Is “De-Colonization” Really the Answer?

A good friend of mine posted a Facebook status recently, grappling with the idea of trying to adopt or construct a cultural identity that is free from the stench of colonialism, consumerism, and appropriation. This topic has been on my radar a lot lately, partially driven by Moshe Kasher’s appearances on The Joe Rogan Experience and Tangentially Speaking podcasts. (They’re both excellent conversations. Highly recommended listening, in my book.)

*deep breath*

Decolonization. It’s a tough nut to crack. Sure, there’s a kernel of genuine substance in there somewhere, but there’s also a lot of fluffy, pointless shit that seems to serve mostly as a distraction from the actual important discussion we could be having. Because ultimately, very few people want to ask themselves the questions my friend is asking, and even fewer want to live with the actual implications of following them to their logical conclusions.

I spent quite a bit of time in college studying anthropology. I never finished a degree, but the experience was profoundly formative for me. I learned about ethnocentrism and cultural relativism. I learned to view my own culture through the dispassionate lens of science, and to view other cultures through that same lens, with curiosity overtaking any sense of disgust or disapproval based on my own inherent biases. Of course, no one can do this perfectly. But it’s an undeniably powerful tool in the anthropologist’s (or more generally, the freethinker’s) kit.

Learning these things produced real fallout in my life. I left behind the conservative Catholicism of my family, which I had, at one time, taken very seriously. Over the course of my twenties, I moved through liberal Christianity, Neo-Paganism, and Agnosticism to activistic Atheism. I’ve mellowed a bit in my thirties, becoming more accepting of the human psyche’s penchant for metaphor, despite maintaining mostly secular and atheistic views. I eventually got far enough away from Catholicism to look back at it and see it for what it is, in all its horror and beauty.

A big problem I see with a lot of current Progressive thought, especially frameworks of privilege and anti-colonialism, is that they never get to the point where they can get far enough outside of Western culture to look back at it fairly. It is only allowed to be discussed as The Big Bad. And I get why that is, for sure. For a lot of people in marginalized groups, they still feel that boot on their neck, and I don’t blame them for reacting with anger. But that’s not the whole picture, and in order to understand how Western culture functions, for good and ill, we have to be able to pull out to the level of civilization as a whole, and the universalities of human nature. We have to be able to look beyond the various axes of identity-based oppression to the arc of our journey as a species.

I am not proposing that these ideas exist as a mutually exclusive dichotomy. Quite to the contrary. We need to learn to hold both ideas in tension in our minds if we are to begin to walk a path to something better. I’m not exactly hopeful, but this is the culture war I’m engaged in.

Another problem with these frameworks is that they tend to utterly ignore certain class categories that might cut across others. I’m a white, working class person. Neither of my parents went to college. I spent a lot of time trying to make my way in the academic and intellectual class, even while making my living as a construction worker. (What can I say? I’ve always gotten off on defying expectations.) I could sort of “pass” at first, but it eventually became clear to me that my unpolished bearing and insistence on bringing my working class experience to bear in my writings and discussions among these circles seemed to sow discomfort and awkwardness. One guy, a friend whom I knew well, continually and willfully referred to me as a nuclear engineer in group discussions, despite my repeated corrections that, no, I was in fact a construction worker often employed in nuclear power plants. I suspect he thought he was doing me a favor by “upgrading” my social status, but I found it deeply insulting. It was a willful erasure of a very important part of my identity.

I’ve come to view identity as something you earn, rather than something you adopt or construct. Sure, you can say whatever you want about who you think you are, but that tells me a lot less about you than observing how you actually live your life. (Apparently admitting to such a thing is now seen as gauche. Yes, I judge you based on your behaviors. I’m human. You do it, too. You just call it something different.) Earlier this year, I had a run-in with an ostensible friend, who was incensed at my continued insistence that there might be deeper things at the bottom of our current national crisis than a massive resurgence of cartoonish white supremacy and widespread ignorance. Part of this disagreement had to do with the idea of working class people opposing environmental regulations in order to maintain traditional job prospects. But for all their progressive identity labels, this former friend still lives a consumerist lifestyle and generates mountains of trash. They buy plastic crap and sweat-shop running clothes from Target. They pile up a wake of carbon emissions in their two-car commuting, jet-setting, breeder lifestyle. But they voted for Hillary, so I guess they’re good.

I thought I left behind the magical thinking guilt cult when I left the Catholic church. I honestly see very little difference between this condescending, holier-than thou, guilt-tripping ideology and the dogma of my youth. Privilege guilt is the new original sin. But just as we can acknowledge that humans are born with inherent flaws that come from the messy process that created us without deeming ourselves beyond hope and pleading for miraculous salvation from sky daddy, we should be able to view the messy evolution of culture without writing off the one that happened to come out on top as inherently devilish.

In fact, to say that one culture “came out on top” is a gross misapprehension of how it actually happened. Human progress is a force that acts on a macro- level. We seem, as a species cursed with intelligence and curiosity, doomed to never be satisfied with what we have. Well, more accurately, people who have these traits and cultures that foster them will naturally out-compete those that don’t. To listen to folks like Dr. Christopher Ryan, this isn’t necessarily a good thing. (I tend to agree, but I’m not sure what we can do to stop it, other than try to inculcate values into our culture that try to counterbalance the ugly externalities that come with a worship of innovation and progress.) The individuals carrying it out act on their own behalf based on the biases of their times. It is impossible for us to imagine what, say, Christopher Columbus thought he was doing. I can say for certain that he didn’t view himself as the monster we see in hindsight.

And yes, horrific atrocities were committed along the road that got us here. And they shouldn’t be forgotten or minimized. But too much time and energy is being spent agonizing about the bloody footsteps behind us, and who among us alive today holds how much of the blame, than on what we can do to effect real systemic change that accounts for human nature and the mechanisms of cultural evolution. It’s true that the culture that dominates a large swath of this planet continues to damage people and our prospects for continued survival. But it’s also true that this culture has created an undeniably unprecedented rise in overall human prosperity and well-being. The problem we face at this juncture is how to even out the distribution of that prosperity and counter the huge environmental externalities we’ve created getting here. It may be a problem beyond our ability to overcome. But I honestly don’t think we could have done it any other way, because we are what we are, for better or worse. The only way to move beyond that is to accept it. And no, that’s not exoneration. It’s just the facts. All we can do now is try to learn from our mistakes going forward. Because we will keep going forward. It’s all we know how to do.

So, back to the idea of Decolonization. Can we deconstruct our inherited culture to the point where we can void it of any and all evidence of the traumas piled up along the road so far? Is that what this is really about? Removing the reminders to assuage the guilt? Again, that sure sounds a lot like the way my Catholic mother thinks about abortion: if it’s illegal, it can still happen but she won’t have to think she has anything to do with it.

Mind you, none of this is to say I don’t think cultural appropriation is a real thing that can be a valid topic of discussion. Just this week I became irate when I saw a particularly egregious example of elite adoption of working class “authenticity” – pre-dirtied blue jeans. For $400. The rants I wrote in my head, I’m telling you…

So yeah, I have a tiny inkling of how a more marginalized person than me must feel when they see some clueless white asshole sporting a garment that carries with it a cultural attachment to their particular struggle. I’m not saying we shouldn’t talk about these things. But I think there’s a difference between calling for sensitivity or pointing out how maybe you should know what you’re doing as a white person from the suburbs when you put on a Native American headdress at a festival, and trying to remove appropriated garments or practices that have essentially become part of American culture at large. We’d be left with basically nothing.

Because white identity itself is constructed from all the different cultures that have become part of it, through peaceful and violent means, going back millennia. This is why white supremacy is so ridiculous. My ancestors were German and Polish. When they came to this country, in the late 1800s, they weren’t considered Americans. They didn’t speak English, they kept to their own groups, and they maintained their own cultural traditions. Five generations in, by then fully American, I still grew up making German pretzels, eating homemade sauerkraut, and waking up on St. Nicholas Day to find candy in my shoes. Were there major instances of oppression of German-Americans along the road to assimilation? Well, nothing like genocide or slavery, but thousands were rounded up and put in camps during the world wars. So should people with no German ancestry stop eating pretzels and kraut? I think we’d all agree that’s ridiculous.

To me, the legitimate discussion to be had here is over cultural items that are in the process of being appropriated into basic American culture without the peoples they come from being welcomed along with them. (Of course, this is by no means clearly delineated – cultural groups are not monoliths.) But the end game of the more radical decolonization endeavor would seem to me to lead to segregation. Is this what we really want? Ultimately, we’d only perpetuate the same kinds of oppression, but with kinder labels. Fetishization is not respect, and placing other people’s cultures on pedestals to try and keep them out of reach of the corrupting grasp of the Western monster is just a different kind of racism. It’s a Noble Savage ideology. It’s the worst kind of exoticism. It denies non-white people the basic commonalities of the human experience.

And no, I’m not suggesting we adopt a White Savior ideology, either. But there is a middle path to be found that allows people to assimilate themselves and their practices into American culture on their own terms. There’s a gravitational interaction that happens – both bodies pull each other toward something a little less white and a little more brown as they merge. I’d argue that a large number of Latin American people in this country are currently engaged in just such a process. And no, it’s not a universally smooth or poetic path, and we’ve definitely got some baggage to work out, but it’s happening, and in my experience anyway, many people from those groups view it as a positive development.

So, having delved into all that, what does it mean to be a white person in the United States in 2017? From what can one build a culture when one’s own has been voided of substance, both by consumerist capitalism and by postmodern deconstruction? When we turn to the obscurities of our own ancestries, white people run the risk of being accused of some brand of identitarian heresy. So you can’t be ethnically white, except in a generic, empty, American, football, apple pie, and Walmart way, and you also can’t pick and choose things that work for you from other cultures, lest you risk trodding on someone’s feelings with your massive privilege boots.

Which brings me to the crux of this whole thing: the fact that my friend is even spending their time and energy on this question points to the cruelty of the particular dogma much of the social group they find themselves a part of. This person, who struggles with a chronic illness and the lack of income that so often comes with such a condition, is using up spoons trying to suss out who they are allowed to be, culturally, as a white person in America today. Because no matter what other intersecting categories of oppression affect this person’s day to day reality, their whiteness makes them ultimately culpable, and nothing they will ever suffer will relieve them of that guilt.

To my friend: The fact that you are thinking about this points to the fact that you are an amazing and compassionate person, and it’s one of the reasons I think so highly of you. But you know what? You don’t need absolution. You need to know that you’re enough. You don’t need to put on a hair shirt. Just keep being the thoughtful and considerate person you are to the actual humans in your life. Sure, keep asking questions about current attempts at appropriation as they crop up. But you don’t have to flog yourself over whether or not a particular item you keep in your cultural knapsack came to you honestly. Research these things, if you like; learn their history (I assume you already do this, being you). Find out the story of how these items came to be yours. Honor the people they came from by telling those stories to others. Use the wisdom of cultures that don’t put all their eggs in the innovation and progress baskets as you try to build a sustainable lifestyle for yourself. Name them in your outreach efforts. Don’t take them for granted.

Of course, you’re not the kind of person who takes much for granted. And that’s why I like you. If that’s not enough for these holier-than-thou hypocrites, then they can fuck right the fuck off.
That goes for the rest of you, too.

The Values War

Most people like to think they form their worldviews based on reason and fact. Most people actually form rationales and choose facts based on their own personal narrative of who they are and how the world works. Some of these narratives are closer to true descriptions of reality than others. But at the end of the day, we’re all, to one degree or another, navigating by what feels right to us. And what feels right to us is ultimately determined by our core values.

What we value depends on who we are, what we do, where we come from, where we live, and how life has treated us. Some values are near-universal; others are very rare, and they combine in each individual to form a near-infinite kaleidoscope of dispositions.

We tend to group up with others who share our values. This phenomenon has been accelerated by the innovation of online social media, which allows like-minded folks who would never meet by accident in the courses of their lives to find each other virtually; instantly. This has undoubtedly been a positive force for unifying and amplifying the voices of oppressed minorities the world over. But it has also contributed to the deprioritization of real civic engagement on the ground in physical communities. Why would you want to spend precious time and energy out of your over-scheduled day hammering out difficult compromises with political opponents in your community when you could commiserate with like-minded friends online about how terrible those opponents are and how nice it would be if you could all move to a town somewhere nice and just live in peace?

The problem is, peace is a lie. At its best, peace is stagnation. At its worst, peace is fascism. It’s a passive-aggressive force and it is the enemy of liberty and democracy.

We live in an interesting time, to the fullest intent of that so-called Chinese curse. The Western world is polarized, and every incentive acting on us seems intent on pushing us further into our respective corners. Fear and outrage grab our attention, and our attention has become currency in a media landscape driven by advertising dollars. And with more and more of us working longer hours to afford the lifestyles they’re selling, we have less and less time to step back and think about it all. So we are reduced to relating and reacting. We relate with fellow travelers in our various struggles, and we react to attacks – real or perceived – to the security of our various communities.

And so, the whole thing spirals out of control, and we elect a president fit for a post-apocalypse novel.

Among the educated classes, the young white collar workers, the progressives, shock continues to reverberate. They feel betrayed. They expected the dominoes of social progress to keep falling in their favor. How could they not? So many people in their lives are on board. So many others raised in relative comfort, groomed for college and taught from an early age to cultivate their own various specialnesses, and to expect praise and validation for it, in preparation to very politely take the world by storm.

Please don’t mistake the above description for derision. Some mock the “Snowflakes”, and sure, there’s humor to be found there, but this class of people pushes society upwards because they have the privilege of avoiding the struggle to survive and they have the potential to generate visions for a human future others can’t fathom.

The betrayal they feel right now is very real. But instead of using this opportunity to gain a greater understanding of the world they occupy, and thus a more concrete idea of how to change it, many simply lash out at those with different values. They cling to the same tactics and strategies they used before, covering their eyes and ears and shouting about ignorance and bigotry, hoping against hope that somehow shame will prove to be a force for good.

But shame is not about unification, it’s about purification. It reinforces existing values. Shaming someone has two possible outcomes: either the shamed person will stop the shamed behavior or they will leave the group. It’s a blunt instrument, with no nuance. It cannot build bridges. It creates alienation.

The class of people on the other side – the blue collar workers, the country folk, the evangelicals, the military servicepeople, the socially conservative urban minorities – still make up a significant slice of the population. These people do a large percentage of the basic work required to keep up the infrastructure our society rests on (and mostly takes for granted). This work is difficult, often dangerous, and very rarely celebrated. Doing this work requires a tough disposition. It forms a very different set of values in those who do it. Kids raised with the expectation of a life of toil are taught from a young age to prioritize the needs of their families and communities over their own, to push through pain and discomfort with poise and discipline, to be useful, and to keep their feelings to themselves.

This might seem horrific and inhuman to someone raised for individual greatness. But the fact is, we need these people, too. We need people who are willing to be cogs in the machine that drives us all forward. Maybe someday we’ll rely entirely on robots to do our dirty work, but we’re not there yet, and we should be careful not to forget whose backs we stand on.

None of that is to say that working class values are superior to white collar and academic values. It is a reminder that these values come from a real place. They are not arbitrary. They grow from the things we ask of these people; things we could not exist without. They are not simply outmoded ideas clung to by backwards people. They serve the people that hold them, and at least for the forseeable pre-singularity future, they serve us too.

So to simply dismiss people that hold these values as ignorant bigots who stand in the way of progress and blame them for allowing themselves to be manipulated by a man who clearly doesn’t share their values is not helpful. It didn’t work during the election campaign, and it won’t work now. It will simply push these people further into the arms of your enemies. Because at least they pretend like they know the struggle.

The way to fight this battle is to understand how the values of our political rivals are formed, so we can find ways to speak sincerely to those values instead of continuing to denigrate them even as we benefit from their existence.

Obviously, it’s much more complicated than two clear classes of people with monolithic and clearly-defined values clashing with each other. Often, you get elements of both in families, and even in single individuals (I’d count myself among these). But the dynamic I’m describing seems to dominate the sphere of the world I’m exposed to, and seems to me to be a key piece of analysis that has been given short shrift in the commentary I’m seeing.

I’m not asking you to tolerate ignorance and bigotry. I’m asking that when you encounter it, instead of immediately reacting with (completely justified) horror and seeking the solace of like-minded people to relate with your horror, pause for a second and ask yourself why someone might think that way, trying to get beyond the easy dismissal, and see where that takes you.

We need to be vigilant with ourselves, lest our worldviews drift further into the realm of feelings than that of facts. It is impossible to fight an enemy we refuse to look at through clear eyes.

What we give up for safety

Last night, as I lay in bed trying to sleep in spite of my spinning brain, enjoying the fluffy heaviness of the fresh bedding but resenting the oppressive season that necessitates it, my thoughts escaped to summer. Half-dreaming by then, I found myself transported back to my preteen years, galloping my escape from the frustration and awkwardness of junior high social life over dirt roads and fragrant fields, bareback atop a not-quite-used-up quarter horse who had in her prime borne circus clowns.

It was a privilege to grow up around horses; one I wouldn’t recognize until much later. I don’t come from what most people would recognize as the Equestrian class. I’m the child of a construction worker and a homemaker, who both come, ultimately from hardscrabble immigrant farmers and toilers. But my maternal grandmother came into some money in the early 1980s, out of a nightmarish family tragedy, and after a few years, brought a couple of American Saddlebreds home to the family dairy farm.

She’s never been one to talk about her inner life with me, or maybe anyone, but just now, sitting here thinking about the basic, taken-for-granted realities of my family’s history, I see something I hadn’t before. She took that money – money given in legal recompense for my grandfather’s untimely death; money that could never replace the loss of life, love, or years – and she lived the life he would have wanted her to live. She went out into the world and she did things, excellent things, even when she felt broken inside. Because in expressing her best self in the world, his love for her lived on.

She bought horses, and showed them. Eventually she remarried, and moved off the family farm to a nice hobby plot on a hill overlooking a private lake. She started breeding her prize mare, and one of the fillies she raised and trained ended up on the cover of a magazine. She played piano and organ at church, and continues to challenge herself with new instruments. She took up flower gardening, and even now, into her 80s, she keeps up a glorious summer yard, though the horses are all gone.

The afore-mentioned quarter horse, Galazar, was purchased for us kids, because Saddlebreds are not known for being gentle or patient. My aunt, the baby of my Grandmother’s eight children who is only a year my senior, was my constant summer companion. She was a trained equestrienne, and had shown with my Grandma from an early age, and thus had her own horse; and Arabian gelding named Prince.

At Grandma’s house, we were rarely supervised, and basically ran free in a way that would give today’s overbearing parents a heart attack. I thought about this, lying in bed last night; riding bareback through fields in shorts and tank tops, barefoot, without helmets – Hell, we didn’t even know helmets were a thing at that point. It might have been stupid, but God damn, it was fun. We were so alive in those fields; almost unhinged. Free from all of the aspects of “real” life we felt closing in around us as we approached adulthood. And yet, we could have died doing it.

But nothing worth doing is entirely safe. The truest joy in life steps toe-to-toe with death.

This is a core piece of who I am, and I see now that I am, at least in part, my grandfather’s death and my grandmother’s life. And, for better or worse, I’ll ride my bike without a helmet and drive too fast for as long as I can.

And definitely spend more time with my grandma.

A Quarter for My Thoughts

I left the confines of “Apartmentostan” early this afternoon, to run a few errands. After acquiring fresh cat litter, wandering Target for way too long trying on sundresses and rompers (with mostly underwhelming results), I reached the final item on my shopping list: quarters. I look forward to the day, just over the horizon, when my husband and I will move into our own home with our very own laundry machines, when quarters will regain their status as pocket filler. For now, they remain arbiters of convenience, holding the power to make or break the smooth operation of the household (as if that were ever even possible, given our talent for ignoring the basic maintenance of our surroundings).

Anyway, after the cashier ringing me up at Target rebuffed my request to trade the two fivers in my wallet for a roll of magical laundry-enabling discs, I tried the customer service desk, where a friendly woman informed me that “unfortunately”, corporate policy now forbids them from fulfilling such requests. The customer service attendant at the nearby Cub Foods reluctantly traded me eight quarters and three singles for one of my fivers, which when added to the ones I already have in my jar, will hopefully represent enough to do at least one load of laundry.

As I was standing in line, waiting for this transaction to occur, I started thinking about how the corporatization of businesses has removed any impetus for them to serve communities in a real way. Sure, they’ll donate predictable amounts of money to local schools and charities, but they can’t actually be human in their micro-dealings with individual community members. Doing so would result in variabilities in quantifiable figures in spreadsheets that would interrupt the certainty of shareholder value. This is understandable, in a certain light, but it also gives the lie to the idea that corporations should be thought of as people, absent the imposition of the same kinds of morality we ascribe to each other.

I noticed something, standing there thinking these thoughts, that if I’d noticed before, hadn’t revealed itself as particularly significant. To the right of the customer service desk was a locked display case, holding goods which required an employee to open. Usually, I see these cases filled with cigarettes or razors. These cases were filled with baby formula.

Baby formula.

The inhumanity of it all crested over me, and I thought, can’t we all just agree, in this day and age, that babies should get to eat? I mean, Cub Foods shouldn’t necessarily have to finance it by just letting people steal formula when they need it, though the Robin Hood in me kind of feels like they owe at least this small thing to the communities they profit from. Is there some kind of weird secondary market for stolen baby formula?

Sure, we have government programs for making sure babies get fed, but accessing those programs is often complicated and purposefully arcane. We rack up tax dollars and throw them at hopelessly tangled systems to ensure that those who receive benefits like WIC or SNAP “deserve” the help they get, and we lock baby formula behind glass, because a baby’s hunger matters less than what its parents are willing or able to do to feed it.

What if, instead of locking it up, grocery stores simply tracked their theft losses on things like baby food and formula, and the WIC program reimbursed them? Or, better yet, what if we did away with WIC and SNAP altogether and just put all that money into a fund to enable grocery stores to supply basic foodstuffs for people in need? Each store could just have a section with selected free items, which would be “rung up” but paid for out of the fund; like a food shelf, but publicly funded and not contingent on philanthropy (or enabling you to feel good about getting rid of that 8-year-old can of beans in the back of the cabinet).

I know the knee-jerk reaction to these questions is to think they could never work, because people would just take advantage of it. Maybe that’s true, but I’d at least like to see it studied. My instinct is that we’d end up spending about the same amount of money on a system that would actually serve the community instead of commodifying the health of babies.

In Between

Note: I wrote the following paragraphs yesterday afternoon, recounting an encounter I had at work, because I needed to exorcise my feelings. I had no real intention of publishing it, but then today on Facebook, I saw a “Mom” meme that made me reconsider. It read:

I either have my hair and makeup done, or I look homeless. THERE IS NO IN BETWEEN.

I’m not generally one to scold people for taking things too lightly, or push up my imaginary glasses and say, “Well, acxtchully…” (OK, sometimes I am that, however unintentionally), and none of this should be construed to be about shaming people for having fun venting on the internet. It’s just that the juxtaposition of this meme with my experience yesterday formed a sort of ironic poetry that begged to be shared. So here’s what happened.

For about the past month or so, I’ve been working on a little renovation job at the Hennepin County Government Center, in downtown Minneapolis. Unlike the big, new construction projects I’ve been seeing lately, the building is fully open and working, so I encounter a wide variety of government workers and citizens as I go through my day, traversing the hallways, eating in the cafeteria, and using the public rest room (a rare privilege indeed, in my line of work).

This afternoon, like every afternoon, as my shift came to a close, I took off my coveralls and bandana and walked the hundred yards or so to the bathroom to wash the fiberglass and dust off my face and hands before handling or donning my (relatively) clean jacket and heading home. I walked in and was a bit taken aback to see that two young women had basically monopolized the entire sink area and were putting on makeup. One girl moved over and let me access a sink, where I did my thing. As I stood back from the sink, drying my face and blowing my nose with a paper towel, cheap camouflage pocket tee tucked into orange, nuclear issue scrubs, glue-stained black work boots, and a red face, I felt like an impostor in the women’s room. Whatever that creature was, looking back at me from the mirror, was most certainly an entirely different thing than these two primping ladies on either side of me. I tossed my towel in the trash and went into a stall to pee, avoiding eye contact and not really taking in the whole scene.

As I sat on the toilet, one of the girls left. A minute later, a guy came in, impatiently (but not roughly) trying to convince the remaining young woman that she looked fine and they should go. He had gone before I emerged from the stall, and as I was washing my hands, she startled me by asking me how her makeup was. I looked at her, for the first time since I had come into the bathroom, and said, clumsily, “It depends what you’re going for.” She was wearing jeans and a red “boyfriend”-style T-shirt, with medium length, light brown hair framing a pretty, but harried face, and she’d shaded the creases above her eyelids and lined the lower lids with a light, ruddy tone, highlighted with thick swaths of bright, sparkly white eyeliner on the top lid. She told me that she was going out for dinner to celebrate her anniversary, and she wanted to look really special, but she was homeless and couldn’t get the kind of makeup colors she wanted. At this point, I realized the three or four ragtag totes lying on the floor probably held all her earthly possessions.

She looked as though she’d been crying, but her makeup job wasn’t bad. I told her the colors she’d picked were cute on her (which they were). She thanked me, and told me that her boyfriend thought she looked fine but she asked me because “He’s a guy. He doesn’t know.” Despite my appearance, I guess I was welcome in the girls’ club after all.

I went back to get my coat, feeling conflicted. Should I try to help this girl? She looked so young. What could I do? Was that other girl in the bathroom with her and her guy? They didn’t seem to be talking to each other. Was he some sort of pimp for both of them? If that was true, would he really take his girls into the government center, which is crawling with cops, to clean up? I remembered that there was an ATM near where I keep my coat, and decided to take out some money for her. I stopped back in the bathroom on my way out, half of me hoping she was still there, and the other half hoping she’d gone. She was still there, and I handed her a folded twenty-dollar bill, and said “I just wanted to give you this. Have a nice dinner.” Then I turned to leave, and she told me to wait, welling up with tears and opening her arms. We hugged, and I left, holding back my own tears, which haven’t stopped threatening since.

I still feel conflicted, like I didn’t do enough. I keep wishing I’d tried to talk to her more; maybe at least asking about her boyfriend – if he was good to her; where were her parents; nothing she’s done could possibly be so horrible that they wouldn’t take her back – so many swirling questions. But I don’t know her, or her situation. All I know was she reached out to me for advice and I treated her like a person. It was all I knew how to do in that moment. And now I’m home – clean, warm, surrounded by nice things; crying because I feel at once involved and powerless.

It’s Pretty, But Is It Art?

A few months ago, as part of an on-going attempt to make up some more of the cultural deficit left by my sheltered childhood, my husband suggested we watch Orson Welles’ F for Fake. It’s a strange and lyrical film about the meaning of art, and it captivated me utterly from the first frame. I was immediately taken with Welles’ charm and presence, and enchanted with the foundational works he referenced.

I had never heard the Kipling stanzas that form a major poetic stream in the film, but was so taken with Conundrum of the Workshops that I scrawled a line from it on the whiteboard above my desk. Shelley’s Ozymandias, on the other hand, was something very familiar to me. It had first captured my attention in high school English class, as an Egypt-obsessed teen, wide-eyed and desperate for culture. I’ve thought of it often, over the years; the image of those trunkless legs in the sand haunts my imagination.

I started thinking about these and other major literary and poetic obsessions of my life and how they relate to and sometimes reference each other. Michael Ondaatje, Herodotus, Neil Gaiman, Joshua Homme. How were these people connected? What did the post-modern popular novelist and the ancient historian; the artsy rock singer and the writer of romantic anthropological fiction have in common?

They pull the same threads; some more earnestly than others. Or perhaps just more convincingly or compellingly? Elegantly? With more skill? In any case, it doesn’t matter. They circle the same eternal theme, and I circle it along with them.

That theme is the place of the individual in human history, and in finding the eternal meaning of a human life in the face of the certainty of final oblivion. It is the struggle of every artist, sure. But they’re just struggling more publicly than everyone else, with what is a universal human worry: what can one puny little human life possibly mean when weighed against the huge, anonymous vastness of space and time?

It seems we have it worse, now, in this post-post-modern age of science and reason; with our Hubble pictures and our constant streams of information and “content” making us feel at once insignificant and redundant. It certainly feels like we’ve reached a new level of cultural self-consciousness. No longer does the devil mutter behind the leaves; he shouts at us in crowds and rubs our faces in the pointlessness of our endeavors. We extinguish our own creations before they begin to take shape, for fear of doing something that’s been done, or looking foolish; for believing we have something new to say, something important; for daring to grasp at the threads of immortality.

That grasping, though, as much as it’s a lie we tell ourselves, is the key to our success, as a species. Our names may not matter to history, after all is said and done, but for most of us, ensuring that they outlive us, whether by being carried by some great work into the public imagination, or being borne into the ordinary (or perhaps extraordinary) lives of offspring, is the highest purpose we serve.

In this way, a name becomes a sort of burden. It carries with it the expectation of memory; of making something memorable of oneself. I wonder if anyone has ever studied the relative happiness of people with common and rare names. According to this line of thinking, the John Smiths of the world should feel a great deal less pressure than, say, Dweezil Zappa.

Some of us burden ourselves by choice, taking on more challenging names. Is this noble, or is it hubris? Or, worse yet, masochism? Self-importance? But art requires a measure of self-importance, as does any life well-lived. We must feel ourselves worthy of celebration, and our work worthy of attention. If not, then why do anything?

Near the end of F for Fake, Orson Welles waxes poetic (in his grand, hypnotic way) about Chartres Cathedral, seemingly praising the by-gone purity of a bunch of nameless masons and sculptors coming together to create a monument to the greatness of God. This is not quite how I see it. Those masons and sculptors, as much as they may have taken pride in contributing to a work of such magnitude, plied their trades for paychecks. And the financiers and architects who designed it undoubtedly did so to glorify themselves as much as God.

But like Shelley’s mocking sculptor, those nameless tradesmen have the last laugh, and their work, in its anonymity, glorifies all humanity and each of their individual hands, all at once. That is, undoubtedly, art. The rest remains necessarily unclear.

Ignorant and Harmful: Popular Left Politics and the Working Class

It’s been a while since I sat down to write anything that wasn’t a short status update or a comment. I’ve been feeling the urge bubble up, over the last few months, around a congealing understanding I’m coming to regarding what I’ll call Popular Left Politics – you know, academic, feminist, anti-racist, safe-space-creating, language-concerned, privilege-counting shame-shamers, and the allies who love them — and how those politics interact with (or avoid, as it were) the views and interests and politics of the working classes. Specifically, I’ve noticed a divergence; a reversal; a contradiction; a removal of things-as-such into the realm of things-as-symbols and symbols-as-things; a realm of fetish and ironic appropriation.

I was finally driven out of this latest writing famine after reading an article that came across my feed addressing the problems facing adherents to Popular Left Politics — specifically feminists — who come from rural and working class backgrounds. I’m a working class person from a rural background, who has in the past run with the denizens of the Popular Left. Even though I ostensibly agree with many of the views held by these people, it’s been made clear to me on a number of occasions that my unpolished bearing, working class experience, and resultant worldview are not welcome in such polite and upstanding company. As such, I have a few things to say on the matter.

Before I get into my specific thoughts regarding this topic, let me elucidate the basic parameters of my own political thinking, lest I be accused of one treachery or another. It’s bound to happen anyway, but I have to try. I’m basically a left-libertarian. I believe in a society, with a robust safety net, that creates the greatest possibility for the greatest number of individuals to achieve freedom and fulfillment. Ideally, that would mean absolutely everyone. Unfortunately, ours is not, and never will be, an ideal reality. Unlike most people, I see capitalism and socialism as ideas that are not mutually exclusive, but which should be maintained in tension with each other to create a balance. The particular game of tug-of-war we’re playing in the United States today has pulled the knot much too far onto the capitalist side of the river for my taste. I think we’re overdue for a new labor movement (more on that later).

OK. Back to this Everyday Feminism piece. The author describes her experience as a rural kid moving to the Big City and encountering negative stereotyping and prejudice among her political peers, and lays out some advice for “Urban feminists” on how to be more welcoming to people like her. She correctly identifies a Civilized Academy/Savage Rural Community dichotomy at work, and attempts to explain ways in which rural and working class people really aren’t all a bunch of backwards, misogynistic, illiterate rubes. (Even thought they sort of are.) But please stop assuming she is, thankyouverymuch.

I do not presume that my position is an obvious solution which any sane person parsing this topic will necessarily arrive at, as I don’t actually believe that’s true. However, what “Annah Anti-Palindrome” hasn’t figured out is that there is a fundamental opposition between current Popular Left Politics and working class culture.

This opposition lies in the very structure of civilization. People in white collar, academic, and executive positions have become increasingly detached from the direct means of their survival. Undoubtedly, specialization is a great boon to the human race. The mass production of food and the mechanization of manufacturing have freed up vast human resources to focus on “higher” concerns. When we don’t have to spend all of our energy to feed and shelter ourselves, civilization progresses. In one sense, we become more interconnected. But in another, we become more segregated.

The problem is, no matter how far we progress, the basic fact of human existence depends on a constant battle against entropy. We need to work land and manage livestock to produce food. We need to build and maintain homes and schools and skyskrapers to live and learn and work in. We need to produce fuel and energy to move goods and power our modern conveniences. We need to protect ourselves and our property against those who would steal from us or do us harm. Technology has increased the efficiency of all these activities, but great numbers of humans must still put in long hours performing these essential tasks in the fight against entropy. Unless and until we develop automated means by which to do this work, a large portion of the human race will continue to labor on behalf of the rest, in order to enable the continued march of civilization’s progress.

So as certain segments of the population get further and further removed from worrying about protecting themselves from ever-encroaching entropy, they find different things to worry about. They philosophize and meta-analyze and sensitize. They find new monsters; vague monsters; monsters in the mirror. Meanwhile, those on the front lines every day, doing what needs to be done to maintain the buffer zone for civilization, employ age-old coping strategies to fight against their own entropy of meaninglessness, while continuing to grind on. They uphold traditions and practice escapism and de-sensitize. They create heroes and villains. All of these things are natural and valid. Unfortunately, the further removed the intellectual and creative classes get from those doing the difficult, uncomfortable, and dangerous work to provide for their basic needs, the more alien the values of each become to the other.

I see in current Popular Left Politics a privileged ignorance that attacks the very foundation of its existence. It eschews tactless stoicism and practicality, while it reveres social strategy and “knowing better”. This is, itself, classist. The Popular Left preaches Marxist collectivism, yet practices consumerist individualism. In this way, identity has become currency. The identity-obsessed spend money to accouter themselves in ways which they assume will make their chosen identities self-evident to the rest of the world, however complex or esoteric those identities might be. They buy bumper-sticker lifestyles. They don uniforms to tell the people who matter that they “know better”. They climb academic and corporate and social ladders. They make money. They buy shit they don’t need, but make themselves feel better about it by choosing “sustainable” or “organic” or “fair trade” or “carbon neutral”. Meanwhile, everything in their lives becomes inextricably tied to their perceived identity and projection of morality, so any affront to or misunderstanding of that identity starts to feel like an existential attack.

This Everyday Feminism piece, and numerous like it across the internet, are how-to guides to help the target audience “know better” how to approach a certain kind of person; that they might not “harm” or “offend” with their ignorance. In this environment, natural social impulse becomes gauche, unscripted interaction between people becomes a minefield, and naïve curiosity becomes violence. Working class culture, which doesn’t prioritize the protection of the individual social identity, and instead encourages the formation of independent self-esteem and resilience, becomes the epitome of barbarism.

So even as “Annah Anti-Palindrome” asks her fellow feminists not to think her uncivilized, the very framework of her politics accuses the rest of us of savagery. Therein lies the rift.

Liberal pundits often lament the lack of cohesiveness among the various strains of left activism. Billions of words have been written, speculating on this inability to form a robust coalition behind any of a wide range of meaningful projects. In the current climate of increasing corporate power and continuing marginalization of workers, we desperately need a new labor movement in this country. But when the working classes see the Popular Left as out of touch, elitist snobs and the Popular Left sees the working classes as a dangerous, uncivilized mob, well, it’s not hard to see why it hasn’t happened yet.

I don’t have any grand solutions for all this. Sometimes I think the Luddites were onto something. Perhaps there really is a point past which civilization becomes counterproductive to humanity. I grew up in the 1980s, so I naturally feel like that was the high point. I recognize my inner geezer in that sentiment.

Maybe we ought to implement some kind of mandatory civil service where everybody has to spend a month out of every five years contributing directly to our collective battle against entropy. Sure, it would be hugely inefficient. But the benefits to society might prove immeasurable. I don’t see much hope along our current diverging trajectories.

Identity

Who am I? What do I call myself? How do I see myself? How do I sit in relationship with others? What does this say about me? Who am I separate from others? Am I anything without reference to others? Is any of us?

Sometimes I think removing myself from civilization will show me, finally, who I “really” am; a simple cabin in the woods somewhere, a few months or a year of living my own personal Walden to let the essence of ME free herself from the din of self-conscious nagging (What does this thing I’m doing say about me? Would so-and-so like me less if I admitted to liking such-and-such?) that goes on in my head so often. But the truth, I suspect, is that there is no ME essence. There is no static ego. No “soul” to speak of. Not in any of us. Not in the way most of us grow up believing, anyway.

There is only an ever-replicating conglomeration of experiences; narrativized into memories; serving as a scaffold for the collection of ideas that forms our self-image from moment to moment. And even as we feel this process as an immutable SELF, the ground shifts beneath us. Our memories are weak; fluid. They change as we change. They morph in support of new realities; new narratives as we go through life. Most of us don’t even feel it happening. We feel the same. We tell ourselves we are the same. We cling to labels and affiliations. Indeed, human civilization as we know it might cease to exist were it not for such tendencies.

But here I am; very much aware of this process. Too aware? Perhaps. Well, too aware to make a proper cog, anyway. Or maybe that’s just self-flattery. Whatever it is, where most people tend to see themselves as stones in the river, I feel more like the water. There are times when I feel I’ve lost myself altogether; unsure what parts of me are truly ME and what parts have been adopted to please others or get along in various situations I’ve found myself in. Are any of the things I like actually THINGS I LIKE? What does that even mean, really?

And then I remember that the important thing is not where I might have picked up this or that bit of myself. The important thing is who I am, moment to moment. It’s what I enjoy, now. Maybe I do like Westerns today because my brother liked them when we were kids. Does that make it mean any less? In a way, it makes it mean more. It’s not only an interest, it’s evidence of a relationship. Why should that mean less to me than some ideal of “authentic” discovery, whatever that even means? I carry pieces of everyone I’ve ever known. Every relationship I’ve had has changed me; and that’s the way I want my relationships to be. I don’t want to be static, and collect static friends and acquaintances so we can all reinforce each other’s stasis. I want to be changed by the people around me, and I want to change them in return.

Holding up a Mirror (and actually looking into it)

In the midst of the now-continual screaming din of outrage and counter-outrage that has come to define the face of the internet that I see on a day-to-day basis, I’ve taken a step back.

Otha and I went to the Mall of America today, sans smartphones, to walk in a habitable environment (it was in the single digits outside today, with a horrible biting wind) and enjoy what is, sadly, the closest thing Minneapolis has to vibrant, pluralistic, public space.

As we lapped around, up, and down; stopping for an occasional browse (it’s nearly impossible to walk by the Lego store without stepping in), we talked about life, the internet, and everything. We even ran into a couple of friends, and they joined in on our “Solving the World’s Problems” sesh for a bit. Good times.

Anyway, the whole experience has me thinking about a lot of things; mostly circling around the ways in which our relationship with social media primes us for the kind of exhausting political merry-go-round so many of us seem to be stuck on.

Walking around today, I kept feeling pulled back toward social media. At least half a dozen times, I found myself wanting to share a photo or comment about some observation or experience I was having, and because I was very consciously not doing that, I tried to poke and prod at the mechanics of that pulling sensation when it arose.

For me, it is very much the sense that an experience is not fully realized until it is shared; that experiencing something or making an observation without access to a potential pool of immediate feedback somehow diminishes it. As I sat in the food court, waiting for Otha to come back from the bathroom, I watched the amusement park rides and felt a tangible void creeping in; as though my existence had been robbed of a dimension.

But, upon examination, that absent dimension is often a parasite, at least in the relationship I have with it. It’s a drug; brimming with unfulfilled promise while mostly serving as a distraction from living my life the way I claim to want to live it. That’s an ongoing struggle, but not the point I want to make here.

The salient point is the idea that social media outlets tend to commoditize our everyday experiences: we are all the content producers that keep each other coming back to these giant online hubs, which then harness our content and consumption to turn a profit. It’s the 24-hour news cycle on steroids; infiltrating every tiny little aspect of our lives. And we all want to be heard; to be seen; to be validated, so we give it everything we’ve got. We become more concerned with the document of an experience than with the experience itself. We, in essence, become documents. And our world becomes an incestuously-connected web of intractable minutiae. But we must continue the conversation; we must participate, lest we find ourselves left behind, and so we become consumed with the minutiae. It’s like we’re a billion mirrors, all reflecting images around and across and over and through and back again, with no time to actually look at the original image or its context.

I don’t think unplugging entirely is the answer. If I thought that, I wouldn’t be online anymore. But I do think it would be good for all of us to cultivate a more thoughtful relationship with the media we consume and participate in. I’m thinking of enacting some kind of defined social media time for myself; treating it as a window I can choose to look through rather than a lens permanently attached to my face (for me, that is a figurative turn of phrase: I do not have Google Glass).

I know it’s good for me to be more present in my physical environment. I’ve been having a fantastic time selling my wares at the various flea markets around town; surrounded by all kinds of people with all kinds of views, but no imperative to hate or demonize each other for our differences – we’re all just trying to have a good time and maybe make some extra money. It’s a lot harder to see someone as an enemy when you can see more than just one opinion or statement. I keep trying to think of ways to translate the multi-faceted nature of humans onto the internet, but I’m not sure it’s possible.

I’m always open to suggestions, though.

The Weight of Music

Records. Information saved for posterity. Music saved for posterity. Music records. Was it ever just anthropology; only concerned with documentation? When did listening to records become a recreational activity? Did it happen before radio? Even before radio, on telephone circles, there was a social element to listening; it was about coming together with others to experience a performance. With the advent of records, that coming together lost its temporal dimension. The music industry shifted toward creating the perfect hit song; rather than trying to document what was happening in the culture. Or perhaps that’s what it was always about, at some level.

But certainly something changed as music evolved into a physical product packaged for mass consumption.

In the digital age, music may be primarily consumed in non-physical form, as files from the ether, but its position as a commodity seems to be cemented. Some artists appear to fight against this fact by streaming impromptu performances or giving their music away for free, but these same artists also make their livings selling recorded (and usually heavily-produced) songs. Everybody’s gotta eat, after all.

I’m not sure what any of this means; it just seemed important to me tonight, jarred out of the book I was rapt in when Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control” came over Otha’s Pandora stream and invaded my mind with a visceral sense of history. I had to put the book down and just live in that moment; not sure whether it was something inherent to that particular song, or the accumulation of my own affinity for this particular piece of music history which roughly coincides with my own entry into this world – no doubt fueled by the unforgettable recounting of its creation in the film “24 Hour Party People”…

Anyway, that got me thinking about all this stuff, and now I’m asking you: Have you had this experience listening to recorded music? Which songs feel heavy in this way, to you?