We need the courage to look beyond abstractions

by Andy Oram

September 13, 2001

The horror that began September 11 called upon each individual to make a statement. We all had to speak to ourselves, to our family members, or to anyone who would listen. I myself had to discuss with my children why my aunt by marriage died in a plane hitting the World Trade Center (answer: I don't know why). I have read many other excellent statements on politics and society before writing my own.

We don't know the psychology of the people who destroyed the World Trade Center, but we know that they forged their plan around an abstraction. Whatever world view they possessed, the World Trade Center was just a symbol within it, and the presence of 50,000 people in that building was just a factor in its symbolic value. And we know this kind of sickness is nothing new; it has been criticized by thousands of authors before. The Jews were an abstraction in Hitler's plan, millions died in the Soviet Union to serve an abstract goal, and the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki became reduced to an abstraction during American calculations to end World War II.

So I cannot sit here and write a grand sociological treatise; I will not paint abstractions of the world's political landscape. I hereby pledge to bring reality into every discussion in which I participate. So it is time for the U.S. to relinquish some destructive abstractions of its own.

Our dominant abstraction is the rosy spectacles of neoliberal capitalism. In this view, international capital flows to countries that most closely follow the virtues laid out in glossy journals. The brilliant entrepreneur is rewarded in the mechanical turnings of a well-tuned market, while governments discreetly get out of the way. Although this entrepreneur is usually light-skinned, diversity thrives within institutions because an enlightened management recognizes the need for a global reach. Science ensures a plentiful supply of energy and food.

I don't disparage the many accomplishments of our economy in this era. But what will happen if we all pledge to view reality instead of our pleasing abstraction?

  • When reformers reveal the cronyism and corruption that lie behind major business deals, we will organize them into a fighting force instead of talking up the healing power of international financial flows (and refusing to say whom Vice President Cheney met with the previous month).

  • When laborers complain that they need two or three jobs to pay the rent, and millions cry out that they have to struggle to get each meal, we will demand higher wages instead of telling them to wait for a restructuring of the regional economy.

  • We will no longer ignore the terror of disease that stalks entire subcontinents, or the devastation of earth and water, or the plight of those living by rising seas, and we will provide some response besides, "Don't put barriers in front of commercial development."

I need say no more; the rest can be found in position papers in every language. What blinds us from action is the triumph of our abstraction. It has already claimed its share of victims. During the Cold War it left a trail of bodies from Guatemala to East Timor. Ironically, our government thought it would just be unbelievably clever to land a blow against the Soviet Union by supporting the Taliban and Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. Thus, our government's last battle against the distorted remnants of the liberatory impulse behind the 1917 revolution led to grotesque casualties here at home.

Perhaps the recognition of how firmly we have lived in the grip of this abstraction will help us to understand how other people could fall murderously under the sway of a different one.

Please be gentle; this is a time to tolerate exploration and self-expression.


2001-09-13 16:00:59
right on
I just want to write and let you know how refreshing it is to hear a voice of moderation and questioning of how this tragedy came to pass, after the continued calls for vengeance and dropped bombs that we hear on television and radio. It seems that someone, somewhere must pay. Even if they were not responsible.

I write this in Australia, a country where the government is refusing to allow Afghanistani refugees into the country and now suggests that half-starved people on leaky boats fleeing an oppressive and intolerant regime may be terrorists.

2001-09-13 16:34:03
I expect you'll get some hate over this, but not from me
Thanks for a balanced view in an unbalanced time.