The subject of [people facing the prospect of sudden death] invites much speculation; for in every being’s idea of death, and his behavior when it menaces him, lies the best index to his life and faith.
– Herman Melville, Redburn
…if those on the left continue to put their faith and energy into the Democratic Party, they are not simply willfully naive but complicit in their own enslavement.
– Chris Hedges, Class: the Little Word the Elites Want you to Forget
In the novel Redburn (1849), based upon his own first voyage as a sailor while still a boy, Herman Melville describes the scenes on shipboard during an epidemic, and its devastations especially among the 500 emigrants packed into the “foul den” of the steerage. He also describes, disapprovingly, the reactions to the threat of contamination among“first class”cabin passengers, whose fear caused many of them to turn in desperation to prayer, “who had seldom prayed before.”
Coincident to my reading Redburn, the fear of a corona virus epidemic now grips people across the globe. And why, I wonder, does the stock market plunge with this threat, when as far as I know it remained stable during the recent Iran-U.S. standoff that must have brought the possibility of nuclear war to more minds and hearts than just my own?
Though it is nearly impossible for me to tell which comes first – a mass fear or the media’s spin on the situation (think of its repugnant role in the red-baiting of Bernie Sanders), the prospect of communicable disease apparently is more terrifying to people than either nuclear annihilation or mass extinction from climate collapse, even though the chances of survival for any one person are certainly greater with the former. Is this possibly because the fear of infectious disease is closely associated with the fear of other people, a concretizing of the vague and pervasive unconscious fear of others that already drives so much of the right wing fascist agenda, triggering behaviors that give a true “index to [each being’s] life and faith?”
Here is more evidence that we are a nation not of “classless”people, but of “class-shamed” people whose consciousnesses have been shaped for us by the invisible structures of class in a “democratic” society, whose invisibility insures their potency and our helplessness. For Trump-followers and liberals alike, class-shaming makes a solid basis for behaviors based on the fear of others.
Growing up in a modest suburban post-WWII housing development, and attending centralized public schools, I was acutely aware of “downward” class difference, but as I never had contact with the super-rich except in fairy tales and comic books (Uncle Scrooge), upward class difference had almost no meaning for me. As a teenager I found work on an island off the Maine coast that as it happened was a vacation island for the super-rich. Working in different maid capacities in these summer “cottages,” consorting with people whose real jobs were butler, parlor maid, nanny, personal chef, personal masseuse, gardener, yacht captain, handyman, etc., and hearing their upstairs/downstairs stories, I witnessed a distinctly class-stratified lifestyle. When my parents came to visit me at one of these jobs, I didn’t know if it was proper to let them enter through the front door or only through the servants door in the back.
This experience, coming before the 4 years spent in the milieu of Yale University privilege while attending divinity school, left me knowing that the pampered waited-upon lifestyle – that of Wall Street and Washington elites – exists. People who had grown up on the island, though their stories were many of the insults to their dignity working as a servant class, were impressed by their proximity to this opulence (as I was in finding myself at fabled Yale) even though they had none of it.
In neither of these glimpses of class did I make any connection between this usually hidden “upward” class difference, and my lifelong habit of uneasiness among people I perceive as “better than” me – smarter, hipper, more talented, self-assured, etc. But today I wonder: is this “elephant-that-swallowed-the-living-room” the cause of my pervasive sense of personal worthlessness, rather than its cause being some personal-history-based psycho-developmental issue of my own? This is an important distinction, possibly explaining the lack of political will and limited political and moral imagination among the majority of the liberal class who cannot see their own oppression. And even if there is a factor of personal history in my low self esteem, then does this not suggest my parents, too, were degraded by this hidden class system that we’re taught does not exist in America, where anybody can become President?
Despite this class-based uneasiness still dogging me as I enter my 70th year, I trudge along determined to make my own life mean something, as if it were not merely that I must do the best I can with the botched human being I am. The only alternative I find to that self-demeaning underclass perspective is one available to me by means of creative imagination; that is why I persist at my “soulcraft” of writing. This godawful shame provides me the “material” for my art that, in turn, critiques the neoliberal class system in the John-Brown-like hope of stirring up souls in captivity.
That gnawing sense of worthlessness that furnishes my motive to write never is vanquished. It’s as if upon solid authority,(speaking for all of us) we understood ourselves to be sinners, but are given no way to repent, be forgiven, or saved. And this, in my view, is where the middle class in America, barred by dogmatic rationalism from access to imagination, is stuck, and cannot prevent or act against its enslavement. Left in a class system ruled by an oligarchy that does not exist, we have only ourselves to blame for everything in our lives that doesn’t equal monetary success, personal beauty, or youth.
There being no such thing as class, the task of communicating with others across class shame is monumental, more difficult now than in Melville’s time when class shame had not yet been globalized, when cultural differences had not been so flattened as now, under the One World of corporate capitalism. The Irish immigrants onboard the Highlander, for instance, had a sense of their difference from the Americans that was not all about being “less than;” their identities were fortified in an authentic culture within which the realities of being “men” or “women” had not yet been deconstructed, and still gave bottom-up meaning to ordinarily sex-different human lives.
Never has it been so necessary to learn to take this matter back in our own hands, to learn to relate to each other on the basis of each person’s sovereign self, to hear each other in our difference as well as in our sameness, with no loss of amplification. This true basis for community, present esoterically in all the world religions, is basis for their still needed pro-social lessons: i.e., treat others as you would be treated in turn, honor the god, the Christ, in each person, practice kindness, mercy, forgiveness, etc.
Two weeks ago, Orin had a letter published in our local newspaper. Limited to 200 words, he minced none of them!: “The wretched neoliberal Clinton/Obama/Pelosi wing of the Democratic Party is doing everything in its power to stop Bernie Sanders, not because he can’t beat Trump, but because he’s the only one who can.” Despite the sound of it, the letter is not so much a pro-Bernie letter as a call to liberal supporters of the Democratic Party to wake up. Few friends mentioned his letter to him; the one or two who did assumed it was pro-Bernie – one woman told him “My kids would agree with you.”
To my ears, this deafness indicates the chasm between differences, the hidden class shame, that leaves people incapacitated for genuine thought. This is what makes it so very difficult to be an individual in America. This is why thinking and conversation is so truncated in America. To think as oneself, to have one’s own ideas, to express one’s “authorship” openly and improvisationally, is to fall between the cracks in the closed neoliberal thoughtworld limited to instantly recognizable tropes.
Lately Orin has been plunged once again into the trauma of his early childhood, a pathology for which he has not yet gotten past laying the fault at his now-deceased father’s and mother’s feet. The family now in shambles, the siblings unable to bear the intensity of each others company for more than a few moments in which each slides into the collective shame, Orin is at last wondering about the looming presence in Rome NY of its chief employer back then, the U.S. Air Force base. There his father, an artist, to support wife and 7 children worked in the graphics department, turning out such worthy artworks as a mural of B-52’s flying past the pantheon on Mount Olympus! The struggle is ongoing to gain the ideas that can liberate us from our shame, turn tables on the oppressors and regain revolutionary spirit!
The great problem for white liberals now, is not alone in treating immigrants, black people and trans people “as we would have them treat us.” It is in treating the noble aspect of our own individuality as if it were noble, rather than ignominious, and doing so, as we now must do, without benefit of cultural support such as immigrant groups of old had. The lack of recognition in one’s social environment – or encouragement for – an individual’s sovereign self is a deeply malignant form of oppression – no less so because the ruthless tyrant is within.
A social movement approach to this intractable problem might be located in the potentially revolutionary process of the addiction recovery groups of the ’80’s. Today recovery must have a larger “disobedience,” aiming not only to free the person from certain death by addiction but to free the fuller humanity ruthlessly suppressed under neoliberalism, a shift in ontology. It has to refuse the capitalist system that has convinced us we need things – a way of life – that feeds class shame and makes us sociopathic.
To this point, we have sacrificed humanly supportive conditions in order to feed our addiction to the neoliberal world of distractions, manufactured wants, “institutionalized knowledge,” etc. All the marvelous toys, the conveniences, the Amazon availability of everything, the ready solutions offered by medical, educational, transportation systems, etc., all – like grabbing a drink or shooting up – provide an instant gratification practically impossible to resist. For, at some level we know we are surrounded by malevolence; we just don’t know where it’s coming from. The system that offers us all the nice toys and gadgets is neither neutral nor benign. Built upon self-hate, it hates us. Stranded in it, the clues to our own sturdy humanity long-since lost, one’s insides frozen, the ice-cold witch itching to add your head to the ones stuck on the picket fence outside her cottage. There will never be a genuine political will until this terrible dependency, the wreckage it causes to relationships at all levels – to the ecology of everything – is overcome.
Recovery from neoliberalism comes with admitting we need people and relationships more than we need the things capitalism provides as substitutes. That is, we must dare to seek our trust in the very area in which we have the most extreme mistrust. The mistrust must be challenged most especially in defending the closest, most crucial relationships, within individuals, in marriages, families, local communities, an ongoing never-completed process to undo the harm that’s been done to us.
Not having been a lit major in college, I was proud of myself for observing that Redburn’s characters include a precursor to the memorable Ahab in Moby Dick, in the malignant and feared, but highly capable sailor Jackson, whom the other sailors, despite his cruelty and menace, held in awe. As with Ahab, Jackson’s presence acknowledges the power of consummate evil over men’s minds and behaviors, in part because he has a kind of resolution and intensity the others, ordinary sailors doing their jobs, lack. Two years later, Melville had moved this character to the center, to the captainship of the ill-fated Pequod, directing its insane pursuit of the white whale, a memorable statement about the reality of evil, and the woe that will befall those who see it not for what it is.
In the short run, as efforts are made to get the American “ship of state” back in some recognizably less Pequodish direction, a massive uprising is called for to prevent the Democratic party from disallowing the popular choice for candidate. But the evil liberals see personified in Trump is not in him alone; he is an expression of the evil system in which most of us docilely participate because our political imaginations are atrophied. We will never see democracy as long as we crave those alluring substitutes – cravings that never can be satisfied – that replace the close, place-bound, enduring bonds of affection upon which human beings depend, nearly totally destroyed – like the families of African slaves and the culture of indigenous people before them – under decades of neoliberalism. If we are to face up to the reality of evil, its diabolical resolution and intensity of focus having capsized all the liberal boats, then our resolve to protect the common good must be greater than our fear, and can come only bottom-up, from the soul in each person that connects her to eternal things.