Middle class angst: The politics of lemmings, part 2
By Stan Goff
Online Journal Guest Writer
Nov 30, 2007, 01:13
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
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
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
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
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
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:
of all People
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
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.
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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