Thursday, August 26, 2010

Le despotisme de l'image

Traduit par Tancrède Bastié

Le but ostensible de ce site, et de la petite mais enthousiaste communauté qui l'entoure, est de changer la culture. Nous reconnaissons tous que la culture dominante contemporaine de sur-consommation et de croissance incontrôlée est toxique à tous les niveaux — physique, émotionnel et culturel — et qu'elle accélère sur une trajectoire de collision avec l'épuisement des ressources, le dérèglement du climat et la dévastation environnementale. Nous voulons tous en sauter au bon moment, ou, manquant peut-être du courage nécessaire, nous trouver assez chanceux pour être éjectés. 

Ce que cela signifie en réalité est tout sauf clair... []

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Miserable Pursuits

[Auf Deutsch. Vielen Dank, Mrs. Mop] 

As I write this, I am on the train to Washington, to attend a conference sponsored by the Community Action Partnership on "The New Reality: Preparing Poor America for Harder Times Ahead." The agenda will include in-depth discussions of employment, food, housing, health care, security, education, transportation, and even the somewhat touchy-feely subjects of community cohesion, communication, and, last but not least, right before the cocktail hour, culture. The recommendations will be rolled into a report and the conclusions will be presented at CAP's annual conference later this month.

Poor America would conceivably be a place of few good jobs, nasty food, dilapidated housing, unaffordable health care, oppressive yet ineffectual security, education programs replete with dinosaur-riding Jesuses, transportation networks composed of run-down pickup trucks and potholed roads, not much more community cohesion than there is now, and communication still dominated by the corporate media.

But then what about that strange little topic showing up at the very bottom of the list—culture? We'd expect the poor to be uncultivated, unlettered and uncouth, but beyond that, shouldn't we expect a culture of poverty to evolve, as an adaptation to being poor? To an anthropologist, culture is an adaptive mechanism that evolves in order to enable humans to survive and thrive in a wide variety of environments. To others, it may be a matter of dancing a jig or of strumming an instrument while crooning. To me, culture is, first and foremost, a matter of literature.

The Russian author Eduard Limonov wrote of his experiences with poverty in America. To his joy, he discovered that he could supplement his cash earnings with public assistance. But he also quickly discovered that he had to keep this joy well hidden when showing up to collect his free money. It is a curious fact that in America public assistance is only made available to the miserable and the downtrodden, not to those who are in need of some free money but are otherwise perfectly content. Although it is just as possible to be poor and happy in America as anywhere else, here one must make a choice: to avoid any number of unpleasant situations, one must be careful to hide either the fact that one is poor, or the fact that one is happy. If free public money is to be obtained, then only the latter choice remains.

It is another curious fact that vast numbers of Americans, both rich and poor, would regard Limonov's behavior as nothing short of despicable: a foreign author living in America on public assistance while also earning cash! It seems reasonable that the rich should feel that way; if the poor can't be made miserable, then what exactly is the point of being rich? But why should the poor particularly care? Another cultural peculiarity: what dismays them is not the misappropriation of public funds. Tell them about the billions wasted on useless military projects, and they will reply with a yawn that this is just business as usual. But tell them that somewhere some poor person is eating a free lunch, and they will instantly wax indignant. Amazingly, Americans are great believers in Lenin's revolutionary dictum: "He who does not work, does not eat!" One of the rudest questions you might hear from an American is "What do you do for a living?" The only proper response is "Excuse me?" followed by a self-satisfied smirk and a stony silence. Then they assume that you are independently wealthy and grovel shamefully.

Most shockingly, there are many poor Americans who are too proud to accept public assistance in spite of their obvious need for it. Most Russians would regard such a stance as absurd: which part of "free money" don't these poor idiots like—the fact that it's money, or the fact that it's free? Some Russians who are living in the US and, in trying to fit in to American society, have internalized a large dose of the local hypocrisy, might claim otherwise, but even they, in their less hypocritical moments, will concede that it is downright foolish to turn down free money. And rest assured, they will mop up every last penny of it. Mother Russia didn't raise any dummies.

But let us not blame the victim. What causes these poor souls to leave money on the table is just this: they have been brainwashed. The mass media, most notably television and advertising, are managed by the well-to-do, and incessantly hammer home the message that hard work and self-sufficiency are virtuous while demonizing the idle and the poor. The same people who have been shipping American jobs to China and to India in order to enhance their profits want it to be generally understood that the resulting misery is entirely the fault of the miserable. And while the role of the pecuniary motive may be significant, let us not neglect to mention the important fact that producing mass misery is a high-priority objective in and of itself.

You see, these are very difficult times to be rich. It used to be that having a million dollars made you a millionaire—but not any more! Now, to be perfectly safe and completely insulated from economic reality you need at least ten million, if not more, and the more you have, the more unnerving become the wild undulations of the financial markets and the dire prognostications of the experts. It is getting to the point that you can make a plausible guess at a person's net worth based on how nervous and miserable they look.

Recently, I had a chance to see this misery on display. We spent a week vacationing on outer Cape Cod. We sailed there and back (the wind is free) and anchored while there (the municipal moorings are quite affordable). We rowed ourselves ashore and back in our home-made plywood dink and bicycled around picking edible mushrooms along the bike path. This time of year, this part of Massachusetts is overrun by stampedes of shiny late-model SUVs with New York and New Jersey license plates. They are driven by various subspecies of the middle-aged well-to-do American Office Ogre—the lawyer, the doctor, the dentist, the banker, the lobbyist and the corporate businessman—the people who are attempting to run off with all the loot. The majestic scenery is somewhat spoiled by these surly, scowling, raspy-voiced ogres and their flabby, overmedicated wives with voices like an unoiled hinge. When not aimlessly driving around, they sit in upscale restaurants, toying with their food and gossiping menacingly. They have long forgotten what it means to be happy and carefree, and their labored attempts at feigning enjoyment are painful to watch. You can be sure that the sight of poor but happy people makes them quite livid.

I am not gloating. I do feel sorry for these poor rich people, and I even have good news for them: their condition is far from incurable. I know people who went prematurely gray, lost weight and often woke up screaming while watching their last $500,000 in savings dwindle to nothing, buried under a pile of debt, but once the cash is burned off and the dour creditors abscond with what remains of the property, there is much less for them to worry about, and this gives them a chance to reevaluate what is important, what is essential, and what gives them pleasure. And so, where there is sorrow there is also joy, and we need not grieve for the poor rich people excessively, because the way things are going their problems are likely to resolve themselves spontaneously. Keep in mind that, compared to the formidable, often insurmountable challenges faced by those who attempt to escape poverty, becoming downwardly mobile is as easy as falling off a log, and, with a bit of foresight, can be done in comfort and style.

I have good news for America's poor as well. Although they are exceedingly unlikely to ever become any richer, they are, in fact, quite rich enough already. Recently I heard a story on NPR about a poor family that went around looking for discounted food items at various groceries and stopping at the food pantry—in their own private minivan! And so here is a poor family that owns what in many parts of the world would amount to a bus company! When they couldn't find enough discounted foods to buy, they still had enough to feed their children, while the adults skipped meals. This is healthy: hunger is symptomatic of a good appetite, and, given the excessive girth of most Americans, periodic fasting is a prudent choice. What's more, they sounded reasonably happy about their lot in life.

And so, a poor but happy and carefree future may yet await a great many of us, both idle rich and idle poor—one happy though rather impoverished family. But in order to achieve that we would have to change the culture. Let it be known that free lunch is a very good thing indeed, no mater who's eating it or why, and never mind that Lenin said that "He who does not work, does not eat." And while we are at it, let's also dispense with the hackneyed adage that "Work will set you free" (Arbeit Macht Frei) which the Nazis liked to set in wrought iron atop the gates of their concentration camps. Let us consign the communists and the fascists and the capitalists to the proverbial scrapheap of history! Let us instead gratuitously quote Jesus: "Behold the lilies of the field, how they grow. They labor not, neither spin. And yet for all that I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his royalty, was not arrayed like unto one of these... Therefore take no thought saying: What shall we eat? or What shall we drink? or Wherewith shall we be clothed? ... Care not therefore for the day following. For the day following shall care for itself. Each day's trouble is sufficient for the same self day." Amen.