December 07

It's the Deep Structure, Stupid

Jay Michaelson

We are creatures of narrative. Our sacred myths, our everyday lives, and our political minds all are built upon stories; narrative is how we organize ourselves as human beings, and it has been this way, it would seem, ever since we became human, tens of thousands of years ago. Narratives are about people -- good, bad, and in between -- and they imbue a sense of power and moment to our lives. If only Macbeth had chosen differently; if only Moses hadn't struck the rock. These stories, even when tragic, imbue our own decisions with a sense of importance; our decisions, they say, matter. And of course, we don't like to feel powerless in the face of tragedy.

Yet this reliance on narrative misleads us today, in a world of enormous structures, hidden villains, and forces which are not conveyed adequately in tales. If we look for "the human element," or the human connection, in our concerns about social and environmental justice, we will be looking in the wrong place. And if we really believe that our individual choices, as opposed to our collective political will, make a serious difference, we are deluding ourselves.

My colleague Jo Ellen Green Kaiser's essay, in this issue of Zeek, charts a certain kind of moral progress, from engaging in social justice work out of a sense of ethical obligation to the other -- or reward for oneself -- to a more holistic (my word, not hers) sense of social responsibility as stemming directly from the sense of interconnectedness with others. "I" am constituted, in large part, by the network of social relationships that extend even to people I will never know. When "they" suffer, I am affected; no one is free until we are all free. To regard social justice work as being "me" helping "them" not only leads to burnout; it assumes an atomized universe which, Jo Ellen says, religion usefully undermines.

As far as it goes, I find this reasoning interesting -- but it does not go far enough, and with real-world consequences for how we conceive social justice work. At the end of the day, Jo Ellen wants us to see ourselves as connected to other people, responsible for them, and -- my paraphrase again -- united in a kind of ethical holiness, a Jewish kol yisrael areivim ze la'zeh (all Israel is responsible one for the other) extended to all humanity. This is a noble perspective -- one developed in more detail in the new book Jo Ellen has co-edited (and in which I appear), Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice. But this view still leaves us in the realm of the personal, of narrative -- and here it begins to deceive us.

What are the greatest humanitarian issues of the last few years? If you think about it for a moment, you'll probably answer Hurricane Katrina, and maybe the tsunami (if you remember it). If you're Jewish, you'll think of Darfur; if you're liberal and young, you might think of Palestine. Widening the scope a little bit, you might add some systemic problems like urban poverty, and environmental ones like climate change. All of them, and of course many more, cry out for response: financial support, volunteerism, and taking personal responsibility for action -- switch those light-bulbs to fluorescent, recycle those newspapers.

Unfortunately, the number of people killed in the tsunami of 2006[CK] is dwarfed by the number who die every year due to inadequate drinking water; AIDS in Africa is also a far more deadly killer than any photogenic tidal wave. The number of people displaced by Hurricane Katrina is nothing compared to the number displaced by urban gentrification and our lack of a real national housing program. The genocide in Darfur, as awful as it is, pales in comparison with that of Tibet, as does the oppression of the Palestinian people. So, first, our reliance on narrative misweights the importance of problems. In today's world, the silent, systemic killers are the deadliest.

Second, and relatedly, narrative miscasts the nature of real tragedy. Nameless trends, faceless economic forces -- these are the true villains in today's most pressing dramas, yet they are almost completely unrepresentable on screen. (Syriana and Traffic are two good attempts; their use of multiple, interlocking narratives creates, in a sense, an anti-narrative, and the real villains are multiple, half-aware, and never who they seem to be.) Take the genocide in Darfur. Who are the bad guys? The Janjaweed, anyone politically astute replies. Well, only proximately. Really the current crisis (as distinct from Sudan's decades-old civil war, from which it is, in fact, distinct) was precipitated by the construction of a Chinese oil pipeline -- and, some evidence suggests, deliberately incited by opponents of the pipeline seeking to destabilize the region. Sure, deep ethnic resentment is part of the picture -- but it was stirred up and activated by global petro-politics, by the Chinese growth "miracle"... and by all of us who continue our drug-like dependence on oil. It's neither my purpose nor my ability to tell this "tale" here, but read up on it, and you'll see it's suddenly not so clear who wears the black hats in this African Western.

Not surprisingly, since our bias toward narrative misweights and miscasts the nature of global problems, it, and Jo Ellen's humanistic response to those problems, misdirects the nature of our response. Sorry, but that light bulb just isn't going to do a whole lot, unless we have regime change in Washington and meaningful, binding emissions limits ratified in the U.S. and China. Neither will volunteering at the local soup kitchen or homeless shelter, until we address the yawning wealth gap in our country, reinstitute the notion of a true progressive tax code, and get serious about educational opportunity for everyone -- and I don't mean Christian "moral education" in tax-funded religious schools, but a real, science-based, reason-based curriculum that prepares tomorrow's computer scientists to think critically and independently.

A natural response, particularly to this third point, is "well, what should we do." And yes, surely it is better to have fluorescent bulbs than not to have them; surely it is better to volunteer than not to volunteer; and, more generally, the sense of interconnectedness which Jo Ellen speaks about is a valuable piece of one's moral education. But all of these have a tendency to delude. Soup kitchens are important, non-partisan, feel-good institutions, but while they will probably always be necessary -- some degree of poverty is built in to the structure of capitalism -- they are band-aids. Darfur bracelets are nice, but they "raise consciousness" in the opposite direction, away from the deep causes and toward the shallow ones. And while I feel a surge of love for humanity (really) when I learn of mass responses to Hurricane Katrina, I wonder if it doesn't come at the expense of applying that emotional energy to systemic, structural problems in our country and elsewhere. Safe drinking water isn't sexy.

Ironically, all this is essentially to reinforce, not to contradict, Jo Ellen's sense of "interconnectedness." However, it is also to reorient that sense away from the human and toward the structural and systemic. Yes, we really are all interconnected -- because the systems of consumer capitalism which I enjoy are often causing the exact oppression I claim to oppose. For example, the outrageous increase of the wealth gap in America -- the richest []% now hold []% of our country's wealth, up from []% [] years ago -- is not something that will be solved by giving money to the homeless person on the street. And if we do think that we're really addressing the cause of that person's misery, we distract ourselves from what the real causes are -- which often implicate people like you and me, and which certainly calls for regime change in Washington.

A second irony: when applied to Israel and Palestine, most American Jews do, in fact, think this way. It's quite clear, on the surface, who the bad guys are: they're the one in tanks, occupying the kids throwing stones. They're the ones building a huge wall, partly on the other people's land. They're the ones expanding "settlements" in a country that, let's face it, isn't theirs. But this is on the surface. Dig beneath the surface, and you'll learn that the "separation barrier" and the offensive system of Israeli checkpoints really do stop terrorist attacks (if we define that term as a planned attack on civilians inside green-line Israel), that the current decade of miasma was precipitated by the Palestinian refusal to negotiate at Camp David (yes, the initial Israeli offer was insulting, but so is the initial offer in the shuk; the problem was that the Palestinians had no counter-offer and didn't budge from their unworkable starting point), and that for decades, the Palestinians have been pawns of corrupt Arab petrocracies, used to distract their own populations from truly appalling greed (and callousness) on the part of ruling elites. None of this dictates a particular party line, as some supporters of Israel suggest. Nor does it defend certain policies, like the settlements. But it does make the simple point that things are never so simple.

And a final irony: that precisely because social narratives are often told by those looking to build a wide coalition, they cut off exactly the kind of social action which really would be effective: actual political activism. Sometimes, this will be partisan. Sometimes, it may take us to the left of partisan politics, as in addressing the role of globalization and transnational corporations. Sometimes, it may take us to the right, as in the case of China/Tibet, in which anti-communist, pro-religious Republicans are often better allies of the occupied Tibetan people than the Democrats. And admittedly, sometimes it may not really take us anywhere. I'm truthfully not sure what individual action can do to stop huge oil development companies from exploiting regional differences to foment unrest to further their economic objectives. But I have a sense it isn't voting these people into political power, as Americans have done for the last two presidential elections.

Since I've mentioned presidential politics, I'll end on a provocative note. I want to suggest that whenever we cast political/social problems into narratives of good and evil, we are participating in the same delusion as brought us the Iraq war. Who knows why we went in there; assuming the Defense Department was listening to the neo-cons, it presumably had something to do with 'seeding' democracy in the Middle East and uprooting that region's culture of dictators unfriendly to American political and commercial interests. (Al Qaeda is half-right: we are the new Crusaders, but the faith that we spread at the tip of a sword is capitalism, not Christianity.) But one thing is for sure; we definitely did not go in there to stop a bad man from doing bad things to his people, or to stop other bad men from preparing to do bad things to us. Actual politics is not that simple; only rhetorical politics, the stuff produced by politicians for our media consumption, is.

To be effective politically, there is little alternative. On my desk is the DVD of An Inconvenient Truth, which has a satellite image of Hurricane Katrina coming out of a smokestack. Al Gore knows full well that climate change didn't cause Hurricane Katrina, even if it has made and will make such events more frequent. But what can you do? How else can you communicate the abstractions of climate change in a way that motivates people to act? Narrative is what we know, it's what we understand, it's how we organize our lives and ourselves. Even when it misses the point.



Jay Michaelson is editor in chief of Zeek and author of Another Word for Sky: Poems.