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Posturing, So We Needn't See "Others"

Early this recent month I went over to the University of San Francisco campus, up the hill they call Lone Mountain, in easy sight from the bay windows and balconies where I live.  A local friend, Butler Crittendon, had told me that Chalmers Johnson would be giving a talk – and, Butler accompanying me, that we should get there early.

Chalmers Johnson just had a new book out, Nemesis.  Third in a trilogy of his criticizing the turn of the United States to an imperial power, Nemesis argues against our having given up many of the traditions of our democracy for a grander, now-perpetual militarism.  Johnson, Butler told me, was giving a talk elsewhere in San Francisco this same week, but for a steep admittance fee.  Butler and I needed to arrive early for the talk on the USF campus, as it was free, and would be packed.

He was right.  Even as we got there a good half hour early, the auditorium was nearly full; subsequent arrivals had to resort to an adjoining room and so see Johnson only by closed circuit television.

One contrast from Butler's and my few minutes first outdoors on the campus, and then inside the auditorium:  the many gloriously healthy young people outside – guys in A-shirts, girls in bare-shouldered halter tops – easy for Butler and I, both in our sixties, to appreciate – and, then inside, where virtually all were jacketed and coated and closer to Butler's and my ages, and that of Mr. Johnson, who is 75.

While many of the older types moved with the infirmities, canes, and wheelchairs befitting our age (mine, hernia), I saw, too, that most all inside nevertheless had the same electricity in our eyes as the students outside in their Californian youth.  Several of the oldsters sported the new, hardbound copies of Johnson's Nemesis, as if galvanized by its purchase, if not its wisdom.  I'd heard Johnson already on various radio programs.  I'm sure most in the audience had, too, and came already infused by his truths.

Other, more current truths were reverberating, too, such as the one where, this same day, Lewis "Scooter" Libby had been found guilty of several felonies.  A federal jury had just convicted him for the deliberate and cynical lying this Libby had done as part of his having been chief of staff for the U.S. vice president.  Though everyone knew Libby was taking the rap for the even more systematic lies of his boss, Cheney, and the related lies of Rove and Bush, the conviction stood as rare accountability for an entire administration whose lies and incompetence had us mired in probably the greatest foreign policy disaster in our history.  Also in this same day's news:  accounts of stunning failures in health care for the thousands of maimed and disabled returning from that Iraqi quagmire.  A historically left-wing San Francisco was well-primed for Chalmers Johnson and his charges against our highest-level thugs and corporate-cosseted incompetents.

Amid the hubbub of those awaiting the evening's talk to begin, I could see many filling out the forms that had been placed on our seats:  one from the Asian Society of Northern California, a co-sponsor of the night's event, for those wanting its mailings, the second from another of the evening's co-sponsors, the Commonwealth Club of California, for questions any might wish to submit for Mr. Johnson.

I filled out the form for my question right away, asking Mr. Johnson's opinion as to the role of our universities in our national willingness for exploits abroad so manifestly based on our own ignorance.  The guy picking up the forms got mine among the first.  After this I could see several dozen more – Butler beside me included – also submitting questions.  This audience was primed.

As it turned out, Johnson's interlocutor, University of San Francisco professor and Center for the Pacific Rim director, Patrick Lloyd Hatcher, had his own questions to ask – he being near Johnson's age, and having known him over Johnson's many years on faculties of the University of California, first at the Berkeley campus, then San Diego.  All Hatcher's questions stressed his own recent reading of Nemesis, to which Johnson proceeded to expatiate at length in answer.  His answers all pleased me, dealing as they did with the excesses and costs of our imperial reach:  our military now at 737 overseas bases, our president positioned above the law on many counts, many of our corporations floating along by war profiteering, our representatives abroad egregiously ignorant of foreign languages, and our best American traditions sunk to condoning of torture, extra-legal arrests, suspension of habeas corpus, and a domestic groveling at the regularly-televised celebrity scandals that had replaced the real news which our corporate media had largely forsaken anyway.  We had become a culture gone far beyond the worst parodies of The Ugly American of 50 years earlier.

As interlocutor and guest spoke, all around me I saw delighted faces on my fellow oldsters, all beaming at Johnson's zingers on our political and foreign policy elites.  But I wondered, too, why I wasn't seeing any impatience on these faces as I was feeling in myself.  Hatcher, pleased with his own previously-prepared questions, was reading none of the dozens of others from the audience.  At the very end, when he finally did use one, he pointed to his use of it as illustrative of his own generosity.  Prior to that he had mentioned that his own questions well matched those from the audience – stressing how his own reading Johnson's book thus warranted his elevated positioning of himself.

Why weren't others in the room getting as indignant as I in the fact that these two venerables were conversing as if the others around them existed only as celebrants?  Most of these "others" looked like Johnson and Hatcher – not just in age, but in showing, too, the serene, confident manner of the well-fed and the sinecured.  I'm sure many were professors, active and retired from nearby places such as San Francisco State, the City College of San Francisco, the New College, Golden Gate University, Stanford, host University of San Francisco, and other schools across the Bay.  The happy demeanor of my fellow audience members showed they accepted being ignored by today's star and his interlocutor.  They understood the game:  an elaborate, hierarchical game that guaranteed that they in their own turns could star, that for years of their own professional lives they routinely could star – could similarly take for granted their own being front and center with classroom after classroom of students all interchangeably theirs.

Funny thing was, coincidentally, that two days later the local paper, the San Francisco Chronicle, came out with a story on related doings across the Bay, at UC Berkeley.  It seems faculty members there had gotten very angry at their school administrators who had just signed a contract for a huge, multi-million-dollar research program that UC Berkeley was now going to be hosting for British Petroleum.  The faculty had just held a meeting with these administrators, indignant that they, the faculty, had been ignored as the school officials on their own had worked out their deal with BP.  Thus the March 9 story, "UC faculty critical of BP deal."

I thought this story just as funny as I thought Johnson's & Hatcher's behavior unfunny those two nights before.  The U Cal Berkeley profs could affect public righteousness (how hard is it, really, for us liberals to whap big oil companies?) – as if they, the faculty should be consulted – when nothing in their everyday classroom behavior has ever modeled anything like any regard for the ethics of asking their own questions individually apt and targeted to those such as their own students nearby.

The audience of mostly profs and other teachers had sat docilely for Chalmers Johnson's delivery of his opinions.  None had shown the least bit of agitation I felt that Johnson and his interlocutor might show some sense of obligation that their views mesh in some way with actual souls in their audience.  Hatcher could have asked more questions from those of the dozens submitted, rather than the token one (or possibly two) that he finally condescended to use.  I say "could have," because professors throughout our systems of higher education otherwise exhibit no interest in referencing outside each one's own specialist range – they model virtually no interest in the skills and literacy necessary for consulting "others."  Almost never do any speak by regular reference to actual students in the room with them.  All instead love to talk blithely on – not only (unwittingly?) to exhibit one's egotism but, more professionally, to keep oneself postured as specialist.  With almost no exceptions American professors and all their lesser ranks of instructors dwell in specialist departments that conduct all their business in pointedly and deliberate mutual isolations from all other specialist departments.  All have gotten their disciplinary focus by spending years learning orthodoxies.  All have gotten their own dissertations approved, their first jobs, then promotions, publications, tenure, and finally endless conferencing loop all also by strict fit to these same orthodoxies – to maintaining the protocols of impersonal voice – to keeping one's examples and citations within each specialization's approved range of reference.  Of course this means learning to ignore people actually in the same room with oneself.  Of course students also learn these same habits.  In America, we have a culture where all fit given niches, and this doesn't all owe only to the marketers and advertisers otherwise so easy to blame.

Actively learning not to consult "others" translates into the way we Americans are ever so ready to jump into wars – even those based on our own linguistic ignorance, bad information, and smug narcissisms we keep projecting in lieu of seeing "other" cultures.

I'd seen this before, in a very different political system, such as they formerly had in eastern Europe.  Miklós Haraszty had written a book about this, one which came out in American translation in 1987:  The Velvet Prison:   Artists Under State Socialism.  Haraszty had been speaking about his own native Hungary, then yet under the rule of international socialism, as orchestrated from Moscow.  The Velvet Prison described how all educated professionals loathed these conditions where they found themselves, but accommodated themselves to this system.  All did it for the sake of careerism, travel privileges, school entry, vacation houses, pensions, and positions in years'-long waiting lists for getting a home telephone or private car.  The system of the red star was a hopeless noose around everyone, but all, said Haraszti, accommodated.

I remember when I got to Budapest, in 1987, I used to have long arguments with Miklós about the American film Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  He said that, though he knew Don Siegel's 1956 black-&-white, low budget film was set in Mill Valley, California, and purported to show American life, it better described the communism of his own eastern Europe.  I said no, that it addressed American corporate orthodoxies of that era already decried by eminent American sociology in books such as Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd, William H. Whyte's The Organization Man, and C. Wright Mills' The Power Elite.

If neither my Hungarian friend nor I ever clearly won this argument, it may be because – anywhere in the world – the ways we have of anesthetizing ourselves may transcend all the cultures serving our cowardice, close-mindedness, and fears.  Herodotus ended his Histories musing on how wealth may falsely comfort us.  Jesus found too much adherence to the law may do may do the same.  Orwell fingered language:  how by cliché, dead metaphor, and other resort to formulae – sloganeering, trite phrases, and abstractions – we may dull ourselves not only to what we don't want to see in others, but also to what we don't want to see in ourselves, or to things in which we don't want to see ourselves as complicit.

Now comes David Rosane, also this recent month, on how – though without his mentioning them – Herodotus, Jesus, and Orwell were right.  My Brooklyn friend Ray Neinstein forwarded me Rosane's on-line "Chapter 12: Watershed or Waterworld?:  Rethinking the life aquatic" (http://www.nnyn.org/videos/videos/Chapter%2012.doc).  It's ostensibly about water and how even our most pristine water is to degrees infused with metals, chemicals, and many other pollutants from all over the globe.  But it's also about how we don't see this, how we don't see what our lifestyles inflict on the entire world.  We don't see because we learn to "play it safe."  "We are like children," he says:

We buffer reality with conventional one-liners, truisms, pieties, sound-bites, delusions and reflexes. Air-bags. We believe what the teacher taught us. Or what the founding fathers said. In the constitution. The Law. Without question. In good versus evil.  In villains and heroes. In Fairy tales. And what the specialists advance.

Rosane asks that, to get out of our stupidity, we "start by taking a harder look at our immutable belief in progress."  He asks we see how we Americans love progress:

a self-destructive gloating over perfection, fitness, achievement and success. Our unending struggle for greatness, for bigness, for largesse. For consumer satisfaction  - and in the god-given right to instant gratification. Look at our lust for idealized beauty, our cult of number 1, our slobbering over eternal youth, over fame; our compulsion for good-looking superheroes, superstars, saviors. . . . Notice how willingly and quickly we submit to great expansionist causes, how we're wooed by the rhetoric; things like liberty, our way of life, the American dream (just that, a dream), the home team, the mother company, my side of the aisle, universalism even. My country, right or wrong. Again, without flinching.

Rosane doesn't discuss universities and our systems of higher education – at least not in the chapter my friend Ray forwarded to me.  But Rosane might well have been one of those in the audience of mostly professors here in San Francisco where my friend Butler and I sat.  Were he, he might well have asked of them, as his does in the on-line chapter I saw, "Why the messianic impulse? The need to convert?"  He might have seen these professors all sitting in their rank-and-file chairs, happy at the political points Chalmers Johnson was zinging home, and might well have applied to them Rosane's own words on the symptoms, rhetorical and otherwise, of our loving to pose, elevate ourselves, and posture as correct.  As Rosane says, "Additional symptoms include our celebration of treadmills (notice how our work-out machines line up in gyms like machines on an assembly line), our Stakhanovite commitment to hard work; followed by hours of mindless entertainment. . ..  Maybe we're fueled by the belief that one day, we too might be the master, the king, the person of property, he who floats above the fray."

The month wore on – with many more deaths among Iraqis and daily, too, among those Americans paying the price for the staggering incompetence of our knaves in high places.  Sure, Chalmers Johnson was right.  But it's not hard to blame our arrogant corporate types for their blithe recklessness in thinking they could manipulate foreign cultures as they have our many Americans who could be gulled into "sacrifice" for "good versus evil," "villains and heroes," and related scripts of us always being "number one."  It's harder, however, to see how our stars in corporate academe have even greater edifices built to protect their posturing, their specialization niches ever buoying them from any lateral obligations in listening to, acknowledging, and connecting to "others."

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