Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Frenetic Oblivion

As I adjust to being back in the U.S., I find myself more and more concerned about how stressed out so many people are. So I recall something I wrote about in Bible Wonderings:

There is a lot that is interesting in [Exodus]. First of all, after Moses and Aaron make their initial request to Pharaoh [to let their people go], Pharaoh is so upset that he commands that the Israelites be compelled to work even harder than before, so that they will not have time to pay heed to deceptive words (Ex 5:7-9). This strategy was very clever, because he even got the Israelites mad at Moses and Aaron, blaming them for the increase in work that they now suffered (Ex 5:20-21). (From "God Helps the Oppressed Gain Freedom, But...")

When I first wrote this, already I was thinking about our own predicament, but I've continued to meditate on this and thought it would be good to draw out the implications even more directly.

A good way to keep people from organizing themselves in opposition to an abuse of power is to make them work so hard that they don't have time to think, or talk to each other. Even better is to get the people all stirred up against each other, so that as they suffer and strain under the pressure of their heavy workloads, they blame each other instead of those who oppress them.

Now, at first glance, it might seem ridiculous to compare ordinary American workers to oppressed slaves. We live in the land of freedom, and the land of opportunity, don't we? Even many of the poorest among us have TVs = luxury, right?

But just because we all seem to agree with and accept the situation we happen to find ourselves in does not make it right and good, necessarily. After all, the cleverest tactic of all for preventing people from organizing themselves against oppression is to convince people that they have freely chosen the situation they find themselves in, and that they like it.

So, we work very hard and go ahead and agree that "time to think" and "time to talk with each other" count as foolish and unproductive wastes of time. We bicker with each other about all that goes wrong, blaming each other rather than the dominant forces of power in our culture (it's unpatriotic to criticize our government, "sour grapes" to blame big business, and just silly to blame the media, because after all, they give us what we really want, don't they?) And we claim we like working hard (it's good for the economy; it keeps our kids out of trouble; it shows we are ambitious and keen on self-improvement) and, besides, we appreciate the benefits offered by working hard and making lots of money (not mere TVs anymore, but big screen digital TVs now! What an improvement to the quality of our lives!)

But are our lives really getting better? Or do we work harder and harder for less and less? How many have better health coverage than they did 5 years ago? How many are seriously in debt? Are we paying down our debt, or accumulating more? How many young people, graduating from college with enormous student loans, feel that their career choices are limited because of the obligation of paying off their student loans? How much of our purchasing choices are determined by the expectations of our friends and neighbors (what kind of car to buy; what kind of clothes to wear; what kind of food to eat; what kind of house to live in; the social obligation of "renovation" because as soon as you buy a house everyone immediately asks what you've "done to it," etc.)?

Are we really free? (What is freedom? And what is freedom for?) Do we really live in the land of opportunity? (What opportunities do we really have? Are they the opportunities we really want?)

For example, what I really want is more time with my friends, and they want this too, but we don't have time.

What I also really want is time to write. I have this now, while I am on sabbatical, but I am all too aware of how temporary and fleeting this opportunity is. It is also framed in layers of accountability. I had to spend time justifying this in advance; I will have to cut it short to justify it again in retrospect. (Can I claim that this writing counts? No. So while on sabbatical I must put in enough time to do the writing I'm "supposed" to do, plus the writing I want to do. The root of "sabbatical" = "rest" is a meaning that is now ignored.)

So many people increasingly have to spend time now describing how they spent their time (as when lawyers have to log their activities in 6-minute intervals)! When I go back to teaching and chairing my department, I will have to put in hours of department meetings and chairs' meetings working out an "assessment plan" to show what we are trying to do in our teaching, how we do it, and whether we are successful at meeting our goals. (I can already predict the answer: no, we will be found not to be successful because we will have had to stop teaching in order to write about what we are trying to teach, why teaching matters, and how we teach; and then because our students are so busy we will conclude that it's only fair to devote class time to having them write about whether they have in fact been learning all that we would have been trying to teach them if we only had time.) (But actually, this won't be the outcome, of course, because the expectation is that we put in the hours of extra work on top of all that we have already been doing. We find those extra hours by cutting back on sleep and wolfing down power bars and caffeine-drinks at our desks instead of having proper lunches.)

This whole "accountability in education" phenomenon is just one example that shows a very disturbing trend that applies to other (all?) fields of work as well. It is very much like the Pharaoh's doubling of the Israelite's workload. It is a technique that puts people who already work very hard on the defensive; it is a technique that trains people not to trust each other or work well together, but to bicker so much with each other that we don't have the time or emotional energy to look for the real sources of our country's social and economic problems.

Let my people go.

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