Interview with KMO on priorities, victim-shifting and “left-liberalism”
KMO is the host and producer of the C-Realm Podcast and author of the book ‘Conversations on Collapse.’ He recently relocated from the Ecovillage Training Center on the Farm in Summertown, TN to Brooklyn, NY. He describes himself as, “a recovering libertarian and Singularitarian.”
CDV: Recently, I have been listening to your C-Realm podcast, particularly episodes 348 and 347, and noticed a change in tone. You, like myself, have become more frustrated with a certain kind of liberal cultural self-assuredness that leads to a myopia when dealing with issues that aren’t matters of managerial policy or cultural inclusion. Is this a new frustration on your part?
KMO: It’s a newly activated frustration on my part, and it has everything to do with moving from rural Tennessee to New York City. In Tennessee, I lived on a former hippie commune, where the dominant political orientation in the community was an ossified form of 1970s liberalism. The central tenet of that ideology seemed to be opposition to the Vietnam War, and more generally, an ideology of nonviolence. That mindset struck me as somewhat myopic and disconnected from more pressing concerns, but it didn’t annoy me in the way that the self congratulatory, self-righteous identity politics of the left of the 21st-century New York City does.
CDV: What about New York do you think particularly brings this out?
KMO: I think this behavior stems from a combination of the circumstances particular to New York City interacting with some fairly universal human tendencies. First, the role of victim has great appeal because, in any situation with a victimizer and a victim, the onus to change, to make amends, and to show contrition rests entirely with the victimizer. Consequently, comfortable and prosperous people are anxious to identify themselves as victims, or at least to claim kinship with victims.
This works both ways. I grew up attending Southern Baptist churches, and Protestant Christians in 20th century America were still making a big deal about the persecution of the early Christian church by the Romans. I may have been in college before I ever learned that Christianity eventually became the official religion of the Roman Empire. The story of Christian martyrs murdered in inventive ways for the entertainment of cheering Roman citizens holds far more appeal to modern Christians than does the idea that their belief system eventually became the belief system of the powerful.
I do a lot of cross-country driving, and when I’m out away from any major population area I will scan the radio dial looking for anything interesting. Sometimes I will alight on Christian programming. In the middle of the country an astounding amount of the radio spectrum is devoted to Christian stations, and yet time and again I stumble upon conversations on Christian radio about the attack on the Christian faith by the forces of secular materialism. Granted, the radio airwaves are filled with efforts to get people to crave and purchase things they don’t need, and so in that sense the forces of materialism are omnipresent, but that’s not the sort of materialism the Christians are complaining about.
I’ve never once encountered an articulate voice explaining the complexities of climate or geology on AM radio, but I have heard a cavalcade of on-air personalities refuting Darwinism on Christian radio. Not once have I come across an AM radio program which featured an articulate and charismatic radio personality presenting the case for evolution by natural selection. As one-sided as that debate is on AM radio in the middle of the United States, the narrative on Christian radio insists that the forces of Darwinism and scientism are relentless in their assault on the beleaguered Christian faith community. From my perspective, this is an absurd conceit, but from their perspective, it is a plain fact about the deployment of forces on the map of the spiritual battleground.
Here in New York City, I have encountered prosperous gay couples, who have access to social, cultural, and business opportunities which the people in Alabama or Mississippi couldn’t even imagine, and yet they claim to be the victims of social conservatives. The social conservatives they have in mind are a cartoon abstraction, but having lived in the South, I have real faces to attach to the archetype of the social conservative, and the faces I see are those of senior citizens working as greeters at Walmart stores in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. Their knees, backs and necks ache from standing for hours at a stretch in the entrance of a Walmart super-center. They are well into retirement age, but Social Security and whatever pension they may have is not enough to support them, and so they endure this discomfort day after day in order to draw the meager paycheck that allows them to make ends meet. Because these people hold conservative religious values concerning homosexuality this supposedly makes them the oppressors of successful people living in this nexus of cultural and economic opportunity.
Because it is the victimizer who must change, and not the victim, the NYC social narrative holds that it is the people scratching out a living in the aftermath of economic collapse, not the people living in the luxurious penumbra of power in the cultural heart of the empire, who must change in order to right the evils of the world.
The Imperial wealth pump which draws resources from around the globe and allows 5% of the population to use 25% of globe’ s resources requires soldiers. It is the children and grandchildren of the people living in the former Confederate states who disproportionately fill the ranks of the Imperial military machine. This is because the Southern value system holds military service in high regard and because so few economic opportunities present themselves in the rural South now that industrial and mechanized agriculture has so little need for expensive human labor.
Whose lifestyle is propped up most by the Imperial wealth pump? Who pays the dearer price to keep it functioning? I’d like to see a PTSD map of the United States. I imagine that it would be almost a photo negative of the map showing the concentrations of wealth and opportunity, and yet so long as New York City liberals can cast themselves as the besieged victims of vicious rednecks who want to outlaw abortion, make guns readily available to violent criminals, and reinstate criminal penalties for sodomy, they don’t have to examine their own support for Empire or question their own status as beneficiaries of the Imperial system.
CDV: Do you see this as relates to the arch-druid Greer’s claim on your show that we are in danger from totalitarian centrism?
KMO: I hadn’t made the connection before you suggested it, so I’ll give it some thought and see what comes up.
CDV: Do you think using victimization as a prime motivator of politics is a means to avoid having to change anything?
KMO: I think just about everybody wants to see some kind of change, and they want someone else to do the changing. Claiming the status of victim is one way to put the onus for change on someone else. Another way to do that is to claim that you are the embodiment of correct living. I see this attitude at work both in the so-called red states, as well as in the urban centers of liberal intelligentsia. New Yorkers who know anything about climate change or limits to growth are quick to repeat the claim that urban dwellers have smaller carbon footprints than do suburbanites or people living in the country.
CDV: Do you think more specifically that people want the change without giving anything up in the process?
KMO: For the most part. Yes. Some people make a good faith effort at voluntary simplicity, but like vegetarianism, more people dabble in it than stick with it. As per my recent conversation with Kathy McMahon, the Peak Shrink, (episode 334: Reframing the Sucky Collapse), rather than volunteering to live with less, people are more likely to have their lifestyles downsized by circumstances and then mentally re-frame the matter after the fact as a positive development.
CDV: Do you see these traits in your liberal friends leading to a kind of anything goes as long as we maintain our cultural distinction mentality? A kind of heavily semi-authoritarian pragmatism, perhaps?
KMO: I don’t know if they would accept “anything” so long as it played into their self-congratulatory narrative as being more enlightened than the knuckle-dragging conservatives. I would hope that death camps would push at least some of them out of their current basin of complacency, but so far nothing short of death camps has. They seem completely unfazed by the resource wars or the mass incarceration resulting from the war on drugs. They seem utterly sanguine over the fact that so-called higher education has become a conduit to debt peonage. As Van Jones put it, a college education used to be a ladder up out of poverty. Now it has become a trap door of debt that drops kids from the middle class down into the ranks of the working poor. Congress put the lock on the debt cage making student loan debt exempt from bankruptcy procedures, and yet the cosmopolitan liberals I talk to are more concerned about gun control and gay marriage than they are about militarism, growing wealth inequality, the encroaching surveillance state, or the fact that their man, Obama, is as much a champion of the Imperial agenda and the financial master caste as was his predecessor.
It really is mind-blowing, because these are educated, creative people I’m talking about. These really are the cosmopolitan intelligentsia; not pseudo-intellectual poseurs, and yet they remain committed to their role in the stage-managed culture war spectacle that the Democrats and Republicans use to maintain the facade of competing agendas.
CDV: What do you think actually causes this inertia?
KMO: I have already taken my best stab at this question. I think people gravitate to self-justifying narratives, and both the Rush Limbaughs and the Rachel Maddows of the world have perfected the formula of casting the world’s problems as a result of the people on the other side of the cultural divide. “Those people need to change and see that we’re right, and only then we can get back to prosperity and right living.”
That’s a very attractive meta-narrative. If someone can expand on this notion and add some useful nuance, I’m certainly interested in reading or hearing their ideas, but the basic idea seems workably complete to me, and fleshing it out further is low on my “to do” list.
CDV: What do you see as the most pressing fixable problems we have?
KMO: It depends on what you mean by “fixable.” Not counting climate change, I think most of our problems arise as a result of unworkable belief systems and ideological commitments and that they would be amenable to rapid improvement if we adopted a few simple changes in mindset.
I think that if we adopted a strict itolerance for usury and financial speculation then a great many of our financial and economic difficulties would prove far less severe. I think that the idea that “a man has to work for his living” has outlived whatever utility it may once have had. Farming, a major employment sector as recently as a century ago, is now almost completely mechanized. It takes about 2% of the population working with petroleum-powered farm equipment and chemical fertilizers to feed the population of the United States.
With information technology, whole classes of employment are disappearing. Instead of freeing the people who used to do those jobs to pursue more enlightening and ennobling activities, the cultural value we place on work for work’s sake drives people to invent new forms of economic activity. We don’t try to find new work for displaced workers because those new sorts of work fill real and existing needs. People don’t need to work because there wouldn’t be enough food, shelter and clothing for everyone if large swathes of the population were not working. We try to keep everybody working so that they can draw a paycheck, and they only need to draw a paycheck because the real necessities cost money.
So much of the work that people do these days not only isn’t necessary, it’s actively harmful to the environment and to human quality of life. We’d all be better off if a lot of the work that people engage in out of economic necessity simply were not done. But the entrenched notion that people who don’t work and draw a paycheck don’t deserve to eat keeps us dreaming up new pseudo-needs and ridiculous ways to service them.
If belief systems were as malleable as software, we could “fix” the problem, but belief systems don’t work that way. Instead of recognizing that a cultural value has grown toxic and eliminating it, we will double down on what doesn’t work until we no longer have the means to continue. Only then, when continuing in the previous mode is not an option, will we have the mental freedom to look at other options.
We pay a high price for our ideological commitments to failed methodologies. If we can make a change before circumstances compel us to try something new then we would have more options available to us than if we continue doing what has proved not to work for as long as possible. The lost opportunities are staggering.
CDV: Do you think decline will help shift the culture or lead to more entrenchment?
KMO: I think that decline will make some kinds of entrenchment impossible. Think of a very wealthy man who used to respond to any interpersonal friction by hiring private detectives to dig up dirt on his enemies. Suppose he goes broke. Now, when someone slights him, he doesn’t have the option of hiring a private detective. There are a number of alternatives he can try. Hopefully he’ll get some good results from sensitive listening and searching for common ground with other people. He might grow as a person, or he might turn to alcohol or take out his frustrations on his dog. Going broke might lead to personal growth, but there’s no guarantee.
CDV: What are the cultural values that you think can be fostered in transition?
KMO: Adaptability, resilience, mindfulness, honesty and patience.
Whoops. I misunderstood your question. I answered the question, “What are the cultural values that you would like to see fostered in transition?”
In terms of your actual question, I think that the local food movement has introduced people to the idea of building resilience through a focus on local efforts. That’s a promising beginning, and it leads people into forming stronger bonds with local farmers and sellers whom they encounter regularly in face to face cash transactions rather than depending on impersonal transactions with distant strangers mediated by information technology and the banking system.
CDV: What illusions that we haven’t already talked about do you think we need to give up collectively?
KMO: I’m not sure I’d call them illusions, but three things that blind us to the full spectrum of adaptive responses are:
1) The idea that prosperity means a return to growth
2) The idea that a single response or strategy should be applied universally regardless of local conditions
3) The faith in the omnipotence of violence
To close out this portion of the discussion, I just want to say that voicing the particular criticisms of complacent, cosmopolitan liberals that you’ve been drawing out with your questions puts me in a frame of mind that I don’t enjoy and which is bad for my relationships. While I bristle at the unkind caricatures of social conservatives that NYC smartypants lefties invoke when they talk politics, I’d much rather be at that swank, New York gathering than at a Tea Party rally or high school football game in suburban Texas. I can get along with social conservatives, but even more than with the liberals, it can feel like a chore. There is plenty of common ground to focus on, but sooner or later (usually sooner) I’m either biting my tongue or leading my interlocutor through a Socratic line of questioning meant to bring out the contradictions in their worldview.
It rarely makes me any friends.
I try to live by the maxim that it is more important to understand than to be understood, and spending my time and energy “lashing the liberals” (as Joe Bageant put it) is not only counter to this maxim, it doesn’t seem to do any good. At least, it doesn’t seem to bring the liberals around to a more inclusive mindset or get them to hold their man Obama to a higher ethical standard. The only value I see in it is that it satisfies the need of people who recognize the abandoned middle to have their intuitions articulated and validated by someone who seems to be paying attention.