Let’s wrap up this little essay extravaganza on 2016 with a few concluding thoughts. I know I’ve likely sounded like a shit-spraying sour-puss this past week: sometimes that’s just how it goes. It’s been a lot of words, and to those who’ve read any of them—or, God bless you, all of them—thanks for sticking with me.
Despite their rambling nature, each of these essays has been about one thing: modern American society. I spent the better part of 2016 moving around that society: observing our people, reading our news, consuming our culture, traveling our lands, sharing beers and stories and going to baseball games. And after all that time kicking around, what I see is a society that often really sucks.
It’s worth pausing quickly to note something that should be obvious but is likely easy to overlook: I—or anyone who proposes critical perspectives—only take the time to think these thoughts and write these words because I care. Despite our many deficiencies we Americans are a pretty good lot, and the reason I criticize is because I would like to see—and believe us capable of being—better.
Oscar Wilde once noted that the saddest part about the French Revolution wasn’t that Marie Antoinette had her head cut off, but that some farmer went out and fought on behalf of feudalism. If you’re unfamiliar with the specifics of that reference, in short it’s this: the guy who had the most to gain from overthrowing an oppressive system went out and fought on its behalf. Why’d he do that? Likely because he didn’t know any better. And why didn’t he know any better? Because the people who could have educated him on the value of change had every incentive to make certain he learned nothing about it.
If that’s a little abstract, let me give this example: I live next to a church in whose basement a men’s homeless shelter is run in the winter. When I look out my window I look down upon a room full of 22 men: men asleep on donated mattresses, eating donated foods, dressed shabbily in donated jackets and boots; a group of men who are chemically-dependent and mentally imbalanced and economically stifled; men with mothers and sisters, cousins and friends and children of their own; men who have dreams and aspirations, hang-nails and bald spots, gastritis and hopes for a better life; men from whom I’m different almost-purely by the accident of my birth and the efforts of my parents; men whose ranks I’m only one major health emergency away from joining.
This situation drives me fucking nuts: if I had more hair I’d grab and pull. I’m not homeless and that isn’t my lived reality, but I hate that I live in a society where this is anyone’s reality. And it’s not only about homelessness—it’s about income inequality and cruddy education, environmental protections, racial disparities and inchoate policing… I don’t want to turn this into a social-polemic any more than I want to spend time addressing the root causes of this situation ($, and our worship of it). Rather than enumerating a lengthy list of social ills, I’m going to trust that if you have human organs—eyes, ears, a heart—you already know exactly what I’m talking about.
The challenge for me is that I’m aware of many of these ills while also being awash in a media storm that inundates me constantly with a never-ending barrage of (mostly useless) information and purported “entertainment” while working in an industrial system of privatized capital that demands and rewards cut-throat competition. The combined end result of all of that is that I’m left anxious, overwhelmed, exhausted, socially-tenuous, competitively jagged, rapacious, spiritually void, and psychologically fragmented (and that’s the Reader’s Digest version). And the only way to live with all that shit and not smash my head though the window is to create distance, within my_self and in relation to others. What world is this where separation has become a psychological necessity for keeping heads from smashing through windows?
I’m saying nothing a hundred-thousand smarter more insightful thinkers haven’t already spoken. I’m simply joining my voice to theirs and saying: This sucks.
A reasonable question would be, What is this society that’s left me feeling so void? I’m trying to ask a different, possibly more pertinent series of questions: Who is that society? and How do I live in it?
I realize all too well that as an individual in America today it’s often difficult to feel, remember and substantiate the following: society is each of us and the actions we choose every day. Social life is the sum of all of our choices, active and passive. That shouldn’t be a new piece of information, but as we begin this new year it’s worth emphasizing and reminding ourselves that while there are physical and biological dictates in life, there are no rules outside our choosing that demand we have capitalism or democracy or the NFL or Everybody Loves Raymond, any more than there are rules requiring we have homeless or poverty or a bad eduction system. We have and are what we have and are because we have and are choosing to be so.
The point here is not to glorify The Myth of The American Individual—though it’s curious to note that despite our vaunted American mystique of the Individual, our notions of Individuality are so small, trite and limited; worse, they’re ultimately boring as all hell—but to emphasize that if I look around and am sickened by what I see, it’s up to me to go out and change things.
When I consider society I see three options for dealing with it: 1) I can Escape by taking to the hills, either the a) literal ones of some far off distant pasture or b) the chemically-bent, rolling hills of my own interiority; 2) I can Pragmatically Endure society, working for small, local improvements while trying to relish what little individual/tribal pleasures I and my ilk can obtain; or I can 3) a) Dream a society that’s better, and then b) Work to make that Dream a Reality. In case it isn’t clear, this is part of Option 3), though I certainly indulge frequently in Options 1) and 2).
I will repeat something I wrote in an earlier essay: I’m a writer, not a politician. I’m not trying to hide behind that, but the reality is I don’t know how to solve homelessness or income inequality or racial disparities or etc. Someone’s got to point out the flames before the fire-fighters can go to work putting them out. However, I do believe this, and firmly: if we as a society can send humans to outer space or map our genomes or create symphonies and paint the Sistine Chapel…, then we as a society can certainly make this world better than it currently is.
Having referenced Oscar Wilde earlier, let me quote him directly now:
A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.
(From ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism,’ published in 1891 and probably the best Communist Manifesto you’ll ever have the pleasure of reading.)
It’s a new year in America and for a lot of us, things aren’t looking great. If that bothers you, now’s as good a time as any to do something about it.