Where Seldom Is Heard a Discouraging Word

I was just watching an animated version of political activist Barbara Eherenreich doing a speech about the suppressive power of positive thinking (I’ve put a link to this video on the blogroll).   She was saying that — particularly in the corporate world, but certainly not limited to there — we have valorized positive thinking to the point that we’ve lost contact with reality.  In several examples from popular culture that she named (and a dozen more that sprang immediately to my mind) we have come to think that we can change physical reality with our thoughts.  People in the U.S. from all over the political and religious spectrum are increasingly coming to believe that positive thoughts, even when not supported by factual circumstance can “draw in” positive outcomes.  The frequently unspoken converse is that negative thinking has a causal link to tragedy and disaster.  In this scenario, we, Thought-Masters-of-The-Universe that we are, are responsible for all things good and bad that happen to us because either we did or did not think good thoughts.  So, if we buy into this model, yes, you can visualize yourself into wealth and riches in an L. Ron Hubbard approved fashion, or you can be like New Orleans and bring Hurricane Katrina and the criminal idiocy of BP down on your own head.  No one deserves any sympathy.  No one needs a hand up.  They just need to have their head in the right place.

This mindset implicitly advises, “Don’t protest.  Don’t draw attention to fundamental problems that if unaddressed will make your company’s “blue skies” five year plan  marching towards greater profit and glory not only an exercise in futility but a morally questionable undertaking that may unnecessarily harm other people or the environment.  It’s the negative thinking that causes bad things to happen, not flaws in the system.”

In Molly Ivins’ work, she points out that this kind of culturally sanctioned blinding optimism is an area where Texas become a telling microcosm of flaws in the American Empire.  It’s what she calls Texas’ pie-eyed lunatic quality’ that makes it a dangerous role model for the rest of the country to emulate.

One of the things that makes Texans endearing is their sense of humor.  You can encounter some of the biggest bullheaded, self-absorbed braggarts to ever walk the face of the Earth here on a daily basis. The thing that makes them palatable, charming even, is their outrageous ability to laugh at themselves.  They are optimists with the milk of unquestioning self-confidence flowing out every orifice.  You really have to be that way to live here.  It’s kind of a shitty place to live… God bless their hearts (I hasten to add since by the rules of Southern Womanhood, you can say any cruelly honest thing you want to if you put it under a “God bless their hearts” rainbow.)  It’s been around 106 degrees for a month now. Some part of Texas has been in drought state every year since I’ve been here.  When the heat finally lets up around November or December, the wind will start to blow constantly.  You might as well not plant anything unless you’re willing to pay through the nose to water and feed it until it dies of some disease, or is eaten by one of the plagues of insects we have every year, or your neighborhood watch group insists you cut it down. The pollution is so bad that everyone is getting “summer colds.” The politics are hopelessly corrupted by corporate greed.  Racial, religious, and sexual prejudices are so deeply ingrained that their expression is not only casual, it’s frequently cheerful.

And all this is factoring in that we have air-conditioning now.  I can’t imagine living here before air-conditioning.  And, mind you, I’m not much of an air-conditioning person.  I’m a box-fan type of person.  Better still, I’m the sort of person who had great love of the attic fan in the morning and a siesta on a hammock in the afternoon when I only had to deal with North Carolina heat.  If you’ve ever watched a cowboy movie and marveled at how violent the place seemed to be, the carnage is not entirely Hollywood hype.  It’s so hot here that you want to sock people in the face.  I think that’s why they called cowboys “cow punchers” or “cowpokes”.  If I was out getting bit by flies and sweltering in triple digit heat while I was wearing a long-sleeved shirt and jeans, I would kick a cow’s ass if it looked at me cross-eyed.  You can blame almost any sort of mayhem on the heat and people won’t say much more than, “yep.”  Yeah, they know you’ve gone crazier than the proverbial peach-orchard boar, but they’re also aware that they’ve done at least as bad if not worse.

Texas requires extraordinary amounts of optimism just to get past breakfast some days.

For me, this prevalent Texan valorization of self-reliance at the expense of empathy is demonstrated no where better than the story of Texas Jesus.  If you grew up in the South, you have heard or seen a poster of the poem “Footsteps” — no matter how little you may have wanted to.  In it, a person looks back on his life which is represented as footprints on a beach.  I think this was a 1960’s or 1970’s era poem.  We doted on beach visuals at that time.  The narrator is pleased to see an extra set of footprints accompanying him, but is distressed that at times of trouble, the prints narrow down to a single set.  When the narrator complains about this to Jesus who replies, “Ah, but those are the times when I carried you.”  Sweet, right? So sweet it makes you want to throw up a little — and yet, somewhere as we speak, some very religious fourteen year old is discovering this work anew and planning to share it with all of her/his friends.  Some redneck mother is buying a frame at Dollar General intending to mount this ouevre on the wall of her bedroom… perhaps decorated with some plastic flowers. This Sunday, some child will be staring at the poster and be wishing that he or she was getting a piggy-back ride from Jesus at the beach rather than having to sit on uncomfortable chairs while wearing uncomfortable clothes in a Sunday School classroom.

Anyway, just at the point when I thought I’d escaped “Footsteps,” it caught up with me in Texas.  There it was in poster form on the wall of my chiropractor’s office in all its sandy glory.  I started to read… There wasn’t anything else to do.  That’s how “Footsteps” gets you.  It lurks around in places where you wind up so bored you’re tempted to pop your eyeballs out and juggle them for a distraction.  I discovered, to my surprise, that this was not just “Footsteps” but a special alternate version with an ending that had apparently been deleted in other states.  After the narrator and Jesus have had a nice moment about the carrying thing, the narrator says, “Uh, but what are those big blobs?”

Jesus replies, “Yeah, that’s where I had to dump you on your ass because you weren’t pulling your weight.”

This is Texas Jesus.  He don’t put up with whine-y crap.

Texans can be very kind people, but they buy into “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” so deeply that when you suggest that there are circumstances where it is impossible for individuals to simply buck up and get on with life, they smile, give each other the “this pinko/commie don’t get it” look and try to move you on to a subject where you might have some hope of having a reasonable degree of expertise and so stop wasting their time with your ignorance on this particular issue.  If you insist that a person or even whole groups of people can be saddled with insurmountable societal, cultural, or physical barriers that deny them agency, Texas become annoyed by the way you’re bothering them with facts.  They may become sullen or cantankerous at this juncture.

Part of this blind faith in self-reliance is a lasting legacy of their pioneer forefathers (and foremothers too… perhaps especially the foremothers…) You had to be pretty tough to last it out here in the days before air conditioning.  If you didn’t have what it takes to hunker down and survive here, you were free to move back to some more sensible climate.  Self-selection for coping with hardship has created a gene-pool of people predisposed to that peculiar blend of stoicism and optimism it takes to get by in a place where the only outstanding “scenic feature” of the municipality where you live may be a rattlesnake ranch.

Those souls who were not capable of pulling themselves up by the fastenings of their footwear either exited East or simply did not survive.  I had an ancestor who lived in West Texas for awhile.  He worked as a cowboy.  After seeing just one tornado up close, he packed his bags and immediately headed back for North Carolina.  His blood flows proudly through my veins.  If I could get the job I have here in a place where it’s not a minor miracle every time it rains and it never feels like your backyard has become a walk-in toaster oven, I’d go.  I’m all for self-reliance, but I like to keep that in reserve instead of having to use it on daily basis.  I don’t feel like I have an endless supply of bootstrap at my disposal.

Texans do.  They believe they’ve got enough bootstrap to look Hell in the eyeballs over breakfast every day.  They believe that you do too.  So quit complaining.  They hate complaining.  They enjoy threatening, but that’s a different thing all together.

The whole “no complaining” thing is very awkward for me. Not only do I agree with Eherenreich’s assertions about how the privileging of optimism insidiously squelches healthy critique, I happen to love complaining. Well, complaining done right, of course. There are so many amateur complainers — Mere whiners who give complaining a bad name.

In the valley of the Appalachian mountains where I’m from, complaining is a fine art. I’m not talking about basic bitching about shit — although we do that too. Bitching implies a lack of emotional distance and expectation for action that ruins the purity of complaining as art. No, where I’m from, master complainers are equal parts philosopher, sage, storyteller, and gossip. Complaining at this level requires leisure and concentration. It cannot be forced or rushed. It must flow naturally while one is seated in a lawnchair sipping ice tea, stringing beans, or having a coke-cola with one’s peers in a gas station.

The Texans I have encountered don’t seem to have the time or patience to create the social space necessary for this sort of High Complaining. Like Yankees, they tend to bitch about shit. They get mad and expect things to change because of that. True complaining, like many other forms of art, exists for its own sake. A Master Complainer does not expect the world to change because of his or her words. Many times the matter of a truly beautiful complaint touches issues of existential levels of insolubility. The functionality of such utterances lies not in any hopes of effecting a solution, but rather in the degree of enlightenment to be gleaned by appreciative and attentive listeners from following the subtle and intricate rhetorical flow of a masterful complaint.

Like I said, I love complaining.

Conversely, I’m distrustful of too much cheerfulness. As Molly Ivins says, our Southern culture does mandate a rather ungodly amount of social pleasantries. I’ve made my peace with that fact. Smiling and saying “Thank you, sweetie” keeps us from killing each other as much as we want to. Like I said, it gets hot here. Being too hot keeps you on the edge of smacking the living shit out of some other poor sweating fool too much of the day. We need our manners.

What intimidates/fascinates/repulses me is the cheerleader sales zeal that possesses some people here. You know what I’m talking about. You’ve seen it. It’s when people get that perma-Barbie-smile tattooed on. I have nothing against people who go around being happy for no damn good reason. Personally, I believe that we as well-fed U.S. citizens owe it to those living in poverty to enjoy all the crap we do have. I think those who are in a position to do so should all set aside three or four hours a week to think about how lucky we are and grin like fools. Hopefully this would get us out of the sickly mindset where we’re convinced that we’re so oppressed and under the gun that we can’t afford to be generous — even in our thoughts — towards others less fortunate.

No, the people I’m talking about aren’t necessarily happy at all. They’re just swimming through the crowds showing their teeth like sharks on Ambien. They want you to do things for them or give them things. They use being aggressively happy as a means to an end.

Ivins says of Dallas that it’s a city that doesn’t know the difference between change and progress. The viral optimism that’s infecting our country worships at the altar of Change for Change’s Sake nightly. We’re expected to be boosters and cheerleaders instead of critics.

George W. Bush was a cheerleader. No, literally. He wasn’t a football player. He was a cheerleader. I’m not speaking metaphorically (although that’s true too and is actually why I’m bringing this up). At the risk of sounding as partisan as I truly am, let me say this — The man was a coke-head, had strings pulled to get him into the National Guard instead of going to Vietnam, and was a cheerleader not a football player. How did he ever get elected (twice… sorta) in this era of the no-holds-barred smear campaign and litmus-test-happy conservatism?

Understand that I’m not trying to throw off on cheerleaders. I’m just saying that the common perception outside Texas is that cheerleaders are powder-puffs. Texas cheerleaders are not powder-puffs. Cheerleading is serious business here. The cheerleaders here are much tougher than the football players — who are, make no mistake, impressively tough. Cheerleading here has gone through a very postmodern liberation. The signifier has kicked free of the signified. Cheerleading is no longer an activity in support of a sport. Cheerleading is a sport in and of itself. If you watch those cheerleading competitions on ESPN (and how can you not? All those little girls in Miss Sunbeam-style curly ponytails flying through the air like human confetti) listen to what they’re saying. They’re not urging some unseen team to “Go!” They are exhorting the listeners to ecstatic inspiritedness in support of nothing other than the celebration of abstract positivity. They’re cheerleading for Cheer itself divorced from circumstance and fact.

This all makes perfect sense in Texas. In contrast to the way that we mountain folk believe you can gain enlightenment from reflecting on how the world is ultimately inherently flawed, Texans feel you can experience Nirvana through the medium of focused positivism stripped clean of all context.

That’s what makes this a scary place some days.

In the Bush era, it’s what made the U.S. a scary place for the whole world.