Go ahead you can laugh all you want;
I got my philosophy,
Keeps my feet on the ground.
(Ben Folds Five, Philosophy)
For those of us who spend much of our time working in opposition to prevailing forces in society, it sometimes feels as though we’re toiling in obscurity, wasting our best efforts in quixotic struggles against the massed strength of laws and customs far beyond our control. To devote much of one’s energy to preserving the environment, to creating a more just food system, to alleviating poverty, or to any number of other worthy causes is to work against the grain of a culture which is consumed with consuming. It takes a sort of willful attention deficit disorder to tear one’s eyes away from the spectacle — a spectacle which is engineered to have perfect absorbency, endlessly able to sop up all ideas and images and soak them in the radiant energy of mass production and consumption, rendering them meaningless except as items in a vast and ever-changing catalogue of things to be destroyed in order to create more things to be destroyed — it’s not easy to turn away from all of this mad clatter and pointless noise, in order to start seeing through the superficial appearances of the world we inhabit and begin to see the dim outline of a world shaped around different, more human, values.
And let’s not pretend that this is heroic work, only for the strong-willed. I have a feeling that more people than we can ever imagine have seen through the many shams we’re expected to swallow as though they are respectable and valuable. It takes a certain type of person to thrive in a world whose values are askew at bottom; most people are decent, gentle-souled creatures whose sense of fair play is outraged in a thousand small ways before they even reach grade one. And lucky for them, their retreat from a world filled with nonsense and bullying and crudeness is helped along by a culture which provides an extreme degree of comfort and ease for those who are content to sink into the plushness of the manufactured world of the Age of Petroleum. And so a system which thrives on acceptance and silence produces these valuable qualities by driving people away from social engagement, into the comfort of their well-appointed homes and into the safe bubble of the family or the room of one’s own.
As the whole shaky structure begins to crack, though, we need to be on the lookout for ways to engage people who have lost faith in the world that has been handed to them. We need to give people hope that they are able to take charge of more of their life than their parents, their teachers, their political leaders, and the TV have led them to believe. This not about playing the part of the revolutionary avant-garde and organizing the lumpenproletariat to put us in power; this is about finding within ourselves the grace to understand the extent to which we are all living in a world of illusions, most of them serving interests which are contrary to the interests of human beings.
When it comes down to it, simple things are what we need more than anything else: the faith that we are part of a world which offers a decent life for all creatures; the hope that things are getting better not worse; and charity, not in the sense of scraps of wealth doled out to the pitiful poor, but a widespread recognition that we all have roughly the same needs and wants, and that we need to show basic kindness to others, especially those who are suffering more than we are.
It seems to me that we too easily forget the simple values, which are reiterated by every major religious tradition and system of ethics. We allow ourselves to be distracted by the apparent complexities of the world and lose sight of the easy things we can all do to make life less painful for those around us. We look to Victoria or Ottawa or even further off for the great authority figures who can supply the solutions. This allows us to imagine that we care and that we are passionate about solving the problems of the world, while conveniently letting us off the hook for doing the actual legwork. After all, we tell ourselves, we’d be making real headway if it weren’t for those bastards in Victoria/Ottawa/The Hague/etc.
The ills of the world are in large part an illusion we create when we total up the ills of every little corner of the world and assign blame for the whole lot to the largest organizations we can find. This is good news, because it means that we have the power to address many of these problems, starting with the ones we feel passionate about in our own backyard. We need a more cohesive community effort at all scales and an ever-widening conversation about what we are seeing and experiencing around us. We have allowed ourselves to become passive consumers of other people’s ‘information’ — such a dead and deadening role for creatures which such huge capacity for creativity and play — and we need to begin to carve out a culture in which it’s acceptable to deviate from the idiot norms imposed from above and stop buying into patent nonsense. And to do this with a sense of lightness and liberation, not in the spirit of an embattled minority fighting against long odds, but (correctly) as the overwhelming majority reclaiming its natural human right to be unique, to excel and to fail, to sing and tell beautiful lies, to go off the rails, to laugh with and at one another. To be a proper working community composed of tribes and gangs and families and people, real people. Not consumers: people.
So I find it very heartening to see that some folks in our community have decided to create a space for everyone who doesn’t feel like a passive consumer of manufactured amusement. The Chamber of Commoners — a cheeky rejoinder to the Chamber of Commerce — is that space. I can’t wait to see what happens there. This is a place for people to come and share what they are interested in, find like-minded others, and generally be everything that is not easily contained by the label ‘consumer’. Here, in the Chamber of Commoners, we will all be producers of our own realities, and here’s hoping we use this as a venue for starting to produce a common reality for our region. See you there.