Likenesses and the unseen hand

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“To read is to dream, guided by someone else’s hand. To read carelessly and distractedly is to let go of that hand. Superficial erudition is the only method for reading well and being profound.” – Fernando Pessoa

An unseen hand (not Adam Smith’s invisible one) guides my reading choices from one thing to the next and each is a link to a mighty, unbroken, infinite chain – coincidental mentions of concepts I had just been contemplating. Thinking and writing obsessively about mirrors and suddenly I decide, “Now is the right time to read Vonnegut” – and woven throughout is the concept of mirrors as “leaks” – “holes between two universes”. But even in the book I improbably read on teeth, dentistry and oral health, what springs off the page? “A “photograph is more than a mirror. In the face of mortality, it offers hope for a permanent self.” Or in a contemporary Japanese-German short story by Yoko Tawada:

“Eighty percent of the human body is made of water, so it isn’t surprising that one sees a different face in the mirror each morning. The skin of the forehead and cheeks changes shape from moment to moment like the mud of a swamp, shifting with the movements of the water below and the footsteps of the people walking above it. I had hung a framed photograph of myself beside the mirror. The first thing I would do when I got up was to compare my reflection with the photograph, checking for discrepancies which I then corrected with makeup.”

And perhaps more deeply than mere reflections in a mirror, reading Vonnegut’s work and rereading Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, their warnings and observations about American and/or totalitarian societies provide obvious parallels:

“It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.

Keep calm, they said on television. Everything is under control.” -from The Handmaid’s Tale

“Seems like the only kind of job an American can get these days is committing suicide in some way.” – from Breakfast of Champions

“America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. … They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: ‘If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?’ There will also be an American flag no larger than a child’s hand – glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register.” – from Slaughterhouse Five

At no time is this more timely – in these works of fiction, or as a red thread sewn through much of modern non-fiction, such as other books I’ve recently read, such as the incisive Age of Anger, White Trash, Teeth and even the books on addiction.

Other parallels are not as obvious – in Atwood there are the “Marthas”, ominous-sounding household servants, and in Breakfast of Champions, “Marthas” are large designed-for-disaster buses converted into ambulances.

It fascinates me to no end that despite dipping into and reading from the broadest range of disciplines, there are connections between all of them: Virtually everything can swing back around to this perverted idea of uninterrupted “progress” and the selfish, perverted definitions society gives to the word “progress” – in the individualism described in Age of Anger, embodied by the Boomers, leading to the hungry ghosts and spiritual emptiness Gabor Maté discusses and diagnoses. And then the effects – ranging from the dismal and often fatal results of the healthcare and dental care system in the US as described in Teeth, to the “long-term losers” described in Age of Anger, such as the degradation of any hope for a country like Congo (about which I also recently read a book): “In Dostoyevsky’s view, the cost of such splendour and magnificence as displayed at the Crystal Palace was a society dominated by the war of all against all, in which most people were condemned to be losers.”

None of these overlaps should be a surprise. It should also not be a surprise that Dostoevsky is cited in almost every book I have read no matter what discipline, time period in which it was written or what genre, fiction or non-fiction. Dr Gabor Maté quotes Dostoevsky in his book on addiction; Dostoevsky figures prominently, as quoted above, in Age of Anger. And even in Vonnegut.

“Rosewater said an interesting thing to Billy one time about a book that wasn’t science fiction. He said that everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. “But that isn’t enough any more,” said Rosewater.

Seeing and making the connections is gratifying, but much like an alcoholic seeking long-term sobriety, just going to meetings (or in this case connecting the dots) is hardly enough. The addict needs to commit to engage with all the steps to make progress, and the reader must start to process and form her own ideas about the connections identified.

Repetition

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Poem
-Novica Tadić

He turns the pages of books
And examines the poems there
Saying my god
All this has already been written

On this day that is meant to be a paean to love (even if it’s the most commercial farce of the year), all I can think about is hate.

I felt relieved, almost smug, if deluded, to believe (did I ever really believe?) that we lived in a time (or were closer to living in a time) beyond petty hatred and discrimination based on things like skin color or religion. I have never been able to understand the existence of this kind of hatred, the crippling inferiority and fear that it betrays. But then I have watched as suddenly all the closet racists, xenophobes and other bile-filled hate zealots became empowered to voice their inner hatred, perpetrate great violence openly – as late as 2017. Is this the new normal?

No, there is nothing new or normal about it.

Most stunning (but is it really stunning?) of all is realizing how deeply racist and – worse – fearful – people are – people I never would have imagined being racist, xenophobic or anti-Islam show themselves to be. I suppose I have been a hopeless fool for imagining that things were anywhere near being otherwise. In my current state of mind – the February doldrums – I only seem able to see the very worst. I can’t let this pull to defeatist gloom win – but my god, the pull is strong.

But please never be dishonest enough to believe there will not be more Trumps—maybe many, possibly worse—until this country properly reckons with racism and white supremacy. This president isn’t an original; he’s just the most recent proof of America doing the same thing over and over again and pretending not to want the same result. Trump is the vast measurable difference between what America claims it wants to be and the truth.”

Why I Can Never Make Up My Mind: John Edwards

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Today, under George W. Bush, there are two Americas, not one: One America that does the work, another that reaps the reward. One America that pays the taxes, another America that gets the tax breaks. One America – middle-class America – whose needs Washington has long forgotten, another America – narrow-interest America – whose every wish is Washington’s command. One America that is struggling to get by, another America that can buy anything it wants, even a Congress and a president.” – John Edwards, 2004

Poverty – particularly among the working poor – has really only started to become a headline-worthy issue in the last four or five years when a significant number of people who had perhaps been just on the edge of poverty fell into it thanks to the economic collapse of 2008. At various points in history, of course, poverty and welfare have appeared on the mass media radar, and occasionally escaped from the lips of politicians. Mostly it has been all talk or has been negative, “shaming” talk (much like the 1980s rhetoric of Ronald Reagan demonizing the mythical “welfare queen”).

John Edwards, in focusing on poverty and inequality in America, may have been well ahead of the curve by focusing with laser-like intensity and precision – at the risk of his own political rise. Of course his penis and lies about what he was doing with it unzipped and undid him faster than his dedication to poverty-related issues, which is a shame when you look back on his rhetoric and ideas about America. He has been, as this article in The Atlantic described, been whitewashed from the Democratic Party, despite the fact that the platform the party stands on today is one he essentially built himself. I acknowledge that. It’s easy to gloss over the good Edwards did and would have tried to do given the mess he made of his personal life.

Who among us does not make a mess of our personal life? Most of us screw up – sometimes on a grand scale – but most of us are not in the public eye and won’t suffer serious consequences – like becoming a national joke, destroying whatever is left of our very public marriage, sacrificing any and all chance of holding political office. Unfortunately, Edwards’s fight against economic inequality will always be overshadowed by his personal choices and lies.

Edwards championed those who can rarely speak for themselves and highlighted hard truths about class and economic divisions in America (that many Americans, struggling or not, do not like to admit about America. But it is still hard to make my mind about him – I suppose my approach can be as complex as who Edwards actually is. It is not as though by making very poor decisions and very public mistakes (more than once) negates his role as a thought leader, activist or intelligent man. I suppose it just means that he was perhaps not that well-suited to become president.

The American way – a light extinguished

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“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

-Emma Lazarus, from “The New Colossus”

I like to ignore the realities of America now that I don’t live there, but it is true that what happens in the US does affect the world.

Brainwashing in the US begins early. Most people don’t think of it that way – and even rather anti-American people I meet in Europe sometimes think I am going too far when I describe the US system as a form of slavery (especially if one compares it to actual slavery, which of course is an entirely different, toxic and horrifying institution/monstrosity). It might be better to call it indentured servitude, with the indenture owed to student loan companies and increasingly inhumane workplaces. People are too brainwashed to know that that is the machine they are a part of – indoctrinated into the idea that they are would-be millionaires (as John Steinbeck said, ““Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires”) or that “anything is possible” if they work hard enough – and taught from an early age to value material goods over anything else, so that, unless they are actually hit by real hardship, an average American thinks he is prospering because he managed to buy … a new Jeep or something.

I often tell the disembodied and soulless story as one in which you are born and are told from the earliest time that you must get an education, so you go to public school (or whatever form you attend) and basically learn how not to think while a lot of nonsense is hammered into your head and creativity is systematically removed – stay in line, be quiet, color inside the lines, do what everyone else is doing, no that is not the right interpretation of this, there is only one right answer and only one way to get there). Then you are told you have to go to college or else you will not get a job. You go into great debt to do so. Naturally after that your hands are tied by the debt, so you take whatever job you can get rather than whatever job will make you happy – but you are also convinced that you will be happy if you buy the aforementioned Jeep. And of course unquestionably America is the greatest country in the world (and if you question it, get out because you’re no patriot!), so it does not matter that you don’t have the money or time to travel to see the world. You have a Jeep you can drive around with since you have cheap oil! And since you are stuck wherever you are anyway paying your student debt, you might as well do what everyone else does. Buy a house. Get married. You might start to question whether you are happy in your job, but you know you won’t find another one easily anyway … and now you have a kid or two, so you need to stay in your job to keep your healthcare. Then you play the tug-of-war with yourself about whether you can be a good parent, whether you have enough money for their daycare, whether one of the parents should leave their job (if there are two parents, of course) until you enroll your own kid into the same system that produced you just the way you are now and the same story repeats. And repeats and repeats.

This story, even if it differs from individual to individual, is somewhat amazing to incredulous Europeans, who actually don’t think of the details and intricacy of how this average American mind is formed/created. They often just imagine that “Americans are dumb” (broad strokes of generalization, of course) but fail to take the whole system into consideration. When I tell this story to the average American, it is equally amazing because the semi-awake one never thinks about the fact that each chain in the link of his life is some spot where he has been further handcuffed into the, shall we say, chain gang? University costs – mostly free in much of Europe – healthcare – largely free in Europe – daycare subsidized by the state – lots of vacation time and maternity/paternity leave … sure, taxes are slightly higher (but honestly not that much) – and most do not feel like they are enslaved by their jobs. You can leave any time without risking health coverage. These too are generalizations, especially in this era of steep austerity cuts and unemployment at unheard of rates in much of mainland Europe (Scandinavia is not quite in the same position).

The general theme here, though, is that there is a tremendous freedom to this and an impetus to then really think. But how could an average American be expected to think with that whole backstory forming and informing his life?

The American lifestyle and system creates a certain kind of constant fear. Fear of losing one’s job, fear of violence, fear of being sued, fear of in any way being out of step with the norm. I thought about this one night as I was driving my long-distance commute back home and saw a guy hitchhiking trying to get from a town called Bengtsfors to Årjäng (none of which will be familiar to or mean anything to anyone reading this). It may not be charitable of me not to have offered a ride since I was driving right through Årjäng. But hitchhiking is dangerous territory. I have no idea if this guy posed any danger, and maybe anywhere in the world, it would be foolish to chance it, but even if it were almost a guarantee that it would have been safe, I still would not have done it. You can take an American out of America but not shake the full American paranoia out of them. I have more than my share of this paranoia, assuming that everyone has bad or dangerous intentions and ulterior motives. Being American has taught me never to trust anything.

Maybe it is crazy and sounds like I am looking for the boogieman around every corner, particularly in the working world. Somewhere in me, I find it fun to search and apply for (and interview for, if called) jobs. It did not start as a fun hobby – it was more out of necessity when I searched like mad to find a job (as was always the case in my earlier life – applying for 100 jobs and getting maybe one interview or something). But eventually when I did not need to worry about it anymore and did not need a job, I decided it was partly fun, a bit of a game and one can always use interview practice (and potentially a free trip somewhere). But it was partly this paranoia showing its face – companies go under, companies downsize, industries change – you need to be ready and out there and know what the bloody hell is going on. Be ye ever ready, right? And I am.

Before the big crash of 2008, I was living in Iceland and actually went on a lot of interview trips around Europe… Dublin, Antwerp, Brussels, Paris, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Luxembourg, Amsterdam, London, a few times to Helsinki… cannot complain. While it is not always practical, it usually pays off. I have never once been blindsided. If you are paranoid (and/or American) enough, you will always see the writing on the wall and READ IT.

One of my freelance/side “careers” has ended up being job counselor/life coach/resume-and-interview consultant. Not that I ever wanted to do that. Europeans especially need a bit of coaching in this department because they have never experienced the dog-eat-dog American work culture (and I hope they never reach a point that they experience something quite like that). But Europeans are too soft, and there is no doubt that some things in Europe are slowly moving in a more American direction (although I don’t think it will ever go to the extremes). In my last job, there was a huge reorganization a few years ago, and something like one-third of the company was laid off. When this happens, employment laws offer considerable protection, and most decent employers extend protection and assistance beyond what the law requires. Despite the “helping hand” and the clear signs everywhere that change was afoot, those affected by this first reorg (which they euphemistically called “right sizing”) were completely blindsided because they have never been taught (how nice for them) to read the signs of what is coming. I think most aware Americans in a corporate environment are always paying attention to little things because paying just a bit of attention may pay dividends one way or another. Of course Europeans might be told pointblank that change is coming but never imagine that it will have any effect on them. Many of them were devastated in the first round of layoffs, even though they were poised to get at least half a year of pay (even if they got a new job the next day, they would still get the full pay). And the Norwegian economy was not affected much at all by the global economic downturn – so most people found jobs immediately. Their sense of panic was almost cute in its “working world naivete”. Not that I think it is great that I am so on my toes and ready for anything all the time.

It turned out for the best, of course, when I was sort of part of a later “right sizing” process. I was, as always, prepared. It was rather hilarious when my manager called me to give me the “bad news” – kept saying stuff about how I must feel so devastated and would feel it when the shock wore off. But all these strategies and acute situation awareness enabled an automatic prewarning. I was not shocked; I was not surprised. I was ready.

As we know (or should know), life is not defined by work – or should not be. Somehow, this is where American life and “ideals” derail. Increasingly, people work and work and don’t get anywhere and won’t be able to afford (in terms of time or money) some way out of the situation they are in (this is probably already the case, and I am just out of touch). When I consider that people who work in the service industry do not come close to earning living wages, I am appalled. But the system is set up this way – to glorify and maximize corporate profit, to supply consumer demand for impossibly cheaper and cheaper goods sold in stores staffed by people who cannot afford to eat.

Lovely. What a happy Thanksgiving, America.