Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The Boxes That Divide Us

I got a chuckle recently when I came across a Facebook group called Left-Wing Conservative. The page's cover photo featured Woody Guthrie holding his famous "This Machine Kills Fascists" guitar. The "About" statement reads: "Politically left, culturally conservative. Where compassion meets civilization, radicalism meets tradition."

I have no idea if the page creator was serious about any of this or simply taking a jab at our deficient left-right American political paradigm. Either way, I thought about that name for a moment -- Left-Wing Conservative -- and it occurred to me that that sums up the way I look at the world pretty well. Imperfectly, but close enough.

The thing is, I don't really fit well into boxes. I like to question things that other people take for granted, examine them, tear them apart and see how they tick. As you can imagine, living life this way results in some pretty interesting conversations. For example, I've taken in so many influences in my life that I never quite know what to call myself when someone brings up politics. Depending on what I say, I'm either characterized as a leftist or a right-winger. But that says less about me and more about the partisans who feel the need to label and "other" people who don't agree with them. My running joke is simply that I'm too liberal for the conservatives and too conservative for the liberals.

If you wanted to peg where I stand on the issues, I could point you to Dorothy Day, Ammon Hennacy, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Thomas Paine, Henry George, Noam Chomsky, Leo Tolstoy, Alan Watts, Gandhi, Dr. King, Lao-tzu, and a dash of Emma Goldman. Stick them all in a blender, shake well, and you get (more or less) me.

Or I could point you to Bill Kaufmann, the iconoclast whose book Look Homeward, America is one of the closest things I've found to a manifesto for my worldview. Kaufmann calls himself a "front-porch anarchist," someone who embraces the power of the local, the simple, the notion of a community banding together. His vision of America is the same one Woody Guthrie sang of in "This Land Is Your Land" -- a vision of roaming and rambling on the wide-open freedom highway, unencumbered, marveling at the natural beauty of the landscape, and joining in solidarity with the everyday people in need. It's an America where you know your neighbors and share common interests with them, an America that knows freedom doesn't come from waging endless war and fulfillment doesn't come from the acquisition of stuff.

Now, we can reasonably ask if that America ever truly existed, or if it's simply a romanticized view of the past. I would argue that if we never quite reached that ideal, it was still an ideal that Americans strove for in times past. And I believe that because I saw it in the world I grew up in.

I come from flyover country. The Rust Belt. My childhood home was literally surrounded by corn fields. The people I knew were not sophisticated college grads. They worked with their hands. They flexed their muscles to feed their families. Most of the people in my immediate family worked in factories. Our neighbor was a farmer (hence the corn fields). My dad was an auto mechanic. He struggled to make ends meet, but we always managed to have a hot meal every night, a combination of his own hard work and the kindness of friends and family who would sometimes leave a care package of food on our front step. As poor as we were, never was I concerned that we would someday end up on a street corner, holding a cardboard sign and a tin cup, relying on the charity of strangers. People cared about us and saw us through the hard times.

Contrast that world to today, when almost every day we hear stories of economic anxiety and insecurity, with people living in fear of being one paycheck away from ending up on the street, having nowhere else to go.

How did things change so drastically in just a few decades? How did we get here?

Corporate greed holds a share of the blame, to be sure. Towns like the one I grew up in have been decimated. The factories that once employed generations of families have shut down and moved production overseas, exploiting foreign populations that have no labor rights and toil for a fraction of the living wage an American would earn. Left in the wake of our offshoring is a service economy with paltry wages that have remained flat, forcing people to work multiple jobs just to make ends meet, while CEO salaries have escalated. Corporations that used to serve all their stakeholders now practice a shareholder-first philosophy, spending tens of billions of dollars buying back their own stock to artificially pump up earnings per share, rather than invest those profits into job expansion, training, better wages, better benefits.

In Woody Guthrie's America, we took pride in American manufacturing. People could earn a decent middle-class living, and the political system supported unions and labor rights. Today, there's no one left to speak for what remains of the working class. Both major parties are beholden to their corporate special interests. They both always manage to find an abundance of money -- nearly three-quarters of a trillion dollars every single year -- to wage perpetual war, but when someone mentions affordable secondary education or universal healthcare, the same question always arises: How are we going to pay for it? No one ever asks that question when Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics contract with the Pentagon to build ever more bombs and fighter jets.

But greed isn't our only problem. Technology has dislocated us from each other. You don't have to build relationships with your co-workers if you can hold down a job from your computer keyboard at home. You don't have to meet your neighbors and local proprietors at the corner hardware store or the supermarket downtown when you can click a few buttons on Amazon. You don't have to belong to the local Rotary Club when you can find people with common interests online or support your favorite charities by entering a credit card number at your laptop. Why debate with friends, squabble with neighbors, and potentially have your beliefs challenged when you can find an echo chamber for your beliefs on social media?

What's left behind is a detachment, a profound loneliness. We convince ourselves that we're engaged with other people and ideas through a TV or computer screen, yet the courier drops our packages at our door without any human interaction, we don't know who lives two doors down from us, and our civic organizations continue to vanish from lack of membership. All the while, we try to stave off the feeling of being reduced to a consumer, as corporations convince us we need their latest unnecessary products so that we can feel some sense of achievement and belonging. You're targeted with ads based on your browsing and purchasing history, and the companies you buy from may even offer you a choice of 10 different customizations, to give you the illusion of choice. All this might make you feel special, unique, cared about, yet to the company that just lured you to go further into debt, you're simply the consumer who buys a can of Coke with your name on it.

In this system, even education ceases to be about the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom, as students are required to prove their core competencies on standardized tests so that we can ensure they'll be prepared to become productive workers in a global economy. Pursuing wealth so you can procure more stuff essentially becomes the ultimate goal of existence.

And when money and the acquisition of material goods become the goal, other humans become mere obstacles in the way of one's own success. If you're not successful, then you start looking around for someone to blame. And our system is all too happy to get you to blame people who have nothing to do with your problems, whether it's the poor, immigrants, gays, Muslims, you name it. Since we're all so disconnected from the communities around us, our most potent tribes become those that unify around a common hatred of someone or something else. Rather than looking for common ground with those we disagree with, we see the "other" side as an evil that needs to be annihilated. One side wants to make you bake the cake. The other side wants to make you stand for the anthem. Both sides think the other needs to be destroyed. Once the enemy is destroyed, all will be well again.

This attitude feeds extremism on both sides, turning perception into reality, until we end up with a political climate in which one side attempts to gut social services and roll back civil rights, while the other side splinters into ever smaller micro-identities that can't agree on what they hate, while advocating censorship of views they dislike. And they all use mass media to control public opinion, keeping people at each other's throats so that they'll never think to question the very system that's exploiting and manipulating them. They condition you to thank everyone in a uniform for his or her service, for example, but they don't ever let you question why we're fighting so many endless wars in the first place. Surely it can't be for "our freedoms," because if it is, then the existence of things like the NSA, TSA, NDAA indefinite detention, increasingly militarized police, and the ubiquitous surveillance of our lives would all suggest we're doing a pretty poor job of keeping ourselves free.

In Woody Guthrie's America, it seemed that even when we disagreed, we all still shared a sense of the common good. We had core values that united us even if we cast opposing ballots on Election Day. We could express our individuality yet still hold a sense of being united. Today, individuality more often than not manifests as a kind of malignant narcissism, while we no longer possess a sense of what it means, at the core of the matter, to be an American, or even an inhabitant of one's state, city, community, or neighborhood. We hold tight to our unifying mythologies of flags and borders, but in reality we are millions of unmoored individuals, disconnected, set adrift in a world in which the old, the familiar, the common bonds that held us together have lost their meaning. We have no unifying sense of purpose, save for defeating our enemies at the ballot box as we wave our flags and cheer on the ceaseless violence of a decaying empire, all while hoping that acquiring cheap material goods made in a sweatshop in China or Vietnam will somehow fill the aching emptiness inside.

Not even our religious values have been spared. I was struck recently by a line in Ghostbusters, of all things, when I was watching it with my daughter. Near the end, when the big, smiling, lumbering Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man was unwittingly destroying everything in his path like a confectionery Godzilla, Bill Murray's character exclaimed that "nobody steps on a church in my town." In a movie made today, we would probably find that comment peculiar. We'd perhaps go searching for a veiled political agenda from the director. Yet in 1984, when the film was made, it was a comment whose sentiment most people would have inherently understood. Since Bill Murray's character never showed signs of being a religious person, the otherwise throwaway line revealed something important about the difference between then and now. Then, even if you weren't religious, you still respected the inherent sanctity of a place of worship. Today, a Michael Bay monster could crush a cathedral, and either no one would think twice about it or it would be played up for a laugh. The church no longer holds the same meaning to us. Its moral authority is gone. It no longer serves as a cultural glue. Like all other civic institutions, it's dying a slow death. Membership rolls are dwindling, churches are closing and merging, and the gray-haired parishioners aren't being replaced by their children and grandchildren.

Some people may say good riddance, and in a sense, who could blame them? Without Christianity, there would be no Western civilization -- that point cannot be argued. However, one look at what has become of Christianity makes one question whether the institution is indeed worth saving. Because as our nation has fractured along partisan lines, so has the church. What once helped give society its shared values has now become more a reflection of our contemporary political views, as the faithful who remain often end up re-creating the church in their own image, trying to salvage our culture's spiritual heritage in an attempt to heal our world, but frequently missing the mark.

The thing is, the core values of Christianity don't fit neatly into modern American political paradigms. Each side attempts to own Jesus, to see him as one of their own, but more often than not what results is a projection of their own values onto the pivotal figure of the New Testament. Instead of conforming ourselves to him, we try to conform him to us. Moreover, it should go without saying that the message of Jesus was not just political -- although it was indeed profoundly political -- but also spiritual. One side of modern American Christianity tends to emphasize law and order, to the point of making adherence to rules and dogma more important than emulating the love for neighbor and enemy alike that Jesus told us to embrace. The other side has a laser-like focus on the social gospel, emphasizing care and compassion for the outcasts, the "least of these," yet shies away from any discussion of religion or spirituality. The former, with its Pharisaic rule-bound rigidity, weaponizes the Bible and makes Christianity resemble a far-right hate group. The latter turns Christianity into a kind of secular liberal social club that's so drained of spiritual content that it offers no compelling reason to even come to church -- one may as well sit at home and listen to NPR.

And so Christianity, the institution that once gave us our shared value system, dies a slow death because our egos would have us shape the church in our image, while the true message of Christ is lost in all the self-serving, self-righteous, angry bickering. In its wake we have aimlessness, despair, a loss of hope, nothing to cling on to. In the worst case, politics becomes a substitute for religion. We can see this most clearly on the extreme left, where those who commit ideological sins are hunted down like witches.

What it all boils down to is that we no longer have a shared identity. No cultural core. No empathy. Only micro-tribes with grievances against other micro-tribes, all battling to be heard, all seeking power so they can suppress the other micro-tribes.

We used to value individuality that rose out of a common societal core. Now we simply have self-expression with no moral center to focus it or restrain it. Be as crude, graphic, vile, and hateful as you want, because it's all about you anyway. Who cares about the effect on your neighbor, your kids, your society? In a land of raging narcissists who ironically seem filled with self-loathing, everyone is his own God, accountable to no one else. Any notion of the common good may as well not even exist. The right says "I've got mine, and too bad if you don't have yours, and screw all the bums and immigrants and everyone else trying to make a better life for themselves." The coastal liberal elites say "I care about the little guy, except I send my kids to a private school that you can't afford, and if you live in flyover country, you're just an ignorant racist hillbilly who gets whatever you deserve for voting out of desperation for Trump." But no one cares about looking past their own narrative, and aiming for the common good, the things that will help those in need and try to repair our social fabric. It's all about blaming and destroying.

Can we ever return to being a people with a shared sense of purpose, values, and destiny? I don't know, but I yearn for the America of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," whose words evoke the beauty of our nation and capture our spirit far better than that old, hard-to-sing anthem about blowing things up.

I'm tired of a people who find solutions in blowing things up. This is no way to live. We need peace, charity, and love. It's the only way forward.