A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
ANDERSON, Ind.—It was close to midnight, and I was sitting at a small campfire with Sybilla and Josh Medlin in back of an old warehouse in an impoverished section of the city. The Medlins paid $20,000 for the warehouse. It came with three lots. They use the lots for gardens. The produce they grow is shared with neighbors and the local homeless shelter. There are three people living in the warehouse, which the Medlins converted into living quarters. That number has been as high as 10.
“It was a house of hospitality,” said Josh, 33, who like his wife came out of the Catholic Worker Movement. “We were welcoming people who needed a place to stay, to help them get back on their feet. Or perhaps longer. That kind of didn’t work out as well as we had hoped. We weren’t really prepared to deal with some of the needs that people had. And perhaps not the skills. We were taken advantage of. We weren’t really helping them. We didn’t have the resources to help them.”
“For the Catholic Workers, the ratio of community members to people they’re helping is a lot different than what we had here,” Sybilla, 27, said. “We were in for a shock. At the time there were just three community members. Sometimes we had four or five homeless guests here. It got kind of chaotic. Mostly mental illness. A lot of addiction, of course. We don’t know how to deal with hard drugs in our home. It got pretty crazy.”
Two or three nights a month people gather, often around a fire, in back of the warehouse, known as Burdock House.
“The burdock is seen as a worthless, noxious weed,” Josh said. “But it has a lot of edible and medicinal value. A lot of the people we come into contact with are also not valued by our society. The burdock plant colonizes places that are abandoned. We are doing the same thing with our house.”
Those who come for events bring food for a potluck dinner or chip in five dollars each. Bands play, poets read and there is an open mic. Here they affirm what we all must affirm—those talents, passions, feelings, thoughts and creativity that make us complete human beings. Here people are celebrated not for their jobs or status but for their contributions to others. And in associations like this one, unseen and unheralded, lies hope.
“We are an intentional community,” said Josh. “This means we are a group of people who have chosen to live together to repurpose an old building, to offer to a neighborhood and a city a place to express its creative gifts. This is an alternative model to a culture that focuses on accumulating as much money as possible and on an economic structure based on competition and taking advantage of others. We value manual labor. We value nonviolence as a tactic for resistance. We value simplicity. We believe people are not commodities. We share what we have. We are not about accumulating for ourselves. These values help us to become whole people.”
The message of the consumer society, pumped out over flat screen televisions, computers and smartphones, to those trapped at the bottom of society is loud and unrelenting: You are a failure. Popular culture celebrates those who wallow in power, wealth and self-obsession and perpetuates the lie that if you work hard and are clever you too can become a “success,” perhaps landing on “American Idol” or “Shark Tank.” You too can invent Facebook. You too can become a sports or Hollywood icon. You too can rise to be a titan. The vast disparity between the glittering world that people watch and the bleak world they inhabit creates a collective schizophrenia that manifests itself in our diseases of despair—suicides, addictions, mass shootings, hate crimes and depression. Our oppressors have skillfully acculturated us to blame ourselves for our oppression.
Hope means walking away from the illusion that you will be the next Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Kim Kardashian. It means rejecting the lust for public adulation and popular validation. It means turning away from the maniacal creation of a persona, an activity that defines presence on social media. It means searching for something else—a life of meaning, purpose and, ultimately, dignity.
The bottomless narcissism and hunger of consumer culture cause our darkest and most depraved pathologies. It is not by building pathetic, tiny monuments to ourselves that we become autonomous and free human beings; it is through acts of self-sacrifice, by recovering a sense of humility, by affirming the sanctity of others and thereby the sanctity of ourselves. Those who fight against the sicknesses, whether squatting in old warehouses, camped out at Zuccotti Park or Standing Rock or locked in prisons, have discovered that life is measured by infinitesimal and often unseen acts of solidarity and kindness. These acts of kindness, like the nearly invisible strands of a spider’s web, slowly spin outward to connect our atomized and alienated souls to the souls of others. The good, as Daniel Berrigan told me, draws to it the good. This belief—held although we may never see empirical proof—is profoundly transformative. But know this: When these acts are carried out on behalf of the oppressed and the demonized, when compassion defines the core of our lives, when we understand that justice is a manifestation of this solidarity, even love, we are marginalized and condemned by the authoritarian or totalitarian state.
Those who resist effectively will not negate the coming economic decline, the mounting political dysfunction, the collapse of empire, the ecological disasters from climate change, and the many other bitter struggles that lie ahead. Rather, they draw from their acts of kindness the strength and courage to endure. And it will be from their relationships—ones formed the way all genuine relationships form, face to face rather than electronically—that radical organizations will be created to resist.
Sybilla, whose father was an electrician and who is the oldest of six, did not go to college. Josh was temporarily suspended from Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., for throwing a pie at William Kristol as the right-wing commentator was speaking on campus in 2005. Josh never went back to college. Earlham, he said, like most colleges, is a place “where intellectualism takes precedence over truth.”
“When I was in high school I was really into the punk rock community,” Sybilla said. “Through that I discovered anarchism.”
“Emma Goldman?” I asked.
“Yeah, mostly that brand of anarchism,” she said. “Not like I’m going to break car windows for fun.”
She was attracted to the communal aspect of anarchism. It fit with the values of her parents, who she said “are very anti-authoritarian” and “who always taught me to think for myself.” She read a book by an anonymous author who lived outside the capitalist system for a couple of years. “That really set me on that direction even though he is a lot more extreme,” she said, “only eating things from the garbage. Train hopping. As a teenager, I thought, ‘Wow! The adventure. All the possible ways you could live an alternative lifestyle that’s not harmful to others and isn’t boring.’ ” [continue reading]
Copyright 2017 Chris Hedges. First published in TruthDig.