Thursday, July 28, 2011

Politics, Art, & the Actual World

I'm not an angry person. I can't remember the last time I've lost my temper or flown into a blind rage at something that someone has done or said to me. I'm thankful for this. To be honest, I can't think of a moment in my life where flying into a blind rage would have been an effective measure. I've lost my cool plenty of times, been frustrated and moody in a more or less manageable way (e.g boss hatred), but I've never had a Desperate Housewives reality TV bleep-fest flinging of furniture and tapestries meltdown. Most of my friends, also, are of the calmer sort. We take walks, have dinner, drinks. We discuss.

The friend I was having dinner with last night, who happens to be one of the handful of people who remembers that I keep this blog (and who will likely comment on this post when I'm done with it), is an outspoken free marketeer: the poor are lazy, social programs keep them that way, and the bottom line is the only truth. That might sound like a gross reduction, but I'm almost certain he'd agree that I'm not misrepresenting him here.

Anyway, what he thinks about the world, or what I think he thinks about the world--and who is right or wrong--is not the point of this post, and frankly it's posts like that that are part of the problem with the way folks in my generation think and talk about politics. Whether you're a socialist or a libertarian, discussions along these lines all too often fall into lazy, cliched, worn-out ways of thinking. In fact, they feel less like rational, causal "thinking" than like a kind of incoherent worldview more akin to religious belief. This goes for both liberals and conservatives, and what might have started out as a discussion with a friend over dinner could end up an irate argument with an enemy.

Why this did not happen last night with my friend, I think, is because every moment in our upbeat, far-ranging discussion where I felt either of us falling into certain worn-out, knee-jerk responses (whether I thought they were based in truth or not) I immediately tried to approach the subject in a different way, a way that felt fresh, vital, or like something I had never quite heard. It's not an easy thing to do. It involves occasional pensive jags of silence. So, for example, when the subject of immigration came up last night, and my friend spoke of the leeching hordes of immigrants crashing the public systems in Europe, rather than reply with the cliched (though maybe partly factual) idea that their countries would be so fucked up and they wouldn't need to flee were it not for international trade and debt relief policies instated by, for example, the IMF/World Bank, I asked him what he thought about the Dutch and German and Chinese companies immigrating to Africa to start leeching corporations that suck the resources out of those countries. He thought about this for a while and qualified his argument by saying, with a regrettable shrug that kind of read like even he didn't fully believe what was about to come out of his mouth that, in essence, a European business immigrating to Africa was different because that was a strong country taking over a weaker country. In other words, my friend was saying that until countries like, say, Ethiopia, get their shit together, then a European company has every right to deplete that weaker country's resources. After an hour of wading through a tangle of euphemisms and unhelpful, tired free market dogma, we had finally gotten to the clear, specific, perfectly legitimate, though perhaps terrifying essence of my friend's worldview: every man for himself (unless overpowered), every country for itself (unless overpowered).

My guess is that this is not what my friend actually believes, but that the idea of the world--at least of a moment--became an abstraction to him. It became a debate, the nature of which had verged perhaps into territory he wasn't accustomed to thinking about and, actually, neither was I. Most of us don't make it a habit of surrounding ourselves with people we disagree with, people who don't share our political notions. We do this, I think, mainly to avoid messy, challenging, slightly uncomfortable conversations like the one I was having with my friend.

It is hard to avoid speaking euphemistically about the way we see the world, to not think in binaries of good and evil, lazy and hard-working, strong and weak, right and left, but to see it the way an artist sees it: concretely, specifically, idiosyncratically, interwoven in glorious complexity. It is hard work trying to see the world--especially the world of politics and economics--the way an artist would see it. Seeing the world in these kind of binaries (corporations bad/good, government bad/good), is lazy. Surrounding ourselves with like-minded people who confirm our understand of the world is lazy. And so whatever it was that my friend and I were trying to accomplish, I did feel on a certain level that we were trying to fight our own laziness. And so I tried to approach the conversation the way I would a piece of writing: whenever I felt my friend or myself falling into a tired, cliched pattern of thought, I revised the thought, tried a new approach.

The goal, as I see it, is to come away from such a discussion with a core set of values that you and your friend can both peacefully agree on, not only as a way to confirm the intrinsic, apolitical bond of friendship, but also so that you may both see where--starting with a shared core set of values about human responsibility, agency, and potential--your differences begin. This, I believe, is the point at which most discussions end, they blink right before the two parties are able to understand where their real disagreements begin. But a part of me feels like it's where a very interesting discussion could begin...

To use an analogy, it's like two people in two separate rooms who are trapped outside of a larger, airier room called AGREEMENT. There are a lot of doors into the room, but most of them are locked. You try one door; it doesn't work. In fact, all of them are locked. Rather than keep trying the same doors again and again. Hey, you say, what about this window? So you go to the window. You make it out the window and onto the fire escape, but it's too far to reach and open the window, so you give up on that and try taking the elevator to the roof and rappelling down. You reach the window, and you can see inside this glorious AGREEMENT room, so you take a big swing and crash shoulder first, bloody and bruised, but finally, at last, through the window.

But you're alone in the room. Your friend wasn't even trying to join you there. He's moved to another part of the building with an even more difficult to access room in between you. After a while, you either give up, or you realize...Hey, wait a minute. Why don't I just walk outside? We don't have to stay in this old stupid building. Let's walk clear of that place with the big rusting sign "LIBERAL-CONSERVATIVE POLITICAL AGREEMENT." Let's go somewhere without any fucking signs whatsoever. Let's just talk like two human beings who want some distance from the musty, dingy old ghettos of lazy thinking and dogma that our immediate political and religious forebears have handed down to us.

And even if my friend doesn't want to join me outside on the lawn for a tightrope dance about the world we live in, if my friend doesn't want to work hard to develop a new lexicon for speaking and thinking and tightrope-dancing about the country that we both inhabit and both love and both must share, if he wants to stay stuck in his same cramped room, either out of fear or laziness or the threat of seeming like he has "lost" the debate (though it was never a thing to be won or lost in the first place), if he wants to let the needle skip and skip over the rutted LP of his dogma, then I'll just stay out here waiting for him. And if sitting out here after all those attempts to join him in the AGREEMENT room looks like laziness or evasiveness, then call me the laziest most evasive motherfucker on the planet.

While I was sitting there with my friend, trying every now and then to catch glimpses of the soccer game on the screens over the bar, I couldn't help but think of the debt ceiling standoff in Congress. The eyes of the world are on America again, but this time there aren't any fundamentalist-commandeered airplanes crashing into buildings. It's just a bunch of paperwork. A bunch of words written by a bunch of people whose job it is, supposedly, to keep the best interests of our people--all our people--in mind.

For better or worse, I'm an American who believes in America, but I was raised by parents and surrounded by family who weren't American, who had been scattered from their beloved countries of origin, sometimes under duress, by great political upheavals. What I remember hearing from my parents and their peers about Ethiopian politics is the extent to which it had become an anarchic, power-crazed, your-tribe-vs.-my-tribe playground ruled by the biggest bullies and governed by the venal henchman and friends of those bullies. There was no feeling of shared national pride in, say, the traumatic war and partitioning of Eritrea. Instead, there was your Ethiopia, and my Ethiopia. Your tribe, and my tribe. From my perspective, as someone who saw Ethiopia as a proud, homogenous nation of black people who had never suffered under colonization, who all shared a beautiful, unique common language (Amharic), it was incomprehensible to me how petty internal tribal politics could get so bone-deep, so life-or-death, so me-vs-you, so reduced, so spiteful, so bitter, so mean-spirited among such a proud nation with such a rich history. One could argue that it was all the tribal nose-cutting for face-spiting that lead to Ethiopia's deterioration after the Revolution. It was such a rampant part of political life that it became a kind of joke or story that my parents used to tell, a cautionary tale, which goes: "God said to a poor Ethiopian that He would grant him any wish the poor man desired in life but whatever it was, God would grant it also to the man's neighbor two-fold. So the poor man thought it over, and finally replied, 'Poke one of my eyes out.'"

I'd always been told that this was a very Ethiopian sentiment, the sentiment of a people who'd somehow let politics get too bound up in their emotional lives, who'd lost perspective of what was important, who'd rather see their neighbors fail than see both of them gain something (even if your something was half the other guy's). But with the world still holding its breath over the debt ceiling standoff in Congress, the eye-poke theory of leadership seems to have become a sentiment of the fundamentalist right wing of America as well. So, when we talk about anger, or the kind of emotion that would compel a politician to throw a wrench into the gears of government, bring it to a halt, put the national economy in jeopardy, poke the eyes of many constituents, either this politician has a tribal power-hunger that reaches deep into his soul, or (probably the more logical theory) he has never experienced real hunger.

That might sound ridiculous at first, but I think, on a certain level, what we're seeing on Capitol Hill might be the result of a couple generations of politicians who do not understand war or political turmoil or actual hardship, who do not understand poverty and do not want to understand it, who do not want to understand that most of our world struggles for to feed itself, who do not know what it means to go hungry, who put emotions and power and careerist ambitions and the petty, conceptual concerns of upper-class American life over the basics: food, water, education, etc. They don't know that there's a difference between filling a basic need and filling their reelection coffers. Power has become their only real need, and perhaps they believe it staves off death with the same efficacy as food and water. They don't know there's a difference between going hungry and losing a debate. They don't know there's a difference between politics and real human life on this planet. They've perhaps never seen other forms of human life on this planet, except via the warped peephole of the news. They don't realize that we do not live in an abstract battle of wills; we live in a real world that we must share with our neighbors, and who cares if you make the deal with God that gives your neighbor twice the cattle as you. At least you won't go hungry tomorrow, and maybe with both eyes intact, your neighbor will be able to see when you're running low on milk.

This recognition that there is a real and complex world, full of people who go hungry and get sick and old and eventually die, and that this world will continue long after our tired, worn-out political debates and standoffs have collapsed, might be the most essential distinction between the artist and the political leader: the artist makes art as a form of self-aware commentary on the presence of an actual world beyond her own art, her art knows it is a sad, inadequate replica of the actual world, but she makes it anyway--both to sublimate and contain the experience of life. Shakespeare does not kill his uncle; his fictional creation, Hamlet, does.

But the political leader who creates policies and laws out of emotion, who plays on the anxieties and insecurities of his audience for personal gain--he becomes Idi Amin Dada, or he becomes Adolf the stifled painter. He succumbs to tribal jealousies, illogic, and fear. He asks God to poke his own eye out. His clear-eyed vision of a complex real world beyond his line of work is overlaid with a poorly drawn grayscale canvas of blacks and whites, Hutus and Tutsis, Ethiopians and Eritreans, liberals and conservatives. The space in the heart where the redemptive emotional urgency of art should dwell, for these fundamentalist leaders, has been replaced by the kind of worldview that seeks to fill the emotional, existential void left by the absence of art or religion, the kind that reaches down into where your sense of self begins, in other words the kind of politics that reaches too far down into the guts and plays in a deep, dangerous, interior theater that only Kafka or Picasso or early Eddie Murphy should play, the theater that premieres plays like "Loneliness," "Oblivion," "Sex," and "Death."

As an American and a student of American history and a kind of admirer of our highly rational, dispassionate, yet still tough-as-nails founding fathers--I thought America was immune to this spiritual, soul-deep political extremism--the kind that we see commandeering the corporate-backed leaders of the political far-right. I thought, as bad as the partisan politics got under Clinton and Bush, that I would never see such a thing play out under the Romanesque arches of Capitol Hill, a Kafkaesque standoff that I thought was--forgive me, dear Ethiopia and countries like you--confined to backwards, dystopian, third-world governments.

Sad to say, but if my resorting to this kind of slightly self-hating scare tactic--i.e. an African-American like me comparing a deadlocked American leadership system to a dystopian African government--if even this won't work to shake the deep-pocketed, fundamentalist right from its partisan stupor, perhaps nothing will.

Perhaps it's because they're hoping we'll think that the dystopia is happening on our Halfrican president's watch, perhaps they're hoping we'll not be paying close attention to who started the fire, hoping we'll overlook their stubbornness and draconian demands, hoping we won't read the fine print, hoping the specifics of the debt ceiling discussion will prove too labyrinthine and complex for all but the most wonky among us (and who listens to wonks anyway, right?), perhaps they're hoping, in other words, that we will be what they accuse the leeching poor black, brown and white people in our country of being: lazy. With 2012 just around the corner, they are betting on our laziness, and perhaps hedging a side-bet on our historically bad memories.

I'm not an angry person, but I do have anger. It's a kind of looser, more diffuse, perhaps more conceptual kind of anger, and I feel it when I think about peers of mine--sharp, energetic, self-aware people like the friend I had dinner with last night and whom I parted ways with with a loving fist-bump--who believe agreement means defeat, complexity means weakness, and might means right.

Maybe it's because I'm an artist that I believe there is an art to talking about the world and dealing with other human beings, whether via politics or business or love or friendship, for like art, these other areas also thrive on creativity, on finding new ways of dealing with old problems, of addressing the complex nature of human need.

But if the needle on the record keeps skipping, if we don't create art that addresses this needle-skippage, if our leaders don't understand the power of language and art in this age of radical transparency and reality curation, if we don't find ways of seeing our complex world in a new way that pays homage to all its glorious, wondrous, electric, ever-shifting complexity, if we keep singing the same tired old political-tribe war chants, we're all gonna lose our minds, and not really because we're angry--though that will be there too--but because have you ever been in a restaurant and tried to eat dinner with a friend and the CD starts skipping on the speakers overhead--and you almost can't do anything with yourself, can't take another bite, can't talk to each other as human beings and want to poke both of your own eyes out until they change the fucking disc, or just turn the noise off completely so we can hear ourselves think.


blossoming said...

Very thought-provoking stuff here. My interest in silence stems partly from the fact that I can enjoy walks, meals, yoga classes, and appreciating music and art without speaking to my co-citizens. But in a way, I suppose I am being lazy in the way you describe here, because I refuse to join others in struggling to find common ground outside the building. In silence, there may be room for everyone outside the building, but we won't be walking in the same direction.

Anonymous said...

Okay. I'm more of a read and share sort than a commenter but I had to respond to this. I think you hit a chord that is resonating with a lot of Americans right now. You just happen to look at it from the perspective of someone with an abesha background (which I share). And I think the analogy, as much as it will make most Americans cringe, is perfect. All of this is starting to look terrifyingly familiar. American party politics = tribal politics, right down to the pressure to vote on party lines and the unspoken imperative to represent your party more than your constituency in order to hold your position of power. I would normally categorize myself as a proud progressive but I have to say, while the republicans seem to be stalling things at this particular point in history - its really not a "conservative" flaw. Its the system, as it is currently built. I'm not an anarchist, or demanding we bring "the man" down. Far from it. I just think that its really sad that it isn't just politicians who think this way - most Americans have been infected by it. I'm plenty guilty of it myself.

Anyways, you should read this article. It gives you a few related concrete policy changes to think about:

Bryan said...

Two questions:

1) Are "The eyes of the world are on America again?" I'm legitimately asking. I know we're pretty obsessed with America's lack of America-ness spreading non-Americaness abroad, but I don't have a clue how much the rest of the world cares.

2) Is there an XBox in the AGREEMENT room?

chris michel said...

Bryan: No, the rest of the world really is watching this pretty closely. Because the US Dollar is still standard currency, a bunch of things get much, much more complicated if we start defaulting on debt. More or less, it means while we Americans may suffer a little bit, anyone with debt based on US currency overseas (i.e. almost every other country, no matter who they owe) gets pretty royally screwed. At least, that's how I understand it. But check the BBC website, and you'll get a sense.

Mik: I like this a lot. I think the job of artists is to complicate thinking for people who are constantly trying to simplify things. We simplify because that makes it easier to understand, And we complicate again so we don't lose too much nuance. So both impulses are important.

Which brings me to my other thought: it feels like you are basing your position on an assumption of abundance, and your friend bases his on an assumption of limited resources. If we have enough, we should be sharing. If God is willing to multiply our flocks, then we have no reason to starve.

But if, or when, we don't have enough. When resources are scarce, how do we divide them? Does the man with the weapon steal from the man with the food, or does he say "that's cool, you go ahead and eat. I'm hungry, but it wouldn't be right for me to take this from you."

It seems to me that this whole Tea Party / Debt Ceiling / argument boils down to Republicans carrying an assumption of scarce resources. i.e.: we cannot afford to give the Gov't anything more. We must, instead, defend what we own.

Bryan said...

Thanks Chris. But what about the XBox?

Mik A. said...

Thanks for your comments everyone, and thanks for the link @liza.

@chris michel: I'd never considered the scarcity angle before. Definitely something to that - might be an essential point of divergence.

@Bryan: According to chris michel, yes there is an XBox in the room - but there's only one controller, so we'll have to switch off between "lives."

Chris said...

There's a lot here I find compelling, Mik. You've found the terms to lay bare something that's been bothering me since I worked in TX politics. There is a class of elected officials (and their aides, donors, corporate overlords, et al,) who do not view the political process as an endeavor which affects actual individual human beings in concrete ways. They view it instead as a game of strategy - and I mean game in the purest sense - where rhetoric and finance are the means and electoral success is the only end. Organized sport is a better metaphor than theater. When you win the Super Bowl, what have you really won, like on the level of basic reality? A ring, a (relatively) short stack of cash, some prestige, and, above all, an abstraction. Your one-line entry in the historical record. When you win your Congressional seat, or the Senate majority, or the debt ceiling battle, it's possible to see the ends in similar terms. Power & resources, yes, but the more abstract the ends become, the farther the competition gets from basic humanist values of social justice and responsibility to your community. (Cf Kafka.) This is so true I think it should be the 5th Noble Truth: give people even the flimsiest scrim of abstraction to duck behind and they will do some evil shit to each other. It's a well-trod argument and I won't push it further, only to say that what is truly hope-defying and sad is what you've offered by way of explanation. "They don't know what it is to go hungry, and thus..." I think that is as close to a diagnosis of the fundamental sickness of American politics as we can get. That's what (was) so exciting about candidate Obama. (Here's a guy for whom this shit is NOT an abstraction, who knows in the marrow of his bones what real people are going through on a daily basis, and how government affects that reality in concrete ways. And can lay it down in CNN-ready, electable prose.) Either somehow we were wrong about him, (doubtful,) or the game is even worse than we thought (looks that way,) or President Obama needs to quit worrying about that second term and man up. I have a lot more to get in here about American exceptionalism, its roots in colonial thought, contemporary iterations of the New Jerusalem, and the Christian Right's self-serving misreadings of Pauline scripture re: wealth & responsibility, but I have to go be an artist now, so figure it out yourself.

Bryan said...

So I re-read this and have some two Q's and a comment:

1) You watch Desperate Housewives?

2) You say "folks in my generation" are getting worse. I know it seems like things have gotten worse, and that people weren't as extreme before. But George Wallace, etc., and many other examples. Do you really think this is just an American problem of the present?

3) I watched the Herzog joint The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about the 30,000-y-o cave paintings in SE France, and the thing that stuck with me is that they noted the civilization that painted here was a lot less brutally strong than the other nearby civilization (the Visigoths, I believe, but I could be way off) but they were the one that survived—the implication, or explication, was that it was the art and reflection it inspired that allowed them to survive.

Mik A. said...

Bryan, (1) no, sadly. Clips is all I can handle. (2) I didn't say folks were getting worse. I don't think people in our generation are any more or less susceptible to extremism/tribalism than folks of days past. I think we are more vigilant against/sensitive to the old crusty modes of thinking, which is a good thing — but not less susceptible. I think what I was registering in the post was my surprise, i.e. my assumption that we have improved as a nation meeting the often harsh reality that we still got work to do. (3) Yes, and I think it's telling that you can't remember the name of the more brutal tribe.

Bryan said...

The Yankees? Fuckers.

Simple Jack said...

Good stuff Mik, fantastic reading as usual.

I'm not exactly the cretin that Mik portrays, but I do tend to represent extremes in conversation (if nothing else than to coerce reaction and reason behind someone's stance(s)). I've always enjoyed our conversations and will continue to do so. (Maybe cultural development throughout History can be our next topic).

And to clarify, at no point did our conversation reach levels of anger or irrationality. And what is this bull shit of not being able to post anonymously? I can't have my name attached to my comments! :-)

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