What hath Athens to do with Main Street? Why should an economic crisis in a small European nation shake up the world? And can this possibly add up to freedom?
If despite all you know about globalization such questions still simmer, it may simply mean that you have a good memory.
It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that the global market was a more modest force, a power among cultural powers, jostling for space.
It was a conquest. Like any conquest, this one involved the collapse of other kingdoms, independent realms with established, distinct ways of regarding the world and living in it. Those my age—Gen Xers—and older have memories of these older kingdoms—of practices that came from other precincts, of ideals enlarged by other faiths.
To wit: As a fourth grader I watched the Bicentennial with great fanfare arrive. Our teacher, Mrs. Reese, in energetic schoolmarm fashion required us to learn the songs of not only our nation but also our state. In music class the hip young newbie may have had us feeling groovy. But back in Mrs. Reese’s room we felt patriotism surging. We learned, at Lafayette Elementary, other songs, older songs, un-charted and commercial free.
During summers my siblings and I would spend a few weeks at my grandparents’ farm. While my grandfather was at work my grandmother would be in full summertime mode, all day long. We would pick berries and eat jam, feed chickens and fry eggs, find worms and clean fish, hoe weeds and snip beans. And with our cousins we would play baseball or shoot BBs or snag bluegills until the fireflies came out. Then we watched TV (twenty-four square inches of black and white).
My grandparents’ church sometimes scared me, I admit. It was loud and intense and charged with feeling, with laughter and tears. My parents’ church, with its kindly humpbacked minister, was warm, mild, and smart—even keeled. We sang old songs, like “Rock of Ages” and “Amazing Grace.” A middle aged man named Richard played a beautiful tenor sax. When at the end of a service we sang “Blessed Be the Ties that Bind,” a warmth came over the assembly that I could feel better than I could understand. These ties were old—this much I grasped, as I looked up at the adults around me, smiling at the young. Yet the ties were new, too. Or, rather, re-newed, for a season at least.
Of course, the market surrounded all of these forms of non-market solidarity, and helped sustain them. But the market also encircled them, I now see, as that circle grows tighter. Music classes in schools (where they still offer them) have gone the commercial way, while constant standardized testing—crucial for “keeping up”—has shunted cultural heritage aside. Like haughty potentates, the corporations that owned the factories like the one at which my grandfather worked have left town; paradoxically, family farms have also gone away. And church, with its old songs and ties? For those who yet attend, there’s a lot of muzak, and texts and tweets—bonds of connection, for some; bonds of another sort, for others.
The market has in fact marked our nation’s history from the start. But it wasn’t always so brazen in manner, so insistent in approach. It once had to share this world, after all. But we, for reasons that go to the heart of our common story, have ceded to the market all the space it wants. Which is all.
And so our spirits shimmer beneath the market’s rule—at least on TV. We welcome our colonizers on bended knee, however forced for some. Our children we offer in tribute, for forming, and, we dare hope, for splendor.
The emperor—we must declare it—has no clothes. But it’s going to take more than one little boy to take this king down.
Yet if moral nakedness still carries shame, this is a king we must not save but, rather, expose. And, God help us, depose. Let freedom ring.