Tuesday, June 14, 2011

What do I do now?

"What am I supposed to do?," said the young woman who had raised her hand first. The lecturer looked at her and tried to make a sympathetic face. I remembered what Pasolini said of Gadda, "His anguish is without remedy..." The audience was feeding on the lecturer's discomfort. This woman spoke for all of us. "What am I supposed to do?," she repeated, "I vote. I follow the issues. I shop my convictions whenever I can. But it's not enough. Those bastards are still in power." She was referring to the financiers working for Obama. Who knew that we had elected a black Reagan?

The lecturer finally spoke. "I'm an academic and a journalist. I'm not a leader of a movement. I can't answer your question. I will tell you this, though. After World War Two, back in the 1950s and 1960s, it was the other side -- the Milton Friedmans of the world and his fellow conservatives -- who were in the minority and felt that their voices weren't being heard. They persisted in making their case and when events forced people to take them seriously, they were prepared to take over. It may be the same for you. Persevere, organize, don't give up. The pendulum will swing back. It always has."

This was more than a night out listening to a renowned economist expound on the fallacious reasoning and pure criminality that's caused our present woes. A frustrated audience murmured. They didn't want to believe that the individual, sacrosanct, asserting her will, acting
as an individual, could not make a difference. No, these times called for collective action, something most Americans are allergic to. Unions, co-ops, committees, collectives -- we can't give ourselves over to them, can we? We'd rather sit in front of our little screens jerking off. It's true, there's a certain freedom in being left alone, knowing the cops won't come and take you away with your pants down around your ankles, but it's hardly the freedom of a citizen whose actions will build a better society.

Freedom is the will to be responsible to ourselves. That’s one of Nietzsche’s big ideas. I thought to myself, responsible to ourselves for what? Isn’t that conscience, enabling us to look ourselves in the mirror and not puke at our own cowardice? Sure, there’s the inner freedom of consciousness, to move incorporeal among virtual worlds, but it’s a freedom hobbled by a necessary servitude to the body and its desires. Try being responsible to yourself. Good luck.

The young woman asked, “Isn’t there anything I can do
now?” The lecturer replied that, while he understood her frustration, he couldn’t recommend immediate action. “Work for the long term,” he said, then asked for the next question. It was a lousy moment. Here we had been told a convincing story about the disgraceful behavior of financiers and their puppets in government whose cupidity and mismanagement led to hardship and despair for so many of us. We believed that this story would not be over until we got rid of the scoundrels and convinced a majority of our fellow citizens that the Free Market is a false idol. But the plot wasn’t headed that way -- it was headed the opposite way -- things would remain the way they were, only more so. The lecturer was provocative, he made us think and feel, but he couldn’t tell us what to do, so we sat there and stewed.

I thought to myself, this story would never be over. The struggle would go on forever, as long as humans inhabited the planet. The powerful few would prey on the plentiful meek. Occasionally the tide would turn but the new order wouldn’t last long. Too many people would be too busy being responsible to themselves to act for the greater good. A couple of weeks ago, I came across an article buried somewhere in its internet grave. It was a
cri de coeur from Alain Badiou, written shortly after Sarkozy the preener got elected in France. In it, he wrote, “...if ordinary citizens have no handle on state decision-making save the vote, it is hard to see what way forward there could be for an emancipatory politics." That’s a nice word, “emancipatory.” How true.

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