Thursday, August 12, 2010 nowhere....

Been meaning to do this. Kunstler finally persuaded me to:

This failure of credentialed and elected authorities will surely unleash the crazies as we skid toward fall. Legitimacy hates a vacuum. The absence of a reality-based consensus for action will invite a consensus based on other things such as the lust for vengeance, the labeling of scapegoats, patriotic gore, and all the alternate trappings of a politics-gone-mad. Enjoy the heat and the clam rolls wherever you are in the meantime, and when you come home don't be surprised if you no longer recognize the country you're in.
Actually, what started me on this train of thought was something far less apocalyptic; it was a story on NPR about charity.

And speaking of charity, 40 billionaires announced this past week that they'll give at least half their fortunes to charity. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett unveiled the list, which also includes Larry Ellison, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and George Lucas. The total promise so far: $125 billion.

So you might assume that when it comes to giving, the rich are generally better at it than the rest of us. That's what Paul Piff, a psychologist at U.C. Berkeley, also thought. So he carried out a study and just published his findings in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Paul Piff, welcome to the program.
Not to slight the charity of Bill Gates, et al., but the results of Dr. Piff's study didn't surprise me at all. The lesson of the widow's mite comes to mind here.* Frankly, how much of $125 billion can wealthy individuals not afford to give up without really noticing it? But that's too easy, and it's a distraction from the real point, which is: Why are we so afraid to give things away? Or, to put it in Kunstler's terms, why are we so sure that apocalypse both awaits us, and is hungry for what we have? To put it in more classical terms: when did we become more pessimistic than the Greeks and the ancient Nordic peoples, combined? And does it have anything to do with a spiritual vacuum we are desperately trying to fill with possessions?

First off, let me be fair: this is more likely a very peculiarly American point of view, aided and abetted by generations of literal readings of scripture and the conviction that "apocalypse" is just Greek for "Ragnarok" (when it isn't). The British, for example, who don't seem too consumed with "The End" being writ across the sky by cosmic hands anytime soon (anyone ever seen "Dr. Who"? Got to be the most optimistic take on the human future on television). But they seem to have given up on religion, or at least on Christianity. What they don't seem consumed with, what nobody seems consumed with, except us (and by "us" I mean middle-class Americans with enough money to have internet access and the leisure time to read blog posts like this), is how soon the future is going to end, and turn into nightmare. And our worst nightmare is: they're going to take away all our stuff!

That was the implicit theme of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, and it became the explicit theme of his next book: The Road. It was the setting for "The Book of Eli," or the Mad Max movies: something bad happened (it doesn't even matter what anymore, so taken for granted is the coming disaster), and all that's left is violent crazies hell-bent on taking what you have. It's been more or less a constant theme since Hiroshima, a sort of American realization that we alone might be responsible for the end of what we fought so hard to defend. There were innumerable episodes of "The Twilight Zone," each depicting a world finally gone mad and bent on total annihilation in the name of victory. I remember a movie I saw recently with Ray Milland playing a suburban father who takes his family out camping just as Los Angeles gets nuked in the rear-view mirror, and of course the first thing he encounters is a gang of "juvenile delinquents" who want whatever he has. He spends the movie trying to protect his family (Mom, daughter, son, in descending ages) until, at the end, they find a military camp where the Army is keeping order and allowing them to keep their car (the trailer they'd been hauling gets destroyed at some point, IIRC. Some possessions must be lost in order to make the crisis a real one.) and the daughter her virginity. You know, after all, that when the end comes and we can't own anything, civilization will collapse and we'll all be at the mercy of rapists and thieves.

It is supposedly the lesson of history, but is it? Rome protected those under its rule from "barbarians" (the term was for non-Greeks, originally; and ask Medea how "civilization" took care of her. Only later under the Romans did it come to mean those outside the protection of the Empire's reach. But always, it meant those who were "uncivilized" Again, ask Medea.). But Rome imposed a heavy price for such protection. That "apex of civilization" rested on cruelty and military dominance and rigidly enforced authority. A person as innocuous and powerless as Jesus of Nazareth was put to death in the cruelest method ever devised by man, used purely as a warning to others. Queen Elizabeth would later put the heads of traitors on London Bridge, for the same purpose. But at least their deaths were not an agonizing public torture and humiliation. It was rather hard for the residents of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. to say Roman rule was better than being at the mercy of despots, since the city was sacked and every living creature in it put to the sword. The historian Josephus, undoubtedly exaggerating (and sympathetic to the Romans, lest he wind up crucified on the accusation of sedition), said the streets were knee deep in blood. How's that for "apocalyptic"? Or, for that matter, "Civilized"?

And yet Rome to this day is considered a triumph of order and European civilization. We might be inclined to think that such horrors as the sacking of Jerusalem indicated the end of the empire was at hand; and it was, 400 years later. Acts of Roman savagery didn't doom the empire; they established it. As for "acts of scape-goating," that's what Nero did, blaming the Christians when Rome burned. Problem is, again, Nero was dead before Jerusalem was sacked. So acts of scape-goating are as old as politics itself; and usually as useful. Not to say Nero is my ideal for a ruler; but his reign is no evidence of an imminent fall, either.

But it isn't the historical perspective I'm interested in, it's the psychological one; or perhaps, more accurately, the spiritual one.

So, back to the question of charity and poverty. Who is surprised that the poor are more generous, on the whole, than the wealthy? When you have little, how hard is it to share with someone who has less? The admonition of John in Luke's gospel is a deceptively simple one: if you have two coats, give one to your brother who has not coat at all. If you have food, share it with your sister who is hungry. But if you have 45 coats, or three houses, or a mansion with many rooms? What then? Well, surely, then your charity will wind you up in the soup, as your one act of generosity will bring the vultures down on you, and then you'll have nothing! Besides, you worked hard for what is yours, and your entitled to it! And if you give a little away, how can you not give a lot away? And then where are you?

I may have mentioned before that I live near one of the major dividing lines in Houston. On the south side of this line are some of the wealthiest real-estate in Texas. On the north, some of the poorer (but hardly the poorest) in the city. When a new grocery store opened on my side of the line, it had to employ conspicuous numbers of security guards and cameras, to assure the housewives from the south side of the line that they would be safe in the parking lot between their expensive cars and the store. All we want on this side of the line, after all, is what they have; and only that line (a major freeway) and their local police, stand between them and our rapaciousness. They fear us because we envy what they have. Or so they imagine.

What is the apocalypticism of The Road, except the fear that what we have will finally be taken from us: perhaps because we don't deserve it; perhaps because we have misused it. If there is any superstition we need to give up, it isn't that of Christianity, but of this notion that we are the new Israel and God will, as in the days of Noah or the prophets, take it all away from us once again. That's really the only explanation I have for this rampant fear and anxiety; but it's interesting that it exists so powerfully among the middle class, among the people who enjoy more of the world's wealth and luxuries than over 95% of the rest of the world's population. Maybe there is simply an issue of justice, a nagging feeling that what we enjoy we enjoy unjustly, and the piper must be paid. I'm not sure that notion ever plagued the British in the heyday of their empire. It doesn't make even the ghost of an appearance in "The Heart of Darkness" or Orwell's essays and stories about the imminent failure of the empire, built as he saw it was on cruelty and injustice. No, this strikes me as peculiarly American, as I've said; and more particularly bourgeois. It is a fear of loss that only those who have, who have far more than they need or can use or can justify, and who still want more, can feel. It is a fear that what is most important to us, is also going to be our undoing. Movies about nuclear destruction are our guilt over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, perhaps, our realization, however subconsciously, that we have become Death, the destroyer of worlds. But the fear of losing all we have to total governmental collapse, to social disorder, to pillage and plunder? What is that fear based on?

And it is simply fear: fear defined as an irrational despair with little or no basis in reality. Remember New Orleans after Katrina? Remember the horror stories about the rapes and murders in the SuperDome? The ones that, it turned out, never occurred? Remember the stories of humanity and help the people in the SuperDome offered each other? Those stories finally came out, but by then, no one was listening. Maybe you remember, instead, the stories of the bridges into New Orleans:

In a tape shot by an NBC News crew, police officers were filmed in a chaotic scene on the Danziger Bridge. Unarmed residents were shot. Two died of their wounds. Seven New Orleans officers would be accused in the shootings and a subsequent cover-up. In another case, five more officers were implicated in the death of a man whose burned body was found in an abandoned car near a police station. Both cases were never fully prosecuted by local officials.
And, of course, there were the communities around New Orleans, which shut down the bridges in order to keep the "criminals" in the city, and not let them into their communities. That wasn't the poor, the criminal, the rapists and thieves: that was middle-class police officers and sheriffs, acting to protect their own against...what? People looking for food, water, and shelter? It wasn't the desperately poor in New Orleans who turned violent: it was the police, the ones who presumably had a bit more, lived better than in the public housing that drowned, weren't trapped on rooftops for days because they had no way out of the city, couldn't leave their homes in the sub-sea level bottom lands of the city. Remember the AP picture of "looters," who were all black people taking food from a store because they were hungry, and no aid was coming into the city for them? And the same picture, of white people, doing the same thing, but they were merely getting food? This fear of apocalypse, of lawlessness and riot and loss of property, is a very, very white fear, indeed.

Interesting thing about that NPR story, too. Aside from the specifics of the Danziger Bridge episode, there's nothing specific and concrete mentioned to back up this sentence:

With lawlessness engulfing the city and the cops' leadership absent, individual acts of police heroism were overshadowed by allegations of brutality.
No, not the acts of heroism or brutality, but the "lawlessness" that "engulfed" the city. That's become the standard picture of New Orleans during the flood. But is it true? No. It's not true at all. It is true now, of course, because NPR is mindlessly saying so, repeating a meme of recent history that was debunked within weeks after the storm, while people were still evacuating the city. Still, it persists, because it feeds a narrative we have all adopted. Perhaps we've adopted it because it is just another relic of our Calvinist heritage (Jean Cauvin was, after all, a lawyer and he did run Geneva along the lines he thought best. It would be easy to trace the mythos of "law and order" back to him.) It is a "true narrative" because we all accept it unquestioningly, just as Anderson Cooper did in August of 2005. The rumors of violence and looting, the horror stories of bodies piled in freezers in the SuperDome (to name but one), were themselves scotched by CNN and the Wall Street Journal as early as October, 2005. But the perception persists in news stories 5 years later, because it feeds a narrative we all cling to: that without law, there is no order.

Or is there?

The stories coming out about New Orleans after Katrina were enough to make us all think we didn't recognize the country we were in. But these were the stories we were told:

By now, more than a week after New Orleans has been destroyed, we have heard the stories of poor, mostly black people who were “out of control.” We were told of “riots” and babies being murdered, of instances of cannibalism. And we were provided an image of authority, of control—of power as a necessary counter not to threats to human life but to unauthorized shopping, as though free TVs were the core of the crisis. “This place is going to look like Little Somalia,” Brigadier General Gary Jones, commander of the Louisiana National Guard's Joint Task Force told the Army Times. “We're going to go out and take this city back. This will be a combat operation to get this city under control.”
It's the story NPR is still telling. However, the truth was somewhat different:

As the water subsides and the truth filters out, we may be left with another version of human nature. I have heard innumerable stories of rescue, aid, and care by doctors, neighbors, strangers, and volunteers who arrived on their own boats, and in helicopters, buses, and trucks—stories substantiated by real names and real faces. So far, citizens across the country have offered at least 200,000 beds in their homes to refugees from Katrina's chaos on, and unprecedented amounts have been donated to the Red Cross and other charities for hurricane victims. The greatest looter in this crisis may be twenty-year-old Jabbar Gibson, who appropriated a school bus and evacuated about seventy of his New Orleans neighbors to Houston.
And, as Michael Lewis pointed out:

The old houses were also safe. There wasn't a house in the Garden District, or Uptown, that could not have been easily entered; there wasn't a house in either area that didn't have food and water to keep a family of five alive for a week; and there was hardly a house in either place that had been violated in any way. And the grocery stores! I spent some time inside a Whole Foods choosing from the selection of PowerBars. The door was open, the shelves groaned with untouched bottles of water and food. Downtown, 25,000 people spent the previous four days without food and water when a few miles away - and it's a lovely stroll - entire grocery stores, doors ajar, were untouched. From the moment the crisis downtown began, there had been a clear path, requiring maybe an hour's walk, to food, water and shelter. And no one, not a single person, it seemed, took it.
Katrina hit New Orleans on August 23, 2005. By October 9, 2005, this picture of the city was available for anyone to read:

But so far as I can tell - and I covered much of the city, along with every inch of the high ground - very few of the many terrible things that people are reported to have done to one another ever happened. With the brutal exception of the violent young men forcibly detained in the Superdome and the convention center with 25,000 or so potential victims, civilians actually treated one another extremely well. (There's a different story to tell about government officials.) So far as I can tell, no one supposedly defending his property actually fired a shot at anyone else - though there have been a couple of stories, unconfirmed, of warning shots being fired. Yet even as the water flowed back out of the city, my father called to say that a friend in exile had just informed him that "they had to shoot about 500 looters." The only looter admitted to Ochsner, the city's one functioning hospital, was a white guy who was beaten, not shot - though badly enough that a surgeon had to remove his spleen. (Emphasis added.)
Not exactly Cormac McCarthy territory, nor that of James Howard Kunstler. If this is not the country I recognize, it's only because the one I think I recognize, is a figment of my fevered and media-fed imagination. And that's the problem: we're in love with the apocalypse, and we don't even know what the apocalypse is.

Apocalypse, you see, doesn't mean what you think it means. It does not mean the violent end of all things, the Ragnarok that brings an end to Middle Earth (no, not Tolkien's; he took the term from the Nordic tales) and the collapse of the universe. "Apocalypse" is a Greek word, one that entered English via the Greek New Testament, and in English it means: "Revelation." The last book of the New Testament is actually the Apocalypse of John. It is that which was revealed to him; in John's epistemology, a revelation of the truth. That John's revelation is about the end of time is incidental. We took the word into English relating it to John's bizarre and violent vision (although it is not all violence and mayhem) about the end (John meant goal, but we read it as termination) of the universe. But we don't have to continue to use (and misuse) the concept that way.

As I've pointed out before, we seem to almost want to be faced with this strict binary: we can either have, or we can have not. It is what Walt Brueggeman calls the theology of scarcity; and we cling to it like a burr clings to dog fur. As David Brooks, the great middle-brow prophet of the middle class, put it:

Raised in prosperity, favored by genetics, these young meritocrats will have to govern in a period when the demands on the nation’s wealth outstrip the supply. They will grapple with the growing burdens of an aging society, rising health care costs and high energy prices. They will have to make up for the trillion-plus dollars the government will spend to avoid a deep recession. They will have to struggle to keep their promises to cut taxes, create an energy revolution, pass an expensive health care plan and all the rest.
That's the middle-class vision in America: something is terribly, fundamentally wrong, but we can't bring ourselves to do anything about it, because if we do, we'll lose everything. Still, of course, we're doomed to lose everything anyway, because there are evil forces afoot, forces which hate us for our freedom, or for our possessions, or for something we have which the evil forces don't. The Greeks just thought chaos would overwhelm reason and disorder would return to the universe inevitably. The Nordic people who became Anglo-Saxons just thought all things inevitably came to an end. But we've made it personal; the forces of the universe that upend human order and blunt human ambition, actually have it in for us. And if it isn't that, it's that some rough justice demands payment, some cosmic piper is going to present the bill for the dance we've all enjoyed. Even Bob Herbert agrees:

The U.S. cannot thrive with its fabulous wealth concentrated at the top and the middle class on its knees. (No one even bothers to talk about the poor anymore.) How to correct this imbalance is one of the biggest questions facing the country.
A day of reckoning is at hand, and woe be unto him when that time comes! (Notice how Herbert conveniently lets the middle-class off the hook, too. The burden comes from the top down, and when the whole system falls, as fall it must, it will be the middle class who pay the great price!). To take (again!) one quote from McCarthy's novel of apocalypse:

“There is no prophet in the earth’s long chronicle who is not honored here today.”
Because that's what the prophets were all about: Cassandras to a man, they predicted the eventual return of chaos, but this time, we'd have to wallow in it. As I said at the beginning, this makes the Greeks and the Vikings, with their weird and their sense that all was doomed (the epic "Beowulf" opens with a description of the building of the mead hall Heorot, and the statement that later, it burned to the ground. Nothing gold can stay, at all.) and that chaos would someday reassert its primacy, look like Pollyannas. At least the Greeks and the Vikings thought when the end came, it would take humanity with it. We've one-upped them: chaos will return, and we'll have to scrounge the ruins for sustenance, and fight of our neighbors for our very lives.

But if all prophets in earth's long chronicle are honored by disaster and despair, what will honor this prophet?
The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he led me out in the spirit of the LORD and set me in the center of the plain, which was now filled with bones.
He made me walk among them in every direction so that I saw how many they were on the surface of the plain. How dry they were!
He asked me: Son of man, can these bones come to life? "Lord GOD," I answered, "you alone know that."
Then he said to me: Prophesy over these bones, and say to them: Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD!
Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: See! I will bring spirit into you, that you may come to life.
I will put sinews upon you, make flesh grow over you, cover you with skin, and put spirit in you so that you may come to life and know that I am the LORD.
I prophesied as I had been told, and even as I was prophesying I heard a noise; it was a rattling as the bones came together, bone joining bone.
I saw the sinews and the flesh come upon them, and the skin cover them, but there was no spirit in them.
Then he said to me: Prophesy to the spirit, prophesy, son of man, and say to the spirit: Thus says the Lord GOD: From the four winds come, O spirit, and breathe into these slain that they may come to life.
I prophesied as he told me, and the spirit came into them; they came alive and stood upright, a vast army.
Then he said to me: Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They have been saying, "Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, and we are cut off."
Therefore, prophesy and say to them: Thus says the Lord GOD: O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them, and bring you back to the land of Israel.
Then you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and have you rise from them, O my people!
I will put my spirit in you that you may live, and I will settle you upon your land; thus you shall know that I am the LORD. I have promised, and I will do it, says the LORD.
Or this one?
"Come for water, all who are thirsty;
though you have no money, come, buy grain and eat;
come, buy wine and milk, not for money, not for a price.
Why spend your money for what is not food
your earnings on what fails to satisfy?
Listen to me and you will fare well,
you will enjoy the fat of the land. (Isaiah 55:1-2)
Or this one?

When I would comfort myself against sorrow, my heart is faint in me.

Behold the voice of the cry of the daughter of my people because of them that dwell in a far country: Is not the LORD in Zion? is not her king in her? Why have they provoked me to anger with their graven images, and with strange vanities?

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.

For the hurt of the daughter of my people am I hurt; I am black; astonishment hath taken hold on me.

Is there no balm in Gil'ead? is there no physician there? why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?

Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!

The prophets were not about despair, they were about justice. Nothing in Jeremiah's cry, either, blames God or expects God to reach down and do the healing. The balm is expected to be found among people; the physician is expected to be a person who can provide healing to other persons. Jeremiah's despair is no despair at all; it is grief for the pain of the people of Israel. Our pain, now, in the apocalypse we imagine, is entirely individual. The doom brought about is societal, but the burden of it falls on each of us alone, divides us each from each, "Parting easily two who were never joined." And just here we wander into a distinction James Barr describes very well for our purposes:
Movement could not be ultimate reality for the Greeks, to whom being must be distinguished from becoming, and the ultimate must be changeless. For the Israelites the true reality was action and movement, and the inactive and motionless was no reality at all."

With this may be associated the Greek contrast of appearance and reality. The world was full of changing phenomena, but since reality must be static the change was unreal appearance. To the Israelites however the appearance of a thing was the manifestation of its being or reality, and a valid and adequate manifestation at that. What did not appear in action and movement would not be real, and what did appear was not a pale or secondary shadow of this reality but the reality itself. There is therefore no contrast of appearance and reality.

This leads to two more important distinctions: one, the distinction of subject and object, which the Greeks recognize, but not the Hebrews. The other is the conception of the human: In Greek thought man is seen as a duality, with an immortal soul imprisoned or confined in a mortal body; the two are only temporarily or accidentally related. In Hebrew thought the 'soul' is the living person in his flesh; 'soul' and 'flesh' are not separable but one is the outward and visible manifestation of the other. There is no thought of the soul living apart from the body.

It is simliarly felt however that Hebrew thought saw man as a person within a totality, while Greek thought tended to see him as an individual, i.e., in essence as one separated from others, and then to form collectivities by grouping individuals together. The conflict of individual and collectivity thus arises from the Greek tradition. But Hebrew life was lived in a social totality of religion and justice.
It is that "social totality of religion and justice" that is precisely missing (and it is precisely here I'm going to annoy many reading this). We see ourselves as individuals, "as one separated from others," and our collectivities are merely groupings of individuals based on mutual interests. When those interests dissolve, so does civilization, and the only option available then is anarchy. This is why the rich imagine the poor have only rape and theft on their minds: they cannot imagine that they have any mutual interests with the poor, any common humanity, at least no bonds that won't be easily overcome by the stress of crisis, by the lack of police or military power to keep the poor in check. To the rich, the poor are all Medeas, simply waiting for a reason to commit regicide and then, if necessary, to murder their own children.

Which would be an overly sweeping statement, a gross generalization, if we didn't have the evidence of New Orleans from just five years ago. There was the perception: “This place is going to look like Little Somalia,” and there was the reality: "The greatest looter in this crisis may be twenty-year-old Jabbar Gibson, who appropriated a school bus and evacuated about seventy of his New Orleans neighbors to Houston." And the passion for apocalypse is so strong in our culture we no longer need explanations like "atomic wars" or "environmental disasters" or even computers becoming sentient, to explain the horror of the end times. We take it as being as inevitable as sunrise, and only a matter of time.

But what if we lived in "a social totality of religion and justice" instead? It would hardly be perfection. Israel, after all, needed the prophets to remind it of the demands of justice. Jeremiah railed against greed:

Woe to him who says,
"I shall build myself a spacious palace
with airy roof chambers and
windows set in it.
It will be paneled with cedar
and painted with vermilion."
Though your cedar is so splendid,
does that prove you a king?
Think of your father: he ate and drank,
dealt justly and fairly; all went well with him.
He upheld the cause of the lowly and poor;
then all was well.
Did not this show he knew me? says the Lord.
But your eyes and your heart are set on naught but gain, set only on the innocent blood you can shed,
on the cruel acts of tyranny you perpetrate.

Jeremiah 22: 14-17 (REB)

The lesson of "false idols" was not limited to totems designed to be deities, but to any item that came between a person and the Creator, anything that became more important than what came from God. The prophets constantly upbraid the people to take care of the widow and the orphan, and after the Exile, the prophetic visions are all of recovery and return and restoration, of God's justice dealt out to God's people so they will know what justice is. Here, of course, I will lose readers who object to my religion (Christianity) as a vision for the polity, or object to a religious vision at all. But the religious vision of Christianity is the one that has already been hijacked, already tortured into this accepted anxiety that it will all come to smash, and then we will have to live among the ruins. If we are ever going to finally turn our backs on this despair, on this remorse for the future, we are going to have to do it by going forward through that corrupted vision, not by thinking we can go backward and start again with a clean break, that we can return to some juncture in our common cultural history through sheer will or sheer insistence, and branch out in a wholly new direction unhindered by our inheritance. It is not that we need to all become Christians of a certain stripe to set this problem right and release these fears of losing our possessions: it is that we need to see the roots of these fears for what they are, and begin to change our perceptions of what we fear, and why we fear it. We cannot become what we are not; our only hope is to never cease from exploration, so that we return to the place of our common beginning, and know it, finally, for the first time.

*On a thoroughly irascible note, Bill Gates and his other charitable donors might do more good by backing a law to remove the upper limit on how much income is subject to Social Security taxes. But that brings us back to the widow's mite, and the rich man who makes a great display of his charity to the Temple. It is, after all, a press release that lets us know of these rich men's generous plans.


  1. Great writing. Very on target. This white middle class fear...ouch...again very on target.

  2. They define themselves, and others define them, by what they have, and, crucially, I think, demand that others don't have what they have, by dint of justice arising from the have-nots' lesser virtue. A threat to what they have, in this context, inevitably arises, not an external threat but one from within themselves, and simply can't be dealt with justly or fairly.

    Agreed entirely, and thank you