Monday, March 23, 2009


When we obligate ourselves toward each other, not the arbitrary demands of power, our differences become the basis for movement, not borders beyond which we fear to tread.

It is the difference between walking amongst people, being known to them as a friend, and spending one's life trying to climb a ladder in order to get over their heads.

Power dedicates itself to soliciting servants, and it does this by portraying the wealth of human diversity as a perpetual threat. Nationalism conjures fear of monsters outside our borders, in service to the State. Racism continues the notion of a criminal class based on color, in service to various industries, including weapons manufacturers and what is called the "legal justice system" (two-thirds correct insofar as it is both "legal" and a "system.") Sexism makes of women the ever-ready servant to men. Terrorism, remarkably, has made of entire cultures a caricature that justifies the kidnapping, torture, and murder of their members -- the kidnapping and murder which continue unreservedly today -- in the service of international trade and finance, the current practice of which the world's people, in various ways, resist.

In every case a ladder is offered as though there were no way to remain on the ground, and the reward offered by power is to stand over the heads of others, with whatever privileges this brings.

It's important to emphasize that one of the rewards of removing oneself from the larger concerns of the human family is material security in the form of a respectable livelihood. This is not to say that anyone with a respectable livelihood has achieved it through this means. But because the promise of a respectable livelihood has always been a useful tool for recruiting people into the service of power, rulers of every age have sought to monopolize it: people who lack an independent means of survival inevitably turn, at great disadvantage, to those who do.

Consider this in light of the kind of work you spend your life engaged in, versus the kind of work you might prefer to be doing, the conditions under which you are expected to perform, etc.; or, if your work is agreeable, the degree to which it serves some purpose that is aligned with power. Because there is never much money to be made keeping company with people who are themselves purposefully denied a livelihood -- namely, us -- the world goes on looking the bloody mess it always has: our obligations don't extend horizontally toward each other, but vertically toward power, the very thing, in Foucault's words, "that dominates and exploits us."

Of course, it is a trap. My idea of what waits at the top of any ladder is more material wealth than one could ever make useful, with no where to take it -- but plenty of takers all around. It is a lonely, well-stocked tomb, situated in a politically untenable position. It is the big house in the gated community requiring full-time security to keep it from being sacked -- that is, if you can trust the underpaid security service. It is the middle-class dream of world travel, which amounts to dodging one poverty-stricken vista after another, where the wealthy Westerner is viewed as a target -- whether for cash or something else -- not a "friend."

This is the price of separation from the concerns of most people; and trying to reconcile this separation after the fact -- for example, by "giving back" -- does not return us to our family in a natural way, but rather pimps us out as some lofty, distant benefactor who holds the keys to a tolerable life, and subsequently demands celebration. The ascent to power has divorced us from humankind all along.

Freedom of movement happens alongside people, not apart from them. This requires obligating ourselves toward their concerns, educating ourselves about shared interests (which presupposes that we understand our own), and conditioning ourselves not to respect the boundaries proposed by power, demarcated as "differences." This means aligning oneself with one's neighbor, not one's ruler -- even if your neighbor is your political or religious opposite, and your ruler holds your "values." There is no atheist or Church-goer, Republican or revolutionary, Arab or Jew who cannot be talked to merely on the basis of these distinctions. Do the creationists need to feed their families? Do their daughters need health care? Then there is a broad space in which to stand, and move, amongst them.


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