communist Manifesto, is a simple one, elemental. With old aristocracies crumbling and the industrial revolution shaking Europe’s foundations, the notion of a cooperative society must be driven (exorcised) from the public mind in order for power to remain in the hands of the few that hold the reins.

In American society a century and a half later, the exorcism is all but complete. The conventional wisdom says that the spectre of communism went to the light in 1989 with the fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Block countries. In my literature classes, when I ask my students if they can define the socialist vision that inspired Charlotte Perkins Gillman, Jack London, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Theodore Dreiser, Tillie Olsen, John Steinbeck and, to some extent, virtually every other writer of realist and naturalist fiction, they illustrate the success of the exorcism.

Most have no answers. A few say “socialism” means “big government.” Others say “communism” forces everyone to be the same. Still others sometimes say Karl Marx had some good ideas that just don’t work in the real world.

These sound bites don’t reveal simply a poverty of appreciation for Karl Marx’s contributions to Western thought—they add up to less than zero understanding of either the methods or the vision of universal human liberation that shook the 20th Century. They miss Marxism’s key strength--its insistence on reconciling dreams of social justice with a sober assessment of what’s real and what’s possible.

Our educational system all but ignores the rapid evolution of scientific thought which accompanied industrialization in the middle of the 19th century. In this educational vacuum, the transition from the subjective emphasis of the Romantic era in literature (in American terms, roughly the period up to the Civil War) to the objective emphasis of Realism (after the Civil War) seems merely a bipolar aesthetic swing.

We don’t teach or learn that seven years after Marx & Engel’s manifesto heralded a revolutionary theory of human history, Alexander Bain produced the first psychology textbook, The Senses and the Intellect, and Herbert Spencer published the two volume Principles of Psychology, together formalizing the study of how the human mind works. Four years after that, Charles Darwin unleashed The Origin of the Species, changing the general consensus on man’s relationship with the world around him. These few examples among many in this period reveal a dramatic shift in the way humanity was beginning to understand itself--an upheaval in human thought which both gave birth to 20th Century scientific thought and drove a wedge between conventional wisdom and scientific understanding we have yet to overcome.

But the effect of this shift in understanding on our literature was immediate. We have much to learn from the literature of that era if we can understand its real world inspiration. A century later, Marxist critic C.L.R. James would look back at Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, which stands at the juncture between romanticism and realism, to help explain enigmas of the 20th Century.

To some extent, the vision of Moby Dick springs from a growing desire in 19th Century art to grapple with the specifics of the world around that art. Melville’s novel is, at once, dream-like, highly emotional and allegorical in its symbolism (all traits associated with Romanticism), but it also forecasts realism in its concern with a meticulous description of the specifics of whaling itself and the workings of the social system aboard Ahab’s boat, the Pequod.

After taking great pains to establish the microcosm of Industrial society on board the ship, James writes:

“The old heroic individualist America [Melville] knew; but he could see, as artists see, that the old individualism was breeding a new individualism--one which would destroy society. The prototype of this was Ahab. The modern dictator whose prototype he is, is best exemplified by Adolf Hitler.”

In my own state of Kansas where evolution was briefly ruled optional (and is far from out of the woods), it’s painfully obvious that these 19th Century revolutions in human thought have been, to some dangerous extent, successfully suppressed. These are enormously practical concerns. In Human Natures: Genes, Cultures and the Human Prospect, biologist Paul Ehrlich argues that understanding evolution is not only necessary to grasp modern science, but it is necessary to our continued survival.

“In my view,” Ehrlich writes, “it is highly unlikely that human beings will ever create a utopia, but I think it is a counsel of despair to assume that we can’t collectively do a lot better than we’re doing today. Cultural evolution [not our genetic development, but our subjective growth] led many past civilizations to extinction. Our global civilization had better move rapidly to modify its cultural evolution and deal with its deteriorating environmental circumstances before it runs out of time. Whether the natures of most of us can be changed to establish better connections among diverse groups and to take more systematic control of our cultural evolution remains to be seen.”

What concerns Ehrlich is long range system-wide dysfunction. Through today’s growing awareness of the causes and effects of such dysfunction, it’s not hard to see ourselves as addicts, our self image shaped by denial, and addiction’s trajectory is the destruction of the self and anyone who gets in its path. A great aid in our system-wide denial is our individually fragmentary point of view, a perspective fundamental to our current social system but not inherently fundamental to human society.

As philosophy professor Richard Tarnas explains in The Passion of the Western Mind, the sixth centuries’ earliest philosophers, “made the remarkable assumption that an underlying rational unity and order existed within the flux and variety of the world, and established for themselves the task of discovering a simple fundamental principle, or arche, that both governed nature and composed its basic substance.” From these origins, we are all familiar with the long history of systematic thought that has given us penicillin, refrigerators, TVs, automobiles, CD players, the Internet, and DNA testing. Science plays a key role in virtually everything we do, yet most of us still refuse to apply such rigorous thought to an understanding of society and its potential.

In 1997, Scientific American columnist James Burke and psychologist Robert Ornstein published The Axemaker’s Gift, which offers a history of technology and Western Society. Burke and Ornstein argue that society’s evolving tools have historically created a social control based in greater and greater distances between the specialist’s understanding and the common knowledge shared by others. Meanwhile, our society has expanded in a very short time from a hunter/gatherer society, in which we interact with a small group of others in a world of boundless resources to a globalized community with finite resources. Today, specialization has fragmented even the scientific community.

Burke and Ornstein write: “After the emergence of seventeenth-century reductionism, each major new discipline sooner or later fragmented into dozens, sometimes hundreds, of specialist subdisciplines. Botany, for instance, subdivided and linked with other disciplines to become biology, organic chemistry, histology, embryology, evolutionary biology, physiology, cytology, pathology, bacteriology, urology, ecology, population genetics, and zoology. This process has repeated in many fields, and the latest count suggests that there are now 20,000 separate scientific and technological subjects. Specialists know more and more about less and less, and non-specialists know less and less about more and more.”

Hitler’s Final Solution worked so disgustingly well thanks to such specialization—everyone was just following orders and no one felt responsible for the big picture. Hell, no one wanted to look up from their specialized tasks to contemplate the big picture. (How many of us today don’t have the exact same hesitancy?)

Burke and Ornstein are concerned with the danger that computer technologies will be “hijacked by the most powerful-ever information elite in history,” but they offer hope. The Axemaker’s Gift contends that the computer revolution demands new skills, “the ability to connect, to think imaginatively, to understand how data are related, to see patterns in machine-generated innovation, and to assess its social effect before releasing it on society.” They see the rise of the “generalist” as our main chance for human liberation.

Karl Marx was just such a generalist, describing the connection between humanity’s technological and economic development and the evolution of its ideas (this is the heart of the meaning of his philosophy of dialectical materialism). Marx sought to reveal the value of understanding our history. Our past shows us how we have formed (and overthrown) increasingly complex and sophisticated social organizations--from slave states, to feudal societies, to democracy--through the very real need to work together to survive.

And what he intended to show was the feasibility of communism, an idea much older than capitalism, the cooperative principles that bound together nomadic tribes fighting predators, harsh conditions and a scarcity of resources for thousands of years, perennial values and traditions that linger as the ghosts of our prehistory. If in this prehistory we had to work together to save ourselves from a hostile environment, Marx argues that post-industrialized society has to work cooperatively to save ourselves from the suicidal momentum of the profit-driven system we have created.

In today’s world, the war between the entertainment industry and fans over Internet file-sharing illustrates how technology has evolved to place power in more and more people’s hands while a narrowing stratum of society is growing more vicious to maintain control. For most of us, the anxieties we face are increasingly basic--how to pay our bills and our rent or mortgage, how to keep ourselves fed and how to receive adequate healthcare. The notion that our problems are escalating toward a breaking point is a feeling we all know. Beyond our economic crises, we are faced with social, political and environmental problems we must solve for the sake of our very survival.

The dog-eat-dog and self reliance myths that we have been sold by our culture must be examined with a clear eye on our deep history. We’ve never needed each other more. The dream of a just society demands that we grapple with the forces that literally threaten our survival and the survival of all that makes the world we live in a desirable place to be. That means the best of what’s in us and the best of what’s around us, including our natural environment, will only thrive if we tend to it with eyes wide open. Marx’s work still provides the most skeptical, objective thinkers with exactly what is missing in our culture today--a rational basis for hope. And that hope, for the ghost of Karl Marx and for us, begins with an understanding of our past.

The American Nightmare at—

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