Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Dear Millennials

I just read another op-ed piece by conservative James Kirchick (who I suspect graduated from high school after 2000 himself), in which he warns you - the Millennials - that you are about to collectively ensure the election of little Danny Trump as President. You are doing that because you are immature, spiteful . . . because you are inadequately schooled in the Niebuhrian realism necessary to be fully-fledged members of the democratic polis. Your refusal to vote for Hillary Clinton to stop Little Donny will usher in The Political Catastrophe. You fail to realize that this is not merely a vote, but a tempo task. This is the part in the movie when the situation demands we depart from our principles to address an emergency. The tempo task, wrote Sergei Eisenstein, allows the protagonist to forget the rules to get the job done and save lives. Typically, this is when the women and children are pushed back into the house, while the man goes out into the street for the showdown, or when the bomb is ticking and the bad guy has the information beaten out of him just in time. But in the case of the 2016 United States General Election, this translates into Preventing Fascism. Set aside your deep moral aversion to Clinton's actual record (Little Donny has no real body count yet; Hillary got her bones years ago.).

Ever since the state started commanding that we send our children to an age-segregated indoctrination institution during twelve of their key formative years, we have set up the idea of 'generations.' We can name them now, X, Y, Z, Baby Boomers, Millennials, Hottentots, and so it goes. The greatest unintended consequence of compulsory public schools - like elections, another ritualization of 'progress' - has been the 'generation gap,' these apparent layers of age-culture. Hey, we learn by mimesis.

Mimesis it is the establishment of a person’s relationship to the world around her or him. It is embodied, and mimetic learning is “constitutive of social, artistic, and practical action.” When we watch the formation of small children, we see in them an apparently innate mimetic capacity. They emulate our voices, our facial expressions, our particular choreographies of body language; and in their doing so, we also see the transformation of mimesis, to habit, to discovery of context, to understanding, as the child matures. As Aristotle might say, the child “actualizes” his or her potential.

We learn how to behave socially by mimesis. Mimesis is intersubjective. We relate to others and acquire not only their habits but also their feelings and desires. “To be able to act ‘correctly,’ under given circumstances,” says anthropologist Christoph Wulf, “people need practical knowledge gained in sensual and corporeal mimetic processes of learning which take place in the corresponding fields of action. The characteristics of social action in a given culture, too, can only be grasped by approaching them mimetically. Practical knowledge and social action are to a large extent the result of cultural and historical conditions.”

Non-mimetic actions like mental reflection, analysis, even the development of daily routines, are built fundamentally on a mimetic foundation. Prior to the capacity for conceptual practices and the development of routines, mimesis makes one progressively more similar to familiar others; and thereby, mimesis is also the basis for making one less and less similar to certain nonfamiliar others, that is, people of different societies or cultures. Most of us have observed this direct transmission of culture and identity, even and especially in its current state of flux.

Consider for a moment any familiar, white middle-class culture in any place in the United States. Consider at the same time a working-class African American family somewhere nearby. Children in each setting grow up imitating the speech, gestures, emotional cues, and customs of their families of origin. And there are observable distinctions between each. now, consider that the children of these two cultures attend the same school. To a significant degree, each group of children is likely to practice self-segregation, especially those who have had the least contact in the past with the “other” group. The similarities that characterize each group constitute an identity that is learned mimetically, and consolidated with powerful emotional resonance. Each culture is, likewise, established in the mind of a child.

In forming one type of similarity with members of one’s own culture, one accentuates another type of difference from members of a different culture. Consider also, especially since legal segregation was abolished, that many of the same kids today, including Millennials, through cultural transmission and especially through electronic media, may begin to imitate one another across cultural lines, and thereby take on some of the cultural characteristics of the other. For better or for worse, the most common sites for this transmission are still consumer spaces, but intercultural families are also now becoming a little more common.

Oddly enough, interracial marriages are more common in the U.S. Army than any other sector I know; but one factor that makes this possible is the cultural distinction of the military and military communities, and the common experience of formation that all military members undergo—which makes them different in certain ways from surrounding civilian cultures.

Mimetic learning, according to Wulf, is simultaneously the “appropriation of the world and the constitution of the subject.” There is no functional separation between self and surrounding world. The subject is constituted directly through that appropriation, and that appropriation is aimed at belonging. Belonging is a particular and crucial kind of recognition. Linda Kintz says that each of these formative experiences, mimetic and supra-mimetic, is associated with the belongingness of the home and the affirmation and nurturing that took place there from infancy. In this, the formative behaviors and attitudes of any subject are accompanied by a deep emotional or, as Kintz calls it, affective resonance.

As people grow into legally recognized adults, the practices and attitudes they learned prior to their conceptual development remain, powerfully influencing and in many ways defending a subject’s identity. This affective resonance is primary. “The intensity of mattering,” writes Kintz, “while ideologically constructed, is nevertheless ‘always beyond ideological challenge because it is called into existence affectively.’”

Cultural critic Slavoj Žižek describes the intersubjectivity of this resonance in formation:

The desire staged in fantasy is not the subject’s own, but the other’s desire, the desire of those around me with whom I interact: fantasy is an answer to “You’re saying this, but what is it that you effectively want by saying it?” The original question of desire is not directly “What do I want?,” but “What do others want from me? What do they see in me? What am I for the others?”

Children are at the center of a web of relations that serves as “a kind of catalyst and battlefield for the desires of those around” them. The child absorbs various social games, including “language games” with all their meanings, from this interplay and even from conflict.

Every parent I know, myself included, has seen mimesis in action— imitation, habituation, and, finally, understanding. At two, a child will imitate a parent sweeping the floor. At ten, she has incorporated this into her routine chores. At fifteen, she knows when a floor needs sweeping and has an appreciation for the value of the before-and-after difference. In Haiti, where I have spent a good deal of time, the unschooled children in the countryside begin performing adult tasks as soon as they are big enough because the performance of these tasks—carrying water, washing clothes, gathering wood, repairing structures, animal husbandry, hoeing and harvesting, etc.—qualifies them as fuller members of their society. They begin imitating adults early; and they learn very quickly, because they are not put into age-segregated schools for “formal,” abstract learning.

The school kid wants to belong, but in an age-segregated environment like a state school, that desire for belonging is transferred from family and local community to one's co-imprisoned peers. The apprenticeship model of formation is replaced by a technocratic one, an authority in front of the room 'disciplining the minds' of a crowd that was born within a year of one another. The Us-Them dynamic in the schools, between the older authority and the age-ranked crowds, is carried back into the home; the sub-culture of adaptation and even resistance is born in the classroom and school halls and then consolidated by the capitalist hucksters of youth culture. That's how we ended up like this, with me - a so-called Baby Boomer - and you - a so-called Millennial - actually using these categories to speak across the unintended consequence of the Prussian-model public school, the generation gap.

This is how we can put each other in a box, slap a label on the outside, and list our ingredients.

This is a love letter across the lines. I'm not a Baby Boomer. I'm an elder. We belong to the same family. So when people like Hillary Clinton or James Kirchick or any of the rest of the misnamed 'Realists' insult you because you aren't acquiescing to the diktat of realpolitik, when they suggest that your commitment to the confrontation of politics with morality is a mere vestige of your oh-so-uniformed youth, you can tell them to go to hell in whatever idiom your particular age group uses.

You are over-represented among the working poor. Your parents are likely to be struggling financially. You are probably in debt if you went to college. Your job market is pure shit. If you're black, Latin@, or Native American, there is a good chance you or someone close to you has been harassed by, brutalized by, or maybe even killed by the so-called criminal justice system, that you or someone you know has been locked up. You probably own a smart phone, but your chances of owning a home, sometimes even a car, are lower than we older folks. You are often broke. And you have access to more information (that raw, unprocessed stuff) than anyone in history; which makes you dangerous, because you can look outside the lines of the Baby Boomer television and newspaper dependency for answers about what exactly is happening to you, and to the ruined world that we, and generations before us, have left you. We've reflated your financial bubble for you, so it will surely be twice at bad the next time as it was the last, we've continued to waste and poison the world's drinking water, to acidify the oceans, to disrupt the atmosphere and climate, to build armaments and even export them, to cut down the last forests, push tens of millions worldwide into that most modern and hellish of of all hells - urban poverty, converted farmland into McMansions, killed off species by the dozens every single day, sexualized and objectified women while they are still children, and thrown 716 people for every 100,000 into prison. I don't think you are idealists at all, as some would pejoratively suggest, but that you are the realists, and we - across the age spectrum of Realists - are the ones who keep drinking Jim's Kool-Aid. This is a systemic problem that will not be corrected by the mechanisms available within that same system.

The primary elections this year for the Democrats suddenly created a space for your true strength to be seen and understood, in the insurgent candidacy of Senator Sanders - regardless of how you view everything that has happened since Sanders lost. Sanders was not the main attraction. The Democratic Party was not the main attraction. Not even the elections themselves were the main attraction. This burst of political energy from so-called Millennials was the main attraction, yours the signature accomplishments, which included exposing the Democratic Party, and the political system in general, in all its musty corruption. You exposed the media, too. And this is why you shall be castigated, lectured to, compartmentalized, refrigerated, air-brushed, commoditized, and set aside - or so they hope. You are strong. With each day, each birthday, you grow potentially stronger, and with each death day as well, let's be honest those of us who are closer to the end than the beginning. They fear you, the powers, but also those who cling to the pant legs of power and haven't discovered the courage yet to let go. You are the ones giving voice to the most dangerous reality of all - the one that is on us now. You are saying that all these disasters we are witnessing are related, that they are all related to the great pseudoscience of economics, and that reliance on piecemeal solutions at this point in history is infinitely more dangerous that the risks that will be necessary (even that fool, Trump) to pull up that system root and branch and do some things in a fundamentally different way.

In the Book of Luke, Jesus of Nazareth - who is now considered a dangerous revolutionary by a variety of powerful people - says, contra his other pronouncements about the joys of peace, that he comes to bring "not peace, but division." 'Hate' in the Bible often means something more akin to 'turning away.' 'Love' is turning toward, and 'hate' is turning away. Jesus had warned that following the way of the cross will cause children to 'hate' parents, and parents to 'hate' children . . . cause them to turn away from one another.

They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.

There are those who perversely and spectacularly wrongly use this passage to justify war in the name of Christ, but close reading shows that he is talking about a generational divide. All the 'againsts' are dividing the patriarchal family of origin from the new family of those following the terrifying road to Jerusalem and Golgotha. Another story from another empire.

And yet, here you are, my Millennial friends, facing new people and turning away from others (sometimes they will turn away from you), because you are displaying the most dangerous and destabilizing virtue of all - a revolutionary faith. Alan Watts said,

To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don't grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float.

So when a tool like James Kirchick writes:
As I’ve written here before, I suspect that Clinton’s inability to pick up Sanders backers stems in part from a left-wing anti-imperialism [poo-poo'ed you have been, with a little subtle red-baiting] that considers her to be a “warmonger.”
But there’s something deeper, and darker [you bear the seed of evil], about millennial opposition to Clinton and the attendant blitheness toward the prospect of a Trump presidency [because this is the issue, as I, James Kirchuk, have defined it]. It’s best described as a mix of moral relativism [No, a Clinton supporter did not just accuse anyone of moral relativism!], historical ignorance, and narcissism. . . [the ultimate, you have been diagnosed, medicalized, now off to fetch your medications]

. . . But the main reason for millennial apathy toward the possibility of a Trump victory [he's read your mind, you are apathetic because you fail to share his fears], I suspect, is a lack of historical understanding. Millennials, particularly American ones, are too young to have any memories of the Cold War, never mind World War II, when fascists ruled Europe and millions of people died as a result. Trump’s echoes of fascist movements past has no resonance with us.

Ah, fascism! And with it, Brother Kirchuck's pose as an historian of fascism. He is telling other young people about what they have ostensibly forgotten. He is going to correct your historical misunderstandings. Including his misunderstandings of fascism, we might hope. Not merely his easy and totally inaccurate conflation of the present-day US with Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy, but his failure to mention that in pre-Nazi Germany, one of the main things opening the door to the Nazis was the election of a lesser-evil candidate. Not merely his utter failure to compare the world situation now with the circumstances of the mid-twentieth century, but also his ignorance about the state of generalized and open political violence in the streets between thousands of men in armed factions. These things, this civil war, did not come about from fascism. This was the very condition of its birth.

But I quibble. It's his arrogance that rather burns my ass. Arrogance that conceals his debilitating fear, based on his debilitated understanding of history, and conforming to the morally degraded language of fear-founded Realism. I just want to say that he is wrong, that I have great hope for you, Millennial friends.

There is only one and has only ever been one weapon that can bleed through the tiniest fissures in the ceilings and walls and begin to dissolve faith. That is fear. The devil is always about fear. Trumped-up fear, in this case. Because they fear you. They fear the latent and waking power of you, the Millennials, and now Kirchuck has given his best effort to castigate, lecture, compartmentalize, refrigerate, air-brush, commoditize, and set aside the challenge you represent to power and by extension to those who cling to the pant legs of power out of their own fear.

And it won't work. You are experienced. You are possessed of good will. You are developing the tools to understand and neutralize those who fear and loathe you for choosing the harder, and in the short term, riskier, course. None of us every 'gets it right,' so that's not the point. You see what hurts, and you are saying that the hurt matters.

I am grateful for you, for what you have already accomplished, and what you will do in the future.

I have faith in you.


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