Thursday, August 26, 2010

American Anima

Sometimes you need a break to regain your anima. That is what I needed after finishing a few projects, after a long hot summer, after trying to make sense of the American political scene where a large segment of the population lives in willful ignorance or willful opposition to the great values I thought this country stood for.

Yesterday I suggested to my thirteen-year-old son Isaac that he read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: freedom is slavery, Barack Obama is a Muslim, bigotry is tolerance.  Does the truth matter anymore?  I am not sure.  Everything is politics and spin.  Where do we stand?  Who cares.  It is only a matter of whether I win against you, whoever ‘you’ are, and whether I can convince enough people that lies are truths.  And if enough people act on these ‘lies,’ who is to say they do not become ‘truths’ anyway?  That is the head-spinning historical moment we are in.

I could rail against the specific lies swirling in the political and cultural scene, but plenty of other commentators are already doing that.  Instead, I feel I should be a philosophical conscience, someone who tries to understand what this moment might mean for our community.

As readers of Chico Lingo will note, sometimes I gain meaning from the specific, and sometimes I pull back to philosophize about my experiences.  The movement from specifics to generalities, and back, is a way to test what I think with what I see and experience, and to adjust my thinking with reality.  Perhaps somebody like Hegel would call this ‘dialectical,’ but I simply try to stay away from such fancy words.

I believe you can think profoundly without obfuscation, by using simplicity like a sword.  That is why I write philosophical stories.  Philosophy in literature is that unique nexus between specific characters --their situations and motivations-- and moral values.  Such stories can ‘show the way,’ so to speak, without being heavy-handed; they can encourage readers to experience truths they can appreciate in their own lives.  If you as a writer write a good story, it will be good most importantly because it will be believed.

So what are some of my preliminary conclusions from the strange and acerbic political scene of the United States?  The commonalities of our American experience have been undermined because of our economic problems.  Or to put it another way, we are losing our sense of community, of belonging to and with each other, in large part because we or family members have lost our jobs, we feel economically insecure, and we have experienced businesses and governments fleecing us, instead of representing our best interests.  This Great Recession has turned us against each other.  Whites against African-Americans and Latinos.  Christians against Muslims.  Even the old against the young.

When I sat in philosophical seminars as a Yale graduate student, it always seemed odd to me that abstract arguments about ‘the truth’ were precisely detailed and logically dissected, yet no one ever chose to point out that professors were gentle, encouraging, and even forgiving with their favorites, while being merciless and impatient with students outside the chosen circle.  What constituted ‘the circle’?  It was different for different professors.

But the point was that if you were in the circle, you could learn from your mistakes and be encouraged to take chances to progress as a philosophical thinker.  If you were outside the circle, you were ignored or dismissed.  The discussion of ‘the truth,’ and even accepting such-and-such arguments as legitimate for or against the topic at hand, depended on aspects that had nothing to do with ‘the truth.’  What often mattered underneath our discussions about the truth was how friendly you were with the professor, did he like you, or did he know you already.  When you were given the benefit of the doubt, you could go far.  When you weren’t, you were stopped dead in your tracks.

I think something similar is happening in the United States.  Our beliefs in religious freedom and protecting the rights of political minorities (enshrined in the Federalist Papers and the Constitution), our belief in welcoming immigrants to become enfranchised Americans, as long as they worked hard to succeed, even our beliefs in equality and fairness- all of these values depended on an economically prosperous America.  As long as we were dominant in the world economy and growing domestically and producing profits and jobs, then we could not only tolerate, but encourage, these traditional American values.

But the economic world has changed.  Although we are still the world’s largest economy, many countries have grown faster than we have, some of our companies did not adapt well to the multi-polar world, the dollar is under siege as a reserve currency, and too many of our citizens became fat and lazy, perhaps too entranced by an insipid materialism and celebrity culture.  We don’t read.  We eat too much.  We are not as good as we were in math and science.  The economic world beyond our borders is not only catching up, but in many respects is leaving America behind.

So we have begun to turn on each other.  We have begun to abandon cherished values.  We debase the Constitution, while proclaiming to protect it.  Bigotry is defended with a defiant wave of Old Glory.

I am left pondering a final interesting question: Is our declining relative prosperity in the world a cause or an effect of our frayed community?  Perhaps as we became more of a heterogeneous community, it also meant we worked less well together, we trusted each other less, and we could more easily take advantage of each other.  So our cultural, racial, and religious diversity in part caused our economic problems.  Perhaps it is not a matter of cause and effect at all, but of interrelation.  Our differences and our economic problems have fed on each other, in a vicious cycle.

In any case, we need to get ourselves out of this ditch so that we can recognize the best in ourselves.  Or, in our dire straits, we need to remember who we are, and so get ourselves out of this ditch.  For me it doesn’t matter which way we regain our anima, as long as we do it.  A good start would be to turn off the radio and television, and reconnect with the small and neglected spaces within our mind and within our community.  What you will find here is who you are.  In these spaces, nobody will tell you who you should be, nor how you should think.