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.

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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.

 

Progress

From Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac:

Every July I watch eagerly a certain country graveyard…. It is an ordinary graveyard, bordered by the usual spruces, and studded with the usual pink granite or white marble headstones… It is extraordinary only in being triangular instead of square, and in harboring, within the sharp angle of its fence, a pin-point remnant of the native prairie on which the graveyard was established in the 1840’s. Heretofore unreachable by scythe or mower, this yard-square relic of original Wisconsin gives birth, each July, to a man-high stalk of compass plant or cutleaf Silphium, spangled with saucer-sized yellow blooms resembling sunflowers. It is the sole remnant of this plant along this highway, and perhaps the sole remnant in the western half of our country. What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never to be answered, and perhaps not even asked.

This year I found the Silphium in first bloom on 24 July, a week later than usual; during the last six years the average date was 15 July.

When I passed the graveyard again on 3 August, the fence had been removed by a road crew, and the Silphium cut. It is easy now to predict the future; for a few years my Silphium will try in vain to rise above the mowing machine, and then it will die. With it will die the prairie epoch.

The Highway Department says that 100,000 cars pass yearly over this route during the three summer months when the Silphium is in bloom. In them must ride at least 100,000 people who have ‘taken’ what is called history, and perhaps 25,000 who have ‘taken’ what is called botany. Yet I doubt whether a dozen have seen the Silphium, and of these hardly one will notice its demise. If I were to tell a preacher of the adjoining church that the road crew has been burning history books in his cemetery, under the guise of mowing weeds, he would be amazed and uncomprehending. How could a weed be a book?

This is one little episode in the funeral of the native flora, which in turn is one episode in the funeral of the floras of the world. Mechanized man, oblivious of floras, is proud of his progress in cleaning up the landscape on which, willy-nilly, he must live out his days. It might be wise to prohibit at once all teaching of real botany and real history, lest some future citizen suffer qualms about the floristic price of his good life.

Myth of the free market

From Dissent, on Karl Polanyi:

Conservatives had long deployed the “utopianism” epithet to discredit movements of the left, but Polanyi was determined to turn the tables by showing that the vision of a global self-regulating market system was the real utopian fantasy….

Polanyi’s critique is that the appeal has no basis in reality. Government action is not some kind of “interference” in the autonomous sphere of economic activity; there simply is no economy without government. It is not just that society depends on roads, schools, a justice system, and other public goods that only government can provide. It is that all of the key inputs into the economy—land, labor, and money—are only created and sustained through continuous government action. The employment system, the arrangements for buying and selling real estate, and the supplies of money and credit are socially constructed and sustained through the exercise of government’s coercive power.

In this sense, free-market rhetoric is a giant smokescreen designed to hide the dependence of business profits on conditions secured by government. So, for example, our giant financial institutions insist that they should be free of meddlesome regulations while they depend on continuing access to cheap credit—in good times and bad—from the Federal Reserve. Our pharmaceutical firms have successfully resisted any government limits on their price-setting ability at the same time that they rely on government grants of monopolies through the patent system. And, of course, the compliance of employees with the demands of their managers is maintained by police, judges, and an elaborate structure of legal rules.

Not a do-gooder

When people ask what I do, I answer that I’m a disability rights lawyer and prepare to inwardly cringe when they respond with something like “Thank you for doing good.” I did not quite understand why I cringe until ruminating on these thoughts of a fictional public interest lawyer:

“One did good for others not for the others’ sake, nor for oneself… This seemed to suggest that there was no reason at all to do good, and yet it did feel like an imperative.  She did it for some kind of abstract notion, perhaps, an idea that this was part of making their time the early days of a better world. Something like that. Some crazy notion. She was crazy, she knew it; she was compensating probably for some lack or loss; she was finding a way to occupy her busy brain. It seemed like a right way to behave. It passed the time in a way more interesting than most ways she had tried. Something like that.” Kim Stanley Robinson, New York 2140.

I think people assume I’m doing “good” in a conventional sense of the term that I help individuals in need. And many of my fellow public interest lawyers do good for others’ sake in this sense. They engage in one individual representation after another, helping one person to avoid an eviction, another to obtain special education services, the next to be discharged from the state hospital, and so on, while the system keeps chugging along finding new people to oppress.

I find achieving good outcomes for individuals does feel satisfying, yet I decline opportunities for such satisfaction. I avoid individual representations in favor of pursuing systemic reform–e.g., class actions, prison investigations, legislative or regulatory change–even though victories, if any, are fewer and farther between. Thus, I do not do good for others, but rather against the status quo, the system, the hierarchy. I would not even call it “good,” for this distinction marks a fundamental difference in conception between an advocate who works within the system as it was intended to redress an individual’s suffering versus one who works within individuals’ suffering to expose, embarrass, and undermine the hierarchy controlling the system.

Of course, ultimately, this systemic work is for others, and not just for the individuals suffering in a particular case. It is for all of us, because the hierarchy oppresses everyone, not just the marginalized, though the marginalized are the lens through which we can most clearly see the contradictions characterizing systemic injustice. As a bonus, if we can change the lot of people at the bottom, we raise the floor for everyone — and we might even benefit from their inclusion in society.

But I harbor no illusions that systemic reform is actually likely to result from my efforts. For the most part, I will toil in vain, providing some solace to the oppressed who tell me their stories but little relief because the oppression is so widespread and entrenched. This prospect could be an argument in favor of advocates who achieve discrete outcomes on an individual basis, drops in the bucket though they are. But my work feels like an imperative, and probably does compensate for a lack–a lack of feeling I belong in our society–and it certainly is interesting. And I can hope I am taking part in “making [our] time the early days of a better world. Something like that.”