Of Bullies, the Bullied & the Craft of Art

Left wing and right wing

Political powers in the mastergame

The Player who controls the board

Sees them all as the same

Basically cannon fodder

Still nobody knows who the master is

‘Cause he never goes in hiding….

  • Eugene McDaniels, fr. Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse(1971)

Before the holidays Orin and I joined two other couples for one of our so-called “Grease Balls & White Girls” get-togethers at a local restaurant, something we’ve done irregularly over the last dozen years. The dinners had their start when one of the “GB’”s, a successful Arab-American lawyer & prosperous businessman named JP, who met Orin at our Cafe, and connected with the third GB, “Paul,” (Italian-American), through their shared love of Latin, noticed all three “GB’s” had married “white girls.” So, unlikely a group as we were, we began getting together and discovered we shared a love for good (not necessarily expensive) food – no finicky carb watchers among us! – wine, and laughter. A few times the group threatened to fall apart, when the two bull gooses went at each other, the working class-identified Classics professor Paul leading the charge against the “rich guy,” the “self-made” millionaire JP counterattacking by taking aim at the professor’s cushy “sinecure.”

After a longish interval we got together again this past December, at a Cambodian place that let’s you bring your own wine – a feature we prize. Well along in the meal, JP referred to the public outrage of which he’d borne the brunt recently. He had gifted a property – a decommissioned elementary school building and its adjacent land – to a nonprofit organization to build a residence for developmentally disabled, including autistic, people on the lot. When neighbors got wind of the plan, they organized to oppose it on the grounds they had not been consulted about either school demolition, nor the construction of a 4-story, 60 unit-apartment building in this neighborhood of single-family homes. They failed to defeat the plan, and the organization and the city, the building now completed, held an inaugural ceremony in early December for the building now named after our GB friend (who got a $500,000 tax write-off for his gift).

Apparently some of the opponents got way out of line with uncivil talk on social media postings, upsetting JP and his wife, Carole. Though I understood their upset, I sympathized also with the neighborhood people who had had a change thrust upon them “without representation,” and I said words to that effect. I had felt similar sympathy with friends who are neighbors to a church that had opened its doors to homeless people (allowing them to stay indoors only from 8 pm to 7 am), including drug addicts – without consulting the neighbors. I saw this similarly as a case of do-good work with a dark side only the people right there on the ground – coming upon hypodermic needles on their property – could see.

The discussion was bringing our little dinner group closer to the perilous subject of class. When Orin mentioned that back in the 1950’s and 60’s the rich paid taxes at a higher rate than now, he and JP got into it briefly Attorney JP, laying his facts out in a row, refuted Orin resoundingly; nobody else was ready to get into it with him. Suddenly Paul, at 80 the oldest in our group, perhaps uniquely reacting to the invisible bullying going on at the table, mildly asserted, “I never heard of a rich man who wasn’t a crook,” or words to that effect. He did not elaborate further. JP looked more amused than bothered, and did not respond.

Given their history, was Paul joking? No one came to Paul’s aid, including we who’ve spoken similarly in different company. I’ve since concluded Paul was serious; his audacity provokes me to consider what I think.

The problem of wealth inequality in a society such as ours where no shared reality of interdependence exists, is it supports the ego illusion of difference, and the immoral sorting of human beings according to man-made criteria of deservingness and virtue. From the perspective of the person for whom the system works, simply, the system works; the ego does not challenge its own supremacy. And even where the system doesn’t work, where ego is unchecked, the challenge will be ineffective. Thus, for the rich man, not only has your wealth been made on the backs of others, but your reality has to be as exclusive as the ego’s dominance in the personality. Seated upon that cushion off affluence, no contradictory awareness gets through; from that cushioned perspective, where poverty is something that afflicts only others, where even death’s sting is muted, and where the “cushion of affluence” muffles existential or anthropogenic dread, what critique is it logical to make?

As far as affecting JP’s self-confidence, an impertinence like Paul’s is ineffectual. At any implication that the wealthy man won’t get into heaven, he smiles, for in his reality fortune smiles, God, in fact, smiles. As for heaven, “he’s covered.” Like others in his class, he does the kind of good that supports, never threatens, the status quo, gifting the money 501c3’s depend upon, including support for the arts. He holds a benign attitude toward those less well off, as if he does not notice differences, – unless he’s “attacked” by an association of neighbors angry about being bullied.

What he’s unwilling to do, and it’s absurd to expect it of him, is question the benevolent hand that rewards him. Though no Absolute exists in our “Godless” reality, he must behave as if he is God-favored. No matter how good the man, no matter the unfair slings & arrows he may have endured as an “ethnic,” that exclusiveness must be upheld, however uneasily the head wears the crown. When “push comes to shove” – like the favored “hero”child in a family system – he has difficulty seeing other existences as real. That is, he depends on the narrative that tells him the system works because for him, no less than for the other “siblings,” no Absolute confirmation for his self-worth exists except for Money. In a system whose God is money, bullying is the norm; though most don’t confess it, everyone wants to be the bully or on the bully’s side, never the bullied.

Changing the narrative

So how can we legitimately insert the unpleasantly contrarian moral fact that the system does not work for everyone? In the dominant white liberal reality, my role in relation to affluent people is to support their “bubble of deserving.” This is neoliberal reality, in which the “master who never goes in hiding” smiles at you just like a friend. The proper social role for the 99% is to be codependent handmaidens to the rich man’s enhanced, relatively charmed reality. Unbeknownst to both sides – unless one finds a vantage point outside of the ego – that consensus reality bullies me to surrender my own narrative, to give up my “me-ness.” In a society of ostensible social equality, this ranking system is mostly invisible, the bullying denied.

And here’s my point: because we share liberal reality, its whiteness and its benefits, the bullying cannot be confronted socially unless, like an indigenous person, I have my own narrative to counter with. That is, the so-subtle bully has one surefire natural opponent, which is the person who suffers. Thus, legitimate dissent, for those not suffering poverty, or racism, comes down to an individual matter. It comes from my knowing viscerally and painfully the system doesn’t work for me; it means I must be aware I suffer morally, as an “other.” That suffering, evidence of the real vulnerability of my soul, and of JP’s as well, is consequence of accepting the terms of a reality in which the soul and its needs are disregarded. Authentic dissent comes from taking the soul’s existence seriously. It calls for art.

There’s one reality (the capitalist, neoliberal, bullying one ) unless each discovers and, through creative self-definition, stands in her own. Then there are two.

We’re told there are many narratives, everyone’s is different, etc, suggesting the worth and meaning of all are relative. But their relativity is because we exist in the single dominant narrative that, in a demiurgic way (to borrow a term from gnostic tradition), makes all our truths relative. The “Demiurge’s” illegitimate power leaves us inside the bullying paradigm until we recover the narrative that provides the mythic strength to resist the bully. This creative and “redemptive” narrative, in order to contend on a basis that is not relative, but Absolute, is distinguished by some basic themes: it has to presume (or know ) “original okayness” – call it wholeness, “original blessing,” 360 degrees of radiance, “magic child,” “state of grace,”etc. Then, the story goes, something, or a series of somethings happened, or were done to, or were inflicted upon that original radiance. Some sort of traumatic fall from grace occurred that was not one’s own fault.

What has been called in Christian tradition ‘sin’ became, in the institutional church, a cover for what actually occurs, which is that gradually one falls from grace in the process of being socialized into a bullying order that denies intrinsic sovereignty. The restored narrative, based in original unity and wholeness is not a regression back into childhood, nor is it simply defiance of social norms, but a restoration of a unified personality that, instincts intact, abhors the bully who demeans the truth of feeling and denies the priceless worth of one’s own creative voice.

That is, this invisible, immaterial level wherein relative worth is established in our liberal western secular reality must be resisted first where it exists within myself or yourself. The bully that reveals itself the moment one deserts the flock and follows “bliss” (freedom) – all those spurious arguments that hold me back from pursuing “the heart’s desire” – is the bully within. That invisible bully, more effectively than any real-life “enforcer,” routinely suppresses the weaker, vulnerable, feeling self as having no right to a voice. Once that inner bully is recognized and challenged in the man or the woman,, he/she is capable of discerning “the master” who’s not hiding. By taking on the scoffing bully in myself, I initiate myself into a very different way of loving that defends first “the innocent and vulnerable,” the creative soul. Should I refuse to take up that loving action, denying the call to my otherness, I’m limited to being only as good as liberal reality allows.

When I commit myself to this different narrative that takes the side of my weaker, more pathetic, softer “side” against the scoffing bully, I’m in effect committing to a theology, a religious myth grounded in the creative soul, and to the work of art-making. That I, personally, take up art on this basis does not make me a great (or successful!) writer, it makes me someone living within a personal myth that counters absolutely the bullying (consumer) culture that defines all of us, rich man and poor alike, as disposable “cannon fodder.”

The Necessity for Making Believe

The personal myth is not only personal, but foundational for the moral truth of interdependence. Thus, warning must be issued: “Being the change,” that is, having had individual experiences of genuine spiritual transformation – a new and liberating personal story – through, for example, undergoing psychotherapy – does not automatically bring corresponding commitment to social transformation. Many spiritual “influencers” and practitioners in the mental health world are still obedient to the one neoliberal reality which their living depends upon. So when, independently, I decide the new story must inform my social self as a demand and a duty, outside of institutional faith, I cross over into“make-believe.” I’m practicing the kind of thinking which, before we learned to admire indigenous people, we called superstition and primitivism. My only “proof” for taking up such an unauthorized faith comes from a subjective determination to stay out of the unnecessary suffering caused by the bullying social reality that denies the reality of my soul. The unauthorized faith brings relief, the sense of non-contingent belonging, a temporary but infinitely renewable “cushion”of inner well-being, that otherwise is obtainable only via its diabolical cousins, either pharmaceutical first-aid or the cushion of material affluence.

Importantly, making this faith a social as well as individual undertaking means the relationships closest to oneself – marital, familial, and (diversely) communal – must not be neglected. Just as surely as the family institution replicates the culture of bullying, families are also the foundations for stability in a humane society that must be made safe for vulnerable souls once more. Beginning there, where men and women raised in the bullying, scarcity-model narrative “intersect” in intimate space, where pressure to maintain the bully/bullied paradigm is most intense, the ontological categories can be transformed from “bully” and “bullied” to mutual and mutually valid strengths. If this is impossible, now that we’ve learned to wield enmitizing terms like “abusive” and “irreconcilable differences,” then peace is impossible. This is the way of bottom-up strength, as cancel culture, divorce and other litigation, and the dominant politics – that encourage more victim mentality and weakness – are not.

Yesterday Orin pointed out to me an article in The Guardian about “collector culture” – the use of social media platforms to post nude, sexually explicit pictures of young women who’ve not consented to the posting. Clearly such behavior is consequence of the naïve trust that’s been placed in social media, sanctioning its replication of the bully/bullied paradigm in the virtual sphere. The subtle bullying of neoliberalism and its corporate-friendly internet, social media and TV-fostered dependencies is positioned to replace humanly necessary relationships and community and make cannon fodder of us all. Surely, the resistance to this bullying system cannot be political protest solely, (i.e., more anti-porn activism), not writing more checks for worthy causes, but something as profound as the human being: I propose making believe.


Kim C. Domenico, reside in Utica, New York, co-owner of Cafe Domenico (a coffee shop and community space),  and administrator of the small nonprofit independent art space, The Other Side.  Seminary trained and ordained,  but independently religious. She can be reached at: kodomenico@verizon.net.