Monday, December 19, 2005

Best Behavior

I simply have not been very good lately about getting these blogs away. And I know I am always going on about being too busy and all. And it is like, how many times can I say the same thing over and over and over again? But nevertheless there is a certain threshold of available energy and once you cross that threshold, there just isn’t anything real to work with. And this is basically where I have been for the last two weeks or so. And though I can say about my tasks over the last while that they were learning experiences and that I have actually improved at said tasks to the point of at least being proficient at the work, it was indeed a tough row to hoe and one I assure you I wouldn’t have ever done except for love.

But before you start thinking that I am going to go off on a tangent about what kind of depths Poland had left me in that I needed to do the sorts of things I am into now, I just want to say that you need not worry about this. I mean, that’s a good blog too, and has been a good one many times, but it is not what I had in mind today. What I have been thinking about for the last several days is the actual social contract that makes episodes like the one I have just gone through realities.

Do you ever think about social contracts? And by this I am speaking of our inevitable and genuine obligations to the people who are around us? I don’t actually know if it is necessary to define the divisions of the connection because I am not specifically speaking of family or neighborhoods; towns, state and countries, religious, ethnic and racial and/or intellectual differences. I might just be speaking too abstractly here, but I what I am actually referring to is the basic responsibilities that we have to and for our fellow man. You now, no man is an island unto himself. These sorts of things. To me these obligations are exactly the thing that makes society possible, they are the thread that connects us and the ties that bind and in the end, makes actual communities exist. And of course this is why I was willing to kill myself to try and get right the work I have been doing. It was for love you see, for the overall good and not for purely selfish ends. If I did well, there was a chance that the overall deal would go well and therefore we would have benefit. Simple as that. It was investiture.

And I believe in my heart that this was of doing things is the most powerful tool of life and living we humans have. Now, I know that they way I see things is not the way that the governments and the bosses and the billionaires and really, really pretty girls see things. I know that they believe that mankind is basically made up of fools and idiots and sycophants. But in my book, I believe that people are deep down inside not killers and thieves and pirates and rapists and child abusers and such, but are rather endowed with great feelings of sympathy and love and desire to do good things. DO NOT LAUGH AT ME, BECAUSE I AM SERIOUS ABOUT THIS. I really do believe that man has great capacity to love and forgive and respect one another. And I further believe that given a proper chance, people will in fact come through for you, especially if they are not harassed along the road while doing it.

But this is not the way of the world, hence the laughter on your part. This is not the way it is. But it could be and so I keep at it. What is missing, and this is the reason for high school kids raking each other with submachine-gun fire, the recent ruination of the French car insurance industry and Lukashenka’s demanding his rights to put political challengers in jail, you know, for speaking, is something that is called “vested interest”. You know this phrase from retirement plans; it means that you have ownership of some piece of real property (tangible or esoteric) that you are free to possess and use freely.

Basically explained, what “having a vested interest” does though is that it makes a connection to something in an extremely personal way: What happens to one happens to the other. If one part fails the other fails as well. If one wins, we all win, if one loses, well, there you go. But in order to have this thing, this vested interest, you first and foremost need agreement from all the important figures involved (yes, all of those who have vested interests) that you indeed do in fact have what you have. Can you see what I am getting at? Without formal agreement, there is no real ownership of the thing because it is in dispute, withour peace, on trial and therefore in limbo and not "owned". So what I am saying is that there are social contacts at play all through this little ownership entanglement thing and all of those social contracts have to be good and solid and binding. If someone doesn’t agree that you have the right to some money for example, you might get it, you might not or you might end up giving some of it to lawyers in order to get it. But in any case, what is at the root is that nothing in the structure works unless people care enough about the interactions or the things that the interactions surround to be willing to consciously agree. You need that love, that need, that want, that energy and forward progress, or it all turns to mud. And of course you can't have any of that without having a vested interest in the outcome. So in this way it is a paradox, a catch 22: Having a voting right, an ownership stake, a voice or a good face are powerful things, but they are in fact only as powerful as the connection to their principals, the others who share the interest.

In Russian they have a couple of words which stand out in speech quite interestingly specifically because the communist culture frowned upon property: Svoi, substvany… They mean yours, personally, from inside of yourself. I probably am only mentioning this because the same sorts of words in my American lexicon are so overused (bought and sold?) that they fail to have the same weight. And this is what is missing; the world seems to belong to someone else, to someone rich, to someone powerful? Who knows, but in any case, it has fallen into other hands. People simply do not any longer have a vested interest in things.

So what is the point of this? Well, at the very moment I am looking at a magnificent paradox which is taking place in Belarus, this crazy country where I am living. The paradox comes because one of the main reasons that I am here is that this country showed me eight years ago that they knew the meaning of the words “best behavior”. They not only knew how to get along with each other, but they also knew how to be sincere in their respect for their social contracts and learned how to be graceful in those actions. They had respect for each other and there were remarkable social results from this respect. And it is my contention that one of the main reasons for that remarkable behavior, that endless togetherness, was that each and every single person held (and was forever reminded) that regardless of age or skill, potential or ability knew absolutely and positively and without question that he or she was a member of a group and that there were responsibilities to that group that needed to be upheld for the good of all. And this was the very essence, the core of the culture, this knowledge that each and every person had both a responsibility and (therefore) a vested interest in his or her world. And I liked this and this amongst a few other things was why I was willing to stay.

But as I said there is a paradox here now because the current ideal that is being proffered as being Belarus' road to the future is based upon exactly this thing that I am everybody here loved, this nostalgia. Now this is a reasonable thought for people here, but the paradox comes because Belarus is going about it in completely the opposite manner from which the original idea was created. I’ll explain.

I made a big deal in my interview with Emiel Elgersma that I wanted more small independent businesses and more freedom of speech. Why? Well, it is not that these are just simply cool thoughts, it is because both of these issues build “vested interest, ownership stakes in communities. Having a little stake in your town gives individuals and families and small groups a reason to care about their world, their place. It gives them a responsibility to keep things going- and to supply goods and services to that community. And this is why I like this. But Belarus is not interested in this at all. Belarus stifles the little guy in favor of large controllable interests. Forget all of the mud slinging and personal insults for a moment, the endless yes I like him no I don't nonsense; simply put Lukashenka prefers large enterprise rather than small. He likes to put money in singular “town building” firms rather than supporting entrepreneurs and small merchants.

And if this is the case, I must state that I do not admire the effect that Wal-Mart, k-mart, 7-11, m***erf***king McD****ds and other megalithic entities have on small towns in the US. Everyone knows that these giants are death to the small businesses who must face the impossibility of competing for trade with them. And along with their demise and the loss of direct societal participation on the part of the business owners, there is also that money leaves the local community as profits go back to the corporations and the building up of the disenfranchised "wage slave" community; No vested interest, no local pride. Perhaps from the top looking down this makes sense; that is to say if you are only thinking of easier ways to collect taxes, and keep things in hand. But from the bottom looking up, there is simply nothing in the deal for the populace but a pouch full of silver and a pat on the head.

And so too will this be the inevitable end for Belarus: Rather than rebuilding that amazing universal vested interest that was the heart and soul of the place years ago, because they do not support independent business, they disallow for the rebuilding of pride of place and only further erode the ailing social fabric. They are not building a new "people’s world", they are ironically enough, in fact simply emulating the modern United States.

And here lies that extremely significant paradox I was speaking of. How can the gosudarsva claim to be upholding a love of the USSR, a nostalgia for a day when all had vested interests in their world, by taking each and every possible chunk of Belarus’ vested interest in itself away from the people of Belarus, both real and esoteric, both economically and ethically? Perhaps I simply do not think like the governments do. Perhaps to them, we are all simply so many chickens to be counted, prodded poked and made use of. They see people as being in great need of that strong, fatherly hand in order to keep things going. And I am not screaming dictator, dictator, dictator here because to me it is all the same. This is the sort of treatment that we get these days, and I simply do not feel that this way of life makes for healthy feelings of love and respect for our world. It only breeds discontentment, breaks the peace and in my book, this is the opposite of what people really want.

Of course people are unhappy. You can see it in the faces of the workers and at the markets. They are unhappy because simply nothing is theirs; they have no interest in things. I mean now, after this new set of laws, they are not even allowed to say that they are unhappy. And all of the arguments one way or another get muddled under by the state, taxed left and right, harassed by an endless paperwork requirement and of course all of the accompanying co-payments. And in the end, there is not even that feeling that you are working for your community while you are ding it. You can’t even do it for love, hence the paradox.

I got the idea to write this these while trying to speak to Egor about what the phrase “best behavior” means. He is a 10-year-old. The lesson was that behaving well socially was not simply a learned group of tricks to make people feel good(have you read Carnegie?), but rather the result of understanding that you have a role to play in the world and the better you play this world, the better potential your world has to be worth living in. Or, the idea is for him to explore his actual vested interest in the things that he does, that he should take them personally and do them seriously out of love and respect for those who count on him. Yea, I know he is only 10, but the lesson makes sense. You do a good job on your homework because you are “sharing the class-work with your peers and with your teachers and because what you learn, or that you can learn, makes you more valuable in the community in the future. Or, locally, the idea is to produce not only good school work for your self, but also it serves the class as a whole because if you do good work, this makes the teacher happier and if she is happier, everybody is happier. And here is where the vested interest comes in. It comes from the symbiotic relationship between her being a good teacher and your being a good student. You can’t have one without the other. And of course it also applies to his mom and I: please make us look good, do your homework, study your chess and mostly, try and be on your best behavior while out and about. Only good things can come of it.

Now I now what you are thinking: You are thinking that this actually made sense in the end. And also that it is probably not a bad way of looking at things. Peaceful anyway. Well, you know the truth is that this was always my philosophy and it simply struck me hard when I found out (back in 1997) that there was a whole culture out here who seemed, finally, to understand my thinking. And this inevitably is why I stayed. People here simply behaved really well. Or at least they knew and respected the difference and really and truly understood about what having a vested interest in each other was all about. And it was great. But I am not kidding myself and I am not kidding you gentle reader into thinking that this is how it is at the moment, because it is not. In fact, we are simply flying down the road in the opposite direct. And as far as this blog is concerned, I guess I just find it ironic that the great white Belarusian hope for the future, though using freely the rhetoric, lies on in an ideal that is simply not being observed. And though it is a real, viable, and tangible fact that people here do indeed want something of the life of the old days, and this is really and truly one of the great motivating facts behind the real support of the president, there is nothing that is being offered either from outside of Belarus or from within that actually contains that thing, that belonging, that sense of community that used to be. And also ironically, this is not just true for poor, poor Belarus, but it is also true for the rest of the world as well. I mean, we are behaving badly, aren't we?