A Dangerous Admission

“You are a living mockery of your own ideals: either that, or your ideals are too low.”
— Charles Ludlam, The Theater of the Ridiculous

I’m slowly waking to the realization that I’m a socialist. Talk about a word that carries some impressive baggage. Tony Kushner has said in a number of interviews that he has found the label “gay playwright” to be less confrontational for most Americans than “socialist playwright.” In America today, alternative sexualities are less transgressive, less unthinkable than alternative economics. How odd.

I say I’m a “socialist” fully aware of the problems, both practical and theoretical, inherent in the term. Not to mention the problems of the term itself: In our murky, ideologically informed, sound-bite political discourse, socialism is Communism is Stalinism is (someone explain this last one to me) liberalism. So, with apologies to any political scientists who might be reading (doubtful), here is what I mean when I say that I’m a socialist (in 90 words or less):

  • Although many of his specific predictions have yet to materialize (and likely won’t), Marx was absolutely correct when he demanded that our current situation always be understood in hard historical and economic terms.
  • Capitalism is, by necessity and by design, exploitive. (I say that with the realization that market competition has resulted in obvious and radical societal benefits as well.)
  • The championing of individualism over collective action and social justice is (in a word that I use with some trepidation) anti-Christian.

An example. Today Nike announced that the shoemaker will be paying LeBron James — the teen phenom who has yet to play a single basketball game in either college or the NBA — $90 million over the next seven years. We’ve become deadened to figures like this, learning to expect that top athletes are entitled to top salaries. It’s capitalism at its finest. James is, after all, only exploiting an existing, highly competitive market. That he is able to do so is, in a very real and very sad sense, the American Dream. But read coverage of the story and you’ll stumble upon passages like this:

The “marquee” basketball category — hoops shoes that sell for more than $100 at retail — is home to perhaps the sexiest battle in all of footwear. It brings massive margins, approaching 50 percent, as these cheaply made shoes fetch prices up to $140. (Nike tried to get $200 for a recent Air Jordan model, but kids balked at forking out that much.) Nike has traditionally owned this category, due in large part to the phenomenal sales of Air Jordans, but with MJ retiring this year there seems to be a chink in the armor.

So competitors have lined up young guns. Reebok has Allen Iverson; Adidas has Tracy McGrady (and, until last year, Kobe). And Nike has tried to turn Toronto Raptors guard Vince Carter into its new Michael Jordan. Carter at first seemed the real deal, but he’s lost luster over the years as he has been felled by numerous injuries, and it doesn’t help that he plays up in Canada. Right now, Iverson, McGrady, and Jordan are the only guys who really move product, and Jordan’s on the way out. In short, Nike’s desperately searching for a new Michael.

Is LeBron James the one? That’s up to the market, but Nike clearly thinks that LeBron is its cup of tea. Marquee shoes are aimed at black, inner-city kids who are willing to spend huge amounts of money every time the new, hot shoe hits shelves. An Adidas exec once told me that “the day after payday” is the biggest sales day in this category (the way he said it, you could tell that exploitation was not really an issue for him). To ring these kids’ consumer bells, endorsers need to be just a little bit flashy and a little bit dangerous. Iverson fits the bill, with his tats and his slightly sketchy past; Kobe does not, with his squeaky clean demeanor (he speaks fluent Italian, for goodness’ sake). McGrady’s athletic, street-ball moves on the court do the trick; Shaq’s oafish approach to the game, though perhaps the most dominant in the NBA, doesn’t sell shoes. What about LeBron? Already put under investigation for receiving “throwback jerseys” (stylish, vintage team wear) and a Hummer SUV while still an amateur, he has the controversy angle sewn up, and anyone who’s seen him dunk knows he’s got all the moves.

There’s so much to marvel at here — that a single product will routinely return a 50% margin (at whose expense and to whose benefit?); that having a “slightly sketchy past” is now an asset to a company spokesperson (what cultural and economic forces are responsible for this change?); that executives deliberately target already impoverished “demographics” (how are profit motives complicit in the maintenance of that poverty?); and, most damning of all, that we’ve come to accept this as not only the “best we can do” but as the only system imaginable (even waging wars so that we might impose the “freedoms” of capitalism on other cultures).

The deep, deep cynicism that marks my generation is, I think, the inevitable by-product of this distorted value system. Here’s a haunting snippet from an interview with Susan Sontag. Leading into this paragraph, she had been talking about the value of art, whose job, she feels, is “keeping alive people’s capacity for feeling, feeling in a responsible rather than a facile way.” Sound familiar? It reminds me of a certain poem: “The poets must give us / imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar / imagination of disaster.” Anyway, here’s the snippet:

After all, if advertising works, and it does, then so does art, and in the same way. These images and stories influence us; they create legitimacy and credibility. They make things which used to be central marginal, difficult to defend. I’d go back to an earlier point I was making: That though many people I know actually are capable of acting on principle, most of them could not defend what they’re doing as acting on principle. They no longer have a language of ethical action. It’s collapsed, it’s dropped away. Whereas new forms of cynicism and cruelty, of indifference to violence, have become central in the culture. And that’s a change. I think that’s a big change.

“They no longer have a language of ethical action.” That line has lingered with me for more than a month now. I think of it whenever I hear good people (good Christians, in particular) talking about money or taxes or politics, in general. And good Christians talk about these things a lot, often in Wall Street’s terms. Is it any wonder that a growing number of us are feeling increasingly alienated from a church that is, by most measures, indistinguishable from the culture in which it exists and from which it adopts so many of its values? As I told my parents last week, the question that plagues me is: How much of my worldview is shaped by Christ’s radical theology, and how much of it is simply a reflection and reinforcement of middle class America’s chief values — the worship of comfort, conspicuous consumption, and prosperity? Imagine for a moment what it might look like if America and its churches “stood united” behind something that matters instead of something like this.

Along those lines, I’ve recently begun studying the Rule of the Order of Saint Benedict — this rich, 1,500 year old tradition that is so remarkably and beautifully counter to our culture. Elevating selfless community over individualism, sacrifice over comfort, contemplation over distraction, the Rule captures something of the grace of the Sermon on the Mount, reminding us that a “language of ethical action” certainly exists and must be reclaimed. My friend Karen describes it like this:

I know what your saying about the Benedictines. My first book was The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris, which was like a breath of fresh air after the hype of evangelicalism. For once, my attraction to learning about them didn’t seem to be a reactionary swing…you know, I was charismatic and I hated it so now I’m Anglican, or vice-versa. And it wasn’t nostalgic because one recognizes the very human side in the rule – the warnings against authoritarianism and laziness and such. Of course, it is also inspired by Scripture so it was another way of breaking crusts off of verses I had been overexposed to. It was just something that seemed to land home for me and still does.

I’m working my way through Joan Chittister’s The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages and can’t recommend it highly enough.