This has been a strange time in my little world: I’ve been traveling for work while my computer stayed home and lost its mind. I’m glad to say that sanity (i.e., memory, software, and general order) has been restored, and while I still have the sort of compulsive desire to tell the tale that afflicts survivors of accidents, I will spare you most of the saga.
What both journeys—mine and the computer’s—have given me is the opportunity to reflect on the workings of human minds, including my own. In particular, I’ve had a close-up look at the desire to believe, especially to believe the reassuring drone of those in authority.
Earlier this month, I gave a talk at Harvard that focused on some of the key ideas in The Culture of Possibility: Art, Artists & The Future. I focused especially on the way Corporation Nation has consigned artists to a trivial and undernourished social role, instead of understanding artists as an indicator species for social well-being akin to the role oysters play as bio-monitors for marine environments. I pointed out how arts advocacy has steadily failed (e.g., President Obama asked Congress for $146 million for the National Endowment for Arts [NEA] in the next budget, $8 million less than this year, when he should have requested $440 million just to equal the spending power the agency had 35 years ago). Yet advocates keep making the same weak arguments and pretending that losing a little less than anticipated constitutes victory. There’s an Emperor’s New Clothes flavor to the whole enterprise, a tacit agreement to adjust to absurdity and go along with the charade.
After my talk, a student asked me what arguments should be made instead. I pointed out that what we are actually spending our commonwealth on seldom gets engaged in this conversation. What does it mean that we spend more than two annual NEA budgets a day, seven days a week, on war? What does it mean that in many places cultural allocations are less than a hundredth of a percent of prison budgets? I posed the questions that ought to guide this debate:
Who are we as a people?
What do we stand for?
What do we want to be known for: our stupendous ability to punish, or our vast creativity?
The student nodded vigorously as I answered. I could see that she was with me: that the curtains of default reality had parted, affording a glimpse of the truths beneath the charade. And then something happened, something I’d seen before: some students’ excited expressions began to fade, shoulders slumped a little, breathing returned to normal. “Realism” had set in. What I mean by “realism” is the self-ratifying notion broadcast by every power elite: the message that the existing order of things is so firmly entrenched, so well-funded, and so effectively guarded that it is pointless to resist. Be realistic: surrender!
This is the real obstacle we’re up against. The pull of “realism” is felt in nearly every mind, even the minds of those whose lives are devoted to righting injustice and expanding liberty. Paulo Freire called it “internalization of the oppressor,” pointing out that when we hear often and insistently enough that we are weak, that we should cede our power to others who know better, we start to mistake that voice for our own. There is one skill that every power elite possesses, and that is the ability to persuasively assert its own mighty rightness. But there is one power that each of us possesses, and that is to cultivate the ability to recognize and reject this propaganda. It takes awareness, commitment, and choice to hack through false consciousness and begin to see clearly. It takes all those capacities to recognize that the voice of “realism” is generally propaganda for the existing order of power (and powerlessness).
I am struggling in several ways to get this point across. Especially when speaking with young people, I see them glimpse truths that light up their faces, and then too often, I see the light fade as “realism” sets in. Often I am speaking in institutional settings where messages about being “realistic” are pervasive: choose a course of study that seems to promise a good salary, not one that speaks to your passion; don’t ask too many questions, or at least be sure the questions you ask position you as merely curious rather than challenging; consider how your actions today will affect your future social position and income.
I tend to make myself an exception to these pressures. It isn’t a huge stretch for a contrarian: I’ve had a lifetime of asking challenging questions, risking my future on what seems right but not politic, and pursuing passion at the expense of profit. But the desire to lean into the comforting reassurances of the people in charge is just as much a temptation for me as anyone—maybe more. While my computer was out of commission, for instance, I had several almost identical experiences with Geniuses, who must all take the same course in Advanced Cooling Out The Mark. They looked deeply into my eyes, told me they sympathized, assured me that this time they understood the root of my problem, and that it would be fixed that very day. Here’s the thing: each and every time, I believed because I wanted to believe, but none of them told me the whole truth.
On the final go-round—no eyes this time, because the last phase of my misery was conducted via telephone—I was bumped upstairs to an expert who offered lavish sympathy, telling me that he would be my companion at every step, that after performing each step toward healing my computer, I could easily reach his direct number to get the next step, and that he would stick with me all the way. I sighed, leaned back, and felt safe and protected as I followed instructions. I awoke from the trance of “Don’t worry, I’m in charge” when it took him 48 hours to return my call after step one. He had a personal reason. I sympathized until it took him 48 hours to return my next call.
There’s a connection between these two things: my desire to believe when those who have authority (whether through political or economic power or through expertise) tell me they’re in charge, they know what they’re doing, and I can go about my business while they do it; and others’ willingness to believe the voices of “realism” when it comes to changing inequitable or unjust systems, to uprooting entrenched power. Whether we give into it or not, I think we share a longing to hear that authoritative voice lift the burden of responsibility.
My computer turned out to have what medical professionals call an iatrogenic problem, which is to say one caused by treatment. I took it in to have the internal microphone replaced and wound up having to rebuild all my data when backups wouldn’t restore. The expert who kept me waiting for a callback advised me to follow a very time-consuming and tedious procedure that involved restoring apps one at a time until I found the glitch. I counter-proposed restoring from a backup prior to my taking the computer for repair, which would take far less time to update. He advised against it—one of those disclaimer-rich set pieces about the limitations imposed on the advice he can give. Figuring I had nothing to lose but a little time, I went ahead and it worked.
Our social systems and wicked problems are complex, to say the least. But there are simple underlying truths that “realism” evades, because if we comprehend them, the next step is evicting the voice that counsels pliant passivity rather than full, active cultural citizenship. The math is simple: there are zillions more of us than the relatively small group that benefits from the current distribution of power and wealth. When we recognize that, all things are possible.
In the meantime, I have both a political and a personal reason to put myself on the side of awakening from “realism.” The political reason is obvious, I’m certain: the greatest obstacle to a social order of justice tempered by love is in our own minds, the preemptive, self-censoring, self-shrinking beliefs that keep us from acting on the glimpses of possibility we see. The personal reason is that I’m tired of banging my head against “realism” in action. I love to offer talks and workshops, I love working with students especially, but groups of all ages and conditions. Happily, I am invited to do what I love. But as a friend of mine put it, too often my work is seen as a “spice.” I get tired of being called “provocative.” I like to be thought-provoking, of course, but I’m starting to read that as a code-word for “I love what you say but is it ‘realistic?’”
Is it realistic? Is it feasible? Is it promising? Do I by now know enough from experience to say yes to all three? Yes, without a doubt.
So to the next person who finds my proposals “unrealistic,” let me say this: whether or not the self-ratifying propaganda of the powers-that-be remains the default setting for “realism,” well: that’s up to you. See how it stands up to these three questions:
Who are you?
What do you stand for?
How do you want to be remembered?
What I know of the vast possibility, the moral grandeur, the creative freedom of the human subject, I know in my bones. What I know—in real, practical terms—about how to access our best and inscribe it in our hearts, our organizations, our communities, I know from lived experience. This is real, not “realistic.” I doubt I will ever be persuaded to renounce this knowledge. But I’m frustrated, I admit it. I’m searching for whatever will release that feeling, inside my own mind or out in the world. For now, not knowing will have to suffice. Joe Henry, “God Only Knows.”