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Monthly Archives: October 2011

Without small talk, where would we be?

Svend was on the phone with AT&T customer support for almost 2 hours this evening. I was struck by how each one brought up the weather. The funny thing was, they were in Arizona and we are in Oklahoma, but the weather we were discussing ours in relation to was the Northeastern cold front. Small talk, particularly about the weather, helps us all by creating spaces of fake interaction, lubricating the harsh angles of everyday conversation.

What would we do if we hadn’t figured out how to create safe spaces of meaningless-communication around weather-talk and other impersonal contextual events? What if we actually conversed about what really lies within?

A: I need to see the doctor for my pancreatic cancer.
Receptionist: Sure. [Can't say 'and how are you feeling today?'] … So how is your spiritual constitution today?
Patient: I’m fine. I’m still agnostic and fearful about impending death due to the uncertainty of what may or may not happen e.g. eternal damnation, total obliteration. What about you?
R: I’m snug in my confidence that I will be in a culturally comprehensible Heaven only when I am quite prepared to depart from this rather enjoyable earthly realm in search of an improved set of pleasures.
P: My own humble meta-awareness of my ignorance compares quite well with your complacency, despite the fact that your inward tranquility is better than my own. Still, the latter is simply owing to the fact that I am dying and you appear to be in relatively good health, despite your obesity which may be related to diabetes and poor cardiac health.
R: The nurse will call you in a few minutes. In the meantime, may I attempt to salvage your soul prior to its imminent departure from your body?
P: I’m fine, thanks. I’ll just wait for the doctor. I’d rather speak about spiritual matters to an individual with a more well-rounded liberal education and stronger critical awareness of their own flaws.
R: As you wish. I’ll let the nurse know, and when you’re calling from the flames, I’ll be smiling with the angels. Insurance card, please.

Restaurant customer: Table for 2 please.
Waiter: Certainly, sir. It’ll be 10 minutes. … And what are your political inclinations at this time?
C: Oh, I’m leaning left of center, and highly critical of those who buy into the myth that working harder will improve the economy.
W: Ah, I’m glad to hear that. Personally, I’m a graduate student working to pay my bills, and working harder is not an option but a necessity. The more of your kind that come to dine at this ridiculously expensive restaurant, the harder I have to work.
C: Though inclined to be generous in spirit to service staff, I find I feel kinder toward those in poverty in distant lands since they whine and talk back much less than people like you do.
W: Dealing with whiners is one of the hazards faced by those who live lives of relative luxury, sir. I believe we have your table and I am definitely brimming over with disgust for your hypocritical politics, so please follow me.
C: A corner table would be best, thanks, and I certainly won’t need to interact with you outside of this restaurant, since, hard as you may work, you won’t make it beyond academe and about $50K for the foreseeable future.

Feel free to contribute your own big-talk scenarios.

Aint no power like the power of the people

The world is in ferment. With popular protests in Egypt, Tunisia, the United States, and Libya calling for an end to the old world order, members of the old guard are shaking in their shoes. But so are those on their payroll, and the old guard gets to be in power because they have a lot of people on the payroll. Consider government employees and others who derive a degree of stability in their lives from a hierarchy and structure kept in place by the powers-that-still-somewhat-be. The choices are not straightforward ones for the haves, have-nots and have-at-least-somethings.

The corpse of Gaddafi and the London riots are cautionary notes that force us to consider, coolly, the implications of popular movements. For the conservative with vested interests, these are perfect illustrations of the need to keep Gaddafis in power. Many’s the time I’ve heard, growing up in Pakistan, people proclaim with a sigh, “Well, at least under Martial Law, you know you can go to work in peace – or stay at home under the curfew.” The power of the people is an amazing and terrible thing. The thing about the power of the people is that it contains within it, concealed, the power of the mob. How can leaders and activists in justified causes restrain and control the mob – the mob which seeks thrills and blood? The mob whose main goals are to fire weapons, slash, burn, beat and ease the burning of the soul? We struggle with the facy that, even at the Holy Pilgrimage, a site of intense spirituality, there are souls trapped in the carnal, who take the opportunity to grope pilgrim women in the throng circumambulating the Kaa’ba.

I watched the horrific video of the toddler in China who was run over by vehicles twice, and lay in the road as passers-by simply – passed by. Watching something like that does a terrible violence to one’s soul so I refrained from watching the grainy video about Gaddafi’s death. One’s assumptions about humanity suffer a kind of death when you see people passing by a bleeding and mangled toddler. It is an event that simply does not fit within my meta-narrative of humanity. It demands a revision of who we are, what this world is, what the nature of human life is, what a collective of human beings is. We know what happens in gangs of kidnappers and criminals, but this is not what is supposed to happen with “normal” people in the street. Who are these normal people? What is in their minds and hearts? What can we predict when we step out in the street? What do people do if they are not being watched by law enforcement, by authorities, by powerful individuals – and if they are unaware of surveillance cameras? And what happens when we are subjected, constantly, to the power of authority, to the power of the gaze, to the power of surveillance, and rarely to the power of reflexivity?

Though I didn’t watch the Gaddafi video, I did read the narration – the cries of “We need him alive” alongside the beating and gunshots. Once power has been shaken loose, the euphoria can barely be restrained. William Golding in “Lord of the Flies” depicts just such a terrible spiral downwards into savagery in a group of schoolboys who are stranded on an island.

For some, the brutality of the mob represents the true nature of humanity. For others, it represents the brutalized who have been crushed and restrained in their manacles so long that their natural impulses are almost irretrievably distorted and mangled. The answer, we hear, is to KEEP them crushed and structured. The answer, we also hear, is to liberate them and to allow the true nature of humanity to emerge freely.

I don’t pretend to have any answers. But neither First World powers, nor the IMF, nor the dictatorships of Egypt, Libya and China, nor Wall Street can escape the responsibility for their bloodsucking clamp on most of the world’s human beings by pointing fingers of accusation at protestors. Must we choose between lives of dehumanized penury under the power of a few or dehumanized terror under the power of many? Surely the choice cannot be so stark. Surely, with centuries of experience, reflection and soul-searching humanity can come up with better options. Surely we can look to the sources of altruism, inspiration, generosity, and wisdom among us, as we have done in all ages before. The power of the people is more than mere brute power – more than the power to snatch, grasp and overthrow. The power of the people lies, too, in the strength to build, the wisdom to grow, and the power to give. Let us, as individuals and collectives, draw upon ALL of our power.

Wanted: a single moment of self-congratulation

I’m not complaining about being a productive citizen. I buy into the work ethic as much as the next Protestant-flavored Muslim. The nuns (at the Catholic school I attended in Lahore) ensured that I possessed, along with several O Levels, a haunting, perpetually self-deprecatory desire to appease the next teacher/administrator/mentor/adviser/editor/blog reader that came along. So work is welcome. It fills the bottomless pit. It generates value. And it creates opportunities to escape the dishwasher.

I don’t complain about work per se. I have been working since I was 6, truly. The only thing I have to come to dream of is work which arrives in the form of┬ámanageable, reasonable chunks. Not small ones. That would be wimpy. Big, impressive chunks that generate adrenaline and allow you to appear busy enough to escape long conversations in the hallway. But still big chunks that can be completed before the next avalanche arrives.

As I slowly, very slowly, inch closer to my mid-40s, I dream of occasionally savoring a single moment of transition. I yearn to hold half a second in my hands, so that I may┬ádust my hands in a satisfying manner, and exclaim to no one in particular: “Done! Grant proposal / article/ chapter/ grades/ service/ committee work/etc. – Check!” or any such triumphant remark of self-congratulation. Nothing excessive. That would smack of joy and complacency. But, in this era of speed, multiple roles, information explosion, and so on, is a moment of accomplishment and satisfaction far too much to request?

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