Saturday, October 25. 2014
When I was sixteen I probably knew every lyric to every Beatles song extant, so it wasn't hard to recall at least the refrain of the jaunty little title tune on my 64th birthday. "Will you still need me? Will you still feed me?" Back then I wouldn't have had a clue who "you" might be, but I never worried about food: my mother's theme song should have been Cab Calloway's "Everybody Eats When They Come to My House" -- a house I also didn't have a clue how to escape. I celebrated my 16th birthday a couple months late by dropping out of high school. I stayed home a couple days after Christmas when a cousin was visiting. I went back the next day and was so sickened I never returned.
For the next five years I basically hid out in my attic room. I skewed my hours to minimize contact with my parents and siblings, going to sleep minutes before my father got up for work, waking mid-afternoon just in time to watch Dark Shadows and Star Trek reruns. I had a tiny black-and-white TV that ran out of stations shortly after midnight, a tinny stereo with not much more than a dozen LPs, a typewriter, and a growing collection of books and periodicals -- what I spent nearly all of my $10/week allowance on. Evenings I could take the family car out, mostly downtown to bookstores and the library. I was only at ease when surrounded by books, and while my own life was locked down reading made me aware of other worlds and other possibilities.
As I was traveling last week, it occurred to me that there are two types of people in America today: those who can mentally put themselves in other people's predicaments and empathize, and those who can't (or just don't). What triggered this thought was a depression-era story about Uncle Ted: he had heard vigilante threats against a destitute family that had been stealing, so he picked them up and drove them to another county where they had kinfolk; he explained later to his family that he could imagine being so hungry that he might resort to stealing too. Whenever I heard this story, I first think of my harsh experience with thieves, but having known Ted and something of his life and history I wind up recognizing that this story is more complex and nuanced than my own narrow experience knows.
Of course, the point was reinforced many times as I watched political commercials last week. The "two types" don't precisely split along party lines. Indeed, Democrats can appeal to a majority along self-interest lines -- and do so effectively when they point out how Republicans like Tom Cotton (their Senate hopeful in Arkansas) are out to undermine and even dismantle Social Security and Medicare -- but the Republican appeals almost invariably depend on drawing lines between the voters they court and everyone else (all those people outside their identity group, most obsessively president Obama).
Of course, I didn't get to the ability to empathize with others very early. As a child I was exceptionally selfish and greedy, and as an adolescent I withdrew from my social network even before I physically isolated myself. Therefore, much of my early reading focused on my own experiences: education, psychology, religion. One most influential book on the former was Charles Weingartner/Neil Postman's Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Their main argument was that the most valuable thing schooling could do was to encourage students to develop their own finely tuned "bullshit detectors." Needless to say, school as I had known it was strongly focused on rote learning -- including the stock moralism of the day. But there was no shortage of bullshit in the late 1960s, so detection soon became easy. I was soon reexamining every assumption I had been brought up to believe. I had an earlier interest in mainstream politics, so my move to the New Left had conventional framing (except that my ancestral reference system was rooted deeper in Populism and Republican Progressivism than in New Deal/Great Society Liberalism).
As I thought more critically, I came to realize that what gets called madness is often just social nonconformity -- something I had developed a literary and artistic taste for. As for my personal dysfunction, I was much taken with Gregory Bateson's "double-bind theory of schizophrenia": I could see how impossible it was to satisfy all the contradictory moral authorities of my youth. That insight turned my personality problem into a matter of logic, something that reason, and therefore I, could sort out.
Not that it was so simple. I had to force myself to socialize. In 1970 I got a GED and enrolled in Wichita State University. A year later I had 59 units of straight-A credit and a scholarship to transfer to Washington University (St. Louis). Two years later I got my first job, was finally able to support myself, and had had a couple of sexual relationships. A couple years later I moved to New York and soon moved in with my first wife. After she died several years later, I found another relationship, and we've been together for more than twenty-five years now.
And now I'm sixty-four -- a milestone monumental enough to inspire a pop song forty-eight years ago, but today it mostly means that I have one more year to suffer through Obamacare (and, sure, be thankful for that) before Medicare kicks in, eliminating one of the great worries of my de facto retirement. Fifteen years ago I used to joke on my "career assessment forms" that my "career goal" was retirement -- one of many times I've crossed some unstated but expected line of conformity -- but I'm more or less there now. My father retired from his factory job as soon as he could afford to, and thereby got a few good years before a stroke pinned him down. For him, as for most people fortunate enough to be able to afford it, retirement was freedom. I've enjoyed that same freedom since SCO let me go in 2000. But while my work ethic hasn't much flagged, I've become increasingly uncomfortable with my lack of accomplishment (what in engineering we call "deliverables").
My recent travels gave me some time to think about this. I spent, for instance, some time with the same cousin I played hooky to see when I was sixteen. We reminisced, but also she poked some holes in my inequality book outline, making me realize how difficult it's going to be to craft arguments that are almost too obvious to me. I believe that inequality is the core political issue of our time, but not so much to balance everyone's supply of stuff as because it profoundly corrupts our sense of justice, and losing the sense that the political order is ultimately just unravels the whole social fabric. Indeed, it may be that stuff is the wrong way to account for inequality. My working title, Share the Wealth (from Huey Long), could just as well be Share the Freedom -- assuming, as I've concluded, that it takes a certain level of wealth to be free, although it's not clear that more wealth makes one more free (although it has been shown that excess wealth doesn't make one happier).
Better developed is an outline for an essay on Israel, something I talked to several people about. The first two sections would explore the only issues of importance to understanding why Israel's leaders have acted for the better part of a century. The first concerns colonial settler demography: the only places where settlers have retained power are places where the population mix tilted decisely in favor of the settlers (the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Argentina) while everywhere settlers remained in the minority power has reverted to the majority (most relevantly in South Africa and Algeria). Israel is in between -- secure enough within its 1967 borders but far less so with the Occupied Territories.
The second issue -- perhaps the first chronologically in that it concerns the initial founding of the Zionist movement, but I think it makes more sense to treat it second -- is the dependent dialectic between Zionism and anti-semitism, how it has played out over history, and how it has been twisted around in Israeli self-consciousness. As anti-semitism has waned in the West this link can be questioned, but it is deeply held within Israel, and that has many ramifications that have to be understood. (Israel's obsession with security, for instance, has as much to do with imagined enemies as with real ones.)
The third part would review all significant "peace" proposals since the Peel Commission (or maybe the Balfour Declaration) and pick apart why they have failed -- almost invariably because Israelis have been unable (or unwilling) to reconcile their colonial project with emerging standards of international law on human rights, and lately because Israelis have been able to exploit the archaic rightward turn in US foreign policy. In the past I've written up my pet ideas about how the conflict could be resolved, and some of those ideas may return in an epilogue but my experience is that few people care for my ideas as long as they can hope for something more advantageous.
The other book-like project that came up here and there is the idea of writing a memoir: basically a huge expansion of this post, although I also see it as an occasion to write a personalized history of the era from October 1950 -- a point just before the Chinese entered and turned the tide in the Korean War -- to the present: a long history of imperial decline, with most of the rot on the moral side. (It isn't exactly irony that the US empire expanded as long as we were plausibly anti-imperialist, then declined once we started believing in our destiny. It's just hubris.)
A memoir would also let me look back at where my family came from, how they represented America, and what has happened to more than just me. I could work in some of the stories we batted around on the Arkansas leg of my trip. One of the political ads I saw last week lamented that Arkansas was 48th of 50 states in job creation, but I know good and well that's an old story: seven of my mother's cohort of eight siblings left Arkansas in the 1930s looking for work elsewhere. (Three came to Kansas.) Their stories are interesting, and while I'll never know enough to do them justice, I'd like to know more, and use that as some sort of context. As odd as I grew up, I came from remarkably average roots, and maybe there's some hope in that.
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