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Our Normal Conceits – though, too, "the blackbird is involved"

in which we can see how we easily we follow our elites
 in the values of accumulation, rather than those of connection

One set of news most coursed global media this recent month:  massed Muslims near-worldwide rioting at European-published cartoons of the Prophet. The world remains, it seems, hugely divided – not much improved over our ancestors of long ago.

ethics for accumulating, as opposed to those for connecting

Legend of the Tower of Babel has it that, when our ancestors began building it, seeking to rise above their looming dangers then, all originally spoke the same language.  But as that tower rose, tier upon tier, those in its different parts lost the ability to communicate with those in other parts.  All began speaking "Babel," metaphor for our first separations into entirely separate languages – as failure to connect came in exact proportion to our first efforts in withdrawing into safety zones.  

Babel has not receded.  Our schools feed it.  In the "humanities," especially, more than ever now departments self-isolate, all into their own turfs of jargon, conferencing circuits, and methodologies keyed to corporate textbooks.  Degree and tenure aspirants in all the mutually-exclusive compartments fit specialized niches such as Robert Frost described in his poem, "Mending Wall," where "He is all pine and I am all apple orchard."  Things differ in the natural sciences – physics, chemistry, and the biological branches –  where complex systems thinking yet spurs bridging of departmental and disciplinary lines – though Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould once noted how none of his younger colleagues could ever anymore get the tenure he got if any wrote as digressively as he.

Robert Frost could play with the ways we fence ourselves in – how we reduce ourselves by banalities such as "good fences make good neighbors."  In his great essay on metaphoric thinking, "Education by Poetry," he explains how all imaginative freedom depends on the metaphors we accept, explaining, too, the extent of tunnel visions still true today.  The metaphors, of course, have changed.  Now, for instance, tropes of freedom tantalize us thanks to advertisers who have sold us on the ease of escaping urban complications simply by getting in some vehicle.  So our landscapes fill with tens of millions of autos and mammoth SUVs hurtling us, usually one-per-vehicle, along interstate and other highways all-too-typically glutted with those in dreams like ours.  There we move – if we move – with eyes trained on depersonalized horizon points, ticking off mileage markers at best, at worst ticked off by road rage, or gridlock.  We have tropes of cornucopia abundance, too, thanks to other advertisers wedding us to sprawl's landscape of fast food ease and theme park shopping malls.  Frost understood.  He saw not just our dependence on metaphors, but their inevitability, however they vary from generation to generation, religion to religion, climate to climate.  All our cultural forms – everywhere the world over – all styles of clothing, food, transport, buildings, and landscape – at once come from and shape every culture's prevailing metaphors.  Though we all still nurture the oldest dreams – safety, security, predictability – no one equates them literally anymore with those old towers of Babel.  We have newer promises – newer metaphors – just for us.  Each culture has its celebrity faces to stoke the happy possibilities we, too, may elevate ourselves beyond danger, separate ourselves from complications.  The industrialized world has globalism and its metaphors of abundance – things to buy, to own, cushion one's life with:  via Gap, Nike, Ford, Coke, Levi's, Cingular, Microsoft, Starbucks, GE, Coach, Hershey's, KFC, Miller Lite, Disney, Kodak, Revlon, Rolex, Sony, iPod, Nautilus, Ikea, Marlboro – as if – YES! – we are finally proving wrong that Nazarene who long ago warned about the rich as easily entering heaven as camels through the eyes of needles.   Globalism sells the metaphors of having stuff, which serves the mythologies of winning, of imagining ourselves at the top (or successfully withdrawn).  This life celebrates piling on – not connection.  We don't need "others" except as audience.  "Others" reduce to binary set:  those in our scripts, or not in them. 

When we do this, projecting everybody else according to simple scripts, scripts dedicated to us accumulating our stuff, we not only deny ourselves the ability to see otherwise, but we blind ourselves to how massively, too, we disrupt the world.  As our primary metaphors set entitlement conceits in self-perpetuating cycles, they also keep us from seeing the ways we recklessly extract the world's natural resources, apply its cheap labor to our big box values, and locate all cultures as annexes to ours.  Innocence on one hand, missionary superiority on the other:  feed each other.  We scarcely realize how our empire has now sown a worldwide megalopolis culture of two dozen third-world cities each of more than ten million souls.  We deny ourselves the ability to see the multiple levels of loss from such global population transfers – deaths of traditional cultures –  millions of idioms, manners, and rituals as alternative metaphors lost along with those lives formerly in farming, ranching, forestry, and fishing:  so many souls stripped of what poet Joseph Brodsky defended as the vitality of "loose ends."  

canaries in the mines of globalism empire:  Sarawewa, Hawi, Mafouz, Toer

Do we do this to them?  But we're the good guys – even with our happy sprawl culture, no?  One of our first rock'n'roll songs, back in the early 1950s, was about a car, the "Rocket 88."  Within ten years of that Jan and Dean had "Dead Man's Curve," the Everly Brothers, "Wake up Little Susie," and the Beach Boys one happy hymn after another to the car and California cruising.  We good innocents could tell ourselves, okay, if the rest of the world prefers quaint, funny, traditional culture to "The Little Old Lady from Pasadena," let them have it – except for one slight fact:  to fuel our interstate highway system, to gas up our cars and SUVs, to spark theme park malls and neon strips, we Americans expect cheap gas.  To keep it cheap –  a third the price of any other country in the industrialized world – our government for 60 years has followed our oil companies in propping up regimes across the world for our fossil fuel fix.  This orchestration of U.S. government and corporate interests were what all meant when, with the cold war era, all chanted "national security."  All used cold war fears for the massive international loans for the many right-wing dictatorships we set up.  These in turn floated our own CEO payoffs, stock returns, and the marriage of lobbyists and universities wed to arms, munitions, and related corporate interests.  Of course the blond children of California could bliss out to Beach Boy hymns and Haight-Ashbury fumes.  The entire state of California could coast along on "defense" contracts – missiles, aerospace, and electronics – that dwarfed all sales from both Hollywood and Central Valley farms.  From Nigeria to Egypt, Iran to Saudi Arabia, and as far off as Indonesia we installed, subsidized, and supported dictatorships as brutal as any in the Moscow orbit.  The profligacy of our international bank loans assured nepotism, cronyism, and corruption through all these oil-resource allies.  And, to prop them further, our military helped build their royal security, presidential guard, and secret police to harass, arrest, torture, and murder anyone in their countries against the playboys, mansions, fast cars, and night clubs these dictatorships flaunted.  In Saudi Arabia, Persia, Guatemala, Cuba, Indonesia, Nigeria, Chile, Egypt our C.I.A. set up and monitored such machineries loyal to our corporate interests – but this same C.I.A. embarrassed itself over and over again as it never saw or imagined the scale of resentment among local peoples, our environmental depravations on them, economies reduced to colonial mono-cultures, and health and education systems widening gaps between rich and poor.

Why did so few of us ever hear the names of playwright Ken Sarawewa in Nigeria, poet Khalil Hawi in Lebanon, Nobel-laureate Naguib Mafuz in Egypt, and novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer in Indonesia?  All first-rate writers, they all saw firsthand the effects of our policies despoiling their lands, corrupting their governments, impoverishing their people.  Each of these men respectively suffered persecution, suicide, stabbing, and lengthy imprisonment for their observations.  The one factor that unites them:  oil.  Even in the case of Hawi, who came from a country with no international petroleum extraction, their art all hinged on the dislocations affecting their countrymen – art differing in many ways, but all stirred by our government in thrall to our corporate monied metaphors.

At any American university one can find those who know the names Sarawewa, Hawi, Mafouz, and Toer – though no one would know all four.  These, the best voices of their cultures, speak from metaphors far from ours.  Our literature and other "humanities" departments dedicate themselves to such feigned neutrality and niche specialization that such oddly-disparate dots never connect, never touch any human culture related to ours.

yet, "the blackbird is involved"

In their embrace of mutually-isolated niches, those in the new metaphors of Babel neither touch nor see those in the parallel corporate flow-chart departments.  But if you ask any of them about their abilities to cross-reference, to cite "others" nearby or cross-campus, they'll respond that they can do that.  They will claim that they can mention texts and authors in other fields – though students, when polled, hugely say they never see this happen.  But our corporate professors aren't alone in inflating themselves.  Those in the most-recently-elected administration in Washington have also assumed their success succoring each other in their corporate lives should automatically carry over elsewhere.  Thus they could assume quick fix for cultures in southwest Asia simply by an invading army.  They could assume this – Bush-Cheney-Rove-Rumsfeld-Rice-Libby-Wolfowitz-Perle-Addington-Yoo-Gonzalez – partly because they had all led lives in corporate cocoons where always others, never they or their families, experience military risk.  They could assume the ease of imposing their culture on others, too, because none had ever imagined any other culture – never learned any of the Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, or Kurdish of their target countries – had never taken seriously either the languages or the literatures and metaphors of southwest Asia.  Clearly none had ever read our own David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest – if they had, they'd have seen how their Democrat predecessors had similarly mired in military adventurism abroad – in Vietnam – thanks, in their turn, to their having taken for granted the easy transfer of their cultural metaphors – that their statistical flow charts, corporate hierarchies, and materiel delivery systems equated anywhere and everywhere with progress, democracy, freedom, and consumer happiness.  When one feels entitled, one has taken for granted one's cultural metaphors.  Those who built that first tower of Babel made the same assumptions – the same metaphors for building and safety – as if life were but a matter of adding on, filling out tiers of rooms, filling them, too, with stuff – as naively as our developers add freeway lanes, gated communities, and all the subsidized utilities of suburban sprawl.

Do others have metaphors for the ethics of social linking and responsibility to nature?  Might we hear some like Sarawewa, Hawi, Mafouz, and Toer on how our culture might have a few glitches affecting, say, masses of (largely Islamic) peoples elsewhere?

Poet Joseph Brodsky called it "loose ends" – the way odd things may awaken us – the way metaphors, puns, and rhymes may let us see beyond initial assumptions.  He considered good poetry primarily an artifice of "loose ends," brewing surprise, so some tropes supplant others, showing different sides that may matter – that something "other" might be going on.  In "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" another poet, Wallace Stevens, suggested how other levels of things may always be going on, that we might well value connections to "others," emotional debts scarcely fathomed:

I know noble accents,
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

Blackbirds sing – like canaries, who, in a mine shaft, may assure us of good air or indicate something we had better check out.  Poets serve thus.  Reciprocal responsibility to be nudged, to reconcile other views – depends on us willing to see other levels of metaphor, other ways we connect, and others, too.  Joseph Brodsky considered good poetry to act as bushes, brambles, or rhizome networks:  things don't just add up but, rather, connect.  In good poetry – in any decent ethics – life radiates more than some colonizing souls imposing on others – radiates the good of more ways seeing "others."

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