Monday, December 19, 2011

Wiggle Your Fingers and Repeat After Me: Dreams of an Un-brokered World

When I first heard of the Occupy movement's ritual of repeating a speaker's remarks as a way of orally transmitting the words towards the back of the crowd, I thought of a scene from the Monty Python Movie The Life of Brian. In the movie's comic version of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, by the time the words "Blessed are the peace-makers" reaches the back of the crowd the assertion is transformed into "Blessed are the cheese-makers." "What makes them so special?" asks one incredulous listener.

There are many scholarly ways - as opposed to cinematic ones - to interpret the life of Jesus, but one of the most thought provoking and plausible comes from John Dominic Crossan's book Jesus - A Revolutionary Biography. Crossan, a New Testament scholar, reconstructs the life of Jesus within the context of the social turmoil, shifting politics and agrarian culture of the early first century after his birth.

Crossan examines how Jesus challenged entrenched authority, transgressed the social and moral boundaries of his time by mixing and eating with sinners and outcasts, and why his itinerant preaching was an explicit challenge to the Greco-Roman social system of patronage and clientage. In this pyramid structure of power, those who had no power were clients to the patrons above them. Brokers, not unlike so much of our current political life, operated between the two, ingratiating themselves to those above them and offering their "services" to those below. These highly structured relationships kept society from unraveling, but at the expense of reinforcing attitudes of dependency and domination.

Rather than creating a "healing cult" in his family home and having those ill of body and mind come to him - a common practice at the time for village "healers," Jesus went on the road and to the people. By doing so, he undermined the hierarchy of place by symbolically and programmatically confronting the system of client, patron and broker. Without a fixed location, the sick and ill were not turned into "clients" who were tended to for a price, but brothers and sisters to whom he offered his spiritual and material gifts. This "un-brokered equality" constitutes for Crossan, the Kingdom of Heaven.

Stripped of the explicit religious content and transferred to the United States, these themes have a unique secular resonance. Thomas Jefferson admired the parables of Jesus if not the miracles: He famously constructed his "Jefferson Bible" by extracting the miraculous and keeping the wisdom. His emphasis on individual sovereignty in the radiant opening lines of the Declaration of Independence and his battles with Alexander Hamilton over economic policy owe no small amount to a desire for an un-brokered political and economic life.

In Jefferson's bucolic world, economically independent citizens - prosperous self-reliant planters and yeomen - would be protected from an oppressive and servile wage-labor relationship with urban bosses and remain politically independent. Writing in Notes On The State of Virginia, Jefferson argued that "Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God," and that "Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition." In the last letter that he wrote ten days before he died, Jefferson re-stated the principles that he thought animated the revolution. "The mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God."

Historians have poured over Jefferson's personal life and fixated appropriately on his ownership of slaves and his attitudes towards African-Americans. But as Princeton historian Sean Wilentz points out, as illusory as the assumption of individual sovereignty may be in a world of enormous corporate power and government reach, this idea has endured as a key legitimizing principle and core conviction within both liberal and conservative American political traditions.

Debates over group entitlements or government "intervention" into the economy or our personal lives, are invariably bathed in the pervasive light of Jefferson's luminous ideas. In the ongoing Republican primary contests, outside of the specific issues of taxes, job creation or health care, the central philosophical attack on Obama's leadership goes straight to the themes of individual choice and state "coercion."

To the extent that conservatives have an aesthetic and moral critique of modern life, much of it is centered here. Through the inexorable rise of "big government," they argue, we are being turned into a nation of dependent clients. The big patron in this worldview is government itself.

So just as there is a left wing and right wing Jesus, there is a "radical" and "reactionary" Jefferson.

Since their expulsion from the grounds of Los Angeles City Hall, the Occupy movement has also hit the road, moving from support of distressed homeowners, to our major ports and to the U.S. Immigration and Customs and Enforcement offices. Like Jesus' missionaries (Although I'm sure many of them would reject this analogy) they take their face-to-face engagement, elaborate group rituals and grass-roots organizing to the places where suffering exists. They move, heal, and move on.

I'm not sure how to evaluate their ultimate impact or the exact nature of the political message they carry. Defining it in standard political terms might be beside the point. But you have to admire the spirit and tenacity, even if people like me at the back of the crowd may occasionally mistranslate what the speakers at the front are saying. I suspect that they too, dream of an un-brokered world.

Suggested Readings:

John Dominic Crossan - Jesus, A Revolutionary Life
Richard Matthews - The Radical Politics of Thomas Jefferson
Sean Wilentz - The Rise of American Democracy