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.