II. CHRISTMAS: Last year I told my family I was finished with celebrating Christmas... They reacted by getting annoyed and blamed me for ruining all of their fun. To prevent them from thinking I was doing it out of selfishness (or whatever possible reasons might be conjured up), I decided to get everyone presents as per usual, while asking for nothing in return (stating point blank that I didn't want anything). It didn't exactly work, but I did get less than ever before. This year I said the same thing; however, I also cut out buying presents for everyone else. I'll see how it goes.
What follows is something I found that sums up a few of the many reasons I've been slowly opting out of Christmas over the past two years and also sums up much of my current state of mind and mood.
"...What gets me down is a sense that events and feelings are spiraling out of control in the world in ways that I am ultimately unable to affect – ways that these postings, whatever their other value, are irrelevant to. The feeling was brought home to me, acutely, last night, when a friend suggested we go into a major metropolitan shopping Mall, which, given the season, was draped in holiday decorations, bathed with uplifting music, and filled to overflowing with Christmas shoppers.
I'm sure my senses and feelings were heightened because of the unusualness of the experience for me personally. I don't frequent Malls. Ever. At any time of the year. Last night was the first time in more than a decade I'd even set foot in such a place. And, of course, around Christmas it can be a surreal experience even for those who are habitués of such settings. But, whatever the reason, I was deeply moved by the experience.
I know I wasn't supposed to, but I kept thinking about everything going on outside that enormous, artificial stage set, everything that has been going on for years: the trashing of the earth's environment, the corruption of the American political system, including the ways business and special interests have used it systematically to betray the public interest, the squalor and poverty of the undeveloped world (many of whose inhabitants had sewn the clothing or glued together the products people were gawking at or eagerly purchasing), the coming catastrophic shifts in the earth's climate (first fire then ice, as Robert Frost put it), the calculated horrors of American foreign policy, including the war in Iraq and America's support of Israel's hateful treatment of the Palestinians. I studied the faces, gestures, voices, and body language of the people around me, and what I saw was discouraging. I looked for passion, for conviction, for thought, for presence of mind, but all I saw was distraction, unawareness, unconsciousness, inattentiveness, inadvertence.
I know, I know. It's people shopping in a friggin' Mall, for gosh sake. What in the world did I expect them to be doing or thinking? They can't picket or they’d be thrown out. They can't get on their knees and pray or they’d be asked to leave. They can't organize protest marches or make speeches or the police would be called in. I realized that, but as I studied their faces I became convinced that being at the Mall was not what was stopping them from doing these sorts of things. The people whose eyes I looked into didn't rally and picket anywhere about anything. They didn''t agitate for social or political change under any circumstances. They didn't throw themselves on their knees and pray to God to save their souls even on Sundays.
Don’t get me wrong: I don't mean that they don’t have strong feelings. They do; but they save the expression of them for other parts of their lives. They yell at their boss or their wife; they get irritated when their children spill something on the sofa; they get excited going shopping the day after Thanksgiving; they get lathered up at sporting events; they honk their horns at drivers in front of them when the light changes – but they didn’t get really worked up about the other kind of issues. They are certainly never bothered by them enough to do something that might inconvenience them or cost them money. I guess they feel that if something doesn’t directly affect them, it doesn’t really matter. But the fallacy, of course, is that these things do affect them, and will, in the future, affect them even more than they do right now. But they can't see it. They just can't. Somehow their imaginations have failed. As my mother would say, they can’t see past the ends of their noses.
I have to admit I especially studied the faces of the young people. They are our hope, after all. We know that the older generations – my own generation and older – have conspired with the systems that have created the problems we now face.
We know that the older generation's passive assent to the way things are has created the way things are. It would be unrealistic to look to them for change. The young are our last, best hope. So I studied the faces of twenty–something boyfriends and girlfriends with their arms wrapped around each other, of young husbands and wives pushing strollers, of the noisy, roving bands of giggling high school girls. I searched for a flicker of awareness of the problems that surrounded them – and that they would inherit from their elders – but I saw nothing. Just nothing. To tell the truth, in their eyes, if possible, I saw even less interest in the problems of the world than I saw in their parents' eyes.
When I returned home, I looked up a passage I remembered reading in Curtis White's The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don't Think for Themselves: "In the Grundrisse Karl Marx argued that one of the most conspicuous products of capitalism is stupidity. And there is no shortage of stupidity around us at present.... Still Paul Virilio's idea in Pure War that we're unconscious has more explanatory power.... Unconscious in what sense? North Americans are not speaking to their culture; they're being spoken by it.... It is the unconsciousness of the pure and passive 'spectator,' to borrow from the vocabulary of Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle. The spectator sees all but takes responsibility for nothing. Both our political leaders and the leaders who control the major media outlets are equally mouthpieces for accepting 'the way things are' – foreclosing on all deviant perspectives, constantly reaffirming the orthodox rubbish we think we already know."
But the faces I had looked at told me that White's critique didn’t go far enough. It's always convenient to blame someone else – our "leaders," the "media," the "system." But the truth is that the problems were not created by someone else; they were created by us and by people like us. And they are re-created every day of our lives, as long as we continue to allow others to define who we are and what we want. We can't blame the media or the politicians. It's like blaming movie producers and television executives for our films and TV shows. We get the movies we patronize. (edit: Yes, and No. See the Robert McChesney video I posted in Exiled: The Best Films of the Decade, and Johnathan Rosenbaum's excellent book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Movies We Can See.) They make the television we agree to watch. Similarly, we get the politicians we vote for. Election after election, Americans vote for politicians who tell them what they want to hear. It's a fallacy to think that the people in the Mall want to hear the truth. They don’t want to be waked out of their slumber of unreality. They prefer to sleepwalk – even to the point of death. I think of the amazing scene in Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice when, for the best reasons in the world, the father has the doctor give a sedative to his wife because he does not want her screaming about the end of the world to wake her little boy who is upstairs sleeping in his crib. Better that she and he sleep through to the end – and beyond.
Is this what we have come to? (Though there will be no sleeping through our end, of course.) When I stared into those eyes at the Mall, I kept thinking of the artists trying to wake us up, of the shamans and teachers trying to deepen and enrich our souls, of the holy men and women trying to move our hearts to awareness. But I also thought of how few real artists, teachers, and shamans there are in our culture. I thought of how marginalized, outnumbered, and out-gunned the real ones are by the cheap imitations, and of how the quiet, spiritual voices are drowned out by the incessant scream of the mass media for peoples’ attention. I thought of how many aspects of our culture are devoted to persuading people to sit back, forget their troubles, and enjoy themselves, and of how much of our culture is organized to induce states of distraction and unawareness just like the carols, decorations, sale banners, and crowds in the Mall.
What can be done? Can anything be done? Or is it too late?
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
Peace on Earth. Good will toward men."
(To read a few responses to the above message, go HERE.)