Freud was maybe right (enough) about this: what ails us is an inability to square our lives with our deepest, most fugitive impulses.
We’re drawn to places like this: water flowing, calm, swift, predictable; trees we imagine wild; an outcropping of rock. We’re drawn here if, for no other reason, than the need to identify with something not shamed into being, not associated with the need to express gratitude for a box in a glass and steel cage, a new screen to stare at, the ever-nagging buzz of not-quite-enough.
Humans live lives of compelling fantasies, and our cultures provide the polish on these fantasies. Schools teach new ones every day, with the best of them merely providing more chances to live the most desirable of them out. We plunge into tee-vee and the internet and into our social media feeds for new ones.
I don’t discount the power: art comments constantly on the nature of these fantasies and often finds itself pulled into their service with the jingoistic, the predictable, the sentimental—dutiful soldiers of paint and pen.
We’ve survived in the short term in no small part by their ever-increasing sophistication. Faced with almost certain annihilation, we fail to freak out mainly because we’re too busy tweeting.
But fantasies they remain, and they won’t help us later, when the crops begin to fail.
The need to believe in wild places, and the human capacity to follow the irritations of wild hairs, remind us of the overpowering nature of that which is indifferent to us and our petty concerns.
The angst over what is or is not holy, pure, “politically correct” comes from this need, but it’s already entrapped in its own snare, bound by its own terminology into self-defeating pointlessness. What’s wild about us also isn’t “us”; it’s tapped deep into something we can’t so easily sum up with a few odd phrases.
Art treads here as well, wisely afraid, yet steadily reaching.
Sunday, November 26, 2017
Sunday, August 27, 2017
by Lael Ewy
It seems that at this point in our nation’s history we’re bargaining one group’s right to free speech against many other groups’ right to simply exist.
The issues typically get boiled down to “tolerance” or “intolerance,” and they’re talked about primarily by people like me: white, middle-class folks who, after all, have nothing to lose in the matter and have the privilege of discussing such matters amongst themselves.
I can’t guarantee that I won’t do more of the same here. My purposes, for what they’re worth, are to reframe the ideas at play, and, by so doing, to perhaps bring some clarity, barring the possibility of actual resolution.
I’m working from a few basic ideas here. The first is that all speech has consequences. Otherwise, people wouldn’t do it. You may be talking to yourself just to make yourself feel better or to keep yourself company, but those are desired consequences. Thus when a white supremacist takes part in a rally, he is foolish if he thinks that expressing such an extreme point of view won’t be met with extreme reactions. This is not to say that the person who lashes out violently at the white supremacist should be exonerated for her actions, but it does mean we should acknowledge a possible—in this case probable—response.
Speech, rather than being entirely counter to action, is itself also an action. In this way, speech can be seen as inter-related to other actions and reactions. The white supremacist cited above would think himself a failure if no counter-demonstration or media showed up to his rally. And while he is also foolish if he thinks his speech will lead a white homeland to be bestowed upon him the following morning, a white homeland is, among other things, one of the stated goals of his speech.
Speech, being an action, requires responsibility. A whole lot of ink has been spilt trying to put forth the idea that free speech is somehow rendered outside the normative realm of social responsibility. “It’s just an opinion,” or “Those who disagree are being politically correct,” or “I was only joking” are ways people try to duck responsibility for what they say or to avoid criticism. If you speak, particularly in a public forum, you must be prepared for reaction and criticism, hardened to it, able to meet it emotionally and intellectually. Of all of the things I’m going to say here, this cleaves most closely to the “it goes for both sides” idea.
Silence in the proper places can be powerful, but it can also be someone acting with discretion. Depending on the context, it might not be acquiescence to evil at all but refusing to take the bait. At any rate, speaking is not a way to avoid responsibility; it’s another situation that requires it. Criticism, in the case of free speech, is another word for accountability.
Choosing to act in a way that defies the law also has consequences, and it can also be a form of speech. As Dr. King put it, those involved in nonviolent direct action chose to break the law “openly” and “lovingly.” They did this in order to bring attention to laws that were unjust. And they willingly suffered the consequences of breaking the law. While an Antifa activist may not be trying to tell the world that laws against assault are unjust, she is trying to draw attention to the fact that fascism is an injustice. However, she would also be foolish to think that punching a fascist shouldn’t be met with legal sanction. If she does it, she should do it openly and with a willingness to suffer the legal consequences in order to make her point: violent force is worthwhile against fascists.
The white supremacist, of course, wishes to make injustice law, and therefore must be countered first by legal means, with speech acts, political resistance, and nonviolent direct action. And then, should his ideas become law, with open and expressive violations of those laws, and with a willingness to suffer the consequences.
I’m rationalist enough to believe that if we enter into troubled times with clarity of thought, we will spare ourselves the worst of troubles. But I’m realist enough to know that fascists and white supremacists won’t be defeated by our clarity of thought alone.
Sunday, July 9, 2017
by Mary Chino Cherry
5. Take more time for yourself, by going to a park or taking in a movie. In other words, pamper yourself by going to hectic places full of other people taking time for themselves and annoying you with their chatter, body stank, thoughtlessness, and intrusive questions about why you’re here and not at work.
4. Eat well. Save time and money by spending two hours commuting to Whole Foods so you can spend all your money on three mediocre, but certified organic, Peruvian bananas.
3. Be spontaneous! Embrace an attitude of radical fun by evincing career-ending erratic behavior and relationship-destroying unreliability!
2. De-stress by enrolling in a time-eating and hyper-competitive yoga class. Or try meditating instead of making dinner for your children. I’m sure Child Protective Services will forgive a little malnutrition when they see the Brand New You!
1. Live for the moment. Nothing says “winning at life” quite like a complete lack of planning and a total disregard for anything beyond your current state of mind. You’ll be shocked at how much your co-workers appreciate how you keep showing up totally unprepared!
|Photo: "Yoga" by Matt Madd|
Sunday, January 15, 2017
by Lael Ewy
One of the most powerful ideas that currently drives my thinking, one the psychiatrist Ronald Pies called “speculative,” is the notion that human beings co-evolved with culture.
I would imagine some anthropologists and primatologists wouldn’t find the notion so radical.
Consider this: theories assuming a linear progression from biological structures to cultural expressions tend to downplay what culture is for: helping assure the survival of those species for whom it is a feature. This suggests that as a species practices culture, that practice itself would influence the genetic variability and expression of the species. To worry too much about whether clothing came first or hairlessness came first is to get yourself into a pointless chicken and egg loop. To questions of nature vs. nurture, the correct answer, I think, is “yes.”
Consider also that for those species who use culture, being cut off from that culture leads to extreme distress. People in solitary confinement go crazy pretty consistently; people outside of a cultural context quickly cease thinking of themselves as human in a way that we commonly recognize, becoming severely depressed, delusional, sociopathic.
It’s along these lines that I’d like to explore a little more, since the idea that we’ve co-evolved with culture has some deep implications about the roles of spirituality, politics, gender, criminality, and behavioral health. It calls into question the often simplified cause and effect relationships posited by pundits and researchers, reporters and politicians.
We want to believe that, whatever the problem, we are not to blame, that the origins of what ails us lie in some biological, natural, or extra-cultural “other” preying upon us and making us miserable. When we shift blame, we also shift responsibility. These ideas are often linked in legal considerations because we view them as interdependent aspects of culpability. We reinforce power structures, if we benefit from them or fear their realignment. We place somatic and psychological suffering on the individual and ignore her sociocultural situation.
But all of the bases for these actions and desires are culturally determined; our thoughts and feelings are, themselves, influenced by how we live our cultures, ways of being to which our bodies and the brains within them are constantly reacting and are helping to create. The much vaunted “brain chemistry” explanation for psychological distress ignores the fact that brain chemistry in humans does not exist outside of the cultural and ecological contexts in which the human brain evolved. Treating it separately from a person’s sociocultural situation is not only inaccurate, it’s nonsensical and cruel.
Likewise, what we view as criminal or what we view as politically or economically acceptable are impossible to fully grasp outside of the contexts of shame and blame, feelings of responsibility and rage, that we tend to view as highly internalized or personal. Yet what is our reaction to tragedy or loss? We gather together for public rites of mourning and solidarity. We “check in” with others to make sure that, despite devastation, destruction, or violence, we’re all still “ok.”
Trauma research increasingly suggests that psychological healing happens through meaningful connection with trusted others, yet our “scientific” response is still, for the most part, to isolate the suffering person through medical or pharmaceutical means, to criminalize the person or render her legally “disabled,” kicking her out of the world of social contribution through compensated work.
Perhaps we do this because of baser urges, no matter how gussied up with professional jargon. Isolating individuals, and locating larger problems within individuals, justifies the power of the medical and legal structures that perform this kind of work and serve to maintain the status quo. It’s preferable to those in power to place the problems the institutionalization of that power creates on “problem” individuals, “the mentally ill,” “thugs,” and “lone wolf killers.” But maybe doing this sort of thing also derives from the perceived need to contain or purge what we react to as social contagion. We rid ourselves of suffering people because being in the presence of suffering causes suffering for cultural beings. The brief emotional turmoil of sentencing or diagnosis, execution or exile, will lead, we hope, to the contentment of “closure,” certainty, settled science.
As humans, then, we sit on the balance of favoring the offending limb or cutting it off—and perhaps what side of the scale you’re on determines whether you lean toward the political left or right, toward the traditionalist’s “sensible” exclusion or the radical’s inclusive communitarianism.
That we can even contemplate this is another indication that the dance between the cultures we comprise and the brains that create them never ends.
Monday, January 2, 2017
by Lael Ewy
Because I don’t want OnWords to become only about the ways Donald Trump abuses the language, I’m addressing here some special concerns.
In this case, it’s his use of “is sending” in regards to immigration from Mexico, and “theft” in the case of manufacturing jobs in China.
The president-elect assured us during the campaign that Mexico “is sending” people here in order to rape and sell drugs. This implies that there is some intentional, planned effort on the part of either the Mexican government or some other massive national organization to send people here.
As far as I can tell, unless this program is the world’s best kept secret, that’s poppycock.
People from Mexico risk their lives to come here because economic and social conditions in Mexico are very bad. They come here fleeing the violence created by drug gangs—gangs sustained by the immense appetite for drugs in the US. They come here because Mexico’s class structure prevents them from advancing. They come here because their farming communities have been devastated by cheap commodity exports from the US, thanks to NAFTA.
Nobody is sending anybody anywhere; people are coming here because it’s better to live poor in the US than it is for some people to live at all in Mexico.
In other words, they’re coming here for the same reason immigrants have always come here.
When Mr. Trump says that China is stealing American jobs, that this is unprecedented “job theft,” he is, likewise, simply not telling the truth. China welcomed US jobs, but they were sent here by manufacturers in the United States.
American executives chose to export those jobs, and their companies received nice rises in their stock prices when they did. The executives then used that increase in stock value to justify bonuses for themselves. They used that increase to raise the value of their own stock options.
They did it for the same reasons they have long sought to reduce labor costs. That payroll costs are the highest costs a business faces is axiomatic in American economic thought. Businessmen in this country seek to reduce payroll costs for that reason alone.
The last few decades have also seen US markets “mature” and growth slow. Because publicly traded companies are judged not on profitability but on the continual rise of profitability, American executives chose to show growth by reducing labor costs instead of lowering growth expectations or increasing efficiency or pursuing new markets.
Exporting US jobs also follows a long-term trend: in the ‘60s and ‘70s American companies outsourced manufacturing to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan. When labor costs rose in those countries, they began to export to South Korea and China. As South Korea and China become more costly, they are moving jobs to India, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
Last, moving jobs overseas accomplished something American executives have sought to do for more than a century: it devastated the power of organized labor. Rather than shooting and killing striking workers as they did in the early 20th century, rather than negotiating as they did through the middle part of the 20th century, executives saw the opportunity to do an end-run around unions by sending jobs to a place where the authoritarian government and the massive number of available peasants assured little resistance to low pay and poor working conditions.
If anything was stolen, it was the profit created by US workers, and if it was stolen by anybody, it was stolen by shareholders and the executive class.
Trump’s rhetoric in these cases is dangerous not merely because it grossly misrepresents what’s going on. It’s dangerous because it distracts angry, working Americans by placing the blame for their plight on others who are simply acting in the same way any of us would given their circumstances.
His rhetoric is dangerous because it conflates desperation and opportunism with malice and foments enmity among those whose common interests suggest solidarity.