I've been thinking recently about how increasingly one sees social and rhetorical divisions arising in places where it was not as pronounced prior to the last 18-36 months.
In some of the literature from religious and civic groups that passes my way, I have noted a number of religious and civic leaders stressing the fact that these are troubled times and that there is a "danger" in embracing divisiveness and losing one's foundation or taking the eye off the prize or embracing some form of extremism that is unhelpful to the group in question, etc. This is normally followed by some sort of admonition to stay the course and not to let the trials of the current times distract one from whatever heavenly or civic goals the given group sees as its reason for existence.
I've been wondering if a substantial number of community leaders are noticing a hardening of sorts among their rank & file with regard to approaches to or postures toward the social and economic and political phenomena of our day.
With that in mind, I was struck when I heard on NPR yesterday afternoon, whilst driving to school, their obit for Derrick Bell. What particularly struck me was this:
"I think that you have to risk divisiveness in order to really make points," he told member station WAMU in 1996. "The people who are not divisive are both boring and they're often enough not saying anything!"I wouldn't want to make a universal rule out of Bell's observation. There is a need for unity and solidarity among human beings in order to get anything worth doing done. There is perhaps a certain nod to dialectic tension as a means of getting to truth in his connection between division and making "points," but then again it could be also read in a pomo sense of endless divisiveness. But I think what he is perhaps suggesting is that in the context of already existing divisions, particularly in a context wherein we all (or most people anyway) at least intuit the existence of those divisions, to not be divisive is to doom oneself to not doing or thinking anything of substance.
A relative of mine yesterday used the phrase orthoJobsy in reference to that fact that in her immediate religious milieu, it was a matter of (almost?, seeming?) dogma that Steve Jobs is to be praised to no end. Perhaps she had a few drinks in her, but when she suggested that she could give a rat's ass about trendy bobo Apple products and its Reed College dropout, ashram trotting, hipster billionaire who is perhaps the epitome of exploiter benefiting from insane commodity fetishism (in the most superficial sense of that term), she felt the wrath of the righteous. In that and several other virtually identical discussions following Jobs' demise, the lines were drawn hard and fast, and you had the usual comments about nets outside Chinese factories and the good ol' - "everything you buy is from China, so who are you to single out Jobs?" Nothing much to note there, except that it seems to me in recent months this sort of "typical" economic/political division has taken a decidedly more antagonistic turn. It's not news to say it, but there has been an increased coalescing of people disgusted at the mere mention of suicides in Chinese factories, and an increased coalescing of people itching to tell billionaires and their fans where they can go.
Other phenomena which exhibits these sorts of divisions are the discussions concerning the Occupy Wall Street protests. There are certainly not two simple sides on the matter. Some people don't care at all. Many on the left are not supportive of OWS really but are at least sympathetic to youthful idealism and energy. Others on the left hope to exploit the movement and George Sorosize it. Some on the right see it as pointless but harmless. But many people, I think more than would have been seen prior to this recession and perhaps prior to the last 12 months or so when it became pretty apparent to a lot of folks that this recession is now a state of "permanent reality," are given to express either outright intense hostility toward the protesters (as in an almost if not entirely visceral sort of anger), and this is met by a (smaller?) number of people who are genuinely quite sympathetic to the protesters and hope something comes from their efforts (whether or not they agree with all the methods or lack thereof or believe the protests will likely amount to anything). My point is not to discuss the protests here, just to note the increased division that discussions regarding the protests convey.
It seems that a significant and increasing number of Americans now believe that American society is irrevocably broken and fragmented. Such sentiments have long been a part of American social and civic life, but there is a notable increase and fervency in that posture today. Coming out of this economic crisis, if we do come out, we will be substantially different than going into it. The totem religion that is the American conservative movement is stronger than ever before. The concentration on winning state legislatures has been hugely successful, and the conservative propaganda machines have never been stronger (Democracy Now! et aliae ain't getting to the masses by comparison). The Tea Party controls the Republican Party at the ground level and has so quickly and efficiently turned the Party to the right that it is now clearly not to be taken as a political or social joke. Despite years of talk about a diminishment of religious right power, on state levels the religious right is more powerful than ever in many states - even in states where 15 years ago it was inconceivable that the religious right would be playing a significant role, take WI for instance. The Democratic Party has caved (per usual) and is now, on economic issues, flirting with economic policies than many centrist Republicans would have rejected a generation ago - the rightward shift on everything but identity politics in the Democratic Party has been swift and efficient. The Clinton fiscal centrism paradigm applied to a political situation wherein the Tea Party has the momentum and sets the terms of the debate, shifting what counts as "center," has rendered the Democratic Party meaningless in terms of positing any coherent economic policy. It seems fairly certain the a considerable rightward shift and dismantling of "entitlement" programs is coming, with increased austerity measures and an increase in pro-corporate policies.
One of the things I have noted in this time of heightened awareness of political and economic transition is that even people who have been decidedly apolitical or generally disgusted by all things political have increased their expression of disgust (which is some form of engagement, however minimalist). In the context we are in today, such persons find it harder and harder to dismiss and ignore political and economic debate - if for no other reason than the fact that they encounter more people in their daily lives (in person or via electronic media) that bring the debates to them. This also increases and expands the milieu of divisiveness.
There are real, objective divisions in our society that are phenomena that are of increasing social concern (and by concern I don't mean to suggest an agreement with regard to the issues), and existential concern to a growing number of Americans - divisions such as those who have access to health care and those who don't. Those who are underemployed and those who aren't. Those who have seen significant reduction in wages in recent years and those who haven't. Those who are food insecure (or worry about being so) and those for whom food insecurity is not an issue. Those who have been through a foreclosure process (or have reason to fear such) and those for whom foreclosure or shelter insecurity is not an issue. These sorts of divisions, do not, of course, correspond neatly to political or social views, but the increased consciousness of these sorts of divisions within the culture facilitates expressions of divisiveness of the sort perhaps Derrick Bell was getting at. Correspondent to all of this are as of yet vague but growing sparks of social hostility toward the rich, Wall Street, etc.
Most Americans are not going to watch Inside Job or read Richard Wolff or hear Elizabeth Warren. But most get some trickle down version of those narratives, and it seems a substantial number pretty much get that they've been royally screwed. That they then go any number of directions with this information, or, more likely, go nowhere at all for the moment is neither here nor there. This narrative, this information regarding screwery, is another provoking factor in the increasing division - it helps facilitate further divisiveness and inclinations towards divisiveness, even in people not yet inclined to do so much as voice divisiveness or act in a divisive manner (such as, say, confronting a police officer at a protest, or participating at a sit-in at a Bank of America).
This increased societal divisiveness and the overarching milieu of divisiveness doesn't suggest any particular societal trajectory. But it does encourage instability of existing social orders. Old Leftists and anarchists note that an increase in divisiveness does correspond to an increase in the likelihood of, or shall we say an increase in available social space for, spontaneous mass action. Whether OWS becomes a mass action of substantial size and substance remains to be seen, but whether or not OWS "succeeds" is beside the point - with any given radical transition or attempt at radical transition there will be many fits and starts. Even if OWS and every other mass action were to fail to garner serious mass support, you could still see this spirit of divisiveness have peculiar societal effects - perhaps a broad social recognition that the "American Dream" is a perverse myth and the notion that every worker is a potential entrepreneurial millionaire an example of pure quackery, with said social recognition resulting in a diminishment of the former American "work ethic" resulting in broad reductions in worker productivity - a new homo americanus or somesuch. Or perhaps something entirely different. I am convinced that increased social divisiveness is worthwhile and, in a sense, truthful, when there are clear and profound material divisions within a society. And I very much agree with Derrick Bell that a lack of rhetorical and 'practical' divisiveness in light of real, objective material and social divisions is one important factor in the breeding of that particular banal boredom of late modernity.
And while on divisiveness, I can't think of divisiveness without thinking of division, and when the word division comes to mind I can't but recall the lovely Division Street: America by Studs Terkel (see also here for some audio). A state of division begs Florence Reece's question. Terkel has a way about his work in which he, without even asking the question, forms the intuition in such a manner as the answer to it becomes more sound and resolute.