Monday, March 23, 2020

What Will We the People Do? Understanding the Spring Break Pandemic Party

It's always problematic to take on a sweeping generalization and emerge with anything like facts or the truth. The scenes of Florida and California beaches, Mardi Gras, and other Spring Break revelry are pretty darn disturbing.

The pressure on politicians to keep business going has apparently outweighed public health concerns in the midst of a deadly global pandemic. Profit before people is capitalism without conscience or care. We have had advisories or abdication, not government directives. And where too is individual responsibility?

We like to think that we all make personal and individual choices but this explanation also allows us to dismiss or abdicate. People are moved by leadership and by social directives, implicit or otherwise. We move not only as individuals but in groups and tribes and communities. We have survived and flourished because we are socialized and it's simply too reductive (and oh so American) to suggest that individual liberty and choice directs our actions.

To put this in the modern meme, "influencers" influence. And the most powerful influence is one's peers, that inchoate but real force that forms our proximate social identity. We feel that ethos, we share worldviews or, at the very least, we contend within that kind of group as we formulate our individuality. I think there are plenty of reasons why in the "OK Boomer" world wonder why college age students, those under 30 are acting so...let's put it plainly: recklessly. May I remind my fellow Boomers that we came to distrust our elders too, coming as we did on the heels or even from within the era of Vietnam and the civil rights movement. We pushed back too. We distrusted and estranged ourselves. Our parents thought us reckless too.

We did, however, have our generational leaders: JFK, RFK, MLK, Malcolm and McCarthy. All flawed but standing for something else and against the worst of it. In contrast, and let's be frank, Senator Sanders could not muster that youth, could not get them to the polls. That is plain for everyone to see. That Democrats are terrified that young people will not vote in November is a well-founded fear. Any equivalence with Trumpism I will simply reject outright. This emergency could not be more of an emergency. We are told that leaders are not providing what they want or offer a world in which they aspire to participate. Then we see them on the beaches and in the bars during a pandemic. The mistrust is mutual.

As loathe as I am to say this, nothing is going to change the behavior of the beach going Spring Break generation but rules enforced by grown ups. The problem is that leadership at the top, at the Federal level, has proven so desperately incompetent. We all knew Donald Trump was unfit and that the worst was yet to come. And what's really scary is that the worst has NOT yet come. Governors have stepped in, like Cuomo and Newsom but not all. Wait until Florida really starts getting sick. Does anyone think that isn't going to happen?

I write this morning because I need some perspective. We knew about war and political corruption but then let the planet burn for profit. We protested for peace and a Great Society and then let jobs and poverty and opportunity fail the majority. These kids (<---yeah, I just said that...) may not consider our failures because they, in truth, don't remember and were never taught those lessons. The things they don't know are legion. Trust me on that, I teach college. But what they have that is all their own is a toxic blend: their own certainties and a frightening kind of nihilism.

Some push back, like the Parkland kids. But they all see a burning planet, a gig economy that promises the majority less than their parents prosperities, debt, and, for most, politics as nothing but failure. They have reasons to take nihilism seriously. Their certainty may be a very different vaguery of youth but mix it into a cocktail of "well, I'm just going to do what I want because there's really no future anyway...", that is the danger we must consider.

We who protested war and poverty in the 60s and 70s may have sold out to profit and bourgeois prosperities but that may be because we imagined that there would be a future. I fear that what we are seeing in the Spring Break Pandemic Party is a generation that believes there is no future but to party, and party together. Who do they trust but each other? Not us. And that portends a very dangerous immediate future.

This virus won't care how old you are once enough people are sick. The misinformation train, especially from the right wing media, will only further divide as McConnell and his lot see another chance to line the pockets of their corporate donors. We're going to need leadership and sanity. They are in short supply but not completely absent. Let us hope more people, especially young people who are the future, are willing to listen to more than each other.

Monday, March 16, 2020

The Semiotics of Identity & Working at Home

Most of you know I have a thing about pink scarves from India, heavy duty blue jeans from Japan, and rock'n'roll boots. I can get away with that now that I'm an old professor and they just laugh at me. I was joking with my University colleagues that now we are going to be teaching at home, we'll never have to get out of our pajamas. But lemme say, this is a terrible idea.

When we are in India we go as pilgrims and we dress the part. To the nines. This makes all the difference and the local people are deeply appreciative. Even as a college professor I come looking like, well, something of the same. It makes a difference because we don't dress merely because of the weather.

I'm not merely suggesting a fashion update. I am saying that locked up at home as we are all going to be, it will become important to nurture your identity. How you are on the outside really does affect how you feel on the inside.  (Be as elegantly yourself as the dog in this picture---and as comfortable.)

When we put on our "work uniform" we step into an essential asepct of professional identity. We have multiple selves---personal, professional, creative---and all of them play a part in holding together the world. 

When Krsna in the Gita is asked why he does what he does, he says loka-samgraha, which means "holding the world together." But literally this phrase means something like "grasping light." What Krsna is pointing towards is the fact that our identities are formed both inside and out; how we present ourselves informs our inner state. We are the light we offer, we are the shadow we create. To become whole we must care for the whole of our human self and that means our social self even when we are being asocial.

India taught me to care about these things because everything about learning depended on finding a way to hold myself together and immerse in a different world. The same thing happened when at only 28 years old I was a college professor not much older than my students but closer to their age than I was to my colleagues. The way we look really does root in how we relate to others, how we situate ourselves in social complexities. Tribe is recognized, a narrative is being put forward, and if we put those stories on mute---if we never get out of our pajamas---we will be dismissing, even losing important features of identity.

When I thought about what I'd said to my colleagues the other day about not getting out of our pj's, I almost immediately realized how wrong I was. So everyday since events turned me into the college-professor-now-teaching-from-home I've gotten myself together every morning.

Now all this may just be me but I doubt that. I think that we're in a time when it will be too easy to become unmoored, afloat in a world in which few things are familiar. When that happens we must re-root and find ways to tell our inner story. It's important to remember that our story entails all aspects of self, inside out and outside in. Putting yourself together, just a little bit, everyday can make an important difference.

You might at first feel liberated by days that require nothing more than jammies. But think Ganesha here: these routines and changes, these habits of personal and professional identity create meaningful boundaries. With boundaries we know who we are and what we need to remember, who we are and who want to be. So enjoy your personal revolution for awhile, 'cause why not? But then even if you are home all day, put yourself through your changes, step into your conditionality and stay a player in creating your boundaries.

I think in the long run you will find yourself more emotionally grounded, with a clearer sense of self. You are communicating with yourself when you step into those forms that help you tell your story. You will feel more connected to yourself and when the time comes again, you will re-connect because you never forgot who you are.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Immune to Our Shared Humanity, The Self-Quarantined President

There is a phrase in Japanese---isn't there always? Kuuki ga yomenai means "cannot read the air." Nowadays it is often reduced in text messaging simply to KY.

The implication is plain enough: it is when someone is seemingly impervious to the current need, the social and cultural feeling that is expected. It's when someone "doesn't get it" where "it" means the invisible, unspoken sensibility that brings solidarity and implicit understanding. It's when someone is more than a little awkward about the _we_ when "we" creates an "us. Few cultures value the implicit more than the Japanese but there is much the same in Tamil---and I suppose we all have this. Every culture values emotional intelligence finding its way into practice and situational need.

The phrase aun no kokyu, which means something like “in perfect unison" or anmokuchi, “tacit knowledge, are much more positive in comparison to "cannot read the air." That is reserved for a greater incapacity, almost as if it is something someone cannot do rather than a momentary awkwardness.

What's important about the idea, I think, is not the criticism it levels but rather the sense that we share the air and the air has _its own_ qualities that are neither individual nor merely invented. The "air" has a "just there" quality and it takes a redolent sensibility to share an experience that's implied. When someone can't read the air then the emotional illiteracy has consequences for all.

The downside of such a collective imperative should be likewise obvious: we can feel pressured, stagnant, repressed because there is an expectation to "get it" or get along with what is expected. We also need to allow others less familiar with situations or culture to feel included, welcomed, and respected.

The shadow, however, is here at the forefront: the "not reading the air" is what we all feel and the hidden light of that shadow is that we can want people to feel more accepted and more fluent in the social circumstance. We can be rooting for the implicit without being coercive or reproving. That level of nuance too requires an emotional empathy that we hope for and can learn to evolve in ourselves.

We here all know that Trump is a malignant narcissist. You don't need to have a clinical professional degree to see that his is no ordinary selfishness. It isn't merely that he is immune to others' needs or feelings or that he calculates them solely for his own benefit; it is that his sociopathy demands that others are to blame, that others must be punished for whatever does not suit his self-aggrandizement. Those around Trump read his air and become the toadies and swamp creatures that cause us to wretch.

But never has the air seemed so toxic as it does around this man even as his media machine and sycophants breathe it all in.

And this time the air cares not who is reading it. It's what's in the air that we must read as our shared need to take care of each other when our leadership is so grievously impaired.