T for Tom

On Hopelessness

Posted in america, Europe, Prose, Uncategorized by johnsontoms on June 28, 2018

Snow drifted softly to the ground as I walked the streets of St. Petersburg, covered in white everywhere except for a few recent footsteps in the snow by the people walking in every direction up and down under the dim light of a lamppost in the winter night. I was at the mercy of the guide to my side, but also to the whims of this frozen nation and its people, its principled foray into modernity based squarely on its resistance to change – I couldn’t speak Russian and hardly knew the alphabet, and so couldn’t learn much to help myself during this week long voyage into a great northern Christmas. Were it not for the few people with me at different times, I wouldn’t have eaten well or even much, and certainly would have been left to my own silence and thoughts there in the cold.

Though for the sake of speaking, I learned, there was much helplessness to go around. On just the first night of five, I had been taken to dinner by a young woman my age who was lucky enough to own a vehicle and who drove me across the bridge into the city and to a warm, deep red colored restaurant where we shared borsht and a beer. Her name was Tanya, and you wouldn’t know her from a European or an American if you passed her on the street, and especially if you heard her speak. She had large, open eyes set under a head of dark, almost black hair, and could have easily been the girl next door. I asked her why she was here in St. Petersburg and how she learned English so well, and she told me that she had lived in Germany for a couple years while studying but had to return to work. I asked her if it was her choice, but she said it wasn’t. “It’s hard to stay away, and since my studies were paid for, I had to come back and work for the company that provided it.” I asked her when she might expect to be able to travel again, and she said she didn’t know. “It doesn’t really work that way.” Getting any more of an answer was the first time I had been stonewalled. I would learn over the week that her impenetrable spirit was less the will of the people and more the will of the state, and it found its way into everyone there.

My second guide was a few years younger than myself or my guest the previous night. Her name was Anna, fittingly, and she had bright, almost red, brown hair that seemed to sparkle. We met in the afternoon at a coffee shop down Nevsky Prospekt, and I couldn’t help but think that the shine was from her infectious smile or the sunshine outside that lit the snow-covered ground and turned it into an upward facing mirror. Like Tanya the night before, her English was easily understood, though she carried a more typically-Russian way of affecting her words. As a sign to her age, she was dressed head to toe in a full-length purple parka, accented with purple gloves. She took me to the Christmas fair in the middle of the promenade that occurred in the daytime during this January week, the time of Russian Orthodox Christmas. We talked about traditions and watched the skaters in the ice rink, before she mentioned that her brother had been in the Russian army. As I was in the American army now, I wanted to know what she thought. “The Russian Army is mandatory for most men.” I didn’t know what she meant by most men. “Well, there are those that are can pay their way out of it, though they’re not supposed to,” she said. “But that’s just the way a lot of things go.” She jumped back into talking about Christmas as if nothing had happened, and before long offered to enter a bar mid-afternoon to take a shot of vodka, simply as a means of warming up. It was truly just the way things had gone, and appeared to continue.

Eventually I asked her to see something different, to get into the thick of St. Petersburg. I’m not sure if it was naiveté or youth or both, but she had a tour guide’s knowledge of two art museums just off the prospect – she knew of their existence, but seemed uninterested in the reasons why. She did make sure to remark on St. Petersburg’s first Starbucks that had just opened and which we passed on the way. Shortly we arrived at an unremarkable building and turned into the center hallway. “This is the John Lennon museum,” she said. “We have to go into the building to maybe enter.” The halls were painted with graffiti and on the doors of one entrance was a plaque to John Lennon himself – “In the name of John Lennon – the Temple of Love, Peace, and Music.” We walked up a staircase to an empty hallway where a printed sheet of paper was taped to a bell – “ring to enter.” But no one answered. “It’s often closed, and there are no times,” said Anna. “We can go to a different museum across the street.” And just as quickly we left. It was just the way of things.

The next gallery was a modern art institute of sorts that was more clearly marked with neon signs and that operated a bar inside, which was a nice evening greeting. It still had the feeling of being a bit ramshackle, and I was getting the feeling that these two museums, in their disparate and near-hidden existences, persisted only so far as the state allowed them. The second museum featured pieces on the city’s subways and architecture, and was likely much less a threat. The John Lennon Museum, which I later learned was referred to by its address, Pushkinskaya 10, was much more in disguise – I never found out what was behind the doors, and steps had clearly been taken to keep it that way. There was a spirit of protest somewhere in the halls of that building, but it was under cloak and mask. But in spite of the cloak and deceit, I couldn’t help but note that I had come there and found it with a little help – we didn’t have to try that hard – and that the state, like with everything else, somehow allowed this to continue. I had the feeling that the museum itself was somehow purposefully hopeless. It evoked the sense of freedom in name and image, but could do nothing to obtain it. I believe that it was allowed to exist exactly in such that way, as a symbol to the people of St. Petersburg. We were supposed to rejoice that the freedom expressed in our dreams was allowed to exist, somewhere anyway, even if we could never have it ourselves.

I stayed with Anna all through the evening until just after dinner, where we found ourselves walking back toward the Nevsky Prospect where I’d depart on my way to meeting other students for a night of drinking. We passed church, among the many we saw along the way, but less remarkable. I had already seen the Kazan Cathedral and the Church on the Savior of Spilled Blood, the only orthodox church in St. Petersburg. With Anna now, we had passed what would be unremarkable in any Midwestern American town, a small chapel with greek architecture in the front, and a single steeple on top that didn’t rise above two floors. It may well have been a government building. But it was the year of Pussy Riot and I wanted to know what the feeling on the street was, and so I asked. “How do you feel about Pussy Riot?”

“What do you mean?” she replied.

“How do you feel about the girls being held in prison?”

“You cannot protest in a church,” she answered.

It was my turn to be confused and so I asked her what she meant this time.

“No can protest in a church, even if you disagree with Putin,” she said. “It didn’t have to be in a church.” And as if for emphasis, she added, “That’s the law.”

That’s the part that always stuck with me. The immutable law. I felt like Anna couldn’t see the possibility of absurdity in the law, much in the way that we couldn’t see into the John Lennon Museum. She came up to and in front of the point – that Pussy Riot, or just people anywhere, should be able to protest when and where they please, which is a protest – but couldn’t cross a fundamental barrier that had been erected by years of social education otherwise. Where Tanya may have some cynical grasp that she is lost to hopelessness in spite of knowing better, Anna is hopeless against the modes and methods that make her life possible. Both are reverent to the cogs that spin the wheels, but there is a difference for their place in it – hopeless to change it, or hopeless to believe it should be any different.

In Bloom’s essential, though now forgotten, incision on our own American education in Closing of the American Mind, he discusses the philosophical theory that persisted throughout the duality of the sixties, and foremost by those who opposed the rise of liberality in social education: “the [social] contract theorists all taught that the law must never be broken, that the strength of the law is the only thing that keeps us away from the state of nature, therefore that risks and dangers must be accepted for the sake of law.” And in this way, Anna accepts that things won’t get better, because she also accepts that they cannot get worse. But this is merely perception, ingrained through years of reinforcement by the state and the education she received.

In America, those who uphold the law do not want to see the way things are met with change. As described before, any change in the law indicates a move toward lawlessness, or the state of nature. In the state of nature, all things are equal, in measure to their worthiness (but, crucially, not their ability) to claim their livelihood. And for so many now, for the weak and the minorities and the poor and the sick and the ill and the mistreated and the abused, for the vast majority of the United States of America, enforcing the law will uphold a way of life that we cannot survive. It is within this system that we feel hopeless, and only by changing it can we gain hope for a better future.

It takes a long time for this idea to gain a plurality – that our best hope is working beyond the system, and not by incrementally using the same system for the purpose of great change. Over two hundred years of this system has only kept the same minority in power, and from their seats of power now they continue to call for upholding the system, above all else. Above all misuses, above all misdeeds, above all errors and grafts and abuses of and by the system, we are told that our best hope for a better future remains within the system. This is merely the social education of the American people speaking, as it always does. That our best hope is within this democracy. But have we not seen the failures of voting, in multiple elections in this lifetime alone? Have we not seen the imperiling of our existence by the officials elected to representative us? We must be reminded that they are the same ones asking now for us to remain rooted in our belief in the system, on the belief that the system works. But our education, like the system that teaches it, only serves the purposes of those giving the lessons.

It takes looking at an Anna or a Tanya to see ourselves in other places. It takes seeing these young men and women in hopeless situations. The new way forward, if we find one, will be in the understanding that we can only go ahead by removing the things in our way, if even they be the laws themselves. Some nobility within directs us to break certain laws for sake of other higher laws, but I’ll leave the defining of those higher laws to the future tense.

The last question I posed to Anna before we parted was how she could not see the virtue in Pussy Riot breaking the law. Her answer was dismissive, if not correct: “what am I going to do about it?”

What are we going to do about it? Things can either stay the same or they can change. In the short term I knew there was nothing I could do about it, and parted ways with Anna to meet another Tanya, a blond. I knew it was hopeless in my five days to try and get to the bottom of the Russian existence, and so to get to the bottom of my own. I spent the rest of my time existing there in the spaces around me. If their Russian tragedies had led them to this moment, they were at least still alive. They were alive in the few art museums I had already seen, and they were still alive in Dostoevsky’s adult home, and they were still alive crossing the Neva by foot, and they were still alive in spite of it all, in spite of the system that keeps them there in that winter snow globe.

It would be hopeless to try and change that, and so we all just float on, hopeless.

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The Gap in Empathy, or Social Progress as Self-Evident

Posted in Prose by johnsontoms on November 4, 2016

There was a young man I spent some hours talking to the other night. About my age, white, longer hair than I (which means long hair), thin, frameless glass, and whether part of his Halloween costume or not, a pair of suspenders exposed over a white shirt. He could be and was mistaken for David Foster Wallace. But you know who David Foster Wallace is because he did something exceptional, at least once. I didn’t know this young man across from me at first, but I knew him later as we spoke. He exists in various forms throughout this country and throughout this world.

My introduction to this man came as he knew a childhood friend of my own. They were in a probationary summer school program, by which they attained full admission into the state’s flagship public university only after attending the summer session immediately following high school graduation. There are a few other programs that exist to admit students into the university, and this one is sandwiched in between the two most prominent – the state of Texas’s Top 10% Rule, and the Continued Admittance Program. The first, the top 10% rule, requires little introduction – if a student attends any public school in the state of Texas and graduates in their class’s top 10% population, that student receives automatic admission into any public university in the state; the purpose of this rule is to increase minority populations in the state’s largest educational institutions, and it has been proven a resounding, although incremental, success, one worthy of continued defense in our nation’s courts of public law. The second admission program I mentioned, the Continued Admittance Program, is available to those students who are just outside of their high school’s top 10% population and would have normally received admission the public university of their choosing, but were not selected due to a limited amount of space; these students can choose to enroll in any branch of the university of their choosing in a separate location (as in, the University of Texas at Dallas) and after a year of passing grades can automatically transfer to another public education institution within the same university’s system (as In, The University of Texas at Austin); this program achieves a secondary goal of allowing these students, who through subjective opinion prove their value as “stewards of education” by passing their classes and filling any available slots that become available through students transfers, dropouts, etc.

The program that admitted my friend and this young man is the little-known, thinly-sliced invention that fits somewhere in between, by someone’s imagination. It can only be imagination, as though the metrics I just laid out before were somehow still not quite fair enough. Even so, there’s a small number of high school graduates who are on the outside of their class’s top 10% population but are deemed worthy of not having to wait – and by enrolling immediately, have the opportunity to attend their public university of choice via this commitment. It’s a small number of students, and their impact on the racial and ethnic makeup of the university is marginal, though relevant.

This is important because I had to explain this to my wife the other night as this young man sat across from us. He took exception to this definition by writ of its simplicity:

“Hey, it’s not that simple,” he said. “I tried really hard in high school, and I got in the way I got in.”

There was never any implication that he didn’t work hard.

“That’s fine man, and you probably wen to a difficult high school,” I said.

“Lake Travis, and it was.”

Lake Travis High School is located a few miles west of Austin and is predominantly white, if not entirely. The district exists as a confluence of rich, elite whites leaving the suburban confines of inner Austin and it now forms one of the largest tax districts in the county.

And that’s the whole point. His high school was propped up by numerous and infinitely pass tax bonds to improve facilities, salaries, and educational tools by the white resident population for the white child population. It is a highly-sought after employment location by educators, and its education reflects this increased opportunity.

“Right, my man,” I said. “And that’s why the Top 10% rule exists. There are students throughout this state that haven’t gotten the education that you already received through your circumstance of birth, and they’re given the opportunity for that education at a higher level.”

This didn’t go over well, and the remaining hours were spent toggling over his personal merit versus those whose faced many more and drastically more harrowing difficulties – this young man across from me did not struggle through poverty, starvation, and lack of transportation to get through a sub-par education system, at any merit. So much so, that for this young man, not graduating was never a possibility, as it has been and remains for a large population of ethnic minorities throughout the state (and across the country).

But I’m not here to talk about his education, at least not directly. What worries me, and what I see more and more of each day, is that this young man did in fact go on to graduate from the state’s flagship university to become an alumnus of one of the most intellectually distinguished institutions in the nation, only to sit across from me now approaching the age of 30, unmarried, working in a low-salary if not hourly wage position with little to no hope for immediate future promotion. Like so many of the people I know and continue to meet today in the city of Austin, he is visiting his girlfriend who also lives in a home with three or more roommates, stuck in a low-rent situation without hope for better by writ of circumstances they cannot control. And yet he, like the many others like him, sat there to tell me things were acceptable and improving. That he, somehow, was not a member of this nation’s increasing population of people in poverty. And I don’t know how.

These are the definitions of poverty: inability to find living wages, unable to hope for promotion, unable to seek immediate desires of family because of economic placement. These people are no longer just ethnic minorities, but increasingly consume the majority of those young elite whites who enter a world filled with older elite whites who will not make room for the youth of this nation. How is it possible that these whites who grew up in a situation where family, income, are security are normal tell me now that nothing has grown worse?

It can only be that the prejudices they were given, likely from their parents and their education, are telling them now that no matter the circumstances, their life will be okay simply because they are not black.

Looking around the party I was surrounded by 50-plus whites exactly like this man. I don’t need to speak to them individually to know that they have all come here because they have met in their jobs and in their social circles as a reflection of their status. But they remain impossibly white. Among the many other people I know like them, and like myself, are some in much worse positions: living hundreds of miles away from any family, unable to locate individual living situations and taking on roommates without furniture, without transportation or personally owned vehicles, in low-wage jobs and piles of debt, or in other words, living in poverty. Not abstract poverty, but actual, defined, real poverty. And repeatedly they say “it’s not that bad,” and go about their lives waiting for the change to come. This mindset is only possible through a framework of opinion that establishes that at one point poverty was never their possibility and therefore remains impossible for their life. Denying their circumstances in finances, health, and family, this conclusion can only be reached at the assumption of race. These conditions are taught to whites as a condition of race. Whether this young man realized it or not, he was taught as a child in Lake Travis that he will never be poor. And if the conditions for poverty exist only for minorities, then perception tells white populations that they will never possess these conditions themselves. They are not poor because they will never be poor. And that was granted to them by their race.

The logical question or conclusion to be drawn is that the status quo of race economics has never been challenged. A simple string argument delineates that a mere 1-percent or fewer of the population have the accumulated wealth to live with the singular possibility that poverty will never be their reality. For the status quo to continue unabated or challenged in any way means, therefore must mean, that a majority of the remaining plurality also believe that poverty will never be their reality, in spite of real and conflicting data. Otherwise, the system would have been changed, a revolution would have come about. It is only by the joined belief of the majority that change does not become real.

Often I have said before that these things must be fought. A simple example of this effort reaches back to the Occupy Wall Street movement, but simply mathematics tells me that a few thousand people marching around the country do not a majority make. In fact those brave few were mocked almost universally for their efforts. And if they failed to achieve real political change, they did achieve personal growth through a recognition that certain influences on our life are not within our control on a daily basis. A vast system of eternal influences exist to limit our ability for social movement, and the majority through ablution allow it to continue. The white majority of this country has never empathized about what the ethnic minorities of this nation face every day, and by subconscious inversion project on their populations the perception that existences do not meet in any way. That poverty for black and Latino populations is a poverty not achieved by white members of society.

This empathy gap denies the invention of progress. It denies minority populations the ability to find affordable housing in neighborhoods with a better education. It denies minority populations the ability to locate living wages, and precipitates that their children also will live in these conditions. Without the empathy to see what has been done to them, the real act of deducing that their struggles are circumstantial to their birth and not an effect of their own action, we cannot also see that our own circumstances might truly be the same. Because it is impossible to live in a world where things as they were remain in power.

The mere reality of time as dimension denies the possibility of static existence. Things must get either better or worse because of the contrary fact that they cannot remain the same. You will die. Death is certain. And if the value of death is worse than the value of life, any condition that pushes a person more rapidly toward death is a bad condition. That these conditions once actualized increase the possibility for other more numerous conditions implies that things are never the same, are never equal, are never static. Progress then, a merit of improved quality and improved quality of life, is the only assumptive method by which things do not get worse. And without progress because of the existing prejudices we possess, we are doomed only to perish, quickly, violently, at war with ourselves and nature.

The solution is simple. Realize that our conditions are poor, undesirable, and actively damaging. Realize that these conditions exist tenfold and hundredfold in the lives of those not lucky enough to have been born white in a Western nation state. And work to erase any continued possibility for the status quo.

Things are bad and getting worse. All you have to do is look around you and realize that it is happening to you also, and act accordingly. Your conditions will improve only when conditions improve for everyone.

Thoughts, Pt. II

Posted in Prose by johnsontoms on August 13, 2016

IX

I’m tired of being immensely talented but living without action.

X

More than half of my life has now been spent with America at war. This is something that exists in photos and textbooks, can’t be touched, and yet feels real. There are children who, at 15 years old next month, will have never lived in an America not at war. It’s been five years since we killed Osama Bin Laden, since we got our man, and nothing has changed. Nothing ever changes. Faced with the possibility of taking a few steps backward to navigate a new way and new path to forge ahead, it’s easier to incrementalize a few inches on the same warring path, pick different battles, distraction, turn on the television, Cheetos.

XI

If in a serious sense we ponder at the how or why Donald Trump has made it to this point in the electoral process, we’ve failed to consider the right facts. Day after day and week after week as the nominee of a major political party continues to eschew racism, bias, xenophobia, and fear, no one has asked yet what actually can or should be done. Instead, the continued refrain is one of incredulity. But the lack of solution is not for a lack of trying. There have surely been calls to change the nomination system, to void the party lines. But that’s not thinking. That’s working within the system, and we must decide the entire system is a failure.

Donald Trump is not a product of a New York life, or a rich man’s trust fund, or a life spent outside of the trenches. He is a product of America, if not the product of America. And the longer it takes until we decide to close shop, call it a day on democracy, and find something else, this will not be the last time we are shaking our heads at a failed election. We are all to blame for this.

XII

When everyone has a voice, the smartest no longer shine through. It’s a numbers game, always going to lose.

XIII

As bad as I like to think it gets, man, it can be so much worse. There are women in Venezuela undergoing sterilization so that they don’t get pregnant and bring a child into their world. And I sit here unwilling to march on Washington. I’d like to, but it doesn’t feel like a single man or woman can make a difference in a world with so many engines moving on the same line.

XIV

Was at a concert the other night and always have a thought every time, that at some point somewhere in time there were, and maybe still are, musicians who try to use their music to impact the public, protest, what have you. I wonder why it doesn’t still happen, but then I know it clearly has never worked.

It takes a lot of money also, to not only make the music but broadcast it in a way that people will hear, especially if you want people who don’t look for music to hear it. Stages, microphones, amplifiers, cameras, water and food, broadcast television, news release. The musicians don’t have that money, not in this world. Been abused too long at the hands of those in control.

It takes sponsors to put on something that big. And sponsors have corporate interest. Never will be a big enough protest until someone takes a risk, musician or not.

XV

Still growing out my hair.

XVI

One of the things I always noticed when I came back here, to this place, and maybe I’ve talked about it before, was how there are a lot of cars on the road in need of repairs, a lot more than ever seemed to be before. People just don’t have the money to fix things anymore, and keep on livin’ with less. I wonder how deep it’ll go before something happens.

XVII

Just heard a baseball announcer say “I had asked you a question but the national anthem began, and you can’t upstage America.”

Yes you can.