…the social and psychological rejection of Otherness constitutes a clear attack on the imaginal intelligence of the soul…one’s identity is split: divided into insider and outsider, worthy and worthless, above and below. That which is above we adore and aspire to [emulate], that which is beneath us we disdain and hold in contempt. This deeming quality of superior/inferior is the core of civilization’s method (i.e., conquest, oppression, and exploitation).- Daniel Deardorff, The Other Within
A medicine man shouldn’t be a saint… He should be able to sink as low as a bug or soar as high as an eagle. Unless he can experience both, he is no good as a medicine man…Sickness, jail, poverty, getting drunk – I had to experience all that myself. You can’t be so stuck up, so inhuman that you want to be pure, your soul wrapped up in a plastic bag all the time. You have to be God and the devil, both of them… Nature, the great spirit, they are not perfect. The world couldn’t stand that perfection. The spirit has a good side and a bad side. Sometimes the bad side gives me more knowledge than the good side. – John Lame Deer and Richard Erdoes, Lame Deer Seeker of Visions(1972)
“All your life, white folks have bamboozled you, teachers have bamboozled you; I am here to debamboozle you.” – E. Franklin Frazier speaking to black college students in Atlanta, quoted in Peter Linebaugh, The Incomplete, True, Authentic and Wonderful History of May Day
Jazz violinist Rob Thomas, sitting with us at the Green Onion after his performance at The Other Side, told me he’d never dreamed what it might be like to take a gig “west of Albany.” Rob lives in Manhattan and teaches at Berklee in Boston. He admitted he’d been a bit dubious when our music director, Mike, signed him up, that there’d be an audience for jazz violin in Utica. His world, as an in-demand musician and teacher, he admitted, is geographically very narrow. Listening to him, I immediately thought of that night last January, when, again at the Green Onion and talking to woodwind jazz artist Scott Robinson post-show, Scott made an imaginative leap, comparing his experience of our place in Utica with a venue in remote Pakistan where on tour he’d gigged a year earlier.
At the time, I thought he was referring to the unlikelihood of a jazz venue in such a relatively culturally isolated place, that he perceived what Orin and I are up against producing jazz shows here. But after Rob said more or less the same thing, I saw it differently: for those whose world begins and ends in NYC or Boston, broken up with an occasional European tour, a place like Utica exists at the fringes of imagination, way off in the margins. There is no hostile intent here, just what happens when your consciousness is filled with your one reality, and, furthermore, when that reality bears a kind of plausible supremacy. I for one would not disagree that NYC is one of the wonders of the world. Plus, from an Upstater’s perspective, recognition isn’t mutual: we have to know NYC, but New Yorkers can comfortably live and die ignorant of Utica.
On the other hand, there is an effect of that supremacy – though we might hesitate to call it an evil – that makes NYC supremacy like that of the higher profile “white supremacy.” Like white supremacy, which needed the raised consciousness of its otherized victims to force its visibility, NY supremacy flourishes inasmuch as it is largely unconscious. The most reliable evidence for its effect is in the knee-jerk anti-New York City racist-and anti-semitist-tinged attitude among “conservative” or “red-neck” Upstaters. We do not know what liberal Upstaters think; usually they are admirers and frequent pilgrims to NYC’s unparalleled attractions, and they regularly give up their talented children to jobs in Brooklyn. Just as they have no critique of capitalism, they have no critical eye toward the NYC hegemon.
That is, we Upstaters do not realize we are“others,” even though, if we thought about it for a second, the truth is plain, and not only if you are looking at the state budget: in relation to NYC, Utica and all of Upstate west of Albany is “other territory.” In our general deplorableness, we – inasmuch as we reside in these dilapidated, non-Destination upstate towns – exist outside the orbit of NY commuters and outside the reality of finance capital-dominated, MSNBC-informed, 1 %-identified America. However, though one could, wearing the right shade of glasses, see our otherness as a kind of freedom that allows us to cultivate possibility during a time of massive disillusionment, to follow dreams leading to a more human-scaled, mutually interdependent and creatively sustainable way of life, we are collectively blocked by the dominant assumptions of bourgeois liberal reality and pervasive spiritlessness.
Occasionally New York “supremacy” is alluded to humorously, as in those maps of America or the world seen from a chauvinist New Yorker’s point of view. But it is rare to see it reflected from the other, inferior, direction. You never hear one of us critique New York City’s “greatness” that, after all, has a lot to do with capitalism. What made the Big Apple “Big,”was its strategic location in relation to American trade, whether in furs from slaughtered beavers, crops raised on Upstate land grabbed from Indians, in slaves, sweat-shopped products, or guns, or whatever, and of course Wall Street, which many people feel has hijacked our government for the 1 percent. Not to mention the Apple gave us the Donald!
It may seem unfair to pick on the City, especially when we have to defend it from our illiberal, xenophobic Upstate neighbors. But that’s not why we can’t be objective about NYC. This comes from our sense of unworthiness, our need to identify with those at the top of the “Green Frog Skin” heap (Lame Deer’s term for the culture of money), rather than with our own kind closer to the bottom. Though we gladly support LGBTQers’ rights, most of us shudder at the sight of trailer parks, or upstate Main Streets with their tattoo and pizza parlors, pawn shops and so little else, or the ubiquitous, obese white people. The unworthiness can be masked among the prosperous, but its crippling effect effectively blocks our discovering our own local, empowering and humanizing terms.
Our red-neck neighbors are ahead of the liberals in their distrust of the Big City and its political power, though their blame is aimed at the wrong “evildoers.” On the other hand, if we Upstaters were to consciously inhabit our “otherness,” we’d more naturally empathize with the people on the bottom, for we’d share their reality! Joined with the “others,” having broken through the limitations that keep imaginations contained/constricted behind bourgeois reality’s supremacist wall, we’d remove a formidable barrier to Upstaters finding our real decentralized energy.
When Orin and I started our coffeeshop, it became a place offering young people in particular a reason to stay in Utica. It did so because we were willing to be “others” in a town where consensus wisdom about small businesses was “start a pizza shop,” our values based foolishly in something other than solely profits. As we collectively face the limitations of a finite planet, entrepreneurship, as well as other community roles, must be not about increasing material well-being, but about joining with people to rebuild, from bottom up, local, interdependent communities. As voluntarily marginal people united under a post-neoliberal “roof,” we can re-occupy traditional roles and relationships demeaned under neoliberalism, including commercial ones, to revive and “re-mean” them.
Recently I learned, from an online video called “Selling Extinction,” (found via a link provided in a Counterpunch piece by John Steppling) that the Extinction Rebellion movement has been uncovered as a “top down,” rather than truly grass-roots movement. The Prolekult-produced video includes a segment filmed on site at an in-progress XR protest, the reporter documenting the fact that the XR phenomenon is an effort of NGO’s to financialize the “Green movement,” to plunder and suck a bit more blood before the ship entirely goes down. His interviews with protestors were particularly fascinating. One after another, prompted by the interviewer’s questions, the protestors indicated their cluelessness about this “other side” of XR. They could not follow his line of thinking.
Lacking a deeper analysis, or a readier skepticism that might come from knowing they’ve been “bamboozled” under capitalism from “Day One,” these people (or any of us) are vulnerable to being “true believers” in just the ecstatic way we saw among our liberal friends here after the 2007 Obama win. Their hearts have something to hope on; who really can blame them for their enthusiasm? Who would want to turn these very nice people back to despondency and despair? The reporter repeatedly attempted – gently – to puncture the XR reality, the reality of people who have completely assimilated neoliberal bamboozlement and is therefore unassailable.
As Upstaters, we’re acquainted with bamboozlement! Top-down changes that were supposed to make sense or do good for somebody and did us no good: factories removed; urban renewals that destroyed neighborhoods, local businesses, and downtowns forever; chain stores and suburban strip malls that hammered the coffin nail deeper. Somehow, rural and small-city dwellers that we are, a stubborn core of whom remain reluctant to believe change is always for the better, have been bamboozled into believing we are intrinsically inferior to those inhabiting the faster-paced, techno-cutting edge, high population density, financial and entertainment capital of the world. Upstaters’ low self-worth and compulsive need to identify with top-down projects (Jobs! Downtown mega-hospital!) keep us aligned with neoliberalism’s goals, not our own.
Last week Orin lamented to his next younger brother, who resides in upper West Side Manhattan, the fact that he (Orin) may soon be the only Domenico sibling (of seven) left in Upstate. In response, brother John suggested our staying was possible because we do “God’s work.” At first I bristled; Harrumph! “God’s work” makes it sound like something for suckers!
Upon reflection, I changed my mind; the metaphor is apt, for my concern is larger than just the fate of Upstate, or about whether or not I’m a sucker for hanging on here. I wonder often what it will take for more people to drop down into a different unity in this “other side” of history, the side that has “God” energy in it, but not much material reward. What prevents our friends – besides jobs and debt! – from emerging from under the banalizing “roof” of neoliberalism, what keeps them withholding themselves from the humanly attainable satisfactions of community interdependence? What keeps them clinging to their crazy hope-against-hope that bourgeois loyalty pays off? It seems that for middle-class white liberals, the liberating news – “you have been bamboozled” – is unwelcome!: Give us our XR, our “Indivisibles,” our Obama our Bernie, so that we can do good, feel effective and have hope, without losing what we have, without having to be scared. This is how the bamboozling racket is kept going.
At least since the 1970’s, a portion of Americans agree that indigenous peoples’ understandings offer a way out of top-down bamboozlement. Back then, the movements for native empowerment and increased interest in native culture on the part of white Americans gave Sioux medicine man Lame Deer a resurgence of hope for his people and for all people. The traditional knowledge he’d kept faith with offered a way out of the ongoing disaster of industrial-capitalist society, and attracted many worshipful followers. Now, after forty-some years of admiring indigenous wisdom, we can conclude that adoration of the “other” won’t get us out of our bamboozlement. It’s clear, at least to me, only the capacity to share that “other-based” understanding of a medicine man or woman, that capacity to be mingled, both “God and the Devil,” can free us from our addiction to bamboozlement.
As Mohawk storyteller Darren Bonaparte can tell you, in Iroquois creation myth God and the Devil are twin brothers. This deep insight, coming from instinct-level awareness, is hidden both from the confidently secular rationalist liberal thoughtworld and from monotheists. That’s too bad for us; the ontological equality of God and the Devil means the choice between order and chaos is placed upon human discernment where it belongs, leaving no room for complacency. It means the bourgeois excuse, “leave the driving to those who know better,” (an open invitation to snake-oil salesmen), is impossible! Finding ourselves in such an unsettling reality might constrain us to place our hope differently; i.e, in loyalty to the vision of oneness rooted in the common human soul (in our “otherness”). We might then consent Iroquoian-style to a binding covenant that makes peace-making a new ”roof” over relations with all others and with the earth. This hope isn’t cheap: it calls for individuals in place dropping down to “the other side” of the inferior/superior divide, a traverse by means of deep, “shamanic” imagination that is, though we’ve been bamboozled from knowing it, standard human equipment.