Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Though geography conspires against us

At the memorial service for my father, held about a week and a half ago in the middle of the country, some of my parents' closest friends flew in from far afield — New England, D.C., the Bay Area, the Pacific Northwest — some of them to speak at the service and some just to attend. One of the speakers said in his remarks that whenever he and his wife met up with my parents over the more than three and a half decades they have known each other, it was like picking up a conversation that had only left off the day before, instead of the three or five or thirteen years since they had last seen each other.

Another friend, H, could not attend the service but sent a touching testimonial. H became a friend of my father's in high school, on Long Island. The last time they saw each other was when H, who struggled for years to make a living as an actor in New York, came out to the Midwest in a touring show. This was when I was in high school, and I remember having lunch with them. I don't remember much about the conversation, or even really about H himself, but I do remember the meeting as seeming to possess a gravity of emotion that somehow pulled a little on my life, the way the pull of a massive object can curve the path of a flying object or even a beam of light. I was also, being a teenager, stunned by the fact that my father had a friend with a romantic profession like being a real actor!

H remembers the visit this way:
We went to the Museum to see a Thomas Hart Benton retrospective, and ended up sitting the entire afternoon in the museum cafeteria, letting our conversation play over every topic from our personal lives to the events of the day. He was always a conversationalist worth a trip across the country. It remains a day that anchors my thoughts.

The internet can give us a sense of being connected to people across great distances. Certainly, my father stayed in touch with his old friends, and us children as well, on a far more regular basis once email had permeated professional and academic life in the late 90s.

But the myth of the internet is the myth of weightlessness, that somehow when we get online we transcend our physical bodies, our frailties and passions and needs. The myth of internet weightlessness is what fooled so many people into thinking the late 90s were a "New Economy," where everyone would get rich from information technology because the internet economy was not subject to the physical realities of paying people to make things and move things and that "the economy" was somehow now divorced from the way we procure the physical things we need to feed and house and clothe and enjoy ourselves. Of course, the "New Economy" turned out to be just a classic speculative bubble, and under the cover of this illusion the making of things was moved from that factory north of town to southeast Asia, from paying your neighbor's mortgage to handing a few coins at the end of the day to desperate, starving young women.

It is now a truism that the internet is a crucial tool for organizing in the global economy, but we underestimate the physical at our own peril. No interactive technology can convince you of the physical repercussions of the "weightless economy" quite as well as a woman from a factory in Bangladesh describing in person the maladies wracking her body and the bodies of her children because she could afford to feed her family nothing but a scant daily portion of rice. And no emailed message of solidarity can build trust like a handshake, or face-to-face discussions awkward because of translation but ringing true in the language of bodies.

We stayed around for a couple of days after the service. The night before we left, I was talking with my mom about her and my father's relationships with the folks who had come to the service. She said, "You don't meet too many people in this world who you just click with. When you do, you've got to hold on to them."

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Portrait of the blogger as a young left-wing journalist

Going through my father's papers last week, I found this "eyewitness account" of the May, 1992 demonstrations in New York City, following the Rodney King verdict, which I sent home to the local peace and justice coalition newsletter in the heartland:

9:00 p.m., Saturday, May 2, New York City. I am sitting in a court room in Central Booking, also known as "The Tombs," awaiting the arraignment of my friend Rebecca on charges of disorderly conduct. She was arrested last night during the demonstrations sparked by the Rodney King decision, not for any violent act, but for peaceful protest.

The demonstrations yesterday began in Times Square at a rally organized by the Movement for a People's Assembly, an organization that is calling for the establishment of an independent assembly to represent the interests of minorities and the poor in New York. The multiracial crowd, composed of blacks, whites, Latinos and Asians, showed an impressive amount of interracial unity, with none of the anti-white or anti-Asian violence that the news media has capitalized on in Los Angeles.

Speakers, including Williams Kunstler, the radical lawyer who represented the Chicago 7 before the Supreme Court, called for greater economic equality and community control of the racist, irresponsible and violent law enforcement system. The demonstrators then began marching south along 8th Avenue and entered Madison Square Garden. Two windows were smashed there by overexcited demonstrators, but then, as later, violent members of the crowd were more or less restrained by more peaceable demonstrators.

As the march continued south, swung east through Washington Square Park and began heading north towards Tompkins Square Park, they encountered increasingly frequent attempts by the police to break up the march and became increasingly agitated as they were forced again and again to push through police lines. As the demonstrators marched through Washington Square Park and the East Village, a few members began throwing bottles or harassing merchants, but the majority of the demonstrators did their best the restrain such behavior, often forming a wall with their bodies outside threatened stores or restaurants or running ahead of the crowd to warn owners to close their doors and security gates. Overall, the demonstrators showed a remarkable amount of cohesion, unity and self-control.

Such restrain was not, unfortunately, displayed by the NYPD. Many demonstrators were hauled off, beaten up and tossed into paddy wagons, as were many people who had merely walked into the street to see what was going on. Rebecca was arrested as she stood on the sidewalk (she had gotten off the street as the police had requested) holding a sign reading "Los Angeles Is Everywhere," exercising her constitutional rights to free speech.

After she was arrested, nearly demonstrators began chanting "Let her go!" and one man threw a bottle at the police. In response, some 40 or 50 policemen charged the crowd, hitting and beating people indiscriminately. What is most disturbing, though, is that despite the large number of reporters on the scene, not a word of this reached the public through the news media — the New York Times covered this part of the march with the single sentence, "Police dispersed the demonstrators at 1st Avenue and St. Mark's Place."

Rebecca was arraigned and released on personal recognizance at 11:30 Saturday night, with a trial date pending. Her police report contains ridiculously inflated charges of jumping on police cars, yelling incendiary socialist and anarchist slogans, and leading masses of rioters against police barricades, none of which are even remotely true.

Her description of the New York jail system is reminiscent of prison conditions in the early nineteenth century; prisoners who have not even been arraigned yet, let alone proven guilty, are treated like animals. Rebecca was denied a phone call until 15 hours after her arrest, taunted by male police officers, and was told repeatedly that they planned to send her to Riker's Island (a prison for convicted criminals) if she was not arraigned soon.

In a New York jail there is no such thing as civil rights, and even basic human rights such as clean food and water are denied. It is no wonder that most of the minority and working-class residents of America's cities have lost faith in the institutions of the American state.

The likely re-elected of George Bush, a president who has shown no interest in combating the evils of racism and poverty and whose solution to most problems involves the armed forces, will only lead to more violence and will slowly turn America's cities into occupied zones and police states.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Turning red

This week I have returned to the town I grew up in, for a memorial service for my father and to help my mother sort through the things in the house here, which she is going to sell so she can move up by us.

This town is in one of the reddest of the "red states" — the last time it voted Democratic for president was 1964 (the anti-Goldwater landslide) and before that, 1936. And I grew up in this state during the Reagan era.

Now my town was (and certainly is still) considered the "red square" of this state — "red" in its older meaning, that is — though when I was growing up that primarily meant that we didn't run moderate environmentalists and Amnesty International out of town. There were really no visible manifestations of any kind of politics more progressive, class-conscious or "left" than a kind of middle-class do-goodism. This was the politics of my parents, and while I certainly didn't oppose it, getting involved with the local Democratic Party organization was hardly going to appeal to a rebellious teenager.

H graduated from a small high school where, because it was so small, everyone who was not a "jock/cheerleader" or a "hick" had to bond together into a kind of "miscellaneous" social group - which was how H, a "nerd," came to discover drugs and sex from the theater people and the druggies and so forth. My high school was large, so the theater people, the druggies, the honor students, and so forth all had their own well-formed cliques, and my miscellaneous social group was made up of what were in the late 80s much more rarefied types: socialists and anarchists, writers and poets, musicians who wanted to play weird jangly pop music instead of heavy metal or classic rock or synth-pop.

So I was politicized as a teenager not by any cataclysmic event or insight, and certainly not by any organization, but by the slow erosion of my inherited faith in the goodness and democratic nature of America by lapping waves of doubt — the realization that Reagan's going to kill us all in a nuclear war — the latest Jello Biafra spoken word album — resentment of the rich preppies in my classes — reading The Jungle and The Grapes of Wrath in American Lit II — working in the fast food industry, not nights and weekends for pocket money, but full-time to support myself after graduating from high school, as I spurned higher education in favor of playing in a rock and roll band.

I never would have thought that, returning to this town at age 31, I would find a "revolutionary center and radical library" where a greasy hamburger joint used to be, or that one would be able to pick up a copy of the Industrial Worker from news boxes next to USA Today on downtown corners. Walking around I've seen not one but two houses proudly displaying the red and black flag. Running errands today, one of the four or five wage-slaves who I happened to come into contact with, seeing my workers' center shirt, engaged me in a conversation about radical labor politics — he's involved in the revolutionary center and was an IWW member.

Not that this presages any great revolutionary uprising here anytime soon; more prominent than the few red and black flags are the massive growth of subdivision sectors on the west side of town and the big box stores that feed their insatiable appetite for consumption and waste. Nonetheless, I doubt that in future decades, "I grew up during the W administration" is going to connote the same suffocating blanket of bland depoliticization that the Eisenhower and Reagan administrations are known for. Even in the "red" states.

I was a teenage communist.

I had forgotten this until recently, because I tend to think of my own radicalization, largely through the trade union movement, as having happened over the last ten years or so. And this is not untrue: ten years ago I probably would have described myself as a democratic socialist or social democrat. I was certainly anticommunist and vaguely remember ridiculing Marx in some of the papers I wrote in college.

Yet a writer friend I had in high school, with whom I recently began corresponding after more than a dozen years, remembers me giving her a copy of the Communist Manifesto for her birthday. And some of the things I wrote before I went to college, which I unearthed going through various boxes in my parent's basement this week, showed an understanding of class dynamics which I certainly didn't remember having at that age.

Higher education had its intended effect on me. It taught me that politics was about "big ideas," and even though many classes discussed some big ideas which contained a fairly radical critique of society, we always discussed them as big ideas. Marx was about teleology and dialectic and does Marxist utopianism necessarily lead to totalitarianism? and most certainly not about Why did you get paid what you did in that fast food restaurant or plastics factory? or Why is the refrigerator factory down the road laying people off and moving work to Mexico?

An education in big ideas teaches two lessons: first, since arguments about big ideas can be based on nearly any evidence, and that evidence is almost always secondary or tertiary, it tends to favor big ideas which for the most part accept the status quo. Most of the resources which support scholars and intellectuals come from institutions which are powerfully invested in maintaining their own prestige and power; there will always be a preponderance of studies and treatises written on the assumption that the basic institutions of society, or at least most of them, are fundamentally sound and need only tinkering.

The second, and more insidious lesson, is simply that politics is about big ideas, and only people trained in thinking about big ideas should participate in politics. This, I think, is why for so much of the academic and middle-class left, "socialism" has come to mean merely a sensibly designed system of allocating resources among society. That's a necessary part of socialism, of course, but the soul of socialism is not so much about a "system" which is well-designed or equitable or just but about the ability of people, of all people, to participate in creating and governing all of the institutions of their lives — their workplace, their neighborhood, their schools, etc. — based on social solidarity. To learn the necessity and possibility of this, you need not an education in big ideas but an education in small things.

The education in small things cannot happen at a liberal arts college. It can happen at work, in neighborhoods, in schools and hospitals and grocery stores. It can happen when the big ideas run up against the human body in all of its materialism, when "free trade" means I'm losing my job and can't pay my rent or the "free market" means I'm not going to get medical care or "freedom of speech" means my boss can haul me into his office and subtly threaten to fire me if I don't quit the union and stop complaining about the noxious chemicals that burn my eyes every day at work.

Education is not a solitary activity, it is a social activity and a dialectic. Just as teachers, by themselves, cannot "educate" a student who refuses to participate, experiences, by themselves, cannot educate anyone unless they have some kind of social context, interaction with teachers or friends or parents or books. In most cases, education is a dialectic which aims to integrate the student into the existing social structure; this is easy, because the teacher has both power and knowledge and the student learns to adopt his or her knowledge to fit that reality. Paolo Freire's "Pedagogy of the Oppressed" sought to develop a method which recognizes and legitimates the student's existing knowledge — their knowledge of the circumstances of their oppression — but it still requires a teacher; the goal is to get the student to name the oppressor, recognize and name the system.

I never worked grease-collar and blue-collar and temporary and contingent jobs out of some Marxist fantasy about being one with the working class; I've worked those jobs because of rock and roll romanticism and dumb life choices and crappy job markets. I consider myself lucky that some random combination of my parent's liberalism, rock and roll rebellion, a chance 10th grade English class assignment to read the Communist Manifesto and joining the right union at the right time led me to an understanding of how capitalism functions. I couldn't have figured it out on my own.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

City mice

The other day while walking E home from kindergarten she mentioned that her teacher, Mrs. C, was telling the kids that she lived out in the country, and was therefore a "country mouse," while the paraprofessional who works in her classroom was a "city mouse." E quickly surmised that she herself was also a city mouse, like Mrs. L, the paraprofessional.

Mrs. C is a bright, energetic young teacher, several years younger than I am, a fairly recent graduate of the university here, which draws students from all over New England, mostly from the middle-class suburbs of Boston and Connecticut. Mrs. L is significantly older, and her francophone last name likely come from the French Canadians who migrated here in the nineteenth century to work in the textile mills and whose descendents make up a sizable part of the city's working class to this day.

There are no textile mills in New England these days, of course. That industry left for the American south before World War II, when the process we now know as globalization didn't have to be quite so global. Low wages and violent repression of strikes were accessible to northern capital just by moving south of the Mason-Dixon line.

I heard on a radio program a few months ago that, statistically, New England has been deindustrializing for over one hundred years. Before the Civil War, the mills of New England were the brain and heart and muscle of the American economy, generating the capital which made possible the building of the railroads, a circulatory system that sucked in agricultural products from the midwest and pumped our products out to the frontier towns, filling the shelves of the mitochondrial general stores.

Capitalism thrives not simply by exploiting workers, but by separating the hand and the head. The knowledge that is essential to any work process is abstracted and given to "managers," while workers are expected merely to rent their muscle to their employers for the day. Brain and muscle, managers and workers, headquarters and production, core functions and outsources, the imperial center and periphery, the pattern of dualism and alienation spreads ever outwards. "An honest day's pay for an honest day's work" is not a slogan which addresses this; it was a strike in a New England mill town that gave us one of the greatest of workers' slogans: "Bread and Roses."

New England still boasts a big head — we have the headquarters of GE and many other companies, and the suburbs of Connecticut still house much of the upper-level management of the financial capital of the world, New York. But our body is old, rusty, has been cast aside so many times for the south, then Mexico and now China.

It's enough to break your heart.

Everything in the natural universe has a center and a periphery. Inside the atom, protons and neutrons are bound together in a nucleus and electrons swirl around them, their motions determined by forces that are as fundamental to the universe as gravity and electromagnetism yet operate only on this tiny scale. Gravity holds stars together into galaxies, and galaxies into clusters. The repel-and-attract of the matter and energy that makes up the universe does not distribute itself randomly or evenly across space, but coalesces into spheres and discs and orbits.

The one thing which does not have a center, oddly enough, is the universe itself. Space is curved in ways which we cannot really grasp. We keep trying to project a center onto the universe, because our human lives are so dominated centers and peripheries.

I do not think that Mrs. C does really lives in the country, but in the proto-suburbs known as "sprawl" which are taking over the rural townships around here. Every township has some kind of center, a village or sometimes just a "junction," and many of them used to be a vital part of the functioning of the town, with perhaps a general store or a grange hall, a place for the distribution not just of goods but of news and ideas and sociability.

Now, though, developers simply hack off chunks of land in a township for development, often those nearest the nearest city, with no regard for the biological life of the township. One township, just to the north of us, is now the third biggest municipality in the state, but I'll bet that most of its population have never been to the actual village, which lies well to the north of the subdivision sectors, still surrounded by farms. The subdivision sectors, of course, are built right up against the city line, for those who want to escape the supposed dirt and crime of the city but don't want to deal with the rough bodily inconveniences of actual rural life. More ominously, another township to the southeast of us has sprouted a whole tumor of "big box" stores like Walmart right along our border, sucking commerce from our downtown and the old township center alike.

Marx wrote that one of the dire effects of capitalism upon human society was the "metabolic rupture" of the symbiosis between city and countryside, and he hoped that its replacement with socialism and communism would help restore balance between the city and the country, humans and nature. Just as American society has produced a blanket denial of the class contradictions between workers and capital, we have produced a blanket denial of the rupture between city and country: the suburb.

Suburbs have no center, or at least they pretend to, grandiosely insisting on the privilege of the universe itself. The conceit of the suburb is that each home is a castle, dependent on no center, free to choose from any of the big box stores and shopping malls that line the boulevards separating the subdivision sectors.

But of course people need social centers, so we Thank Goodness It's Applebees and we throng in the malls, trying to defibrillate these prosthetic hearts. It doesn't work, because malls will not sell us what we need — the challenge of others, the slight air of danger that pervades all of real life, the cracks that you can finger tenderly because they hurt but you can't stop from trying to pry open because it's the cracks that let the light in, the breaks that let the truth out.