a chimpanzee manifesto

Fred Clark, as ever, cuts to the heart of a recent debate between the Krugman/Delong alliance and Everybody Else. Krugman and Delong say we should spend government money to help the 10% of Americans who can’t find work, find work. The Grown Ups say we can’t do this obviously compassionate and necessary thing, because Bad Things Would Happen. The Bad Things are cloaked in jargon or, more commonly, left unspecified. Hands are waved. Arguments like this one really, really tweak my always-trigger-happy class resentment like woah. It’s becoming increasingly hard for me to see conservative ideology – and, indeed, much of modern capitalism – as anything other than a figleaf protecting the brass balls of the superrich.

We’re chimpanzees. We confabulate madly to justify decisions already made before we knew we had made them. We’re engrossed in power and dominance games. The White House press room is a great example (oh, Helen Thomas, no.) Those reporters cannot come out and write the obvious, necessary things – the things Fred Clark, for example, writes – because they fear they will lose Access to Important People, and their chimpanzee balls and ovaries shrivel at the prospect. Judith Miller could not simply point out that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction and that his (secular) Ba’ath party had no connection whatever with the (religious) al Qaeda and that Congress was being very thoroughly lied to in the lead-up to the Iraq War. Those of us who did point these things out until we were blue in the face – and I claim no special insight here, there were ten million of us on the streets that Saturday – weren’t listened to, of course, because we had no Access. You had to be at least that deluded to ride that ride. Chimpanzees that fell in line with the dominant narrative of the day got plum embedded assignments and Halliburton contracts and, what was it? Nine billion US dollars in cash, in steel containers, “lost” somewhere in Iraq? Yeah. Everyone was lying, but it is in the nature of chimpanzees to go along to get along.

I do it too, God knows, the most corporate and compromised person in any of my personal circles. I have baby chimpanzees and an eye on the prize and I want some of that river of lost cash so my kids can go to good colleges (for-profit institutions engaged in the sale of privilege) and thus obtain precious precious Access. I listen and retell stories in my own bit of the great chimpanzee collective confabulation, our great work, our oral Wikipedia, the first draft of a bullshit history that is itself trying to defend the victors from their victims. I try to tell the good, useful software from the cynical rip-off, smart decent CEOs from sleazy embezzlers. I try to inject a laudably Fred-like note of clarity and sanity into the proceedings. But I can’t unchimp myself, can’t not want to be liked and accepted, can’t not want to keep what I have and maybe get some more for the kids. So, moral weakling that I am, I have to pay attention to where I am slipping, to the gross things I let myself off so lightly for (I fly too much, I eat meat, I drive a car, I speak politely to bankers.) I see the master narrative working away at my weak spots, singing its siren songs, tempting me.

Jan has a stack of newspapers – the arts and culture sections of the FT and the Times – and try as I might to simply read them as if I were chatting to Grant about books, I can’t separate the cheerful gossipy absorbed enthusiast’s conversation about stories from the dreary vuvuzuela of Capitalism Victorious. I can’t see the World Cup or Wimbledon as anything but huge cynical spectacles arranged to distract people from the fact that we are ruled by thieves. This is, of course, my own fault thanks to my massive ignorance and lack of engagement with sport – I do see that football and tennis can be beautiful – but I also see their utility to a malign elite. Say one urban black kid in a million gets to be a college basketball or football star, gets to be rich (and have his brain pounded to jelly, in the case of football); the others might just shut the fuck up, toe the line like good beta and gamma and delta chimpanzees in case the magical hand in the sky – the A&R guy, the reality TV audition, the lottery, the Dragon’s Den – comes down and chooses them next time. Bread and circuses. Retirees in Reno and Vegas feeding their Social Security through slot machines, and voting Republican in case they hit the jackpot.

God forgive me, I do find this intensely interesting. A huge part of what makes Hilary Mantel sing on the page – and Patrick O’Brien too, come to that, and Vikram Seth and Jane Austen – is the acute ear for these negotiations and confrontations, the lie told so often it starts to sound true, the master narrative nudged towards Reformation or Revolution by daily repetition and recapitulation (hahahaha, see what I did there?) I saw this in my Master’s thesis too, reading the mid-nineteenth-century Irish journalists who wrote The Nation when there was no nation, who created The United Irishman when Ireland was not united. Those men – John Mitchel, Charles Gavan Duffy, William Smith O’Brien – wrote the Republic of Ireland into being. A thing has to be thought before it stops being unthinkable.

This is what we are going to have to do. We have to dream up a good world for our grandchildren (it took the Young Irelanders seventy-odd years, it will take us at least that long.) We have to dream up sustainable and carbon-neutral societies, civil rights, human rights, equity for the poor world. We have to tear down the walls that keep the poor people out, because a walled garden whose only function is to exclude is not paradise. It is a fortress and a prison. (McKenze was a child when the Berlin wall came down; last night I tried to explain to her what it was like for us, growing up in the Cold War, thinking that the world would probably end in nuclear war before we were thirty, then finding in the space of six months that all our atlases had become obsolete. I said, it was as if Palestinians and Israelis were hugging in the streets. As if the two Koreas were reunited.)

Because Fred is right. The unemployed people are not an economic problem; they are our friends. The people in the poor world are our brothers and sisters. The Foxconn suicides, the war in Congo are embedded in this MacBook on which I write; my whole lovely happy life is predicated on exploitation and poverty. It’s not okay. Activism has to become a habit with me, prosaic, wonkish activism: pressure on Apple and other manufacturers to examine their supply chains; pressure on Arizona and the federal government to reform immigration and education, and to create jobs and provide more opportunities for working-class kids than the military or a football concussion; pressure on the press corps to stop telling so many transparent and idiotic lies. We can’t make a paradise on earth, we can’t extricate ourselves from accommodations that are also deals with the devil, we can’t ever make things perfect or pure because to do so is to build walls that keep people out. And also because we are chimpanzees and weak. We can’t, in fact, win – this is the long defeat, life ends in death. But we can be on the right side, sticking up for the truth and against bullies. We can say the things *we* want to have happen until they drown out the idiocies of macroeconomics and neoconservatism, and become the new Overton Window. It’s not just about walking away from Omelas; it’s about going back with an EMT team, breaking the kid out of that cage and sending her to college.

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