We’re born in a prison, raised in a prison
Sent to a prison called school
We cry in a prison, we love in a prison
We dream in a prison like fools
— Yoko Ono
Daniel Quinn speaks of the kids of the 60s, failing in their rebellion because they could not find the bars of the cage. He was wrong. They found the bars and got out, but before they got far they were herded back. That burst of the energy that was the late 60s could not have come from prisoners. Those were, for a moment in time, free people reveling in their freedom. And sowing fear among the wardens.
The precursor of our modern Babylonish prison was the Egyptian workhouse. It was a structure daylight struggled to penetrate, where young people (most of whom never survived past their early 20s) labored from dawn to dusk at the querns or the looms. By the door was a guard with a stick who sometimes let you step out for a few minutes into the sunshine for a bribe of your food ration.
Much later prisons for miscreants and dissidents were a similar affair but for the costs to the community, did not come into use until recently. What is the traditional prison? Again, it is four walls, a door that is locked, and a guard with a stick outside. What does the prison accomplish? It severs contact between the prisoners and the outside world. It puts hard-to-cross distance between them and their fellows. But it’s expensive, obvious, produces resentment and wastes “human resources.” Not suitable in situations where great masses of people must be made to obey and in effect live permanently imprisoned, trapped within a twilight life on a treadmill going nowhere.
Babylon’s pervasive modern prison is a direct descendant of the Egyptian workhouses. Far more sophisticated, it employs many more tricks and lures to keep people in than just distancing separation and guards with sticks. Nevertheless, its basis is the same. Once trapped, you work for your food until you weaken. I feel a weird sort of admiration for those who have schemed to improve the prison system that is Babylon: they finally came up with something far far sneakier. Something very smart. Cheap, invisible, and self-maintaining, it is the dream of all jailers come true.
They began to shape culture and society in such a way as to systematically put distance between us. Think about it. A prison is a place that cuts you off from your fellows. A wall can do it. But so can …… just …………………… space. Greater and greater emptiness, stretching long and daunting. Hard-to-cross distance. Unreachable-ness. Greater and greater psychological atomization and imposed solitude around each human being makes is harder and harder to reach others, to enter into relationships with them, to trust them, and to gain the skills of working together.
Just think of the 20th century way of childhood. At birth, the baby is yanked away from the mother, cooped up in a nursery of little strangers equally distraught. The comforting breast is denied via “scientific formula” and the child spends its days in a crib, a pram, a pen, isolated from the daily activities and human warmth, human touch. Then the child enters school, another form of distancing and isolation, this time from his or her own family, the life of the community, and children older or younger. The child is even forced to sit alone, away from their fellows (at least in America; in Europe, we sat two by two, and it helped build friendships and cut the pain). Helping each other survive this institutionalized, dulled existence is called cheating. And the constant ranking and fear-mongering are among the tools that drive the real lessons home.
As adults, we go through the motions, isolated and infantilized, hoping to find a friend or a mate who will heal the pain. But many people are too wounded to truly reconnect. Watching the spectacle medicates their loneliness. Television increases the space between people as they stare, hypnotized, at a screen and forget how to relate to the people next to them. So does preoccupation with gadgets. I was recently subjected to the airport experience after many years. Have you noticed? The travelers no longer talk to each other; they are deeply engaged with machines.
Such practices have raised generations of people forced to live as narcissists, cut off from one another where ever they go, from birth on. Narcissists do not relate. They obey those above them, command those below them, and enter into formal associations with those they think equal. They are “not available” for real relationships. Babylon has condemned us all to a form of solitary confinement without walls.
I am of course not the first to note the increasing space between human beings in modern times. Psychologists have tried to heal the resulting pain, and sociologists have studied and rued this isolation. It’s been thought of as some sort of unavoidable side effect of modern living. I don’t think so. I think it’s contrived… not via a conspiracy, but by steady application of very old strategies that insert more and more narcissist “genes” into the body politic. The narcissists each do it because they know how, and because it serves their interests. But we can fight back with reconnection “genes.” It gladdens my heart that some of the rebels now practice “attachment (or continuum) parenting,” raising a generation of sane young people who expect connections with others, and have the skills and experience to make them work.
In the 60s, with the help of … who knows?… music, drugs, luck and spunk, the young prisoners discovered the invisible bars of the prison and broke them, simply by coming together, shrinking the distance, boldly crossing the yawning chasm. To talk real stuff. To play and be silly. To expand mind and behavioral frontiers. To be honest. To practice generosity and fairness. To learn to love in ways not sanctioned by Babylon’s overseers. No wonder they turned their new culture into one long celebration!
And then the kids infected the women, imagine! Women began to meet in intimate groups, talking real stuff and changing their lives. There was so much hope then. What is “sisterhood” but stepping out of the prison and trekking across that barren plain to hug another woman, tell her a story and truly listen to hers, be honest with your own hidden truths and feelings, find shared ground, and support one another as caring humans do?
Some were able to continue. A caravan of buses from San Francisco started the Farm in Tennessee, to continue the reconnection begun in Haight-Ashbury. Groups of young women started women-only spaces where, they hoped, they could continue to relate as sisters. Some folks hung on in small back-to-the-land communities. Family power relationships were never quite the same. And temporary autonomous zones were formed; the Rainbow Family Gatherings, and now Burning Man. But all in all, most of the kids, and most of the women, were soon herded back into the invisible prison. The prison, sure enough, got a little more comfortable; the hard edges of harassment were cleaned up. Concessions to prisoners were made, while new distancing tools were put into place to prevent a future breakout.
It is instructive to take a good look at what the escapees missed. After all, if you are a prisoner dreaming of a break, there are three key issues on your mind: how to find the bars of the cage, how to get out, and how to stay out. They succeeded with the first two. They failed at the third. They forgot about the guards with sticks.
In a prison built out of social and psychological isolation, who are the guards? They are the narcissists themselves who jealously guard the only reality they feel comfortable with: one where no real relationships are needed or asked for; an impersonal culture where everything possible is commodified, institutionalized, mediated, and ranked. For simplicity’s sake, I have been calling them narcissists. But they range from sociopaths, through various misers, trolls, egomaniacs, power hogs, self-aggrandizers, to bullies and dicks of various shades. You know… the disruptors of friendly human relations. The defectors from cooperation. The dementors who seek to suck the milk of human kindness from the world.
Ah heck… it’s really simple. They are the assholes always lurking nearby to ruin your office day, your volunteer meeting, your family gathering. One such asshole will ruin the pad you’ve generously opened up to other kids traveling through the area. One or two will handily dismantle a commune started by idealists. And they will certainly have no trouble sowing dissension among women still vulnerable to bully tactics, nor will they hesitate to trash capable leaders. A crew of skilled assholes will make sure that young visionaries give up en masse and disgustedly, dispiritedly run away from their former friends, telling anybody who wants to listen that human nature is just too warped. Getting away from each other, stretching the distance again, back into the prison. Go to work, nose to the grindstone, and stop dreaming silly dreams. Money is the sure thing…
The assholes stand ready to disrupt any occasion where human beings suddenly and despite great odds come together in peace, love, and understanding. A flag goes up, and they rush to put into place the many tools of disconnection they have at their disposal. One of the most important is the “divide and conquer” strategy. The sister-women were successfully divided from traditional women who were not ready to rock the boat. They were divided from women who wanted to stay at home and raise families, and thought this, and volunteer work for their community, was a very satisfying way to live. Traitors to the cause! Some of the theoreticians of the women’s movement who had been given comfortable posts within the academic establishment were encouraged to move way out to the batshit-furious fringe, so that women began to leave the movement in droves. Women who passionately believed that safe abortion must be available, and those who equally passionately believed in nurturing human fetuses, were divided by a cultural war and bitter hatred that still simmers in the body politic. And power-hogging leaders moved into key roles of women’s political organizations that came to play prisoners’ games.
But of course, most assholes are not bigtime players. They simply act to make our day-to-day lives more stressful, more miserable; they make sure that when we do dare to come together, bridging the fearsome gap, they stand ready to make the experience unpleasant. Just imagine one of those meetings you went to for a cause you believed in… Do we need to go over the disappointing, ego driven, alienating, silencing, crazy-making, painful experience? On second thought, let’s not. Let us imagine another world instead. You come to the meeting, are warmly welcomed, and someone is asked to be your buddy, sharing with you the basics of the group. She slips you a handout that will explain in more detail when you get home. The interesting speaker keeps to 30 minutes as promised, stays true to topic, answers several questions, and then the group moves into a friendly and leisurely exploration of the issues raised where all voices are heard. At the end, your new buddy stops by again and invites you to the next gathering, maybe mentioning a really cool event they are working on; would you like to help? They sure could use your talents!
You think you died and went to heaven. Turning to the person who organized the meeting, you pop the question. My goodness, an enjoyable meeting that works! How did you do this? The friendly bear of a man who goes under the name of Dwight Towers cracks a big laugh. Simple, he says. We put in place the “no asshole rule.” It changed everything.