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Wallace Shawn, Are You Smarter Than Thomas Jefferson?

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Are You Smarter Than Thomas Jefferson?

Our capacity to fantasize about other people and to believe our own fantasies makes it possible for us to enjoy this valuable art form, theater. But unfortunately it's a capacity which has brought incalculable harm and suffering to human beings.

It's well known what grief and even danger can result when we make use of this capacity in our romantic lives and eagerly ascribe to a potential partner benevolent characteristics which are based on our hopes and not on truth.

And one can hardly begin to describe the anguish caused by our habit of using our fantasizing capacity in the opposite direction, that is, using it to ascribe negative characteristics to people who, for one reason or another, we'd like to think less of. Sometimes we do this in regard to large groups of people, none of whom we've met. But we can even apply our remarkable capacity in relation to individuals or groups whom we know rather well, sometimes simply to make ourselves feel better about things that we happen to have done to them or are planning to do.

You couldn't exactly say, for example, that Thomas Jefferson had no familiarity with dark-skinned people. His problem was that he couldn't figure out how to live the life he in fact was living unless he owned these people as slaves. And as it would have been unbearable to him to see himself as so heartless, unjust, and cruel as to keep in bondage people who were just like himself, he ignored the evidence that was in front of his eyes and clung to the fantasy that people from Africa were not his equals.

Well, one could write an entire political history of the human race by simply recounting the exhausting cycle of fantasies which different groups have believed at different times about different other groups. Of course these fantasies were absurd in every case.

After a while one does grasp the pattern. Africans, Jews, Mexicans, same-sex lovers, women. Hmm, after a certain period of time somebody says: well, actually, they're not that different from anybody else, they have the same capacities, I don't like all of them, some of them are geniuses, etc. etc. The revelations are always in the same direction. We learn about one group or another the thing that actors quickly learn in relation to themselves when they become actors: people are more than they seem to be.

We're all rather good at seeing through last year's fantasies and moving on -- and rather proud of it too. "Oh yes, after voting for Barack Obama, we took a marvelous vacation in Vietnam," "We went to a reading of the poetry of Octavio Paz with our friends the Goldsteins, and we saw Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi there -- they looked fantastic"" whatever.

It's this year's fantasies that present a difficulty.

Are we more brilliant than Thomas Jefferson? Hmm -- probably not. So there's our situation: it's delightfully easy to see through illusions held by people far away or by members of one's own group a century ago or a decade ago or a year ago. But this doesn't seem to help us to see through the illusions which, at any given moment, happen to be shared by the people who surround us, our friends, our family, the people we trust.

Sorting Babies on the Global Market

Around 400,000 babies are born on earth each day. Some are born irreparably damaged, casualties of the conditions in which their mothers lived -- malnutrition, polluted water, mysterious chemicals that sneak into the body and warp the genes. But the much more tragic and more horrible truth is that most of these babies are born healthy. There's nothing wrong with them. Every one of them is ready to develop into a person whose intelligence, insight, aesthetic taste, and love of other people could help to make the world a better place. Every one of them is ready to become a person who wakes up happily in the morning because they know they're going to spend the day doing work they find fascinating, work that they love. They're born with all the genetic gifts they could possibly need. Wiggling beside their mothers, they have no idea what's going to be done to them.

In the old days of the Soviet Five-Year Plans, the planners tried to determine what ought to happen to the babies born under their jurisdiction. They would calculate how many managers the economy needed, how many researchers, how many factory workers. And the Soviet leaders would organize society in an attempt to channel the right number of people into each category. In most of the world today, the invisible hand of the global market performs this function.

I've sometimes noted that many people in my generation, born during World War II, are obsessed, as I am, by the image of the trains arriving at the railroad station at Auschwitz and the way that the S.S. officers who greeted the trains would perform on the spot what was called a "selection," choosing a few of those getting off of each train to be slave laborers, who would get to live for as long as they were needed, while everyone else would be sent to the gas chambers almost immediately. And just as inexorable as were these "selections" are the determinations made by the global market when babies are born. The global market selects out a tiny group of privileged babies who are born in certain parts of certain towns in certain countries, and these babies are allowed to lead privileged lives. Some will be scientists, some will be bankers. Some will command, rule, and grow fantastically rich, and others will become more modestly paid intellectuals or teachers or artists. But all the members of this tiny group will have the chance to develop their minds and realize their talents.

As for all the other babies, the market sorts them and stamps labels onto them and hurls them violently into various pits, where an appropriate upbringing and preparation are waiting for them. If the market thinks that workers will be needed in electronics factories, a hundred thousand babies will be stamped with the label "factory worker" and thrown down into a certain particular pit. And when the moment comes when one of the babies is fully prepared and old enough to work, she'll crawl out of the pit, and she'll find herself standing at the gate of a factory in India or in China or in Mexico, and she'll stand at her workstation for 16 hours a day, she'll sleep in the factory's dormitory, she won't be allowed to speak to her fellow workers, she'll have to ask for permission to go the bathroom, she'll be subjected to the sexual whims of her boss, and she'll be breathing fumes day and night that will make her ill and lead to her death at an early age. And when she has died, one will be able to say about her that she worked, like a nurse, not to benefit herself, but to benefit others. Except that a nurse works to benefit the sick, while the factory worker will have worked to benefit the owners of her factory. She will have devoted her hours, her consideration, her energy and strength to increasing their wealth. She will have lived and died for that. And it's not that anyone sadly concluded when she was born that she lacked the talent to become, let's say, a violinist, a conductor, or perhaps another Beethoven. The reason she was sent to the factory and not to the concert hall was not that she lacked ability but that the market wanted workers, and so she was assigned to be one.

And during the period when all the babies who are born have been sorted into their different categories and labeled, during the period when you could say that they're being nourished in their pens until they're ready to go to work, they're all assigned appropriate costumes. And once they know what costume they'll wear, each individual is given an accent, a way of speaking, some characteristic personality traits, and a matching body type, and each person's face starts slowly to specialize in certain expressions which coordinate well with their personality, body type, and costume. And so each person comes to understand what role he will play, and so each can consistently select and reproduce, through all the decades and changes of fashion, the appropriate style and wardrobe, for the rest of his life.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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