Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds. The mediocre mind is incapable of understanding the man who refuses to bow blindly to conventional prejudices and chooses instead to express his opinions courageously and honestly.
In life, some people are mediocre minds. They are perennial Pattern Followers; they fit neatly into the groove or round hole that is The-World-As-We-Know-It: mainstream society and all the sub-cultures of which they are members. They are not Loose Cannons. They do not Rock the Boat. They do not “learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.” They are not Picasso.
And then you have people like the Wachowskis, formerly brothers, and now sisters. Is it truly surprising that this sibling pair responsible for the iconic 1999 movie Matrix chose to break a pattern that most people never have or will? That they made this shocking (depending on your perspective) personal decision: to stop being men and become women?
In Matrix, Neo is the Wachowskis’ protagonist, and the symbolism in this name seems particularly significant given the Wachowskis’ decision. Neo: a new form of something. Neo has always felt that there is something wrong with the world he lives in, and is haunted by this question: “What is The Matrix?” One day he learns the answer to this question. He has been living a lie; he is not an individual with self- determination, but a human battery helping to power an A.I.- created-and-controlled virtual reality—The Matrix. However, to become aware of this truth, he has to agree to open his eyes to this truth. By a character named Morpheus—fittingly named after the Greek god of dreams—he is presented with a choice: two pills, one blue and one red. The blue pill will ensure that he continues living in his virtual reality dream, and the red pill will cause him to wake from this dream to the Real World. Morpheus tells Neo: " You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes." Neo chooses the red pill, not the blue pill. Like his creators the Wachowskis, he chooses not to fit into the groove, into the round hole of the existence he was born into. He chooses to be a Pattern Breaker-Maker. He is a Loose Cannon. He Rocks the Boat. And he is ejected into the Real World from the virtual reality of the A.I. world, and in the Real World he uses his eyes for the first time to see. And like the guy who crawls out of Socrates’ Cave, he blinks his eyes a lot and there’s an adjustment period before he can participate fully as a member of the Real World and develop his talents—all of which hinges on his capability to believe that si, se puede: yes, you can.
Through the choices we make—brave or cowardly, noble or ignoble, careful or reckless—we shape our destiny, as Shakespeare well knew: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / but in ourselves, that we are underlings” (Julius Caesar, 1.2.140-141). “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” Others will make the decisions for you that will shape your destiny. But some people prefer this path in life: to be perennial Pattern Followers. Never taking the road less traveled can feel safe and warm: a dream.
But are all decisions to break a pattern the right decision?
I remember when I first learned of the Wachowskis’ decision to change their sex. I was in the bathtub, scrolling through the day’s news on my cell, and I pressed my legs tightly together, and crossed one arm across my breasts reflexively. In regard to my sex, I have chosen to take the road more traveled, to be a Pattern Follower rather than a Pattern Breaker-Maker. Why? The easy answer is: I don’t want to be a man; I am content as a woman. The less easy answer is: I never thought about switching my sex; doing something like that has never occurred to me. For most of us, our sex is a fait accompli, dictated by our biology. Only about one in every 1,500 to 2,000 children born today has the condition known as intersex: a “general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male,” according to the Intersex Society of North America. Before the Wachowskis and TV series like Transparent, about a transgender woman, I would have listed a person’s gender choices as gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, cross-dresser, heterosexual, or some variation therein, and their sex choices as non-existent. The vast majority of us are born either male or female. But the Wachowskis obviously thought much more deeply about their sex than I, and did not regard biology as the determining factor in regard to their sex.
Is the Wachowskis’ decision to become female—or approximate females (can any surgery-and-drugs combination create what nature’s hands have wrought?)— the right decision? And for whom? Society? For themselves? Again, that depends on one’s perspective, and if one is a moral absolutist or relativist, and then what kind of moral absolutist or relativist one is. (The—as far as we know—bisexual Socrates and a Christian evangelical are both moral absolutists.) But back to choice, the power to determine our destiny through the decisions we make. The Wachowskis and all of us have the power (if not always the legal right) to make personal choices, and by these choices, to determine our destiny. We can be Pattern Followers when a pattern suits us, and Pattern Breaker-Makers when it does not. In Viktor Frankl’s 1946 book Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl contends that even in the direst of situations—and Frankl was in Auschwitz—a person has decision authority. Is it mediocre minds—fearful minds—that do not exercise this authority, who always follow the established patterns of the reigning powers-that-be: society, the government, educational institutions, religious groups, corporations—and people whose families have possessed great wealth for many generations? And to justify being this kind of perennial Pattern Follower, do they use the Nuremberg Defense … ?
Befehl ist Befehl: An order is an order. (“I was only following orders.”)
Adolf Eichmann, SS-Obersturmbannführer (lieutenant colonel) and one of the higher-ups responsible for organizing the Holocaust, used this defense. But did some of his surviving victims use a similar defense: “I was a victim”? And why did they need any defense; were they not, in fact, victims?
In his book, Frankl writes of a grim, depressing truth about concentration camps and places like them—POW camps and Southern plantations in the Antebellum era in the U.S.:
On the average, only those prisoners could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, in order to save themselves. We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles - whatever one may choose to call them - we know: the best of us did not return.
Even in a place like Auschwitz, a Southern plantation or a POW camp, one has decision authority. Is Frankl telling us that one cannot wear the mantle of victim, and be exonerated for any decisions made while a victim? Maybe. And that there are worse things than death.
Can we rise above our mediocrity as Pattern Followers, if the price of being a Pattern Breaker-Maker is our lives?
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates contends that the masses of people are mediocre. And what is his definition of mediocre: people who want to survive at all costs? No, it’s not—although people who want to survive at all costs would fit into Socrates’ definition of mediocre, I’m sure. To Socrates, mediocre people don’t think; they accept the reality that others present to them as the Real World. Only a select few—those truly “awake” to the Real World (to use the Buddha’s word)—are able to act as leaders. Most people are Pattern Followers. I agree. Most of us are cogs in the vast machine that Thoreau wrote about in his essays “Resistance to Civil Government”(1848) and “Economy” (1854). And we need these folks (ourselves?) to keep the status quo up and running, greasing its pistons and performing other routine maintenance. And that seems about right. Even in the renowned, Jungian-based, rubber-stamping-of-people that is the 16 Personalities Test (aka, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator), which has been trotted out at countless teaching/learning seminars since its conception circa 1943 (it’s still quite the thing), we learn that Intellectuals and Visionaries are in the minority—about 1 in 4—and that about 3 out of every 4 people are cogs, Pattern Followers, Protectors and Creators of the status quo.
So are the Pattern Breaker-Makers—the Intellectuals and Visionaries—on top, in control? No, they’re not. They’re a minority, the smaller block in the Rothko paintings being overshadowed by the much larger block: the 3 out of 4 who outnumber them. And like the Wachowskis, are they subjected to a blitz of disapproval from the 3 out of 4 who are different from them, their lives a constant struggle? Well … yes! Because they broke a pattern—rightly or wrongly, according to our differing perspectives—and made a new pattern for themselves.
Pattern Breaker-Makers are the Trail Blazers, and they must live with the consequences of their decision to deviate from the norm—and sometimes they die on the trail. Pattern Breaker-Makers can end up like Socrates, executed for questioning authority (i.e., for daring to think)—and in so doing, becoming a Pattern Breaker-Maker. And let’s not forget an eminent Pattern Breaker-Maker from this Nation who died on the trail: John Brown. In 1859, John Brown and his cohort of Free Men tried to overthrow the existing status quo in the Antebellum South at Harper’s Ferry and were stopped by none other than that rigid conformist and Pattern Follower Colonel Robert E. Lee, the future Confederate general, who “embodied a way of life that had come down through the age of knighthood and the English country squire,” according to Bruce Catton in his famous 1956 essay “Grant and Lee: A Study in Contrasts.”
Well, as my indigenous Irish mother used to say: “God bless the squire and his relations; they keep us all in our proper stations!”
Lee debunks the ridiculous myth still spoon fed to school children that a group of righteous pilgrims founded the New World, proving by his very being that ancient and corrupt systems of power in Europe stamped their patterns on the New World early on—and long before Lee’s birth in 1807. After all, remember that as far back as 1664 in Maryland, at the dawn of this Nation, the law dictated that white women who married black men became slaves, and so did their children. And in 1691 the Law in Virginia exiled white people who married black people, forced them to live in the wilds—an almost-certain death sentence in the 17th century. And through Fear, via the ol’ Divide and Conquer strategy that people with socioeconomic power have always applied to the masses of people without socioeconomic power, many people in this Nation—and not just whites (the usual suspects)—have learned to hate each other because of skin color, because as Nelson Mandela told us, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin.” We have to be taught—but of course, we also have the choice of whether or not to imbibe this lesson. To be Pattern Followers or Pattern Breaker-Makers. We have the choice to think. In the four dialogues Plato wrote that today comprise The Life and Death of Socrates—Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo (427-347 BC)— Socrates ponders if there is a heaven or a hell, and speculates that if there is a hell, then we may be condemned to this hell if we do not use our minds to think.
Unfortunately, many of us choose to go to this hell. We choose not to think. We, the masses of people, allow a tiny socioeconomic power elite to control us, and such has always been the case with our human race throughout our known history. Monarchies and dictatorships are the most obvious support for this contention—and in the “Free World,” the 30-year mortgage, unequal interest rates, credit reports, alarming academic deficiency at the primary and secondary school levels, and crippling student loans for college degrees are the less obvious (but equally convincing) support. But how can we break this control of the power elite, particularly its financial alchemists, who dictate that the money we borrow from banks should garner higher interest rates than the money banks borrow from our checking and savings accounts and then loan to others at exorbitant interest rates? We must exercise our choice to be Pattern Breaker-Makers, not Pattern Followers, and question authority, like Socrates. We must question the stratagems for social control that are the 30-year mortgage, unequal interest rates, high school diplomas that do not certify students' academic proficiency, student loans for degrees that may not be worth the price of purchase, and (most daunting of all) credit reports (which ensure you’ll be a “good citizen,” following the Law so you can work hard and pay your bills in installment payments that you can afford). In addition to questioning these stratagems for social control, we must also question the judicial system that is not “reason free from passion,” but arbitrary rules, because U.S. Law is unequally applied to different socioeconomic classes and races. And what other entity or stratagems for social control must we question? Just one. We must question the Divide and Conquer stratagem that is used to make us hate each other so that we can not unite, gather sufficient force to break the chains that bind us. And we must question how this stratagem is used particularly in regard to the recent Presidential election and developing governmental policies regarding undocumented citizens in the U.S.
We must think. We must be Pattern Breaker-Makers not all the time—but when the Pattern presented to us is not just or logical to ourselves, someone else, or any group of people. And we must break the Pattern even when it is Law, according to Thoreau:
If it [the Law] is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law.
Here at The Public Intellectual, we endeavor through art to be Pattern Breaker-Makers, as we deem necessary, to be a voice of conscience and reason in the maelstrom that is the status quo in the U.S. and in many parts of this world. Of course, we hope not to die on the trail, and to be not a conciliatory-to-the-status-quo Booker T. Washington, but a bright, brave and bold Frederick Douglass—who told John Brown that he thought Harper’s Ferry was a bad idea, and refused to join this endeavor, but also refused to knuckle down to the status quo, advocating for immediate change, like William Edward Burghardt DuBois, one of our greatest American public intellectuals, and from whose writings this Magazine borrows its name. With his pen and not a sword, Douglass (by sheer luck? by the grace of God?) was able to engage in a non-violent dialogue with the tiny socioeconomic power elite that controlled his generation. And what’s the best proof that Frederick accomplished this DuBoisian feat? At the Seneca Falls women’s rights convention (Frederick supported the suffragette movement), he delivered a speech titled "What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” In 1852! Years before the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment. And—to a largely white audience! If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything, right?
But what if the pen is insufficient to break the ugly patterns in the status quo—particularly in the U.S.? Is voluntary exile the answer? (Remember: DuBois died in Ghana.) Or … is Revolution the answer? Should the war to exercise our choice to be Pattern Breaker-Makers—and it is a war, make no mistake about that—become actual and not figurative, and should we be committed to giving our lives to this cause, as Nelson Mandela was, delivering his “I Am Prepared to Die” proclamation before his imprisonment in 1967, and 27 years later, upon his release from prison in 1990? " I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination," Mandela proclaimed. "I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities." All races should be equal; no race should dominate. And for Mandela during his lifetime, "[i]t is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
Should we be prepared to die to achieve Mandela's ideal? I don’t know. I guess so. I hope not. We’ll see. But See, we must. Subjected to vicious white racism in South Africa, as many (most?) darker-skinned people and their ancestors were around the globe, and for several centuries—suffering slavery, rape, assault, murder, torture, theft, sexual and labor exploitation—Mandela still managed to see the big picture. He saw that when there was not a struggle against white racism, then the struggle was against brown, black, yellow or red racism or classicism or both. He had learned this lesson from history, from variegated forms of racial and class warfare that did and still do take place upon all the continents and their surrounding territories. He knew: the game stays the same; only the players change. Right? The White Man can be the Black Man, the Brown Man, the Red Man, or the Yellow Man. Mandela saw that the war against the status quo—whoever the status quo is at any point in history—is a war against ourselves, against our own hierarchical human nature and desire to dominate and exploit others for our own profit—and (sadly) simply for excess profit. Perhaps Mandela agreed with Abe Lincoln in this respect: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.” And here let me share an anecdote with you in this regard.
I recall, some years past, a white student coming to me, a white professor, during the sanctuary of office hours, outside the minefield of the classroom, and telling me that black and brown students were "being racist" to her, that they objected to any comment she made about racism during group discussions—as if she did not have the right to voice an opinion, "simply because I am white." Tears glided down thin, pale, freckled cheeks from sky-blue eyes fringed with long, dark lashes, becoming gleaming silver trails in the overhead florescent lighting, when the light hit them just right. "I've never done anything to hurt them; it's reverse racism!" the student told me. And I thought, "No, it's just racism—people thinking that their bad behavior against a person or people from another racial group is justified." I also thought about the irony of her unquestioned assumption that she, a white girl, would be safe with me, a white woman, that she would be immediately understood, comforted and protected by her elder in the tribe. And as I gave her this understanding, comfort and protection, I thought of the irony inherent in my extending it to her, and I wondered, briefly, about the many raped, beaten, mutilated and tortured black girls in the U.S. over the last four centuries who had probably sought similar comfort from a member of their tribe. And I wondered what comfort their elders could have extended to them, in a land where even the label of "human being" was denied to them. But at least their elders could try to comfort them, I thought; raped, beaten, mutilated or tortured, they were still alive. They weren't strange fruit dangling from a tree or bridge, or like one black teenager I read about in the diary of a U.S. slave, killed by being left alone for a few days, without food or water, pressed in a cotton gin.
If you have power, then you have to fight against your own human urge to dominate, to abuse that power by abusing others whom you perceive as a threat. Because racism has its roots in this kind of threat perception. And anyone who has ever contemplated the nature of power and its relation to racism, seriously and and at length, simply cannot doubt the verisimilitude of this conviction of James Baldwin's, expressed with harrowing intensity in Baldwin's Going to Meet the Man (1965): white supremacy—any kind of racial supremacist ideology—is not based on a conviction that other races are inferior; it is based on the secret fear (secret even from oneself sometimes) that they are superior. In the United States and elsewhere, the fight against racism has never been a fight against racism; the fight has always been against ourselves, the fight to believe that we are worthy just the way we are, and to be content with ourselves, and not to fear, then hate, and then seek to harm others if they seem more worthy—a threat to our own sense of power and self-esteem. We must heed the spirit of the Yoda warning to the young Anakin Skywalker who became Darth Vader: "Fear is the path to the dark side ... fear leads to anger ... anger leads to hate ... hate leads to suffering." And better than any of our recent political leaders—as evidenced by his herculean attempt to establish a South African and global Truth and Reconciliation Commission— Mandela understood this truth well. And he also understood Thoreau well, and what the happy end to this war we wage against ourselves can be:
"That government is best which governs not at all"; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.
And to and for this happy end, we must wage war against ourselves and our kind. What kind of war? Again … we’ll see. And See we must.
Nothing is black and white. And we must understand that we are the status quo that we abhor, and only by changing our human natures—and actively confronting and opposing those who refuse to do so—will we win the war: create Mandela’s “democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.”
But can we win this war? Thoreau seemed to think so, as indicated by his optimistic use of present-tense verbs in this sentence: “when men are prepared for it [the government which governs not at all], that will be the kind of government which they will have.”
We will think, and by thinking we will prevail. We will not go to hell.
Nuala Mary Lincke Editor-in-Chief & Stories/Novels/Plays Editor The Public Intellectual English Professor, West Los Angeles College