Default Debt

            Unawares, and in spite of all efforts to the contrary, I find myself slipping into infidelity. The feeling is analogous to the one that is had when noticing that a mutually agreed upon contractual service or product purchase is now costing much more because the provider has increased the price without notice or included an undisclosed fee.

            With friends I attended an art opening that was housed in an “historic” and “architecturally significant” building that was currently in limbo. It had a history of being used for other than originally intended purposes (the building itself IS the evidence of many previous owners and tenants). Now it was in various stages of disarray, upheaval, and restoration (violently revealing original craftsmanship details).  That evening this transitional space served as a venue for a disparate group show. Given our contemporary “copy of a copy” aesthetic, it was difficult to discern where some pieces began or ended. This is because, like the walls, ceiling and exposed utilities, these “original” works revealed previous bona fide historic influences, and exemplified hybridism, as well as conscientious denigration of style/epoch. The only area that offered any security of belief was that of the computer video works (McAfee Total Protection!). Of course, this is where most of the crowd gravitated. Funny, the monitor makes the viewer-participant oblivious of surrounding environment. One could just as well be in Auschwitz for all that it mattered since the small screen is all one has to attend to. This in itself speaks more of why the environmental movement has stalled out recently than any expensive academic study duly commissioned to uncover this would. Afterwards we went to dinner and conversation. The talk drifted to Occupy, and the young people who made the art (even though they didn’t exactly “occupy” the building) – ownership of building, ownership of art style, ownership of government. Mention was made of a magazine article covering the same topic, and of various quotes by industrialists of what drives politics (money) as well as “Government belongs to those who own it” remembered as attributed to John Jay, the country’s first chief justice of the Supreme Court.

            The next day I tried to track down the article, without luck (not exactly a scholarly repast the night before).  Researching the quote yielded A. J. Liebling’s “Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one”, not quite the same.  A peremptory research of our nation’s first and most influential jurist, and his quotes, made me cognizant of my covert slippage into infidelity. Anticipating secular statements regarding the place of law, rights and freedom, I found religious platitudes instead. “Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.” D’oh! “Whether our religion permits Christians to vote for infidel rulers is a question which merits more consideration than it seems yet to have generally received either from the clergy or the laity.” Yikes! (clergy say more clerics are needed!) “[T]he evidence of the truth of Christianity requires only to be carefully examined to produce conviction in candid minds… they who undertake that task will derive advantages.” This final quote from the originating chief interpreter of our nation’s legal system really raised the hair on the back of my neck and got the critical enlightenment juices flowing.

            John Jay himself was a rather ambiguous/ambivalent historical figure. I guess at the time he would have made perfect sense to his contemporaries, but as a denizen of the 21st century much is murky (analogous to the exposed craftsmanship of the art show). His pantheon of values had the Christian God with the bible’s revelation at its pinnacle, followed closely (or rather supported) by the private property rights of ownership (Only makes sense considering that in the nascent country of that time, an over abundance of “common ground” left private property to be deemed exceptional, vulnerable, and very desirable. Others have pointed out the relationship to the heritage of “ownership” of religious belief. As Thoreau pointed out, what makes for ownership?). After that came the various interactions and relationships of society, community and state. Jay himself owned slaves but worked for emancipation in his state of New York. Ostensibly, he bought people from their owners and then would free these people once they reached a certain age on the grounds that these humans had justifiably paid off their indenture. From this one can conclude that he was a man of his time in sharing the belief of the “naturalness” and legality of ownership, including the ownership of human beings, either as indentured servants or slaves.  

            Part of our evening’s conversation included the young artists featured, and young people today in general. It appears they must go into debt (through their education, transportation and required insurance necessities) BEFORE they can obtain employment in order to pay off the debt that obtaining the job necessitated in the first place. Once there were mortgage burning parties when homeowners celebrated paying off the cost of their residence. Usually these took place concurrent with retirement, the children leaving home, etc. One wonders if today’s young workers, finding only underpaying jobs after incurring enormous debt to obtain those jobs, will celebrate their emancipation day, when they have “justifiably paid off their indenture.”

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