American Intellectuals’ Widespread Failure to Stand Up to Billionaires and Authoritarian Power

By Robert Jensen, AlterNet, July 5, 2013

This article is an excerpt from Robert Jensen’s new book, We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out  available in print and on Kindle.

Excerpt

…Why is the majority of intellectual work in the United States not challenging but instead helping to prop up the unjust distribution of wealth and power, and the unsustainable extractive/industrial system? Both intellectuals and the people who provide the resources that allow intellectuals to work should ponder this crucial question. I am not suggesting that to be a responsible intellectual one must agree with me on all these issues, that anyone who does not agree with my approach to these issues is a soulless sell-out. My argument is that if we take seriously the basic moral principles at the core of modern philosophical and theological systems we claim to believe in, in light of the data on social injustice and the serious threats to ecological sustainability, these questions should be central in the work of intellectuals…a sharp critique of intellectuals as a social formation is warranted…This analysis focuses on those doing intellectual work with the most privilege and the most autonomy. Ideally, we pay intellectuals to help us deepen our understanding of how the world works, toward the goal of shaping a world more consistent with our moral and political principles, and our collective self-interest. What are the forces that keep people, especially relatively privileged people, mute in the face of such a clear need for critical intellectual work?I suspect that a desire to be accepted by peers is at least as powerful a motivation for intellectuals to accept the status quo. Humans are social animals who generally seek a safe and secure place in a social group, and there’s no reason intellectuals would be different…. When one’s professional cohort works within the worldview that the wealthy and powerful construct, the boundaries of that world seem appropriate. Curiosity about what lies beyond those boundaries tends to atrophy. Those forces have been in play for a long time, but another potentially crucial factor is the way in which confronting the reality of injustice and unsustainability can be morally and psychologically overwhelming for anyoneIntellectuals are in the business of assessing problems and offering solutionsWe are told that it is “realistic” to capitulate to the absurd idea that the systems in which we live are the only systems possible because some people like them and wish them to continue. But what if our current level of First-World consumption is exhausting the ecological basis for life? Too bad; the only “realistic” options are those that take that lifestyle as non-negotiable. What if real democracy is not possible in a nation-state with 300 million people? Too bad; the only “realistic” options are those that take this way of organizing a polity as immutable. What if the hierarchies on which our lives are based are producing extreme material deprivation for subordinated people and a kind of dull misery among the privileged? Too bad; the only “realistic” options are those that accept hierarchy as inevitable. The ultimate test of our intellectual abilities is whether we can face the possibility that there may be no way out of these traps and yet continue to work for a more just and sustainable world…to be a responsible intellectual is to be willing to get apocalyptic, and the first step in that process is to give up on the myth of neutrality. Intellectuals shouldn’t claim to be neutral, and the public shouldn’t take such claims seriously.

Full text

Given the considerable resources in the United States spent to subsidize intellectual work, why are so many intellectuals—journalists, academics, writers—not critiquing the many hierarchical institutions and not highlighting the disastrous consequences of these systems? Why are so many intellectuals instead providing support for the institutions and systems? Why is the majority of intellectual work in the United States not challenging but instead helping to prop up the unjust distribution of wealth and power, and the unsustainable extractive/industrial system?

Both intellectuals and the people who provide the resources that allow intellectuals to work should ponder this crucial question.

I am not suggesting that to be a responsible intellectual one must agree with me on all these issues, that anyone who does not agree with my approach to these issues is a soulless sell-out. My argument is that if we take seriously the basic moral principles at the core of modern philosophical and theological systems we claim to believe in, in light of the data on social injustice and the serious threats to ecological sustainability, these questions should be central in the work of intellectuals. Based on my experience as a journalist, professor, and political activist—a life in which I have always worked in intellectual professions and interacted with many other intellectuals in various settings—I have learned that the story is complicated but that a sharp critique of intellectuals as a social formation is warranted.

First, let’s recognize that intellectual work generally comes with considerable privilege. That does not mean that intellectuals don’t work hard, make sacrifices, or feel stress. But in general, intellectuals are compensated well for work that is not physically hazardous and can be rewarding on many levels. There are many intellectuals-in-training (graduate students) and underemployed intellectuals (adjunct faculty) who face overwhelming workloads and few perks, and so we should be cautious about generalizing too much about the category of “intellectual.” This analysis focuses on those doing intellectual work with the most privilege and the most autonomy.

Ideally, we pay intellectuals to help us deepen our understanding of how the world works, toward the goal of shaping a world more consistent with our moral and political principles, and our collective self-interest. What are the forces that keep people, especially relatively privileged people, mute in the face of such a clear need for critical intellectual work? The first, and easiest, answer is individual self-interest—the status and economic rewards that come to intellectuals who serve power. Upton Sinclair put it most succinctly: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

No doubt some intellectuals make calculations about how to use their abilities to enrich themselves, but in my experience such crass greed is relatively rare. I suspect that a desire to be accepted by peers is at least as powerful a motivation for intellectuals to accept the status quo. Humans are social animals who generally seek a safe and secure place in a social group, and there’s no reason intellectuals would be different. Even when concentrated wealth and power do not threaten people with serious punishments, the desire to be a well-regarded member of an intellectual community is a powerful conformity-inducer. When one’s professional cohort works within the worldview that the wealthy and powerful construct, the boundaries of that world seem appropriate. Curiosity about what lies beyond those boundaries tends to atrophy.

Those forces have been in play for a long time, but another potentially crucial factor is the way in which confronting the reality of injustice and unsustainability can be morally and psychologically overwhelming for anyone. As the documentation of human suffering and the threats to ecological sustainability accumulate, in an era when multiple communication channels make it easy to be aware of more and more of this information, that awareness can seem to be too much to face. The desire to rationalize the suffering and imagine an easy escape is easy to understand.

Rationalization #1: Justifying Hierarchy

When humans suffer in extreme situations, such as war or natural disasters, most people in most situations find it easy to care and respond. When the suffering is ongoing and apparently endemic to the systems of the world, staying connected to that suffering is more difficult. In such situations, it can be attractive to find ways to justify hierarchy and the resulting suffering, rather than to challenge power.

There is wide consensus on the values that are central to constructing a decent human society: justice, equality, compassion, honesty, opportunity, sharing. It is difficult to imagine such a society without these basic elements: (1) the belief in the inherent dignity of all human beings; (2) a sense of solidarity with at least those in one’s community, if not beyond; and (3) a commitment to achieving a rough equality so that everyone has access to the material requirements for a decent life. That list does not assume that people are morally perfect or perfectible, but instead articulates common aspirations for ourselves, others, and society.

How do we explain the fact that most people’s stated philosophical and theological systems are rooted in concepts of equality, solidarity, and the inherent dignity of all people, yet we allow violence, exploitation, and oppression to flourish? Only a small percentage of people in any given society are truly sociopaths, those who engage in cruel and oppressive behavior openly and without a capacity for empathy. In my experience, the most common way in which people make their peace with that contradiction is to accept the claim that hierarchy and injustice are inevitable, and that the best we can do is try to smooth off the rough edges of such systems. The process can be summed up like this:

–The systems and structures in which we live are hierarchical.

–Hierarchical systems and structures deliver to those in the dominant class certain privileges, pleasures, and material benefits.

–People are typically hesitant to give up such privileges, pleasures, and benefits.

–But, those benefits clearly come at the expense of those in the subordinated class.

–Given the widespread acceptance of basic notions of dignity, solidarity, and equality, the existence of hierarchy has to be justified in some way other than crass self-interest.

–One of the most persuasive arguments for systems of domination and subordination is that they are “natural.”

So, oppressive systems work hard to make it appear that the hierarchy — and the disparity in power and resources that flow from hierarchy — is natural and, therefore, beyond modification. If white people are naturally smarter and more virtuous than people of color, then white supremacy is inevitable and justifiable. If men are naturally stronger and more capable of leadership than women, then patriarchy is inevitable and justifiable. If rich people are naturally clearer-thinking and harder-working than poor people, then economic inequality is inevitable and justifiable. If the strong are, well, stronger than the weak, then the strong will rule.

As John Stuart Mill noted in his argument for women’s rights, “[W]as there ever any domination which did not appear natural to those who possessed it?” For unjust hierarchies, and the illegitimate authority that is exercised in them, maintaining their naturalness is essential. Not surprisingly, people in the dominant class exercising the power gravitate easily to such a view. And because of their power to control key intellectual institutions (especially education and mass communication), those in the dominant class can fashion a story about the world that leads some portion of the people in the subordinated class to internalize the ideology. A social order that violates almost everyone’s basic principles is transformed into a natural order that cannot be changed.

Rationalization #2: Celebrating Technology

Facing the ecological realities is even more overwhelming. People once spoke of “environmental problems” that seemed limited and manageable, but now the questions are about whether a large-scale human presence on the planet will be viable within the foreseeable future. An honest assessment of the state of the ecosphere is frightening, and it is easier to believe that the world’s systems can magically continue rather than thinking about how radical changes in those systems are necessary — and how even with such radical changes there is no guarantee that we can avoid catastrophe.

That frightening possibility is why the culture in general, and intellectuals in particular, are quick to embrace technological fundamentalism, a form of magical thinking that promises a way out of the problems that the extractive/industrial economy has created. Technological fundamentalists believe that the increasing use of evermore sophisticated high-energy advanced technology is always a good thing and that any problems caused by the unintended consequences of such technology eventually can be remedied by more technology. Perhaps the ultimate example of this is “geo-engineering,” the belief that we can intervene at the planetary level in the climate system to deal effectively with global warming. Given massive human failure at much lower levels of intervention, this approach—which “offers the tantalizing promise of a climate change fix that would allow us to continue our resource-exhausting way of life, indefinitely”—is, quite literally, insane.

Those who question such “solutions” are often said to be anti-technology, which is a meaningless insult. All human beings use technology of some kind, whether stone tools or computers. An anti-fundamentalist position does not assert that all technology is bad, but that the introduction of new technology should be evaluated carefully on the basis of its effects — predictable and unpredictable — on human communities and the non-human world, with an understanding of the limits of our knowledge. We have moved too far and too fast, outstripping our capacity to manage the world we have created. The answer is not some naïve return to a romanticized past, but a recognition of what we have created and a systematic evaluation to determine how to recover from our most dangerous missteps.

But the technological fundamentalists see no reason to consider such things. They have faith in human cleverness. The title of a recent book by an environmentalist—The God Species: Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans—sums it up: Technological fundamentalists believe humans can play God and control an infinitely complex universe with enough competence to save not only ourselves but the planet. There’s nothing new about that arrogance. In 1968, Stewart Brand began the Whole Earth Catalog with that famous line, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” Four decades later, with the evidence of human failure piling up, Brand remained the loyal technological fundamentalist, arguing that his suggestion had become an imperative: “We are as gods and HAVE to get good at it.”

Our experience with the unintended consequences of modern technology is fairly extensive. For example, there’s the case of automobiles and the burning of petroleum in internal-combustion engines, which give us the ability to travel considerable distances with a fair amount of individual autonomy. This technology also has given us traffic jams and road rage, strip malls and smog, while contributing to rapid climate change that threatens sustainable life on the planet. We haven’t quite figured out how to cope with these problems, and in retrospect it might have been wise to go slower in the development of a system geared toward private, individual transportation based on the car and spend more time considering potential consequences.

Or how about CFCs and the ozone hole? Chlorofluorocarbons have a variety of industrial, commercial and household applications, including in air-conditioning. They were thought to be a miracle chemical when introduced in the 1930s—non-toxic, non-flammable and non-reactive with other chemical compounds. But in the 1980s, researchers began to understand that while CFCs are stable in the troposphere, when they move to the stratosphere and are broken down by strong ultraviolet light they release chlorine atoms that deplete the ozone layer. This unintended effect deflated the exuberance a bit. Depletion of the ozone layer means that more UV radiation reaches the Earth’s surface, and overexposure to UV radiation is a cause of skin cancer, cataracts and immune suppression.

But wait, the technological fundamentalists might argue, our experience with CFCs refutes your argument—humans got a handle on that one and banned CFCs, and now the ozone hole is closing. These gases, which were once commonly used in air-conditioning, were regulated in 1987 through the Montreal Protocol, which has reduced damage to the ozone layer. The oldest and most damaging CFC coolants have been largely eliminated from use, and the newer hydrochlorofluorocarbons that are now widely used have little or no effect on the ozone layer. That’s all true, but unfortunately we now know that the HCFC gases contribute to global warming. Scientists estimate that up to a quarter of all global warming will be attributable to those gases by 2050, so that “the therapy to cure one global environmental disaster is now seeding another.”

So the reasonable question is: If the dangerous HCFCs that replaced the dangerous CFCs are replaced by a new chemical that appears harmless, how long will it take before the dangerous effects of that replacement become visible? There’s no way to predict, but it seems reasonable to ask the question. Society didn’t react to the news about CFCs or HCFCs by thinking about ways to step back from a developed world that has become dependent on air-conditioning, but instead continues to search for replacements to keep the air conditioning running.

Intellectuals are in the business of assessing problems and offering solutions. Technological fundamentalism allows intellectuals to offer solutions that don’t threaten existing institutions and don’t make demands on society in general, which allows intellectuals to retain their status and level of comfort, at least in the short term. The obvious problem is that if we look only for “solutions” that don’t disturb existing systems, and those existing systems are unsustainable, then our solutions are at best irrelevant and at worst will exacerbate the fundamental problems and make it harder for people to imagine new systems.

This is not an argument to abandon all attempts to improve technology, stop exploring ways technology can contribute to a healthier planet, or halt research on renewable energy. A sensible approach to our cascading ecological crises is to pursue multiple strategies that mitigate the worst of what exists today while planning for a radically different tomorrow. Technological fundamentalism is dangerous because it encourages us to focus on the former and ignore the latter.

The problem, succinctly stated: When intellectuals limit themselves to inquiry that stays safely within existing systems, they are being unrealistic. That claim turns the tables on establishment intellectuals, who routinely criticize more radical colleagues for not being realistic. But imagine that you are riding comfortably on a train. You look out the window and see that not too far ahead the tracks end abruptly and that the train will derail if it continues moving ahead. You suggest that the train should stop immediately and that the passengers go forward on foot. This will require a major shift in everyone’s way of traveling, of course, but it appears to you to be the only realistic option; to continue barreling forward is to guarantee catastrophic consequences. But when you propose this course of action, others who have grown comfortable riding on the train say, “Everybody likes riding the train, and so telling us to get off is not realistic.”

In the contemporary United States, we are trapped in a similar delusion. We are told that it is “realistic” to capitulate to the absurd idea that the systems in which we live are the only systems possible because some people like them and wish them to continue. But what if our current level of First-World consumption is exhausting the ecological basis for life? Too bad; the only “realistic” options are those that take that lifestyle as non-negotiable. What if real democracy is not possible in a nation-state with 300 million people? Too bad; the only “realistic” options are those that take this way of organizing a polity as immutable. What if the hierarchies on which our lives are based are producing extreme material deprivation for subordinated people and a kind of dull misery among the privileged? Too bad; the only “realistic” options are those that accept hierarchy as inevitable.

The ultimate test of our intellectual abilities is whether we can face the possibility that there may be no way out of these traps and yet continue to work for a more just and sustainable world (more on that later). That is not easy, but to be a responsible intellectual is to be willing to get apocalyptic, and the first step in that process is to give up on the myth of neutrality. Intellectuals shouldn’t claim to be neutral, and the public shouldn’t take such claims seriously.

Source URL: http://www.alternet.org/books/widespread-failure-intellectuals-stand-authoritarian-power-america

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[7] http://www.alternet.org/%2Bnew_src%2B

 

Salons: A New Intellectual Culture is Taking Shape Throughout the Country

By David Rosen, AlterNet, May 9, 2011  

Have you been to a salon? I don’t mean where you get a manicure or pedicure. Rather, a social venue where people gather to consider pressing social issues or compelling ideas?

Amidst the long, drawn-out recovery from the Great Recession, a new intellectual culture is taking shape throughout the country. While corporate executives bemoan the financial fate of newspaper, magazine and book publishing (to say nothing of the record and movie industries), an unprecedented flowering of intellectual life is underway. It signals a rebirth of ideas in America.

This new intellectual environment takes two principal forms, online and public. Online has gotten the most attention given the explosion of web publishing. While the Internet is cluttered with an infinity of garbage, it does provide invaluable access to versions of mainstream and alternative print outlets, innumerable web-only ventures and zillions of “self-published” commentary identified as personal websites, blogs, YouTube rants, Facebook postings and Tweets. The Internet is home to a new intellectual culture.

Less discussed are the efforts by people to reclaim public space for discussion and social engagement over ideas. America has long cultivated public venues that fostered social gatherings and intellectual discourse, whether libraries, “Ys,” fraternal meeting halls, labor unions, senior centers or local bookstores. They have welcomed Americans for decades and still draw loyal followers.

Something different has emerged over the last decade or so, one recalling the great era of salons that occurred during the early decades of the 20th century. This something new grows out of the coffee shop phenomenon commercialized by Starbucks and Peets. While superficially recalling the good-old coffee houses of the counterculture ‘60s, they lack the fun, live music or politics of the days gone by.

Nevertheless, these coffee shops established public spaces for strangers to get together and, more than anything else, to encourage flirting and casual hook-ups. Some of the more enterprising venues have pushed the boundaries of social commerce and welcomed, at off-hours, presentations by poets, writers and filmmakers in an effort to fill the venue and sell product.

More significant, Move-On incubated a decidedly self-conscious spirit of political discussion. Founded in 1998 by well-intentioned online activities, it played an invaluable role mobilizing grassroots support for Obama and the Democrats in the 2008 campaign. In 2010, it organized hundreds of “Rock the House (and Senate)” house parties. Obama’s effort to recapture his base for the 2012 election will likely revitalize MoveOn and its grassroots efforts.

At earlier gatherings, local Move-On affiliates welcomed groups of interested people to their homes or to public venues like arts or seniors center. These gatherings ranged from telephone-organizing drives, discussions of a pre-identified topic (e.g., healthcare, Congressional corruption) or the viewing and discussion of videos. Some draw only a dozen local activities, while others welcoming more than a hundred people, they fostered that informal camaraderie missing from large demonstrations.

Sensing the growing popularity of social gatherings, opportunistic entrepreneurs quickly jumped into the game. Meetup was the first, founded in 2001, and remains the leader; it got into politics backing Howard Dean’s failed 2004 presidential ambition. Other social facilitators include BigTent and GroupSpaces; however, online social networking capabilities offered through FaceBook, Twitter or Craigslist allow essentially everyone to convene a get-together.

For all the cautionary tales of cyber-stupidity and Internet solipsism spouted by media pundits, people in New York, San Francisco and other cities are attending intellectual get-togethers at unprecedented numbers. Yes, everyone feels overwhelmed, whether by mounting bills, political uncertainty or natural disasters. Yet, more and more people are drawn to public venues of discourse and conviviality to think, engage with others, flirt, organized political actions and add something meaningful to their lives. They are 21st century version of the classic salon, venues where ideas matter.

* * *

Today’s intellectual gatherings take a variety of forms, from formal library lectures, to Meetups to informal get-togethers at friends’ homes. In New York, they draw their inspiration from the celebrated salons of the fin-de-siècle period.

Salons date from the nation’s founding. Histories of the Founding Fathers would be incomplete without reference to Benjamin Franklin’s sinful indulgences attending the Paris’ grand salons during the Revolutionary era. The oh-so-proper Adams, John and Abigail, were very much displeased by the social, intellectual and sexual goings-on that greeted them when they attended nightlife gatherings in Philadelphia during and after the Revolution. Most others had a grand and edifying time.

The modern alon formally emerged in New York during the early 20th century. Edith Wharton, who loathed the American literary scene and resettled in Paris in 1907, likely attended the intellectual gatherings hosted by her sister-in-law, Mary Cadwalader Jones, on East 11th Street. In 1900, Jones gained national prominence championing the role of nurses in public health, fiercely arguing for the professionalization of a traditionally female vocation. She enjoyed intellectual life and hosted “Mary Cadwal’s parlor” at which many leading intellectual lights of the day were regulars, including the writers Henry James, Henry Adams and F. Marion Crawford, the painters John LaFarge and John Singer Sargent, and the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

However, it was Mabel Dodge’s famous “Evenings,” hosted at her townhouse at 23 Fifth Avenue during the 1910s, that made salons part of the city’s social life. Dodge was a classic Gilded Age “poor little rich girl,” a spoiled dilettante and libertine who, until she found her calling, attached herself to the latest fad and male celebrity. In 1913 she helped organize the controversial International Show of Modern Art, popularly known as the Armory Show, which launched modern art in America. That same year, she joined John Reed, “Big Bill” Hayward and Emma Goldman in support of the IWW-backed silk workers strike in Paterson, NJ, playing a leading role organizing the controversial, “Pageant of the Paterson Strike,” held at Madison Square Garden.

Dodge’s salons were organized along the lines of the traditional discussion-group format known as the General Conversation. An appointed leader, normally a specialist in an artistic, academic or political subject, offered a brief introductory commentary focusing the discussion and then invited those in attendance to jump into the discussion. Salon leaders ranged from A. A. Brill on Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis, Reed on Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution, Margaret Sanger on birth control and women’s rights and even African-American entertainers from Harlem.

As the scholar Andrea Barnet reminds us, “Dodge’s salon was where black Harlem first met Greenwich Village bohemia and, conversely, where white bohemia got its first taste of a parallel black culture that it would soon not only glorify but actively try to emulate.”

 

Also during the 1910s, New York was home to other salons, gatherings facilitated by the wealth, connections, good food and drink of some of the city’s more adventurous grandees. The daughters of the prominent Stettheimer banking family, Florine, Carrie and Ettie, held evening get-togethers at their lavish apartment on West 76th Street. Their salons, which lasted until the mid-‘30s, catered to a more gentile European artistic set that included the artists Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp and Charles Demuth. Walter and Louise Arensbergs, heirs to a steel fortune, hosted a much-more downtown, bohemian crowd at their duplex at 33 West 67th Street; it included Duchamp, the artists Man Ray and Joseph Stella as well as the poets William Carlos Williams, Allen Norton and Mina Loy.

Following the Great War and Palmer Raids, a new generation of sophisticated salons emerged. While the earlier salons were hosted by and welcomed a nearly exclusive white following, those of the Roaring ‘20s were far more radical in term of race and class mixing.

Dorothy Peterson, a black teacher and novelist associated with the “New Negro” movement, hosted regular salons at her father’s Brooklyn home. Alexander Gumby, a postal clerk, hosted a salon for African American homosexuals in the arts and their friends at his large studio apartment on Fifth Avenue between 131st and 132nd Streets. According to one scholar, “Gumby’s gay literary salon drew many of Harlem’s theatrical and artistic luminaries.”

Carl Van Vechten who is now all but forgotten was, in the ‘20s, considered outlandish, openly breaking with social conventions. While married to a famous Russian ballerina and movie actress, he privately engaged in numerous ostensibly secret sexual liaisons with black and white men. He was famous for hosting mixed-race, mixed-ethnic and mixed-arts salons that were the talk of the ‘20s. One night featured George Gershwin playing show tunes at the piano, followed by Paul Robeson singing Negro spirituals and ending with James Weldon Johnson reciting “Go Down, Death,” a funeral sermon. The snide Time magazine reported in 1925, “sullen-mouthed, silky haired author Van Vechten has been playing with Negroes lately, writing prefaces for their poems, having them around the house, going to Harlem.”

Another celebrated New York salon of the Prohibition era was organized by A’Lelia Walker, the daughter of America’s first African-American millionaire, Madam C. J. Walker. It took place at her Harlem townhouse and was known as “The Dark Tower.” It was a venue where uptown and downtown artists, writers and musicians gathered to socialize and exchange ideas. Langston Hughes was a regular who vividly recalled Walker’s salon scene, noting “unless you went early there was no possible way of getting in.” He knew that “her parties were as crowded as the New York subway at rush hour – entrance, lobby, steps, hallway, and apartment a milling crush of guests, with everybody seeming to enjoy the crowding.” As only Hughes could sing, “A’Lelia Walker was the joy-goddess of Harlem’s ‘20s.”

In the decades following the Depression, Second World War and consumer revolution, the New York salon scene waned. In the ‘50s, it shifted to public spaces, most notably the West Village’s Cedar Tavern that welcomed creative voices from Jackson Pollack and Mark Rothko to Allen Ginsberg and Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones). Today, salons and other forms of intellectual get-togethers are back.

* * *

Americans have long gathered to reflect on the important issues of the day. Informally, such get-togethers take place at a family’s dining-room table, among friends sitting on a stoop, or strangers relaxing at a coffee shop or pub. Dinner parties wouldn’t be half-the-fun without the drink-infused, boisterous engagement of the issues of the day.

Social life, however, finds a new articulation when people gather to formally consider a topic. Facilitators, whether individuals on their own or working through a company like Meetup, welcome all manner of personal, intellectual and political discourse. There are science lectures and literary salons, art and music gatherings, nerd-fests on every conceivable tech topic and even foodi sit-downs discussing the pleasures of the pallet while eating and drinking. They are get-togethers for first-time filmmakers, for African-American and Latinos writers, for those following the Jasmine revolution, for anti-nuke activists and, of course, for those into erotica. There’s even one for a German-language salon prompting German culture now in its 60th year.

Popular hookups take place in bars and galleries, in apartments and theatres; while most participants are fully attired, one is organized for women in their birthday suits. In New York, they are happening all over the city, from midtown to the all-too-hip Williamsburg, from the East Village to the wilds of the Bronx and Staten Island. New York, like other parts of the country, is rediscovering the salon, helping fashion the 21st century smart city.

More political salons are likely to increase as the 2012 election draws nearer. America is in the midst of the gravest economic and social crisis since the Great Depression and a growing number of people recognize that the nation’s future is at stake. They increasingly reject the politician’s bought-and-paid-for words of reassurance and the swill promulgated by media blowviators. The tempo of political debate is intensifying and people are seeking new, more intimate and engaging forums for discussion, debate and action.

All across the country, elected officials are convening town hall meetings that are becoming contested ideological battlegrounds. The Tea Party seems increasingly a spent force, it’s analyzes and promises proving nothing more than ideological fictions, the self-serving rhetoric and opportunism of the rich and powerful. In response, progressives, liberals, moderates and other well-intentioned people are incubating grassroots get-togethers to address the challenges facing the country.

In response to the Tea Party insurgency, a more progressive group emerged called, what else, the Coffee Party USA. Its mission is clear: “We are Americans working to create a fair and inclusive society. Our members represent the diversity of thought, background, and circumstance that is found in the cities, towns, and neighborhoods of our country.” In addition, local gathers of people who’ve participated in a Netroots Nation, which began as the YearlyKos Convention, the annual conclave of the Daily Kos website founded by Markos Moulitsas, are taking place throughout the country.

Meetup convenes hundreds of political groups throughout the country, touching on every conceivable subject and welcoming thousands. In addition, more middle-of-the-road organizations are finding their traditional get-togethers (e.g., World Policy Institute’s Political Salons) facing intensified challenges as their conventional solutions no longer satisfactorily address the challenges people confront.

These are but a sampling of the spreading grassroots movements, often facilitated by ordinary activists, nonprofit groups and corporate entities, sweeping the nation. The speak to the great desire to not simply seriously intellectually reflect on important issue and meet similar like-minded people, but to fashion a political outlook and activism that truly is personally meaningful and makes a difference. Welcome to the 21st century.

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Turning a Blind Eye by Chris Hedges

Truthdig | Op-Ed, July 9, 2012

Excerpt

Cultures that endure carve out a protected space for those who question and challenge national myths. Artists, writers, poets, activists, journalists, philosophers, dancers, musicians, actors, directors and renegades must be tolerated if a culture is to be pulled back from disaster. Members of this intellectual and artistic class, who are usually not welcome in the stultifying halls of academia where mediocrity is triumphant, serve as prophets. They are dismissed, or labeled by the power elites as subversive, because they do not embrace collective self-worship. They force us to confront unexamined assumptions, ones that, if not challenged, lead to destruction. They expose the ruling elites as hollow and corrupt. They articulate the senselessness of a system built on the ideology of endless growth, ceaseless exploitation and constant expansion. They warn us about the poison of careerism and the futility of the search for happiness in the accumulation of wealth. They make us face ourselves, from the bitter reality of slavery and Jim Crow to the genocidal slaughter of Native Americans to the repression of working-class movements to the atrocities carried out in imperial wars to the assault on the ecosystem. They make us unsure of our virtue. They challenge the easy clichés we use to describe the nation—the land of the free, the greatest country on earth, the beacon of liberty—to expose our darkness, crimes and ignorance. They offer the possibility of a life of meaning and the capacity for transformation.

Human societies see what they want to see. They create national myths of identity out of a composite of historical events and fantasy. They ignore unpleasant facts that intrude on self-glorification.

It leaves us blind. And this is what has occurred. We are lost at sea in a great tempest. We do not know where we are. We do not know where we are going. And we do not know what is about to happen to us.

The psychoanalyst John Steiner calls this phenomenon “turning a blind eye.” He notes that often we have access to adequate knowledge but because it is unpleasant and disconcerting we choose unconsciously, and sometimes consciously, to ignore it….We too, Steiner wrote, turn a blind eye to the dangers that confront us, despite the plethora of evidence that if we do not radically reconfigure our relationships to each other and the natural world, catastrophe is assured…

“It is only our absurd ‘scientific’ prejudice that reality must be physical and rational that blinds us to the truth,” Goddard warned. There are, as Shakespeare wrote, “things invisible to mortal sight.” But these things are not vocational or factual or empirical. They are not found in national myths of glory and power. They are not attained by force. They do not come through cognition or logical reasoning. They are intangible. They are the realities of beauty, grief, love, the search for meaning, the struggle to face our own mortality and the ability to face truth. And cultures that disregard these forces of imagination commit suicide. They cannot see…

Students who are denied the wisdom of the great oracles of human civilization—visionaries who urge us not to worship ourselves, not to kneel before the base human emotion of greed—cannot be educated. They cannot think…

The vital importance of thought, Arendt wrote, is apparent only “in times of transition when men no longer rely on the stability of the world and their role in it, and when the question concerning the general conditions of human life, which as such are properly coeval with the appearance of man on earth, gain an uncommon poignancy.” We never need our thinkers and artists more than in times of crisis, as Arendt reminds us, for they provide the subversive narratives that allow us to chart a new course, one that can assure our survival…

And here is the dilemma we face as a civilization. We march collectively toward self-annihilation. Corporate capitalism, if left unchecked, will kill us. Yet we refuse, because we cannot think and no longer listen to those who do think, to see what is about to happen to us. We have created entertaining mechanisms to obscure and silence the harsh truths, from climate change to the collapse of globalization to our enslavement to corporate power, that will mean our self-destruction. If we can do nothing else we must, even as individuals, nurture the private dialogue and the solitude that make thought possible. It is better to be an outcast, a stranger in one’s own country, than an outcast from one’s self. It is better to see what is about to befall us and to resist than to retreat into the fantasies embraced by a nation of the blind.

Full text

Cultures that endure carve out a protected space for those who question and challenge national myths. Artists, writers, poets, activists, journalists, philosophers, dancers, musicians, actors, directors and renegades must be tolerated if a culture is to be pulled back from disaster. Members of this intellectual and artistic class, who are usually not welcome in the stultifying halls of academia where mediocrity is triumphant, serve as prophets. They are dismissed, or labeled by the power elites as subversive, because they do not embrace collective self-worship. They force us to confront unexamined assumptions, ones that, if not challenged, lead to destruction. They expose the ruling elites as hollow and corrupt. They articulate the senselessness of a system built on the ideology of endless growth, ceaseless exploitation and constant expansion. They warn us about the poison of careerism and the futility of the search for happiness in the accumulation of wealth. They make us face ourselves, from the bitter reality of slavery and Jim Crow to the genocidal slaughter of Native Americans to the repression of working-class movements to the atrocities carried out in imperial wars to the assault on the ecosystem. They make us unsure of our virtue. They challenge the easy clichés we use to describe the nation—the land of the free, the greatest country on earth, the beacon of liberty—to expose our darkness, crimes and ignorance. They offer the possibility of a life of meaning and the capacity for transformation.

Human societies see what they want to see. They create national myths of identity out of a composite of historical events and fantasy. They ignore unpleasant facts that intrude on self-glorification. They trust naively in the notion of linear progress and in assured national dominance. This is what nationalism is about—lies. And if a culture loses its ability for thought and expression, if it effectively silences dissident voices, if it retreats into what Sigmund Freud called “screen memories,” those reassuring mixtures of fact and fiction, it dies. It surrenders its internal mechanism for puncturing self-delusion. It makes war on beauty and truth. It abolishes the sacred. It turns education into vocational training. It leaves us blind. And this is what has occurred. We are lost at sea in a great tempest. We do not know where we are. We do not know where we are going. And we do not know what is about to happen to us.

The psychoanalyst John Steiner calls this phenomenon “turning a blind eye.” He notes that often we have access to adequate knowledge but because it is unpleasant and disconcerting we choose unconsciously, and sometimes consciously, to ignore it. He uses the Oedipus story to make his point. He argued that Oedipus, Jocasta, Creon and the “blind” Tiresias grasped the truth, that Oedipus had killed his father and married his mother as prophesized, but they colluded to ignore it. We too, Steiner wrote, turn a blind eye to the dangers that confront us, despite the plethora of evidence that if we do not radically reconfigure our relationships to each other and the natural world, catastrophe is assured. Steiner describes a psychological truth that is deeply frightening.

I saw this collective capacity for self-delusion among the urban elites in Sarajevo and later Pristina during the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. These educated elites steadfastly refused to believe that war was possible although acts of violence by competing armed bands had already begun to tear at the social fabric. At night you could hear gunfire. But they were the last to “know.” And we are equally self-deluded. The physical evidence of national decay—the crumbling infrastructures, the abandoned factories and other workplaces, the rows of gutted warehouses, the closure of libraries, schools, fire stations and post offices—that we physically see, is, in fact, unseen. The rapid and terrifying deterioration of the ecosystem, evidenced in soaring temperatures, droughts, floods, crop destruction, freak storms, melting ice caps and rising sea levels, are met blankly with Steiner’s “blind eye.”

Oedipus, at the end of Sophocles’ play, cuts out his eyes and with his daughter Antigone as a guide wanders the countryside. Once king, he becomes a stranger in a strange country. He dies, in Antigone’s words, “in a foreign land, but one he yearned for.”

William Shakespeare in “King Lear” plays on the same theme of sight and sightlessness. Those with eyes in “King Lear” are unable to see. Gloucester, whose eyes are gouged out, finds in his blindness a revealed truth. “I have no way, and therefore want no eyes,” Gloucester says after he is blinded. “I stumbled when I saw.” When Lear banishes his only loyal daughter, Cordelia, whom he accuses of not loving him enough, he shouts: “Out of my sight!” To which Kent replies:

See better, Lear, and let me still remain
The true blank of thine eye.

The story of Lear, like the story of Oedipus, is about the attainment of this inner vision. It is about morality and intellect that are blinded by empiricism and sight. It is about understanding that the human imagination is, as William Blake saw, our manifestation of Eternity. “Love without imagination is eternal death.”

The Shakespearean scholar Harold Goddard wrote: “The imagination is not a faculty for the creation of illusion; it is the faculty by which alone man apprehends reality. The ‘illusion’ turns out to be truth.” “Let faith oust fact,” Starbuck says in “Moby-Dick.”

“It is only our absurd ‘scientific’ prejudice that reality must be physical and rational that blinds us to the truth,” Goddard warned. There are, as Shakespeare wrote, “things invisible to mortal sight.” But these things are not vocational or factual or empirical. They are not found in national myths of glory and power. They are not attained by force. They do not come through cognition or logical reasoning. They are intangible. They are the realities of beauty, grief, love, the search for meaning, the struggle to face our own mortality and the ability to face truth. And cultures that disregard these forces of imagination commit suicide. They cannot see.

“How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,” Shakespeare wrote, “Whose action is no stronger than a flower?” Human imagination, the capacity to have vision, to build a life of meaning rather than utilitarianism, is as delicate as a flower. And if it is crushed, if a Shakespeare or a Sophocles is no longer deemed useful in the empirical world of business, careerism and corporate power, if universities think a Milton Friedman or a Friedrich Hayek is more important to its students than a Virginia Woolf or an Anton Chekhov, then we become barbarians. We assure our own extinction. Students who are denied the wisdom of the great oracles of human civilization—visionaries who urge us not to worship ourselves, not to kneel before the base human emotion of greed—cannot be educated. They cannot think.

To think, we must, as Epicurus understood, “live in hiding.” We must build walls to keep out the cant and noise of the crowd. We must retreat into a print-based culture where ideas are not deformed into sound bites and thought-terminating clichés. Thinking is, as Hannah Arendt wrote, “a soundless dialogue between me and myself.” But thinking, she wrote, always presupposes the human condition of plurality. It has no utilitarian function. It is not an end or an aim outside of itself. It is different from logical reasoning, which is focused on a finite and identifiable goal. Logical reason, acts of cognition, serve the efficiency of a system, including corporate power, which is usually morally neutral at best, and often evil. The inability to think, Arendt wrote, “is not a failing of the many who lack brain power but an ever-present possibility for everybody—scientists, scholars, and other specialists in mental enterprises not excluded.”

Our corporate culture has effectively severed us from human imagination. Our electronic devices intrude deeper and deeper into spaces that were once reserved for solitude, reflection and privacy. Our airwaves are filled with the tawdry and the absurd. Our systems of education and communication scorn the disciplines that allow us to see. We celebrate prosaic vocational skills and the ridiculous requirements of standardized tests. We have tossed those who think, including many teachers of the humanities, into a wilderness where they cannot find employment, remuneration or a voice. We follow the blind over the cliff. We make war on ourselves.

The vital importance of thought, Arendt wrote, is apparent only “in times of transition when men no longer rely on the stability of the world and their role in it, and when the question concerning the general conditions of human life, which as such are properly coeval with the appearance of man on earth, gain an uncommon poignancy.” We never need our thinkers and artists more than in times of crisis, as Arendt reminds us, for they provide the subversive narratives that allow us to chart a new course, one that can assure our survival.

“What must I do to win salvation?” Dimitri asks Starov in “The Brothers Karamazov,” to which Starov answers: “Above all else, never lie to yourself.”

And here is the dilemma we face as a civilization. We march collectively toward self-annihilation. Corporate capitalism, if left unchecked, will kill us. Yet we refuse, because we cannot think and no longer listen to those who do think, to see what is about to happen to us. We have created entertaining mechanisms to obscure and silence the harsh truths, from climate change to the collapse of globalization to our enslavement to corporate power, that will mean our self-destruction. If we can do nothing else we must, even as individuals, nurture the private dialogue and the solitude that make thought possible. It is better to be an outcast, a stranger in one’s own country, than an outcast from one’s self. It is better to see what is about to befall us and to resist than to retreat into the fantasies embraced by a nation of the blind.

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license

http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/10223-turning-a-blind-eye