Radical Fun

on March 25, 2011

 ”If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”
   – attributed to Emma Goldman

Since finishing the previous post, I’ve kept puzzling over Tom Joad and why I don’t really warm to him. The last time I wrote about Joad, for example, was in an entry titled “The Democratization of Higher Knowledge,” where I described him as “hapless” and compared him unfavorably to that other mythic figure born of late 30’s populism, Bugs Bunny.

The difference between Tom and Bugs, of course, is that Bugs is an authentic trickster figure — the descendant of Rabbit and Coyote and Raven and all the others of that venerable lineage — and is totally in it for the Lulz. Tom Joad, on the other hand, is more like a Neolithic corn-god who achieves divinity through self-sacrifice without actually having to do anything.

It’s partly a matter of taste, I suppose — or perhaps not, because standing behind the persona of Tom Joad is the similar but far more dynamic figure of Joe Hill.

Joe Hill was a real person, a labor organizer and songwriter who was a member of the International Workers of the World (familiarly known as the Wobblies) — the group whose call for “one big union” is echoed in Joad’s “one big soul.” Hill was executed by the state of Utah in 1915 on what were apparently trumped-up murder charges and was mythologized after his death in the poem “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,” written in 1930 and set to music in 1936.

In the poem, Joe Hill assures the dreamer that he will always be present “where workers strike and organize.” This parallels Tom Joad’s statement just before his disappearance but is far more focused and action-oriented. It makes Joad’s promise to be around “wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat. … wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy … in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready” seems fuzzy and sentimental by comparison.

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
Alive as you or me
Says I, “But Joe, you’re ten years dead,”
“I never died,” says he
“I never died,” says he …

“The copper bosses killed you, Joe,
They shot you, Joe,” says I.
“Takes more than guns to kill a man,”
Says Joe, “I didn’t die,”
Says Joe, “I didn’t die.”

And standing there as big as life
And smiling with his eyes
Joe says, “What they forgot to kill
Went on to organize,
Went on to organize.” …

“From San Diego up to Maine,
In every mine and mill,
Where workers strike and organize,”
Says he, “You’ll find Joe Hill,”
Says he, “You’ll find Joe Hill.”

I’ve been vaguely aware of the Wobblies since I was a kid, but there’s a lot more information available on them now, and I’ve only recently come to appreciate how truly unique they were.

Part of that uniqueness lies in the fact that they — and particularly their anarchist contingent — represented one of the earliest intimations of the multiculturalism vision. At a time when even socialists could not see beyond the limited opportunities offered by representative democracy, the anarchist Wobblies were diehard opponents of every form of political and economic oppression:

The I.W.W. succeeded in organizing a group of workers who on the surface seemed to have very little in common. “Not least among its accomplishments was the erosion of sexual, racial, and ethnic divisions within the working class,” wrote Kornbluh. “The I.W.W. local that controlled the Philadelphia docks, the I.W.W. cigar-makers’ locals in Pittsburgh, and the I.W.W. lumber-workers’ union in the South were racially integrated.” This unification across working class and geographic sectors was remarkable, as these “unorganizables” — women, children, immigrants, transients, and others — somehow formed a cohesive political unit with shared goals. …

From the outset, the I.W.W. membership was divided into two camps: socialism and anarchism. The socialists, like Eugene Debs, urged the I.W.W. to get involved in elections and politics, supporting change by working within the system. The anarchists, however, viewed political participation as acquiescence to capitalism, and urged the I.W.W. to advance its cause via “direct action” — workers’ strikes, demonstrations and sabotage.

What particularly impresses me is not only that the IWW was multicultural by design in an era of profound racism and sexism, but also that its core members were so unswervingly dedicated to direct action. The protesters of the last dozen years, with their chants of “this is what democracy looks like,” would not exist without the precedent of the Wobblies.

But there was a third element to the Wobblies which was perhaps even more important then the other two — and that was their sense of fun. This quotation gives some idea of their distinctively exuberant approach to civil disobedience:

The IWW wanted its members to seize control of the factories and mines and often employed the tactics of direct action, while the [American Federation of Labor] fought mainly for better wages and working conditions for its members within the system of industrial capitalism. The IWW kept its dues low as part of a strategy to recruit the broadest range of unskilled immigrants, women, nonwhites, and migrant workers. Its newspapers were lively and included publications in numerous foreign languages and its songs and pictures have become legendary. Where local authorities prevented Wobblies from recruiting members the IWW often had to wage “free speech fights,” calling members across the nation to descend on a city where they had been denied the right to speak on the streets and distribute literature. No matter how many Wobblies were arrested, there were more to take their places, and eventually the local authorities had to give up.

This ability to have fun even in the midst of a life-and-death struggle might seem to be a minor part of the Wobblies’ appeal — but I believe it lies at the very heart of their uniqueness and was what enabled them to be so far ahead of their time.

I say this because fun appears to be intimately associated with the special state of mind that I described in the previously entry as “myth space.”

I recently dug out another of my never-finished essays from several years ago, this one titled “Ordinary Knowledge and Higher Knowledge.” It dealt with the same distinction between mundane reality and mythic reality that I’ve begun exploring in these entries, but from a slightly different angle.

What I said there was that ordinary knowledge is based on past experiences — both our own and that of our fellows — and is what we chiefly rely upon in familiar circumstances. Higher knowledge is a more intuitive system that we switch to when ordinary knowledge fails us and we are forced to fall back on urgent improvisation.

Higher knowledge is most prominently on display in times of natural disaster and great social upheavals, like those we have been witnessing over the past several weeks. Such events demonstrate, however, that higher knowledge is far more than simply an alternate source of information. Under these conditions, people spontaneously self-organize and work together smoothly and altruistically for the common good. Even young children take on authority beyond their years and assume what are normally adult tasks.

But higher knowledge does not appear only in times of crisis. We humans appear to value both the experience and the fruits of higher knowledge so greatly that we have devised a variety of ways to trigger it artificially, under relatively controlled and non-life-threatening conditions.

If we are bold enough and strong enough, we may go out in search of adventure — setting off into trackless jungles, climbing unscaled mountains, or crossing the ocean on a boat made from empty soda bottles. If we are of a more sedentary persuasion, we may seek the same effect vicariously through adventure stories. But whatever our temperament, we are likely to explain that we enjoy these things because they are fun.

And there are many other forms of fun, including every kind of recreation and amusement — sports and games, carnivals and masked balls, playgrounds and theme parks, art and music, hobbies and avocations. All these pursuits take us out of ourselves and out of our ordinary routines and encourage us to indulge in new pleasures and make leaps of mental integration.

Activities like these often involve a specifically delineated area of space or time, a distinctive vocabulary, or other markers which inform us that we have moved out of ordinary space and into myth space. And that, in turn, suggests that religion — which shares those characteristics — might be seen as merely a specialized type of recreation.

There was an article a few week ago which argued convincingly that religion in any formal sense did not exist prior to the rise of complex societies. Archaic peoples have myths and rituals and beliefs in the supernatural, but those are aspects of their daily lives. They see no need to set aside special times and places in which to go about the business of being religious.

So perhaps even religion itself was originally done just for the Lulz — and only eventually came to be taken far too seriously.

This is a large and complicated subject, and I intend to explore it further. But for now, it is enough to say that all significant human activities — including inner exploration, political revolution, and technological innovation — appear to be most sanely and productively pursued in a spirit of fun.

And that is why the wacky impulses of Bugs Bunny and the Wobblies appears to me as a truer beacon to follow than the ghost of poor, put-upon Tom Joad.


A listing of all my posts on the emerging counterculture can be found here and a listing of my posts on higher knowledge here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

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