Friday, September 19, 2008

There are no truths, only stories

I've been thinking a lot the last few days about the current financial crisis and some of the moralizing that has been expressed by persons all across the political spectrum. Someone or someones are lacking in "moral leadership" and have succumbed to greed - not us, but the politicians, the stockbrokers, the S.E.C. Really? I wonder. As we still drive our cars, buy where we can as we can (whether it be the local Walmart or supermarket chain), buy what we can (produce, meat, all kinds of products transported by oil from across the world), when the little we may earn from our bank accounts or retirement funds (if we have any) depends on market games, and when we work for companies who must play their own part in the overall game, are we, even those near the middle and bottom of the economic ladder in the U.S., just innocent lambs, really innocent prey to the wolves on Wall Street, or are we all creatures, big and small, who share in the fault?

Not having the answers to these questions, I tend to fall back on trying to listen to the experts, those who have studied and critiqued the structural problems in the markets and have practical solutions based on a clear, possibly objective view of the realities of the world we live in. And as for morality, I suspect there's just as much wrong with "us" as "them." So maybe what is needed is figuring out how to set up the best controls for self-interested behaviors, since we are not about to end or curtail those any time soon.

Yet, in the midst of technical talk about market structures, regulation, profit and loss, I still try to remember that there are real people affected much worse than me, not just here in the U.S. but throughout the world. Who or what really is at risk when the markets play their games? Chomsky gives the following view from the (once) radical Left:

Markets have inherent and well-known inefficiencies. One factor is failure to calculate the costs to those who do not participate in transactions. These "externalities" can be huge. That is particularly true for financial institutions.

Their task is to take risks, calculating potential costs for themselves. But they do not take into account the consequences of their losses for the economy as a whole. . . .

The unprecedented intervention of the Fed may be justified or not in narrow terms, but it reveals, once again, the profoundly undemocratic character of state capitalist institutions, designed in large measure to socialise cost and risk and privatize profit, without a public voice. . . .

Noam Chomsky at BBC News.

There may be some important truth in that, but is the realistic solution an enlightened vision or perspective that puts the good of the whole first? -- the resort to the tired out -isms of socialism or communism as the counters to capitalism? Is it indeed always a matter of the rich vs. the poor, the bad and powerful vs. the poor and helpless? Is it x vs. y, class against class, one political or economic theory over another, or rather an enormous failure to see the human face of our many societal problems? Will we ever do anything but move around the players and the playing pieces, just mixing up the game, rather than ever really giving up the desire to move up and ahead of others, seeing and serving the least among us?

I stumbled across this passage from an article written by one of my favorite authors, Jim Harrison. It doesn't speak to the current financial crisis but rather another back-burner political issue in the current election cycle - immigration. It reveals the angst many feel over the lack of clear, simple solutions to seemingly intractable problems yet insists that people do not divert their gaze away from those who suffer so terribly when caught in the midst of ideological and economic warfare. Unlike the "stories" sometimes told in campaign soundbites, this speaks to the kind of story that reveals perhaps the only truth we can ever really know:
Frankly, I have no mind for rational solutions to these immense problems. Nothing I ever hear from Washington, D.C., has any relationship with the reality I know down here. I’m seeing delirium, hunger, acute suffering, which are not solved, assuaged or aired by the stentorian fart breath of the House and Senate.

I’m also wondering if it behooves a writer to try to be right. Yeats warned about cutting off a horse's legs to get it into a box. Simon Ortiz, the grand Acomo Pueblo poet, said that there are no truths, only stories…

A historian might very well consider the validity of the Gadsen Purchase, wherein we bought my locale for fifty-two cents an acre from a group of Mexicans that had no right to sell it. The United Nations would question our right to take all of the Colorado River’s water, leaving the estuarine area in Mexico as dry as the bones their people leave up here in the desert. A true disciple of Jesus would say that we have to do something about these desperate people, though this is the smallest voice of all. Most politicians have the same moral imperative as a cancer cell: continue what you’re up to at all costs. Meanwhile the xenophobes, better known as the xenoids, merely jump up an down on the border screeching, surely a full testament to our primate roots. Everyone not already here must be kept out, and anyone here illegally, if not immediately expunged, should be made as uncomfortable as possible.

So Ana Claudia crossed with her brother and child into Indian country, walking up a dry wash for forty miles, but when she reached the highway she simply dropped dead near the place where recently a nineteen year old girl also died from thirst with a baby at her breast. The baby was covered with sun blisters, but lived. So did Ana Claudia’s. The particular cruelty of a dry wash is that everywhere there is evidence of water that once passed this way, with the banks verdant with flora. We don’t know how long it took Ana Claudia to walk her only forty miles in America, but we know what her last hours were like. Her body progressed from losing one quart of water to seven quarts: lethargy, increasing pulse, nausea, dizziness, blue shading of vision, delirium, swelling of the tongue, deafness, dimness of vision, shriveling of the skin, and then death, the fallen body wrenched into a question mark. How could we not wish that politicians on both sides of the border who let her die this way would die in the same manner? But then such people have never missed a single lunch. Ana Claudia Villa Herrera. What a lovely name.

- Jim Harrison, "Life on the Border" (Men’s Journal, July 2001)
Quoted in Commonplace at

I do not have the answers to any of these problems, either. But I keep listening, to both the experts on the machinery and the artists who see the souls caught in between.


FranIAm said...

Brilliant post... just brilliant.

klady said...

Thanks Fran. I never know whether I make sense when I draw far-flung ideas together -- Wall Street to Ana Claudia -- but they hit me all at once so I tried.