Thunder Towers

It sounded like brontide.  The Martin Tower, the tallest in the Lehigh Valley and once corporate center for Bethlehem Steel came down yesterday morning.  Completed only in 1972, the following decade saw the collapse of the steel industry, and the building has sat vacant a dozen years.  Now it’s gone.  The reasons the building could no longer stand are many and I won’t try to explain them as if I understood.  The fall of the tower, however, put me in mind of human folly and the belief that corporate profits will only ever grow.  Capitalism is built on a set of myths that the wealthy truly believe—I suspect many others do too, otherwise the system couldn’t possibly last.  Adam Smith may have been right academically, but in reality humans are greedy, venal, and shortsighted.   At least those who “rise to the top” are.

We didn’t move to the Valley for the steel.  Having settled in New Jersey just about when the Martin Tower was abandoned, like many other displaced academics I was looking for a job.  There were cities in the Midwest—we weren’t far from Milwaukee or Madison—but there was no work.  If you’re “overeducated” your best bet is to settle near a huge metropolitan area, as closely as you can afford to.  Then hang out your shingle.  Capitalism, however, has made New Jersey affordable only for the excessively wealthy.  Besides, I was born within the imaginary lines that we call the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  In fact, when I got my license transferred last year the computer asked me if I still lived in Venango County, where I was born.

I didn’t see the tower come down.  It’s not visible from my house, but it was always right there when I drove to Lowes to pick up some necessary hardware to survive in this area.  (Weed-whacker and lawnmower—reel variety.)  My mythology of towers always takes me back to Babel.  In the biblical worldview towers were a sign of arrogance.  God seemed to think they were trying to invade divine turf, and so he made it so we could no longer understand one another.  There hasn’t been a moment’s peace since.  We build towers tall to show what we can do.  We don’t really need an angry deity to come down and confuse our language any more.  We’ve got capitalists and their excess money to lead the way.  The sound of thunder roared and I divined just where such leadership will guide us.

Panthers and Prophets

Prophetic is a word I seldom use for movies. Prophetic, by the way, doesn’t mean predicting the future. Prophecy was about establishing rightness on the earth. Dress it up with God or dress it down to a girl being shot for wanting an education, prophecy is a necessary ingredient in being human. Black Panther is a prophetic movie. I don’t keep up with comic books, and many regions of the Marvel Universe are unexplored by me. I have no idea if the comics bear the strong message of social justice that this film does, but I left the theater blown away. If those who have the power could only be interested in good rather than personal gain, what a world we could have.

The message of not making race, but humanity, central is one that we have yet to learn. It is so basic, so simple that a child understands it. Somehow world leaders don’t. Any secret advantage is kept in order to make things better for ourselves. To make us feel more secure. To put us in the place of making decisions for others. In Black Panther even the enemy isn’t evil. Humanity is it’s own enemy. We sometimes forget that we have it within our ability to make life fair and equitable. We can share what we have and end jealousy. The Gospel of Adam Smith, however, has supplanted that of Jesus Christ. Just ask the one-percent. The one percent who haven’t most assuredly seen this movie.

I had no idea what to expect when I walked into that theater, but it was nothing short of an epiphany. As it has been from ancient times, one can always tell when they’ve been in the company of a prophet. We’ve come to dislike prophets because they make us uncomfortable. They possess something we can’t have. Integrity. The dignity of the conviction of what anyone can see is rightness. Such things can’t simply be taken, crammed onto a boat, and sold. Prophets bear the burden of speaking the truth. Black Panther may be unlike most prophets in that it is reaching a huge audience. And rightfully so. It is the antidote to the poison that’s surging through the veins of this country for far too long. Even those who will dismiss it simply as another fantasy—it’s a superhero movie—need to see this vision of what a world can be. It’s not very often that a prophetic movie appears, but the days of prophecy, it seems, aren’t over yet.

Hallowed Be Thy Income

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Some time ago, I was invited to attend a “best practices” session where the language was businessese. As I suffered through statements about how everything can be quantified as numbers and how emotions should be left at the door but creativity should flourish, I began to wonder when I’d become so cynical. I mean, the presenter really believed this–it was clear from his eyes. He’d been so indoctrinated that he really believed selflessness was letting somebody else have their way when they’re your supervisor. Then it hit me. It was so obvious that I felt silly for not seeing it sooner. Corporate culture is a religion. The business world has its own specialized vocabulary, belief system, deity (Mammon), prophets, and ethics code. Those who believe it pass their teachings on to the next generation with the zeal of converts. It gives their lives meaning and purpose. It even has its own origin myth, going back to Adam Smith. All the elements are there.

A point that I come back to repeatedly on this blog is that a solid definition of religion does not exist. I once had a boss who told me there was no such thing as “religious studies.” Too many universities also believe that. When we see terror all around committed in the name of religion and our response is to decide the business curriculum is far more worth saving, I believe we’ve just decided on our religious preferences. Reward and punishment. The price of non-conformity is high. Ironically, our motivational speaker indicated that we shouldn’t be just like everyone else. Only, just don’t be too different.

I couldn’t help but to think back to an episode of Ruby Wax. While living in the UK some friends had a television license and we watched an episode or two. Ruby Wax is an ex-patriot comedian. On one episode she followed a vacuum cleaner salesman for an upscale vacuum manufacturer. Her path took her to a motivational convention which was—there’s no other way to describe this—an emotional religious ceremony. Although their god (Mammon) may not suck, his prophet (the vacuum) most surely did. At the time I saw the episode I thought it was simply entertainment, something at which to laugh. I’ve been to enough business seminars now to find that I’m a heretic in this faith. I may not know much, but I do know selflessness when I see it. And it is a trait that takes a lifetime to master and those who have belong to a different line of work altogether.