Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘politics’

03 JUNE, 2015

I, Pencil: An Ingenious Vintage Allegory for the Invisible Hand and How Everything Is Connected

By:

“If you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing.”

For an object this seemingly simple, the pencil is not only an artifact with a remarkably fascinating history but also an enduring staple of creative culture — from John Steinbeck, who kept exactly twelve sharpened pencils on his desk at all times, to David Byrne, who captured the human condition in pencil diagrams. But although it is one of humanity’s humble masterpieces of design and ingenuity, we continue to underappreciate the pencil’s genius.

In 1958, libertarian writer and Foundation for Economic Education founder Leonard Read (September 26, 1898–May 14, 1983) set out to remedy this civilizational injustice in a marvelous essay titled “I, Pencil,” published in Essays on Liberty (public library). In a clever allegory, Read delivers his enduring point about the power of free market economy. Casting the pencil as a first-person narrator, he illustrates its astounding complexity to reveal the web of dependencies and vital interconnectedness upon which humanity’s needs and knowledge are based, concluding with a clarion call for protecting the creative freedom making this possible.

Drawing by Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

Read begins:

I am a lead pencil — the ordinary wooden pencil familiar to all boys and girls and adults who can read and write.

Writing is both my vocation and my avocation; that’s all I do.

You may wonder why I should write a genealogy. Well, to begin with, my story is interesting. And, next, I am a mystery—more so than a tree or a sunset or even a flash of lightning. But, sadly, I am taken for granted by those who use me, as if I were a mere incident and without background. This supercilious attitude relegates me to the level of the commonplace. This is a species of the grievous error in which mankind cannot too long persist without peril. For, as a wise man observed, “We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.”

Half a century before Thomas Thwaites set out to illustrate the complex interdependencies of what we call civilization by making a toaster from scratch, Read writes:

I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe, a claim I shall attempt to prove. In fact, if you can understand me — no, that’s too much to ask of anyone — if you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing. I have a profound lesson to teach. And I can teach this lesson better than can an automobile or an airplane or a mechanical dishwasher because — well, because I am seemingly so simple.

Simple? Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me.

Tracing the pencil’s journey from raw material — “a cedar of straight grain that grows in Northern California and Oregon” — to the hands of “all the persons and the numberless skills” involved in its fabrication, Read considers the rich cultural and practical substrata of all these skills and production mechanisms:

Consider the millwork in San Leandro. The cedar logs are cut into small, pencil-length slats less than one-fourth of an inch in thickness. These are kiln dried and then tinted for the same reason women put rouge on their faces. People prefer that I look pretty, not a pallid white. The slats are waxed and kiln dried again. How many skills went into the making of the tint and the kilns, into supplying the heat, the light and power, the belts, motors, and all the other things a mill requires? Sweepers in the mill among my ancestors? Yes, and included are the men who poured the concrete for the dam of a Pacific Gas & Electric Company hydroplant which supplies the mill’s power!

Don’t overlook the ancestors present and distant who have a hand in transporting sixty carloads of slats across the nation from California to Wilkes-Barre!

He goes on to delineate the global reaches of the production process — from the pencil’s lead derived from graphite mined in Ceylon to Mexican candelilla wax used used to increase its strength and smoothness to the rapeseed oil Dutch East Indies involved in the creation of its “crowning glory,” the eraser — ultimately pointing to the pencil as a supreme example of Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” at work:

Actually, millions of human beings have had a hand in my creation, no one of whom even knows more than a very few of the others… There isn’t a single person in all these millions, including the president of the pencil company, who contributes more than a tiny, infinitesimal bit of know-how. From the standpoint of know-how the only difference between the miner of graphite in Ceylon and the logger in Oregon is in the type of know-how. Neither the miner nor the logger can be dispensed with, any more than can the chemist at the factory or the worker in the oil field — paraffin being a by-product of petroleum.

Here is an astounding fact: Neither the worker in the oil field nor the chemist nor the digger of graphite or clay nor any who mans or makes the ships or trains or trucks nor the one who runs the machine that does the knurling on my bit of metal nor the president of the company performs his singular task because he wants me. Each one wants me less, perhaps, than does a child in the first grade. Indeed, there are some among this vast multitude who never saw a pencil nor would they know how to use one. Their motivation is other than me. Perhaps it is something like this: Each of these millions sees that he can thus exchange his tiny know-how for the goods and services he needs or wants. I may or may not be among these items.

Above all, Read suggests, the pencil attests to the godliness of the human capacity for connected imagination. In a sardonic dual jab at religious creationism and excessive government control, Read summons the last line from Joyce Kilmer’s 1918 poem “Trees” and writes:

It has been said that “only God can make a tree.” Why do we agree with this? Isn’t it because we realize that we ourselves could not make one? Indeed, can we even describe a tree? We cannot, except in superficial terms. We can say, for instance, that a certain molecular configuration manifests itself as a tree. But what mind is there among men that could even record, let alone direct, the constant changes in molecules that transpire in the life span of a tree? Such a feat is utterly unthinkable!

I, Pencil, am a complex combination of miracles: a tree, zinc, copper, graphite, and so on. But to these miracles which manifest themselves in Nature an even more extraordinary miracle has been added: the configuration of creative human energies — millions of tiny know-hows configurating naturally and spontaneously in response to human necessity and desire and in the absence of any human master-minding! Since only God can make a tree, I insist that only God could make me. Man can no more direct these millions of know-hows to bring me into being than he can put molecules together to create a tree.

The above is what I meant when writing, “If you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing.” For, if one is aware that these know-hows will naturally, yes, automatically, arrange themselves into creative and productive patterns in response to human necessity and demand — that is, in the absence of governmental or any other coercive master-minding — then one will possess an absolutely essential ingredient for freedom: a faith in free men. Freedom is impossible without this faith.

Just a few years earlier, pencil-lover Steinbeck had written in East of Eden: “The free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world.” Whether Read read Steinbeck and succumbed to cryptomnesia or arrived at this strikingly similar sentiment independently is only cause for speculation, but his larger point — one as pertinent to public policy as it is to the private creative endeavor — is what endures with its own timeless miraculousness:

If I, Pencil, were the only item that could offer testimony on what men can accomplish when free to try, then those with little faith would have a fair case. However, there is testimony galore; it’s all about us and on every hand. Mail delivery is exceedingly simple when compared, for instance, to the making of an automobile or a calculating machine or a grain combine or a milling machine or to tens of thousands of other things. Delivery? Why, in this area where men have been left free to try, they deliver the human voice around the world in less than one second; they deliver an event visually and in motion to any person’s home when it is happening; they deliver 150 passengers from Seattle to Baltimore in less than four hours; they deliver gas from Texas to one’s range or furnace in New York at unbelievably low rates and without subsidy; they deliver each four pounds of oil from the Persian Gulf to our Eastern Seaboard — half-way around the world — for less money than the government charges for delivering a one-ounce letter across the street!

The lesson I have to teach is this: Leave all creative energies uninhibited. Merely organize society to act in harmony with this lesson. Let society’s legal apparatus remove all obstacles the best it can. Permit these creative know-hows freely to flow. Have faith that free men will respond to the Invisible Hand. This faith will be confirmed. I, Pencil, seemingly simple though I am, offer the miracle of my creation as testimony that this is a practical faith, as practical as the sun, the rain, a cedar tree, the good earth.

Half a century after Read penned his brilliant essay, it was adapted into an animated film illustrating how the same “complex combination of miracles” plays out on various scales in our modern lives:

For an equally pause-giving contemporary counterpart, see The Toaster Project.

Perhaps Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer — and what, if not computing, is the height of Read’s miraculous web of know-hows? — put it best when she wrote that “everything is naturally related and interconnected.”

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19 MAY, 2015

Arts of the Possible: Adrienne Rich on Writing, Capitalism, Freedom, and How Silence Fertilizes the Human Imagination

By:

“The impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence. Every real poem is the breaking of an existing silence.”

“When power corrupts, poetry cleanses,” John F. Kennedy proclaimed in his piercing eulogy to Robert Frost, contemplating the artist’s role in society and urging us to “never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.” More than three decades later, another of humanity’s greatest poets and custodians of dignity explored this enduring relationship between art, power, and truth more closely and dimensionally than anyone before or since.

The poet was Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929–March 27, 2012) and the exploration a remarkable 1997 lecture that became the title piece in Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations (public library) — the same anthology that gave us the spectacular letter with which Rich became the only person to decline the National Medal of Arts in one of creative culture’s most courageous acts of political dissent.

Rich begins by considering the perilous interplay of the market and the mind in capitalist culture:

We have become a pyramidic society of the omnivorously acquisitive few, an insecure, dwindling middle class, and a multiplying number of ill-served, throwaway citizens and workers [resulting in] a kind of public breakdown, with symptoms along a spectrum from acute self-involvement to extreme anxiety to individual and group violence.

Exactly two decades after E.F. Schumacher’s ennobling case for reimagining capitalist society to prioritize people over products and creativity over consumption, Rich laments “the self-congratulatory self-promotion of capitalism” around the world and considers “the corruptions of language employed to manage our perceptions of all this” — for, lest we forget, the space between words and their true meanings is vast and filled with the fog of confusion. She writes:

In the vocabulary kidnapped from liberatory politics, no word has been so pimped as freedom.

[…]

Capitalism presents itself as obedience to a law of nature, man’s “natural” and overwhelming predisposition toward activity that is competitive, aggressive, and acquisitive. Where capitalism invokes freedom, it means the freedom of capital. Where, in any mainstream public discourse, is this self-referential monologue put to the question?

Illustration by Anne Simon from Corinne Maier's graphic biography of Karl Marx. Click image for more.

Perhaps it is the poet in Rich most riled by this propagandic corruption of language — for what is a poet if not one who remedies “the feeling that the contemporary language is not equivalent to the contemporary fact”? But the legacy of this disconnect, Rich reminds us in a sentiment tenfold more urgent today, transcends the poetic and bleeds into the practicalities of civic life:

Our past is seeded in our present and is trying to become our future.

These concerns engage me as a citizen, feeling daily in my relationships with my fellow citizens the effects of a system based in the accumulation of wealth — the value against which all other values must justify themselves. We all feel these effects, almost namelessly, as we go about our individual lives…

But these are also my concerns as a poet, as the practitioner of an ancient and severely tested art. In a society in such extreme pain, I think these are any writer’s, any artist’s, concerns: the unnamed harm to human relationships, the blockage of inquiry, the oblique contempt with which we are depicted to ourselves and to others, in prevailing image making; a malnourishment that extends from the body to the imagination itself. Capital vulgarizes and reduces complex relations to a banal iconography.

Lamenting that terms like “consumers” and “baby boomers” feed the dual demon of contempt and self-contempt — one reduces people to their acquisition of commodities and the other “infantilizes and demeans an entire generation” — Rich examines how this collapse of language into shallowness impacts the artist’s responsibility to tussle with human relationships, which she has long considered the raw material of our private truths. She writes:

Any artist faces the necessity to explore, by whatever means, human relationships — which may or may not be perceived as political. But there are also, and always, the changing questions of the medium itself, the craft and its demands.

That craft, Rich argues, is honed in the sacred space of silence. In a sentiment that calls to mind Paul Goodman’s nine types of silence, she writes:

The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable. It is through these invisible holes in reality that poetry makes its way — certainly for women and other marginalized subjects and for disempowered and colonized peoples generally, but ultimately for all who practice any art at its deeper levels. The impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence. Every real poem is the breaking of an existing silence, and the first question we might ask any poem is, What kind of voice is breaking silence, and what kind of silence is being broken?

Although silence externally enforced, Rich notes, is a tool of oppression and censorship, silence willfully elected is a force of growth. She writes:

Silence … can be fertilizing, it can bathe the imagination, it can, as in great open spaces — I think of those plains stretching far below the Hopi mesas in Arizona — be the nimbus of a way of life, a condition of vision. Such living silences are more and more endangered throughout the world, by commerce and appropriation.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Echoing Wendell Berry’s conception of silence as a sanctuary where “one’s inner voices become audible [and], in consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives,” Rich places the extinction of such fertilizing silence in its cultural context:

Even in conversation, here in North America, we who so eagerly unpack our most private concerns before strangers dread the imaginative space that silence might open between two people or within a group. Television, obviously, abhors such silence.

I am reminded here of a wonderful 19th-century guide to the art of conversation, which asserted that “the power of preserving silence is the very first requisite to all who wish to shine, or even please in discourse.” The writer, Rich argues, is one who honors the silence while creating a space for connection and conversation:

Whatever her or his social identity, the writer is, by the nature of the act of writing, someone who strives for communication and connection, someone who searches, through language, to keep alive the conversation with what Octavio Paz has called “the lost community.” Even if what’s written feels like a note thrust into a bottle to be thrown into the sea.

But the successful transmission of the bottle requires a benevolent sea, which brings us back to the political dimension of art as a technology of freedom. Rich captures the true measure of democracy:

The survival of a great diversity of books … depends on diverse interests having the means to make such books available.

It also means a nonelite but educated audience, a population who are literate, who read and talk to each other, who may be factory workers or bakers or bank tellers or paramedicals or plumbers or computer consultants or farmworkers, whose first language may be Croatian or Tagalog or Spanish or Vietnamese but who are given to critical thinking, who care about art, an intelligentsia beyond intellectual specialists.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman for Ray Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451.' Click image for more.

Nearly three decades after James Baldwin remarked that the whole capitalist system “is standing on the back of some black miner in South Africa,” Rich considers the prerequisite for such a nonelitist, democratic landscape of thought and imagination:

If we are writers writing first of all from our own desire and need, if this is irresistible work for us, if in writing we experience certain kinds of power and freedom that may be unavailable to us in other ways — surely it would follow that we would want to make that kind of forming, shaping, naming, telling, accessible for anyone who can use it. It would seem only natural for writers to care passionately about literacy, public education, public libraries, public opportunities in all the arts. But more: if we care about the freedom of the word, about language as a liberatory current, if we care about the imagination, we will care about economic justice.

For the pull and suck of Capital’s project tend toward reducing, not expanding, overall human intelligence, wit, expressiveness, creative rebellion.

[…]

Writing and teaching are kinds of work, and the relative creative freedom of the writer or teacher depends on the conditions of human labor overall and everywhere.

For what are we, anyway, at our best, but one small, persistent cluster in a greater ferment of human activity — still and forever turning toward, tuned for, the possible, the unrealized and irrepressible design?

Arts of the Possible is a trove of lucid idealism in its entirety. Complement it with Rich on what “truth” really means, her superb 1977 commencement address on the real value of education, and her homage to Marie Curie.

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06 MAY, 2015

James Baldwin and Margaret Mead on Reimagining Democracy for a Post-Consumerist Culture

By:

“Democracy should not mean the leveling of everyone to the lowest common denominator. It should mean the possibility of everyone being able to raise himself to a certain level of excellence.”

NOTE: This is the third installment in a multi-part series celebrating Mead and Baldwin’s historic yet forgotten conversation. Part 1 focused on forgiveness and the crucial difference between guilt and responsibility; part 2 on identity, race, and the immigrant experience; part 3 on changing one’s destiny.

Three years before E.F. Schumacher laid out his seminal vision for a Buddhist approach to economics, urging us to stop prioritizing products over people and consumption over creative fulfillment, two other titans of thought shone their luminous intellects on the dark underbelly of capitalism and consumer culture. When Margaret Mead and James Baldwin sat down for their remarkable public conversation in August of 1970, the transcript of which was eventually published as A Rap on Race (public library), they explored with great insight and dimension the many factors that shape the forces of equality and inequality in our world — the world of 1970 and doubly so the world of today, for such was the prescience produced by cross-pollinating these two formidably fertile minds.

Art by Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

As Mead and Baldwin weave in and out of the subject of capitalism throughout the conversation, they reserve especial criticism for the mainstream models of success we’ve bought into — models that continue to shackle us to social Shoulds as we race on the hedonic treadmill of consumerism:

BALDWIN: I have never accepted the notion that you keep a Cadillac or a yacht or anything at all, except perhaps for convenience. I have always had a quarrel with this country not only about race but about the standards by which it appears to live. People are drowning in things. They don’t even know what they want them for. They are actually useless. You can’t sleep with a yacht. you can’t make love to a Cadillac, though everyone appears to be trying to… I think the great emotional or psychological or effective lack of love and touching is the key to the American or even the Western disease.

Mead considers the origin of this compulsive consumption and how the pursuit of privilege over happiness poisoned the American dream:

MEAD: But most people who came here were terribly poor and wanted things.

BALDWIN: To prove they existed.

MEAD: To prove they could get them all. They had been eating the black bread of poverty, so they came over here and they wanted to eat the white bread that was eaten in the castle. So they instead of eating good, nourishing, whole wheat bread —

BALDWIN: They started eating white bread. Yes, indeed, look at the results.

MEAD: They began eating too much sugar too; thats what the people in the castle had… Old Americans were frugal… I was brought up to untie each package carefully, untie the knots in the string and roll it up and put it away to use again.

BALDWIN: Yes, I still do that too. And I hate myself for it.

Having grown up in Bulgaria during communism, I too had an acute experience of this bread-as-status-symbol phenomenon, as well as of the conflicted self-loathing it produced and still produces. And yet, as Baldwin and Mead both acknowledge, such fallibility is a profoundly human reaction to the oppressive forces of adversity — a testament to the notion of force and counterforce:

BALDWIN: The dream of the starving is to be fed.

MEAD: Yes, that’s it. And the dream of the people who have nothing is to have things…

Echoing Martin Luther King’s famous proclamation that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere [and] whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” Baldwin adds:

BALDWIN: The great revolution … that one has dared… The dream of the starving is not only to be fed… One has got to arrive at the point where one realizes that if one man is hungry everyone is hungry.

Illustration from 'We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy,' Maurice Sendak's darkest, most controversial, yet most hopeful children's book. Click image for more.

Indeed, this conversation took place at the height of the New Age movement and the hippie counterculture — a time when Alan Watts admonished that “Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others.” In this call for unity, Mead sees as a model for a better dream of our shared human future — a vision resurrected by the sustainability movement of our own age. Today, Mead’s vision seems remarkably prophetic as we enact a great many of her hopes and some of her fears:

MEAD: What I hope is going to happen in the world is a demand similar to the one in this country, the demand for a simpler form of life. Coming up from the kids of the affluent middle class who say, “We don’t want to live like this. We don’t want to over-capitalize the individual home this way. We want to make things much more collective.” Then maybe we can invent a style in this country that is viable for other countries. because otherwise what is happening is that other countries are copying this style, so the few educated and elite can get themselves some Cadillacs and big houses. Then all of the rest of the people are miserable. Also we are bleeding the world of its resources and we can’t do that.

This, too, I experienced acutely while growing up in Bulgaria — my mother used to rinse out empty yogurt containers and even previously-used plastic bags, which she reused for various purposes. I was tremendously embarrassed by this practice, which didn’t signify resourcefulness but a lack of resources. And yet by the time I was in my twenties, reusing shopping bags became a status symbol for the conscientious consumer who could, but chose not to, afford disposability. Indeed, recycling today is primarily a political act of the privileged, not a coping mechanism of the poor.

Mead peers backward and forward in time to examine the origin and outcome of these cultural forces:

MEAD: So what is the American dream? The American dream has been the dream of the immigrant. The dream of old Commodore Vanderbilt. What did he borrow? Two hundred dollars from his mother and started bringing potatoes over from Staten Island — who ended up building palaces. But they were not palaces of kings. They were palaces of people who had had nothing and wanted things. And then I go back to my Manus people in New Guinea, who said, “When you have plenty, then you can afford to begin to think about human beings. And when you don’t have, you don’t think about human beings.”

BALDWIN: Well that is both true and not true. I don’t want to be sentimental about poverty, which is a hideous condition. I once flew from Istanbul to Switzerland. Istanbul is exceedingly poor. But the people will give you anything they have, and there is a kind of human warmth which you do not find on the streets of Lausanne.

MEAD: Where everybody is well off.

BALDWIN: Yes. And you wouldn’t dream of asking anybody for the time of day.

MEAD: Well, you can produce a kind of private-property-oriented society, where they also have the private property, where they don’t have any free energy for anyone else at all.

Illustration from 'We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy,' Maurice Sendak's darkest, most controversial, yet most hopeful children's book. Click image for more.

Later in the conversation, Mead and Baldwin revisit the general problem of capitalism and the particular problem of our consumerist dependence on cars, once again presaging the buildup of brokenness that would lead, decades later, to the success of solutions like Tesla:

BALDWIN: Mass production has made human life impossible.

MEAD: No, not really. We never could have things for everybody until we got mass production.

BALDWIN: And what are we going to do with it now?

MEAD: Well, something else. You know, just because the Ford car and the idea of Mr. Ford did give enormous freedom to people in this country, it doesn’t mean that we have to —

BALDWIN: It didn’t give them any freedom, it gave them tremendous mobility.

MEAD: Well, Americans think mobility and freedom are very close together. If you take Detroit, now… A study has just been made that compares somebody without a car only a few blocks away from somebody with a car. The one with a car is not twice as mobile, he is over ten times as mobile.

BALDWIN: This I discovered to my horror when I was living in Hollywood… Human feet have suddenly become obsolete. There’s no point in having feet, except to drive the car. I guess I am badly placed in this society, in many ways. But I see what you mean. I know we had to have these things, we had to have them. I know that it was at one point in human history a tremendous advance for the human race. But now mass production, the consumer society, seems to be one of the things that menace us the most, because we have become so dependent upon it.

MEAD: The automobile in its present shape is a monster. But to envisage a society without automobiles, with the number of people that we have, is also very difficult, We will have to make some new inventions.

BALDWIN: Then we have got to find a way to control this… this monster we have created.

MEAD: That’s right. We have to find different kinds of automobiles, set them up differently.

BALDWIN: And keep them out of the cities.

Illustration by Paul Rogers from the picture-book adaptation of Bob Dylan's 'Forever Young.' Click image for more.

And yet changes of this magnitude, Mead and Baldwin agree, require that we unmoor ourselves from some of our most basic assumptions about how the world works. They consider the exploitive models upon which capitalism is built and envision a more just alternative:

BALDWIN: It is very difficult to ask people to give up the assumptions by which they have always lived, and yet that is the demand the world has got to make now of everybody.

[…]

BALDWIN: One has been avoiding the word capitalism and one has been avoiding talking about matters on that level. But there is a very serious flaw in the profit system which is implicit in the phrase itself. And, in some way or another, one can even say at this moment, sitting in this room, that the Western economy is due to the fact that in a way every dime I earn, the system which earns it for me — I don’t mean the fact that I write books, but the way the system works, the base — is standing on the back of some black miner in South Africa, and he is going to stand up presently. Now, if we don’t anticipate that, we will be in terrible trouble. Because he is not going to be bending under his weight ten years from now. And if we don’t understand that and let him stand up, the whole thing is going to be a shambles.

MEAD: I agree. But I also think … that if the systems, whether they call themselves private power or public planning, don’t learn to think ahead further and include all human beings more, they are contributing to the shambles.

Ultimately, such a shift away from exploitive profit requires — then and, even more urgently so, now — that we reimagine what democracy itself might look like if all human beings are to be elevated and none exploited:

BALDWIN: It demands — especially here and now because we are here and now — a vast amount of passion and some courage to attack the forces which menace everybody’s life. The life of everybody on this planet is menaced by, to put it too simply, the extraordinary and even willful ignorance of people in high places. If the democratic notion has led us to where we now find ourselves, some kind of radical revision of the democratic notion is needed.

[…]

Democracy should not mean the leveling of everyone to the lowest common denominator. It should mean the possibility of everyone being able to raise himself to a certain level of excellence.

A Rap on Race is a tremendous read in its entirety. Explore other threads of this historic conversation in the three previousparts, then revisit Alan Watts on the difference between money and wealth.

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04 MAY, 2015

Love Is Love: Maria Bello on Resisting the Labels We Are Given and Redefining Those We Give Ourselves

By:

A courageous quest for nuance that liberates the different experiences of partnerships we have in the modern world.

“Labels are distancing phenomena. They push us away from each other,” Leo Buscaglia wrote in his seminal 1972 book based on the world’s first university course on love. Susan Sontag echoed this a few years later in lamenting the detrimental divisiveness of labels. It might be tempting to think that, four decades later, we live in a post-label society: that is, a society that has transcended all the categories into which we put people — race, gender, nationality, sexuality, political affiliation, basketball team preference — in order to avoid the intimate and demanding work of getting to know each other on a level beyond the superficial. And yet nearly half a century after James Baldwin admonished that “you’ve got to tell the world how to treat you [or else] you are in trouble,” we still find ourselves in a world that constantly tries to tell us how we deserve to be treated through the arbitrary labels it bestows upon us based on fragments of our wholeness.

How we can begin to move past that is what actor and activist Maria Bello addresses with great courage and candor in Whatever… Love Is Love: Questioning the Labels We Give Ourselves (public library) — an exploration of “the beauty of the fluidity of love and partnership,” sprouted from her spectacular 2013 New York Times coming-out essay and titled after her twelve-year-old son Jackson’s response when she finally told him that she was in love with a woman.

Photograph from 'The Invisibles: Vintage Portraits of Love and Pride' by Sébastien Lifshitz. Click image for more.

Looking back on the flood of moving responses to her New York Times essay and on her own lifetime spent as “a woman who was both ashamed and proud of her own truth,” Bello considers what a post-label conception of love and partnership might look like for a culture increasingly needful of such liberation from limiting labels:

At the time, I had no idea how many modern families and unconventional partnerships were out there. And I didn’t realize how many people did not have labels to describe themselves or the structure of their lives. So the phrase “being a whatever” came to describe them. According to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, whatever is a pronoun “used to emphasize a lack of restriction in referring to anything.” And because I am not interested in restricting myself or anyone else with a particular label, I decided that I am a “whatever,” too.

[…]

Many people in our world today are having different experiences of partnership and aren’t sure how to label these different kinds of love.

[…]

[There is] a new conversation to be had about the labels society gives us and the labels we give ourselves.

Traditional labels just don’t seem to fit anymore. These labels are limiting the possibility for people to question more and become who they are meant to be. By asking questions and challenging our own beliefs, I feel we can update all of our outdated labels and realize that labels need to evolve just like people do.

Most of us have directly experienced, in one shape or another, the way in which labels demand that we settle for smaller versions of ourselves. The more specific they get, the more our expansive wholeness is asked to acquiesce to fragmented smallness — and that slippery slope of specificity, while meant to better capture our identity, ends up suffocating it. I, for instance, could be labeled a woman, then a queer woman, then an immigrant queer woman, then a Bulgarian immigrant queer woman, and so forth. And yet, while none of these labels are incorrect, the accretion of them tips over into being wrong — wrong for concretizing a handful of psychographic variables to the exclusion of the vast variability of all the more abstract traits and tastes and talents that make a complete person. At the heart of how labels impoverish our interpersonal imagination is a dearth of nuance — something Bello captures with elegant precision as she considers the questions that thinking about being a “whatever” opens up:

My romantic partner is fourth-generation African, so why can’t she call herself an African American? My cousin Marty has dark skin but is Italian, so does she call herself African Italian? Can a gay couple consider themselves Catholic even though they are excluded from the church? Is a man who is married to a woman but kissed a boy when he was 12 considered bisexual? Are all those historical heroes of mine who also had extramarital affairs bad guys?

Illustration from 'Grandma, What’s a Lesbian?,' one of the greatest LGBT children's books. Click image for more.

Remarking with warm wryness that “the person who claims to have all the answers is usually a cult leader, a dictator, or just a really pushy salesperson,” Bello argues that what is needed for this new conversation is a commitment to reframing those questions in order to discover what it takes to celebrate our singular experience and “embrace love, family, and partnership in all possible forms.” She recounts how one such pivotal question shifted her own experience as she began to fall in love with her best friend, Clare:

As I continued to look through my writing and photos, I came across a black-and-white print of a photo of my best friend and me, taken on the previous New Year’s Eve. We looked so happy and I couldn’t help but smile. I remembered how we had met two years before; she was sitting in a bar wearing a fedora and speaking in her Zimbabwean accent.

We had an immediate connection but neither of us thought of it as romantic or sexual. She was one of the most beautiful, charming, brilliant, and funny people I had ever met, but it didn’t occur to me, until that soul-searching moment in my garden, that we could choose to love each other romantically.

What had I been waiting for all of these years? My friend is the person I like being with the most, the one with whom I am most myself. The next time I saw her, in New York, I shared my confusing feelings.

We began the long, painful, wonderful process of trying to figure out what our relationship was supposed to be.

Even so, the tyranny of “supposed to be” warps the very asking of those questions, including that of what a “partner” really means in the modern world — something that circles back to the challenge of being labeled by the outside observations of others rather than by the inner truth of our experience. Bello writes:

It’s hard for me even to define the term partner in my life, but others would try.

For five years I considered the closest thing I had to a partner to be a dear friend who just happened to be in his seventies. He was a former producer and studio head named John Calley, and I spoke to him daily until he died. We both loved books and, being seekers in life, always worked to understand ourselves and the world more.

What seems imperative is that we decouple the notion of a “partner” from evolutionary biology’s implication of “reproductive partner” — a primitive definition that doesn’t even begin to capture the kaleidoscope of nuance that partnership has in contemporary life. Bello addresses this by examining the further narrowing of that definition:

I have never understood the distinction of a “primary” partner. Does that imply we have secondary and tertiary partners, too? To me, a partner is someone you rely on in your life — for help, companionship, mutual respect, and support. Can my primary partner be my sister or child or best friend, or does it have to be someone I am having sex with? I have two friends who are sisters, have lived together for 15 years, and raised a daughter together. Are they not partners? And many married couples I know haven’t had sex for years. And yet, everyone thinks of them as partners.

[…]

My feelings about attachment and partnership have always been unconventional. Jack’s father, Dan, will always be my partner because we share Jack. Just because our relationship is nonsexual doesn’t make him any less of a partner to me. We share the same core values, including putting our son first.

Our partners are often revealed at times of crisis — when life throws its curveballs, only true partners show up to catch them. Bello, who was nearly killed by an undiagnosed parasite she had contracted while doing humanitarian work in Haiti, reflects on how that episode clarified the question of partnership:

At one point during my illness that summer, I thought I might not survive. But the people who were at my bedside every day at the hospital were all my life partners: my mother, Jackson, Dan, my brother Chris, and Clare.

Clare rarely left my side and called every doctor she knew to help figure out what was wrong with me.

Illustration from 'Heather Has Two Mommies,' one of the greatest LGBT children's books. Click image for more.

Shortly thereafter, Bello came out to twelve-year-old Jackson, who issued the heartening proclamation after which Bello’s memoir is titled: “Whatever, Mom… love is love.” Indeed, embedded in this exchange is the very thing that makes Bello’s book significant — a vibrant testament to the idea that in every realm of human rights and equality, what is needed isn’t merely tolerance but acceptance, wholehearted and unconditional. And this begins with the values we bequeath to the young, be it through parenting in the literal sense or through a kind of societal parenting by the heroes and role models of the culture we live in — the indirect parenting of personhood that happens through what legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead called our “spiritual and mental ancestors.”

And here is the beauty of it: We can choose who our spiritual parents are by choosing whom we admire and whose advice we heed — in fact, we are being parented all the time in the larger nest of culture, which incubates our values through direct and indirect guidance from those in the public eye. This is why it is both so courageous and so crucial for people like Bello to speak out and reaffirm the values of social justice and equality — and what more intimate a frontier of justice than the evolving definition of what a modern family is?

Bello writes:

The label of “partner” as only your sexual partner is outdated. An updated label of partner might be anyone who is significant to you in some fundamental way. The definition of the family is changing, too, and I hope it’s working to bring people together with a new respect for different kinds of relationships. So I would like to consider myself a whatever, as Jackson said. Whomever I love, however I love them, whether they sleep in my bed or not, or whether I do homework with them or share a child with them, “love is love.” … Maybe, in the end, a modern family is just a more honest family.

In the end, it comes down to not letting others define us — a commitment demanding, above all, that we do as young André Gide aspired in his diary: prioritize being over appearing. Bello reflects on this gargantuan task and the urgency at its heart:

The old ideas of love, marriage, children, and happily ever after just don’t apply to most of us. I have come to see that the labels that other people might give me about my partnerships, family, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, and spirituality do not define me. I am only concerned with the only labels that matter—the ones I give myself.

[…]

All I hope is that we all keep questioning our labels, get rid of the ones that hold us back, and hang on to the ones that shine light on the beauty of who we really are.

Whatever… Love Is Love does precisely what it promises to do — question the labels we give ourselves, not for the sake of simplistic and static answers but in a noble quest for nuance in the dynamic act of answering. Complement it with Susan Sontag on how labels limit us, Diane Ackerman’s superb natural history of love, and modern love patron saint Edie Windsor on love and the truth about equality, then revisit history’s most beautiful love letters by “whatevers,” including Virginia Woolf, Margaret Mead, and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

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