I have been pondering the problem of American meanness since my brother moved back to Utica after living 16 years in Puerto Rico, bringing with him his new wife, whose skin is a lovely coppery color, and his teen-aged son, slightly darker and with a head of kinky, black, “negro” hair. At his first meal at our house, the day of their arrival, Aaron admitted his fears knowing as he does that America has become harsher than it was when he left. He fears he has moved his family, not to the land of greater opportunity, nor even to the ambivalent place memorialized in song, (i.e.,“everything’s free in America, for a small fee in America”) but to a place where they may be treated meanly because it is officially okay now to be mean.
Sixteen years ago, he would not have had this fear. Meantime, he has lived among people who still understand themselves as belonging in a community, with mutual obligations and expectations, where the young are still taught, in an old-fashioned way, to find ways to be helpful, to not assume exceptionalism for themselves. This may have left him less immune, less well-defended than he might have been had he not left back in the Bush years.
I’m not going to talk about “haters.” Liberals won’t get anywhere designating Trump voters as the “haters.” Trump fans have no exclusive claim to that title, and not just because Trump himself says so, calling, for instance, “anti-second amendment people” haters as he did recently in a speech at a fundraiser here in Utica. All of us can – and do- sling around the H-word. But the problem is, we live in a society under the dominion of a capitalist economy that demands we be self-interested first, that we be competitive with each other, and how is this not the breeding ground of hate? What difference does it make if you are of the crowd that wants to build the wall or of the one that wears the t-shirt proclaiming “Evolution is a theory, just like gravity,” or “If ignorance is bliss why aren’t more people happy?” If the sign at the entrance to your house proclaims “ In this house we respect women, LGBT people, immigrants, science, etc. etc.”, the F***You is implicit. It makes me, for one, no less uncomfortable than the “Never Mind the Dog, Beware of Owner” sign outside the house of a friend and fierce gun rights advocate in rural Floyd, NY. used to make me feel.
Capitalism cannot, by its own logic, teach kindness. It can, on the other hand, incubate hate in a particularly effective and non-apparent way. Adapting ourselves to it, the claim of kindness and mercy upon our actions is gradually diminished so we almost don’t notice it’s missing. There’s less need for mutual aid when salary and benefits seem assured, when the blessed child’s “got its own.” It happens to the best of us! This explains the commonly reported finding among people who travel to poorer regions such as Jamaica, Haiti, Cuba, Mexico, etc.; though the living conditions are far below our standard and may be dreadful, the people are warmer.
What we have, instead of kindness among the liberal bourgeois, is an exaggerated and legalistic regard for “otherness.” Last fall, at one of the more well-attended art gallery openings at our little non-profit, not having met the artist personally, I asked a friend who said he knew her, which person in the crowd she was. He, a long-time employee of our area’s premier private liberal arts college, indicated a corner of the room where three women stood together, one black, two white. To help me identify the artist, he proceeded to describe what she was wearing, item by item, not so easy for me to see as people were shifting around and obscuring my view. Finally, I had to ask if he meant the black woman. He responded immediately, “Yes.”
Such excessively “sensitive” behavior has no more to do with kindness than does being a conscientious recycler. It has to do with fear of being incorrect (i.e., guilty), based, essentially, upon being far removed from stable conditions of community over time, having become accustomed to artificial “community,” at college, at the workplace, etc., to substitute for what is in fact missing for nearly everyone. One can no longer, under these artificial and contrived pseudo-community conditions, trust one’s human instinct, one’s first thought, one’s essential goodness, oneself! Not that we aren’t all capable of blundering; sticking one’s foot in one’s mouth was once a quite normal occurrence among people who’d been taught the rudiments of community-preserving behavior (i.e, repentance, forgiveness, making amends, etc.) but to live imprisoned inside the fear of the possible blunder prevents not only insult, but kindness as well!
Social anxiety, widespread today and like much of modern mental illness, i.e., depression, suicidal thoughts, etc., is as likely to be the reaction of innate health to the real climate of meanness, as evidence of one’s own private problem! People will not hear me; most prefer to think of these things as personal problems that can, optimistically, be treated with a pill. Pathologizing symptoms in this way simply underscores our cut-off condition, our isolation from one another and makes ourselves to blame for our affliction. It further normalizes callousness and renders us incapable of joining together to face the real, common threat to our humanity. Hence, it becomes another way in which we, irrationally, dismiss the evidence of the “dead canary,“ rather than to take the toxicity it succumbed to – the threat in our social environment, though no one is acknowledging it –as real! Heeding the canary’s implacable evidence would force us to look beyond/beneath Trump’s manipulated “threat” of immigrants and Muslim terrorists, to that cause underlying all the problems of “otherness” which exists – thrives, even – in enlightened, liberal usas well as benighted, fascist them.
Such is the society we’ve made over time, a Petri dish for intensification of divisions and festering hatreds. It works, sort of, because few remember what the more mutualist vibe felt like, if they ever had it. But the consequence is an underlying, never-resolved tension that, among the liberal classes, makes nearly all groups and gatherings uneasy below the surface, silently competitive, obedient to a tacit demand to prove oneself worthy, providing a great reason to drink. The social unease makes everyone deferential to the more dominant (sometimes earthier and more ethnic, always potentially authoritarian) personalities that learned long ago how to take charge, or to inject humor into such uneasy social conglomerations – perhaps having learned it at the family dinner table. Some of these dominant personalities that bring relief to the social dis-ease are venal, ignoble people, like our President. But everyone is responsible for his/her part in continuing the servile acceptance of replacements for irreplaceable humanly-recognizable community.
We, i.e., white middle class Americans, cannot change the fact that we take so much luxury for granted. Orin and I have managed to refuse – and just plain cannot afford – many of the commodified desirables that as Americans we deserve to have, but we are many rungs higher on the bourgeois ladder from the middle-aged couple who collect our returnable bottles and cans or the people who sleep down at the Rescue Mission. So far, we’ve avoided having to jostle with prostitutes, released prison inmates, and drug addicts in the welfare and food stamp lines at the County Office building, and we’re generations removed from inconveniences many people across the globe are subjected to daily, i.e. hiking to a common well to get water, washing clothes in a wash tub, using a communal toilet, knowing their children are hungry and able to do nothing about it, waiting to be obliterated by American drones, etc.
A high or relatively high standard of living is our given condition and though today, with more and more of us being dumped back into the working class, in many cases turning people into disillusioned, outraged bourgeois wannabes, the condition of relative material security usually isn’t alterable except through spectacular failure of the drug or gambling addiction kind. For those who decide it is possible to make a moral rescue that includes just themselves, an off-the-grid, back-to-the-land-type lifestyle is a possibility; and has become since the 70’s in effect Suburbia’s Second Wave. Another escape route, my preferred one, is imaginative; it is taking up one’s art right where you are, Utica NY or Boulder or Brooklyn, as one’s singular calling. Though this last option is a personal, possibly “selfish” answer to the problem of bourgeois complacency, it is in fact the effort to reclaim and to defend one’s soul, wretchedly forsaken in the land of soulless consumerism. It is entirely radical in that it demands each one lose the automatic authoritarian deference (i.e., egoism) that causes us to forsake what we deem to be our pathetic desire and step in line with the ranks of obedient workers, the reward for which is bourgeois respectability and the normalization of pitilessness.
Though my imaginative option doesn’t rule out actsof charity, i.e., writing the check, turning out to rally for refugees, helping out with the food drive, it goes further in restoring kindness as an embodiment. It leads to an at-easeness in one’s own body and one’s own place in the social environment – inconceivable as this may seem at this late date in post-industrial society – and in relation to other bodies. Not to being perfectly at ease of course, but to being, by means of creative labors, on the plane of suffering that is common to humans; knowing the human struggle first hand, the crippling sense of deep unworthiness that keeps bourgeois relationshipsin a constant tension can be shed at last. Such a “reborn” embodied relatedness will be not exactly like, but akin to, community as found among people who are fortunate enough to still have existing cultures. In terms of class, embodied kindness that begins in sympathy to one’s own creative genius emphatically is a stepping down. But this is a class composed not of the commonality of being industrial workers, but of the commonality of indigenousness, of each understanding the need to fiercely protect one’s soul, that is also universal, without boundaries, common as dirt.
By means of imagination, the step down is a step “up.” Rather than deprivation or deferred gratification in the way “becoming a better, less selfish person” implies, creativity provides immediate access to pleasure through contact with universally attainable divine nature, according to which archaic hierarchical metaphors like “prince” “king” “lord” “treasure” “pearl” “gold,” “princess” etc., are real. For human beings having divinity within them, nobility of character is an inspiring possibility.
Do you see what might happen to meanness once one has accepted these very different terms for self-understanding? If becoming a nation of poets did not automatically produce a society of what we think of as “good Samaritans,” it would certainly bring an end to liberal smugness; that is, it would be an act of doing what middle-class white people can do to make the world kinder. They/we can follow their/our bliss as if our lives depended on it. On the human plane, this is a humbling step down, but on the imaginative plane it places one among the angels. Angels do not automatically win the day against our lower, constantly dissatisfied nature, but at least the (heavenly) reference point is restored by which men and women have a chance to fairly critique themselves, to acknowledge wrongdoing, to occasionally blunder trusting that the blunder did not confirm their wretchedness, to be, in a word, free.