What Then Is To Be Done?

buster-keaton RED aged

Yes, echoing Tolstoy’s 1886 essay here because as editor Aylmer Maude writes in 1935:

During the half-century that has passed since the book was written many political questions that then seemed highly important have passed into the dull recesses of history; but Tolstoy’s impressive warning that the pursuit and worship of money does not bring satisfaction and that the possession of talents and privileged position, far from justifying self-indulgence, are a call to serve those less fortunately placed, remains as valid as when he wrote it.

And more than a century later, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Tolstoy thought mothers need to cure all the ills, but then he saw women as either self-sacrificing mothers or “whores” so I think he should have just admitted that really he didn’t know how to fix things (hint: capitalism has no way to fix these things). Since the Thatcher/Reagan era while promoting the idea that greed is good, the oligarchs like the Koch brothers and the Waltons (not those Waltons) have been looting the common purse making themselves ever richer while everyone else grows poorer. They seem to sidestep censure by assuring the general public that they want to and can achieve the same thing. So the people who can least afford it support the wishes of millionaires because they imagine that’s what they’ll be one day.

I feel a lot of Ballardian echoes this week, so here are some snapshots from the current atrocity exhibit:

The Russian avant garde artist who has become the maniac behind Putin’s propaganda machine: what Fox News has attempted flailingly and inexpertly, Surkov has done with single-mindedness and admittedly, panache. If you cannot identify reality, you cannot fight it. Oh dear.

An advertisement for luxury flats in London was mistaken for a surreptitious trailer for Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of Ballard’s Hi-Rise, because its Patrick Bateman-esque aesthetic; it maps onto that with such precision that it took no time at all until there was actually a parody version created with dialogue from Mary Harron’s film.

The University of Death by Inches: in a microcosm of the greater political economy, administrators expand like fungus while faculty and students are told to get by with less and less. When the solution to every problem is to form a new branch and appoint a new VP who (unlike the largest department at our esteemed institution) receives administrative support, it’s no wonder that, “The number of non-academic administrative and professional employees at U.S. colleges and universities has more than doubled in the last 25 years, vastly outpacing the growth in the number of students or faculty.” Everything from the lies of ‘No Child Left Behind’ to the constant irritation of endless rounds of ‘assessment’ erode higher education — and the humanities in particular, the discipline that teaches people to analyse and argue. It’s no wonder people are fleeing.

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Despite this I seem (perhaps against reason) to have hope. I’m not saying we can bounce back from or neatly sidestep disaster like Buster (though we can try). But every time I see a hashtag like #icantbreathe or #everydaysexism I know that something has shifted — and that people hunger to do good, too. As a medievalist I look at the long spirals of history and I know for a fact that people have the power — but we’re going to have to choose soon how that manifests.

What then is to be done? Create. Speak. Sing. Write. Don’t give an inch. Do not be fooled. Don’t be derailed. But keep your sense of humour. Don’t let the bastards and trolls get you down. Unite.

[in a slightly different form, this also appears at Medium; shortly after posting this, the first news of the Charlie Hebdo attack appeared on Twitter, so I added that image]