A couple of weeks ago, in late September, the Secretary of the Treasury floated a $700 billion plan to bail out the financial sector. The plan eventually passed, but not before the House of Representatives shot it down, almost gleefully, after many constituents wrote and called to say they would never give money to Wall Street, or support a giveaway to executives who had proved they couldn't be trusted with money, or that it was simply a step down the slippery slope to socialism, and therefore verboten. The next day, the markets came crashing down, and those same complainers realized almost over night-less than that, actually-that their simple refusal to help out the financial sector actually did have an impact on their lives. Their outlooks were so narrow that they couldn't or didn't realize that their savings were bound up in the drama playing out in Manhattan and Washington.
This blinkered, myopic view of how the world (and money) operates isn't unique to our time, of course. The U.S. tried to stay out of what it considered European land wars longer than was wise, but we eventually came 'round and decided that we wouldn't stand for that sort of thing, after an interval of a few years passwd and the sinking of the Lusitania and the attack on Pearl Harbor. But today, we are in a world where it is easier than ever to avoid thinking about the connections we have to one another and to (relatively) distant events, it's easier to avoid different points of view, and the result is that those connections have serious consequences when they're avoided.
Of course, it's easy to get boxed in to thinking of oneself as "Southwestern homeowner" or "Midwestern soccer mom" and not "Wall Street investor." If you don't closely follow your 401(k), 403(b), IRAs, or other savings plans, you start thinking of those simply as spaces you throw money into each month, and the number goes up or down, but usually goes up. You forget that those accounts are sliced and divided several ways among several stocks, bonds and other investment tools, and you lose sight of your own personal stake in the market's well-being, and it becomes easy to start scapegoating those money-managers and bankers who follow this stuff up to the minute.
No one consciously puts those labels on themselves, I don't think, but they're in the air nonetheless, and some of us wrap them around ourselves as a form of protection. There's a good reason for this, and it's this: Every one of us is a member of a minority. By going tribal and deciding to join with others who are somehow similar to you, the world becomes a smaller place.
We may not be a member of a racial minority, or a gender minority or a national minority. But simply by virtue of our interests, you join a group, and that group is going to be smaller than the larger culture. It can't help but be otherwise, and yet, if we lose sight of the fact each one of us falls into larger groups, it takes a minor catastrophe like the plummeting stock market to make us realize that we, ahem, do.
Me (and this being a blog, it's virtually by definition all about me), I studied classical music, and if you want to separate yourself from your peers, there's not much that'll do the job quicker than studying a musical genre that teaches you words like Adagio, sordino, and genre. At the same time that I was a musician (and I'll always be one in one form or another), I was an avid reader, a Chicagoan, a runner, a writer, and a whole host of other things that labels could be attached to, up to and including the labels that lay bare your family status (brother and son, and so on).
These identities sneak up on you. I've resisted saying I'm a runner, even though I just ran my second marathon last Sunday, because I feel it's too limiting. Still, while waiting for a friend to pick me up over the weekend, I found myself absentmindedly stretching my calves on some nearby tree roots. These little acts that you start doing unconsciously are the outward sign that your body and neural circuits have absorbed the lessons of that activity, and are a way of maintaining your readiness to undertake them. "Stretch your calves," my unconscious mind was saying (very softly), "because you're going to be running soon." Musicians do this stuff all the time without noticing it, playing passages silently as they tap on tables. Or maybe that's the OCD.
The point is that this nichification of identities is not only self-defeating, it's society defeating. Instead of understanding in a vaguely Chaos Theory-related sort of way that everything we do has an influence on someone else, and that distant decisions made by others will affect us sooner or later, we get boxed in and isolationist. There's this kooky Dr. Bronner who makes Castile soap with his philosophy printed on the label in 8-pt. type that's really, really hard to read in the shower. His philosophy is that we're "ALL-ONE-GOD-FAITH" and "ALL ONE OR NONE." I don't know if I'd go quite that far, because there's a whole heck of a lot that does divide us still, thank goodness. Sarah Palin likes shooting moose, and I like watching Deadwood (NSFW), and we can both keep those passions going without harming or upsetting each other. And if she's elected and somehow contrives to ban the watching of quality TV shows on DVD, we'll have words, and I'll wish I paid more attention to her speeches where she was calling down the thunder on Ian McShane and David Milch. Until then, though, we'd all do well to remember that we're all connected, and in more ways than we realize.