Monday, January 13, 2014


The wind here has been blowing a hundred miles an hour.  I’m exaggerating -- the anemometers (reinforced versions) have been peaking at the high nineties.  The good part is that all the leaves are now ripped off the cottonwood and curvetting around the yard, pursued by the feral kittens.  At last the sun floods in my south windows.

I’m glib.  I can reel off words like thread off a spool but that says nothing about the quality of the strand.  Now and then I hit a level that seems more like a lid and have to struggle out from under it.  Since Div School, the most intense goad towards growth has been Tim Barrus.  His effect on me and others is that of a strong wind that rips off leaves to expose the structure underneath.  Not always comfortable.

Image from Cinematheque/Tim Barrus

Clearly economics -- in the sense of how creatures derive survival from their environment -- is at the root of basic human ideas, whether we call them science or religion.  Economics is sometimes entwined with ideas of virtue: dependability, honesty, discretion, loyalty.   The characteristics of virtue can become twisted into instruments of abuse, particularly when economics become layered into classes, the “lower” ones stigmatized and exploited to the point of death.  People who are owned.  That is, empires develop.  Where there is empire, there is revolution.

Tony Bynum,

We are watching this on the Blackfeet Reservation day-by-day.  Over the last hundred years internal empires have developed and are now bureaucratic enough to endanger the survival of the weakest, the most stigmatized, and even to affect the lives of those who thought they were safe, respectable earners.  Part of what has destabilized them is the idea that somewhere out there is a gold strike, an oil boom, enormous profits for some if they act shrewdly.   The same promise of empire that powered the prairie clearances that put the people on reservations.

I subscribe to, which sends daily quotes from books currently causing talk.  This was today’s post:  “In his book, The Democracy Project, David Graeber writes on the Occupy Wall Street movement, and reflects provocatively on the broader subjects of democracy, revolution and change.”  He speaks of the beginnings of globalization with the sea-going colonial empires and discusses the final impacts of four revolutions:

World revolution of 1789  (The French and American defiance against kings)
World revolution of 1848   (industrialization)
Russian revolution of 1917  (universal primary education, welfare state)
World revolution of 1968  (against state bureaucracies, demand for freedom)

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez

What is politics really about?  The source of authority, the coalition grouping for power, what can be sold, who can survive.

Graeber speaks of “a rebellion against bureaucracy, conformity, of anything that fettered the human imagination, a project for the revolutionizing not just of political or economic life, but every aspect of human existence. As a result, in most cases, the rebels didn't even try to take over the apparatus of state; they saw that apparatus as itself the problem. 

"It's fashionable nowadays to view the social movements of the late 1960s as an embarrassing failure. A case can surely be made for that view. It's certainly true that in the political sphere, the immediate beneficiary of any widespread change in political common sense -- a prioritizing of ideals of individual liberty, imagination, and desire, a hatred of bureaucracy, and suspicions over the role of government -- was the political right.”

When I was in ministry in the Eighties and since it was the Unitarian Universalist denomination which is  (or was then) friendly to revolution, individualism, and all the other social movements of the Sixties, people who remembered and valued those days would sometimes ask me if I thought it was all wasted, so I had to give it some thought.  In Graeber’s phrase, it was “the revolutionizing of every aspect of human existence.”  But it was only the beginning of that.  By now even TEDtalks and the Edge can’t keep us up to speed.  I’ve backed off from all the reading about brains I was doing, because the research is moving too fast.  I barely grasp one concept and they’re already talking about the next one.

And yet “the bone chalice” of the skull is the pivot of the revolution underway: the demand to belong to oneself, if you can figure out who you are.  The problem is how to keep surviving in the midst of the battle.  How does one create a coalition if everyone in the revolution is rejecting labels or still changing and everyone resisting the revolution is insisting on affiliation and control?  

How do we understand the Post-Capitalist world that we have already crashed into through destruction?  Capitalism has given us resource exhaustion, huge broken engineering projects, global warming, and diseases released from their former sequestration in non-human creatures.  What will give us (to use the phrase of the Unilever executive Harish Manwani in his TEDtalk 1/13/14) the willingness to engage with “soap and soup,” not as purchases, not as shareholders, not even as objects, but as behaviors:  hand-washing and household cooking?  Both can save millions of lives by preventing infections and not just starvation but also defects of metabolism like diabetes.  Mostly, it’s a matter of changing focus.  Out of the lab, away from the experts.  Individual actions that support global change.  Universals shared by Manhattanites and rural Africans.

While we quarrel over whether same sexes can marry, whether marriage can be multiple, the obligations of a biological progenitor, how much society should record and interfere in the intimate lives of people, how much clothing one should wear, our actions are escaping the categories.  The Great Falls Tribune yesterday had an article about the rising rate of “co-habitation” -- unmarried people living together as sexual partners raising children.  In practical terms marriage has become a moot point.  We (including Ernest Hemingway -- remember “A Farewell to Arms”?) used to talk romantically about how marriage is only a piece of paper, irrelevant to the emotional merging of two people.  Quite so.  

But we’ve also tried to insist that co-habitation can be based on true love that is permanent, immutable, and -- though changing -- is never broken.  Mark Miller’s murder mystery gives us a major clue right off: the good guy and his wife speak their marriage vows to each other every morning.   The bad guy, a shallow hardened man, says his declaration of love only once.  When his wife asks for reassurance, he tells her,  “I’ll let you know if anything changes.”  She is shut out.  We know right there we want him to be the villain.

The balancing of independence with intimacy is always in an economic context and that can be a heart-breaker.  As always, some people are staying together in face of abuse because they need the income  while others are staying together though they may starve -- with their loving arms around each other and their children.

Change is sometimes described as a strong wind.  Real, roaring, changing everything with irresistible force.    In the night objects hit the side of my house.  The only way to sleep is to simply accept and trust -- not the safety so much as the survivability one way or another.  If a big piece of the roof blows off, if a branch blows through the window, I’ll patch and continue.  If I am killed, then I will be dead.  I am a process and processes end.  Little processes end all the time, but they are part of big processes, a flow as real as the planetary wind currents, the jet streams.  Even the solar wind.  We're infinitesimal, but we're real and we're there.  We are ALL part of the big process.

No comments: