Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Magicians and Radicals

I've been forgetting to post my "Desert Sage" columns here during the summer. This was the June column, appearing in the Deming Headlight on June 12 of this year.  

"Desert Sage" is a Thursday editorial column originated by Win Mott for the Headlight years ago. In 2013, Win began sharing the column with four writers, including yours truly. My column appeared regularly on the second Thursday of each month. 

Changes are taking place with the column once again, and there will be an announcement about that later this week.


“What you are about to learn may disappoint you.” 

The magician brought out an array of handkerchiefs and small props in preparation for my first lesson in magic. This was not actual sorcery but the human art of illusion. Trickery. Fooling the eye into believing it sees something that is not real. 

It was disconcerting to learn how easily a human being can be fooled. 

One of the essential skills of a magician is that of misdirection, luring your attention elsewhere. When a magician makes something disappear, it is often hidden in plain sight. A magic trick is a small story and the audience will accept the tale and gasp in amazement. It’s fun. Yes, there are those who hold back and try to catch the trick, but they are just party-poopers. 

There is an analogy here to politics. Societies are held together by stories, and usually these stories take a kernel of fact and embellish them, improve upon them by adding memorable details, dramatizing events, and celebrating individual accomplishments. 

Last week, Desert Sage Win Mott wrote about one cherished American myth, that of the “rugged individualist” who built the west. Despite the libertarian fantasy of solitary frontiersmen, “they worked together,” wrote the sage. “Not just to help in crisis, fire, flood or the like, but in the everyday life of planting, irrigating, harvesting and even marketing. ..life clearly functioned better when people banded together.” Moreover, government played an active role in the settlement and development of the west. As an example, Mott wrote about the Homestead Act, to which we will return in a moment. 

Some historical myths present us as we wish to see ourselves; some teach moral lessons - recall George Washington’s cherry tree. The mythos of the rugged individualist celebrates positive values such as perseverance, ingenuity, and self-sufficiency. 

Another use of myth is misdirection, like the magician’s sleight of hand, drawing attention away from the actual power relationships that direct our economy and our laws. Of the romantic, rugged individualist, Emma Goldman wrote, “Their ‘rugged individualism’ is simply one of the many pretenses the ruling class makes to mask unbridled business and political extortion.” 

The Homestead Act of 1862 is often remembered as an example of good government action, helping the commonfolk. As Desert Sage wrote, “Its impact on individuals was to make essentially free land available to poor people willing to live on the land and farm it.” This was formally the intent of the law, and Desert Sage’s point is valid, yet even here there are onion-like layers of myth and misdirection. 

Looking deeper, that land wasn’t really free – it had to be ‘discovered’ and ‘liberated’ from previous occupants, with enormous violence. Moreover, freed slaves and agrarian families often could not raise the needed capital, and it was wealthy speculators and landholders who snapped up the conquered lands and pushed the frontier westward, enacting a great new myth, that of “Manifest Destiny.” 

Just as one can learn to spot what a magician is doing, one can begin to notice the misdirection in our national myths and rhetoric, the friendly masks placed over those who rule. As my magician friend warned me, this knowledge can be disappointing. And looking into these matters will get you called names much worse than party-pooper. 

Exalting rugged individuals keeps us divided and conquerable. There is little an individual can do about a powerful and organized ruling class. A resilient and activated community, on the other hand, can unseat people, change the power structure and write a new storyline. 

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