by Margaret Blanchard
I worry about our body politic, our U.S.A., which seems so split during and since the last national election. It’s taken us so long to recover from the last uncivil rupture over the Vietnam War, we’re only beginning to heal our racial divisions, and we’ve only fitfully addressed the 99/1 percent class divide. How much further can we be fractured without falling apart?
Yet, I remind myself, our terms for many of our divisions describe singular dimensions and movements of a whole system: left and right; top and bottom; front and back; inside and outside; progress (moving forward) and conservation (holding on). As a whole we need both sides of the brain, both eyes, both ears, both hands and both feet, as well as front and back, in and out.
It’s true that “left” can carry a negative charge: left out, left behind, sinister, while “right” can sound smart, socially correct, even morally winning (righteous, if not self-righteous). “Tops” seem to triumph over “bottoms” even though tops could go nowhere without bottoms (down to our feet). “Fronts” may be more approachable than “backs,” but also more deceptive, less reliable, less supportive than “backups.” “In” (insider, in the know) can feel better than “out” (outsider, cast out), but liberation, as well as growth, emerge from “coming out.” Whatever our political persuasions, most of us can experience all these options, one way or another.
During political seasons, our world seems especially flat — with left and right opposite directions, locations on a map, far apart. To quote a champion of the right, Rudyard Kipling, “East is east … west is west — never the twain shall meet …” In this context, top and bottom (rich and poor), are similarly divided, stuck, like Flat Stanley, on a two-dimensional grid.
From a more rounded perspective, if we view our collective identity, our Body Politic, our “us,” as a whole system, each dimension is essential — left and right, top and bottom, front and back: all part of our “commons.” While left sides sound “sinister,” intelligence requires left brains. Then there’s might-makes-right, do-it-right, or make-it-right. While right-handedness often dominates, both hands matter. Neither wing is “right;” neither should be “left” behind. Through the whole body, top to bottom, we find parallel parts: eyes, ears, nostrils, arms, lungs, heart chambers, breasts, kidneys, ovaries, testes, legs, feet, which contribute together to thought, expression, work, art, movement, creation, liberation. Our heads connect, hearts beat in rhythm, communal hands actualize shared actions, feet move in relation to each other. It’s in the best interest of the whole to “conserve” our natural resources; we can’t make progress without marching or dancing along as one body. Only together can we pull back or step forward.
I grew up on the right, came of age on the left — still trying to find my balance. At times I want to progress; other times, to protect. My heart’s on the left, yet my head respects gifts received from the right. When both head and feet rest on the same level, the body can restore itself. What a relief it could be for our common life if the whole of us could “own” all our parts, and, perhaps, in the process share the fruits of our labors as well as the options in our minds.
Years ago when I served on the collective of “Women: A Journal of Liberation,” we coined a phrase for our collective reflections: “Speaking the Plural.” The ‘plural’ we articulated then focused on issues of gender. I believe we now need a national consciousness-raising process around issues of class and money, with voices sharing experiences and values from left and right; top and bottom.
Despite the popularity of Downton Abbey, Americans shy away from talking about our own complex class issues, particularly their impact on personal identity. Yet I doubt we’d have had successful movements for racial equality or women’s rights without the honest consciousness-raising exchange in small, diverse groups and confidential spaces that took place during the inceptions of those movements. When it comes to class, myths of the American dream and get-rich-quick hopes have tolerated a fiscal system in which poverty provokes shame, and exploitation of others is glamorized. Although many of our minds glaze over when confronted by complex economic analyses, most have had complicated experiences trying to find our balance within the so-called “middle class” muddle of the American economic system. I’ve noticed how people on the left try to hide their silver spoons, while those on the right tend to conceal threadbare origins.
Sharing our experiences and understandings of money, deprivation, guilt, poverty, privilege, success, failure, values and virtues could demystify class stigmas and reveal the anxieties and complexities we try to bury under the glittering surfaces of American materialism. As in previous movements, such sharing, I believe, could liberate participants from internalized classism that increases our fears, allows us to be exploited, keeps us from claiming our equal rights as citizens, and stunts our generosity. Our national ideals of justice and equality call, instead, for open minds, kinder hearts, helping hands.