Red Lung

Lyrics adapted from Hazel Dickens’ song “Black Lung” by “Irene,” believed to be among the first terraform workers sent to Mars during its initial colonization in the late 21st century. 

He’s had more bad breaks than most settlers could stand 
This planet’s his first love but never his friend 
He’s worked a hard life and hard he’ll expire 
Red lung’s got him, set his breathing on fire 
 
Red lung, red lung, you’ve stolen my time 
Soon all of this suffering I’ll leave behind 
I can’t help but ask what the Angel had in mind 
To let the dust devils claim this breath of mine 
 
HMO TerraCare won’t return his calls 
Your medicine’s radiation or it’s nothing at all 
Your dignity is nothing when it’s air that you lack 
The silence of deep space is calling you back 
 
Down here in Cowtown, on Elysium’s rim 
The broken are accepted, but futures are dim 
His veins and his bronchioles both stopped up with iron 
All that awaits him is the industrial pyre 
 
Red lung, Red lung, your hand’s like a flame 
You fill me with fever and boil my brain 
Red hot like the scorched sky while the atmosphere grew 
Where I sweat my blood out, made this planet new 

The CEO’s letter is hollow and staunch 
Tells us he died nobly, as his ashes are launched 
Take back your bluster, take back your false hope  
He’s no more than dust now, like what choked his throat 

(The verse below was added by an unknown author during the rebellion that is now referred to as the “Martian Commune.”) 

Within the Commune, no bosses endure 
Their winter’s the sickness, our Spring is the cure 
No more will our lungs burn, no more will our veins 
Only our hearts now; a new future’s made  

Painting by Adam Turl

She Has Come For Your Uncool Niece

I had no idea who Marianne Williamson is before Thursday night’s Democratic debate. But I have seen Marianne Williamson before. We all have.  

We’ve been seeing her for nearly thirty years, occupying that liminal space that is marginal but still mainstream, crank but still credible in the post-kombucha world.  

She is the voice lecturing an exhausted Whole Foods worker from the pages of a yoga magazine.  

She is the kind of person who sees crisis and opportunity as the same thing because she still thinks that they actually are the same word in Mandarin.  

She is Gwyneth Paltrow’s sentient second head; the one that we have all secretly dreaded in our nightmares.  

I have seen Marianne Williamson before. We all have. She is a certified organic outgrowth of American culture and politics.  

* * * 

“Heal the soul of America” is the motto on her website. And though it and her untethered tweets won’t likely deliver her a presidential nomination, her motivational poster tone is at home with the vagaries of American politics pulling against their own rudderlessness and a liberalism very bad at covering up its elitism. They also tell us something about the darkness that can come out of such directionless drifts. 

She is obviously and commendably right about plenty of things. She has showed up at demonstrations against the concentration camps. Her website contains rhetoric against union-busting and more. She is anti-war. And there is a worldview in which these can sit comfortably next to a history of neo-Victorian “self-help.” In such a worldview there are certain actions that don’t count as union-busting, things that can be “healed” rather than repaired, gaps in the societal infrastructure that are filled by nothing but sentiment and aura. 

Let’s be clear: on an individual basis there is no problem with meditative or spiritual practices. I meditate twice a day and shudder to think of how my anxiety would overwhelm me if I didn’t. You go to an acupuncturist? Do yoga? Put crystals by your bed? Whatever you have to do to hold on to your sense of subjective self in an objectively bleak and devastatingly cruel world.  

In a system that overwhelms us and inserts itself into our thoughts every chance it can get, we do whatever we have to in order to get a sense of quietude, reflection. There is a gap between the work we are coerced into and our actual desire to labor with interest, to use our creativity, that can only be called inhuman. And it is why so many artists who rely on a seemingly odd spiritual practices are able to so deftly find unexplored angles of daily existence in a world that we are told should be a certain way.  

There is, after all, a whole history of left-wing and Marxist sympathy with the deep exploration of the self, of attempts to “disalienate” it. Not to mention serious left-wing engagement with theology that have boosted and supplemented our understanding of history. It’s why the declarations of “just focus on your activism” from so much of the boorish left regarding mental health not only fall insultingly flat but ignores significant portions of Marxist cultural thought. 

What “wellness” philosophies offer is something altogether different. In fact they far more often achieve the opposite of the exploration of self and subject. These ideas and practices, paid for and exchanged, take on the character of anything instilled with the logic of commodity. They are one-size-fits all and disregard psychological and physiological nuance. They promise more than they deliver, and invite us to rearrange our identities around them, leaving us feeling less fulfilled and whole than we did before. 

And then there are the outwardly harmful ideas. “Functional medicine,” anti-vaxx, even HIV denialism (all ideas that Williamson has skated dangerously close to). There is of course a wide gap between downing a shot of wheatgrass every morning and refusing to vaccinate your child. But the overarching conversation of what is “natural,” completely unmoored as it is from any notion of accountability or rigor, is underlying every transphobic troll asking about “who is a real woman.” It is in every proto-eugenic discussion about which developing country deserves to drown in a flood.  

* * * 

All politics at some point has to confront the process of how the subjective becomes the objective. And when meditation is promoted in lieu of universal healthcare, when “mindfulness” becomes an excuse for companies to abuse and overwork, there is likely all manner of manipulative pseudo-philosophies afoot. 

Hell, capitalism itself is based on the phantasmic notion that wealth simply creates itself. So really we cannot be all that surprised that this type of ideological filler is rising up into the cracks. Labor does not create wealth for Marianne Williamson, it comes from “self-actualization.” Never you mind that her and any version of self-actualization requires some amount or another of resources. Resources that cost money. Money that evidently comes from the ether of good vibes.

Nicole Aschoff’s The New Prophets of Capital is good on this. Particularly in relation to Williamson’s media patron Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey of course has peddled a litany of snake oil salesmen into American culture. Is Williamson a pilot fish for an eventual Winfrey/Williamson ticket in 2024? 

It’s far-fetched but then so was a charlatan reality star as president who denies every piece of climate science that is put in front of him.  

I have seen Marianne Williamson before. We all have.