Sunday, July 26, 2020

Our Freedom Extends as Far as the Reach of Our Possessions

Pushing All He Owns    
CC Jean Stmmell 2017 in SF
Our Freedom Only Extends as Far as Our Possessions Reach

Edward Burmila recently wrote an insightful piece in the Nation linking economic status with how free we are: People are only as free as they can afford to be. “For Americans, lacking guaranteed access to basic necessities like housing, food, health care”…this is a constant dilemma.”⁠1

As a result of stagnant wages coupled with the ever-rising cost of living, working folks are often stuck in stultifying jobs they hate, in order to keep health insurance coverage for their family. Many struggle on a precarious treadmill, living one step from disaster, lacking the savings to pay for even a $400 car repair: if you lose your job, you lose everything.

Under these circumstances, it’s not surprising that some Americans cling to the only shard of individualism they have left, even if it is pointless and performative. 

Burmila says it is these workers, the ones with diminished economic freedom, who are the most likely to refuse to buckle their seatbelt or wear face masks. They are striking a blow for freedom, the only way they can, like a high school student burning rubber out of the parking lot, after being told by the principal to tuck in his shirt.

I have been engaged in a deeper examination of freedom and the individual, after reading some of the work by feminist political theorist Jennifer Nedelsky.⁠2 She digs down to find the reason why we emphasize individual rights to such an extent in western democracies and explores why we persist in believing that we are “self-made and self-making?”

If we stop and think for a moment, the idea of such radical autonomy is impossible. The myth of the rugged individual contradicts both science and common sense. Quite the opposite: we are not separate atoms but social organisms. It is our particular social context we are born into that defines who we are.

“Some of our most essential characteristics, such as our capacity for language and the conceptual framework through which we see the world, are not made by us, but given to us (or developed in us) through our interactions with others.”⁠3

Nedelsky says that our radically separate notion of autonomy remains so ingrained within us because of the way our laws are written: autonomy reigns supreme because it is protected by our legal framework, which has erected a wall of rights between the individual and those around them.

Going further, she asserts that this legal wall of protection, built around the individual, is built out of property rights. Property is the central element and the glue that holds together our rationale for rugged individualism: it “literally and figuratively provides the necessary walls.” The more property you own,  the more you security you have. But that has come at a heavy cost:

“This vision of the autonomous individual as one securely isolated from his threatening fellows seems to me to be a pathology that has profoundly affected western societies for several centuries."⁠4

The greater the gap between those with property and those without, the greater the inequality. Those left out, lose freedom: Without access to essential goods and services, it’s difficult to live a meaningful life with dignity. At the low end of the scale, individuals become wage-slaves or homeless – and in extreme cases, forced into literal slavery, like Afro-Americans before the civil war.

Today we see the greatest inequality in wealth in America since the Gilded Age: The three richest Americans now own more than the bottom 50% of us. As a direct consequence, more and more of us are losing the economic means to control our destiny.

If we want to aspire to a fairer and more just society, we must reject the myth of the self-made individual. We need to disassociate autonomy from property rights. Thinking outside the box, Jennifer Nedelsky provides an alternative model that’s difficult to argue with:

“The answer is not isolation, but relationships-with parents, teachers, friends, loved ones – that provide the support and guidance necessary for the development and experience of autonomy. I think, therefore, that the most promising model, symbol, or metaphor for autonomy is not property, but childrearing.”⁠5

2 who was highlighted in  a recent, excellent piece in the Monitor by Sindiso Mnisi Weeks:
3 Yale Journal of Law and Feminism [Vol. 1: 7. Page 8
4 Ibid. page 12
5 Ibid. page 12

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Are we headed back to the Middle Ages?

I photographed this petroglyph in a remote canyon on a private ranch near Abiquiu, NM. It was carved over 1000 years ago by the Anasazi, a Navajo word for ‘the ancient ones.   “The Spiral is known as an ancient symbol of evolution. One of the oldest symbols of human spirituality in existence, the spiral has been found carved into cave dwellings, rocks and tombs all over the world. It is said to symbolize the evolution of the universe, the never-ending cycles of growth, change and eternal life as well as the cycles of the seasons.”

As Americans, we view time as a one-way street where things are always getting better: We call this progress. But philosophers and sociologists see things differently, viewing our idea of progress as culture-bound, specific only to the modern western world.

 It turns out our belief in endless progress grew out of the Enlightenment, a reaction against the medieval belief that God’s will determines our destiny. Over time, the notion of progress has replaced the dogma of divine providence and has become itself, like a religion: A fundamental entity like the air we breathe.

Throughout history, most human societies have had a different take on how the world works: they saw history repeating itself, like the annual cycle of our seasons or how day follows night. 

Rather than assuming continual progress, let’s hypothesize that we are repeating the cycle by returning to the Middle Ages. We can find ample evidence to suggest this might be the case.

 In Europe’s history, the Middle Ages lasted from the 5th to the 15th century, while the real “dark ages” occurred between 350-550 as the Roman Empire split apart.  As a result of the collapse of centralized authority, cities dwindled as folks fled to the countryside, disease spread, and the economy had major setbacks, all triggering mass migrations.

This may be in our future if polarization and the plague split our nation apart. 

Jose Gouvea writes, “When we talk about the "loss of knowledge" that occurred during the Middle Ages, we must understand that it happened… as a result of Roman decadence, Christian intolerance, and wars. But most of it was because of Christian intolerance.⁠1

Christians mounted vicious assaults against Islam. Toward the end of the 11th century, the Catholic Church began to authorize military expeditions, or Crusades, to expel Muslim “infidels” from the Holy Land.  

Today, what is often forgotten is how Christians went out of their way to pillage and slaughter Jews in settlements they encountered on the way to the crusades. Regrettably, once again, Jews are increasingly under attack around the world.

No one “won” the Crusades; in fact, many thousands of people from both sides lost their lives – much like the endless wars we are fighting in the Middle East today. As in the dark ages, republicans today have begun to equate governing with conquest cloaked in religious morality.

Before invading the Middle East, President Bush, senior, called the operation “a crusade” to “to rid the world of “evil-doers.”  13 years later, his son declared, This will be a monumental struggle of good versus evil” before invading the Middle East again. 

We often read about the wholesale burning of books during the Middle Ages. Much of it did not happen but this did: When we invaded Iraq in 2003, we carefully guarded the oil wells but ignored repeated pleas to protect their renowned National Museum, resulting in one of the worst acts of cultural vandalism in modern times. “The scale of the looting was staggering,” but the Bush administration’s response was only that “stuff happens.”⁠2

During the middle ages, folks believed in witchcraft, attempted to exterminate all black cats because they represented the devil, and lived in fear that their children would be stolen and replaced with a demonic “changelings.” Today we have the QAnon conspiracy theory, peddling Trump’s alleged secret plan to expose Washington elites engaged in everything from pedophilia to child sex trafficking.  QAnon continues to gain followers, with no disavowal from  Trump and his supporters who retweet their messages.

And, of course, we have the pandemic, just one of the many commonalities between then and now, but the one presently starring us in the face. Some health experts are predicting that Covid-19 will end up killing half a million of us, largely as a result of political polarization and bumbling mismanagement.

I make these comparisons not to scare people but as a cautionary tale. Even if history does repeat itself, it does not follow that the cycle is shifting right now. But it does mean, quoting George Santayana, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The first step is so simple:

The time has come for all of us to stand up together, acting in unison, to practice all CDC guidelines. If we do so, our actions will quickly bring Covid-19 to its knees. If not, it will bring us to our knees – threatening not only our individual survival but that of our nation.