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Winter In Ant-Land

By Jabali Stewart

Part 1

I have long held a position of opposition to Aesop's parable of the ant and grasshopper. Aesop's story tells of a grasshopper that makes music all through the summer and then has no food in the winter. The ant, who in the summer worked to store food for the winter, tells the starving grasshopper to kick rocks. In the United States of America there is a propensity for connecting conservatism to the ants, and liberalism to the grasshopper. I find this practice to be a bit confusing given conservatism’s adherence to and promotion of the narrative of the rugged individual. What makes this confusing is that the ant is a collectivist creature, while the grasshopper is more individualistic in nature. The disconnect between actual creature, and symbolic representation of moral and philosophical stance is indicative of a great sickness.

In indigenous practices, animal totems are used in a very specific way to connect the reality of the animal to the reality of mind, body, emotion, and spirit. One does not use turtle to symbolize or indicate speed; it does not make sense. Turtle instead symbolizes among other things, endurance, persistence, emotional and spiritual protection, and pacing oneself. In this same vein, using ant to symbolize or indicate individualism also does not make any sense. The ant symbolizes among other things, community, collaboration, and much like the turtle, diligence. The practice of using ant to symbolize the party of individualism is a great window into the way in which a certain mind organizes itself in the world. It is an organization based on drastically misinterpreting the stories nature tells us. A misinterpretation so powerful that the opposite of nature’s story is presented not just as nature’s story, but truth.

There is something else about this parable that has long troubled me. As a musician, I have always despised how grasshopper’s story is told so incompletely; s/he seemingly just plays music all summer long without a care. The reality of the work required to make music is simply erased. The discipline that goes into practicing scales, modes, technique, and composition is denied. The time it takes to learn all that is needed to play music is simply deleted, all because grasshopper’s work does not look like ant’s work. Aesop’s story is clearly told using ant’s frame of reference, centering the value of ant’s work over that of grasshopper’s. There is always another way to look at things.

Part of the problem here lies in symbolically using two different species to theorize on the existence of a singular species. In the realm of humans, we do things differently than the ants. One can use a simplistic view of the frame Aesop created to say that a human needs to work hard to take care of themself and perhaps the ones the individual loves: work before play and all of that. I have already touched on the amount of work required to play music in the human realm -- a lot. Any ant-human has to admit that grasshopper-human put in a lot of work, work that results in play, play that ant-humans have long used while they work. Instead of whistling while they work, they listen to a grasshopper-human whistling. Conservative and liberal humans alike listen to music while they work. The stories of surgeons listening to music while they operate are bountiful. I myself, a doctor of another kind, am listening to music as I write these words. But as a musician myself I know the work that went into making the music that is currently playing. It’s the story of endless genius faced with unlivable wages.

There is always another perspective.

Perhaps, for instance, Aesop’s tale is a window into his post-traumatic slave syndrome. In my world, to center the values of your slaver as source code for one’s own moral compass is a sign of illness, and the symbols we use to invoke our reality matter. Ants are notorious slavers.

In her timeless book 'Radical Dharma', rev. angel Kyoto Williams quotes Bruce Lee's famous words, “Under duress, we do not rise to our expectations, but fall to our level of training.” The good rev. goes on to say, "Hundreds of years of living in a context designed by pillagers of the land and captors of people-without sufficient interventions-naturally establishes the curriculum of the training to which we fall. Our methodologies are forged with the default mindset of colonization, capitalism-as-religion, corporation-as-demigod, domination over people and planet, winner take all, rape and plunder as spoils of victory, human and natural resources taken as objects of subjugation to the land owning, resource controlling, very, very privileged few.”

These words refuse to leave my mind in these times of COVID-19. The foundations of this country are ant-human. The story centered is that of ant-human at the literal expense of grasshopper-human. As far as ant-humans are concerned, grasshopper-humans can kick rocks, as can bison-humans, wolf-humans, bear-humans, fish-humans, etc... Watching the hoarding unfold was painful. Listening to people joke about hoarding in order to make a financial profit was painful. Watching folks refuse to admit that while they may not get sick and die, they can transmit the virus to someone who might, is painful, and the hashtag boomer remover is beyond painful. But all of these actions are in line with the training of being an ant-human. We are witnessing the words of both Bruce Lee and rev. angel on stark display.

So it is bittersweet to read the confession and reframing of James Pinkerton, who corrects the long standing symbolic mistake of ant and grasshopper, but argues that, “we never need socialism, but we surely do need resilient capitalism,” as though capitalism has not shown itself to be resilient already. Pinkerton’s conclusion? Build a wall. Those walls of course in the form of tighter border control. However, the real issue is the behavior of the grasshoppers in ant-clothing walled inside.

Caring is an act that requires the individual to see beyond themselves. It is the centering of the wellbeing of an other, the opposite of what ant showed grasshopper in Aesop’s fable. Caring is something that takes time, and high level care takes increased skills. These skills are not often prioritized in ant-human worlds. Most ant-humans are loathe to part with the time it takes to learn to care. Because after all, time is money in their land. As a result of all of this, I've been thinking a lot about how we are actually trained to care for each other in this country. How have you been trained to actually take care of your relatives, neighbors, the people in your city, state, nation? Because we are humans, not ants or grasshoppers, how does the collective take care of the rugged individual and vice-versa? The reality is we need each other. To fall into the trap of Aesop and to villainize grasshopper, we lose the opportunity to see our collective strengths. We need to tell the story of how ant and grasshopper both survive winter by co-existing with care for each other. Because despite what the calendar says, winter is here.

To Be Continued.

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