There is at least one thing that makes me better than I was four years ago: The ability to entertain opposite positions. Things that were once considered sacrosanct are now up for debate. E.g.: Capitalism? Perhaps it’s not so great. I am definitely less dogmatic.
Those who’d like to simplify me would note my supposed “leftward” turn, as an Obama supporter. Yet how can I be sympathetic to this Chomsky On Adam Smith and this The Decline of Middle America and the Problem of Meritocracy, from a paleoconservative?
The same time that my politics have become more “liberal” (whatever that means — I guess supporting Obama and opposing braindead republicans), my lens for viewing history has become more “conservative” (which means respecting how tradition and habit shape culture, and how fragile it is when broken). I am reminded of reading Saul Alinsky’s Reveille for Radicals and how attuned one had to be to local conditions and to meet reality how it is, not how one wished to be. I am reminded of Afeni Shakur’s speech during the MSE symposium and her pleas to help people within the community, and how we can’t rely on the government to do everything. And I can’t help but thinking that there’s some sort of theme underlying this, some sort of unifying thread to the critiques I’ve recently read of our modern society.
In my mind, I like to think how I’d advise my peers, were I to give a speech about what to do after college. It’s mostly advice for myself. In recent times, it has taken a direction towards service to the world. I think that’s profoundly wrong. There’s no such thing as a world community, or even an online community. There’s no “place.” There’s something about being “local” that is a necessary requirement for community. I think community can be enhanced by digital components, but you need a place in order to have a center. Specifically, I’m thinking of two examples: One positive, and one negative. My ATDP experience has been enhanced from digital interaction, but it only works because ATDP exists within a physical location and TIC in particular has continuity in location. JHU lacks community because there is no place for people to congregate. They recently tried this “Hopkins Infected” thing to try to change culture. But you can’t build culture with PR. You need a place. The only times I ever had any semblence of community interaction was when I watched the debates with people in the same place, on the same TV in Charles Commons. Other times, those common rooms weren’t really meant for common interaction. Another time was those tea parties I had in Gildersleeve, but we had to congregate in a hallway.
I guess what I’m getting at is that you can’t expect to change “the world”, and it isn’t really admirable to try to change the world. We think the online world has created this unique opportunity, but it can only work to enhance what we already do, not if we use it in lieu of normal democratic activity. To turn purely to the online realm is to lock us within an echo chamber. Where like congregates with like, and you never have to talk to the people you live next to or the people you see everyday. You never have to interact with the person whose house borders yours, or interact with the janitor who walks by your office. You never have to convince your conservative uncle to accept gay marriage; you just have to pontificate on a message board filled with like-minded people.
There’s something disturbing about this, uprooting ourselves from our real communities and creating virtual communities where we never have to venture far from our current dogmas. Yes, yes, you’ll say that the internet has all these alternate viewpoints, but how do we really interact with the internet? The primary method of interaction with information is the search. We are trained to find exactly what we want. This means what we want to hear, not necessarily what we need to hear. The internet is large, yes. But because it is so big, we can spend days within one tiny little corner, examining all the intra-party debates, without realizing that there is so much more.
Even worse, the internet is training us not to listen. I was deeply disturbed by the redesign of facebook. Someone left a comment on my wall and I looked for a way to reply. The only link I could find was “comment.” As I’ve said before, “We are no longer individuals. We are merely ephemeral memes, floating in The Stream.” Instead of talking to an individual, I could comment on their comment. Each comment was encapsulated. I no longer had to talk to a person. Our memes simply interacted with each other. The disturbing thing about facebook is that the method of communication has changed. Instead of exchange, it has morphed into broadcast. I write comments and hope that people care enough to “Like” the minutiae of my life. Broadcasting is a fundamentally narcissistic method of communication. Look at all the blowhards on talk radio and cable news. The problem is that broadcast means you do all the talking; you don’t have to listen. Memes don’t listen to each other. They briefly kiss in The Stream and then disappear forever. Not that oral communication itself doesn’t have a sense of ephemerality to it. But repeated interaction between real people in a real place creates something which twitter cannot.
This is not to denigrate the internet and to say we should throw away facebook or twitter. The phone is a fundamentally less satisfying way of communicating than face-to-face conversation, but at least we recognize that. We don’t pretend that the telephone is going to revolutionize democracy and turn us into entirely new people. The phone is best used to supplement our normal interaction. It is best used when it brings people together, to meet in real places. It is best used when two people are forced apart, such as by war, and they yearn for the day they can be reunited. When work draws family members apart, it can help them keep updated, but you can’t use it in lieu of annual or monthly or weekly visits. We must recognize that our digital communications have inherent limits and deficiencies. Digital “communities” are inherently inferior to real communities, and can’t replace them. The presence of my online “buddies” on AIM can’t replace the comfort of the presence of a person who is next to me, breathing. You can’t hear those people on AIM breathing; you can’t feel their life. Dualists have done great harm to our conceptions of reality. Two intellects interacting isn’t the same as two bodies interacting or two mouths speaking and four ears hearing. We are more than our consciousness; we are our bodies too.
I’ve talked also about world community. There’s no such thing, just as there’s no such thing as a digital community. There’s no world culture. Think of the hubris of the word “universal.” The universe is so vast that we aren’t even specks. Our entire solar system isn’t even big enough to be a speck within the universe’s vastness. To call a trait universal is to hubristically expand its bounds beyond what we can rightfully claim. It’s the same thing with “the world.” It’s too big. Our monkey brains can’t handle it. You can’t truly care about the world in the same way you can care about your sister or mother. 10,000 people dying thousands of miles away can’t truly affect you the same way the death of a close friend can. If the utilitarian calculus does affect you, then there’s something inhumane about your character. The death of a close friend should bother you more than 10,000 lives a million miles away. Part of it is evolution: Our monkey brains simply can’t care about so many people, especially when they’re far away.
If you care about global warming, then you shouldn’t do it for imaginary children who aren’t born. You should do it because you know children who may grow up in a violent, hot world. You have carried these children in your arms, and heard their excited voices dream of tomorrow. You want them to have a better tomorrow. You shouldn’t have to care about all the children in the world, or all the children in America. When you press your lips against their cheeks, and feel the love in your heart, that should be enough to press you into action. A living, breathing child who exists in front of you. It is their future you care about.
You shouldn’t do it for “the environment.” You should do it because you have actually walked in the forest. You have felt the sun filter through the leaves of the trees. You have felt the bark of the redwoods. You have breathed in the crisp air. You have felt the dirt between your toes. You have hiked the mountains. You have picked the flowers. You have watched the birds. You have dipped your feet in the streams. You can’t care about “the environment.” You can only care about real places, where you have interacted with the life. Yes, we can abstract to care about animals in the rainforest we haven’t seen. But it only works if it is built upon our real interaction with nature. If the sole interactions you have with the environment are tossing plastic battles in the recycle bin and buying reusable bags at Trader Joe’s, then something is seriously amiss. That credit card commercial about the kid forcing his dad to buy new products bugs me to no end. That is not caring about the environment. (Although it does at least have real people rather than online activists.) You need something real if you want to conserve. Go experience nature.
You can’t care about the world if you don’t care first for your community. You can’t save the world if you can’t first save your community. You can’t convince a nation unless you first convince your family and peers. Mobility and the internet can make us avoid the very hard work of convincing and organizing people in our own communities. We can feel smug in our bubbles of enlightened friends. How sad this is. How good can you feel sending $25 to feed a hungry kid in Africa while people die on your streets? That’s not to say we should ignore foreign aid, but we should not let all our attention be focused outward. How struck I still am today by Afeni Shakur… I don’t even remember her words, but I still remember the sentiment… Our children are dying.
It requires an absurd Messiah complex to think that one can change the world. You don’t owe the world anything. But you do owe your community everything. You owe your mother and father who brought you into this world. You owe your brothers and sisters. You owe your friends who put up with you. You owe all the rich and poor people who make your life what it is. If you can’t convince them, then you can’t convince anyone. You owe your nieces, nephews, students, and children a better world. If you can’t save them, then you can’t save anyone.
People and community and tradition. There are things that have been lost by our dogma of capitalism and individualism.
I have no solutions, no grand sweeping proclamations about how we must change the way society is structured. Of course, that may be against my program to some degree. But it may require a change of laws and governmental organization at some point. For now, I can only continue to read my disparate sources in hopes of forging some type of synthesis.
No, that’s not the only thing I can do. The most important thing to do is to begin to care about the actual people and places around me. To make sure I worry about the mores of my community before the mores of my nation. To look outwards instead of inwardly and abstractly. To cure myself of my own Messiah complex. That’s a start, at least.