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Special Reports Last Updated: Nov 30th, 2007 - 01:16:33

Middle class angst: The politics of lemmings, part 2
By Stan Goff
Online Journal Guest Writer

Nov 30, 2007, 01:13

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Last year, I wrote an essay for Truthdig, in which I elaborated a Safe World-Dark World thesis:

The Safe-World is somewhere in the suburbs, ringed with layers of defense: lawns, fences, homeowners associations, bands of strip malls, interstate highways, contract security, cops, the oceans, the aircraft carriers and nuclear armed submarines . . .

Outside the layered defenses of Safe-World, surrounding it, are dark, unpredictable, primitive Others. Inside Safe-World, when stability reigns, men can provide and rest at the hearth. But the real rite of passage for Men is to leave the safety of the hearth to confront this Dark Otherness outside Safe-World. Having done their duty disciplining the teeming periphery, they can return to the hearth, where Woman stands by, waiting, appropriately grateful for her security to this bloodied Man. In exchange for his security (also against other men), she is dutiful . . .
 . . . As our cultural distinctions have collapsed under the onslaught of megamerger monoculture, we have seen wholesale uniformity imposed on our constructed environment. All the distinct cultural meanings of past communities have gone under the wheels. But human beings cannot live without meaning.

Meaning-making is a distinctly human need. We are the only species that can see the cosmic abyss that surrounds our incandescent islets of awareness. With the enclosure of Middle AmericaTM into the constructed spaces of the work cubicle, the strip mall and the suburban living room, meaning-hunger is being answered in exactly the same commodified way as actual hunger: with taylorized, mass-produced cultural meanings, disseminated as "entertainment." Journalism has been swept up in this process, now obliged by The MarketTM to be "entertaining." (Big-money journalism has always been generally obedient; it's the adoption of glitz that has changed it.)

Life, at last, must imitate art. And with only one monocultural art, we will be truly one in our imitation . . .

 . . . They teach us that Dark-World is real, and there we might be, but for the grace of God and our protectors: the cop, the soldier, the mercenary, the prison guard, the surveillance camera -- the rat mentality that urges some of us to police others for conformity.

But suburbia is not safe. This is the central illusion.

While suburbia has had its eyes fixed on threatening images of Arabs and Persians and Latinos and deepest, darkest African America, the same establishment that makes war and builds prisons and gazes into our lives has picked suburban pockets with one hand and gripped the 'burbs as loan sharks with the other.

Suburbia is not being protected; it is being saved for dessert.

It is this sector with its fragile, technological, disembodied living standard that will now come under attack. In the short term, that is already happening through financial manipulation and the further disappearance of living-wage jobs. The tremendous personal debt burden that is mounting in the American "middle class," fueled by past low interest rates and cash-out equity loans, was the latest maneuver to prop up this sector's role as global consumer-a time bomb that will explode directly under Suburbia's feet.

The deepest fear in suburbia, never spoken aloud, is that when this epoch unravels, Suburbia's citizens quite simply will not know how to survive. Even the veterans of war who withdraw back into these spaces are largely incapable of the most basic skills that will be required in a non-technocratic world: building healthy soil, making food, collecting potable water, basic medicine . . . seed-saving, canning, pickling and fermenting . . . all lost; and so Suburbia will fight tooth and nail for its "entitlement to the entropo-technocratic life-support system, even as that system withers away.

Instead, our masculinized version of any post-collapse -- which we have compartmentalized into a "fantasy" that cannot be touched by our day-to-day -- is what we have borrowed from direct and vicarious experience of the military . . . a Mad Maxish world of roaming armed conflict. This will never happen.

The real choice that Suburbia will face is one between fascism or self-sufficiency, which is a choice -- as well -- between spiritual death or spiritual renewal.

The political identity of Suburbia that grew out of the spatial re-coding of white supremacy as sui generis . . . class, itself re-coded as meritocracy . . . expressed as the strip mall, the homeowners association, and the PTA.

The gravitational pull of this new majority has proven irresistible to the institutional behemoths of the two main political parties. It is this mutual yet antagonistic orientation of the parties to this same "middle" demographic that homogenizes the commitment to our peculiar monetary-military neo-imperialism; for without control of both the global periphery and the other overdeveloped metropoles, the entropic inputs that are the oxygen of Suburbia would disappear. Terminal hypoxia. The dirtiest little secret of all. The American way of life will disappear without the hegemony of the dollar and the political black hole of the imperial armed forces . . . and neither of these can continue for very much longer.

The localized political identity of Suburbia did not ossify in its Cold War forms. There are now inner-ring suburbs, with many people of color, and outer, then outer-outer rings, and finally the gentrification of central-urban space, where the stratifications within the middle class are becoming bright-lined. The same institutions -- homeowners associations and PTAs, for example -- are subject to transformation, and their inhering localism is a real political strength. The moral paradox that this strength has been mobilized by the Right, whose ramp-up to the 1994 elections was the culmination of a decades-long engagement with these local "logics," does not alter the fact of that strength.

Suburbia was never totally monolithic; and it has become less so as time passes. In Lassiter's account, when Charlotte, NC, was using at-large voting in 1970 to consolidate white upper-middle-class political power, there was a backlash by white former-busing opponents from the lower-strata suburbs who made tactical alliances with nearby Black communities that resulted in a local counter-hegemonic bloc . . . one that changed the perceptions and attitudes of the white suburbanites who never quite qualified for the gated communities of southeast Charlotte. Since then, the bi-racial formations that formed then have been engaged in a number of struggles that gravitated toward the environmental justice movement.

My own neighborhood, once a white enclave, is now peopled with a few African American families, as well as Dominican, Russian, Hungarian, Turk, Colombian, Indian, Chinese, and Nigerian. Our children and grandchildren play together at the homeowners-association-maintained playground.

My homeowners association forbids clotheslines and front-yard vegetable gardens . . . these are vestiges of the aversion to anything that smacks of Black or immigrant, the white status-seeking that says to the world, I am successfully on the grid. On the other hand, one year my HOA and its membership boosted a slow-growth mayor into office after an arrogant developer tried to open one of our cul-de-sacs into a through street. The parent political-identity kicked in, and the developer was taken to the woodshed.

Things sometimes turn into their opposites. Dialectics 101.

We have legislation in North Carolina now that forbids homeowners associations from forbidding clotheslines . . . the global warming argument has trumped the "taint" of the primitive and the natural. I'll be starting a small campaign this winter to rid our by-laws of the garden-prohibition (using the greenhouse gas argument, and now the peak-oil issue which is being proven before our very eyes and in our very wallets).

Conditions change in the face of ideologies and delusions. And there is still that middle-class angst that confronts these big-brained primates in the �burbs. That spiritual poverty, that disembeddedness, that disenchantment, that separation and alienation that sits above us like a cluttered attic even as we sit in the disinfected barracks below and drink our superficial stories from the television . . .

There is one place -- and one identity -- that has heretofore been left out of this discussion, and that is the very place and identity where many residents of Suburbia now seek out once a week to try and fill this connective void and perpetual loss of meaning: church.

The problem of Suburbia is not soluble; and the residents of Suburbia are no more or less human than anyone else. I am going to discuss Christianity now, not because it is more or less important than other religions, but because it is the predominant religious tradition in this treacherous spatial phenomenon.

I am also going to recommend a book to other readers: The New Interpreter's Study Bible (new revised edition with the Apocrypha).

Why would I do that, me, a known socialist and pro-feminist?

I am recommending it because (1) Suburbia is here and it will not disappear (there is nowhere else left for all these people to go), (2) because until Suburbia gains direct experience of its material poverty, there is no other way to reach inside their material self-interest except to identify with their spiritual dislocation (spiritual poverty), and (3) the Bible is the most widely-read book in our society.

Rene Girard wrote about something called mimesis. Judith Arias writes:

Taking his cue from the Aristotelian dictum that what distinguishes the human being among animals is our greater capacity for imitation, Rene Girard proposes a reformulation of our understanding of "mimesis." His definition goes beyond the representational dimension that has informed theoretical definitions of the term since the time of Plato. For Girard, mimesis is the force that makes humanity possible -- that simultaneously assures both the distinctness of human beings as "social animals" and our relative individual autonomy vis a vis the social body. As such, he considers mimesis to be not only prior to consciousness, but also constitutive of consciousness.

This concept goes far deeper than mere imitation, deeper even than the scientific implications of mirror neurons (which confirm the least controversial aspect of Girard's theory . . . that humans learn by imitation). Girard's mimesis operates in that psychic space where stories (symbols, myths) fuse with our experience of self and others (psychoanalysis, for those who need a referential mooring).

Girard poses a problem called mimetic rivalry, in which a model plays a key role. Among the things we learn to do by imitation of a model is how and what to desire. This creates a dynamic that is destructive of community. The boy is taught to simultaneously objectify and desire the infantilized woman. He learns this by imitating the desire of other men (often represented in popular culture). But in imitating this desire, he sets himself up to see those very models (other men) as his rivals for the desired object.

Any of us, with a moment's thought, can find other examples of this mimetic rivalry. Jessica Benjamin, Nancy Hartsock, and other feminists dealing with psychoanalysis have addressed this dynamic in the development of an identification of desire with domination, and its disruptions of human inter-subjectivity.

Rivalry itself then is cyclic and self-reproducing, and the method that Girard identified throughout the ages for breaking the cycle was sacrifice of a scapegoat . . . the sublimation of blame.

Perhaps the most memorable and horrendous examples of this in recent history was Hitler's scapegoating of European Jewry. The most current examples are the scapegoating of Muslims and immigrants in the US psyche.

This is what my friend, Reverend Greg Moore, calls "the mimetic of empire."

I don't claim to know how valid the whole notion of mimetics may be; but then validation is itself part of someone's agenda. What I know is that American Suburbia is the most dangerous place on the planet, more dangerous by orders of magnitude than the highway from Baghdad to the Green Zone. It is a cyborg that eats thousands of humans every day, and thousands of acres of habitat, and that spews thousands of tons of poisonous detritus, and that it requires the political blood-meal of its own alienated residents to survive . . . and nearly none of those residents is predisposed -- given their enculturation -- to accept the intellectual authority of Marx or Mies or Chomsky or Chodorow.

I appeal to you then; be imitators of me. -- 1st Corinthians 4:16

Suburbia will remain, but it will not survive in its present form. The leaders of a changed suburbia will either be the fascists who will transform the �burbs into a kind of whelping barracks for imperial soldiers and gendarmes, or it will be led by those who transform the backyards into bounty, and learn to break the dependency on a monetized technological grid.

There is already an ethical design philosophy that can demonstrates the practical how-to for this bounty, albeit only if there is a politics of resistance mobilized alongside it. We cannot have our homeowners associations telling us we can't grow food; and we can't have states telling us we cannot purchase raw milk or build graywater systems, with the specious (and suburban germophobic) claim that these are public health threats. The politics and the political struggle are inescapable. The rulers know exactly what is at stake.

But there has to be a new mimetic, a new way of being that builds the community and with it a new human individual. It has to be the opposite of the fascist mimetic, the mimetic of empire. There can be no scapegoats, or the community will be shattered in recurring cycles, and power will be regenerated through each sacrifice.

These reflections, beginning with the Suburban reaction to the Civil Rights Movement -- a southern Christian movement, by the way, and one that had echoes of the Christian communists (there were and are such) of past and present -- and following developments into the perilous present, led me to this book, the Bible, to see what was in there. Because I know that if I quote from the Grundrisse, I will encounter blank stares from my neighbors in Suburbia. If I tell them I am quoting from Matthew or the Epistle of James, people will attend to what follows.

"We have, therefore, in these passages on the ministry of reconciliation," writes Robert Hamerton-Kelly (Sacred Violence: Paul's Hermeneutic of the Cross, 1992) . . .

 . . . a good example of the reformation of eros to agape by the replacement of the model/obstacle pole of the triangle by the divine victim. The self-sacrifice of Christ as the model for agapaic mimesis reconciles the world to the creator and the creatures to one another by redirecting desire to the pole of true transcendence. The sin of Adam is reversed, the proper mimetic relation to the creator restored, and the prohibition reconstituted as the command to agape.

In all this the apostle appears as the representative of the divine victim, and the apostolic sufferings reveal and transform the scapegoat mechanism. From now on we are all scapegoats, and if we are all scapegoats, then nobody is a scapegoat. The rule of the surrogate victim mechanism is over and the new creation is here, "the God who said, �Let light shine out of darkness,' has shone in our hearts to give us the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (4:6). The Christian community is the vanguard and proleptic presence of this new creation . . .

 . . . Love is a relational and therefore a communal category. It is inconceivable that love should be solitary or confined to one relationship. Miming the divine desire means loving all the creatures of God, and that means at least participation in a loving community.

There will be gasps among a few . . . Goff's gone off the rails and become a Bible-thumper. The stress has beaten him down.

But read this closely, and think seriously about the problem of Suburbia -- the problem it presents to the rest of the world, and the problem it is for the people who live there.

Permaculture ethics can be summarized as:

  • Care of Earth

  • Care of all People

  • Return of Surplus

Christian agrarian socialist Wendell Berry writes:

If we read the Bible, keeping in mind the desirability of those two survivals -- of Christianity and the Creation -- we are apt to discover several things that modern Christian organizations have kept remarkably quiet about, or have paid little attention to.

We will discover that we humans do not own the world or any part of it: "The earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof: the world and they that dwell therein" (Ps. 24:1). There is in our human law, undeniably, the concept and right of "land ownership." But this, I think, is merely an expedient to safeguard the mutuality of belonging without which there can be no lasting and conserving settlement of human communities. This right of human ownership is limited by mortality and by natural constraints upon human attention and responsibility; it quickly becomes abusive when used to justify large accumulations of "real estate," and perhaps for that reason such large accumulations are forbidden in the twenty-fifth chapter of Leviticus. In biblical terms, the "landowner" is the guest and steward of God: "the land is mine; for ye are strangers and sojourners with me" (Lev. 25:23).

We will discover that God made not only the parts of Creation that we humans understand and approve, but all of it: "all things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made" John 1:3). And so we must credit God with the making of biting and dangerous beasts, and disease-causing microorganisms. That we may disapprove of these things does not mean that God is in error, or that the creator ceded some of the work of Creation to Satan; it means that we are deficient in wholeness, harmony, and understanding -- that is, we are "fallen."

We will discover that God found the world, as he made it, to be good; that he made it for his pleasure; and that he continues to love it and to find it worthy, despite its reduction and corruption by us. People who quote John 3:16 as an easy formula for getting to heaven neglect to see the great difficulty implied in the statement that the advent of Christ was made possible by God's love for the world -- not God's love for Heaven or for the world as it might be, but for the world as it was and is. Belief in Christ is thus made dependent upon prior belief in the inherent goodness -- the lovability -- of the world.

We will discover that the Creation is not in any sense independent of the Creator, the result of a primal creative act long over and done with, but is the continuous, constant participation of all creatures in the being of God. Elihu said to Job that if God "gather unto himself his spirit and his breath; All flesh shall perish together . . ." Job 34:15). And Psalm 104 says: "Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created . . ." Creation is God's presence in creatures. The Greek Orthodox theologian, Philip Sherrard, has written that "Creation is nothing less than the manifestation of God's hidden being." Thus we and all other creatures live by a sanctity that is inexpressibly intimate. To every creature the gift of life is a portion of the breath and spirit of God. As the poet, George Herbert, put it, Thou are in small things great, not small in any. . . . For thou art infinite in one and all.

We will discover that, for these reasons, our destruction of nature is not just bad stewardship, or stupid economics, or a betrayal of family responsibility; it is the most horrid blasphemy. It is flinging God's gifts into his face, as of no worth beyond that assigned to them by our destruction of them.

Is this really such a bad message, given the stakes, to carry into Suburbia? To this day, one of the major disincentives to join the political Left -- aside from its now discredited technological optimism -- has been its seeming spiritual sterility, its cold instrumentalism, and its casual dismissals of issues like love and mortality.

It is Suburbia, this world of brokenness, founded on schismatic racism, and sustained by usury and deadly force -- both forbidden by the Jewish Palestinian anarchist our culture often claims to follow -- that, if ignored, will be ceded to fascism, that scapegoating cycle within the mimetic of empire.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, �What shall we eat?' or �What shall we drink?' or �What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. -- Matthew 6:25-34

I will close now with two quotes from the Civil Rights Movement where this narrative on Suburbia began, from the most recognizable Christian spokesperson of that movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Success, recognition, and conformity are the bywords of the modern world where everyone seems to crave the anesthetizing security of being identified with the majority. (1963)

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction . . . The chain reaction of evil -- hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars -- must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation. (1963)

Time is short. The stakes are very, very high. Perhaps we should learn this idiom.

Stan Goff is the author of "Hideous Dream, Full Spectrum Disorder, The Military In The New American Century," and "Sex and War." He also manages his Feral Scholar website and is familiar to many Truth To Power Readers as a result of his monumental series published at From The Wilderness on the death of Pat Tillman -- a series to which many attribute congressional investigation of that event.

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