“Yet one thing I fight for, tooth and nail, all the time. And that is my bit of inward peace, where I am at one with myself.”
– D.H. Lawrence, “What Would You Fight For?”
“We’ve been hearing from shamanic healers for decades about “connecting to spirit,” but their message sidesteps industrial capitalism… and open, public, radical changes flowing from spiritual work.”
– Dave Hanson, Shamanism, Anarchy & the End of the World, Fifth Estate (2008)
…the real reason why a European of bourgeois upbringing, even when he calls himself a Communist, cannot without a hard effort think of a working man as his equal. It is summed up in…The lower classes smell.
– George Orwell, Wigan Pier
What D.H. Lawrence fought for, we should all fight for. Nothing is more wanting today, a time when strength is equated with “manly” might and militarism, than individuals who fiercely protect the inner flame of their genius, who by their example can imply to the rest of us that we should all be so unmanly as to have each his own deeply experienced truth deemed worth fighting for. D.H., unlike so many contemporary bourgeois practitioners of eastern and indigenous spiritual practices, knew that the equanimity necessary to develop character, integrity, individuality, vision and strength is not an entitlement, but a fight. Though many are the calls since the 60’s to achieve inner serenity and clarity of mind – which sound pretty attractive to the average stressed and fearful man or woman today, few and strange to the ear are calls to be here now in the catastrophic human reality – with its necessary political struggle – an act of human presencewe should be fighting for, not fleeing from.
That we can ignore dark reality is due to the pretense, essential to bourgeois reality, we are or can beabove nature, a pretense abetted by much of popular spiritual practice, and the basis for class structuring of society, for flight to the suburbs away from the crime and crumbling of cities, for liberal obeisance to corporatocracy, for white supremacy as well as for ongoing anthropocenic species suicide. The pretense is self-defeating; the nature we pretend to be above is our own embodied mortal nature. So repugnant is this [truth] that we will forgo the fight to save the human-supportive world in order not to have to face that fight for our human soul we have been assured we can escape by the cherished promise of Progress.
This thought comes to me as we read now about billionaires buying land and building bunkers in New Zealand to provide a place to escape to when the climate is deep-sixed and the hordes of the 99%, now with nothing to lose and vengeance in mind – or just ravenous for food and water – come looking for them. Many if not most of us feel our blood curdle with hatred for these obscenely greedy parasites with their obscenely self-interested survival agenda. The truth is, there’s no evidence that we would not do the same if we could afford it. The amoral system that gives these guys permission to save themselves from the consequences of unregulated capitalism is our system.
Living in the degraded rustbelt reality of inner city Utica, referred to by some locals as “the armpit” of New York State, has taught me this distinction the hard way. I’m still tempted to think I’d have an easier time of it being a better human being, not “sweating the small stuff,” having occasional spiritual peace, if I didn’t live amidst the constant refutation of the promise of Progress; if, in other words, I were affluent enough to move out. I’m not trying to earn a Brownie badge living here, next door to a house filled upstairs and down with noisy African refugees who have not been taught to pick up their litter or to take down window blinds that are broken and torn, and across the street from a boarded-up 4-apartment house with peeling paint, its lawn trash-littered and unkempt etc. But I am several thousand dollars short of being able to put myself in a position to be oblivious of the existence of a poor class, to be freed to leave awareness of the problem and its solution to the mayors, councilmen, city planners, etc., who have to think about such things, to the government agencies (and increasingly the outsourced private ones) designed to take care of the lower classes and to the poor people themselves.
Recently it came to me I may have imbibed the bourgeois promise of entitlement in relation to a pig farm that 50 years ago was located nearby my family’s home. I was thinking one day about the horrific condition of pigs raised on factory farms when the memory of the actual pig farm I once knew came to mind, as I was apt to see it back then, through the window of car or school bus: a fleeting view of hilly ground denuded of grass, of scattered shade trees, and depressions in the dirt where pigs could loll in dust in dry weather, or in mud after rain. It struck me, recalling this scene: those pigs were undoubtedly happy! They were treated like pigs!
This rather obvious insight constituted a major revision of my personal history. It challenged a forgotten orthodoxy and threw new light on the place of my upbringing, a suburban housing tract outside and uphill from the village of Whitesboro where I lived from age 2 to 14. The isolation of this particular real estate developer’s dream, plopped down in the middle of farm fields, removed from all features of normal community and commerce, from multiplicity and ethnicity, from either small or large-town life, exacerbated the isolation I experienced as a child in my parents’ home. In adult life I’ve been unable to describe that upbringing in relation to its setting – officially “happy” but marked for me by painful childhood neuroses – in any terms but those of negation. Recollecting the pig farm shone a welcome light on a mystery.
Throughout my childhood the Pig Farm functioned symbolically to such an extent that its real and essential function in the American food chain was obscured to us. We bought our pork chops packaged in cellophane at the clean and bright supermarket. Our hotdogs were Oscar Meyer’s. The pig farm, detached from its perfectly respectable purpose, was the epitome of nastiness, filthiness, and worst of all, to our relatively recently potty-trained minds, stench. Far from the farm of Old McDonald – a clean odorless place existing in innocent imagination – it represented the most awful thing that was allowed to enter our stunted post-WWII, TV-massaged imaginations, summed up in the potent word which we hurled at siblings and playmates in the form of “You stink!” or “Stinkpot!” In particular, in our home my father used the Pig Farm as a threat to children who couldn’t behave ourselves and chew with mouths closed at the dinner table. If we could not eat nicely and stop behaving like pigs, the pigs were coming to get us. He seemed to find humor in this imagining; maybe we did too. Maybe we squealed with laughter!
It was impossible to imagine the family who ran the farm as anything but defective in some significant way, for who would live on a pig farm, any more than in a pig sty? Here you see what I am getting at; without any doubt, we were better than the Pig Farm and its stinky reality, that, on hot muggy days in August would send its offensive odor out over the entire housing development. This perception of the abject lowliness of the Farm and its inhabitants was never corrected as far as I recall, nor did we children soften our attitude because of our delight in Beatrix Potter’s charming Pigling Bland, or in the resourceful Third Little Pig.
But, who were we? What was our context, our place in the community, in the political reality, in history, in the food chain? Sunset Manor, for so it was called, consisting of 200 or so identical 3-bedroom ranch-style houses symmetrically laid out along two side-by-side- horseshoe-shaped streets, gave us no answer. We lived there a lower class version of the American ideal of home ownership. For those with aspirations beyond the working class, the idea was banally simple: move up and out, as we eventually did.
I’ve come to see the suburban dream as a streamlined way for children to be introduced to bourgeois upward mobility, to condoning of insatiable greed, to discardability and replaceability, removal of every aspect of rootedness, of individuality, of distinct places, buildings, beauty and ugliness, fragrance and stink, etc. We would be unable to defend realities we’d never experienced. We would be unfit for defending the human against pending roboticization. We would be seeking always the representation or commodification of the idealized real, i.e., upscale suburbia, a home in rural Vermont, the tourist-eye view of other places and peoples, rather than the truth of the degraded reality, which by now had become rather frightening and distasteful, and most importantly, optional. Moving to the country, the dream of so many in my generation, we would become arrogant in relation to the white natives we bumped into as we entered our promised lands, the rednecks, the (pre-factory farm) farmers with their objectionably odorous manured fields, the church-goers, the conservative Republicans and their backward agenda. Having imbibed the unmoored, exceptionalist American Dream, we were embedded in and dependent on the positive notion of progress. The salvation offered in that positivity made up for the sterile negation of suburbia and guaranteed we would live for the pay raise, the brand, and the technological conveniences, slaves one might say to “piggish” greed.
We suburban nomads would become inhabitants of neoliberal faux-reality, preferring its false promise over the suspected threat of the real, without ever divining the truth about ourselves. Our social conversation that skirts the truth (i.e, of the awful emptiness), our political discussion always contained within the liberal frame, dedicated to preserving appearances instead of challenging the imperialist, white supremacist, militarist motives of our government under either party’s leadership. Better this than to confess the disaster that daily life in capitalism is and has been for the majority of people, cultures and the biosphere,including our own dispirited selves. The truth of our reality is still, like the Pig Farm of my childhood , unthinkable, honesty, nearly impossible.
Life in Utica, for me, continues to be a struggle. The greedy me still wants something nicer, a setting that I fantasize could grant me Lawrence’s prized “bit of inward peace,” the grace I was taught from birth in the silent gospel of whiteness I am entitled to. I resist knowing what Lawrence knew, that inward peace is fought for, not granted with ownership of a nice house in the country. For better or worse, the city where I live presents me daily with objectionable “stinky” reality, and forces me either to grasp that or to sink back into neurosis behind the media screen. My city tells me the apocalypse is here; when I know that, a difficult knowing, grace, however fleetingly, finds me. I am free to know who I am and to dream the people’s beautiful dream of the better world. For my soul that’s reason enough to be “happy as a pig in shit.”