19 October 2010

Fragmented Reality

My most recent post at Because the World is Round... is the tale of how I could note make sense out of a Tehuelche legend that I was trying to translate from Castellano to English. It turned out that the version I had of the legend was just fragments of the complete story that had been posted on a tourism website, feigning interest in the indigenous culture that had been nearly wiped out in order to build the resort there. I was in some ways relieved, and in others, incensed. Relief came from knowing that my understanding of Castellano was not insufficient, that the problem was not due to a horrible translation from the original Tehuelche language into Castellano, although how accurate it is remains unknown to me; and that the Tehuelches were not simply horrible storytellers. My outrage sprang from the irony of the tourism industry utilizing what I would call a crude caricature of the Tehuelche culture to market their product amidst land disputes and the larger struggle of the indigenous Mapuche and Tehuelche people for not only justice but also to regain their dignity.

In that blog post, I point out – snidely – the importance of investigation, but since then, I have come to see this incident as a perfect example of a phenomena that I believe is eating away at the very foundation of the United States of America. It is the Great Disconnect, the fractionalization of perception, the chopping-up of information into disparate soundbites and the growing obsession with disembodied twitters, so that random parts can then be reformulated into different configurations that appear to the uninquisitive to make up a cohesive whole, that is furthered by the increasing inability to think beyond 140 character tweets.

In my example, we have a story about how once upon a time, all the animals came together to help the infant Elal to escape from his jealous father. The main theme is to describe how different birds came to acquire their distinctive characteristics, such as the songbird’s cheerful singing and the flamingo’s embarrassed tucking of his head beneath his wing. But the way that the story is presented on the tourism website, without being identified as mere fragments of the full legend, as I discovered it to be elsewhere, trivializes the story, feeding the perception that the Tehuelches are extremely unsophisticated, childlike, and unworthy of being taken seriously.

This has all been resonating with the investigative report that MediaMatters for America published last week titled, Progressive Hunter  and subtitled, Jailhouse Confession: How the right-wing media and Glenn Beck's chalkboard drove Byron Williams to plot assassination, by John Hamilton. What keeps ringing through my head is that this man, who seems to be to be bright enough, who is obviously concerned about the fate of the nation, whose personal prospects had become dour, and whose pride in his self-sufficiency had been shaken up, has listened to what Glenn Beck, David Horowitz, Alex Jones, and Micheal Savage have been saying about progressives, the Obama administration, the federal government in general, and the media (excluding themselves, of course), and decided that they are the only voices that he can trust. To him, this version of reality, this set of fragments of the whole that have been selected out and then restrung together, snippets of truth that have been exaggerated and embellished and mischaracterized and misconstrued, broken and sharp-edged shards of the Big Picture that play off of fear and cynicism and the carefully fostered, discombobulated, segmented way of looking at the world – this insular vision, which plays off of racist tendencies, religious or, conversely, conspiratorial fundamentalism, compartmentalization, romanticized nationalism, fear-mongering McCarthyism, economic uncertainty, and a political climate that has by now fully rotted away the core of what democracy is about – the ability of well-informed citizens to chose and be represented by agents in government – to him, this web of paranoid fantasies speaks the truth and, as indicated by the ongoing existence of these ideologues’ careers and the increasingly bizarre rhetoric that the Tea Party supporters keep spouting in corporate-sponsored tizzy fits of blind anger, it speaks the truth to many others, as well.

From the article:

According to a police investigation, Williams opened fire on California Highway Patrol officers who had stopped him on an Oakland freeway for driving erratically. For 12 frantic minutes, Williams traded shots with the police, employing three firearms and a small arsenal of ammunition, including armor-piercing rounds fired from a .308-caliber rifle.

When the smoke cleared, Williams surrendered; the ballistic body armor he was wearing had saved his life. Miraculously, only two of the 10 CHP officers involved in the shootout were injured.

In an affidavit, an Oakland police investigator reported that during an interview at the hospital, Williams “stated that his intention was to start a revolution by traveling to San Francisco and killing people of importance at the Tides Foundation and the ACLU.”

Forgive me for my own obsession with this connectivity idea, but it continually proves itself to be a useful way of framing the social issues that we face today. I always come back to the distinction between separative and connective philosophies. Right-wing thought is the former, building walls of separation between individuals and society, between nations, between themselves and the world of ideas all around them. Left-wing thought is the latter, trying to tear down walls that separate us, recognizing the interconnected links that tie us all together in society, encouraging cooperation and seeking understanding though the open-minded interchange of ideas. Recognizing the interconnected links, in fact, is the theme of my essay, No Missing Links. I believe that it is in the interest of the most powerful members of society to divide and conquer the “lesser” members of society who, whether right- or left- leaning, all seeking the same goals of justice, fairness, and accountability in the systems that we live within, so the powerful actively perpetuate the illusion of separation and fractionalization to keep connective ideas from spreading, always from behind their protective, divisive walls. The idea that unity empowers individuals is discouraged, except when it comes to institutions like the Chamber of Commerce, which is nothing more than a union of business, much like a union of workers, coming together to collaborate and pool resources and focus these resources on ensuring that their interests are furthered. The notion that socialism equals tyranny is encouraged, so that any investigation into what “socialism” really means might legitimize it – or, in their terms, brainwash the investigator with its insidious power of persuasion. The characterization by corporatist fundamentalists of the progressive left as the enemy of the nation itself continues to reign. This characterization has become so engrained in those people’s minds who cannot intuit the fractured nature of this worldview that even the concept that the federal government can work for the people has been demonized.

I may be obsessed, but it is an obsession with trying to comprehend the human animal in all of its complexity, so that we can heal ourselves, make ourselves whole, and find a more balanced relationship with nature. In this pursuit, understanding why a guy like Byron Williams would go and do such a thing is very important, because he has the support of the majority of the Tea Party, who are all angry, but not just at the way that they have identified the government itself as the problem. They want to effectively dismantle the federal government because they fear what they call “big government,” which they mistakenly associate with “socialism” and “communism.” Here is an eye-opening quote from the article that illustrates the degree to which these fears have become entrenched:

Conspiracy theory-fueled extremism has long been a reaction to progressive government in the United States. Half a century ago, historian Richard Hofstadter wrote that right-wing thought had come to be dominated by the belief that Communist agents had infiltrated all levels of American government and society. The right, he explained, had identified a “sustained conspiracy, running over more than a generation, and reaching its climax in Roosevelt’s New Deal, to undermine free capitalism, to bring the economy under the direction of the federal government, and to pave the way for socialism or communism.”

I know that paying attention to what is going on in the United States at this moment in time is torturous, with the hateful and divisive political rhetoric having risen to new heights by both political parties, but it is important to know where this Tea Party movement is coming from, and more important to convince every person you know not to tacitly allow these people to become elected and then further dismantle the federal government and its programs that help to keep the United States strong. We cannot allow them to define us.
So no matter how upset you are with the government as it is, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, we have to fight with whatever we have, and the battle is connectivity versus divisiveness, making government work versus making it go away, wholeness versus fragmentation, thoughtfulness versus ideology, and understanding the whole story over settling for the cynicism-inducing chopped-up version.

Update: This story makes my point about racism being embeded in this Tea Party movement, despite all their denials.

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