“We don’t ride on railroads they ride on us”: raucous listening against apathy

The title for this blog post is a slight misquote of Henry David Thoreau, a 19th-century social and political commentator best known for Walden who wrote about topics including the abolition of slavery and the value of civil disobedience, which he explores in an essay by the same name. Thoreau was concerned about, among many things, the exploitation of laborers and radical changes to our definition of humanity in projects of capitalist expansion under the teleological thrust of technological advance during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, including the mass construction of railroads:

We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man…The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them…And every few years a new lot is laid down and run over; so that, if some have the pleasure of riding on a rail, others have the misfortune to be ridden upon.

(A discussion of Thoreau’s concerns about humanity, technology, and capitalism comes from this article in Wired.) I saw a version of the first line of this quote in a cartoon by Art Young, socialist and political satirist from the 1910s and 1920s, in an exhibit at the Argosy Bookstore, New York’s oldest independent bookstore open since 1925. See some examples below:

 
 

The last of the four cartoons is a version of the Thoreau quote. I found it interesting – and a bit depressing – to know that we continue to struggle with the balance between the pursuit of progress and the preservation of humanity. But what is important, really, is to remember that our humanity should not be defined after we’ve struggled toward the next innovation, the next profit. What should be happening is a radical consideration of humanity as a collective social project, radical in scope, that progresses toward a more egalitarian possibility.

Apathy would be one response to such cartoons – god we’re here again, we can’t escape our fate of self-destruction – and this is very much the feature of today’s politics and public discourse. I struggled with this as I left the Argosy Bookstore and headed to meet a friend for dinner in Queens. Emerging onto the street, I turned and saw a park full of people:

 

Groups of people, from different backgrounds, different countries of origin, different languages and religions and and views of the world, all sitting together as a community. It occurred to me that we are all part of a community, several, in fact, and we walk toward each other every day, sharing and singing and spitting and swirling into bigger and smaller spaces. This collective life cannot be taken from us. We can only give it away, along with the force of its voice and its will to change the reality in which we live.

Idealistic? Or realistic? Anything is more real than the stories told by the sociopath running our country and his cabinet of cronies. We can remember – we have always known – what is real and true for us, by us. Yes, capitalism seeks to convince us that we are consumers first and last, that we owe nothing to the person next to us and should fight for his seat. But this is not what our social histories will remind us, should we listen, raucously, together.

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