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The Christians


Jesus – Save Us from Your Followers

(from bumper sticker)

              My students at San Francisco State University – like young people more frequently now the world over – all mostly dress modified ghetto.  That is, after MTV in the early '90s got with the hip hop, rap, and similar styles of then-Black-only music, soon after them followed their corporate brethren at Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch, Adidas, Benetton, Nike, Old Navy, and Levi's.  White-bread blondes from privileged suburban sprawl, white peers with nose rings, tattoos, and purple hair from trailers parked on cinder blocks, Asian immigrants, hip Hispanics – everybody – soon coalesced in the marketing demographics that dressed everybody in styles straight from Da Hood. 

              When I tell my students that they're dressing Black – and none of them are Black – they respond first perplexed, then miffed, then outraged.  No, they say:  these clothes are just "casual, simple, and comfortable" – no other meaning.  My students come from Hong Kong, Japan, Norway, Vietnam, France, Taiwan, El Salvador, Burma, Russia, Korea, Mainland China – as well as from the U.S. – and they almost all wear the same baggy jeans, t-shirts and sweats in layers, sneakers, and sweatshirts with hoods.  Almost all have bought into the styles sold to them by corporations cleverly acting in synergized sync – conglomerates putting all their music, videos, clothing, and fast food into dovetailing strategies.  My students buy into it, but deny their complicity.

              No one exactly imitates the style that Black dudes sport where they stand, loafing, getting Bill Cosby incensed, doing their thing on street corners – waist bands below crotches, inseams at the knees, cuff-less hems bunched-up around lace-less sneakers.  No Blacks attend my classes at San Francisco State – few bother to try to get into any classes in California's large state universities.  But the Asians, Hispanics, and Caucasians who do enroll almost all imitate ghetto cool in their brand-name casual wear.

              While they come to school looking as impassively cool and with-it as their dude counterparts in Da Hood, they don't otherwise show the anger originally inspiring these marketing strategies – but my multi-ethnic students nevertheless arrive seething in similar anger.  First, most drive.  They submit themselves to the infamous traffic jams of the Bay area's clogged, wreck-ridden, speeding, road rage, smog-befouled, and miles-backed-up freeway system.  After finally exiting from the tension-building traffic of U.S. 101, I-280, I-580, I-680, and other sprawl arteries, they then face the stress of finding a parking spot somewhere near SFSU.  Maybe it helps that the campus itself has beautiful landscaping – well-kept lawns and year-round colorful flora from Mexico, South Pacific isles, and the Mediterranean.  But I'm not sure any particularly notice this landscaping.  Too many, I believe, arrive with the pressures from mass-sprawl driving and then competitive parking built up in them, and then they face classes where typically their most-human evaluative experience is nothing more than multiple-choice test.  The more time any one spends in higher education in America – including California's state universities – the more one has inculcated corporate imagination.  My students of course have other levels of humanity in them, but it's buried, repressed, and set aside as they all learn a monoculture:  that we all subsume ourselves to a continual series of impersonal competition, we all "objectively" position ourselves in the incremental steps of corporate textbooks, and we all join in coldly-polite deference to instructors who themselves model careerist impassivity.  The end?   We become specialists.  We move on, further into the flow-charts, hierarchies, buck-passing, and multi-ledger accounting of corporate paradigms.

              It makes good sense that my students dress Black – that non-Blacks imitate ghetto ethics – manners founded on those, often imprisoned, who carried out of prison the style of waistbands fallen down when, in prison, belts and shoelaces had been taken away from them.  Hip hop and gangsta rap in the late '80s and early '90s further voiced their adversary and victim pose.  Our white corporate marketers discovered this fount of outcast rage, as Malcolm Gladwell described in The Tipping Point, and turned it into rivers of conglomerate profit as they sold the new authenticity to everyone – everyone in the world with their own stewing reasons for rage.

              When I offer my students such views of their funky dress, they object.  They do so not so much out of how we all dislike being labeled, but more so because the labels I'm leveling at them suggest messy humanity.  They're in school to rise above mess.  And our good corporate universities model the devices for appearing elevated, everybody on track to specialist closure, all experts unemotional, systematic, beyond mess.  Our universities now parallel the world of our shopping malls, where all humanity has become branded, niched, and demographically marked.  It's something we imagine we can buy, possess, and control – just as we learn to do with all that school information multiple-choiced, modular-segmented, and set in disciplinary ghettoes that never touch each other.  If nuance resides in objects – in films, music, cars, furnishings, brand-name food, and clothes – as good consumers we think we own it, not the other way around.

              Another form of consumerism that we may possess, too, occurs in religion.  I began to see this when I was living in central Europe for many years, and would talk on the phone with my parents back in Michigan.  I always asked them about who from the brothers and sisters and their families had been visiting.  My parents, I'm reluctant to say, as a rule did not themselves go out to visit others.  After they raised their ten children, they acquired dogs – typically as many as five at a time living in their house.  One of my brothers – since the '70s on SSI disability, for obsessive-compulsive disorder – moved in with them.  His disorder, along with that of the dogs, gradually took over.  The dogs took their favorite sofas and stuffed armchairs in the living room; my brother proceeded to fill up the house with his used frozen food packages, A-1 sauce bottles, cereal boxes, stacks of newspaper (he kept meticulous charts of the Detroit Tigers), and gallon milk jugs (which he dutifully notched every time his imbibing lowered the contents to another level).  My parents had lost two of their ten children as young adults – one to drugs, another to a red-light-running, uninsured, drunk-driver kid.  So they accommodated the son filling up their basement, then their spare bedrooms, then the whole place with his years of detritus.  Dogs died of old age.  New dogs arrived.  I couldn't blame my brothers and sisters for not encouraging my various nieces and nephews to visit the grandparents.

              But I always asked:  who visited?  One sister close by brought food that she'd made for her own family – she did this weekly or more.  She also attempted to clean the refrigerator, the kitchen, and elsewhere, but the obsessive-compulsive brother guarded against her moving anything, like the dozens of towels he spread out on the floors of the house, all on top of plastic automobile floor mats, when the elderly dogs could no longer make it outside to do their duty.  I couldn't blame her or my other brothers and sisters for not encouraging their kids to visit.

              When I got back to the U.S. in '98, I was shocked to see, despite my parents' claims for the previous years, that the place was more than going to the dogs.  My dad had assured me that the brother living there was taking care of the yards around the place – they lived in a clearing in the woods five miles outside of town.  But when I got there, I saw that the grass was two feet high.  Bushes and trees had gone for years untrimmed.  The roof was rotten in places and leaking had caused ceiling damage inside.  Mildew grew thick in the bathrooms.  The windows were filthy.  Linoleum in the kitchen was worn to baseboards.  Steps off the patio had lost runners.  The carpets indoors with their obstacle courses of car mats and towels all smelled of dog piss.

              I couldn't blame all the nieces and nephews for not particularly finding this place suitable, but I began to wonder at the odd way that many of them, as they progressed into their teenage years, found Jesus.  When I visited them, I found them often full of God talk, blessed slogans, and syrupy, sentimental Christian songs.  Some went on long trips to exotic lands of poverty – India, Mexico – to contribute to missionary work.  They always returned with exotic souvenirs tallying their travels.  But none of them ever had time to go to the grandparents to cut the grass, wash the windows, or do any other mundane chores.

              I got one of my brothers, in another small town in Michigan, a couple hours from our parents, to come with me summers to start cleaning up the place – he soon fell into the groove of returning in spring and fall to cut the large old maples which had fallen to winter storms – fireplace wood for our parents' next winter.  My son joined us on the summer work trips.  Occasionally, too, another sister or brother with a spouse, perhaps, but no kids – except, once, the son of the sister who brought weekly home-cooked meals.  But the Christians basically couldn't be bothered.  They spent hours (before heading to the shopping mall) in their evangelical, song-singing churches each Sunday – parking lots of course filled up with the most expensive, late-model SUVs.  They beamed with the happiness of assuring themselves and each other of their God-given piety, and with occasional stern grimaces denoting righteousness, too.  They distributed leaflets and newsletters full of the usual we're-so-happy slogans, fundraising to send them to still more exotic lands to exhibit their Christian virtues.  When George W. Bush ran for president in 2000, they loved him for his goofy piety, his evangelical claims, and his ability to suborn public policy to ideology and buzzwords.  Like "freedom" (which meant desecrating the environment, expanding sprawl culture, and more war against foreigners threatening the costs of driving SUVs), and "life" (which meant state murder of prisoners, and more laws conflating fetuses with children consciously-born).

              The Christians may have been happily congregated to assure themselves of their goodness.  My students eventually at San Francisco State may have been, well, not happy, but certainly righteous in their grim routines of methodically fitting corporate academe.  But my Michigan Christian family and my California students shared another key quality:  all wanted to be identified as they had learned to imagine themselves.

              Essaying Differences says no – that as we focus on our own elevation and empowerment issues, so we deny and isolate others.  When we do this – when we withdraw in our various conceits – we reduce ourselves to the sameness  Hannah Arendt called banality.  It doesn't matter if we position ourselves on this side of the cultural divide or that side.  It doesn't matter if we belong to this group with its style or that group with its.  We all become the same, all reduce ourselves – and each other –  when we cut off our possibilities to access the other levels of humanity in us and around us.  The Christians with their pious uniformity and sloganeering only superficially differ from the state university students busily competing at the grade-grubbing steps of careerism.  All suck themselves into the gravity of black-hole monoculture.

               Essaying Differences says we inhabit multiple cultures, that multiple other levels of human possibility always inhabit us – and that we can see them and connect ourselves more widely – if only we essay the multiple levels of cultural stuff we inhabit.  Our clothing, transportation modes, landscape, interior design, food presentation, music, film, and books all mediate us.  We can start to "love our neighbor as ourselves," as one book says, if only we engage the will and skills out of our smug little selves.

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