If the left had identified and dealt with [the dissatisfaction of working people] early on, if they had counteracted the fallacies the Republicans used to explain that dissatisfaction, if they had listened instead of stereotyping blue-collar angst as “Archie Bunkerism”…and maybe offered some gutsy, comprehensible and practical solutions, we might have .. something better than the Republican syndicate’s lying and looting….
– Joe Bageant, Deer Hunting with Jesus
Cautiously, as we eye the spike of coronavirus cases going on in Oneida County now, Orin and I have moved back to having some of our family over for Sunday dinners indoors but not the full 13 who live in Utica, as in pre-pandemic times. Last Sunday at the table, daughter Molly asked us how we respond to people who question the need to wear masks. It seems she’s encountering people young enough (though not necessarily young) to be chafing at the restrictions (as who is not?) who now are saying, I’ll take my chances. It’s not that serious, etc. The conversation brought me back to mid-March when lockdown restrictions were imposed, the governor telling us they were needed to protect the most vulnerable, and to stand with the medical and other essential workers risking their health and their lives every day. He told us we wear masks not to protect ourselves, but (as much) to protect others.
BTW I take my chances as a writer on a leftward website saying anything good about Andrew Cuomo. Opening an essay with him is likely suicidal. But, I argue, this is not a political endorsement! It is a protest against cancel culture, as everything I write is. Please – must I beg? – don’t cancel me! I need my Cuomo example to make my point – (which, in part, I’ve just revealed).
Governor Cuomo’s daily pandemic briefings last spring were instances of someone in public office for once using it for the common good at the risk of making himself extremely unpopular with many constituents. The arguments he gave for mask-wearing weren’t intended to appease anyone, but were aimed at those of us whose compliance he needed. As the numbers kept rising, each of those numbers, Cuomo reminded us tirelessly – just as though relationships matter – was someone’s grandmother, father, aunt, cousin, etc. This is not political, he repeated, knowing that cynical ears, the ones smoldering over some other controversial decision he’d made, such as the NYS SAFE Act, or his refusal to tax Wall Street billionaires would respond, Yeah, sure, no matter what he said! The assurance he gave us was of a special kind, rarely voiced by politicians; his explicit inclusion of the ones least able to protect themselves meant, to the specially tuned ears of the heart, all of us were included.
In those tense days, weeks, and months, we were pulled in from our habitual “micro-realities” into our place within the whole body of New Yorkers, a thing I rarely thought about before the pandemic, back when I was actually free to mingle in that larger society. Make no mistake, though I hated (and hate) the pandemic conditions, mask and social distancing mandates, the crushing effects on older people like me, and on small businesses like ours, the words Cuomo chose made me feel my own good and the common good as one. Since solidarity, or interdependence, presumably is precisely what we on the left seek, knowing the survival of the planet, not to mention our humanity, depend on it, isn’t it worth understanding what he did that was effective?
In effect, the governor used his authority to pull us into an alternative narrative in which we were people who watched out for each other, not only for ourselves as we ordinarily do, when chips are not down. Just as on the Right, people follow their talk-radio-supplied narrative of Big Government and elites out for themselves, people on the Left must have a larger narrative; in our case one that can authorize for us the Truth (I capitalize in order to designate the highest, most inclusive Truth) of interdependence – unless our aim, like that on the Right, is to keep capitalism going no matter what.
Long ago, we lost the unifying myth of religion that now is replaced in liberal reality with unchecked anti-authoritarianism and its correlative, cancel culture. The function of myth is to unify, to provide a kind of “immunity” that allows people to hold contrary realities in imagination, without having to cancel the other or oneself. Contrarily, with no persuasive reason to “stick together,” each existing in our frail “micro-realities,” like catty girls on the playground we have to make objectionable people not exist. A healthy immunity that could allow us to stop reflexively fending off “otherness,” will not come from Big Pharma, but only from expanded imaginations.
Without a narrative of inclusion, a narrative of hate is all our imaginations are left with to feed on exuberantly. Last week I read one of those smug editorial pieces in the NYTimes that serves to keep divisiveness alive and well in stunted liberal hearts, rather than to encourage healing (that doesn’t sell papers!). Columnist Frank Bruni took on Ivanka and Jarrod, seeming to delight in imagining their being friendless in NYC, and “getting theirs” after Trump’s loss. And it works! As I read, delicious feelings of sweet revenge rose up in me: Yes! Bring them down into the mud! Let them see what it feels like!
Whether or not our leaders can resist politicizing it, and despite the massive anti-mask rebellions going on across the country, feeding on Fox news, talk radio and social media-spread theories, the pandemic crisis calls us unambiguously to that Truth of interdependence that not only makes an injury to one an injury to all; it makes one’s own good and the good for all the same, not artificially kept separate as they are in “normal” liberal reality. That people must fend off the Truth that puts the common good first is due as much to liberalism’s unchecked, reflexive anti-authoritarianism, based at its core in deep wounds inflicted by a rudderless, profits-driven zeitgeist that rewards individuals with the emblems of success (NY Times columnist!), as to uneducated Trump-followers’ resentments.
Though one could be forgiven for thinking liberals had just recently heard of it, the Truth of interdependence is not new, even in western civilization. Religious tradition gives us beautiful phrases like the “Kingdom of God,” the “brotherhood of man,” the “body of Christ” that point to this all-embracing inclusivity. The words are metaphors for realities only imagination can grasp, but not beyond the capacity of the heart to experience and to hunger after. Scripture, after all, is poetry put to the use of the institution. Western societies, sacrificing poetry for power, failed to attain the inclusiveness that was basis for their own religions. We became top-down missionizers, conquerors, colonial settlers and exploiters, always capable of exclusion and cruelty in the name of a higher, civilizing purpose.
Contrary to popular “wisdom,” surrender to the truth of the “Kingdom of God” is not sacrifice of individual freedom. It’s not simply the opposite of selfish egoism. Rather, this highest most inclusive truth favors individuality as the expression of freedom. Under its uncompromising terms of wholeness and interrelatedness, action one takes on behalf of genuinely “selfish” concerns, say, for personal meaning and occasional joy, is not egoistic; serving soul it serves the whole. Equally, action on behalf of oppressed others follows naturally from the prior liberation of one’s personal soul, that, in liberal reality has been deemed inferior and goes undefended (i.e., the “original injustice” that impels us to forsake our creative spirit for bourgeois rewards).
No matter which way you look at it, the Truth of interdependence is benevolent and joy-authorizing. However, in crisis situations when the good of all is at stake, interdependence makes denialism and defiance banishable offenses, and also willful ignorance, whether what’s at issue is an epidemic, or despoliation of air, water, and land, or climate warming, or factories closing and jobs lost, financial markets enriching themselves at the expense of the poor, etc.
Nature’s ecological law of interdependence is inviolable. But this does not mean it should be interpreted unimaginatively as “no one should have to die,” or that we should exhaust every means at our disposal to keep human beings alive instead of allowing them their natural and inevitable end. It means the aim is to keep our hearts alive in relation to those most easily discountable, “the least of these,” i.e., an elderly woman facing triple-bypass heart surgery who catches Covid and dies of it. An alive heart must, necessarily, always be listening for words and deeds that speak unequivocally on behalf of the most vulnerable, for those who don’t count, words always and everywhere consoling, that communicate the reassurance of inclusivity, no exceptions. (Words entirely useless for politicized, demagogic purposes that require frightened people to be effective.)
With no corroboration of our interrelatedness, trapped in rationalist, secularist liberal reality, we’re stuck with one kind of authority: the top-down kind. There being no “highest, all-inclusive authority” free-thinkers will assent to, we continue to slide further backward into cancel culture’s enemy camps. Clinging to the (top-down) media-voiced virtual reality that soothes our sense of reality rather than disturbing it, each isolated individual is unchecked in her core (“immunocompromized”) sense of victimhood and wounded righteousness that cannot bear the threat of “otherness.”
In liberals, the denial of otherness may be most intense (but unconscious) in relation to those closest to us and most like ourselves. Hence, liberal parents not only often fail to honor the unique otherness – the individuality – of their children, but even collaborate with its suppression. Commonly, liberals assume all their friends vote for Hillary, Obama or Biden; not doing so is unthinkable. Liberal progressives come up with rules governing interactions between recognized categories of difference, supposedly in service to justice but in fact doing the opposite. Such identity politics function essentially self-protectively (prophylactically) against the inner reality of imagination-based moral conscience. The healthy immunity we could have, that would make possible a unity of individualities, is impossible without the “Kingdom of God” replacing neoliberal illegitimate authority.
Thus secretly slaves to neoliberal top-down reality, we never can act in our own interests. For its not just the working class Trump voters who, mystifyingly to us educated ones, vote against their interests. Liberals stuck in the spineless frame of lesser-evilism are just as surely prevented from pursuing our truest interests which, in the end, are and will always be in-common with all humankind.
Unchecked anti-authoritarianism plays out before me in the awful pandemic reality here in our lives in upstate NY. “Conspiracy theories” are concocted from fear and uncertainty and mistrust of authorities, ranging from acute paranoid fear of personal infection, to outright covid denial. They come about because people must have a narrative that makes sense to them, whether or not it leaves them terrified for their own skins or at risk of finding themselves bedfellows with those who – on a larger scale (i.e., Trump followers) – are also watching out for their skins, devil take the weak and the unsound. Lacking entirely any unifying sense of a shared reality, there’s just my narrative, backed by x,y,z reasons. Being liberal, I can’t assume you share it nor will I exhort you on it. And so we remain in our micro-realities, fearful of the very unity for which we long.
To need a narrative is a legitimate hunger of the imagination. That, in the absence of a unifying myth people come up with micro-myths does not make us “deplorables.” I, too must have a story, and I come up with some that are admittedly “half-baked.” But to corroborate my more-than-hunch that there is meaning, I hold out for one that agrees with the yearning of my soul for an outer reality to match “Her” marvelous imaginative one of wholeness and connectedness. This I contact via my creative work and must continue to do, whether or not I can do anything for all those who are limited inside their micro-worlds. But when someone close to me who shares my (our) narrative becomes disoriented, veers off into the ever-insatiable maw of personal worthlessness, I can help. Acting in my own self-interest which is his as well, I remind him of that crucial imaginative reality, the safety of the heart, in which you are included, as am I.
Right now, when unity on behalf of the good for all appears hopeless and chaos terrifyingly inevitable, we have an opportunity to exchange our micro-realities for the larger, inclusive one. If we’re to escape the dominant, radically evil capitalist narrative in which human beings must compete with each other, and are discardable to those at the top looking down on the carnage in the arena below, this law of interdependence must be taken beyond the matter of mask-wearing compliance. It must make us people who refuse the narrative that writes off others, that cannot be open to the real difference the other person is, that estranges us from neighbors we don’t know and never see, yea, even unto the Trump followers whose hatred for us and our most cherished values we imagine and fear.
Impossible? No. But the encompassing narrative has to change, a change within our hands that may be delayed by the pandemic but not canceled: Rescue first your own completely inconvenient heart from the inferior place its been thrust into in bourgeois reality, dare to selfishly follow the dream you had in an earlier time when you were drawn to something useless and impractical that made your heart sing, strike off on the adventure that called you once, and you will understand how our social divisions came to be, and your part in them!