A Forgotten Resource, the American Spirit
- part three -
the Word, the Idea of Property,
and the Creation of a True American Culture
Societies, cultures, civilizations, whatever name we wish to give to large aggregates of human communities, all have woven into them various sets of ideas, or world views, sometimes common, and in our more supposedly "modern" times, oft times fractured and chaotic. And, these social laws, expectations of behavior, ways of seeing the world, the whole rainbow of "meaning" that lives in what we call culture, is first taught to our children at the same time they acquire language.
Unfortunately we seldom think about the significance of this fact, the fact that initial meaning is born in language. Yet it is just here that so much happens whose gravity we overlook, and whose importance must be mastered if we are to even begin to take hold of those realities which underlie the symptoms of social disorder that are so apparent in the daily news. Language, the Word, is a great gift, the gift that makes us human and which marks us as essentially different than the animal kingdom, in spite of what the darwinists have taught. It is here, in the introduction to culture, first begun with the acquisition of language, that "property" comes to be known, communicated and instilled. There is no natural sense of ownership, it is all taught. And if it is taught, then it can be untaught.
Yes, the child does say "mine" as it grabs its toy. Ownership does then appear natural. But the child also shows no power over its bladder or its bowels in the beginning either. Yet we do civilize our children so that their excretory functions take place appropriately and according to our cultural norms. No less then is "mine" an instinct and an appetite. It is thus immature and animal-like to claim things and territory as ones own. The truth is that what we conceive as "ownership", "possessions", and "property" are all things whose meaning is taught, and whose instinctive roots can be cultivated and turned in other directions.
Certainly we do not want to alter something so fundamental in our culture without a great deal of thought. It is not being suggested here as "the" answer to anything, but rather as an example of a certain aspect of social and cultural reality. We raise children into a way of seeing the world. There is no greater power, and no deeper responsibility. It is the main way the past has of coercing and giving order to the present, and that the present has of grasping and determining the future. It is why Fascist governments need and use so much mind control. It is the main tyrannical process in Orwell's 1984 - the power to give certain names to aspects of reality and thereby determine how the world and self are perceived.
In a free people, such as ourselves, where freedom of speech and thought are guaranteed, it is the primary power, a power far in excess of anything that governments or corporations may ever hope to exercise. The proof of this is how ardently they attempt to control the meaning of things through media, and through advertising especially.
And there is a special factor effecting this, a factor related to the particularities of the time in which we now live. At present the general power societies exercise in determining how its children grow up to see the world is at its weakest point in perhaps thousands of years. Recall what was suggested earlier, that tradition and its power to compel social conformance has passed away. Individuality is in an ascendancy, for the moment; there are no more rules. It is this truth we see active in the so-called family values crisis. All tradition is collapsing. In ways almost incomprehensible, all over the world the power of tradition is passing and this creates a special opportunity. Into this vacuum new impulses can arise. Let us take up an example - a possibility - and see where this leads us and what it can reveal about this opportunity.
Someone loses their job, a very common experience. This is often a tragedy in the making, in some instances whole families have ended up homeless with this as the beginning event. For a few there will be a cushion of savings; for most - who live paycheck to paycheck - this is an immediate catastrophe. Unemployment insurance, if applicable, may hold back the night for a while, but bankruptcy soon follows; the last desperate measure to restrain the financial hemorrhaging. A home, if owned, will disappear. But these obvious financial moves hardly touch the core problem which has to do with the inner sense of well being of those affected. The psychological toll is the most devastating cost, for it erodes just those inner resources from which any solution must be generated. These emotional "costs" of the loss of work will damage the family, may lead to divorce, to drug or alcohol abuse, to violence and the whole cycle of self destruction that seems so common today.
What a fraud then is our economic language in that it paints these things in terms of rates of joblessness and argues for or against the useless abstraction "full employment" as if somehow it makes any sense at all to delete from our consciousness a true awareness of the human costs. In economics much is made of preventing waste, but the waste of lives is far more devastating to our civilization. What kind of dark god is "profit" that it lets us so casually destroy human beings in its name?
Hidden beneath these facts is an odd, yet very important social one. For the most part, when someone loses work and begins this slide into despair (for the moment ignoring of course those who are born into this despair because they will never find work in the first place), those who lose a job take this course in a social context which leaves them alone, and which defines their problem as belonging only to them and one which they must themselves resolve. To lose the job is solved by getting another. But one who loses their job is expected to deal with the problem themselves.
There are exceptions and qualifications to this observation. Unemployment insurance, food banks, welfare programs, homeless shelters, our society does struggle to hold up the fallen and wounded from our economic wars. Even so, an idea still surrounds this whole thing, the idea that one is individually responsible. Sometimes families help, and other times people will be members of certain groups that make a point of giving community support to the economically wounded, such as the Mormons. But for the majority, joblessness is frightening and difficult and leaves one feeling very much alone. Children in families going through such a crisis will not understand the emotional distance which can arise because the parent now feels less human, because very often the parent does not understand the real costs of joblessness themselves. The reality is that the context of meaning in which we view such events is itself unhealthy.
We go to work, we receive a paper telling us of our new status, and then we go home. We have lost our job, and this event is cast in a certain light, has a certain social and individual meaning, and it is this "understanding" which effects us as much as anything. That effort we have been expending each week, that portion of our will which is lost into the job and its natural and unnatural stresses, this no longer secures for us some sense of control over the future. We feel as if we've gone from a state of power to a state of powerlessness. Yet, we will not die. Our material circumstances will change greatly, but poverty is not death. Even so, we are somehow so diminished as to be psychologically incapacitated. Perhaps something more is happening here, something which has so far escaped our comprehension.
Let us imagine for the moment that this same event occurs, i.e. joblessness, but that the context of meaning is different. Let us imagine a different "culture", one in which such an event has a different "meaning". This meaning I will paint by telling a story. Story telling is one of the main powers of culture, the main way communities give meaning to the common life events that all can or will face. Like many, I had once worried that our current "culture", what there is left of it, seemed to be abandoning books and literature. Now I have begun to realize that there is a wise ordering principle at work behind these events - especially the loss of interest in reading. It is part of the much wider process which is destroying tradition, and in this instance it paves the way for the possibility of a return to an oral culture. How can we go on to the new if the old does not die?
Why tell stories? Facts, even if assembled well, tend to a picture of things as black and white and gray. Facts are usually abstractions, that is they arise by removing them from the context in which they are embedded. Stories, being imaginative, can express qualities not capable of being captured by facts. What mere facts hide, stories can illuminate.
the War Against the Grey Men
Like many human beings, Adam labored in the House of the Grey Men. Each morning he awoke, and after breakfast said good-bye to his two children, and with his wife, and the others whose time of sacrifice it also was, Adam went to the station there to wait for and then to ride the Machine Beast into the bowels of the House of the Grey Men. The lower levels of the House were a terrible place to labor. No one was allowed to care for the work place except in the most minimal way. Soot, oil, garbage, foul air and water, and worse yet, colorless ideas, the lower level of the House was a place of little light and much darkness. But Adam understood; were it not for the Peace, the whole world would be like the House of the Grey Men. The Peace had made it possible for human beings to have the Home, but only for a Price. The Grey Men always had to have a Price. Yet Adam and the others were glad to pay their share of the Price, for in this way they could, perhaps, keep themselves and those they loved from becoming Grey as well. How else to save one's Soul then to pay the Price.
As always the Labor made Adam tired. But he knew that when he came Home the tiredness could be made to go away. So, as he always did, Adam gave his Labor with a good heart. In this way Adam kept the colors in his soul and his spirit alive. On this particular day, at the end of his shift, one of the Grey Men came to Adam and told him to come into the Office. Once there, the Grey man gave a pink envelope to Adam, and, with it, a very Grey smile. Adam's heart leapt into his throat, and he struggled to contain his excitement. It would not do to let the Grey man know what he truly felt. Carefully Adam opened the envelope and saw the Magic Words inside: "your Fired!" it said. As he had been taught Adam looked at his feet and slumped in his chair, even though his mind was racing with all the changes that were now possible. After a few minutes of silence the Grey man dismissed Adam. Carefully Adam put the pink envelope into the pocket of his work clothes and returned to his place of Labor. It took all the discipline he could muster to keep from jumping for joy.
Riding Home in the Beast, Adam could not contain himself. Standing next to his wife, he had her peek into his pocket. When she saw the envelope a smile lit up her face and she leaned against his shoulder and took his hand in hers. That night in the quiet of their apartment they and their friends had a party. Adam would now be able to stay Home all day, he had been freed of his duty to sacrifice to the House of the Grey Men, and now his Labor could be kept in the community. Various guardians of the community came to Adam that night asking where he would like to give his Labor, while others came to his wife to help manage the change. No longer would they live in the apartment that belonged to the Grey Men, but now they could live at Home. As the evening wore down, one of the guardians spoke the words of the Peace makers, reminding them all of their true power in the war against the Grey Men.
" They think they've fired me, but I am human, and this means I am free to give my own meaning to all things. Not so, say I, that pink means to be fired, but rather to be set free. They think they get my Labor for their Price, but I give it of myself. Sad it is that they choose to lose their colors, but I have kept mine and with my freedom to declare what it all means, I ride the rainbow of life in the company of others, sharing the same destiny. "
Behind this story are many ideas. For example, we currently tend to think of corporations as our enemy, as the cause of much unhappiness and tragedy in the world. But the corporation is an illusion. There is nothing real there; it is simple the Ghost which hides the Grey Men from their responsibilities. Our enemy is the Grey Men and their colorless souls. This is another true name for the evil tyranny of concentrated wealth.
The power which we possess as the potential creators of culture does not lie in the fact that we can give any name we want to anything or idea, but rather that we can seek and find the truest names, the ones that help us see through the Ghosts. There are many Ghosts.
` Another Ghost is the idea that we have to change the corporation, that we have to somehow overcome the apparently tremendous advantage that concentrated wealth possesses. Just in thinking this way we grant power to the Grey Men they do not in fact have. This is a variation of a general human theme which goes like this: "...if only X (someone) would do Y (some act) then I can be Z (whatever we believe we lack because X has not acted and done Y)." Whenever we think this way we grant extra power to X, in many cases power they only have because we have chosen to think this way.
Whenever we discover ourselves thinking this way, we need to stop and reflect on the reality. Do they really have this power? Is there a way which I can act which eliminates or lessens this power? Can I act in concert with others in some way so that we mutually diminish such power? What can I and/or we do independent of those who I/we perceive possess such power? What freedom do I have to no longer grant such power to another?
Many of our economic ideas are Ghosts of the Grey Men. We need not continue to feel bound by them. We can recognize that they are illusions and that we need no longer fear them. Especially if we act in concert. We can think of this as a kind of psychological-political aikido. Aikido is a martial art in which the person being attacked is taught to move in such a way that the energy of the aggressor's attack is harmlessly dissipated, while at the same time the person being attacked maintains their center and their balance. It is often not necessary to attack back. The attacker moves toward you, but you are not there.
So it can be in the War Against the Grey Men. They look for prey and for servants, and while they get something - the free gift of our Labor - they do not get to drive the colors from our souls or the vital life from our spirits. Why? Because right in front of them we stole the old and dying meaning away, and made it all new and all our own. Because we refused to fall completely into the chaos of unfettered individualism, and formed mutual aid communities instead. And, in this way we chose to be neither Grey or animal-like, but rather to be human.
In America, this choice has certain special aspects, even though the same choice is arising in different ways all over the world. Socially and culturally America is unlike any other place in the world. Here all the cultures and peoples and religions meet and mingle, or make war. Here, in the New World, the old traditions have the least power, much less then they exercise elsewhere. Here the power to create new culture is the most powerful; everywhere else American culture, such as it is, is imitated. This is why so many upholders of other traditions hate us; they see the effects, the imitation - especially among their young - and they blame America and Americans, not realizing that an extraordinary world-wide social/cultural metamorphosis is upon us.
One of the realities of this change is that it cannot be orchestrated. No institution, or government, or business, or religion can manufacture the new which is to come. All such social change occurs locally, in the smallest social structures - the family, paired relationships, small groups gathered together for any and all purposes. How do we talk to each other? How do we treat each other? What thoughts do we form inwardly by which we define those who we meet and by which we define the context in which such encounters arise? What feelings, what colors of soul do we cultivate toward others, especially the unknown-stranger-other? With what name, what significance, do we adorn the world?
Think about how quickly a new word, such as cyperspace, or an old word with a new meaning, such as "cool" spoken the way the young speak it today, moves through a culture. The deepest thinkers, among our scholars of sociology and language, know full well that much that we call reality is in fact solely that meaning which is given by a culture to its young through the acquisition of language. There is no more profound revolution then a revolution of meaning, for social and cultural realities can be altered totally by such changes.
Think about it. Most of these changes occur chaotically and instinctively. Some are very powerful. Christianity, Marxism, modern materialistic science, these are all the result of processes of change in meaning. Now just suppose we undertook to do such a thing on purpose. Not to force a change in the organization of society itself directly, but only in what things mean, by driving our energies in a struggle to find the truest names. There is no accident to the fact that the first thing which the God of the Old Testament gave to the human being was the power to name "the beasts of the field and the birds of the air" or that the Gospel of John begins with: "In the beginning was the Word...".
Now when human beings, not just outwardly in speech, but more crucially, inwardly in thought, begin to take responsibility for the "naming" - for the granting of meaning - to themselves, there is no greater creative power active on the level of human social existence. When mothers and fathers, single or otherwise, when groups or families, associated for any purpose begin to take conscious responsibility for the "stories" they tell about what the world means, then the most profound social/cultural power possible begins to shine its light and warmth into our lives.
Reflect simply on gossip. Small minded individuals gather together to demean and degrade their fellows. In this act they stand between the thing and its meaning, between the person and how the community perceives them. We all know the destructive power evoked in this most simple and treacherous act. Increase the scale of this observation and we begin to understand the frightening power exercised by media and why its numerous excesses are so destructive. The question remains, where are we, as individuals and groups, before such acts?
Mostly we are asleep, or afraid. We ourselves may gossip, or merely passively observe, as long as it is someone else being betrayed. Against the institutional power of media we assume powerlessness, or perhaps much worse, that we must make some extravagant act in order to get media attention so as to get our message, our meaning, across. If we think on it we will realize that by taking up the power of stories, of seeking for the true names, we begin what is not merely a creative act, but in fact a stark necessity of the time. The gossips, the disinformation specialists, the liars, the truth defilers, who will oppose them if not the ordinary people in the exercise of their extraordinary freedom - their rights and responsibilities - of speech and thought?
Imagine what will happen to corporations and governments and other groups that seek to suppress human dignity and self awareness when the central means, for effecting their treason against their fellow humans, is taken from them by individuals and small groups who say No! to the tyranny of false meaning and oppose it with their own creative capacities to know and to name the truth. The power of the Grey Men and their cold and heartless God depend upon our passivity and sleep. If we awake, although we can not eliminate them for they do have a place in the balance, we will take our rightful place as leaders in the creation of the future.
And in America, with its miraculous diversity of culture and social structure, the possibilities are incredible. What stories, what true names, will be discovered in East LA or in the south side of Chicago, or in New Orleans or Miami, or Montana or...And think again of how the world culture follows so closely what happens here in America. It is not as if we guide, no that is not the case. Rather we break ground, and then others know it can be done; so that, for example, what was once rock and roll flowed over the world and then came back again as World Beat Music, transformed into a kaleidoscope of world culture. America is a Dream, the Great Dream in fact. People come here drawn by the dream they have made in their own minds of the meaning of freedom and equality and brotherhood. Seeking they come, bringing their dream with them to add to our dreams, so that we all dream the Great Dream together. This is the true American Spirit, which is not possessed merely by Americans. It is a universal dream.
If we change our culture, if we change the meaning of things, then we begin the universal dissolution of the whole foundation on which the Grey Men march to power. It is not necessary to oppose them on the political level at all; although as the culture changes political change will follow as day follows night. Just consider that with these few words, dear reader, how many new doorways have already opened in your own mind...
We now must draw these meditations to a close. Our reflections on the American Spirit, and the present context in which that is active, have taken us down many roads, have shown us many stories. At the deepest level it has been suggested that the American Spirit is a universal impulse, a seeking dreaming not confined to one culture, race or people. We have also discovered that ordinary people possess extraordinary power through the creation of culture, through taking responsibility for the context of meaning in which life unfolds. The traditions are passing away, and individuality threatens chaos. If society has no rules, then the individual must provide his or her own.
The texture of the current crisis of freedom involves a relationship between the power of corporations, the power of the Grey Men, and the inner well being of individuals and communities. The cold and heartless dark god of profit is blind to human need.
Much of the power of the Grey Men is a Ghost, an illusion woven of false economic ideas. Shatter the illusion and shatter the power. Find the true ideas, the true names and give that dissolved power back to communities through their own created culture.
On this foundation erect new economic organizations. Don't attack corporations directly. Take away their meaning and make them unnecessary. Against such creative human forces they have no defense. On such a path much else follows simply from the nature of the already existing social relationships.
A new culture naturally grows new social forms, new kinds of communities, which in turn are the soil from which new political leaders are grown. Laws are the rigidification of living social processes. Laws are the skeleton formed from the living social body. It isn't necessary to make new laws to undo corporations or their abuse of the political process. New culture and new communities will automatically produce such changes in support of their newly understood needs.
The individual human being stands in the midst of two relationships in the world. In terms of our inner life, our soul and spirit, we live in a vertical relationship to that which we recognize as higher than ourselves. In the horizontal we are connected to each other, we are social. In both directions we are yet immature. Growth, moral or vertical growth, and horizontal or social growth only occur through crisis. This is the basic lesson of life.
It is the sea of events, the tides of history, that impel us forward toward that we might yet become. Knowing this we should perhaps be grateful for the Grey Men and saddened that they have lost the colors from their souls. For without the pain they inflict we would sleep and never grow at all. What a miracle the human spirit that it can meet such challenges and make such sacrifices as the times makes necessary.
In the mystery of time a great moment often comes, when certain opportunities arise, when certain paths can be chosen, which if not taken then, cannot be taken later. We stand on the sword point of such a choice. In what spirit do we approach the problem of economic tyranny and its abuses of our way of life? Are we vengeful, angry, full of hate? Or are we thoughtful, sober, deliberate, awake, and creative? This is The Question.
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