Environmental News, Opinion, and Art                                                                                                     May 9, 2008

Emancipation
By David Thomson

All representatives are free to leave

We are too hard on ourselves, and not hard enough. 

Do we see clearly enough the suffering we cause in ourselves and others?  If we eat or move, we kill, though the Jains, they say, wield a broom on their forepath with the strength of prophecy and contrition.  Perhaps the Jains reprieving bugs with brooms are like Canadians playing at the sport of curling, though curling is by far the more curious of the two activities—is there not something freakish and repressed about so antic a display of housekeeping urges?  One averts ones gaze from such sincerity. Still, if Canadians can forgive themselves for curling, there is hope for the world.

How do bike chains get black?

In our life together, in what we have in common, we are harsh about our electoral gestures (someone must have voted for this idiot), but we give each other passes for the truly terrible things, like the trace of blackened oil on the trouser cuff of a cyclist.  There is the chronicle of our inhumanity at its most extreme, in an ink darker than blood.  Can we see it? 

How does bicycle oil get black?  It’s not black when it goes on to the chain.  I look around me here in Toronto and I see nothing black.  Certainly the earth is not black—only with the most strenuous effort is the cream-colored clay in this city, nestled into an old lake bed, darkened to lush earth.  Ride on a muddy day in the ravines with a clean chain and your sprockets will get muddy, but not black.  The fact is that bicycle chains get black not from dirt but from the excrescence of the “internal” combustion engine, from the highly toxic black scum oozing from cars.  Consider the levels of subsidy the cyclist has to maintain in order to pay to get his cuff monographed.  Even the cyclist with the sign on his bike, “More Potholes,” must pay thousands of dollars per year to maintain the fleet of cars, to maintain the set of concessions the Canadian government holds with the Americans to keep the Sixth Fleet strong enough to ensure the flow of oil, must keep the Iraqi babies that are killed just as dead as they are, hold the tableau, keep the playing field level so more can be slain.  There are many steps between the tittle of chain oil and the dead baby, and at each one we are free to absolve ourselves and our neighbor.  And not merely free, but prompt with our indulgence, our indulgences.

I am at the wheel of that car.  I dine tonight on squid simmered in its own ink.

Is there a tender heart there?

It is in democracy that we are too hard on ourselves.  Surely people who have voted for the tyrants of Western parliamentary democracy did not think, ‘I and my people are triumphant and we will have some robust wars and destroy the peace whether or not they find the weapons of mass destruction’.  Is it not more likely that they were reaching out to ward off the greater ill of their opponents’ choices?  Perhaps here and there they flexed their muscles but it was still insufficient to staunch the wound, the trickle of loneliness and abandonment.  They held on to what they could, made their stand where they could.  It is easy to have a cartoon version of those in power, smug and complacent, but if there were a tender, anxious heart in there, isolated and fearful, would we know it in time?  

In the pockets and hollers of the empire’s talk radio: no dead air space, lest the silence remind each listener of an insupportable loneliness.  Talk radio keeps the anger fresh, the troops supported.  Deviation is treated with derision.  But it is still the form and content of an abandonment we have known since high school.  This one goes out to all of you.  

Democracy is supposed to be our hope.  But it is an animist’s fetish.  It whispers, ‘better the lesser evil one knows than the greater evil that our neighbor is sure to choose’.  Democracy is also the animist’s neighbor’s fetish.  That’s two fetishes.  Democracy is the echo of a fetish.

Are the Western ways of being in the world capitalism and democracy?  Both are ways of abstracting, of moving away from presence and into representation.  Both work with the logic of the fetish.  Capital brands, democracy brandishes.

Pits younger, pits elder.  Still pits. 

Have you seen our weaker brother?

The chimeric vapor of lesser evil by which the engine of the empire is stoked, which thrives on a phantom Greater Evil, is like the notion of the Weaker Brother we had when I was growing up fundamentalist in America.  We understood that we had the liberty to engage in this or that activity—drink wine or wear red lipstick or play sports on Sundays—but we refrained for fear of offending the Weaker Brother.  No one had ever met this person whom we so frequently invoked, but weaker brethren were thought to be everywhere, poised for ‘stumbling’, and we could hardly move for fear of proving to be a rock of offense.  The Weaker Brother was more omnipresent than God, and was consulted more frequently.  And now the empire is supposedly divided into states of blue and red—or is it red and blue—and in the midst of the opposing color are great masses of apparently unsavory citizens who chose the greater evil, even as our own color soldiered on and chose the lesser evil.  Meanwhile the wars beget more wars.  We are castigated on all sides for voting as we have—how stupid could we be?—but have we not after all simply tried to avert evil by voting to lessen it?

The watchword on the left has been “bring home the tropes.”  But the tropes are home, and still the troops are elsewhere, and the scope of their adventures is without limit.  Could it be that the most damning trope of all is democracy itself?  And perhaps lesser evilism is its most alluring representation. 

Did you say something?

Call me an English teacher, but representation isn’t the thing itself.  Representation takes me away from myself, and offers a simulacrum elsewhere.  How many pieces of myself can I afford to send to the empire before I compromise my own integrity?  Can I not say with enough assurance what it is that I want without having someone else say it for me in a garbled falsetto?  How shall we complete so giddy and irresponsible a syllogism as democracy proposes?  Democracy is to the self as, as…as curling is to Jainism, I suppose.  It looks like it but has nothing to do with it. 

The fetish is our self as an object, a little puppet or a rattle.  Maybe a person prized for this or that gender or racial anomaly.  Perhaps something cute or tame.  A woman, maybe, to run our wars.  But this mead has proven as bitter as the hemlock that was democracy’s first beverage

“My fellow Americans,” the ‘executive’ of the empire has always liked to say.  Who?  What fellowship is this, what dark ventriloquism, to be spoken, and spoken for, by severely wounded versions of ourselves? Unholy union, one’s self betrothed to an apparent confederacy of dunces.  But it is not stupidity so much as a great sadness, an attempt to awaken by following the sleepers.

Does this mean we’re not going out anymore?

In the last election, the candidate on the ‘left’ side of the empire wanted to send 40,000 more troops into the field than the candidate of the ‘right’, but it is neither the people of the left nor of the right who are fools.  We all feel abandoned, and we all meant something else.  Without, at the very least, a negative vote, democracy is a parody of choice, like a language in which we try to communicate everything by using one word, ‘yes’.  How do you translate ‘loneliness’ in that language?  Is there a word for ‘wounded’?  If there is only the one word ‘yes’, how do you say no to war?  Sounds like a setup for date rape.  Democracy is an illness that puts the ‘mono’ back in monolingual.

If choice means anything, it includes the right not to choose.  The people who voted for Bush aren’t especially evil.  Neither are we.  In fact, maybe we did vote for Bush.  We are victims of democracy, but we can step away anytime.

What will replace democracy?  Let’s try nothing for a while.  If this seems too precipitous, could we not at least agree never to vote for someone who has voted for the wars?  And while we’re at it, why vote for the others, the very few who didn’t choose the wars?  They can’t get elected.

What will we do without democracy?

Without democracy, won’t we have anarchy and apocalypse?  But we already have anarchy and apocalypse.  They’re just successfully sequestered elsewhere.  40,000 children die in the world every day of hunger and its complications (coincidentally the same number as that of the extra troops for which that ‘left’ candidate hoped).  Democracy is a gated community.  This is not an accident, but something fundamental to the nature of capital and voting—the ability to represent, to abstract, to work at a distance, to offshore, to flag-of-convenience.  Once power has become spectacle, it is free to travel, separate from my own flesh-and-blood contingencies.  With a vote, I send myself away.  My soul leaps the garden wall and is gone, and if I see it again it is making mock-vampish faces at me from a billboard.  It murmurs to me from the TV set when the sound is off.

Candidates to office in America take an oath to uphold the Constitution, a document that was ratified on the understanding that black people are three-fifths human.  What would it mean for a black man to take such an oath?  That’s more alarming than a curling match.  The good book says, swear not, neither by things on the earth, nor under it.  I urge no man to swear till he knows the darkness that formed and bound him.  The problem with me, swearing, is me.  How could I possibly know who I am beneath God’s heaven, let alone who I might be when I am tentacled with shadow or thrust three-fifths into the loam of my unconscious self?  Best to live simply. 

I begin with emancipating my neighbor, if he has bound himself to me with an oath.  Certainly all kings and ministers and ‘representatives’ I release without a second thought.  If I could learn to constitute myself, that would be enough work for all the days I can see from here.

Toronto, May, 2008

David Ker Thomson (Ph.D., Princeton) is an English teacher.  He is in the Centre for Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto.  His latest article on the history of American radicalism is forthcoming in South Atlantic Quarterly.  He gave a more academic version of “Emancipation” as the keynote address at the York University graduate colloquium, “Apocalypse,” in March.

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