Thursday, January 14, 2016

Westwood Stories

Westwood Stories
Starbucks Cafe, Westwood Village, Los Angeles

ONE

A Place For Themselves In Other People's Places

- Who was that guy you were talking to? It sounded like you were mentoring him. I do that myself.
- No, just met him. I saw him at Ralphs last night after seeing him here at the café, said hello, and he told me about his life.
- What did he say?
- His life was going about looking for a place for himself in other people's places. The first place was a Zen Buddhist monastery, across the street from the aged Filipino woman he was taking care of in Hilo, on the big Island of Hawaii. He hung out for years there at the monastery. Then he had some legal difficulties with the ethnic Hawaiians, and switched to hanging out around the Hilo courthouse, the only place he felt safe from the police. He became an expert in local crime. Then he returned to the mainland and lived, he claims, six months in the San Francisco airport.
- Why?
- He said he was afraid people wanted to hurt him. Then he spent another six months living out of an administration building of the University Of California at Berkeley, until he got caught and charged with trespassing. A public interest lawyer he found got him off, and he came down to L.A. He's been hanging out at Malibu, attending the Habad Center there. The rabbi had agreed to help him convert to Judaism and go live in Israel at a Yeshiva. He was copying the entire bible by hand so as to memorize it.
- What did he get angry with you about? Sorry, I didn't mean to eaves-drop...
- I pointed out that he kept talking about Jesus, and about himself as someone chosen by fate to be a significant religious force, and that this didn't look much like Judaism to me, rather it looked like ego mania. He began insulting me and I asked him to leave.
- There's a lot like him around here.
- What about you? What do you do? Are you also a messiah?
- No. I have several projects I'm developing.
- What kind of projects?
- Music, movies, a hedge fund, many things. An entire conglomerate actually. I've put it into lockdown now while I get my life in order.
- While you're hanging around here. Ok. It's really a remarkable crew that passes the nights at this Starbucks. Do you know any of them?
- I keep to myself, do my own things.
- They do too, mostly. In front of me is the computer programmer, in a moment you see him go into his routine of wrist twitching, finger pulling and joint cracking. At the far right corner is an old con artist who acts like he is my friend. He tried to trick me out of 500 dollars when I returned from Europe a couple of years ago.
- How?
- Said he'd give me a job writing a television show. Minimum wage, but a good start to show my talent. But was I a member of the Writer's Guild? He was a member of the Producer's Guild and he could only hire Writers Guild members. No? No problem. He could send his lawyer right now to the Guild and get a temporary membership. Only five hundred dollars instead of the regular two thousand five hundred. Let's go to the ATM, he said, and get your money.
- You didn't give him the money?
- It was really tempting, even though I knew the whole thing was ridiculous. He'd never read a word I'd written.
- How did he know you?
- He saw me through the window of the cafe and came in, sat down next to me, asked me if I was a writer. So, I told him I didn't have the money, but he could take it back out of my first two weeks salary. He said he couldn't do that, it wasn't professional. I was making a mistake, he warned me, maybe the worst mistake of my life, I'd always regret it. That's the story, he left the cafe to try the trick on other poor hopefuls. But back to the regulars here. Around the corner, in the other room, is the grey bearded man being treated at the University hospital whose medical expenses ruined him. Ahead of you is the black family, mother, father, two teenaged daughters, who work quietly at their table on their individual projects.
- What kind?
- I don't know. At the window is the Russian, or maybe only Russian reading man who spends his days at the UCLA library, nights here, also sometimes in a sleeping bag in a doorway on Westwood Blvd. Three or four women regularly spending their nights in village doorways come in here as well. I'm sure you've seen them. They don't talk to anyone.
- They talk to themselves.
- Yes. There's the guy who never takes off his ear speakers, and is writing a screenplay, seems to live somewhere hidden on the UCLA campus. There's the black guy who sits smoking outside giving everyone provoking hostile looks. Last night a woman sleeping on the street began screaming Help! Someone called the police. This smoking provocateur was throwing garbage at here while she tried to sleep. He didn't even bother to leave. The police came and took both him and the woman away. More people stay here, but enough for now, right?
- I was the one who called the police. Are you going to put me on your list?
- Do you think you belong? What they all have in common is their great similarity to the orthodoxy of our world.
- They're victims of the powerful. The government gives them free food and no place to live so they can scare the rest of us into conformity.
- They do the work of scare crows. And like scare crows resemble real men and woman, so these people on the street resemble those they are meant to scare. What they have in common is their attachment to social role, despite the fact that in their present way of life there is no one along with them up on stage, and in fact, there is no stage either. I'll tell you what I mean. In the last week, there have been two more scandals about UCLA. Scandals are nearly continuous these days. The first was the hospital being fined 250,000 dollars by the state of California for endangering the lives of their patients through negligence. It seems that in one out of every three thousand operations surgeons leave inside the bodies of their patients a sponge or towel or some instrument or other object. That is ten times the state average, with most hospitals reporting no cases at all.
- The surgeons are in a hurry to move on to their next operation.
- That's what the nurses I talked to about it said. The other scandal isn't even reported. At the California Nanoscience Institute there is one out of only two in the world x ray microscopes which can make three dimensional images at the atomic level, can actually see molecules. Though developed by public funding, maybe in the billions of dollars, it is being rented out exclusively to drug companies to do research at the price of 200 dollars an hour.
- About the cost of a cheap car repair.
- Yes. I've told you about these things because I want to make a point: the overnighters here at Starbucks each have their role, they'll tell you about it if you ask. Some are messiahs, others, many others actually, are writers and filmmakers. We think there is something pathetic about this self conception they have because no one else in the world has a role to play with them, to give the writers a job, the messiah a people to save, whatever. And they don't have any regular place they live to perform their roles in. But look at the UCLA surgeons and scientist administrators. Surgeon is supposed to be functioning with patient, scientific administrator with the California public. Instead the surgeons treat their patents like disposable garbage bags and the scientific administrators are no different than the con artist I pointed out to you. The con man doesn't run from me, the man attacking the woman on the street for the fun of it doesn't run from the police, because there is no place they are performing their role in. They don't live anywhere. They can play their solitary role anywhere. But if the people here overnight don't have a stable place to play their roles, neither do the surgeon and administrator. They couldn't be scared so easily if they did by the show of these scare crows wandering the village and campus. Administrators and surgeons know no one is really safe. That's why they go for the money in the first place. The real difference between the people down here at the cafe and those up at the university is possession of property, and property can easily be taken away.

(Continued at Zizek At Starbucks)


TWO

What We're Doing Talking Like This

- Ever wonder what we're doing, talking like this?
- We're getting ready to change the world.
- Why do we have to wait?
- We don't. Getting ready is already beginning. Think about what happened here last night: three in the morning, Westwood Village, night café. This corner more than well lit up under the marquees of two of the city's oldest and largest movie theaters. People coming and going even at this hour. You and me are here, with three or four others, waiting for the morning. A vague resignation of no better place to go hovers over us with the light.
- "The dispossessed and abandoned", in the words of those bygone days when it was considered normal to be of concern to others and to have some place in life, when it was thought something must have happened to people like these to overthrow the usual ways of the world.
- That world has long been overthrown.
- It has. So we were sitting there and then: pound! pound! pound! Across the street two storefronts down is someone in a deeply hooded sweatshirt with a sledgehammer hitting away at the jewelry store window. And what do we do?
- We do nothing.
- We watch. We wait. We are in no conflict about it. The world has its ways and they are violent and the world is not our world.
- What is our world?
- We're ready for that question, aren't we? All this past week* we've been talking about the secular and the sacred, the new school of theology that studies their relation. The secular: the world, as its etymology suggests, that is in time and of the times. A world in which what people claim is good changes because that world itself changes, is not fixed in time. Though there is a kind of fixity to be found in the way the secular world moves. It has a system or mechanism, in fact, has two of them: the free market in which everyone trying to profit at each other's expense is said somehow to work to every one's advantage; and evolution in which violent competition for survival strengthens the species to the advantage of those members of the species privileged to survive. In both cases there is mechanism and violence. And what you and me discovered, and the professors hadn't, was that the sacred is the same! The sacred: the world outside time we can only access through rituals and ceremonies of gods dying and being reborn, through a mechanical procedure re-enacting violence. The professors of the new school saw clearly there is religion in the secular world, that people imagined themselves in the god-like force behind mechanisms of market and evolution. But the professors didn't see how the secular enters into the sacred in the form of mechanism and violence guiding the transition from secular time to sacred time. What they, these professors of the secular and sacred didn't notice being immersed in these worlds themselves was that the secular and sacred have almost everything in common: life practiced in the secular would is mechanical and violent, and our access to life in the sacred is also mechanical and violent: we have to lose ourselves to gain the world.
- And sitting at the café, watching the sledgehammer wielded by the hooded man?
- The secular world is supposed to operate on its own market mechanical principles without our having to decide what is good or bad. And the sacred world promises us that with a different kind of violence and machine we can get out and away from that secular world of violence and mechanism. What is all this to us? I don't want either world. Do you? Do the dispossessed who watched along with us? One world of violence and mechanism, two worlds, an infinity of worlds of violence and mechanism, how does this involve us?
- We sat at the café and watched.
- Yes. Our ideas of good and bad, secular and religious, have been discredited. Gods are in the secular, mechanism is in the sacred, violence is in both. Religion is a joke, as is non-religion.
- But if we say it is a joke that implies we have a standard we are judging it against. What is that standard if it is neither religious nor non-religious?
- In the Jewish mysticism of Kabbalah we are sparks fallen to this world from the fire of god. Only when we have perfected our knowledge will we return to god. 'Souls must reenter the absolute substance whence they have emerged, but to accomplish this they must develop all the perfections, the germ of which is planted in them.'** We need knowledge, not mechanism and violence. And what is the most essential knowledge we need?
- Of the world we actually live in.
- We need to know our world here and now and the obstacle to knowledge it represents if we are to have a chance to acquire more knowledge.
- We need to know the world we actually are in if were ever to get out of it.
- Know what the secular and the sacred really are. It's knowing a lot, a good beginning, to see that they are much the same.
- Because that tells us to look for good elsewhere?
- Yes.
- But if not in this secular world of time passing and not in the timeless sacred world of ideas and ideals, what's left?
- The world right here. Starbucks Coffee, Westwood. The guy in the deep hood and the sledgehammer. This world of mechanism and violence protected by the police whose sirens we could hear approaching, whose helicopter in minutes would be overhead.
- Average house price in Westwood: two and a half million dollars.
- The police, an invasion army is coming, trained to issue orders to anything that moves: Keep your hands where we can see them! Identify yourself! State your reason for being here! One minute you're sitting at a café drinking coffee in the place you grew up in, the next you stand a good chance of being shot.
- All of us left before the armed forces arrived.
- Why should we stay to be subject to mechanism and violence? Did we believe we were gods of violence in charge of the world economy or evolutionary fighters for survival? No, not us. We didn't believe good came out of the sacred world, we didn't believe morality was determined by a god who had to have recourse to mechanical ritual to get us to do his bidding, didn't believe in the rules of the free market, of violent competition for survival. Secular and sacred emerged from nowhere and become our worlds, learned in childhood without knowing we learned them: the sacred taught us to engage in mechanical ceremonies pretending to be a murdered and then reborn god, the whole process beating into our heads acceptance of roles, old and new, weak and powerful, reconciling us to a society of roles, of power exerted by one role upon the other, taught us to be slaves and masters of slaves; the secular taught us to do things for the sake of doing them, to keep things we didn't have use for from others who did, taught us to hoard.***
- Again: if not those, what world do we live in?
- What world did we go to when we left the café? Where did you guys go? It would be hard for you to hoard possessions you don't have or sell yourselves into slavery to people who have more slaves than they need. I myself went on with reading and writing.
- We turn the corner but haven't gone anywhere.
- We've gone to look for good each in our own way with each other's help.
- How can we know the way? How will we help each other?
- Keeping off the wrong ways, wary of violence and mechanism, wary of hoarding, slavery, role, hierarchy.**** Gradually our eyes will open.
- Is that your religion? A prediction?
- A theory.
- Then let's find out if it's right.
- Let's. But our difficulties are not as great as they seem.
- Optimism coming from you is suspicious. I think you enjoy leading me in circles.
- Violence and mechanism, hoarding and hierarchy are social expressions of vain thought and vain action. Vain thought is when, rather than (as in ethical thought) being inattentive to ourselves while seeing the world as beautiful and whole, we instead see only ourselves, see our power of control. Vain action is when, rather than (as in ethical action) being inattentive to the world, unclear in the process of change, while attentive to our selves as we try differing attempts to better our position, we instead are blind to ourselves as in intoxicated passion we strive to force the world back into a form in which we felt powerful.***** Ethical action and thought, being the reverse of vain thought and action, involve a changed relation to the world, but don't require any new learning or experience. Plato called progress from one to the other conversion: a turning around.
- Conversion. A theory that once stated confirms itself. We're back to religion.
__________________
On Bureaucrats & Violence
The Two Worlds
** The Zohar
*** Clutter, Gloves Off
**** Bringing Back Stray Sheep
***** The Mathematics Of Consciousness
Noam Chomsky & Mental Things


THREE

What's In A Name

- Hi.
- Sit down.
- Ok. Have you seen Donny?
- Donny is the old guy? No, not since this morning. Why do you ask? Did he make you a business proposal?
- How did you know?
- I should have warned you. You didn't give him any money?
- What should you have warned me about?
- A few years ago he was working as a professional confidence man. I know because he tried his tricks on me. He was good, very good. Something in me wanted to believe. He taunted me, said my doubts were pathetic weakness and irresolution.
- But last night you were sitting down at the same table as him as if nothing had happened.
- I can't tell if he remembers. I think he does and is pretending he doesn't.
- He said he'd get me job managing a hedge fund and I'd be making 50,000 dollars a month.
- I doubt he has a dollar in his pocket. You know, last night at the café is the last for us. They're closing the terrace.
- Really? They're taking in the tables?
- Yes. This morning I overhead the policeman who comes at closing ask them if they wanted him to clear everyone off the terrace.
- What did Starbucks say?
- No.
- Why?
- People living on the street must serve some function if they are allowed to accumulate in such visible numbers. After all, we live in a society whose god is efficiency and profit. Going into Ralphs today  I stopped when I saw someone new. The security guard looked to see what I was looking at. She pitied them, she said, these people, we were all only one step from sleeping on the street.
- You said it to that deluded hedge fund guy: the job they do is scare people.
- Too much tolerance defeats the purpose: the powers that be don't want objects of their tolerance enjoying themselves with the Starbucks terrace to themselves in the middle of night.
- If they enjoy themselves they don't scare anyone.
- Exactly. Thus the rules must be changed. The rules are changing everywhere in the neighborhood. The university seems to have hired a police informer, a tall long bearded foreigner about 60 years old who rides a skateboard in the middle of the night. He claims to be Scandinavian but if you ask which country he won't say.
- I haven't seen him. How does he talk?
- I can't identify his accent. Perhaps South American. I've seen him many times in many places late at night riding his skateboard. He's generally in a hurry, not friendly. But a couple nights ago he skated right up to me and said, Hey, I was looking for you. You look like a bohemian, like someone who'd knows things I need to know. I got evicted last night from my studio. Can you tell me where I can crash on the street?
- What did you say?
- I said I couldn't help him and he shouldn't do it. He said why not, it wasn't forever, looked at in the right light it was romantic. I said if he tried it he'd find himself being hunted 24 hours a day, always on someone else's property, in a permanent fight with the world and his own building paranoia. And tonight, as I walked here a woman who sleeps in a doorway on Weyburn called out my name and demanded, why don't I get a job?
- How did she know your name?
- Don't know. A few days earlier a habitué of the research library who'd always waved off my attempts at conversation did the same thing, practically chased after me saying he'd forgotten my name, what was my name, would I tell him? I expect this dining area here at the market soon will be closed too.
- This is making me uncomfortable. How do all these people live?
- They keep track of cultural events where they can get free food, they know the library's where they can get some sleep during the day, and where's to be found the strongest wifi...
- So the University hires old bearded spies, and businesses in Westwood are pulling back on their tolerance. This because the people living on the street weren't frightening enough. Too many of them were smart enough to keep themselves alive and not die promptly and publicly.
- At Starbucks last night there was you, recent University graduate, employed part time. Me, reader who claims to write. Donny, elderly confidence man. And the Tunisian refuge waiting on a visa to Australia. No drug addicts or alcoholics. Neat and presentable all.
- Not dying to order.
- We're disappointments. Now, do you want to know what I think is most interesting about this situation?
- What?
- You, me, the con-artist, the Tunisian, we don't know each other and we aren't ever going to know each other.
- But you know all about us!
- Observation goes with the job.
- The job of writing?
- Thinking. The writing's just for the Internet. What I wanted to say is we live in a society of doing for the sake of doing. Nothing is respected but producing and profiting from what is produced. Only technical skill and achievement. But skill and achievement for what? For its own sake. And if you look at this little group of ours you see the same thing: people who have skillfully managed what you'd think were intolerable circumstances and making what looks like a lark out of it, a romantic vacation.
- Gathered together on our private middle-of-the-night Starbucks terrace.
- Yes. We too are doers for the sake of doing. Working not to make profit upon profit we can't use, but working profitlessly simply keeping ourselves alive.
- What's wrong with that?
- The Tunisian is well up on political theory. He is in favor of direct democracy, is against any form of representative government. He asked, was I interested in politics, what did I think? I agreed with him that only community decision making was safe from representatives using their power against the people who they were supposed to represent. But democracy was only a sharing of power. It was always in the interest of some to jump ship, form a faction and force themselves on the people. This would always happen as long as people only thought of their power, their ability to do things.
- What else should politics be concerned with?
- With why we wanted power to do things. With the reasons we become so expert with our techniques. With what we do things for.
- And that is?
- Our relations to people and the world. Our loves, our sense of beauty, of truth, goodness.
- Abstractions.
- Realities. There is nothing more abstract and senseless than doing things without being able to say what you are doing them for.
- What did the Tunisian say?
- Human nature was bad, so maybe I was right. I said No, our nature was both good and bad. When we know ourselves better we can take steps to protect ourselves from unwanted political developments.
- Give me an example of what we can know.
- Two examples: hoarding and employment both predestine any politics to totalitarianism. But we'll get into this some other time. What I want to say is that our defunct middle of the night Starbucks society was a microcosm of the society at large, we too were politics without knowledge. We were extremely efficient people with nothing in common, were even former antagonists, who had established the most efficient society possible in the circumstances but had no real relation or knowledge of each other. No sympathy, friendship, admiration, nothing. Or do you not agree?
- I agree. You don't even know my name, do you?
- I don't.


FOUR

Migrant Minds

1.

- Everything alright?
- Fine. Why do you ask?
- It's been a while since our last conversation. Last month* you proposed that like there was atrophy of muscles and memory in their disuse, so there was an atrophy of good.
- You wonder if I've atrophied. You're welcome to test me.
- Then I will. Here's my question: Is the same true of societies as for individuals? Is there an atrophy good in a society? I've been reading the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Adam Ferguson who seems to have thought so. His 1757 book is called Essay on the History Of Civil Society. I've marked a few passages:​
There have certainly been very few examples of states, who have, by
arts of policy, improved the original dispositions of human nature, or
endeavoured, by wise and effectual precautions, to prevent its
corruption. Affection, and force of mind, which are the band and the
strength of communities, were the inspiration of God, and original
attributes in the nature of man. The wisest policy of nations, except
in a few instances, has tended, we may suspect, rather to maintain the peace of society, and to repress the external effects of bad passions, than to strengthen the disposition of the heart itself to justice and goodness. It has tended, by introducing a variety of arts, to exercise the ingenuity of men, and by engaging them in a variety of pursuits, inquiries, and studies, to inform, but frequently to corrupt the mind. It has tended to furnish matter of distinction and vanity; and by incumbering the individual with new subjects of personal care, to substitute the anxiety he entertains for a separate fortune, instead of the confidence and the affection with which he should unite with his fellow creatures, for their joint preservation.
If to any people it be the avowed object of policy in all its internal
refinements, to secure only the person and the property of the
subject, without any regard to his political character, the
constitution indeed may be free, but its members may likewise become unworthy of the freedom they possess, and unfit to preserve it.
 
But, apart from these considerations, the separation of professions,
while it seems to promise improvement of skill, and is actually the
cause why the productions of every art become more perfect as commerce advances; yet, in its termination and ultimate effects, serves, in some measure, to break the bands of society, to substitute mere forms and rules of art in place of ingenuity, and to withdraw individuals from the common scene of occupation, on which the sentiments of the heart, and the mind, are most happily employed.
That last sentence has the most weight for me. Specialization, the division of labor, tends to corrupt the mind: make people selfish, self absorbed, and vain of their power within their speciality. Without deliberate attempt to strengthen the disposition of heart to justice and goodness society atrophies. Do you think he was right?
- A muscle atrophies by poisoning itself, one chemical process interfering with another. Is there a parallel in society? Looking at our times, is there some regular process in which one part is poisoned by the other? Is the free market the poisoning mechanism?
- Many people say so. The free market creates conditions that make a good life, a life of confidence and affection, more difficult. People even say that the disruption of everyday life is deliberate: market societies deliberately start wars, grant unpayable loans, cause economic depressions, so as later to move in, cheaply pick up the pieces, increase their market share acquiring businesses and properties.
- A market society, letting good atrophy, deliberately poisons itself, together with the soon to be incorporated world around it.
- Yes. So the argument goes.
- And like the invisible hand of the market place in which everyone seeking their own advantage is, it's claimed, to the advantage of all, this process of poisoning also is automatic?
- Yes. Market society makes a life doing good difficult or impossible, which incapacity opens further markets to the society of trade, making life of doing good even more difficult. Wouldn't a good example would be today's news, the mass migration of refugees from war-torn Syria towards Germany? Market society creates huge disorder with two big wars, one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, and refugees stream from newly opened war zones out to market society's home territory, to Germany, Europe's most powerful market society. Along their way in Hungary the migrants encounter mistreatment by the market society's own home grown disruption, neo-fascist anti-immigration political parties. The German government is now showing signs of willingness accept the migrants for the very sake of creating further internal disruption, a new labor pool to lower the wages of workers, the cost of the surplus migrants presence paid mostly by workers themselves who unlike the rich can't bribe the government to lower their taxes. The surplus remain in the country as internal, eternal migrants, forced to move place to place, no place their own, functioning like the American army of the dying on the street as a source of permanent fright and disruption of everyday life.
- How can a process like that be automatic?
- The disruption is restricted to economic realms that are still uncontrolled: local businesses not yet taken over by a chain store, undeveloped countries invaded militarily or their markets conquered by import of subsidized grain. The desire for profit, and the ability to control government war making and subsidies, bring the rest.
- An automatic process in which government in control of big business creates disruption, inside the country and out, which disruption creates conditions of expansion. And expansion brings progressive atrophy of good.
- Which I, doing all the talking, was supposed to be testing you on.
- But giving you the exercise, saving you from atrophy, wasn't that good of me?

2.

- This time I'll do all the talking. The international migrant crisis happening in Europe does in fact closely parallel the local crisis happening with the street dying here in Westwood Village. Three of the largest corporate owned businesses in the U.S. - Starbucks, Ralphs Grocery (Kroger Corp.), Target Department Stores - have recently been overrun by those who die on the streets. One large group sleeps on the sidewalk directly in front of the department store's main entrance. This situation developed because the formerly tolerant beach city Santa Monica adopted the policy of sending their police to wake the street sleepers every hour, with the result that they moved to neighboring Westwood Village. Starbucks was the first to take action: formerly open 24 hours (this is said to be the busiest Starbucks in the country), they began closing for two hours between 2 and 4 AM to force the street sleepers to sleep in the street and not their store. When the street sleepers simply moved outside to the terrace, Starbucks closed the terrace. The street sleepers then slept under the marque of the historic movie theater next door. The police were called in to clear them out. Meanwhile the expelled had been gradually moving over to the dining area of the Ralphs 24 hour open supermarket. Ralphs in response began closing the dining area 2 hours in the middle of the night, then closing from 2-6 AM, and then, after Starbucks and the movie theater had taken action, hiring new security guards who suddenly appeared early in the evening and ordered everyone out. These policies had immediate effect. Within a couple of days almost all the foreign street sleepers were gone, the Westwood Village ones remaining. The articles on the international crisis I read this morning all pointed out that Germany, different from the other EU countries, had both a large budget surplus and an aging population, putting the economics clearly in favor of taking in immigrants. No similar safe harbor exists for the American street sleepers, said to be over one million now, about one third former soldiers. The French government issued a statement yesterday that the cause of the refugee crisis should be addressed: the persecution of minorities in Syria. No one in authority talked about what was behind that persecution, the US and NATO's Middle Eastern wars, just as in Westwood Village there is no chance the corporations will take responsibility for bribing the government into economics leading to breakdown of families and people dying on the street.
_____________________
* The Atrophy Of Good


FIVE

Indifference
Once we accept our limits we go beyond them.*
1.

- It's not too late at night? It's four o'clock.
- No. The time is perfect. Let's go. That is, if you're really up to it, seeing assemble the unwanted of American life on these dark streets, the daytime preserve of wealth. It's not a nice sight. As a precaution maybe before we go we should clothe ourselves in understanding, see if we can agree on fundamentals.
- I don't think I'm so sensitive.
- The worse for you.
- Yeah? What fundamentals do we need to agree on to protect our sensitive souls?
- When we blame or praise we do so by rule, rules which apply to everyone. Have you ever wondered why?
- We want to be treated equally.
- Why not demand better treatment especially for ourselves? Because others would not agree to it, or because it is not right?
- Because it is not right.
- Why is it not right? Why are moral judgments "universal"?
- That's simply how we're made.
- Why are we made that way? Why do we expect to be treated the same as everyone else?
- We're just made that way.
- You said. Could be. It could also be that moral rules are fundamental: in good relations to others they are the foundation other principles of conduct are built upon. When we talk we build up a description: You and me are here in Westwood, We are in Westwood at night, We are here at night talking, We are talking about what we'll see at four in the morning...
- If we ever stop talking...
- We build up a sentence hierarchically. Maybe morality builds upon a shared foundation in the same way: We're talking, We understand and share the meaning of words and share an intention to go on talking, We learn doing this something about the world and ourselves we can use to make our lives better. If we agree on this - that we sometimes build a life together on such a foundation - we can get an idea of what is behind indifference.
- Which we define as what happens to us when we don't build our rules of conduct on any shared foundation.
- Yes. Does the idea suit you?
- I'll try it on for tonight's tour.

2.

- If language is built on foundations...
- Where's the poverty?
- Coming. We say language is hierarchical, builds foundations upon foundations.
- If language builds on foundations and indifferent people don't have a shared moral foundation what kind of language do they speak?
- Their language also is hierarchical.
- Then how is it different?
- The picture their language builds is not a model of what has been experienced but a model built in imagination of future foundations they are to construct.
- Construct doing the work equally?
- Yes.
- Now you've got me totally confused. The indifferent have a morality that is equal and hierarchical, and so do those who aren't indifferent?
- The indifferent are all equally subject to their model, participate in making it, they build it up step by step. But building a model society equally is not the same as equally subject to the same rules of conduct.
- Why not?
- Their society is specialized, segmented into different social roles, sexual roles, occupational roles, each role subject to different rules of conduct appropriate to different responsibilities.
- A foundational rule, "don't kill", applies to all of us, but a soldier in a model society must kill when ordered to?
- Exactly.
- I think I understand. Governments like to claim they act in the interest of the entire population equally but this really only means they set up a model society in which those in control have taken the most profitable roles. Because all are equally invited to participate in the society's building, everyone has something to do and everyone has a place in the building built on the shared foundation, it seems like the society is moral when it is far from it.
- Let's begin our tour. We're on Wilshire Blvd., the southern border of the village. We'll go around this corner, up Gayley Ave. Atop those steps to the bank ahead - do you hear?
- I don't see anything. A crazy person raging to herself?
- Keep walking. It's morning wake up time for the transvestite who sleeps there. Well? What did you think?
- She's sitting on piles of carpets, very stylishly holding up a cigarette. When will I feel your promised 'cold wind of wealth's indifference to poverty'?
- Just wait. Let's turn here. Turn again, we're going up Broxton. There: see the small guy, young, bearded, neatly dressed, no bags?
- He's rubbing his hands.
- A compulsion. He's down from Berkeley where he's a student. He grew up in Northern California, but his uncle has a place here, not far from Westwood. But he doesn't often go back to his uncle's house. He has in fact his own, completely empty little apartment up on Fraternity Row his family has rented for him.
- How do you know?
- I've been there. He says he's unable to stay within four walls for more than a few minutes at a time. He wanders all the night, strolls the supermarkets, spends an hour or two at Starbucks, Coffee Bean, he walks the streets, he stands holding his phone reading on the internet.
- Where does he sleep?
- In a coffee shop chair, or a chair in the student center at UCLA. That bent old man pushing the cart: he's also on his way to Starbucks. He sleeps in a doorway on Westwood Blvd, spends whole days at the computers at UCLA's Research Library. I see him sometimes reading through dictionaries.
- Why is he doing that?
- Don't know.
- Why don't you ask him?
- I'm afraid to. He's started to say hello to me when we pass each other on the UCLA campus.
- And you, Mr. Sympathy wrapped up in his ideas doesn't like that.
- No, Mr. Sympathy doesn't. Starbucks is straight ahead. But let's turn right. In front of Trader Joes is this fat naked girl always wrapped in a blanket lying down on the pavement; about this time she's also getting up. Her legs are bruising more and more, severe sores are developing. Soon she won't be able to walk. She sings softly to herself, has the mind of a three year old. Been on this corner for months, since summer people say.
- How does she live?
- People shop for her and leave her bags full of groceries, hand her cash or set the money down beside her when she's sleeping. Last night she offered me her surplus food, an entire shopping bag. The destitute of Westwood come and ask to borrow money from her. She gives it. 
- Are you indifferent to her plight?
- No. But I do nothing to help her. Are you indifferent?
- Do you mean am I going to do anything to help her?
- Do you feel anything, anything at all about her?
- Yes. Like you. So we're not indifferent, just don't know what to do. 
- What about the others who pass by her all day and night, sometimes, when she has moved across the street, literally stepping over her sleeping body to get in the door of the department store? Are they indifferent?
- They can't help noticing, seeing her. Do they feel nothing?
- They appear not to imagine she is suffering. Or that the others suffer either who sleep on the streets here.
- But maybe they don't suffer. They are protected by their craziness, distracted by their mental weaknesses.
- They don't they feel the cold? Feel pain of wounds? Fear the police?
- Sorry, I wasn't thinking. Of course they do. Maybe a lot of people are like us, not really indifferent, just don't know what to do about the problem, seeing as we don't have any influence on our finance and corporate controlled government. But what about them, the corporate and financial rich: are they indifferent?
- Playing their roles in the construction of the imaginary state they are indifferent to those who don't share in that construction. 
- But who says they always are like that: can't people switch back and forth between the two languages, foundations, sometimes building up imaginary societies, sometimes building upon a foundation of sympathy? The two ways exclude each other, can't be done as the same time, but we can imagine organizing one as the "spare time", recreational, restorative, behavior of the other.
- At times when recreation is not required won't the wealthy be indifferent?
- Yes, they'll be indifferent.
- See that man? He wheels a cat around in that trolley bag to all the same places the hand-rubbing young man with the beard goes. See that shuffling even older man, barely able to drag himself forward? He's the one who used to be a professional confidence man. Most days he's penniless, drinks the self-service coffee cream at Starbucks. See that old woman standing at the window of Starbucks? She sleeps in her car parked across from Dennys on Tiverton; she believes while she sleeps crack cocaine is introduced into the car's heating system.
- And Starbucks lets all these people stay?
- They don't even ask them to buy anything. They wake them when they catch them nodding off. We said the rich are indifferent when they don't feel the need to recreate themselves. But maybe they are indifferent in the very practice of charity too.
- Why?
- Because on days they don't give charity they go right back to stepping over the poor naked girl's sleeping body to do their shopping.
- And you think it would not be so easy for them if their days off from indifference involved any real feeling?
- Yes. Don't you agree?
- I do. What about you?
- What about me?
- Do you step over her sleeping body with indifference? 
- Not that. Indifference takes me when I do my own society building, imagine myself occupying an important place.
- And are you ashamed of yourself afterward?
- I am. When you allow yourself to feel indifferent, your life founded on sympathy brings discredit on life without; you feel guilty, you feel like you have lost yourself.
- You're building society's world not your own.
- Exactly. Those living lives of society-building can imagine that in giving charity they are moving to another kind of life but they are not.
- Why not?
- Because that life builds upon the foundation of sympathy, and charity is only an interval of imitation sympathy that nothing builds upon and which soon sinks back to the life of indifference never really left. 
- Then the indifferent can't escape even for a moment their indifference without challenging their whole way of life.
- That's right. 
- And not even in their charity do they stop being indifferent.
- Not even in their charity.
- How many of these people at Starbucks do you know? At least something about?
- Around half. Some of them practically live there. The coffee shop closes between two and four to allow them to clear out those who've fallen asleep in their seats; in those two hours they go lie down on the pavement under the theater marquee next door. See: they're getting up now.
- Tell me the truth: what do you feel as you look on at this?
- I feel sad.
- Me too. But if what we've said is right, the majority of us fine Americans are not merely looking away to spare ourselves from feeling bad about something we have no control over, but we in fact do look and feel nothing. What do we do about that?
- What we said also shows us that the indifference is not an inherent, unavoidable personal fault, but a consequence of the wrong kind of society. Human nature is not an obstacle blocking our way, we know what we must do: understand and change society.

Further Reading:
Justice & Terror
How To Read Plato's Republic
Compassion & The Story
_____________________
* Albert Einstein


SIX

The Supermarket

You've heard a couple times now about the young man in Westwood Village who wanders from cafe to cafe all night, who has his own apartment but is afraid to stay there? You remember? He'd often come find me late night at the supermarket's restaurant. He'd ask me to buy beer with him. He was making a study of the best breweries, ranking, categorizing them. Well it seems the University Police had identified him as the perpetrator of the crime of bringing alcoholic beverages within the surveillance perimeter of the University, swerving their car towards him in one instance as he walked down the street to let him know they had him in their sights.

The University police had tracked the source of the young man's beer back to Ralphs, the all night supermarket; apparently they then held secret meetings with the supermarket management to coordinate action plans. Last night the outsourced uniformed security service of the supermarket entered the restaurant en mass, came up to me, and declared, 'You are a drunk, Sir. You have to leave! Right now, Sir! Sir! Leave now, Sir!'

My reply? I took a pause, looked around me. There was the old man who for years had been sleeping uncaught in the bushes of the University. His friend was absent, the Chinese woman, recent UCLA graduate in Library Science, who unemployed had rented an apartment then subletted the rooms to students leaving herself only a couch in the living room to sleep on. When not here she could be found patrolling the aisles of the market day and night looking for discounted items, taking breaks to go outside to the village and check garbage cans for leftover food. Present were the contingent of recently released penniless prisoners with no place to go and nothing to do but rest their heads on their tables and sleep. In the corner, the grey haired woman who pushed a wheel chair packed with her possessions. Someone had given her a black eye. These, and more, had been my late night companions of several months. But all things must change, even this, so talking to the dead for the entertainment of the living I said to the corporate representatives of law and order: 
'What's it like to be dressed up morons like you? To live like a robot? To be completely without thought? Have you noticed there was something missing in your life? Something like a brain? Look at you! What a sight you are! Don't worry, I'm going, I'm going. It's only fun to insult monsters like you for a few seconds. Give me a few more seconds. You Idiots! You Psychopaths! YES! I'm going. Bye Bye.'