Saturday, October 29, 2011

Habits of the Heart/ Parts 4 and 5

By Brian George

Exemplary Lives

Brian Palmer is no longer a workaholic. A period of reconsideration followed the collapse of his first marriage. He is now devoted to his second family—but in exactly the same manner that he was formerly devoted to his work. Things could easily change again—with a new romance, a few gray hairs, or even the most arbitrary of changes in the weather. To Brian, the great thing about California is that anything is allowed. The main requirements are to not harm others, to be affluent enough to afford a house, and to indulge whatever habits you may have behind the safety of closed doors.

For Joe Gorman, the goal or a good life involves service to one's family and community. Oddly, Joe does not choose to see his extended family too often. Suffolk, the town in which he lives, is not really a traditional community at all but rather a "bedroom community"—the majority of whose residents commute to work in Boston or to industrial parks that have landed in the nearby suburbs like large, hermetically-sealed UFOs. Joe inhabits the Suffolk that surrounded him as a boy—a place of lazy afternoons at the soda fountain of a drug store, a place where white males argued politics at the barber shop, a place founded by the pilgrims in 1632. Joe does not see the same Suffolk as his neighbors—upwardly mobile professionals drawn by the momentarily low housing prices—who have no interest in history, and are glad to put Joe in charge of all commemorative celebrations. They will soon move somewhere else.

Margaret Oldham is a therapist, for whom the goal of a good life is for each person to develop a mature sense of autonomy. No external demand should compel us. We are not answerable to the needs of others; in turn we should expect no assistance from them, except what they might freely choose to give.

As nature is red in tooth and claw, no guarantees will be offered to the Calvinist elect. Justice is blind. The modern therapist does not see evil in the machinations of the growing crypto-fascist state. Victims attract their abusers. Margaret says, "I just sort of accept the way the world is and then don't think about it a whole lot." Life is difficult. Relationships take work. Industry brings happiness. Rich frat boys with a history of addiction can go on to steal the presidency. The poor are free to inherit large amounts of wealth. Help is available at fair market value. Freedom, in the last analysis, is no more and no less than the freedom to walk away. Except by law, Margaret does not believe that she is responsible even for her own children.

Wayne Bauer is a political activist, for whom the goal of a good life is the creation of a level playing field—in the form of a society in which not only procedural but also some degree of distributive justice reigns. The poor would be free to compete on equal terms with the rich. He gives us little sense, however, of what a substantively just society would look like, or of what would really change following the day of liberation. The new society might look very much like ours—except that everyone would have an equal chance of getting a good job. Poverty could then be attributed to some genuine moral defect.

Each citizen would be free to live out of a shopping cart beneath the underpass of a highway. There is, after all, only so much land along the coast of Malibu; it could accommodate only a few more than the existing number of houses.

Opposites Attract the Past

Freedom can be interpreted as a presence or an absence. As an absence, it is pregnant with a myth—that the overthrow of King George would be enough, once and for all, to create a context for the fulfillment of our dreams. As a presence, no incarnation could be equal to the archetype. Opposites point to a common origin. Divergent readings of shared values lead to an unacknowledged war. Enemies can be found in one's own family.

Conservatives turn radical. Practitioners of the Tao of bait and switch, they objectify mass fears to introduce the Brave New World by stealth. Neo-Federalists advance a strategy to suspend the Constitution. Leviticus replaces Christ. Death by stoning serves many purposes. Torture is again allowed. Militant Calvinism destroys the strategic hamlet it would save.

Wal-Mart uproots the last of the mom and pop businesses. As it laments the permissiveness of 1960s, and the child rearing practices that supposedly led to today's crop of sex and violence crazed narcissistic youth, the right pursues a reductionist agenda of every man for himself—and himself alone, without regard for the social order that gives birth to the individual, the powers that protect him, or the shared resources that contribute to his growth. Born again materialists incite a war of any against all. Answerable to his version of the American Dream alone, the free economic agent is not a situated subject.

It is true that we are not "from" here, are we, any more than we are from "there," but no act of faith can remove the ancient quarantine from the farm. There is no love lost between Earth's overlords and their livestock. Grace manifest as fear has aimed a death blow at each object that once bound the destinies of the young at heart to nature. Omniscient software is at hand. A Federal Freedom Net will soon monitor the e-mail of each citizen—the least of whom could pose a clear and present danger to the corporate fascism of the state. Each suspect word will be tagged. Each insult to the true cross will be color coded for immediate or future use.

"Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law," said Alistair Crowley, occult superhero and closet supporter of National Socialism. Here opposites attract. Crowley was also a darling of the counterculture. His books were fun to read after dropping LSD.

Following the injunction to "do what thou wilt"—for his own profit or in service to a cause, who can know—Prescott Bush, the grandfather of George W. Bush, acted as a financial intermediary for the Nazis throughout the whole of the1930s and into the beginning of the Second World War. For this he was censured by Congress in October, 1942, when five firms controlled by Union Banking Corporation, of which he was a director, were seized under the “Trading with the Enemy Act.” According to Charles Higham, former investigative reporter for the New York Times, it was feared that prosecution on a charge of treason would lead to an untimely scandal—not that any time would have been good—and  “would have drastically affected public morale, caused widespread strikes and perhaps provoked mutinies in the armed services.” At the war's end, the federal government seized an additional 18 firms that were controlled by the UBC.

The enemy combatant looks very much like us. Six million plus skeletons fit comfortably into the closet of the oligarch. There is space left over. Compassionate conservatism may yet cleanse our homeland of the eugenically unfit.

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