The Reason for the Lesion
God glories in suffering. As the end-of-year holidays approach, it may be wise to consider the “Reason for the Season” and the ways that that reason is subverted for the pleasures of the Ruling Class. A recent book explores the reasons why people are willing to dedicate a lifetime to being exploited and the reason is often the one we might expect because their suffering is ordained by a deity: a deity custom-designed by those who would exploit.
In his illuminating book Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond describes the progress of humanity as a series of mismatched conflicts wherein conquerors encroached on the land of others in order to take what they wanted. Early conflicts between bands or tribes tended to be personal or practical disputes wherein one group would raid another in order to settle a score or take property. Such conflicts tended to yield few if any fatalities since few were willing to give their lives for mere stuff. As bands evolved into tribes and then chiefdoms, a clear hierarchy of leadership began to develop in order to organize larger and larger groups of people into a cohesive community. It was not until these leaders learned the value of religion that battles became truly bloody. Stealing blankets, food and women for a god was a much more intense affair than stealing blankets, food and women for comfort.
Leaders from Pope Urban II to King James to Donald Trump have learned to associate themselves with a religious narrative. Such autocrats prosper because when people are provided a mythic narrative giving them a spiritual or otherwise transcendent purpose; they will die to defend it. When the leader is a primary actor in that narrative, they will die to defend the leader.
Professor Arlie Russell Hochschild explores how corporations exploit this phenomenon in and around Lake Charles, Baton Rouge and other heavily industrialized portions of southern Louisiana in her book Strangers in their Own Land. She catalogs how environmentally irresponsible companies like Pittsburg Plate Glass, Shell Oil, Union Carbide, Dow Chemical and Texas Brine intentionally seek out communities likely to accept a mythic narrative so as to assure that the company’s very bad behavior will not be resisted. This susceptibility to a transcendent mythic narrative — a narrative that assures a future and a reward beyond this world — is key to exploitation. Professor Hochschild refers to each person’s internalization of the mythic narrative as their deep story.
The deep stories are built around real experience, but that experience is colored and corrupted by the mythic narrative popularized by established propagandists and gossiping bystanders, all reinforcing the false representation of a tenuously maintained reality. This fabrication melds with the observable world to smooth the painful edges and bloat the paltry rewards with bruised but unbowed hopes. This artificial construction provides not so much a green and pleasant land but a set of canonical excuses for endured misery. As a last resort, the mythic narrative provides the ultimate reward for a world of suffering as a yet-to-be-revealed future in a transcendent paradise with a loving creator.
This process of targeted exploitation is explained in a fifty-seven page report, produced in 1984 by LA-based consulting firm Cerrell and Associates on the orders of The California Waste Management Board. That report, Political Difficulties Facing Waste-to-Energy Conversion Plant Siting, describes the process that large dirty industries use to locate areas of the U.S. most amenable to their damage. It identifies the personality profile of the individual least likely to resist and, fortunately for industry, these persons tend to gather together into communities of like-minded citizens for the very reason that they are easily victimized.
Eight attributes are identified for the “least resistant personality profile”:
- Longtime residents of small towns in the South or Midwest
- High school educated only
- Uninvolved in social issues, and without a culture of activism
- Involved in mining, farming, ranching (what Cerrell called “nature exploitive occupations”)
- Advocates of the free market
These attributes made the poor, ill-educated Cajun Catholics of southern Louisiana these industries’ “rightful prey” and a useful base for Hochschild’s research.
The Lesions of Service
The canonical excuses arise throughout the citizen’s stories as they are interviewed by the professor. One couple, the Arenos, used to swim and fish in Bayou d’Inde and they remember the beautiful living cypress wall surrounding that pristine body. Residing now on the shore of the heavily polluted bayou surrounded by dead cypress trees, the poisonous water steaming in the heat and filling the air with volatile hydrocarbons, they nonetheless, thank their sovereign lord for their many blessings.
They are each cancer survivors which is more than can be said for most of their family. Cousins, children, aunts and uncles died from various uncommon sarcomas, blood diseases and cancerous lesions but the Arenos were spared from the scythe of Death. Despite their poverty and the paucity of opportunities and the wretched stench that fills their lungs when the wind blows across the deadly water, they are thankful. Their excuse for their acceptance of this unfathomable fate is a combination of repeated disheartening defeats against the monied corporations; the discouraging lack of response from the complicit state politicians; and always, the easy-out of an eternity with Jesus. Jesus is thanked and praised every day in the certain hope of a world better than this one.
Mike Schaff was also highlighted in Professor Hochschild’s interviews. He lived in a pleasant home in a close-knit community of 350. He referred to it as a “piece of heaven” where fish were plentiful in the nearby unsoiled bayou and sea birds swooped majestically down on their succulent prey. Then in 2012, methane began seeping up from the ground. Small tremors began to imply that there was something wrong. In the fullness of time the ground began to sink drawing homes, ancient trees and grasslands into a thirty-seven acre sinkhole resulting from an incompetent attempt by a company called Texas Brine to drill into a massive underground salt dome. When the dome collapsed it took a neighborhood with it, spewing up oil slick, methane and other toxic chemicals, threatening the nearby aquifer and driving the comfortable inhabitants to safer ground.
Nonetheless, Mr. Schaff remains loyal to the oil industry which paid his salary for decades. He worked tirelessly and (most importantly) honorably, defining himself as a whole and honorable man. Despite honor being a vague concept to begin with, his story is one of honor which means that he, through his personal endeavors, has earned respect. He enjoys the outward expressions of this respect from those in his community and his church.
Bear in mind that respect is a very human concept. It is a human construction pieced together from our understanding of our role in society and the effectiveness with which we have fulfilled that role. Honor, role, respect, fulfillment — all social constructions which the surrounding society reinforces. As a member of The Tea Party Mr. Schaff wanted no new regulations despite the fact that his lovely home on the edge of the Bayou Corne Sinkhole has been cracked down the middle. His wife and children live in another state while he remains to guard his crumbling property. He is doing the honorable thing and protecting what is left of his dessicated legacy. In the interview, in his bisected home, he speaks in present tense: “We love it here” even though almost all of his neighborhood is literally gone. The people he loved, the neighbors with whom he fished, the unspoiled land that he cherished: all gone.
Mr. Schaff recalls the teaching of the nuns at his Catholic school with great reverence wondering why the government workers cannot be as holy and austere as they were. Again, the teachings of Jesus comfort him with the promise of reward for a life of suffering and want. His honor is tied up in the practice of work and community and church and that honor (almost a child’s view of honor) drives his actions. They don’t need to lead to a practical outcome. The difficulty of the act overshadows its outcome. He earns his value with penance.
I feel tremendous sympathy for these people. They are accepting what they accept because they believe that by doing the right thing they will earn the reward of hard work and steadfast loyalty. I know what that is like. I was Catholic until I was excommunicated in 2004. I understand the pitiful hopefulness of one seeking to reform a broken institution that once showed hope of correction. At Sun Microsystems, I was elevated to a role in the revered Architecture Review Committee where I felt the joy of institutionally bestowed respect. Being respected is a life-changing event. When I was laid off from Sun, I directly experienced the painful withdrawal as I took up the role of the simple coder at a range of companies having no understanding of the now-outmoded concept of expertise. I feel their pain but I hope I have not remedied that pain with myth and delusion. Instead, I must feel it and endure every day accepting that the past is past and my future must be built from the real resources at hand.
Jesus is not the Real Problem
I must hasten to clarify my views regarding spirituality. I believe that any person who takes to heart the written word regarding the person or persons recounted as Jesus of Nazareth, should manifest as a loving and welcoming individual of good moral character. Unfortunately the words of the biblical old testament (which have problems of their own) are twisted into the more benign new testament and presented as a comforting gruel to fill the desperate bellies of the uneducated and unreflective hollows whose beliefs and behaviors may then be formed by the narrative that serves their leader’s goals. The Louisiana churches conspire with the state and industry to remind the inhabitants that in this veil of tears, all tribulation will be eventually rewarded with eternal bliss. This trivial side-effect of Jesus’ much more expansive teaching has become the vile handle by which the oppressed may be wielded.
What is written deceives. This is Gutenberg’s Error: the ridiculous notion that what is written will be understood by the common man. The teachings of Jesus, Buddha, Mohammad and Adam Smith have all, unfortunately, been written down. The written word remains, ironically, the single most dangerous source of misunderstanding. People who are reluctant to read are nonetheless impressed by the written word. Those who read and connive may interpret specific phrases in isolation and use that illiterate deference to persuade the ill-informed that the ridiculous is the norm. Jesus is the reason for the lesion. Here then we have one key component of the larger problem. Jesus and his trans-temporal cohort have innocently become the potent ammunition of the Right. Those who seek the simplistic answer to their actual problems will forsake practical solutions due to the hope of a larger reward.
How do we de-weaponize Jesus and the other wise people of history? Until we figure that out, we will be cursed by the masses who will advocate for insanity believing that it is the will of Our Lord. Thomas Jefferson was recounted to have paraphrased Denis Diderot with:
The mind of man shall not be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.
Until wisdom is once again valued and religion is replaced by fact-based belief, the U.S. will be the wretched repository of right-wing buffoons arguing for a world that has never been, as if it were the ideal template for the world to be. Innocent people suffer and die for eternal causes that are merely the obsessive cravings of the spoiled offspring of an effete perennial upper class. Now is the time to develop strategies that may damp the effects of authoritarian religion. Those who would turn the names of the world’s great moral thinkers into signals (war cries) for the regression and destruction of humanity must be repudiated through a well-formulated strategy promoting scholarship and critical thinking. Shall we stand up for reason and argue at every turn against the prattle of the child’s stilted Jesus? Shall we make an argument for the value of outcome as opposed to pointless practice? Let us form a movement that may please the wise and influence the feeble. Let us not be timid when insanity is spoken with skill but instead cry out and name it for what it is. Let us name the lesion in order to heal it.
Julian S. Taylor is the author of Famine in the Bullpen, a book about bringing innovation back to software engineering.
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