Regretsgiving

We should be giving thanks to the Native Americans who taught European immigrants to survive in the New World. To the black people who constructed our economy as slaves, reconstructed it as freed men and women, gave us the civil rights movement, and now fight against state violence in the forms of police and penal brutality. To the immigrants, Mexican and Vietnamese, Jewish and Muslim, people from all over the world who have created our culture. To the women who have reproduced our country generation after generation and today lead the resistance against abuse of power. To Mother Nature for literally everything.

But would such thanksgiving imply an appreciation for the gift itself, the gift of our existence in today’s world? How embarrassing to acknowledge that such sacrifice and oppression have enabled our petty, mean, polluted, exploited existence. I do not give you thanks. I give you apologies.

But in an effort, again, to see the positive coupled to the negative (an effort that feels forced, Herculean even, but I hope in time will feel more natural): Shame and regret imply a standard of value without which life would be neutral, Purgatorial. I could not hold these negative perspectives without their positive complements. I feel embarrassed by exploitation because I believe in freedom. I feel sorrow about violence because I believe in harmony. It is not just that I wish we had freedom or harmony; it is that I know they are real, they are powerful, they are worthwhile; I have experienced their beauty, their love, their laughter. Without such compelling values to fight for, there would be no reason to fight against. More depressing than outrage against injustice is resignation to it. Thus can I say, for the creative possibilities of nature and culture — I am grateful.

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Go forth and multiply

It may come as a surprise that humans do not will our own multiplication. We will only power — over other species and other humans. Americans want to prevail over non-Americans, Chinese over non-Chinese, and so on. We view population increase not as the goal but a means toward such prevalence. We actually want to prevail over others with as few in our in-group as possible, like the .01% who dominate the 99.9% in our economy. We prefer the dominated groups to have more people whose bodies and minds to exploit for capitalization of power (although this strategy carries risks; the more slaves one owns, the greater the slaves’ potential to overthrow). Thus our ecological/economic crisis of overpopulation derives not from our will to reproduce the species as widely as possible but from our will to concentrate power as narrowly as possible. We treat people like livestock by the millions on an industrial farm as opposed to relatively few but free-ranging cows; the former are fat and numerous, but the latter are free.

It may come as a further surprise that I find this perspective encouraging. It means there is a solution to our crisis besides self-negation. We do not need to restrict the freedom to procreate; we need to unleash the freedom to create ourselves. 

One can hope

While it should not be reduced merely to a political stratagem (for it may be no less than a civilizational reckoning with the abuse of power, or with power itself), the #MeToo movement appears to be a brilliant intensification of the women-led resistance against Trump. Consider the effect, at least temporarily, on the careers of men outed as sexual predators: successful businessmen, entertainers, journalists, are no longer employed despite their success; their success is no longer legitimate. The more men who fall, in more and more positions of power, the more normal it becomes to delegitimize those who abuse their power — the more doomed Trump will be. Unlike abusers of power who are more accountable to liberals (Weinstein, Spacey, Franken, etc.), he may still survive for the term(s) bargained for, but the contradiction between his status as predator and president will be all the more heightened. As a result, his position of power will grow more tenuous, his legacy less assured. For this reason among others, the movement must proceed with full force, without reservations, without exceptions, until it seems that the last man standing is Trump. Then, the impotence of what he represents may be exposed for all who do not avert their eyes to see.

Yes/No

How embarrassing to be a human in our civilization. In education, we penalize schoolchildren for the spontaneity and curiosity that we wish we still had. In law, we take kids from backgrounds of abuse, neglect, and trauma, then subject them to abuse, neglect, and trauma by agents of the state. We lock up those who are poor, brown, or mentally ill for doing what the privileged few do with impunity. In economy, we reward polluters with wealth even though the clean air and water they steal is worth more than every piece of property taken by convicted thieves. We make the beauty and bounty of nature into parking lots, strip malls, and consumer goods. We spend most of our waking time performing drudgery or escaping it. It is not just embarrassing. It is insulting to intelligence. It is degrading to the soul.

Yet, to take my own counsel, I must affirm it. I must flip the contradiction. It is only insulting because we are intelligent, degrading because we care, oppressive because we are creative, ugly because we know beauty.  It is always because we want more that we are frustrated, because we dream of something new that we suffer from what exists. Without the world as it is given to us, we could not imagine the world as it can be. The ugly is the necessary precondition of the beautiful, and oppression of creativity. Love and hate, embarrassment and pride, nature and culture, seeming opposites are inextricable like light and darkness.

Love-Hate

To critique is not just to criticize but more importantly to understand and to understand the object of criticism better than it understands itself. Then one can reveal its internal contradictions, show how it falls short of its own aspirations, and chart a path toward those aspirations while transcending the contradictions. Hence one must know the object of criticism; hence one must see oneself in it. And one must love it even as one hates it.

I hate our world. Because I love it. If I did not love it, how could I hate it so passionately? Curse nature, curse art, for they made me fall in love only to see that love trampled and defiled. But it is even the trampling and defiling that I must identify with and affirm before I can transcend it in critique.

As I sit here wishing to admire the tree filling my window with red and brown leaves, I resent the constant humming of motors from cars and pick-up trucks punctuating my meditation. Rather than jumping to the conclusion that we should make personal vehicle ownership obsolete with severe taxes and massive investments in public transportation — a thought that will likely frustrate me to the bitter end of my days — I must make peace with the world as it is.

It should be easy to do, right? I own a car. I drive it on roads. Not every day, but almost every time I hike or go to the beach. I even drive it to the woods within my city to go running on trails. I could run to those trails instead, but then I would spend most of my run on roads getting to and fro with little time left to enjoy the trails. There is the contradiction, for I use a car and roads to get away from cars and roads, thereby contributing to the very problem I am trying to escape. But there is an under-appreciated flip side to such contradictions: they are the key to affirmation. My car enables me to do what I love.

But motor vehicles also limit. Every time I enter a motor vehicle is a deprivation, an alienation from what I love. My car deprives me of the opportunity to experience the sensory present of the world around me. How much better each of us would know our communities and know each other if we walked or biked to work on a daily basis. And not only passengers are deprived, but so are those of us who do walk or bike, or try to enjoy quiet or beauty from our homes or yards — our sensory experience of the outside world overwhelmed by the noise, speed, and fumes of vehicles cutting through the experience like a chainsaw.

And not all the vehicles humming by my window this morning are taking their drivers and passengers to do what they love. Most of them are going to work, perhaps stopping first at school to drop off kids. Work and school are institutions also deeply worthy of similar critique. They oppress, but they also enable, and the latter must be understood before the former can be addressed. It is a complicated world. Merely to hate it is simplistic.