Sunday, February 13, 2011

Are you smarter than Thomas Jefferson? (My 2000th blog post) is devoted to "resisting empire" by describing aspects of our world that no one else wants to talk about.  It can get pretty depressing in there:  you have to feel strong to immerse yourself in a TomDispatch essay.  (Are you strong enough for this one?)

But a recent piece by actor and dramatist Wallace Shaun goes far beyond the norm.  Key excerpts from Why I Call Myself a Socialist: Is the World Really a Stage? follow.

We are not what we seem. We are more than what we seem. The actor knows that. And because the actor knows that hidden inside himself there’s a wizard and a king, he also knows that when he’s playing himself in his daily life, he’s playing a part, he’s performing, just as he’s performing when he plays a part on stage. He knows that when he’s on stage performing, he’s in a sense deceiving his friends in the audience less than he does in daily life, not more, because on stage he’s disclosing the parts of himself that in daily life he struggles to hide. He knows, in fact, that the role of himself is actually a rather small part, and that when he plays that part he must make an enormous effort to conceal the whole universe of possibilities that exists inside him.

Actors are treated as uncanny beings by non-actors because of the strange voyage into themselves that actors habitually make, traveling outside the small territory of traits that are seen by their daily acquaintances as “them.” Actors, in contrast, look at non-actors with a certain bewilderment, and secretly think: What an odd life those people lead! Doesn’t it get a bit—claustrophobic?...
I’ve sometimes noted that many people in my generation, born during World War II, are obsessed, as I am, by the image of the trains arriving at the railroad station at Auschwitz and the way that the S.S. officers who greeted the trains would perform on the spot what was called a “selection,” choosing a few of those getting off of each train to be slave laborers, who would get to live for as long as they were needed, while everyone else would be sent to the gas chambers almost immediately. And just as inexorable as were these “selections” are the determinations made by the global market when babies are born. The global market selects out a tiny group of privileged babies who are born in certain parts of certain towns in certain countries, and these babies are allowed to lead privileged lives. Some will be scientists, some will be bankers. Some will command, rule, and grow fantastically rich, and others will become more modestly paid intellectuals or teachers or artists. But all the members of this tiny group will have the chance to develop their minds and realize their talents.

As for all the other babies, the market sorts them and stamps labels onto them and hurls them violently into various pits, where an appropriate upbringing and preparation are waiting for them. If the market thinks that workers will be needed in electronics factories, a hundred thousand babies will be stamped with the label “factory worker” and thrown down into a certain particular pit. And when the moment comes when one of the babies is fully prepared and old enough to work, she’ll crawl out of the pit, and she’ll find herself standing at the gate of a factory in India or in China or in Mexico, and she’ll stand at her workstation for 16 hours a day... And it’s not that anyone sadly concluded when she was born that she lacked the talent to become, let’s say, a violinist, a conductor, or perhaps another Beethoven. The reason she was sent to the factory and not to the concert hall was not that she lacked ability but that the market wanted workers, and so she was assigned to be one.
 And during the period when all the babies who are born have been sorted into their different categories and labeled, during the period when you could say that they’re being nourished in their pens until they’re ready to go to work, they’re all assigned appropriate costumes. And once they know what costume they’ll wear, each individual is given an accent, a way of speaking, some characteristic personality traits, and a matching body type, and each person’s face starts slowly to specialize in certain expressions which coordinate well with their personality, body type, and costume. And so each person comes to understand what role he will play, and so each can consistently select and reproduce, through all the decades and changes of fashion, the appropriate style and wardrobe, for the rest of his life...
Image:  Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings (dramatized).


  1. historydoll11:30 am

    First, let me say that I have been reading your blog(s) for a long time, and I enjoy them thoroughly--I nearly always learn something new. A little background: I'm a (superannuated) two-weeks-away-from-my-Ph.D.-defense student of medieval history. Dissertation on the birth of fashion in the Middle Ages (and although I'm not a(n) SCAdian I have learned a lot from some who are, and I appreciate your acknowledgement of the kind of helpful info they can supply). My career, though, has been in the Broadway theater, and I'm actually writing you as the result of that. Wallace Shawn (not Shaun) is an amazing writer, and you might want to read a play he wrote called "Aunt Dan and Lemon" (which I had the pleasure of working on). It has to do with how easy it is to convince yourself that you're doing the right thing and wind up, like the protagonist, as an enthusiast of all things Nazi. He has an amazingly subtle mind and is a delicate parser of all things moral. (Also an enjoyable actor: if you're a Star Trek fan, you may remember him from DS9 as the Ferengi leader!)

  2. Historydoll,

    I appreciate the note.

    We can use all the good scholarship on fashion and clothing we can get.