<% Page = Request("Page") If Page="" Then Page = 1 %>

Freeway Driving Tunnel Vision

So Many Having Anger at the World – and Most Intense Ideological Standards

Midpoint this summer we Americans presented ourselves anew to the rest of the world – that is, when our leaders could have shown new imagination for the worldwide contagion of murderously ideological extremism, they sank us in but deeper ruts of paranoia and fear.  Midsummer:  our Pentagon set out plans for the U.S. to militarize outer space.

Of course for years we have already had spy instruments up there.  Now, however, our Pentagon intends congressional approval for orbiting offensive weaponry.  The Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty has long expressly forbidden this – but our civilian leaders, eager for greatly-enlarged militarism, withdrew us from this treaty.

China and Russia have both protested our plans to militarize outer space – our intentions to field it with bases for offensive strikes, on top of those we have in over 100 countries on earth.  But they and all the other countries of the world seem helpless as we the superpower scoff at the Geneva Conventions, taunt the United Nations, and continue to transform our citizen soldiers, sailors, air crews, and marines into primarily tools for our corporate rich – instruments for and their, and our, fossil fuel interests. 

American sprawl lifestyle demands we mine, drill, and fell the world's resources – and that we sell the rest of the world, too, into becoming happy extensions of our mass consumerism culture.  And much of the world buys into our franchised ethics.  As they give up their traditional farms and village lifestyles in Africa, the Pacific islands, Latin America, and Asia, many flock to Starbucks and WAL*MART, McDonald's and Pizza Hut.  Mass urban megalopolises grow:  dozens of cities mushrooming new populations of ten and fifteen million and more.  And hundreds of millions yearly arrive, bewildered, often unskilled, largely lost souls – very good for our corporate franchisers ever out-sourcing jobs to wherever wages may be lowest, and environmental considerations least.

Some recalcitrants, however, object.  For many our American culture of packaged celebrities, global franchises, and business efficiencies all seem beguiling, but also hollow compared to their historic cultures.   Some become religious extremists – al Qaeda in southwest Asia, Hamas in Palestine, Ohm shinrikyo in Japan.  These all have become known to us almost exclusively through their various suicide, rocket, and other attacks, so we think of them as primarily hate-filled and aggressive.  Most of us see them simply as crazy, mad fanatics, exploiting their Islamic Koran or other religiosities weirdly.  We easily forget, anathematizing them, that we, good Americans and Europeans, too, have had our own who have also soured and attacked our modern, global, cosmopolitan culture.  Think our Unibomber, Ted Kaczynski.  Think Timothy McVeigh, our white supremacist who bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City.  Think Radovan Karadic, the white European from Serbian village Montenegro who, as a boy of 13, was re-settled to the Bosnian cosmopolis Sarajevo.  Hundreds of thousands of his fellow Yugoslavs of all ethnicities experienced similar relocations to socialist housing projects then, to "build socialism."  Years later, as a grown man, well-entitled psychiatrist, and self-styled poet, he led thousands of those like himself nostalgic for tradition into genocidal attacks on Sarajevo and all non-Serb Bosnia, seeking to create a homeland far from what they saw as the empty cosmopolitanism of the modern world.  Pol Pot had done the same thing in Cambodia – set genocidal war against all modernity, hoping to reach back to what he and his followers imagined as an agrarian traditionalism they called Kampuchea.  American self-styled "agrarians" – professors in Nashville – had had similar dreams in our 1920s, and posed a mythically genteel Old South against the rest of industrial, materialistic America.  These good professors ended up planting a few bad gardens, and writing many books, some bad as their collective manifesto, I'll Take My Stand, some individually better.  Around the same time, in Europe, Hitler was pursuing essentially similar dreams, for his pure folk Reich, while Stalin created his own death-camp gulag for his romance.

"Who Do We Shoot!?" – line from John Ford's 1940 film version of The Grapes of Wrath

 If we try to connect to bin Laden, Timothy McVeigh, Radovan Karadic, and their predecessors – to "understand" them – we run into one problem:  our own impatience with what seems their lunacy, and our even greater abhorrence for their terror campaigns.  We remain in this impatience and abhorrence typically to the degree we trust – like the good Pangloss in Voltaire's Candide – that, after all, we (Americans, Europeans, other 1st-world types) live in "the best of all possible worlds."  Millions of us good guy Americans, sure of ourselves, thus sport yellow Support-Our-Troops ribbons on cars, trucks, and SUVs.  We reelected a Bush group in Washington so eager for war that most of us forgive them for the fact that virtually none of them had ever risked their lives with any personal patriotism back in the Vietnam era when they themselves could have served.  We apparently forgive the Bush people, too, even if it's clear they will not risk sacrificing their popularity by asking for taxes to pay for their wars, and also clear that none of their kids will ever fight in them.  Most good Americans shuck such niceties, so sensationally having to face the terror of religion-waving nut cakes from crazy foreign lands.

"Bar-bar" the ancient Greeks used to call those who uttered wildly foreign sounds millennia ago – barbarians.  Ever since then that way of seeing "others" has continued to explain how the rest of us have gone on repeating that simple view those Greeks had.  But one thing has changed:  now we in our prosperous sprawl part of the globe have become so dependent on fossil fuels for our sprawl that we scarcely realize what effect this dependency is having on "bar-bar" peoples far away.  We scarcely see how our sprawl culture – globalism – is sucking in rural and village peoples from all over the world into those mass shanty town, urban jungle megalopolises.  We scarcely see the pressures on millions to migrate, radically uprooted.  And we even less see the privileged classes we have sponsored abroad – often the cruelest dictators and their corrupt families we prop up with corporate pay-offs, military aid, and secret police training.  We see so little of the dictatorships we sustain, and how they stir hatred from the masses, directed at us.

Our car-based culture spawns all this abroad.  Just as surely as Detroit factories drew in hundreds of thousands of small farmers – poor whites from Appalachia and blacks from the Deep South (at the same time our agricultural research universities were helping to put millions of small farmers out of business) the same process continues globally now.  If we like, we may blame Detroit for modernity – cars and more cars, parking lots and neon strips and big box retailers – but we might just as well blame the steam engine back in early industrial England.  Charles Dickens, after all, was documenting the effects of industrial slums on the masses of relocated English yeomanry when Detroit was still not much more than a former French fur-trading outpost just newly-connected to upstate New York by the Erie Canal.  Or, rather than blame Detroit, or WAL*MART, Starbucks, and Nike, or coal-mining and mill town England, or the Bush family and all their friends enriched by fossil fuel interests, we could go back further.  We could go back to the land enclosure acts of seventeenth-century England, which sent the Scotch-Irish poor first to coastal cities, then to American colonies – then to Appalachia, long before they began their treks to Henry Ford's assembly lines.  We could blame those land enclosure acts because they, first in world history, obliged mass migration of the landed poor to clear way for the new, scientific methods being applied in agriculture:  progress.  We have so many choices on whom to blame:  Detroit, big box retailers, the first factory system, the earliest modern agriculture.  We're as right to blame any of them for our ever-ongoing losses of land and tradition as bin Laden may be right to blame whomever he hates, or Timothy McVeigh or the Unibomber blamed, or Radovan Karadic.

As we point our forefingers outwards, we might remember, too, that most of us are doing so, or imagine doing so, from within tunnel visions that allow us such focus.  These tunnel visions suit us for simple blame games – as they do for the interstate highway driving the masses of us also do.  Focusing on destinations as our freeways fix for us, speeding to these goals so many miles or exit ramps ahead, or getting angrier and angrier at all those competing "others," by the millions we inhabit the tunnel visions our landscape design arranges.  Blame Detroit? – blame the Bush family and all their rich, fossil fuel friends? – but we're the ones in those cars, just as bin Laden all his life inhabited that Saudi family with all the billions of oil dollars our system arranged for him and us.

Sure, we can blame Detroit, the Bushes, and Cheney, and the Saudi royal family – and many corporate others – but if we see how much we inhabit our tunnel visions, we can also imagine wider ways to get ourselves (and see others) outside of them.

Get Off – Get Out – Connect

Essaying Differences opens wider abilities for all of us if, while going somewhere – to our purposes, our horizons, our goals – we can at the same time check and see our impacts on others.  Real others:  real people, near and far, really available for us to check by aromas, sight, sound, touch, and taste.  Such references to others can show how their varied styles of expression of foods, clothing, landscape, transport, and buildings also express the most human of values in them.  Language enables these possibilities:  as any English sentence proceeds by its built-in subject-verb-object dynamics, at the same time connections enlarge, detail, specify, and widen by mere addition of subordinate clauses.

Only one thing keeps us from the imaginative expansiveness and precision we could have:  siege mentality.  Fear takes many forms – self-induced pressure of "time," awe of authorities, idiot submission to "should" grammars – but in all these forms too many feel under threat.  We have terror unleashed in the world.  We have the threat of good jobs being cut, out-sourced elsewhere.  In academia, that key place for the subtle, subliminal shaping of our imaginations, we have the added corporate choke of more and more good turned over to floating pools of underpaid part-timers, adjuncts, and teaching assistants.  Because of this growing vulnerability in all of higher education, as the privileged classes reduce in numbers they circle the wagons around themselves.  They – our tenured classes – have now come to stress more and more specialist conceits for themselves, more and more rigorous sophistication in their procedures.  While they thus see themselves as more and more "professional," their academic departments – all of them – frown on and penalize the practice of reference digressing outside of specialization.  Human souls smell not of humans but of paper.

In England this mid-summer, with two sets of terror attacks two weeks apart on London public transport, the British prime minister, Tony Blair, issued announcements that the terrorists could not use their anger at the Iraqi war as excuse to terrorize innocent civilians.  Nice try, Tony:  by the logic that says our authorities may dictate permissible motivations for others to have.  But there's another logic.  This other one says listen to "them," try to see how "they" perceive us and our impact on them.

In the aftermath of the London bombings, one intellectual, Jonathan Glover, did urge "understanding," in a Guardian column for July 27, headlined "Dialogue is the only way to end this cycle of violence."  Under the secondary headline, "The west and Islam must acknowledge the truths in both their stories," Glover proposed discussion along two central topics:  first, looking at the different belief systems on each side, and, second, probing each side's narratives of recent history.

Any normal academic can thus imagine dialogue – Glover himself teaches "human values" and "contemporary global ethics" at King's College, London.  Others in England and the U.S., like Glover, have related specializations in "peace studies," "human rights," and "tolerance."   Universities employ them.  Foundations support them.  Governments fund them.  So reasonable-looking people sit in reasonably-well-appointed rooms and fit good logic to abstracted categories.  But all smell like paper.  None, none of their students ever invite the smell of food that "others" put on their tables, nor link to the scents of others' landscapes.  None sense the textures and fit of clothing on others, nor the feel and wider impact of whatever others use to cross their landscapes.  None seek the feel of others' buildings.  They neglect to do all these things because, like Blair, like those in authority everywhere, none have ever learned the obligation of noting, locating, and entering these most palpable and value-laden expressions of others.  None have learned the parallel obligation of quoting these others by their most-obvious cultural expressions.  Our authorities fail.  As trained as they are, as we, too, in tunnel vision, they keep our institutional habits as humanly deaf and dumb as all but our best poets, chefs, and artists keep ourselves.

Return to the top