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"Like a Rolling Stone"

"Oh – that's just sematics!"

In the Fillmore district of San Francisco, where typically mom-&-pop local shops line main streets, protesters often gather on the sidewalk in front of one of these, on O'Farrell off Divisadero.  With no signs advertising the business, its protesters figure anomalously amid the neighborhood's otherwise bucolic landscaping of agapanthus beds and trees of sweet bay, laurel, ficus, Russian olive, and New Zealand bottle brush.

The protestors, however, mean business.  All middle-aged or older whites, they carry placards on sticks, some holding rosaries, others little statues of cradled fetuses.  When women walk past them to the doors, the protesters reach out with their implements and urge each woman please to have her baby, not to kill her child.

You can talk with them.  Some claim to be so pro-life that they also attend vigils protesting capital punishment, and demonstrations against war.  But you cannot get very far with them if you suggest the term fetus as the object of their concern.  They see embryonic human as already a baby, or a child, from the moment of inception.  Because they feel a woman should want to carry her fetus all the way to birth, they feel everyone may use the terms baby or child for anyone's unborn fetus – as women do when they look forward to their babies being born.  So as the protesters cannot understand women who may not relish having fetuses grow to full-term live birth, those entering and leaving the clinic hear invocations to baby and child, never fetus.

You can talk with the protesters, too, at least on a logical level, about the crucial distinction between fetus and baby, the one that comes with actually being born:  how birth abruptly expels the little one from its previously-lifelong protective world, and how, as this happens, the entirety of its earlier soft life crashes into the crush of pummeling vaginal muscles, abrupt exposure to fallen temperature, and arrival into the floating space of air, with strange hands, table, or crib introducing gravity.  Each new baby thus learns the shock of vulnerability.  Everything has changed.  Where before one was a connected part of a larger organism, birth quite rudely separates one from everything that had been enveloping.  The protesters, logically, anyway, understand the magnitude of this change.  They understand, rationally, at any rate, this signal initiating, beginning, metamorphosing fact:  that without asking for it, fetus gets spilled into consciousness of being separate.  Birth delivers this rude awareness when baby finds oneself dumped into totally-new isolation.  The protesters say they understand the shift from cocooned fetus to the trauma of individuality.  But let another woman approach the clinic, and the words baby and child fly again.  If you groan, no, fetus isn't baby, you get informed:  oh, that's just semantics! 

What their Bible says

As these protesters show their rosaries, their placarded images of saints and the Virgin Mary, and their statuettes of swaddling Jesus as anonymous fetus, they might know that in back in the basis of their religion, the Ten Commandments more than anything stress language.  Four of them focus on getting words straight.  In the first, the Lord recalls to Moses the way he, the Lord, from out of the burning bush had first identified himself to Moses when (in Exodus chapter 3, verses 6 and 14) the Lord emphasized himself as above all in the name, "I Am."  In another commandment the Lord forbids graven images, lest they detract from the more complicated awareness language gives – in this case a respect linking Moses to his father, his father's father, and his.  As Jack Miles elsewhere argued, the Lord here was obliging Moses to see divinity, the Lord himself, as simultaneous with past and present human stories.  Another commandment requires this awareness not be taken in vain, or taken for granted.  Another forbids false witness. 

The protesters know, technically, their ten commandments.  But they have impatience with anyone defining fetuses as anything less than fully-born humans.  They want – people in every culture do – to idealize a humanity quite other than the one that includes our originating condition of wrenching separation. People around the world want something – anything – other than that first human consciousness:  as if humanity might innocently return again to another version of Eden.

Cushioning systems

Newborns have their abrupt awareness of having been thrown out.  Something called "time," however, lets this consciousness dim.  Authorities help.  They promise systems, careers, hierarchies.  All receive the promises of routines reassuring with order.  Children find comfort in the predictabilities of parents, schools, and groups of other children.  Everyone learns further comforts in belonging:  affection transferred to religions, nations, tribes, teams, employment groups, and consumer demographics.

The logic of the womb – humanity as alternate versions of return-to-the womb – works appealingly well in every culture.  But it only works so long as we forget the unique basis of humanity presented long time ago to the followers of the book.  All Jews, Christians, and Muslims owe the strangest of loyalties to a wisdom that locates divinity not in any group, but in stories – in the ways language lets us chart relations and relationships.  God made it clear to those Hebrews trundling about the desert with Moses that they had no automatic pass just for belonging to a group, even God's "chosen" group; they had, instead, entirely new sets of obligations.

When the Lord introduced himself to Moses, every time he referred to himself as "I Am," he also stressed how he occurred to the ancestors of Moses – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  He was calling attention not simply to any closure such as graven images can capture, but to ongoing issues in those outside of us which only stories, poems, and hymns can trace.  God existed, he repeatedly stressed, not as semantic "I Am" technicality, but as an ever-evolving means enabling and impelling us to see key parts of ourselves also outside of ourselves, in predecessors, ancestors, "others."  This obliged respect and skills for having respect:  no tickets for anyone to any comfy womb.  No closure entitlements.

Bob Dylan:  "How does it feel / To be on your own . . . ?"

 Summer 2005 Greil Marcus put out a book, Like a Rolling Stone, celebrating the forty-year anniversary of what many have called the greatest song in rock'n'roll history.  His book reminds us of the folly many have had in attributing the song's lyrics to any number of people Dylan might have had grievances against.  No, says Marcus:  we lessen the song to fit it to isolated spleen or narrow petulance.  We can, instead, see the magnificence of how Dylan sees all of us.  He understood the difficulties all have escaping our forms of narcissism.  He knew how all fall to religion, tribe, nationality, and more.  He felt how, to some degree, all enter personal relationships to hold others as if accomplices in the black holes we can make of our dreams, illusions, theories and plans.  The protesters you can see on O'Farrell off Divisadero are just doing as all do.  In their case, shanghaiing all (usually-young) women as players in a script confusing humanity with fetal innocence.  In their world, humanity fits an ethics stripped of the originating fact of humanity.  In their world, one may feel entitled to a system that protects one.  One may hear the promise that one never be ejected – never need ask "How does it feel / To be on your own."

Essaying Differences recognizes the womb, the tribe, the nation.  Essaying Differences proceeds from the fact that all cultures have authorities making their promises for belonging and inclusion – but, along with authorities, we have artists, too.  Artists give us other promises, too.  All may not read, listen to music, or go to films, but all express ourselves in the styles artists give us for the clothes we wear, landscapes we inhabit, buildings we occupy, transport we use, and foods we take.

When schools of higher education funnel all into their routinely specialized departments, all faining impersonality, all mutually-isolated, these schools and their dead priest authorities rehearse the false humanity of the abortion clinic protesters.  Normal systems of higher education everywhere around the globe repeat the same trackings, modular-steps, hierarchies, career rungs, and heavy, expensive, and deadly corporate textbooks.  And yet, percolating meanwhile, our artists also hold other possibilities for very other humanity, such as W. H. Auden described in his poem, "Under Which Lyre."

This summer a movie, Mad Hot Ballroom, celebrated the ways fifth-grade schoolchildren learned to see themselves in relation to others.  In it the ten- and eleven-year-olds learn different styles of dancing with each other.  Then they learn by these dance skills to interact with very different ethnic others from the other parts of New York City.  More than anything else their schooling affords them, they learn about themselves, and the related humanity in others,.  The arts of different styles of dance allow this.  Schools can do this.  But schools more typically shun such group activities.  Schools now serve more than anything the reduction of all to the isolating machineries of standardized testing.  They could do more.  They could stress more group activities, as in Mad Hot Ballroom, where kids learn to see and to connect to very different humanity.  Schools could, as they do over in Berkeley, across San Francisco Bay, allow group gardening projects, as Alice Waters has pioneered, so kids even of middle school age learn connections from their gardens to their lunchroom, and to further knowledge of nutrition, biology, geography, and the environment.  Schools could give kids more practice in music, by choral groups, bands, and orchestras.  They could practice theater arts, with all the related arts of literature, costuming, and staging.

So much, so much we all could do, from schools for youngsters who could learn the humanity of group work with others, to schools of our current "higher education" where all could essay differences in the ways all negotiate the lies in all our cultures.

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