May 16, 2008

Love and Death

“In everyone there sleeps/A sense of life lived according to love.”

–Philip Larkin, “Faith Healing”

Two years ago an American journalist wrote that “The death instinct hovers over the United States.” I had known this for some time, of course; when you turn yourself into a late-empire killing machine, what other outcome could there be? But the phrase “death instinct,” so stark and Freudian in its implications, really caught my attention. Long before Freud, poets and novelists had written of the intimate connection between love and death, eros and thanatos. Indeed, when the former gets blocked or thwarted, it turns into the latter, its opposite. Check out the body language of Dick Cheney or Condoleezza Rice, if you don’t believe me.

Since the 1960s, America has been seen as the land of hedonism, the place where “anything goes.” But the truth is that this is a thin veneer placed over a much deeper puritan reality. “Scratch an American,” wrote one astute historian in the late sixties, “and you find a Puritan.” It’s much worse now than it was forty years ago, of course; “political correctness” is nothing if not a puritan movement. Thus I was recently contacted by a German journalist living in Washington, DC, who expressed her horror at a number of current news items. One involved a situation in which the parents of a two-year-old had their child playing in their backyard, in a diaper, and the next-door neighbors called the police to report this case of “indecent exposure.” The police, instead of suggesting that the neighbors check themselves into the nearest mental institution, came to the parents’ house and ordered them to put some clothes on the child.

Another situation she reported to me involved that of a six-year-old boy who wrote a note to a classmate, telling her “I love you.” The little girl showed the note to her parents, who then descended on the school principal, choking with anxiety. The principal could have pointed out how sweet this love note was, how touching. Instead, he inflicted permanent emotional damage on the little boy by suspending him from school for three days. Clearly, hatred of life is a terrifying thing.

The flip side of this, as battalions of sociologists have pointed out, is pornography. By this I don’t mean merely the tons of pictures and videos on the Internet, but, along with the militarization of American life, the sexualization of it. Sex permeates the public sphere in the United States in a way that is so pervasive that it has become part of the air we breathe. Television, advertising, films, you name it–sex is somehow always present. And yet, what does it really come down to? Recent studies of American sexual behavior reveal that actual sexual activity is way down, from years past; Americans are too busy working and consuming to have time for pleasure in their lives. Pornography is something that takes place in the mind, and since almost all of it is variations on a theme, it’s actually quite boring. All it amounts to is a kind of mental “utopia” that never manages to get below the neck. Many years ago Octavio Paz wrote that North Americans were big on pornography because they didn’t really live in their bodies; that in the US, the life of the senses had atrophied.

I remember when I first visited Mexico, in 1979. The most striking thing about crossing the border was the explosion of color. Prior to that, the color range I was used to consisted of varying shades of gray and green. Suddenly, I felt like the victim of a visual assault: Mexico was a riot of color. Houses of deep blue, ochre, salmon, brilliant yellow–what a feast, I remember thinking. True, I had had somewhat similar experiences in San Francisco, New Mexico, and Italy, for example, but this was much more dramatic; it seemed to be a statement about reality, about the nature of things. As I traveled around Mexico, I remember thinking: Which country really has the wealth? What is “wealth,” when you get right down to it? Nearly thirty years later, I live in a Mexican house whose walls are so drenched in color that I see no point in putting up any pictures. The walls themselves are the “art.”

And of course, if there is very little repression of sensuality in Mexico, there is also very little repression of death. Since North Americans don’t really live, in a sensual or erotic way, death is a great source of fear for them, a taboo subject. (The guy who wants the party to go on forever is the one who never had the courage to approach the pretty girls.) In Mexico, on the other hand, death is never very far from one’s consciousness. Pictures of skulls, skeletons, national holidays–all of this seems ever-present, reminding us that you’d better enjoy life while you can, because it’s over pretty quickly, and you are going to be dead for a very long time.

“Make love, not war,” the Austrian psychiatrist, Wilhelm Reich, told us, many years ago, in so many words. I guess the old boy knew what he was talking about.

©Morris Berman, 2008

How To Get Out Of Iraq

In the spring of 2006 I received an invitation to attend the launching of the Washington, DC branch of the Independent Institute, a think tank based in Oakland, California. Attendance, it noted, was by invitation only, and there would be five prominent speakers, who would be discussing ways of getting the United States out of Iraq. I didn’t know that much about the Independent Institute, save that it counted among its directors Ivan Eland, who had written what was to my mind an incisive analysis of American imperial history, The Empire has No Clothes. That I got invited at all was something I never quite figured out, but why quarrel with the gods, I thought. I put on a suit and tie and took the Metro downtown.

The event was on a weekend afternoon, if I remember correctly. It was, indeed, a select audience, because the symposium was held in a room with a seating capacity of at most sixty or seventy people. C-SPAN was there to film it for its “BookTV” series; Daniel Ellsberg, who lives in California, came in for the event. Speakers included Ivan Eland, Gen. William Odum (retired), historian-journalist Gareth Porter, and two others whose names escape me now. Somebody from the Independent Institute gave a brief introduction, and then the speakers launched into their talks.

What then unrolled was an object lesson in irony. Only about half the people in the audience bothered to listen to what was going on. Indeed, it seemed like every thirty seconds someone’s cell phone went off, and the person would answer their phone, and then take the call, walking out of the room as they did so (at least they had the decency to leave). This went on almost constantly. The woman on my left, about thirty years of age with a distinctly teenage kind of energy to her, paid no attention to any of the speakers; for the entire length of the conference, she sat there staring at her cell phone, text-messaging other people. It never occurred to any of these cell phone addicts–and I’m referring to at least thirty-five individuals–that inasmuch as they had been invited to a private event, the least they could do was respect it by actually being present at it. That is to say, to turn off their phones and sit for the allotted hour or so and listen to what the speakers were saying. No: these people were so “important” that it was perfectly OK to them to ignore the entire meeting and respond to these “urgent” messages. (It’s amazing how many messages become “urgent” when one has a cell phone.) To hell with everybody else, is the idea here; my personal life comes first.

Before we ask ourselves how the US might get out of Iraq, we might ask ourselves how it got there in the first place. And what immediately comes to mind, for me at least, is hubris. America, and America alone, will command the space, and the governments, of other nations, and tell them how they are going to think and live. A huge chunk of this nation–probably, the vast majority–regards this as a perfectly sensible and legitimate foreign policy. But suppose the shoe were on the other foot, and there were a nation in the world more powerful than us, and it decided that it didn’t like our government and our president (hard to imagine, I know) and would, as a result, institute a “regime change.” So it bombed and invaded us, took us over, murdered several hundred thousand civilians, removed our leaders from power, and set up a government whose actions it would personally direct. This is completely acceptable to the American people when the US is doing it to another nation; but these very same people would (rightly) react with horrified indignation if another nation would attempt to do anything even vaguely similar to us (assuming that there were a nation in the world capable of doing so). Hubris means I Come First, I’ll Do What I Want, I’ll act however I want in your space, and if you don’t like it, too bad for you.

This issue of space is an important one. Western cultures believe, following Euclid and Newton, that all space is functionally equivalent: just one big box, so to speak. But as other cultures know, this is demonstrably incorrect: the space of a subway car, or a university classroom, or a church, for example, are qualitatively very different, sequentially demonstrating an increasing amount of coherence and purpose. (We are in fact aware of this when we speak of the ambience of a restaurant, as restaurant reviews often do. All spaces are not equivalent, quite obviously.) Pure Newtonian space has no inherent meaning, and in that sense one might as well impose one’s will on it, for it is merely a receptacle. But sacred space–to take the other extreme–is soaking in meaning, and acting in a highly individualistic manner in such a context would not be appropriate. The space of a symposium or conference is somewhere in between, like a university classroom; but it surely has enough meaning imbued in it that to take it over for one’s own purposes would be to do violence to it, in effect. To show the space respect is to play by its rules, not your own. But just the reverse was happening in the space of this gathering in downtown Washington, and this raises the question of the mental space of the participants–their values (conscious or unconscious) and way of conducting themselves.

What I am arguing, then, is that the problem of the US in Iraq showed up, in microcosm, in the behavior of much of the audience at the Independent Institute’s symposium on how to get out of Iraq. When you think about it, this behavior was, socially speaking, idiotic (in ancient Greece, an “idiot” was a person who did not know how to relate to the larger society), and what these attendees were doing amounted to a form of social violence. They came to a symposium on how to get out of Iraq, and then on an individual level displayed the identical attitude of the American government toward Iraq: I Come First, I’ll Do What I Want, I’ll act however I want in your space, and if you don’t like it, too bad for you. I’m guessing that almost all of the audience was opposed to American imperial policy in the Middle East; but if your psyche is ultimately the same as that of the president’s in terms of one’s individual right to the space of others, what difference does it make?

The truth is that macro-aggression is not really possible without a cultural basis of micro-aggression. For America to stop being an imperial power, arrogantly imposing (or attempting to impose) its will on the rest of the world, its individual citizens have to stop being mini-imperialists; they would have to respect the space of other people. But this is not very likely to happen, because it–i.e., nonrespect, in the form of extreme individualism–is the very fabric of American social life, and thus, in effect, invisible. This conforms very well to Marshall McLuhan’s famous quip, that the last thing a fish is aware of in its environment is water. Thus for me to have suggested to the woman on my left, for example, that coming to the symposium only to do e-mail for the entire length of the conference was rude, would have left her not only enraged, but genuinely bewildered: What could I possibly mean by that, since “surely” she has every right to do whatever she wants, regardless of the context–right? Obviously, if everybody’s behavior is narcissistic and arrogant, then narcissism and arrogance become “normal”.

So there we all were, at a symposium to explore how to stop being imperialists, when the cause of it all was literally right under our noses. (As one sociologist famously remarked, “There is more sociology in a department of sociology than there is in the rest of the world.”) Instead of discussing military strategy, Shiites vs. Sunnis, the geopolitics of the Middle East, etc. etc., we might have done better to have turned the analytical lens back onto ourselves, and just observed what “normal” American (i.e., US) behavior amounts to. Then the path to getting out of Iraq, and to not creating future Iraqs, no longer seems obscure: The United States will stop being the United States when Americans stop being Americans. What are the chances, do you think?

©Morris Berman, 2008

Ik Is Us: The Every-Man-for-Himself Society

Although I was born in America, I am only first generation, my family having emigrated from eastern Europe in 1920. As a child, I was raised in what might be called a European socialist ethic: you help other people. As a result, I lived, in the United States, in a state of perpetual culture shock for nearly six decades. As lawyer "Jackie Chiles" says in the final episode of the famous sit-com, Seinfeld, "You don’t have to help anybody! That’s what this country’s all about!"

Not helping other people is systemic in the United States; it’s as though it were woven into the very DNA of American citizens. It’s not a question of immorality as much as amorality: we aren’t raised with an ideology, or even a consciousness, in which the other person counts. I remember, when I was fifteen years old, some boy in my school whom I knew only vaguely–his name was Tom –was walking around on crutches after knee surgery. Much to my surprise, he asked me if I would carry his books for him from his home room to his first class, as he couldn’t manage to do this while on crutches. I did it for two weeks, until he was able to do it himself, and didn’t think twice about it. About a week into this routine, Tom’s mother called mine. "You know," she said, "Tom asked about a dozen students, including close friends of his, and they all said that they couldn’t do it because they didn’t want to be late for their first class. In my opinion, your son is a saint." "My son is not a saint," my mother fairly snorted, stating the obvious; "he’s just doing what he’s supposed to be doing."

Fast-forward forty-five years, and now I have had knee surgery and am returning home from the hospital on crutches. As I approach the side door of my building, someone who also lives in the building is coming down the walk, busily talking on his cell phone. He looks at me briefly, then takes out his plastic pass key, swipes it in the little magnetic coding box, opens the door and goes in. The door shuts behind him; I’m standing outside of it, now fumbling in my wallet to find my own plastic entry card. Suddenly, the man–apparently seized by a rare moment of human fellow-feeling–pushes the door open from the inside. He doesn’t come out and hold it open for me, mind you; he just pushes it open, so I can sort of squeeze myself into the doorway on my crutches. He then hurries down the hall to the elevator, leaving me in the dust, as it were. Not a word is exchanged.

A few months later–the end of August 2005, to be more precise–I have an appointment at the University of Maryland Hospital in Baltimore, and need to check out the men’s room before I take the elevator upstairs. I walk in on a scene in which a man has collapsed on the floor, and someone else is trying to get him up on his feet. "Hold on," I say; "I’ll go get help." The first person I see outside the men’s room, about six feet away, is a police officer sitting on a bench. "Can you help?" I ask him; "some guy just collapsed on the floor of the bathroom." "I don’t work here," he replies; "go to the In-patient Desk." Given the emergency nature of the situation, I don’t bother to argue with him about the irrelevance of his nonemployment for helping another human being, but take off for the In-patient Desk. "Can you help?" I ask the woman at the desk; "a man has collapsed on the floor of the bathroom down the hall." "You’ll have to talk to Security, over there," she gestures. I run over to the Security officer, repeat the story for the third time. "I’ll call the Fire Department," he says. What relevance the Fire Department has to somebody passing out in the bathroom I have no idea, but I just say, "It’s this way." He is already walking ahead of me, and when he reaches the men’s room, he keeps on going. "Here!" I shout; "it’s right here." He just keeps walking down the hall. I figure the guy is probably dead by now anyway.

A few days later, hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. As we all know, the response of the federal government was very slow: for several days, people were left to fend for themselves, and vast numbers were without food or water. During this time, a friend of mine, a lawyer, sent me an online video that was made by MSNBC the day after Katrina hit the city, showing people looting a Wal-Mart store. This in itself was not that shocking; basically, it’s what I and probably a lot of other Americans would expect. What was impressive was the fact that the police were also there, wheeling shopping carts around and looting right along with the looters. When Martin Savidge of NBC News asked one policewoman what she was doing, she replied, "Jus’ doin’ mah job." Apparently, stealing DVD players while the townspeople were drowning was not a problem for New Orleans’ Finest.

Is the reader beginning to notice a pattern here? In one form or another, this is America in microcosm, and it is disturbingly reminiscent of the worldview of the Ik of Uganda as described by the anthropologist Colin Turnbull in The Mountain People. This tribe had been reduced to a condition of savage self-interest due to economic hardship. Turnbull describes how, when a member of the tribe died, neighbors (as well as children and siblings) would fight over the person's few belongings, and then abandon the corpse. Turnbull comments that in this system of mutual exploitation, affection and trust were actually dysfunctional. "Does that sound so very different from our own society?" he asks at the end of the book. These words were written in 1972; one can only wonder what Turnbull would have thought of American life thirty-three years later, were he still alive. What, after all, can be the fate or future of a country in which people on crutches constitute an annoying distraction; in which the hospital staff response to a man collapsing on the floor is, "It’s not my problem"; and in which the police join looters in their looting while all around them people are dying by the thousands?

Any ideas?

©Morris Berman, 2007

Author's Apology

Dear Friends,

Some of you have been reminding me that I've been kind of slow in posting material, and I have to plead guilty on this. I really have no excuse, since I have a few articles in my files that I should have posted a while back. It turns out that I'm the "Columnista Internacional" for "Parteaguas," the quarterly journal of the Instituto Cultural de Aguascalientes, here in Mexico. I write on various aspects of "this American life," and they translate my essays into Spanish. So let me now post three of those, which I hope you'll enjoy, and please accept my sincere apologies for having not done so sooner.

All the best to all my readers-