Community

To Live Unmoored from Social Norms

There was an article in the Guardian today that brought to mind some thoughts I was playing with here back in 2014.

On the new Netflix show Ozark, financial adviser Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) is forced to launder millions of dollars in a rural red state, under threat of death from a Mexican drug cartel. In Billions, which finished its second season in May, viewers are meant to envy and respect mega–hedge-funder “Axe” (Damian Lewis), despite his evident criminality. And then there is the wildly popular Empire, about a hip-hop dynasty ruled by the ridiculously wealthy and brutal Lyon family.

Welcome to the new aspirational television, about a 1% that lives with impunity. These series center on brilliant, albeit extremely violent entrepreneurs. Our antiheroes have technical specialties they managed to turn into criminal know-how: on Ozark, money management becomes money laundering, and on Breaking Bad, high-school chemistry instruction becomes meth production.

These anti-heroes are born of the modern struggle to remain in the middle or upper middle class. We watch these characters and receive, I argued in my previous article, the same sort of thrill delivered by Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray.  We all, at times, feel burdened and constrained by society’s rules. Victorian England was still more of an honor/shame society than a good person/bad person society. People (at least those of Oscar Wilde’s class) felt most constrained on a day to day basis by the need to keep up a respectable appearance and to behave in morally upstanding ways. Therefore sexual vice and hedonism had a strong, dangerous appeal. The story of Dorian combined the pleasurable fantasy of being freed from social constraints with the horror of what society might look like if those constraints did not exist.

I argued in my article that in “modern stories where a person is attracted to evil and finds himself trapped in a world from which he cannot escape, the characters were driven by financial rather than sexual temptation.”

Dorian’s audience feared what would happen if sensuality and sexuality were decoupled from a sense of responsibility for one another. Today we are regularly confronted with stark images of what happens when money is decoupled from any sense of responsibility for others.

In her Guardian article Alissa Quart concluded: “Just ask the immensely wealthy man who is now our president and appears to say and do exactly what he wants to, regardless of the consequences: today, the ultimate luxury isn’t wealth itself. It is the ability to live unmoored from social norms, like the gods.”

Our temptation to abandon the community to satisfy our own desires excites and terrifies us.  Thus in fiction those who would be gods are destroyed and our bond of common responsibility is restored. The jury is still out on whether this is what happens in real life.

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What is the Basic Unit of Society?

There is an age old debate over what the basic unit of society should be. Is it more important to protect the interests of the community or of the individual? Should we, for example, require all of our citizens to be of the same religion, to have the same sexual orientation, to participate in the same rituals, to speak the same language? Can we require people to conform in the name of social cohesion or should individual rights take precedence? This is the old liberal/conservative split.

It occurred to me, while watching news about the confirmation hearings for Neil Gorsuch, that there is a small, but powerful faction (because they are aligned with those who have money) that now views another entity as the basic unit of society which needs protection–the corporation.

Social science author F.S. Michaels has argued that we live in a Monoculture, with an economic framework for understanding what it means to be human in the world. “In our time, in the early decades of the twenty-first century, the monoculture isn’t about science, machines and mathematics, or about religion and superstition. In our time, the monoculture is economic.”

In the economic monoculture we live and participate in markets and see ourselves as consumers rather than citizens. Citizens have duties to one another. Consumers go shopping and have choices. In a society based on religion, gods are the main forces driving everything. In a society based on economics, the corporation is the driver.

Corporations transcend communities and even national borders. This puts them outside the old community/individual split. In the economic monoculture, both individuals and communities, even nations, must put aside their own needs for the greater good of economic growth. The market is expected, as the gods and monarchs were in days of old, to provide well-being for the general population.

In this clip Senator Al Franken questions Supreme Court Nominee Neil Gorsuch about the case of Alphonse Maddin a truck driver employed by TransAm Trucking of Olathe, Kansas. On a day when the temperature fell to -27 F, the brakes on Maddin’s trailer failed. He waited for TransAm to send a repair unit. After three hours, they had not arrived. The heater in the cabin was not working. The temperature fell to -7 and Maddin found, in his words, “I could not feel my feet, my skin was burning and cracking, my speech was slurred, and I was having trouble breathing.” Still his employer urged him to wait. Believing he might die, Maddin ventured out into the cold to lock the trailer, then unhook it from his cabin so he could drive to safety. He later returned and finished his job, but he was fired anyway for leaving the trailer.

Maddin sued for wrongful termination. He won his case, but TransAm Trucking appealed, and the case was argued before the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. Among the three judges hearing the case was Neil Gorsuch. Of the seven justices who heard the case over its years winding through the courts, only Gorsuch sided with TransAm. Gorsuch’s dissent did not cost Maddin his case, but it was popular with the business community.

There is one tangential point that I wanted to make, as we have been talking about the meaning of compassion.  In this exchange with Franken, Gorsuch insists he has empathy for Maddin. Empathy means to understand the feelings of another person, to put yourself in his place.  Even as he pleads “empathy,” he continually dodges the question of what he would do in Maddin’s position. (Maddin is African-American and it is possible that Gorsuch subconsciously believes that he was not actually in any real danger, wrongly assuming as even many medical students apparently do, that Black people actually feel less pain.)

Putting that aside, what Gorsuch appears to fundamentally believe is that employees have the duty to be obedient to their employers, even to the point of giving their lives in the service of the “job creator”. This is what a nation asks of citizens who are drafted into wars. In that case, the citizen sacrifices to preserve the nation. In the Gorsuch case the employee sacrifices to preserve the corporation.

This makes a certain sense, perhaps, if the market, not the nation or community, is viewed as the primary organizing principle of society.

The Others

This was the darker side of community. For a group to have a sense of cohesion, a sense of being “us,” it had to define what was outside of the group. It had to define a “them”— the excluded. Who “they” are changes over time and from society to society, but the process never changes. It is part of the nature of community life. To have an inside, a tribe must have an outer boundary. For most of the members of Paul’s community, young men dancing in gay clubs, people like Andy, were not “us” but “them.” Judging by his own reactions, Paul had to admit with some shame that he felt the same way. “I am not like him.”

I find that I have been thinking about this passage from the novel “Angel” quite a bit lately.

Something has happened this election cycle. It seems as though an epidemic of “othering” has descended upon us. To some extent this has always happened in election years. People dig in their heels, politicians try to differentiate between their views and those of their opponents. Republicans and Democrats try to set the stakes high and make it seem as though the people in the other party want to harm the country and only they can save it.

Then there are the pundits, covering the horse race and predicting how blocks of people vote based on demographic categories and stereotypes about them. “This area is rural and those will be big Ted Cruz voters…” “This area has a lot of students so they will vote for Bernie Sanders.” “Secretary Clinton expects to do well in South Carolina because of its large African-American population.”

The Los Angeles Times ran a story today by Liana Aghajanian in which she expressed her disillusionment with this kind of stereotyping.

After Bernie Sanders won Michigan, the media and its pundits were whipped into a frenzy, touting shock and confusion of how Arab and Muslim Americans — who constitute a healthy portion of the population in metro Detroit — could have supported a candidate who is Jewish.

The only way it felt appropriate to respond was to ask: Why wouldn’t they? Why do we so easily fall into these polarizing traps set up by mainstream media that paint and pit two communities against each other and then accept the idea as truth?

To assume anti-Semitism on behalf of an entire, very large population is not just irresponsible, but as the International Business Times wrote, “Reveals how much reporting on American Muslims is still rooted in an unsophisticated naiveté about what motivates them.”

Every four years we’re treated to this superficial analysis and asked to see our fellow countrymen as representatives of different groups.

“I can’t help feeling wary when I hear anything said about the masses,” the English chemist J.B. Priestly once said. “First you take their faces away from ’em by calling ’em the masses and then you accuse them of not having any faces.”

All of this is depressingly par for the course in elections.

Now we have Donald Trump, a candidate who elicits cheers and sighs of relief for saying “we’re too politically correct,” implying, of course, that those of us who do not agree that Muslims should all be treated as suspected terrorists or that illegal immigrants should be thought of as rapists do not actually believe what we are saying and are simply being polite.

There is room for polite disagreement on immigration policy. This is not about that. I am concerned that it is becoming increasingly acceptable to other and dehumanize groups of people. This is not a political problem, but a cultural one and, as photographer Brandon Staton put it in his viral open letter to Trump, a moral one. (If you want any more proof of this, and you have a strong stomach, you can scan the comments on his open letter for the phrase “you people.”)

To pillory “political correctness” is to overlook the fact that language does matter. There is a difference when you say that an immigrant “pops out a baby” or that she “has a child.” In the first case, you are speaking of her as something less than fully human.

“Is that why they pop out babies? To make them U.S. citizens? Is that why you popped out yours?”

What is the result of constant exposure to the idea that a group is not only “other” but “less than?” A racial empathy gap. As Lisa Wade wrote in Sociological Images:

Psychologists continue to document what is now called a racial empathy gap, both blacks and whites show lesser empathy when they see darker-skinned people experiencing physical or emotional pain. When white people are reminded that black people are disproportionately imprisoned, for example, it increases their support for tougher policing and harsher sentencing. Black prisoners receive presidential pardons at much lower rates than whites. And we think that black people have a higher physical pain threshold than whites.

This bears repeating: Somewhere in the uncritical parts of our minds, we actually believe that dark skinned people feel less physical pain than we do.

Talking about the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, ” “Instinctively we struck out for dignity first because personal degradation as an inferior human being was even more keenly felt than material privation.”

The only moral thing to do is to stand up for the dignity of other human beings, whether they are our fellow citizens or not, whether they share our religion or not, whether they speak the same language or not.

By the way, when Marco Rubio sent out a tweet in Spanish, he immediately received a predictable response.

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This is, of course, demonstrably untrue if “we” are taken to be all U.S. citizens.  More than 300 languages are spoken in the U.S. according to the U.S. Census Bureau. America has the world’s second largest population of Spanish speakers, more even than Spain. We have a growing population of Vietnamese, Russian and Chinese speakers. There are native speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch, Navajo, and Hawaiian. (In the latter two cases, they were here first.) There are even 1,000 speakers of the Pacific island language Samoan in Alaska. The only way to make this statement true is to define “we” as people who live in America and speak English. In that case it is true, but it is a meaningless tautology. (“We who speak English and live in America, speak English.”)

The strange thing is that illegal immigration has become such a hot button issue now as the number of Mexican immigrants leaving America is now actually greater than the number coming in.

But clearly the scope of the problem is much less important than the political value of having someone from the outside to blame for our ills.

Recently I questioned a Facebook friend who supported Trump and wrote about Mexicans “popping out babies” and getting free stuff in America.  In defending her views, she pointed to her own family history and contrasted it with the baby poppers of Mexico. Her grandfather fled Russia when the communists took over, and was forced to leave all of his possessions behind.

What fascinated me about this response is that being the descendant of a refugee did not produce empathy for other refugees, assuming that she agrees with Trump’s proposed Muslim ban. (I did not ask.) When her grandfather came to the U.S. he was fortunate that we distinguished between him and the people he was fleeing and did not keep him out because he and the communists were both Russian.

We can debate immigration policy. We can disagree. We can do it with respect.  But we cannot, as a moral nation, accept the notion that empathy is weakness. There is a way to take a hard line on immigration, and do it without dehumanizing people in the process. It is important.

In fact, empathy is hard. You have to work at it. You have to examine your own comfortable blind spots.  You have to be willing to adapt to others and not only assume they will adapt to you. It matters when we dehumanize people. Language matters.

Fame, Free Fall and the Size of the Frame

April is national poetry month. Last year I posted a poem each day. They were the least viewed posts I ever put up! So this time around I am going to do something a bit different and use various poems as a jumping off point for further reflection. Today’s poem is Musee des Beaux Arts by W.H. Auden.

Musee des Beaux Arts

W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

—-

We have an amazing capacity to remain blissfully unaware of other people’s struggles and suffering. Hardships we have not personally experienced are unreal to us– invisible famines. We have stuff to do. We are focused and busy. In a famous experiment back in the 1970s, a team of researchers had seminary students plan a talk and then go to another building to deliver it. En route they passed a man in distress. Half of the students were told they would be speaking about seminary jobs, the other half were told they would be speaking about the parable of the Good Samaritan. The researchers wanted to know if concentrating on the parable of the Good Samaritan would make people more likely to offer aid. It didn’t. What did impact the likeliness the students would offer to help was how much time the students thought they had to get to the other building and give their presentation. When the students thought they had lots of time 63% of them offered to help, regardless of the topic of their talk. When they thought they were in a hurry only 10% offered to help.

Researchers have also found that the more people there are who witness an event, the less likely anyone is to offer help as everyone assumes someone else will do it. Scientists have tested this, but artists already sensed it. In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold everyone in town knows that a member of their community is about to be murdered. No one wants it to happen, including the killers, and yet no one manages to stop it. The very fact that everyone knows seems to persuade each individual that it won’t actually happen.

And the old masters understood it. About suffering, they were never wrong.

A few days ago, I wrote about our oft thwarted desire to be seen and noticed. “We want to know and be known, to love and be loved, to lock eyes and be in the same moment together.”

149120_10150089505605948_5921817_nAnd yet our life and death battles take place “while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.”

We live in a culture that places a high value on fame, on known-ness. This value is in direct proportion to the anonymity most of us feel confronted with among so many neighbors who do not know us at all.

I propose that our desire for fame is not really a desire to be observed. It is, rather, a desire to be the central figure in the painting on the wall of the Musee des Beaux Arts and not the guy who happens to be steering his boat completely unaware that a moment of mythic significance is happening right beside him. We want to believe that we will be the central character in the novel and not the friend who appears in one scene on page 285.

We want to have the sense that he dramas of our lives matter. We do not want to accept what Shakespeare’s assessment in MacBeth that:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

People seek fame in order to feel that their lives matter.

“I spend my cash on looking flash and grabbing your attention… And even though you fool your soul your conscience will be mine.”-Adam Ant, “Stand and Deliver”

The quest for fame often leads to disillusion. In the immortal words of the philosopher David Bowie, “Fame puts you there where things are hollow.” (Yeah, actually, I have never understood what that song was talking about.)

Even though he may fool his soul, the rock star looks flash and grabs your attention for only a moment. Even in the brief moment that the star has attracted your gaze, you only see a shadow of the man behind the mask. The public goes on with its day to day tasks unconcerned with the life of the artist who creates the image.

The star trades some of his or her privacy for a species of known-ness that fails to live up to its promise. As the ploughman labors on, Icarus falls from the sky after flying too close to the sun.

Is there an answer then to this crisis of meaning?

In my first novel Angel, I wrote the following epigram: “Where does a mountain end? Mountains draw our focus to their snowcapped peaks and present us with the illusion that they are isolated, individual objects. We send postcards and take pictures and try to put a frame around them. But whatever border we create for the natural object we fine beautiful is our own projection. The mountain spills out in all directions. It dips into the valley, which rises to the next peak There is no place where you can stop and say, ‘The mountain ends here.'”

In other words, what appears in the center of the painting depends entirely on where you place the frame.

Around you at this moment are a few people who do take an interest in your victories and struggles. Your immediate family: your parents, spouse, children, lovers, intimate friends. It is a small world, to be sure, but a loving and compassionate one. It is here that you find the people who will stop plowing if you are plunging from the sky.

When you start to feel unnoticed and invisible, try a smaller frame.

Witnesses to Creation

“There is always a host of us exploding with joy at the first moment of creation, which has never ceased happening.”

This line from Stephen Mitchell’s Meetings with the Archangel is spoken by the angel Gabriel to the novel’s protagonist. Gabriel is trying to explain, in human terms, what heaven is like.

Stong’s Concordance defined a host as “a mass of persons or things especially organized for war, an army.”

Creation has many witnesses. We project our human limitations onto our angels. They are individuals who must come together to share in the joy of creation rather than having one’s experience of joy become the experience of all.

Experiences on this earth do not seem entirely real, they lack real emotion, unless they are shared.

Have you ever seen a mother pushing a baby in a stroller when the child is at just that age, she can engage with the people around her, but she does not yet have words. She rides in her buggy with her finger constantly in the air. She points to the dog, to the dandelions, to the boy on his bike, to the mailbox. Everything catches her interest. Everything in amazing. She wants mom to see it too.

It never really changes. When we see funny videos on Youtube we click send and share, we post them on Facebook, because it is no fun to experience it on your own. When we come back from vacation we want our friends and family to look at the photographs.

Maybe it is a cry for reassurance. I need to know that what I have seen in the world exists, that you see it too and it is not my imagination.

Should We Let Outsiders Into the Club?

As I mentioned in a previous post, I have been doing a bit of genealogical research lately.  I discovered that one branch of my family tree descends from the Schwenkfelders, followers of a self-taught Protestant theologian named Caspar Schwenkfeld von Ossig.  His main theological premise was that the Bible without the inner work of the Holy Spirit was just a dead text.  He clashed with the Lutherans on some points of doctrine about baptism and the last supper and as a result Schwenfelders were persecuted in Germany and many of them fled to Pennsylvania.

I never knew that this group existed, and so I’ve been digging up everything I can about them.  There is a Schwenkfelder Library, which has a Word Press blog.  One of the articles says:

The oldest records of the concerns of the Schwenkfelder community in Pennsylvania can be found in the minutes of the Schwenkfelder General Conference. General Conference minutes are a historical record of the discussions and concerns within the church such as: monetary distributions out of the Schwenkfelder church charity fund, interactions with the 19th century Schwenkfelder historian Oswald Kadelbach, questions arising as to whether or not an “outsider” can become a member of the society, and many rules and regulations about marriage and dress.

Isn’t this always the big question for a religious group?  What are the requirements to be considered part of the in-group?  Should we let outsiders join in?  If we do, how much do they have to conform to our ways?  Which of our traditions and habits are essential to be “us” and which can we dispense with?

As I also mentioned in my posts, I’ve been reading the letters of St. Paul in the New Testament and he wrestles with exactly the same issues.  Can gentiles join in?  If they do, do they have to follow our dietary laws and be circumcised?  If we say they do not, does that mean we have changed what it means to be “us?”

It is the question behind my post yesterday about a church firing a musician because he was gay.  This is “not us.”  Being “us” means not being gay.

I came across it in a review of my novel.  The character of Ian, who is alienated from the church, starts to learn more about Christianity when he is hired to be a custodian at a church.  The reviewer did not approve of non-Christians working in a Christian church, even as a custodian.

What are the boundaries?  Who is allowed in?  What do you have to do to be an insider?

It’s just the nature of things.  Any kind of group has to define some sort of definition of what it is and is not to have any kind of meaning.  Arguments over who is an insider and who is an outsider are part of the territory.