Saturday, December 9, 2017

The United States of Huck?

George Saunders  titled his essay “The Braindead Megaphone” and he wrote:

“America is, and always has been, undecided about whether it will be the United States of Tom or the United States of Huck. The United States of Tom looks at misery and says: Hey, I didn’t do it. It looks at inequity and says: All my life I busted my butt to get where I am, so don’t come crying to me. Tom likes kings, codified nobility, unquestioned privilege. Huck likes people, fair play, spreading the truck around. Whereas Tom knows, Huck wonders. Whereas Huck hopes, Tom presumes. Whereas Huck cares, Tom denies. These two parts of the American Psyche have been at war since the beginning of the nation, and come to think of it, these two parts of the World Psyche have been at war since the beginning of the world, and the hope of the nation and of the world is to embrace the Huck part and send the Tom part back up the river, where it belongs.”
It should be noted…these two parts are not just at odds out there in human society (which is what Mr. Saunders means when he says "the world")…they also occur inside each of us and there’s where we sometimes become aware of this battle/choice.

It's one that we repeat again and again and again...we constantly encounter situations wherein the Huck/Tom battle/choice is activated and we have to choose...and...from what I've seen in my lifetime here in the U.S., the Tom choice (the default) is made way more often than is good for anyone, including mother Earth and all of her Earthlings.

The Tom choice seems to be the default here in the U.S. By that I mean that if we think we're making no choice (being 'neutral') we're actually being complicit in the Tom choice whether we think we are doing so or not. Remember Howard Zinn's observation“To be neutral, to be passive in a situation is to collaborate with whatever is going on”

(In other words, if you're not 'fighting' them, you're joining them...that's often a tough one for me to comprehend/grasp even though I know it is true. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact that even when I think I'm making no choice...I actually am, I'm collaborating in the default. In my head I perceive myself as existing independently of systems...but that's misleading and untrue. There is no "out there", I'm always involved in various social systems and groups no matter what I think. My illusion of being 'independent' is fostered by that invisibility stuff...which I write about often.)

It's deceptive and misleading to think about all this in purely individualistic terms (which is what our socialization wants us to we won't ask disturbing questions). That's not to say that the individual isn't important...but there is great significance (that's often unrecognized) in groups that we belong to and the systems that we navigate as members of those groups.

I suspicion that societies strongly structured by oppression (like those that resulted from colonization...e.g. the U.S.) have systems that encourage and reward the Tom choice (or the 'neutral' stance) over the Huck choice...and demean (and resist or even punish) the Huck choice.

I recently stumbled across a brief (15 minutes or so) video that uses the movie Wall-E as a tool to illustrate the difference between thinking solely in terms of individuals versus thinking in terms of individuals in social structures. I'm somewhat familiar with some of the writings of Allan Johnson (who is referenced in the video) and find much of his thinking very similar to my own.

I think Dr. Johnson is saying that the 'neutral' choice or the Tom choice are the "paths of least resistance" (to use his conceptualization).

I would be greatly interested in your reactions to the video so please watch it and let me know what you think about it. This Huck/Tom stuff is difficult to sort out without taking account of context (and even then it confuses me greatly) and the video adds some conceptual tools that assist in doing least I think it does. 

(Note: I wrote a little about Huck/Tom over on Medium back in January but this post expands on my thoughts about this stuff.)

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