html xmlns="" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: Go to work!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Go to work!

I liked this piece by Rebecca Solnit, which doesn't surprise me, because I really liked her book on walking. I had thoughts while I read it, which I sortof want to put together into a complex and elegant post, but am more afraid that if I wait to do that, I won't get to it at all. I think I will blurt! and you, my sophisticated and strikingly good looking readers, will integrate it into a worthy essay. Well done, you.

Her piece struck me as a very good companion to this excellent, excellent essay on organizing between professional middle class and working class people. From Ms. Solnit's piece:
Of course dreadlocks and ragged clothes weren’t exactly diplomatic outreach tools either. I spent some of the 1990s with and around activists in the public forests of the West, and a lot of the supposedly most radical had a remarkable knack for going into rural communities and insulting practically everyone with whom they came into contact. It became clear to me that in their eyes the worst crimes of the locals did not involve chainsaws and voting choices but culture and what gets called lifestyle. It was a culture war that got pretty far from who was actually doing what to the Earth and how anyone might stop it.

And from Ms. Leondar-Wright's piece:
In professional-middle-class progressive culture, the axis of the world is mainstream versus alternative. The majority of us were raised in non-progressive families; the exceptions, such as "red diaper babies" and children of hippies, grew up aware of their families' outsider status. We grew up surrounded by expectations that we would maximize our income and status by conforming to PMC lifestyles and career tracks. At some point we made a conscious, life-changing decision to take a different course and to put some of our energy to work for a better world. We each place ourselves in a particular place on the mainstream/alternative continuum, contrasting ourselves with those more and less conventional than ourselves. One thing that virtually all of us PMC activists have in common is that we are proud of living a values-based life. It's our best trait — and leads to some of our most classist traits, such as culture-bound elitism. "More-alternative-than- thou" is not a helpful stance to take in building bridges with anyone, and it's especially unhelpful with people with a lot less social privilege than ourselves.

On farmers:
Heh. Solnit uses country music as a proxy for rural and ag-associated life. She describes liberal scorn for their "racist, reactionary, religiously authoritarian" ways. Yeah. That's one set of associations I've heard. I've also heard glowing paeans to agrarian connections to the earth and their humble, honest stewardship. Whatevers. I'll have you know that I lived and worked with those exotic creatures for two years and made up my own stereotypes.

The only thing I was sure of after two years amongst the sons of western agriculture is that all that work they did showed. Oh man, they were pretty. Really very pretty. All ripply and strong, with such pretty arms and shoulders and slim hips and also nice legs. Um. A very attractive people, those farmers' sons. Going to class was like being in a porn movie, where all the young men were gorgeous and needed the teachings of an experienced older woman, except that it was a terrible horrible sad porn movie, where the music never started and the professor kept lecturing. A childhood of work showed up in other ways; they were better at manipulating physical objects and working in groups than I've ever seen my city peers be. Those were the conclusions I came to after infiltrating the heart of the ag community. Attitudes towards environmentalism and minorities amongst this inscrutable tribe? They varied.

On hippies:
So, like, I know hippies. I lived for years amongst other college kids acting like hippies. I know how annoying some of the mannerisms are. I know. I left my co-op because one day I realized that I could not have one more conversation about whether we should buy bananas. I fully understand how the hippie sanctimony, whether it actually comes from a hippie or whether you're just assigning it to some longhaired target, grates on the soul. But here's the thing. Those hippies? They're fucking right. The reason they grate so is that you know they're right and they remind you of your compromises and since you don't want to look at those, I guess you better vilify the messenger*.

They're right. We should be gentle pacifists. We should care very deeply about the environment; we should be alert to its beauties and hurt by its destruction. We should eat consciously and low on the food chain. There is no harm in bounded recreational drug use and what does it matter how people choose to look and people's bodies are beautiful and we should live close in connected communities. We should even sit around a fire and sit along to a guitar. That way of living feels good and imposes fewer costs on other people.

So I'm tired of the meme that discounts opinions because hippies hold them. Get over that. It is as cheap and dismissive as any attitude discussed in either essay. Sure, small-minded hippies are annoying. Small-minded anyone is annoying and if you're dismissing things out of hand for being hippie-affiliated, that's you.

On the South:
Solnit writes:
So on the one hand we have white people who hate black people. On the other hand we have white people who hate other white people on the grounds that they hate black people. But that latter hatred accuses many wrongfully, and it serves as a convenient coverup for the racism that is all around us. The reason why it matters is because middle-class people despising poor people becomes your basic class war, and the ongoing insults seem to have been at least part of what has weakened the environmental movement in particular and progressive politics in general.

I'm having a real hard time with the South recently. I'm on this reading binge about the South and Jim Crow and Reconstruction and the Civil Rights movement. Honestly, it is very hard for me to not hate historical racist white fucks. It helps a little that they're a hundred years dead, except that, you know, it was pretty bad until pretty recently. Some were murderous and righteous, and a lot of other people thought that was their natural privilege, and if there were good ones they couldn't say much out loud. That is some fucked up bullshit, and I cannot comprehend what could be good enough in a southern heritage to overcome such pervasive viciousness and shame. So I'm trying not to hate, because it is rather pointless for me to get all exercised from a distance at this late date and how does that help anyone's life? And 'cause something something complex and not first-hand and something or other cast the first stone. Except, you know, I'm not really despising anyone for being poor. I'm fucking hating traditional southern racists for thinking their skin color made murder, rape, oppression and soul-killing a perfectly OK thing to do.

I'm on the fence about environmentalist-resource user coalitions this week. Most days I think they're the only things that can work. Then I read about them falling apart, and I'm not sure they can work either. Someone with the backing of the people should pick winners and losers and the world will readjust to the new drivers and constraints and in only a generation or so, no one will care so much? I dunno.

This seems like enough for you guys to work with. I'll expect your revised and improved versions back by Friday. You can only get full credit if you show your work.

Ms. Leondar-Wright's essay via Spungen at BobVis.
Ms. Solnit's essay via Crooked Timber.

*I don't want to hear it about trust-fund hippie kids. Yeah, it is infuriating that they can use the safety of their middle class lives to tell themselves they are adventuresome. If they're sanctimonious on top of that, that's really frustrating. BUT. Think of it this way. This is what people do when they know they are safe. These kids have felt safe their entire lives and trust the world, and what do they do with that? They choose a lifestyle of openness and gentleness, of connectivity and consciousness. When you know your whole life that you can have what you want, what they want is to be in a tribe and care about nature and spirituality. (Maybe they care about nature and spirituality in an easily accessible way, but as far as cheap philosophies go, it is a kind one.) This is also what impresses me about Burning Man. When privileged people have everything they want, the next thing they want to do is build amazing things for other people (and celebrate and be nude and beautiful). People who have never been scared don't want dominion. They want expressiveness and connection.


Anonymous SwissArmyD said...

"People who have never been scared don't want dominion." -M

I may be missing the context on this, but I am not optimistic... I have known some amazing, graceful, thoughtful people, that turned astoundingly ugly when their visions were not agreed with. The way I look at it though, this is a some people kind of thing. There are always people who will crave dominion, for whatever reason. There are also some that will dominate, becasue they think their vision should be the right one. And some people that will lead you to their vision, and trust both it and you enough to make a decision.

One thing I saw in both essays, that I often bring up among friends in these contexts, it how to actually take descriptors OFF in situations where they aren't needed. Sometimes I see a lot of "X was mean to Y, therefore, Y should get some thing in return for that meanness. Even IF X no longer exists, or the problem is now Z." When it seems better to say: 'It doesn't matter if you are X, Y, or Z, everyone should be treated similarly.' Then you can address changes that need to be made, as you would make changes for anyone.

I think this helps in a lot of cases where people don't get along well, because they demand that the world fit their view. The diatribe against some parts of the agrarians, fits that. If you come in from the outside somewhere, into a long settled town, and tell them everything about their way of life is wrong... well yup, they are going to turn you off, out of hand. Just the way you yourself would if they came to your town.

Looking at racism as if it's only a white person's problem, same way. Racism is just a bad idea, even if it's between Black, and Asian... So you remove the races from the question, as hard as that is to do, as hard as it is to do with gender, or anything alse.

Environmentalists and ranchers are both stewards of the land, they just have different ideas about it, IMHO. The minute you dig in and strt calling 'em rednecks, or tree huggers you have lost your ability to persuade...

Great articles, and writing, don'cha know ;)

5:55 PM  
Blogger billoo said...

Megan, have you read "field guide" by her?

I just got the walking book but haven't started it.

In it there's this wonderful story that goes...

An old English aristocrat, caring for little in the world, sets off with his daughter in search of beautiful blue china. On one of their journeys they become shipwrecked and the daughter is rescued by a sailor and for nine days the two are alone together on the sea.

Eventually the father finds his daughter and banishes the sailor to the far side of the world and once again all the daughter can think of is collecting blue china. "In her search she told the people with whom she dealt that she was looking for a particular blue colour and would pay any price for it. But although she bought many hundred blue jars and bowls, she would always after a time put them aside and say:'Alas, alas, it is not the right blue'.

Soon, she began to wonder if that blue even existed any more. Years passed, decades, her father died and finally a merchant brought her an old blue jar looted from the Chinese emperor's summer palace. When she saw it she said that now she could die, and when she died , her heart would be cut out and put in the blue jar.
"And everything will be as it was then. All shall be blue around me, and in the midst of the blue my heart will be innocent and free, and will beat gently..."

8:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"But here's the thing. Those hippies? They're f*cking right. The reason they grate so is that you know they're right..."

Nope. Not even close.

--Erich Schwarz

8:13 PM  
Blogger Spungen said...

Hey, just for the record, I've never bagged on people simply for having money. That would make me a hypocrite in light of my aspirations. At bobvis, I care more about identifying the privileged than criticizing them. I just don't want them blending in unnoticed.

Similarly, though, people who have been *given* money are hypocrites when they criticize people for trying to *get* money. It's their predecessors' work and values that made their lifestyles possible, not their own.

I was thinking of doing a post that queries: Exactly what are the offspring of the rich *supposed* to do to best serve society? They do seem to take a lot of heat no matter what they do.

We should be gentle pacifists. We should care very deeply about the environment; we should be alert to its beauties and hurt by its destruction. We should eat consciously and low on the food chain. There is no harm in bounded recreational drug use and what does it matter how people choose to look and people's bodies are beautiful and we should live close in connected communities. We should even sit around a fire and sit along to a guitar.

See, though, this is not the stuff I think about when I get mad at hippies. I think of them as much more critical, hostile, manipulative, and even predatory than as portrayed here.

11:07 PM  
Blogger Spungen said...

This is also what impresses me about Burning Man. When privileged people have everything they want, the next thing they want to do is build amazing things for other people (and celebrate and be nude and beautiful). People who have never been scared don't want dominion. They want expressiveness and connection.

We've had such different experiences. The one guy I ever "dated" who went to Burning Man treated me like garbage. Yes, he was a privileged kid, yes, he liked to brag about being a stoner hippie. The kindness, expressiveness and connection? Just a slick glaze. The "brotherhood and sisterhood" just meant partying with his little Berkeley clique, and being smug and critical of others. Such as me, as it turned out. And smoking so much dope during bar review that he flunked, but it didn't matter, he still got to keep his big firm job, but it's OK that he worked at a big firm because he wasn't Really About That ...

Oh, and he loved Ultimate.

11:15 PM  
Blogger Spungen said...

Oh, and not to be a link hog, but after briefly noting it in that post, I did a whole post about Leondar-Wright's "inessential weirdness" essay here.

11:23 PM  
Anonymous HC said...

The argument that hippie sanctimony grates on the soul only because hippies are right is breathtaking, if not persuasive. An admirable troll or a slyly humorous assertion of your own principles, though I would not presume to guess which. Perhaps both?

Your conviction that people who have never been scared don't want dominion reflects a deeply optimistic view of human nature. It makes for an interesting contrast with your feelings about the South - should those whom you find yourself hating for their arbitrarily claimed dominion be absolved, because they were just scared, scarred by the times in which they lived? Or are their actions unforgivable, given the degree to which they have betrayed their better natures?

2:43 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

Spungen, see now I'm thinking that with so many overlapping circles, I likely know that guy. I'll email you.

HC and Erich: I'm sincere when I say that hippies are right, not deliberately trolling. Here. You'll like this equally well.

HC, your second question, that people get forgiveness because they were damaged? I'm still wrestling with that.

7:56 AM  
Anonymous HC said...

I understand that you believe that the hippies are right; the argument that this, and only this, is what makes hippie sanctimony grate is what startled. Given that this very same post contains a link to and quotation from an article about how inessential weirdness is needlessly offputting, I thought there was a real possibility that you were kidding on the square with that argument.

A historic answer to the question of whether people get forgiveness for being damaged has been to adopt a tragic vision of humanity, which drastically simplifies that particular problem.

8:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re: Exactly what are the offspring of the rich *supposed* to do to best serve society?

I think everyone is entitled to work to increase their own fortunes. I think government/taxes/regulations exist to ensure that doing so doesn't unduly burden others in their quest to do the same. Citizens get to define "unduly."

I also think that what the rich *should* do isn't so different from what anyone else should do. Give back and engage in a positive way with society. No matter what your job is, or what your income level, you have the ability to give back to some degree.

I also think everyone needs a larger dose of empathy. Not sympathy, no one wants to go asking around for that, and some may resent it if given, but empathy.

10:11 AM  
Blogger Louis said...

Regarding the south:

I moved to Georgia to go to college. I started out in Atlanta, which isn't much like the rest of the south. It's really mostly transplanted northerners. Now I live in more of a rural area north of Atlanta.

Before I came here, I had a very poor impression of the south and of southerners. I subscribed to the stereotype that they're poorly educated, racist, etc...

I have found, though, that things are not at all what I expected. In particular on racism. The few overt racists that I have met are all over 50, and most of them do business with black people regularly and respect them individually. They just hold a poor opinion of them as a group. The younger generation is far more open minded and accepting for the most part. A would also like to note that the old white folks are not the only racists in the south, the black people have their share as well.

The really irritating people are the overly religious ones, but they're surprisingly rare (but vocal).

Most things written about the historic south are slanted and biased in my opinion. Many things written about the modern south suffer from the same problem. The south is not that much different from the midwest, and it's becoming more and more like it as time passes.

On Hippies:
I love hippies. I grew up around several hippies. They're great, easy going, helpful people that are a pleasure to be around. I also learned a lot from them growing up. Most of them enjoy something resembling intellectual conversation. That said though, most of them are almost hopelessly naive, short sighted, and impractical. I like talking to them, they make me think, but I, often, do not agree with them, and disagreeing with them does not burden my conscience.

In short, they're often not right, but that's fine as long as they don't try to stuff their dogma down my throat.

10:53 AM  
Anonymous Mitch said...

It looks like your opinions are starting to calcify. Or is it just that you're more willing to state them bluntly? It really does seem to have changed over the time I've been reading the blog.

1:19 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

You know, I've noticed something similar. Mostly I notice that I used to be funny, back when I started. Now I'm just a scold. But I also think I was a lot more innocent. I'm pretty sure writing here has made me defensive, if not jaded.

This post in particular doesn't strike me as more one-sided than I used to be. I'm struggling with my opinions on the South and doubting joint coalitions. The hippie stuff has been on my nerves recently.

Maybe I've gotten blunter because I'm in a phase where I don't especially see any value in arguing on the internets. I keep hoping that people who agree with me will show up and the rest will realize I was never that interesting all along. Where's my echo chamber!

1:54 PM  
Anonymous SwissArmyD said...

"I keep hoping that people who agree with me will show up and the rest will realize I was never that interesting all along. Where's my echo chamber!"

Is this what you actually want?

3:46 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Some days it is.

I'm especially tired of the relentless critical thinking of the portion of blogland I frequent. I'm a full participant, but it has gotten old.

4:07 PM  
Anonymous HC said...

You may want to revise the comment rules then, which always seemed explicitly designed to inhibit the emergence of an echo chamber. I'd compliment you on them, but...

5:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I'm especially tired of the relentless critical thinking of the portion of blogland I frequent. I'm a full participant, but it has gotten old."

Yes. This is why often I don't comment. I enjoy reading the posts and comments, that critical-thinking-dialogue, but don't always have the energy to get involved. There seems to be a lot of pattern to the online arguments (used as a friendly term), and it can be difficult to actually discuss so many different things so deeply all the time. I agree there's a benefit to just some shared laughing, some all-knowing scorn being thrown around, and a little self-indulgent, "we're so right" smugness among like minded folk.

When there's a real event or issue on the table, it makes it easier to have the energy for the true debate, and the bringing of open minds. Makes it feel less like some intellectual ritual and more like problem-solving and practical discussion.


9:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And to add a drop more: it's when that smug all knowingness isn't remotely tongue-in-cheek that I worry; where the internets can breed hard- (and hot-) headed people, unwilling to compromise and emboldened in real-life by their insular online communities.

A radical example is disbelief in the holocaust. Not sure why that came to mind, but it feels like the kind of wacko-radicalism that can be strengthened by bringing people together online who share that (dis)belief and make the holders feel more justified, people who do not wish to dialogue with open minds, and are immune to facts put forth by others. -A

9:25 AM  
Anonymous SwissArmyD said...

"I'm a full participant, but it has gotten old."

maybe if you put tags on your posts, so's we know if you want all the other views or not...

I think it is not in most of our natures to bring you down.

9:48 AM  
Blogger Megan said...


My friend A? From Ultimate? Are we having lunch together soon?

Or maybe a different A? I should recognize someone so wise, but I'm not sure I do.

2:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A different A. I'm pretty far away to meet for lunch, though I bet it would be fun. I'm here online a bunch though, so I might need to start commenting with something more telling than nothing (anonymous) or the -A, which refers to my name, not just more anonymity in initials form.

9:05 AM  

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