We need a new rallying cry. Van Jones has an idea that’s not quite cooked, but suggestive.
On Saturday, someone who heard Jones address a Scott Walker recall rally in Wisconsin tweeted this quote from Jones’ remarks: “Don’t adapt to absurdity.” He was making the point that over time, even what seems preposterous becomes normalized. We adjust to the new normal, simply because we can. The flexibility that is one of humanity’s best qualities, allowing us to adapt and advance, works against us, enhancing the glow of inevitability political operatives slather onto champion hypocrites like Walker. He’s the governor, people: adjust to it.
Jones’ remark reminded me of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s description of the human condition: “The greatest hindrance to knowledge is our adjustment to conventional notions, to mental cliches. Wonder or radical amazement, the state of maladjustment to words and notions, is, therefore, a prerequisite for authentic awareness…”
Maladjusted and proud?
It is hard to stay aware—to refuse to adapt—when so much energy and capital are being invested in convincing us to sit down, shut up, and sip the soothing Kool-Aid, fulfilling our appointed roles as audience members and bit-players in the global spectacle of corporate domination.
But we seem a little less compliant these days. Indeed, it seems to be one of those moments: signs and reminders that people are reaching their limit are mounting daily, often coming from surprising sources. Two things especially captured my attention this week:
A TED talk by Nick Hanauer, a high-tech millionaire who invested in Amazon’s start-up, was refused space on the TED site, which naturally resulted in his video being forwarded, posted, and seen far more widely than in the normal run of TED talks. You can see the video and link to all sorts of responses on Time.com. Hanauer’s very short talk was created to debunk the idea that rich people ought not to be taxed at the same rate as others, explaining that it is false to say they should be given special treatment as job creators.
[S]ometimes the ideas that we know to be true are dead wrong. For thousands of years people were sure that earth was at the center of the universe. It’s not, and an astronomer who still believed that it was would do some lousy astronomy.
In the same way, a policy maker who believed that the rich and businesses are “job creators” and therefore should not be taxed, would make equally bad policy.
Outraged denunciations ensued (this one from Forbes is especially infuriated and amusing, encrusted as it is with trickle-down orthodoxies treated as gospel truth). Reportedly, the powers-that-be at TED found it too partisan (although it barely mentions partisan politics).
Over at CNN, Fareed Zakaria wrote a powerful “Incarceration nation” blog, citing evangelist Pat Robertson (of all people), whose recent endorsement of marijuana legalization was offered in recognition of the cost and failure of the war on drugs. Zakaria points out that
The total number of Americans under correctional supervision (prison, parole, etc.) is 7.1 million, more than the entire state of Massachusetts. Adam Gopnik writes in the New Yorker, “Over all, there are now more people under ‘correctional supervision’ in America…than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height.”…
In the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education. In 2011, California spent $9.6 billion on prisons, versus $5.7 billion on higher education. Since 1980, California has built one college campus; it’s built 21 prisons. The state spends $8,667 per student per year. It spends about $50,000 per inmate per year.
We’re here, we’re sincere, we’re maladjusted?
One of my heroes, Paul Goodman, spent a lifetime fearlessly pointing out the price that our deference to authority and adjustment to absurdity were exacting. Writing about him back in 2006, I quoted his astounded account, nearly half a century ago, of the pervasive expectation that we must learn to adjust, rather than to refuse to adapt to absurdity:
One is astounded at the general slavishness. The journalists at the President’s press conference never ask a probing question, they have agreed, it seems, not to “rock the boat.” Correspondingly, the New York Times does not print the news, because it is a “responsible newspaper.” Recently, the Commissioner of Education of the State of New York spoke of the need for young people to learn to “handle constructively their problems of adjustment to authority”—a remarkable expression for doing what you’re told….
So we drift into fascism. But people do not recognize it as such, because it is the fascism of the majority.
I have zero doubt that if a significant minority of us succeed in staying awake, we can thwart the tendency to adjust, turning the tide. I just don’t know if we will. I crave that voice, the uncolonized mind that says, “Stop! Look! Listen! Don’t adjust to absurdity!” I’m hearing it more and more now, sometimes from my own mouth, sometimes from yours. When I hear “Let Freedom Ring,” I see our faces, yours and mine. I hear our voices ring out.
Maladjusted, and it feels so good?
Rising Appalachia, “Scale Down.” “None but ourselves to make this thing last, none but ourselves to make this thing last…”
Man, it’s great to find out that I am so “maladjusted: that I am normal!!
Thank you Arlene.
Delighted to be well-maladjusted in such good company, Ron!
I drove to Redlands, California yesterday to take in the town and see the University. I took I-10 coming from the West. It is a BEAUTIFUL part of the country: the San Gabriel Mountains that climb 10,000 feet from the valley floor, followed by the smaller rounded, green rolling hills as I got closer to Redlands – except one could barely see the mountains or the hills – one needed well developed imagination and memory to get a picture of what they looked like … because the pollution, while “mild” yesterday, nonetheless robbed inhabitants of the City of Angeles of the precious view of their angelic homeland. It happened so gradually over the years that it became accepted without popular uprising. A month ago I mentioned to a stranger in the elevator how beautiful the mountains were that day, and he said “Enjoy them now, by June you won’t be able to see them at all from here.” And “here” was within 5 miles of those mountains. Your thoughts exactly (and independently) cruised through my head yesterday.
It reminds me of “Whosoever never ever loses their head, or heart in life, has neither to lose.”
You are a smart insightful and essential voice in our time Arlene. I needvt see how’s can extend and amplify it.with love
You are an essential and vital voice in our time Arlene. I née to see he I can help extend and amplify.
With great appreciation
Thanks so much, David! I am really touched by your response. Happy to talk anytime. I hope all is very well with you.
[…] the largest prison population and highest incarceration rate on the planet—if, as I quoted in my previous blog, California has built twenty times as many prisons as colleges in the last 30 years, if it spends […]
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