Saturday, February 18, 2006

What I Didn't Say


WHAT I DID NOT SAY
  • That Allison and p'tit boo are capitalists, not "radicals." Perish the thought. I said that an attitude of "scarcity" underlies a capitalist viewpoint, and that an attitude of emotional scarcity -- that there is only so much understanding and sympathy to go around -- reflects this orientation. Nevertheless, p'tit boo has it exactly right: "how can we not come from a capitalist perspective ? That would be like you telling us we are coming from a human perspective.... Can we help it ?" Exactly. And exactly what I have been saying about the middle class as well, by the way. Of course, George might respond to you as he did to me: you are "refusing responsibility for the world in which [you] move [saying:] "we are victims, therefore our situation is beyond our control." This is a key quality of anyone who describes himself as a victim of forces outside his self." I don't think that is what you are saying, and it certainly is not what I am saying (see below). I think it is hard to argue that human beings are not affected by the environment in which they live -- not controlled by them, but affected by them. You can't be condemned for speaking English if you grew up in an English-speaking environment, but you can go out and learn Chinese if you want to. Which brings me to the next thing I did not say...
  • That the middle class should be absolved of responsibility for the world's injustices. Creating straw men and then heroically knocking them down is one of George's favorite tactics lately, and I'm not certain what that is about. In this case, he shifts the focus from what I was writing about (the pain and frustration felt by the middle class, which deserves understanding, even respect) to what he is interested in: judgment and condemnation of unethical actions by members of the middle class. I am not an apologist for unethical behavior, crime, exploitation, and dishonesty by anyone. Those actions must be judged and condemned harshly. But unless you believe that millions and millions of people who make over a certain amount of money (and just what is that amount -- just more than what you make?) are all active criminals -- that the middle class is comprised of variations on the image of a "mid-level New York corporate lawyer who is finding a way around an FDA restriction for his drug-company client" (another Hunka straw man), this argument doesn't hold water. The fact is that most middle class people are working schlubs who push paper 40 hours a week, not Snidely Whiplashes exploiting the poor and the sick. They also run non-profits, teach young people, counsel the poor, lead churches, heal the sick, and run restaurants. They are being lumped together. I also did not say:
  • That the theatre should be used as "a hankie for the well-intentioned tears of the rich." In fact, I said nothing about how plays should be written or performed, what they should be about, or anything about production at all. I was discussing the attitude of hostility and disdain toward the middle-class as human beings. This is about more than artists, this is about the world as a whole. The tendency to dehumanize groups of people in order to feel better about attacking them currently permeates every corner of the globe. The terrorists do it so they can blow themselves up killing innocent people, and the anti-terrorists do it so they can fire missiles into cities and bulldoze homes; the anarchists do it so they can smash windows and burn cars, the concervatives do it so they can exploit foreign workers and ruin the environment; the rich do it so they can feel good about their obscene incomes, the poor do it so they can feel good about robbing their neighbors; the white do it, the black do it; men do it, and women do it. If there was a global religion, it could be based on the creation and dehumanization of Others. It isn't any prettier when it is artists dehumanizing the middle class. We justify it on the basis on reciprocity: I did it to them, because they did it to me. p'tit boo denies hating and disrespecting anyone"purposely," but then says "And even if I did, well I am being disrespected and disregarded on a daily basis silently and passive agressively through the sexism," which I guess makes it alright. Goose-gander. There's another variation that leads to the same result. Allison writes, "Yes, of course all people, on an individual level, ought to be treated with respect for who they are, not whom they represent." [ital mine] But once there is more than one, apparently they are fair game for dehumanization and demonization. Or is there some point at which we reach critical mass for demonization? Under ten? Under 100 -- say, the capacity of an Off-Off Broadway theatre? Once it's Off-Broadway theatre, feel free to bash away? I don't understand how you can respect people one at a time, but disrespect them in groups. Seems hypocritical to me. Seems like it leads to comments like, "Some of my best friends are black" while simultaneously talking about "them damn niggers." And the final thing I did not say:
  • That all pain is equal, that all victims are equally damaged. Obviously. In fact, I said this explicity, even giving it its own paragraph for emphasis: "I am not pleading for moral equivalence: the pain of the middle class is not the moral equivalent of the pain of the oppressed." But we are back to the first point: understanding and sympathy are not scarce resources -- they can be produced at will. p'tit boo agrees: "I don't believe there aren't resources to go around or that the pain of one person can be compared or takes away from the pain of another person." George also agrees: "Nowhere do [Allison and p'tit boo] suggest that the pain of individuals, whoever they are, of whatever class, is unworthy of assuagement." [Again, note the reference to "individuals."] But then there is this from Allison: "I wasn't saying that one should not feel empathy for the dilemmas of young people: I was saying that it is somewhat obscene, in this world where there are people who are unambiguously suffering, and especially when much of that suffering is caused by the economic structures that create our own privilege, to posit these privileged kids as "victims." Are we arguing about a word? Victim means: "One who is harmed by or made to suffer from an act, circumstance, agency, or condition." Not good enough? Pick another. They have been programmed, tested, categorized, and controlled. They have been tested in 8th grade and "tracked" for college, college tech, or labor -- in 8th grade!!! So pick your word. What would you call them? Privileged? And let's examine the word "obscene"? It is "obscene" to extend your sympathy widely? You'll have to explain how MORE understanding is better than LESS. Unless you think it runs out, and then we're back to the beginning.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Why Protect the Middle Class

Isaac asks a wonderful series of questions (getting to be a regular occurrence) that is prompting me to elaborate on my philosophy (which is one of the main reasons I decided to blog, by the way -- each challenge or even each misunderstanding makes me adjust and fine tune my ideas). So here is what he wrote in my comments box:

"Why for the love of god do you think the middle class needs protection? Why do you feel a need to stick up for us? We run the fucking world. We own it. Especially boomer generation middle class. The world exists to not only indulge their every whim and desire, but to tell them that they are entitled to that indulgence.I just don't get it. I don't understand why we should make ourselves feel good about this incredible waste of power and priviledge currently going on in the world. We have a criminally negligent society, and that criminal negligence extends to people's taste in art (they want art that makes them feel good about themselves, which is not always true in all cultures throughout time and can hardly be calleda particularly high purpose for art) and I don't understand the point in not pointing that out for fear that it'll make someone feel bad. Or offend them."

The short answer (which will be followed by the long answer) is this: because middle class "deadness" or "complacency" is the symptom, not the disease, and by attacking the middle class for displaying these symptoms, we are attacking the victims instead of the disease. Let me elaborate.

What is the disease? Late capitalism combined with scientific materialism. Scientific materialism, because its proponents have de-spiritualized the world, eliminating all sense of mystery, all connection between humanity and nature, leading to a deep sense of being cut off from anything that might imply meaning, purpose, or hope in the world; late capitalism, because it tells us that the hole in our hearts can be filled with expensive "stuff": bigger cars, bigger TVs, etc. These things must be paid for with money earned by spending more and more hours at work, and fewer and fewer hours with family, friends, or even alone reflecting. Also, Late Capitalism, through its mass media, tells us that the status quo cannot be changed.

The middle class are as much victims of this overpowering ideology as every other group in the world. Let me tell you a story. I sometimes teach a course on the Hero's Journey in Literature, Film, and Drama to incoming freshmen Honors students. These kids almost always are from upper-middle-class households in the suburbs. These kids tell me that, from the time they were in late elementary school, they are being groomed for college and a "good career." They are told to participate in extra-curricular activities not because they are interested, but because it will "look good on their resume" when they apply to college. They take classes not because the subjects interest them, but because the classes will look good on their college apps. When they finally head to college, they are pressured to major in something that will lead to a "good job," so that they don't "waste" their superior intellects. By the time they get to me, and I start talking about their lives as a hero's journey, and ask them what sorts of things really excite them, they stare at me, open-mouthed: they have been told what to do so long that they have never really asked themselves what they love, what makes them happy, what excites them.

These kids will do well in college, because that is what they have been trained to do. They will complete their education and get a good job that will allow them to live the life that their parents aspire to -- a comfortable life in the suburbs. But at night, they will lie in bed asking themselves, "Is that all there is?" And they will feel the hole in their hearts, and they will secretly dream of making a contribution to something larger than themselves, but they have been taught to be afraid -- to choose security over all things. As Lerner says, "They often turn to demands of more money as a compensation for a life that otherwise feels frustrating and empty." If they ever had any artistic leanings, they may become season subscribers to MTC or some other theatre, and they will arrive in their SUVs and eat in a nice restaurant before heading to the theatre. And you will all scorn them.

These people are victims whose souls have been oppressed by the Expectations of Late Capitalism. They have been locked up in spiritual prisons as strong and oppressive as the actual prisons that I teach in every Tuesday night. They are in pain, and they cover that pain up with what seems to be superficial laughter, but is actually a defense against despair. These people don't need to be attacked, they need to be encouraged to break out of their prison and follow their hearts. They need don't need to be told they are evil, but rather shown that it is possible to live without fear and to join something bigger than themselves. They need to be shown that there is fulfillment outside of "stuff." They have forgotten where their soul is.

So I am not saying that we should confirm them in their current way of life -- that would just add another padlock to the prison door. They might be shown, as Chekhov does, how tedious and boring their lives are as a starting point, but in such a way that a door is opened, not slammed shut. They need to be shown another life, one of imagination, of beauty, of risk, of contribution, perhaps of pain, but dignified pain, noble pain, pain with a purpose.

Encouraged thus, they might see that the "power and privilege" that they have can actually be used in a way that would contribute to the world, and fill the hole in their hearts at the same time. That it is an opportunity to fulfill themselves. They own everything, as Isaac says -- they can change things.

Many of them have been betrayed by the people they should have been able to trust: parents, teachers, friends, and they have believed what they shouldn't have: the mass media. And that betrayal is painful and damaging, and deserves understanding, if not sympathy. I think art should recognize this wound, rather than judge the behavior that results from it. Don't reinforce the old message, but create a new one. Do surgery to repair the wound, don't sneer at the bleeding.

Demonizing the Middle Class

It's been a busy couple of days, but when I finally find time to visit the blogosphere, I find George over at "Superfluities" bashing the middle-class again as a means of defending David Cote's review of Rabbit Hole by David Lindsey-Abaire. While I find myself, for once, on George's side as far as a reviewer's perogative to address not only the specifics of the production in front of him, but also the ideas and ramification of the play and production, I object to George's sneering at the middle-class in order to do it. He writes:

Ultimately, Mr. Cote's target, and he may not himself realize it (though I just suspect that he does), is the upper-middle-class suburban or suburban-minded community that the MTC attracts as its subscriber base, as its core audience, as the source of much of its private funding, and this is indeed a class question rather than a race or an age question. A complacent section of society, complacently feeling that art is doing its job when the audience "start[s] believing that the production in front of [it] is actually relevant, that [the play] is fiercely attacking [its] political, economic and moral assumptions."

Such an art, such plays, do no such thing: instead, they congratulate the audience on its perception of itself as open-minded, confirming that the great passions and pains of life, hemmed and hawed over for two hours in the confines of the Biltmore Theatre, are best and safely contemplated as a form of genial entertainment. That this theater is an economically and socially elite entertainment only serves as a further form of self-congratulation: I applaud Cynthia Nixon's portrayal of sadness, therefore I am compassionate and thoughtful, unlike those other yobbos at home watching American Idol. It is a closed round of self-approbation, this sort of theater. Its audience, contrary to its own belief, is not open-minded. Open-mindedness is not a characteristic of the spiritually but conceitedly dead.

The results of this complacency can be seen in the culture all around us, in our politics, in our schools, in our personal lives. In an odd way, this is no longer a culture of dynamic self-invention but deadly self-completion, exchanging the motion of the spirit for the security of the body and the bank account. We become complacent in our lives and bodies, feeling that we know it all and that, having achieved material and personal goals, we need no longer to change. More points for us; we are winning the game. We have, bizarrely, proved on the individual level that we are just as capable of internalizing and neutralizing rebellions, rebellions against our own limitations and the strictures of conformity, as the modern democratic society. We have set the system up, we have constructed a self that we can pay for with our jobs: all we need do is wait, then, until we pass on, expressing our discomforts to our therapists and watching them onstage, of no importance except as a bump on a relatively smooth road to the grave.

George's characterization drove me to the writing of another George, this one with the surname Orwell. In his essay entitled "Notes on Nationalism," Orwell writes: "By ‘nationalism’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’." Class feelings, which Orwell cites as an example of "transferred nationalism," exists "among upper-class and middle-class intellectuals, only in the transposed form—i.e. as a belief in the superiority of the proletariat. Here again, inside the intelligentsia, the pressure of public opinion is overwhelming. Nationalistic loyalty towards the proletariat, and most vicious theoretical hatred of the bourgeoisie, can and often do co-exist with ordinary snobbishness in everyday life." I don't know if George promotes the proletariat -- he may think that only the intelligentsia is worth a damn, when all is said and done -- but I think the rest of the quotation applies. In a footnote, Orwell continues: "Nations, and even vaguer entities such as Catholic Church or the proleteriat, are commonly thought of as individuals and often referred to as ‘she’. Patently absurd remarks such as ‘Germany is naturally treacherous’ are to be found in any newspaper one opens and reckless generalization about national character (‘The Spaniard is a natural aristocrat’ or ‘Every Englishman is a hypocrite’) are uttered by almost everyone. Intermittently these generalizations are seen to be unfounded, but the habit of making them persists, and people of professedly international outlook, e.g., Tolstoy or Bernard Shaw, are often guilty of them."

So are we all, sometimes, and we need to be called on it when we do it. You can't talk about ideas without generalizing to some extent. But flat stereotypes used as straw men in an argument does a disservice not noly to those who are being stereotypes, but also to one's own ideas. Here's a rule of thumb I go by: if you substitute "African-American" or "Jewish" for the the name of whatever group you are bashing, and it is offensive, then you need to rethink. This is why I try to avoid, for instance, talking about Republicans as a group -- I'd rather deal with specific ideas. Creating an Other of any kind, in my opinion, is rarely a good idea.

As far as the middle class is concerned, in The Politics of Meaning, Michael Lerner writes about a sociological study he participated in San Francisco “to better understand the psychodynamics of middle-income working people." He wrote:

"What we learned from the thousands of people who participated in these groups challenged many of the beliefs that prevailed among us, and, more generally, in the liberal culture from which we researchers had come. We had thought of ourselves as psychologically sophisticated when we started this work, but we quickly learned that our assumptions about middle-income Americans were mistaken, prejudiced, and elitist. For example, most of us imagined that most Americans were motivated primarily by material self-interest. So we were surprised to discover that these middle Americans often experience more stress from feeling that they are wasting their lives doing meaningless work than from feeling that they are not making enough money. We found middle-income people deeply unhappy because they hunger to serve the common good and contribute to something with their talents and energies, yet find their work gives them little opportunity to do so. They often turn to demands of more money as a compensation for a life that otherwise feels frustrating and empty. In the Left and among many academics it has been almost a rule of reason to believe that what people really care about is their own material well-being, and that believing anything else is just some kind of populist romanticization. But we uncovered a far deeper desire -- the desire to have meaningful work, work that people believe would contribute to some higher purpose than self-advancement." [ital mine]

Perhaps when one feels like bashing the so-called "middle-class," one might instead instead substitute for "middle class" the name of someone one knows and care about who is middle-class -- say, one's parents or in-laws -- and then decide whether the picture being painted is nuanced, fair, and complex.

I think there are better ways to defend ideas than demonizing millions.