Escape from San Francisco
I’m writing this as I’m heading home on BART from the one class I had/chose to take in this year’s CIIS Intensive. It’s kind of a huge relief that I didn’t have to take all the Intensive classes this year, which requires spending a week and a half again in San Francisco. This was far less costly — I shared a room with a sister scholar for only two nights, instead of eleven nights spent in a singleton room. It was far less exhausting this time too. On a random side note, I feel sorry for the new students, since it sounds like the writing class sucked just as much this year (though for different reasons) as it did last year, too.
I seem to have really lost the luster on this program, and from things I’ve heard I’m definitely not the only one. People are wondering if there are enough students applying for/being accepted into the program, since core classes are being cancelled, and there don’t seem to be enough profs to go around — especially for things like advisement and thesis/dissertation committees. It doesn’t help any that the current head of the department is new and overloaded, the previous head of the department is off on (indefinite?) medical leave, and the remaining on-site people hired full-time by the program seem to be rather disconnected or disinterested. They all have my sympathies, but I’m going to take the advice of the wise woman who told me I should make the program what I needed it to be, and move on.
Now I’ve been there again, I don’t think I really like San Francisco. Admittedly, I know it best through Market and Mission streets — maybe it’s gorgeous and wonderful elsewhere. However, Mission was a dive last year, and this year it’s being aggressively worked on — lots of buildings being remodeled, lots of unhappy displaced homeless, lots of “For Lease” signs. Is it just me, or was Mission filthier this time too? More trash and poop on the streets, and me less comfortable walking there.
Well, the strange and wonderful still abound, I suppose, though I wasn’t really looking for them this time — I was there for only two nights and three days. It’s still astonishingly expensive too, though I did very much enjoy the (slightly overcooked) Valencian paella I shared with a sister scholar one night. The class I took was on dreaming, and I learned some nifty things there as well. I think I agree with my sister scholar, though: there’s a real cognitive dissonance between the emotionally grounded, deeply embodied learning which we are being taught — compared to the windy, dirty city and the zombie-trudging, worn gray homeless we walk through each day to get to and from class.
I asked a question in class which I’m going to repeat here: so many people long for a better world, and so many have tried to make one. So… what happened?
Why are we stuck in such a dismal and destructive urban perspective? Why are there still despairing people starving and lost, when so many people say they want to help improve things? Where are we going wrong? What is it in this world which eventually strips us of our dreams? How do we get them back?
I think it goes back to some of what we were discussing in one of your earlier posts.
I’m going to go out on a bit of a limb and be a little bit partisan in my answer: It happened when we allowed people to put greed for wealth ahead of respect for others; allowed people to put self-interest ahead of community interest; accepted a (heretical) belief that the Christian God helps those who help themselves; and effectively codified kyriarchy into our society and the way we do ‘business.’ In fact, it has become *impossible* to avoid perpetuating kyriarchy in almost everything that we do.
It has been said that there is a ‘culture war’ going on — I’m not the one who coined it, and at this point I’m not sure if it was social liberals or social conservatives who coined the term. But this ‘culture war’ is in orbit around the core issues that our society is facing. I think at the very base, it is the question of: What is the purpose of society? (And after ten thousand years of civilization, to ask this question and still have debates about it is troubling.)
I say that the question is ‘What is the purpose of society?’ because the roles and responsibilities of society, and by extension the members of that society, are at question here. Should society care for its ill, its impoverished, its hungry, its poor? For most people, the answer is ‘yes of course,’ but then comes the debate: Who defines who is a part of society? What should those poor, hungry, impoverished, homeless do to “earn” that charity? (This is something that infuriates me: The redefinition of words as an ideological weapon. I remember when ’empathy,’ ‘compassion,’ ‘charity,’ and ‘justice’ weren’t considered bad words even by authoritarians.) Too many times, the “haves” have demanded that the “have-nots” must all but grovel for crumbs of ‘charity,’ for scraps of food, for a few hours of a roof over one’s head. The powerless aren’t allowed a moment’s respite or any sort of nice things, because then they don’t deserve any sort of ‘charity.’ If they’re not suffering, they don’t need charity.
Did someone redefine ‘charity’ when I wasn’t looking?
(Even worse, there are people who will argue that society is artificial, that altruism is false and a lie, that the only truly fair and just system is the one where it is every person for themselves. I won’t call anyone who holds that belief a sociopath… but they’re certainly making a darn convincing impression of one.)
I blame some of this on our society’s Mammonist embrace of “Greed is good.” (Another thing: When did one of the Seven Deadly Sins become a virtue of our society?) I blame too the Prosperty Gospel heresy that has taken too many of our churches: The belief that if you are faithful enough (faith, not works, gets you into heaven in these circles) God will reward you — a tempting lure to both the impoverished and the wealthy alike!
And more of it is the simple failure of the American Dream: It is no longer enough to go to school, study hard, go to college, get a career, work hard, provide for your kids, and retire with a pension. The social contract has been broken; corporations see employees as resources only. It amazes me that people still believe that the American Dream is possible except for the lucky minority of people.
In all things I have attempted to hold fast to one belief: Do not side with the powerful against the powerless. This is adapted from the Code of Hammurabi: “The first role of the government is to protect the powerless from the powerful.” The powerful can — and have, and will — take care of themselves. And if you’re not careful, they will gladly “take care” of you, as well.