9.21.2008

The largest table in the world

An interesting post from Bilgrimage, yesterday. The line that most struck me was this:

"Because race has always mattered and always will matter—as long as we choose to let it matter—Mary McLeod Bethune envisioned the school she founded as a place of reconciliation between the races (and the genders). A place in which everyone could gather around a table large enough to include all whose voices needed a hearing, all shoved from the table of participatory democracy in the culture at large."

The table, she talks about has some very dangerous implications. This is not to say anything against Ms Bethune (or Mr. Lindsey, the author of the post linked to), who I am led to understand was a saint. But, we as the inheritors of this legacy of activism, sometimes I think we misunderstand this legacy, or take 'the easy way out'.

After all, the statement that Mr Lindsey makes equates "all whose voices needed a hearing" with "all shoved from the table of participatory democracy." This, however, makes a dangerous assumption - the assumption that those who do not fit in this group do not need their voices heard. It assumes, or implies to some degree, that there is a party that ought to have the power - the currently dispossessed - and another party that does not need the power anymore - the non-dispossessed. This sets up, subtly, a dangerous dichotomy, a dichotomy of the suffering, and the wicked who cause the suffering.

In real life, of course, it isn't that simple. Those who are dispossessed are not always right - dispossession breeds crisis, and crisis makes us reactionary. This isn't to say that the 'oppressor class' is right either (they certainly aren't), but it is to say that the answer lies in conversation - not just conversation between all the people who are suffering, but conversation with those who, sometimes ignorantly, cause it. Without that dialogue, you have the blind oppression of the weak (a good example is found, for instance, in the majority of Americans who might buy goods that exploit labor in ways they would find unacceptable if they really understood), or the blind supplanting of the strong with a new oppressor group (the Russian Revolution, sadly, became a good example of this).

I recently read Aurora Leigh (review here. Beware the poor iambs...), and the metaphorical struggle there between the Poet and the Philanthropist sheds some light on this. To someone who has never been taught to read, someone whose daily survival consumes their entire energies, someone who has been driven into squalor so long that society has unmanned them, a poem is completely worthless, only the philanthropist has meaning - he might, at least, give you dinner. When you are treated like an animal, you often start to think like one. The starving animal wants to live, and they want the power to control their surroundings. And there is nothing wrong with that.

On the other hand, if you are wealthy, if you have no real reason to need to work, no need to struggle, the work of the philanthropist has no particular, immediate value for you. The work of the poet, on the other hand, has a great value, because it awakens your humanity. You do not care for material things if you've never had to care for them. The lack of struggle atrophies the spiritual in us, it deadens the passion in us. The starving human soul wants beauty, passion, life. And there is nothing wrong with that.

The problem is that one of these, without the other, creates only half of a man. A man in poverty must struggle to be alive in one way, a man in squalid wealth must struggle to be alive in another, and neither one can truly understand the struggle of the other. To the man who does not understand material want, someone who will not pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make their own way seems lazy and selfish. To the man who does not understand spiritual starvation, someone who is miserable in the midst of plenty seems effete and selfish. In neither case is selfishness really the cause (or so my naive belief in humanity's underlying goodness tells me), it's simply blindness.

To broaden the scope a bit, then, I would submit that earth is a planet of suffering - every human being here suffers. Each and every one. Perhaps some suffer more than others, and we could argue all day long about who causes the suffering. And sometimes, perhaps, people are not willing to acknowledge the suffering of others, and sometimes people twist themselves so hard that they are no longer capable of understanding the ssuffering of others. But, at some, basic level, if we are to have a table where everyone who could gather whose 'voices needed a hearing', that table would have 5 billion some-odd seats, one for each human being (and I just don't know if the dolphins and chimpanzees and such need seats, that's someone else's crusade to fight).

Now, understandably, in some sense this is impossible. I accept that. In some sense, though, the wonder of the present is that this table is more and more beginning to exist. One hundred years ago, it would be difficult, even if one wanted to, to understand someone from another culture. We mock this now, we think how stupid our forefathers were, we're filled with righteous indignation at blind acts - how could the British Empire have believed that tripe about the White Man's Burden? How could the Conquistadors have just wantonly slaughtered entire nations that they barely understood to exist? But, turn upon thyself, oh questioner, and ask - why am I different? Are we all just better people today? Of course not. There are better, there are worse, but overall, I think most of humanity really does mean well. The problem is that, to a British reader in 1890, India, for example, was a vague idea, it was something you heard about from other White people who might have been there in the military, visiting a country of brown people while surrounded by and making your daily company with other white people, also visiting. How could you possibly understand what it meant to be Indian? And how judgemental would we be to look at such a person and say - they are bad? Some were, to be sure, but some always are. The reason you know better is, largely, one of education, exposure, and technology (and to be honest, we're still not that great).

To return to the present then, whenever I see a group of people that holds an opinion that horrifies me - sure, I allow myself to be horrified. We SHOULD be horrified. The fact that we don't feel like it's okay for someone with more melanin in their skin to be president is absurd, and in one hundred years, it will look as foolish as some of the examples I mentioned. But, be horrified at the sentiment, and then realize the people holding it are human. How can they feel that way? What is it that prevents them from being as wise as they could be? And, most challenging of all, ask yourself this: what blindness do I have, that they don't have? What is it that they can teach me? Remember : unless you're Jesus, you'll never be able to teach someone unless you open expect to be taught in return. Teaching the world something they're too stupid to understand makes for long diatribes that get screeching assent from those who already agreed with, and alienated distaste from those who don't. You know. Like Sarah Palin
(shoutout to my alienated, distasted wife!).

After all, that's been the genius and wisdom of Barack Obama, so far, I believe - he can be black, without telling you that's why you have to vote for him.