Where did the Okies go?
Monday, June 2, 1997 by Dave Winer.
A friend is reading Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, a book that had profound influence on me when I was sixteen and in later years. At the same time I re-read The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.
They're two sides of the same coin, one a teenage message, a fantasy of egoism, a view that says that only some people count; the other documents what happens when people buy into that view. One book is fiction and the other tells a story that really happened.
The books make an interesting contrast. Do they explain anything about our times? Yes. The deification of mortals still happens, and arts and crafts and humanity continue to be displaced, connections with our nature are lost, today, just as they were in the industrial revolution.
The premise of Atlas Shrugged is that some men and women are greater than others. We depend on them. The great people, people with deep moral and intellectual superiority, get fed up and go on strike. The planet falls apart. They are missed. "Please come back!" everyone says. They come back.
A captivating story, well-told. A dichotomy. Gods and godesses walking the earth among masses of inferior mortals with no philosophy. People who are more valuable than others.
It's a popular story with teenagers. After a whole (short) lifetime getting messages of inferiority from adults, it's a relief to find your own greatness, to plan a positive life with major accomplishments and adventures ahead of you. The adults promised you less, Atlas Shrugged is a vote for more.
As teens, it validated our sense of inadequacy. No one appreciates me! I'll just go away, to Galt's Gulch, they'll miss me then! Hey it's better than teen suicide. It's better than drug abuse and pregnancy too, all of which also relieve teen boredom. Unfortunately when you come back from this dream, you find that you still have to love and be loved, something we knew when we were babies, but lost being raised in a society without philosophy.
Atlas Shrugged is an unconscious message. It's permission to be sloppy, to stop listening, to stop learning, to be closed to other experiences and other points of view. As long as you're moving technology forward, making more money, you needn't think any further. Ignore any contradictory information you receive.
A better message for young people is that there is no mathematical formula that allows ranking of whole human beings, that everyone is great, including you. It could save them years of learning that on their own. To be a happy adult, I think, you have to appreciate the greatness all around you, including other people, including yourself.
The self-centered approach of childhood gets ugly and smelly as it grows old. To have fun, to make a difference, you have to smell the roses. Really smell them!
And the apple and peach blossoms too...
Steinbeck tells a story of a culture disbanded in the name of progress. Agriculture transforming to agribusiness. A lifestyle becomes an industry.
It's easy to see the disposessed as whiners or communists, but Steinbeck says they were lovers and artists. We used to eat only food that was hand-prepared, every bit connected to the earth by humans, not huge machinery. A cooperative venture between the plant and animal kingdoms and the earth. Food had responsibility, it had soul. It gave us grounding, which is something we need, something we lost.
Steinbeck writes passionately about the lost connection. I experience it myself. The peaches I grow taste better than the ones you buy in the store. I experience this as nutrition, as opposed to fill. Food instead of sludge.
Steinbeck writes about food and land and people, but the lessons apply equally to the late 1990s, but now we're fighting for the nourishment of human intellect, feelings and ideas, instead of mere food.
We accepted mass production of food, then shortly after that we accepted mass production of story-telling. When was the last time you watched a movie that wasn't a $25 million-plus production job? When was the last time you read a book that wasn't on the New York Times bestseller list or listened to music you hadn't heard fifteen times on your favorite FM radio station?
What happened to word of mouth and campfires and personal story-telling? Do you believe people who write under big mastheads more than you do people who speak for themselves?
The mystic view is that life is a mystery. Rand claimed to have a complete philosophy of life, without any mysticism, but it was just filler for a society that had lost its way, that had no tradition of wonderment, no philosophy. The age of science gives up on science. There was and is still so much to discover, but Rand copped out, gave the responsibility to human gods, and then wrote off everyone else.
Technology is a fun distraction, but it's given so much more importance. Watch TV and read the popular press and you get the idea that there's only so much happening on this planet. There are five big TV networks, so there will be five big websites. Yuck!
Cable TV is bigger than network TV, but it isn't more open to different points of view. Entertainment should teach. What lessons do we learn on TV, and how do they help us be happier better grounded humans? Entertainment should move us and inspire us. How much diversity is there? Do you care? Commercials are great. Where's the beef?
We debate the wrong things. We ask if Clinton is an adequate president, but we never ask if we need a president, or what we expect a president to do. We live in sludge! The software companies fight their battles in courts and in Washington. People in power are sloppy, they spread their unhappiness and confusion.
As I read the Grapes of Wrath, I wondered what became of the Okies.
Driving thru the central valley of California, it's clear that agribusiness is totally locked in. Now migrant laborers from Mexico and Central America do the work the Okies used to do.
I wonder where the Okies went.