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The answer to that second question is ‘no;’ and we must find one.
Friends who live on Avalon island, one of the most affluent communities on the Jersey Shore and home to some of the most expensive real estate on the East Coast (according to the Internet) tell us the trend among megamillionaires now buying properties on the island – which, being only 7 miles long, is developed to capacity – is to knock down the older structure and replace it with a 4-5 story McMansion, in which an entire floor may resemble a sumptuous restaurant, only to inhabit the “camp” perhaps 2 weekends per year! The other 360 days the houses are vacant, as these people do not need to find rental tenants.
Insane as we might recognize this to be, the stories our civilization instructs us in do not offer a serious challenge to this insanity. Building a grotesque display of your opulence makes logical sense in a civilization that sustains itself on belief in material and technological progress. If you can do it legally, doing no obvious or distasteful harm to anyone beyond blocking the neighbor’s view of the ocean, what reason is there not to build as fancy dictates? We might say, well there’s plenty of reason not to build your obscenely expensive getaway, including plain decency. However, we would have little ground to stand on, for we fellow bourgeois exist on the same horizontal plain, making most of our “consumer” decisions not with a moral reference but a practical or pragmatic one. Our home economies are simply on a different scale than those of the folks who build McMansions on Avalon Island or the Hamptons.
As we know to our extreme discomfiture in the age of Trump, the veil covering the disdain of the megamillionaires for the rest of us (99%) has been torn away; we are the deplorables, our lives that cannot match theirs by the only standard that matters (wealth), are comparatively unimportant, just as the millions of black people in South Africa under apartheid were perceived by the tiny cabal of white South Africans.
At the risk of sounding as I if I am harkening anachronistically back to the thinking characteristic of an early 20th century Wobbly, whose IWW organization was known for its very direct and violent response to top down anti-labor power, I declare it’s not wealth that would equalize us but our having what are vulgarly referred to as “balls.” If we are going to change the stories that are driving the planet to extinction, they must be stories that can reclaim our will, our steely resolve; they must inspire a militancy completely absent in today’s placid liberal mainstream.
The secular progressive left is completely undone by its ever present need to represent “fair play,” to appear to be inclusive and listen to every side, to work with existing structures and power players as much as possible, etc. This is a strategy, not an ideal or a vision. Liberalism is undone, especially since the rise of feminism in the 1970’s, by its excessive deference to “feminine values,” to pleasing some all-seeing Maternal judge, to being “good,” or at least being seen as such, to being the best behaved student in the class, performing exactly according to the teacher’s wishes. This excessive aim to please is not only obedience to the economic reality imposed by corporate capitalism; it masks a deep mistrust/fear of individual initiative, of spunk or contrariness or refusal or dissidence. It completely rules out healthy anarchy, and any chance of a society truly based in freedom. ADHD, that telltale sign of possible impudence or budding rowdiness in your male child, has been successfully diagnosed and medicated.
As we now are acutely and painfully aware, the lack of dissidence and disruption has not meant we’ve arrived at the ideal society and thus don’t need correction, nor even that we are on the path toward it. It has meant we will roll along passively as humanity is increasingly degraded as are its conditions – a culture – in which we can be human at all. Local Utica black activist Patrick Johnson pointed out in a workshop I attended a few months ago that the problem created for young black men in our education system is that the authority figure they must adapt to year after year is a white woman. Perhaps those of us who tend to be among the successful, have all been conditioned to fit into a context wherein the authority figure is a white woman (no matter which gender is actually nominally in charge), and it shows!
To make my case, I herein use gender imaginatively, as both psychological archetype and image-based (myth-based) identities. The ordering system of neoliberal capitalism works to keep both of the two basic gender identities in what I would call their weakness. Consciousness is dominated both by a weak, wounded condition of the masculine identity and a weak wounded condition of the feminine identity. In both conditions, women and men maintain a victim consciousness seeking to redress an original wrong perpetrated against them. No acting from strength, no genuine action is possible from either condition.
Authority on the left having so pervasively, silently, unconsciously and resentfully been given over to the ‘false’ woman (the woman who seeks no greater realization than to be successful under the terms established by patriarchy), the opportunity has been created for the ultra Right to assert itself in a false masculine way. The Right has (re)found its counter story in fascism, a backlash of wounded middle class white men; it has steeled their wills and given them spirit for action. The fascist story, with its hyper-masculinity, its aim to restore national military supremacy and to rid the nation of the vermin that drag it down is going to overtake us again if we don’t get busy finding a story that steels the will on behalf of all human beings, not in outrage against some of them.
Our better story on the left must excite imagination the way fascism does or it won’t stand a chance of returning some sand to flaccid wills. If the left pretends to stay firmly on the side of reason (a hoot if you consider for just a moment that ultimate piece of rationalist “thinking” that a vote for Hillary was voting for the lesser of two evils) they will lose out on the energy that can only be released once imagination is engaged. Poet Robert Bly once remarked that money is energy. By that, perhaps he meant it must be allowed to flow organically throughout the commonwealth rather than be hoarded or worshiped. Today it occurs to me that the reverse is also true; energy is money, it has the power money has to make revolutionary things happen, beyond the simple repair and maintenance of existing structures. The energy equivalent of those absurd McMansions on Avalon island, put to creative, community building, relationship sustaining work, into art – would be perhaps not as flashy, but the potential for earth-partnered human well-being would be immeasurably greater. When creative work, art, is not just the sideshow, the weekend entertainment, but the means of sustaining the flow of energy into the community such that every task, including business or commerce, is done as art, all workers artists, we may be in a better story!
It’s quite simple, really. To find a story or stories that will restore our wills on behalf of humanity we must first re-discover our humanity as creatures, as part of the bios, as bodies in nature. Many admirable efforts have been made, many wonderful words written, meant to teach others the fact of our real indigenousness. The problem is this: the fact, the truth that each one has an alive soul, cannot be learned except by discovering something one absolutely does not want to know about oneself and would frankly rather die than realize. In fairy tales, those reservoirs of indigenous wisdom, the witch lives in in the middle of the forest in a hut set on chicken legs, the fence surrounding it decorated with ghastly human heads; the ogre sniffs after the blood of an Englishman; the serpent’s bride is reduced to a pile of bones and a few scraps of bloody flesh in the morning. Here, the “other” is accurately depicted as terrifying, matching and affirming the terror abiding in the listener to the tale.
By the time one’s reached adulthood, the “other” is repressed knowledge, grown ever darker and more powerful over years; from the ego’s perspective, such knowledge must remain repressed. To the degree one fails to repress the instinctual, intuitive self, one’s organic being, one is an upstart and a threat to everything and everyone; as threatening to the neoliberal corporate capitalist status quo as the teeming hordes of immigrants simply seeking their right to have a life for themselves and their children, as threatening as the Wobblies, anarchists, communists or socialists. To allow the banished “other” back into consciousness would mean we’d lose our capacity to be so “good,” so concerned about fairness, so intensely focused on identity politics to the exclusion of demanding our right to preserve the planet for the future generations, or our right to live in a just society, or to live in a world free of American-sponsored terrorism.
Recently, Orin and I attended a workshop at a liberal, New England retreat center led by writer, former environmental activist and co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project, Paul Kingsnorth. The 30 people who’d come to learn how to “uncivilize” (the rallying cry of Dark Mountain) were treated to an old northern European tale called The Lindworm. Without room to retell it here, and in total disregard of the fact that fairy tales admit of multiple interpretations, I will say only that the story is precisely about the return “to the kingdom” of knowledge that has been exiled or repressed. The repressed appears in the fearsome person of a dark serpent. He’s the rejected elder son of the king and queen; upon his return from long exile he is offered, in a gesture of fairness on the part of His Majesty, a series of brides; one by one the girls are reduced to a few bones and scraps of flesh lying on the nuptial bed.
In the form of the revived fascism we see in the West maybe the serpent is the return of all we’ve banned from our public discourse, as Kingsnorth has suggested – “ideas and worldviews which were pushed under …cast out of the public realm—have slithered back into the castle, angry at their rejection.”
Hearing the tale, workshop participants were being asked something different than to intellectualize about the repulsive Trump administration; we were to apprehend imaginatively. If the serpent isn’t something truly terrifying and repellent to the individual, then the tale is just another entertainment; we had come not to be entertained but to learn how to change the stories underlying civilization. We were being asked to see something as loathsome and unwanted as an opioid epidemic, right there with us in picturesque rural New England. We were, perhaps, asked to be that repellent entity by breaking through the polite role as dutiful students obediently carrying out the teacher’s tasks, deferential to an invisible hierarchy ordering a roomful of liberals too well adjusted to banality. It may or may not be excusable that no one did so (I don’t excuse myself); but surely now it’s plain to see the serpent’s back and what’s needed in the castle is our marginalized imaginations for our lives depend on its return.