Thursday, March 25, 2010

Are You Slightly Privileged, Slightly Uneasy?

"And young people like yourselves, despite the allure of careers and comfort, have defected. Our only hope for real change lies in the possibility that all of us who are slightly privileged and slightly uneasy begin to see that we are like the guards of the prison uprising in Attica: expendable. That the establishment, whatever rewards it gives us, if necessary to maintain its control will kill us. But if the guards stop obeying, if you stop obeying, the system falls."

--Howard Zinn in "The American Ruling Class"

This is the quote that keeps running through my head since I first watched "The American Ruling Class". Not shocking: Zinn is talking directly to me. I'm slightly (well more than slightly) privileged and slightly (well now, a little more than slightly) uneasy. While I can see that things are very bad for so many people in this world, things are just good enough for me that I can convince myself that things are alright for those who are struggling. Or, maybe I recognize that I want to do something, so I become involved in the within-system organizations that are available for upper class liberals like me. I join the Democrats, and fight for their cause, to increase equality in our country. That's the right thing to do, right?

But it seems to me that Zinn is suggesting being a democrat is no better than being a republican, it's only a better lie you can tell yourself when you are feeling uncomfortable about the bad situations that you see around you. By representing the elite liberal viewpoint, I'm actually just playing my role in the system that oppresses those that I want to help. I'm the prison guard, without me, the prisoners would not be kept where they need to be--after all, I am who is suppose to be representing them in the negotiations.

This question is very challenging. I have been struggling with it a lot, and I don't know the answer. Is it possible to change a broken system from within? Or by working in the system are you just perpetuating it? The current political situation is an interesting one to examine. Now, we have Obama, whose election, in many ways, was suppose to represent the causes of the previously disenfranchised, the anti-Bush. But the incredible struggle for health care simultaneously invigorated the far right while watering itself down to the point of distaste for many 'very' liberal democrats. Meanwhile, the economic 'recovery' could be summed up as rich people being uncomfortable for a short period and then thankfully becoming rich (and in some cases *goldman sachs* richer), while 1 out of 6 americans are currently unemployed with the poverty rate higher than it has been in decades. So, it does appear to me that cheering the current democratic 'victory' is something of a sham. It entails swallowing a whole lot of things that I think are wrong, and accepting that the things I want "aren't possible", when that really means "not possible within the current system".

On the other hand, am I really going to claim that progress has not been made within the system as it is? Aren't we, as individuals, as nations, as a world better off than we were 20, 100, 200 years ago? It's a very debatable question, but hard to unequivocally say that things are getting worse. Not to mention I can only barely conceive of what working 'outside of the system' or 'stop obeying' could mean practically. What else can I do besides join the fight that has been making some progress some of the time using the channels that are available to it?

Zinn's quote paints a dim picture of me, the liberal elite. It's not that I have the wrong ideology, but rather because I have the right kind that complacency is so alluring. If I have a vague notion that things aren't right, I can vote for a democrat and chalk up their failures to politics as usual, while I go along my business living a comfortable, free life. And there is a big part of me that thinks there is something really wrong with a system where this is a natural, common choice. But if I'm honest, I think all it can definitely imply is that there's something really wrong with me for choosing it.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Jon Stewart Flipping the Fuck Out

Two nights ago, Jon Stewart dedicated his entire show to mocking Glenn Beck. If you haven't watched Glenn Beck, I think you should. Millions of people watch and listen to Glenn Beck everyday. They do so to gain information. He has had five books be #1 on the bestseller list. This makes me feel completely crazy. And really freaks me out. It has also made Jon Stewart completely crazy. Please watch him freaking the fuck out here:

It's nothing short of amazing. It did make me wonder if Stewart might be getting pushed over the edge a little bit though. In fact, this whole week he seems to have taken a fever pitch. He perfectly pointed out the criminality of our banking institutions by comparing them to a individual actor, in another episode he equated all politics to WWE conflicts--asking, So you're saying it's all fake?, later one of his correspondents tried to hack into the meeting of the insurance head honchos. Jon Stewart is the only popular news commentators willing to point out how mind-blowingly ridiculous basically everything on the news and most of the policies that come out of congress actually are. I'm really starting to wonder if Stewart is going to turn one of these days, Al Franken style. Stop telling everyone at the end of the day, I'm just joking, and ask people instead to take him very seriously. But I guess that would probably ruin it all. Jon Stewart's makin jokes, that's why we're all listening, in the end.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Please Watch The American Ruling Class

The American Ruling Class - Watch the Documentary Film for Free | Watch Free Documentaries Online | SnagFilms

I have recommended a few movies on this blog, but have never felt more strongly that everyone I know needs to watch a movie immediately than I feel right now. The movie is "The American Ruling Class". One of my immediate reactions to the film, besides horror, sadness, and the intense desire to abandon everything I was doing to start fighting for the causes the movie outlines, was why hadn't I seen this movie already?

Of course, the answer was right in the first scene, which was set at Yale's graduation. I am a member of the American Ruling Class. People who are members of this class will be made very uncomfortable by watching this movie. In fact, watching this movie was a very uncomfortable experience. Everyone is implicit in the class structure that it outlines, there's no safe spaces for the apathetic or unconcerned. And so, in a way I'm not recommending this movie, because I think most people I know would find it very disturbing to their worldview and the choices they have made so far in their life.

But of course, I am still VERY STRONGLY recommending this movie, because I have yet to be able to form a reasonable argument against this movie. Thus, I have the selfish motive of asking you, my extremely intelligent readers, to watch this movie and maybe find the flaw in it's reasoning that will convince me that what it satirizes isn't completely true. Either that, or you become as inflamed as I am and we can start the revolution together.

Just joking.

Sort of,

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Death Bear and Creating New Realities

In Brian Greene's book, The Fabric of the Cosmos, he states that "we live in a reality that remains ambiguous until perceived,". He says this because the experiments and equations of quantum mechanics have (as perfectly as any scientific theory ever has) demonstrate this again and again. Thus, it is not that there is an external reality that our brain gives us access to, but rather that our brains, through perception, create an external reality Since reading this, and doing my best to understand the implications of quantum mechanics, it has been a source of ever-growing bafflement why this has not completely altered the way we interpret our universe.

Of course, I do know why, in a way, these conclusions of quantum mechanics have not been internalized. After all, we do not have control over our external reality. We cannot move mountains, or make people love us, or get the jobs that we want, or manifest our desires out of thin air. And so, we are left with the current interpretation of quantum mechanics: yes, it is true that on the most fundamental level of matter the act of perceiving determines what is perceived, but on the massively larger scale of our day-to-day lives, that fact becomes no longer true. If that doesn't sound weird to you, then fine. But it sounds fucking weird to me.

Enter Death Bear. So, I fully admit that I am no where near being able to control my external reality. But artists like Nate Hill, who performs Death Bear, demonstrate how easily manipulated our concepts of what's 'real' and what's 'fake' are, and I think that's the start of unlocking these mysteries.

Let me explain. As I mentioned in the previous post, one of the reasons I decided to give my coat away was because it was something valuable (even though it only cost $10, it was unique), and I thought by giving away something valuable I would be making the experience with Death Bear 'more real'. In fact, from the moment I called Death Bear, I wanted to try as hard as I could to just accept as reality there is this thing called Death Bear that takes things into their cave never to return again. I think, more than anything, I wanted to make an impression on Death Bear, to penetrate the reality he was constructing.

As Death Bear's arrival loomed closer, though, this idea got scarier. After all, it takes a lot of balls, and complete rejection of 'the way things are' to create and then live out your own world. All of the speeches and performance I had gone over and over in my head the night before seemed to be jumbling in my mind as we waited for his arrival. I suggested to my friends and sister who were there that they should give something to Death Bear too. My stomach tightened.

As soon as Death Bear walked in the door, though, he set the tone. He staged himself on the couch and demanded that we all sit next to him, one by one, and 'pretend that there was no one else in the room'. When I presented him with my coat, all I could do was blabber mostly incoherently for a minute or two about New Orleans, Katrina, and not needing a coat before I handed it over in tears. It was very emotional for me, but after Death Bear left, I felt lighter, happier and more complete. The act of giving my coat away, and knowing that the aspect of my life that it represented was 'gone forever' created the reality of me having closure and gaining the strength to move on.

I don't know if Death Bear has this effect on everyone. But I do think that since I was so committed to taking it as seriously as I could, it was real for me. In this way, the act of thinking Death Bear is real makes him entirely real. After all, what would it mean to have an 'real' Death Bear? What would be the difference between a 'real' Death Bear and a 'fake' one? It could only be how seriously both the artist and the audience were willing to take it. And if both are willing to risk it, you will walk away from the experience with entirely real closure and very real relief from your pain attached to a specific object. In this way, Death Bear manipulates your specific, personal, reality in a way that is completely catered to you. I think this is completely revolutionary, since so much art is meant to lure you into its realities but little art is so personally modified for each individual. Death Bear shows you how a person can create a new reality for you. But how do we go about making new realities for ourselves?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Why I Gave My Coat to Death Bear

So, there is more downtime on my job then I thought there'd be. Good. As a lot of you know, I invited Death Bear over to my sister's house a couple of weeks ago as a way to part with the Northeast before I made my move to the south.

As we were searching for parties to go to that night, we came across Death Bear's number. In one sense, Death Bear is a performance artist. His concept is to dress up in a ridiculous outfit, come to your house and take things away for you to put into his 'cave', where you will never see them again. Once he takes these things, he says, they will be gone forever. My friend Olivia suggested that I give him my winter coat, since I was going to New Orleans and wouldn't need it anymore. My instant reaction was complete resistance, how utterly ridiculous it would be to give away my coat, so I realized that I had to give my coat away.

A note on this coat. For one thing, I really loved it. I had gotten it 2 months earlier at a thrift store in North Philly, and as soon as I saw it I knew I had to have it immediately.
It was that rare winter coat that was both stylish and incredibly warm, who's previous owner, Diane Sague, had written her name inside the pocket. To me, the coat was a symbol of my integration with north: after a 4 year struggle with winter, I had found a coat that was both functional and stylish, and all winter long, when I had it on, I was comfortable in my environment.

So why give it away? Well, for one, since I valued it highly, I thought giving it away would give my experience with Death Bear more weight. Plus, without a winter coat that I liked so much, my incentive to return to the Northeast would be a lot lower, my exit more final. The truth is, my arrival in the northeast was fueled mostly by my own geographic insecurity: growing up in New Orleans, no matter how much I loved it, I felt that if I wanted to do something important or interesting in the world I had to get out of the South and go to the Northeast. This myth was a very difficult one for me to shake, as both Northeners and Southeners perpetuate it.

When I was a kid, my teachers pushed me to leave the south to get an 'real' education, and while adults lamented that 'all the good students go away', they seemed to accept its inevitability. Once my sister left for college and spent time in New York, she would return laughing at the Times-Picayune's living section, as articles on 'trendy' Yoga seemed hilariously outdated. Clearly, New Orleans was not where it was going on. I needed to get out if I wanted to get anywhere.

Once I arrived in Connecticut, this continued. My classmates assumed I was racist before I even finished a sentence that had the words 'black people' in it, and they lectured me on the absolute stupidity of anyone on the right, especially those in the South, who at the time were running our country. People would constantly ask, "Oh, why don't you have an accent?", meaning, usually, "Oh, you're southern? Why couldn't I immediately tell you were an idiot?".

With all the attention New Orleans got from Katrina, New Orleans became a unique or interesting place to be in the eyes of the nation, but it was my renewed snobbiness after 4 years in the north that kept me from returning immediately after I graduated---yea, New Orleans was a good place to stop by for a bit but it still wasn't a place where 'real' things were going on. So, at the time when I gave my coat to DeathBear, I thought these were the reasons. I was shedding this insecurity that I had, and feeling confident that New Orleans is a place where I can do interesting things.

But I've come to realize that giving up the coat was more complicated than that. I think being in the Northeast, at an ivy league college, had given me a confidence I needed to shed. It gave me a false sense of self-importance that could only be sustained by staying in that general area, where the Ivy league is most revered. It's always difficult to let go of the one that rejects you, and the Northeast, New York and Yale in particular, is filled with opportunities to feel less-than. People are almost completely segregated by money, education, ambition, sub-culture affiliation, and ideology, and these gates are very difficult to pierce. Luckily, being from an Ivy League college and having friends and relatives who were successful in New York made it easy for me to feel cool when I visited. And there's nothing quite like feeling cool in 'the City'. And there was nothing that I owned, right then, that made me feel cooler than my coat.

And so I decided to give it to Death Bear, and all that came with it. I think I'm going to save what happened when Death Bear came for another post. But I think it's funny to point out here that even calling Death Bear was something that I did, in some ways, to seem cool. So it was paradoxical in that sense, but the experience was so realistic that it transcended my baser motives for it. And now, I see that shedding the coat really represented shedding the external structures I had constructed to ensure me that I was cool, accepted, alright.

Of course my impressions of the Northeast that I expressed above were in some ways just manifestations of my own insecurities. But I do think the North's cultural emphasis on ambition, status, and class and the inherent competition based on the increased population make it a uniquely difficult place for an insecure person. Now, being back in New Orleans, I still feel hampered at times by the biases and snobberies that have blocked me from seeing past the arbitrary social measures of college attended, future plans, etc., to determine value. But I'm getting better at judging for myself, and it feels quite good.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Work is My New Lover, I am on Hiatus

Since graduating from college, the parallels between finding the right career and finding true love have increased dramatically. The metaphor has helped me make many career and love decisions. It was perhaps most striking when I quit my job, and the feeling could be compared to a somewhat uncomfortable but necessary break up. My resignation letter could basically be summed up as "It's not you, it's me", and the response from my bosses "We're sorry to see you go, but follow your heart".

The comparisons continue, as I've tried to both apply the career advice 'just try something, even if you don't know you want to do it forever' to my love life and the love advice 'you're too young to settle' to my career.

And so this week, when I returned to New Orleans, single [unemployed], I found that like relationships, no matter how much I anticipated the relaxing into my job search I was fully on the rebound. Scanning craigslist the way sad lovers lurk in bars damp with liquor, I saw my standards slip away as I frantically constructed resumes tailored just so. How could I tweak myself to make me more appealing to these nameless hiring managers?

But today, like magic, I got picked from the multitudes. And it was loveatfirstsight: the movie business. And like all good love affairs I've signed my life away in an instant and will be working 60 hour weeks for 2.5 months. I say it's nothing serious, just something to do in the interim, but I have a feeling I could be all wrong, and it's a good one. So these posts might slow down, but I hope you'll bear with me, and thanks so much for reading...:)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Democrats Need to Start Playing

It is now popular for opinion columnists to write about the impending victory of the Republicans in fall of 2010. I think this should be described as what it actually is: a victory for Fox news. For some reason, Jon Stewart is the only 'news' source that consistently reports on the kind of gross and overwhelming lies that Fox News perpetuates every single day. To date, the Fox News Channels consistently garners about 3x as many viewers as the second place news channel, CNN.

As movies like OutFoxed and the Daily Show demonstrates almost every night, the Fox News Channel is anything but news. It's very difficult for me, and probably most liberals, to even watch the shows, because they are so thick with bias, exaggeration and confounding facts.

I don't like Fox news, and I wish they didn't exist. But I also don't think they are going away anytime soon. The left's answer to the network, MSNBC, though, I find even more annoying. Especially Rachel Maddow. She seems to think that she's going to beat Fox News by emphasizing, over and over, how stupid they are, or at least how much more clever she is. This is really stupid. People watch Fox News to be entertained, not to learn. And they are entertained, because Fox News emphasizes how scary and terrible the world is, and when people feel something, even if it's a bad feeling, they keep watching.

The left also needs to entertain. Except the emotion that they should stir is compassion, not fear. This would be a channel I would gladly watch. Rachel Maddow should be made over to look like a soft comforting woman, who, hour after hour, details the horrible and outrageous travesties that insurance companies have committed against people just like me. MSNBC should make these sob stories news, in the same way that Fox constructs stories and construes facts to make people afraid. In fact, I don't even think MSNBC would have to lie as much as Fox does, at least with the health care issue. The left needs to 'stoop' to Fox's level. I don't think it's stooping. It's a way of reminding liberals around our country why they are bleeding heart liberals in the first place. And it's not because they think they are more intelligent than everyone else. But rather that they see the inequality and suffering that is caused by individuals who are afraid, and they want to do something about it. And that's what the liberal media needs to remind them of, and the only way they will ever have a fair competition with Fox News.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

So What if Anti-Depressants are Placebos?

In the two months since Sharon Begley's controversial article in Newsweek, "Why Anti-Depressants are No Better than Placebos", there have been a slew of articles and books out debating the issue: doctors fighting her conclusions, patients fighting back, Irving Kirsch's exploration into the drug's reality and Gary Greenberg's equally interesting exploration of the industry surrounding these anti-depressants. In her article, Begley presents the argument that anti-depressants are little more than placebos. I think the arguments are pretty persuasive. That's because it makes a lot of sense that mental illnesses are especially susceptible to placebo effects--after all, depression is an illness of thinking, and placebos change the way one thinks about your illness.

One reason I think people are so resistant to this idea is because it challenges their assumptions about the division between body and mind*** when it comes to health. By focusing solely on the physical body as the source of all illness and thus healing, modern western medicine has rejected the power of the mind to heal OR be the source of illness. Paradoxically, I think this focus has benefitted individuals who suffer from mental illnesses like depression. But I think if Begley is right, and most anti-depressants work in a placebo manner, we should really re-think our assumptions about the mind's role in our physical illnesses.

When a patient presents with symptoms of heart disease, a doctor naturally attempts to treat the heart. This is because heart disease is an umbrella term for a whole host of problems associated with the heart. Since we are currently ignorant of the precise physical manifestations that cause depression, its more properly described as a disease of the way a person is thinking or feeling that causes them to feel predominately sad, empty, lethargic, lonely, apathetic, etc. So, naturally, when someone presents with depressed symptoms, the doctor wishes to treat the person's thoughts and feelings. Anti-depressants do exactly this. They give a person a tangible way to think and feel healthier about their depression. First, they physicalizes the symptoms of the illness, separating the individual from their depressed symptoms. Like a bad case of the measles, or even a cancer, depression becomes something that can be fought with physical manifestations like medicine. Further, they remind individuals that they are not alone in their sadness, that there is hope for them, and that they are doing something productive to help their problem. And for 75% of people, this treatment, this physicalization of their thoughts and feelings really helps them, and they are able to improve their depression.

This description does not deny that depression is caused by something physical within our brains--far from it. What I'm suggesting is it's precisely because we emphasize depression's physical dimension, and probably treat it in some way that we are unaware of currently that we give individuals a better chance at defeating its mental symptoms. But, if we admit this to be the case, then it becomes a lot more difficult for us to deny the converse of this conclusion: that if we emphasized heart disease's mental dimension we would give people a better chance at defeating its physical symptoms. I don't know for certain whether this would help people or not, simply because the research hasn't been done--(and it's debatable whether scientific research could be done, since the hypothesis seems to be questioning the scientific method). But I do think that these are assumptions that are implicit in our modern understanding of depression are the reason why Begley's article caused so much controversy. And yet, the facts remain that these drugs have helped a lot of people feel a lot better (to table the issue of over-prescription, which I think is valid). So, I think the public revelation that anti-depressants are primarily placebos should be taken as a general wake-up call for our one-dimensional view of illness in general.

***Caveat here: I'm not trying to argue here for a dualist view. When I make the distinction between mind/body, I mean to the extent that anyone distinguishes between mental/physical illnesses: that there is physical cause for the mental ailments, but the causes are so far from our current neurological understanding that the distinction still makes practical sense.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Starting a Re-Education

Almost three weeks ago, I quit my job. It was very hard for me. For, I had grown very used to do doing things that didn’t really feel right to me, because they were ‘good in the long run’, or I believed that ‘you have to work hard/do things you don’t want to do in order to get the things you actually want’. I think this lesson starts in elementary school. Children are born with the desire to learn who they are. But school does not foster this exploration. Instead, school creates an environment where children learn the set of expectations society is going to have for them because of the categories they happen to fall in—in other words, who they are suppose to be. Kids are often being told to ‘grow up’. But this does not mean, learn to focus on what you feel most passionate about. To grow up, in our society, means to start sacrificing the things you like to do in order to work hard on things the society values. Eventually, children lose track of what they care about and start to fully buy into the dreams that our culture makes for them. When we come across people who are happy and enjoying their lives, we judge them as immature and unsuccessful, because we believe that only through sacrifice and struggle will we succeed. We reward those who have sacrificed their existences for work with high salaries, and punish those who chose self-expression as their career with labels of lazy or self-promoting.

I’ve been in school for the past 17 years, and was always an extremely dutiful student. This sense of duty got me to Yale University, where the conviction that one needs to basically suffer in order to become successful was stronger than any other environment I’ve ever been in. Students there would take enormous pride in the sheer amount of work they did, bragging over how many hours spent in the library, how many days they’d gone without sleep, how many pages they had written out of sheer willpower, and how impossible, because of their enormous time constraints, it was for them to enjoy the little things in life. In my freshman year, I took up knitting. One Saturday afternoon, as I sat knitting on the couch, a roommate of mine walked in, clasped her hands and sighed, “Oh Kezia! It’s so nice that you have time to knit”. The sad thing is, she didn’t mean to sound like a condescending bitch. She really thought it was amazing that anyone in this school that she could respect could possibly have a spare moment on a Saturday afternoon to knit a scarf. At the time, I was mortified, and I never knit again. It seemed to me that if I was going to be at Yale I needed to be taken seriously, so I could waste time with pointless hobbies like that.

When people would ask me what I thought about Yale, I would always say “it’s intense”. I knew I was miserable there, but I did not have the courage to reject the environment because Yale is one of the most respected universities in our country. Thousands of children every year put their sights on coming to Ivy League colleges and I felt that it was ungrateful, weak and pathetic of me to want to leave there just because the place didn’t make me feel good. Of course this place doesn’t make you feel good, I thought. This is what it takes to be important and successful in life! If you can’t cut it, it’s your problem!

And so, when I started my job in September, it’s not surprising that I had a similar attitude. When I thought of quitting because I wasn’t connecting with my work, I again felt shameful and weak, as I had when I considered transferring from Yale. My peers confirmed this, as some reminded me that we all have to do things we don’t like in order to ‘become adults’ and be successful. Now, I no longer think that this is true.

I’m not saying that in life one will never have to do something that they do not want to. Learning to understand and accept others desires as you do your own is an essential aspect of growing up. I do think, though, that when you feel passionate about something, the work you must complete to achieve your goal that could at first appear monotonous or unpleasant becomes easy and enjoyable. I don’t think it should just be accepted that most of the time you will not want to do you work, or you won’t enjoy it. Instead, I think that if you are dreading your work then you should take that feeling as a signal that you aren’t doing the right thing. Becoming an adult, for me, is no longer going to be about learning to ‘suck it up’ or ‘bite the bullet’ or ‘be realistic’. Instead, I’m going to put all my efforts into learning, as well as I can, who I am and what I care about most. And I hope, through this education, I can more successfully choose a new job.