Nothing – not drones, bombs, apps, or awards – stops the white male North American intellectual in his quest to nail the nature of the times in which we live. Super-intellectual soars again and again, often fueled by his own sense of self-importance. Indeed, it takes a certain sort of mental chutzpah — a certain kind of ballsiness of the brains — to float theories about human nature and society, shift the paradigm in a single bound, and offer blueprints for how things might change for better or worse.
I’ve never had those inclinations myself, perhaps because I’m too cautious or not confident enough about my own beliefs and intuitions.
I’m far too grounded in the here and now and in my own body. By training and by habitual practice, I’ve also developed a critical eye. Sometimes I try to counterbalance my hyper critical perspective by looking for all that’s good and true in a book and by turning myself in a cheerleader. But time and again, I come back to the flaws. They stare me in the face and won’t let me sleep at night.
More often than not, I can see that they’re not just the flaws of an individual. They’re bigger and more inclusive than that. The author has been painted into a corner, not only by himself, but also by the culture of which he is a small part. Nearly everything that he does in his tome is predictable. He lives in his head until he’s nearly dizzy. Then, he makes heady but often empty-headed and repetitive arguments.
Next, he assembles pages of distracting data and offers piles of needless evidence to prove his point. Finally, he aims to bring the whole intellectual dish to a resounding boil that will make the reader feel that the book has been uplifting, significant culturally speaking and in some way redeeming.
If only the authors freed themselves from constipated editors and from the professors who insisted that a book had to be logically structured and go from point A to B to C to Z. If only then, they might write with pizzazz.
They might also try to bring to their work a sense of humility and humor. Maybe they could slip on a banana peal or make a Freudian slip and then laugh at themselves. Perhaps they’d realize that tooting their own horns, whether consciously or not, doesn’t help matters. These thoughts came to me after reading two new carefully argued books, both by white North American, male intellectuals, one Canadian, the other a U.S. citizen. Hal Niedzviecki, the author of Trees on Mars: Our Obsession with the Future (2015), was born in Brockville, Ontario in 1971.
Tim Wise, the author of Under the Affluence: Shaming the Poor, Praising the Rich and Sacrificing the Future of America (2015), was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1968. They’re both creatures of post-Sixties globalization and misery and they both belonging to Generation X, which means they missed out on the utopianism, hedonism and nihilism of their parents and grandparents.
They never rioted in the streets of Chicago or Paris, never dropped acid at the orgy after Woodstock, or trekked across the deserts and mountains of Asia to sit at the feet of a guru who seduced every woman who joined the ashram. Too practical and too career-orientated for their own good, they’ve avoided extremes and extremism and thought they had somehow or other overcome the pitfalls of the radicals who moved from the barricades to corporate law offices, judgeships and little offices where they practice marriage and family therapy. Niedzviecki is all worked up about the future. Wise is hopping mad about the present, especially the fictitious present that appears on Fox. They’re both passionate about narrative, though neither is an especially compelling storyteller. Niedzviecki also gets excited about technology; Wise gets hot and bothered about race. Put their two heads together and shake them up and you might have an appealing intellectual cocktail.
Unfortunately, neither has a strong grounding in history or philosophy, though they’re both sincere young men who want to be socially responsible and to stand on the right side, morally speaking. If they can’t be intellectual giants they’d like to be saints, or saint intellectuals. I know the feeling. It can be awfully seductive.
Jean-Paul Sartre was a hero of mine, along with Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus. But Sartre, Camus and de Beauvoir were also artists who spoke for generations and across continents, which, in our jihadist, Instagram world, is much harder if not impossible to achieve. In Under the Affluence, Wise argues that we live in a “culture of cruelty” and that we need to replace it with a “culture of compassion.” It’s only two-thirds of the way through the book that he gets around to his main point. “Though I’ve spent much of this book providing facts, I know that those facts alone won’t mater if there isn’t a storyline to go with them,” he writes. “In each case of successful protest, or for that matter liberal reform, it was the existence and propaganda of a clear counter-narrative — a storyline — that paved the way for victory.”
I thought that it was bodies on the line, bodies in the streets, and in jails, from Birmingham to Washington, D.C. that ended legal segregation in the South. I thought it was because of soldiers who fragged their officers that the war in Vietnam came to an end sooner rather than later. I thought that it was uppity women who refused to be beaten down who put a dent in the patriarchy and that it was workers who went on strike who struck a blow against Capital.
I thought that change came about because of love and community, not a counter-narrative, though the speeches of Malcolm X and Dr. King helped a whole lot.
Whenever Wise writes about America I get uncomfortable, as when he says that, “the problem in America is a values problem” and when he explains that he believes that “it may yet be possible to develop a truly radical Americanism.” Didn’t Earl Browder, the head of the American Communist Party, say something similar when he exclaimed, “Communism is twentieth-century Americanism.” Save us from those on the left and the right who would revive Americanism.
In Trees of Mars, Niedzviecki begins with a quotation about the future from Obama and then adds another from Tony Blair, neither of whom are futurologists. Niedzviecki argues that there is now a “race to the future,” along with the “notion that tomorrow is now almost entirely under human control.” Furthermore, he explains that, “there is little to no coverage that puts these phenomena in context.” Niedzviecki to the rescue, though he gets too cute for his own good when he says, “The future is sabotaging the future.”
What he’d like to do away with is hope because he feels that “It’s hope, not technology, that lies at the heart of our collective future phantasmagoria.” Too many absolutist statements, not enough nuanced discussion. For all his sense of hopelessness, Niedzviecki doesn’t give up hope that human beings will “find meaning in what is good about the human project and give that meaning prominence in our lives.” Two cheers for meaning!
The planet Mars, which plays a big part in the title of the book, doesn’t get much attention in the text itself, which is disappointing. “Mars is just one of many symbolic stand-in,” Niedzviecki writes. “Mars and its many incarnations are the pop/consumer spectacle merging with the forever promise of techno-science that now dominates how we think about the world around us.” That “we” doesn’t include me, or most of my friends and family.
Perhaps because Niedzviecki relies heavily on the ideas of University of Texas Professor Robert Jensen, the author of We Are All Apocalyptic Now (2013) and those of Viktor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search for Meaning (1946) — a book that’s been around for nearly seventy years — Niedzviecki’s conclusions sound stale. There’s too much reliance on the work of others and not enough of his imagination and experience.
Much the same is true for Tim Wise who relies on the work of Derrick Jensen whom he calls his “favorite thinker” — next to James Baldwin.
Didn’t the notion of a “favorite thinker” go out of style in the tenth grade along with the idea that one had a “best friend”? That Jensen is his second favorite all-time thinker makes me dubious about the kinds of thoughts that he has. I don’t want to leave the impression here and now that I don’t like any work by anyone who belongs to Generation X and that I rejected the very notion that a white male North American might be a resounding intellectual. I admire greatly the photography of Matt Black, who was born and raised in California’s Central Valley, and who has made it his life’s calling to take pictures of the poor and the dispossessed, migrants and field workers. An intellectual with a camera, he lives close to the people that he has photographed. Black tells powerful stories through images that reach an international audience. In projects such as “Black Okies,” “Oaxacan Exodus” and “The Geography of Poverty” he traces the history of our continent, reveals the lives of Americans who are often unseen and unheard and sends out a universal cry of pain, sorrow and compassion. But don’t take my work for it. Go to mattblack.com