Let’s face it we live in a web of lies and much of our lives are devoted to unraveling them.
…not only the humanities but humane and critical intelligence itself resides in the always-threatened keeping of the very few.
– George Steiner
It’s fair to say the continuance of the liberal worldview depends upon all of us preserving a kind of faith that “somebody has our back.” Today, in the disturbing new era in which Trumpian values seem ascendant, with dysfunctional vaccine rollouts following 11 months of administrative mishandling of the pandemic, with mass disillusionment and rampant conspiracy theories (some of which make intuitive sense, some purveying alternative science the layman’s in no position to refute), with a bureaucratized medical system that looks at its numbers, not at persons – that anyone “has our back” ought to be the hardest faith to cling to. To my pandemic-glazed eyes, the newspaper headlines – especially in my local newspaper, but also in the Times, sound “just like a lie” right out of the pages of Orwell or Huxley. One reads them in disbelief, alternating between alarm (“We’re approaching 500,000 covid deaths!” – a media drumbeat nearly matching the build-up to Academy Awards time!) – and ridiculously assuaging us against our own lived experience (“vaccine rollout now running smoothly,” or the like).
The bastardized “faith” we rest in, that things really are better now, is a kind of resignation of personal will leading to passivity and to being acted upon rather than being oneself the will-ing actor. Though the system we participate in daily assaults our autonomy and dignity, provides no assurance that every human life matters and in fact assures the opposite, we accept a place within it. Perhaps the safeguards working people have accumulated – or that unions and the New Deal won for us – and the comfort, however precarious, of a middle class income – has made it easier to believe our wills are unnecessary. At the same time, the paralysis of wills prevents our facing the full truth: in the bargain we’ve made to sustain our collective bourgeois way of life premised upon the suffering of others and the destruction of the earth’s natural environment our human strength’s been robbed. A healthy will cannot embrace it.
Personal will, usually thought of as means to inject one’s ego and egoic projects into the world, can equally serve the larger, inclusive soul and its this-world counterpart: the larger good of the commons and the common good. If our wills were instead obedient to the heart, they would keep us to the trajectory of our individuality, which is a sum, not a unit; that is, they’d serve not just ego, but a heroic, humanizing process demanding allyship and creative participation. Such an initiation transforms “living” from just being about getting from point A to Point B, into the opportunity (the world’s a stage!) to meet trials, ordeals, and setbacks in the process of becoming a human being. Absent initiation, all other efforts involving our will appear to us too big, far beyond the scope of a “mere mortal;” our wills remain servile and we mainly compliant.
The connection between liberal complaisance, and the absence of will to bring about the in-common world is plain. What might happen instead if we let go of that self-serving assumption that the world bends towards our well-being, and realized the truth: Nobody has your back!
The Purpose of Unraveling
During the pandemic as Orin and I, nothing better to do of an evening, have been watching old movie classics – noirs and westerns, mainly from the 30’s, 40’s and fifties I’ve gained insight as to how this passification of will works. At one level, the revelations are fun, but not important (like, the reliability of certain directors for making interesting movies – whether Siodmak, Fuller, Lang or Ford, or the fineness of actors I’d only known through their banal TV roles or at end of career, such as Gene Evans, Ward Bond, Barbara Stanwyck, Edmond O’Brien, Robert Ryan, or Ida Lupino).
Watching all these movies, some good, some great, I realized something else: the unspoken message I’d picked up in my childhood about non-contemporary movies. Other than my father’s expressed love for the Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton, movies of the past were matters of indifference. They were the past, and therefore automatically inferior. No need to look back because in fact the movies you want to see are the latest, the ones coming out now. Even Alfred Hitchcock, for goodness sake, whom my mother adored, we were left to presume was important for his TV show, not for his body of film work about which, other than “Psycho” and “The Birds” I knew nothing. Of course, this is what “higher education” is for, to disabuse ourselves of our ignorance and provincialism.
But how easily do we miss altogether a reality lying beyond the one we passively receive from the society in which we’re raised! Due to liberal society’s tepid enthusiasm for the liberal arts, except as special preserve of and distinguishing mark of election of the elite class, one must make an effort, perhaps driven by curiosity, against the futuristic thrust of progressive neoliberal willed forgetting. Only then may that other reality of art and imagination be revealed. One might almost see this as being the point of a human life, its purpose to unravel the lies that have been spun in order for us to prefer mediocrity and banality (not to mention injustice and cruelty), over the wonder, truth and beauty available free of purchase to every human soul. Unconsciousness is a high price indeed to pay for the illusion that someone has your back.
Alternative news from watchdog sources are lifeblood to thinking people, essential in a time of corporatized media. But such facts alone, for example anti-mask or anti-vaccine messages, or even facts that contradict Big Pharma and its medications that practically everyone my age is on. Just last week I took myself off the medical establishment-approved statin drug prescribed for my “high cholesterol,” based on the opinion (for which I’d asked ) of my micro-biologist brother-in-law, who is knowledgeable in nutrition. But his knowledge and PhD are not alone why I turned “refusenik;” it’s the fact he’s my relative, and knows me. Other than in a case like this, though I’m perfectly clear the neoliberal establishment does not have my back, I do not feel the dissenters arguing online have my back either.
More “true facts” do not satisfy my soul. I want more than David’s counter-truths doing battle against Goliath’s dominant narrative. I want to know, impossibly and unreasonably that those appealing to me from counter narratives, as well as from the dominant one, share what I must call humility. They must convince me of their humble humanity that presents its case because it must, that is, in order to preserve that humanity. Such a humility alone, which is not conveyed well via electronic media, can convince me of a comradeship that includes me within it. Precarious as is my hold on my sense that I matter, a precarity enhanced by pandemic isolation and by aging, I will join no group or cause – even anti-Big Pharma – that cannot affirm my personal worth-fulness. Sorry, but I’m done, through, finished, kaput with giving anybody, no matter how smart, no matter how inclusive and concerned their words on paper or screen, the benefit of the doubt. I don’t believe in anyone’s “having my back” unless ego has been put in its place, properly subservient to truth of our oneness and the dream of the common good.
That’s just me. But yet I insist: even if you’re made in the shade – got your vaccine both doses, and your stocks are doing well – nobody has your back – or mine. Not even AOC or Bernie – they, at best, can represent those who’ve learned to watch out for their own backs and for those few others – possibly limited to family and a very few besides – whose mutuality we can trust. It is this truth liberal America must come to grips with; we are on our own now. Stop trusting in lies. Even more, stop wanting lies.
We could be so much better off if we let go of faux faith and allowed ourselves to realize the truth of our abandonment in neoliberalism. That way, depressed and scared as we might be, we could begin to act in such a way as to redevelop the kinship and community bonds, the mutuality we lost back when 18th and 19-century ancestors had the commons stolen from them. Albeit gradually, in a process that would likely take generations, we could return to covering each others backs for real! For this long-range turn around, faith is needed – not a (false) faith that we can control what happens to us, not faith in “God’s plan for us” – but faith in the better world predicated in our own multitudinous souls such that that world not only includes our sorry (and as Cornel West might add – funky –) selves, but needs me/us to build it.
In other words, nobody can do this impossible thing – of watching out for each others backs except those who learned to “watch out for their own backs,” that is, who know how to affirm their basic worth – and thus the worth of their fragile, “pie-in-the-sky” vision of the better world – in full awareness of the dark disaster of our civilization for whom no person, only profits, is sacred.
Restoring the subjective sacred
What we have going for us who, by design, lack an intrinsic sense of worth, of sacrality, is that the soul has not yet become “vestigial.” As relentless as is the decline in our humanity we don’t at the same time automatically lose the embodied human faculty (the imaginative soul) that’s the source of such a notion as “intrinsic worth.” If the soul would just surrender totally, we could fully accept our machine/slave identity! Instead, She ( for fun, let’s say “She,” as if She were the Great Mother) continues to prompt the search“out of sight” for the sacred. In a rationalist secularist (liberal) context this quest becomes perverted downwardly from the quest for poetic Truth, to susceptibility to a substance or process that can fill the unfillable hole in the soul. Drugs, alcohol and workaholism are obvious substitutes. Virtual reality, with its hyper-real, sharpened, “glamorized” images, is even more ideally suited as an addictive substitute for the authentically sacred.
Neoliberal reality offers a thousand ways to keep the soul in chains and has a great interest in keeping Her there. With no consciousness befriending or defending Her, my soul or yours – the original “other” – is impediment to the common good. In our ignorance, Her projections – for She can’t stop conjuring images – we take as prima facie “reality;” other people are either the self-possessed and “godlike,” reflecting the intrinsic self-worth we deny to our own negated, dis-valued selves, or disposables of no worth. By this “zero-sum equation,” now commonly applied, human men and women are reduced from sacred to sucker, king/queen to knave, whole and healthy to sick and lost. As the only being that truly “has our back,” that can stand with equal power against the great God Money, the not-yet vestigial soul must be the subject of liberation now.
Clearly an intervention is called for in order to break through from enclosure to the consciousness that can befriend and defend the soul. Maturation, or the process by which adult consciousness is achieved, needs assistance from another dimension, if you will, if it’s to be an initiation that can project the individual’s sight outside the walls of the interlocked, enclosed reality within the neoliberal “compound.” For “home,” in neoliberal reality mysteriously matches the homes we were raised in where one is accepted “just the way I am” as long as its enclosure is never “unraveled.”
Though pandemic makes a strange historical moment for a call to seek the initiatory fruits of solitude it may still be the intervention needed – the crisis we never wanted – for a breakthrough to consciousness. In this world that’s been constructed from our servile loyalty to the doctrine of progress and to-be-damned with peace, love, and understanding, we must assuredly find our way “up from slavery.” The process of personal awakening to the truth of full humanity, has been made familiar to us through reading the narratives of minority “others” such as Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright Ralph Ellison, Malcolm X, or Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies. This process, historically taken up by the few, inseparable from “humane and critical intelligence” (thinking!) must now be the heroic quest of the many.
Minority narratives, so soul-satisfying to read, follow the process of unraveling, of freeing oneself from enclosure in the one systemic reality that’s antagonistic to human beings, stultifying to the soul’s imagination, and not the only one! While Black Lives Matter defies the lie that black people don’t matter due to their otherness, for white people, the lie we must disabuse ourselves of is that we exceptionalistically do “matter” in America. Minority struggles as “others” in America should be instructive for all of us if we are to regain our wills in order to direct them to the only vision worth attaining, which is the one of common good. When we really get it, that nobody has our back, we’ll be freed to partner creatively with our otherness, and with others presumed likewise free, an act of liberation that can restart the processes of mutuality, and begin the reclamation of a common good.