by Todd Walton, October 23, 2013
My brother, a software systems analyst and project manager, sent me the following quote from the book Gurus, Hired Guns, and Warm Bodies by Stephen Barley and Gideon Kunda that my brother says sums up his world as an IT (Internet Technology) contractor for the past 25 years. “The old social contract was, give loyalty, get security. But that old contract has been repealed, and free agents quickly realized that in the traditional world they were silently accepting an architecture of work customs and social mores that should have crumbled long ago under the weight of its own absurdity. From infighting and office politics to bosses pitting employees against one another to colleagues who don’t pull their weight, most workplaces are in dysfunction. Most people do want to work; they don’t want to put up with brain-dead distractions.”
The quote confused me because I wasn’t sure whether Barley and Kunda were saying that loyalty in the era of Internet Technology is obsolete and the cause of dysfunction, or if they were saying that the repeal of loyalty ushered in the era of dysfunction. When I read the quote to Marcia, she immediately replied, “Well, loyalty is a vertical phenomenon that ideally connects top to bottom within a system and gives everyone in the system a sense of the whole process they’re involved in. But if everyone is fighting for themselves, then the awareness of the purpose of the process is lost and everyone’s energy goes to self-preservation instead of doing necessary work and creating a healthy and functional working situation.”
Marcia’s response struck me as a good explanation for the ongoing dysfunction of our government, top to bottom. The abandonment of loyalty to anything or anyone other than the greedy self describes the motivation and behavior of John Boehner and his sociopathic colleagues, as well as Obama’s loyalty to the banksters and earth-gobbling corporate executives who would rather ruin everything in the world than help anyone other than themselves, which means they lack the ability to sympathize with others, which means they are incapable of love or rational thought, which means they are severely emotionally disturbed and should be locked away in high security mental institutions where they can pose no further danger to themselves or others.
We would rather be ruined than changed;
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die. — W.H. Auden
We recently watched Mike Leigh’s movie Life Is Sweet, a fascinating and painful and strangely delightful look at a working class English family. Perhaps because I was writing this article about loyalty when we saw the film, I saw Life Is Sweet as a study of loyalty, of parents being loyal to their children, of husband and wife being loyal to each other, of siblings being loyal to each other, and of friends being loyal to friends, and how loyalty can be a wonderful force for healthy growth and healing, but also a key ingredient in a recipe for debilitating dysfunction.
“Through loyalty to the past, our mind refuses to realize that tomorrow’s joy is possible only if today’s makes way for it; that each wave owes the beauty of its line only to the withdrawal of the preceding one.” — Andre Gide
The more I think about loyalty, the more the word loyalty seems rather useless on its own—lacking specificity and having too many different meanings depending on context. Therefore I am going to be disloyal to the initial inspiration for this article and change the subject entirely, though in changing the subject I may inadvertently illuminate the original topic through this juxtaposition of elements in tension.
Huh? Let me explain. My senior year of high school, 1967, I was in an Advanced Placement English class, which was supposed to prepare us for taking the AP English essay test. If we got a score of 3 or better (out of 5) on that test, our chances of getting into a good college would be much improved and we would be given ten units of college credit and allowed to skip the basic English courses most incoming college freshman were required to take. I was a contrarian and disdainful of obedient regurgitation, which made me an enemy of most of my teachers. When we took the practice AP exam and my score was the lowest in our class, my English teacher gleefully trumpeted my failure as proof of the error of my contrary ways.
Only one person in my class, Candy, scored a 5 on the practice exam. Candy was the perennial teacher’s pet and the queen, nay, the empress of slavering regurgitation. Throughout my four years of incarceration at Woodside High, Candy’s essays were routinely read aloud to us by a series of intoxicated teachers as examples of what proper student essays should be. I still remember our Eleventh Grade English teacher reading Candy’s slavering essay on the recurrence of synonyms for the color red in The Scarlet Letter, and Candy’s conclusion that “The Scarlet Letter is, unquestionably, the most perfect novel yet written in the English language.” This was a regurgitation of that very teacher stating, “The Scarlet Letter is, without a doubt, the most perfect novel ever written,” a proclamation that elicited from me a loud guffaw and “You’ve got to be kidding,” which resulted in my having to come in after school every day for a week (and miss basketball practice) and sit at a desk without speaking for an hour, while Candy and her fellow sycophants fluttered around the teacher and kissed her hems, so to speak.
Nevertheless, when Candy’s top-scoring practice AP essay was read aloud to us and ballyhooed as the Rosetta Stone for how to score high on the AP English exam, I and several of my fellow inmates noted that in Candy’s barfacious essay she thrice used the expression this juxtaposition of elements in tension, and every time our teacher uttered those words she would gaze at Candy as if recalling a recent simultaneous orgasm.
After class that day, inspired by contempt and curiosity, three of my classmates and I cornered Candy and asked her, “What’s up with this juxtaposition of elements in tension?”
And though she was loathe to admit she had not invented the expression, Candy confessed she had been tutored by “an expert on the AP exam” who impressed upon her that the judicious use of this juxtaposition of elements in tension and a few other expressions we wheedled out of Candy would virtually guarantee a score of 3 or better—those expressions catnip to academics.
When the great day of the AP English exam came, we were sequestered in a windowless room and watched over by a trio of humorless teachers charged with making sure we didn’t cheat; not that one could cheat while writing a speculative essay on misogyny and superstition in Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native, or whatever it was they asked us to write about. With Candy’s tricks of the trade in mind, I generously peppered my essay with the expression this juxtaposition of elements in tension and the author’s predilection for subtle symbolic forays and such diverse yet mutually accommodating points of view, and lo the judges gave me a 3, much to the chagrin of my English teacher. Candy, of course, scored a 5, went to Stanford for two years, transferred to UC Berkeley, and beyond that I know not where her juxtapositions and predilections and subtle forays took her.
“Ours is the age of substitutes; instead of language, we have jargon; instead of principles, slogans; and, instead of genuine idea, bright ideas.” — Eric Bentley
I see now that the opening quote from Barley and Kunda contains an apt description of my (and probably your) educational experience. I came to realize that in the traditional world (of academia) we were being forced to accept an architecture of work customs and social mores that should have crumbled long ago under the weight of its own absurdity. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to work; I simply didn’t want to put up with brain-dead distractions. And so I became a free agent, otherwise known as a freelance human being, and stumbled along for many years under the weight of my neuroses and through myriad juxtapositions of elements in tension until I came to a most wonderful turning point in middle-age when I bequeathed my loyalty to the notion elucidated by Mr. Laskin in my novel Under the Table Books. To wit: Don’t ever listen to anyone who says you aren’t a perfectly wonderful soul.
Todd Walton’s website, a great place to get a jump on your Christmas shopping, is UnderTheTableBooks.com.