Many plans have been proposed to bring about world peace. Here's George Carlin's, from his book Brain Droppings:
Twenty-four hour, nonstop, worldwide folk dancing, once a year. Each year, on a designated day, everyone in the world would stop what they were doing and dance for twenty-four hours.
Any kind of dancing you want. Square dance, minuet, grind, peabody, cakewalk, mazurka, samba, mashed potato. Doesn't matter. Just get out there and dance. Even hospital patients, shut-ins, cripples, and people on life support; if you're too sick to dance, you just die. While the doctors and nurses keep dancing. This would be a good way to weed out the weaker people. Dance or die! Natural selection with a beat.
One good result, of course, would be that during the actual dancing, no fighting could take place. But the plan would also tend to reduce violence during the remainder of the year, because for six months following the dance, everyone would be talking about how much fun they had had, and for the six months after that, they would all be busy planning what to wear to next year's dance.
There's wisdom in this proposal, as flippant as it may seem. It's corroborated in one of my favourite books I've read in recent years: Dancing in the Streets: a History of Collective Joy by Barbara Ehrenreich. I totally recommend it. Reading it gave me one intellectual orgasm after another. I bought it because I'm a fan of hers. I thought it'd be a straight-forward history of celebratory traditions in various cultures. It's not. It's an analysis of how group celebrations, particularly dance, have helped us progress as a species. And the book is so damn well written, I'm going to quote from it liberally, because she just says all of this stuff better than I can paraphrase it.
So dancing helped us climb the evolutionary ladder. For early humans, moving and making noise in unison was a valuable survival strategy:
"…groups - and the individuals within them - capable of holding themselves together through dance would have had an evolutionary advantage over more weakly bonded groups and individuals: the advantage of being better able to mount a collective defense against any animals or hostile humans who encroached on their territory or otherwise threatened them. No other species ever figured out how to do this."
To get together and boogie is our legacy, an intrinsic part of life. It helped us move out of the caves and form civilization.
"Interestingly, the Greek word nomos, meaning 'law,' also has the musical meaning of 'melody.' To submit, bodily, to the music through dance is to be incorporated into the community in a way far deeper than shared myth or common custom can achieve. In synchronous movement to music or chanting voices, the petty rivalries and factional differences that might divide a group could be transmuted into harmless competition over one's prowess as a dancer, or forgotten. 'Dance,' as a neuroscientist put it, is 'the biotechnology of group formation.'"
Whether its function as social glue was understood or not, the vast majority of cultures made dance and celebration an intrinsic and frequent part of life.
"In fifteenth-century France, for example, one out of every four days of the year was an official holiday of some sort, usually dedicated to a mix of religious ceremonies and more or less unsanctioned carryings-on."
Religion and celebration weren't at odds, either. Perhaps not the easiest of bedfellows, but bedfellows nonetheless.
"According to the historian William H. McNeill, European churches did not have pews until sometime in the eighteenth century. People stood or milled around, creating a very different dynamic than we find in today's churches were people are expected to spend most of their time sitting.
Judging from the volume of condemnations from on high, the custom of dancing in churches was thoroughly entrenched in the late Middle Ages and apparently tolerated - if not actually enjoyed - even by many parish priests. Priests danced; women danced; whole congregations joined in. Despite the efforts of the Church hierarchy, Christianity remained, to a certain extent, a danced religion."
Why don't we dance in church anymore? Why aren't we feasting and celebrating one out of every four days? Because it's a threat to social hierarchy:
"From an elite perspective, there is one inherent problem with traditional festivities and ecstatic rituals, and that is their levelling effect, the way in which they dissolve rank and other forms of social difference. It's difficult, if not impossible, to retain one's regal dignity in the mad excitement of the dance. Masks and other forms of costuming may render participants equally anonymous or equally 'special.' The deity may choose to possess and speak through a lowly shepherdess as readily as a queen."
Also, capitalism required a different mind-set amongst the common folk:
"The middle classes had to learn to calculate, save, and 'defer gratification'; the lower classes had to be transformed into a disciplined, factory-ready working class - meaning far fewer holidays and the new necessity of showing up for work sober and on time, six days a week. Peasants had worked hard too, of course, but in seasonally determined bursts; the new industrialism required ceaseless labor, all year round."
Not only that, but a seismic shift in human consciousness asserted itself. People became more aware of themselves as individuals.
"Mirrors in which to examine oneself become popular among those who could afford them, along with self-portraits (Rembrandt painted over fifty of them) and autobiographies in which to revise and elaborate the image that one has projected to others. In bourgeois homes, public spaces that guests may enter are differentiated, for the first time, from the private spaces - bedrooms, for example, in which one may retire to let down one's guard and truly 'be oneself.' More decorous forms of entertainment - play and operas - requiring people to remain immobilized, each in his or her separate seat, begin to provide an alternative to the promiscuously interactive and physically engaging pleasures of carnival. The very word self, as Trilling noted, ceased to be a mere reflexive or intensifier and achieves the status of a freestanding noun, referring to some inner core, not readily visible to others."
But isn't individualism a good thing? Most certainly. I'm very glad I'm not bound by any role I was born into. I like being something more than a cog in a giant machine whose function and purpose I'll never know, firmly under the thumbs of the church and my local noble-born superior. Individual consciousness is a precious gift, unquestionably. But it has a shadow:
"As Tuan writes, 'the obverse' of the new sense of personal autonomy is 'isolation, loneliness, a sense of disengagement, a loss of natural vitality and of innocent pleasure in the givenness of the world, and a feeling of burden because reality has no meaning other than what a person chooses to import to it.'"
Does this sound like our hyper-individual postmodern world, as Thomas Hubl puts it? It sure does to me. Ehrenreich continues:
"Now if there is one circumstance indisputably involved in the aetiology [study of causation] of depression, it is precisely this sense of isolation or, to use the term adopted by Durkheim in his late-nineteenth-century study of suicide: anomie. Durkheim used it to explain the rising rates of suicide in nineteenth-century Europe; epidemiologists invoke it to help account for the increasing prevalence of depression in our own time. As Durkheim saw it: 'Originally society is everything, the individual nothing… But gradually things change. As societies become greater in volume and density, individual differences multiply, and the moment approaches when the only remaining bond among the members of a single human group will be that they are all men [human].' The flip side of the heroic autonomy that is said to represent one of the great achievements of the early modern and modern eras is radical isolation, and, with it, depression and sometimes death."
So we're atomized, blue and offing ourselves. What can we do about it? Take to the streets and dance.
They've never stopped doing it New Orleans, even after funerals and hurricanes, as the HBO series Treme vividly represents in one episode after another. The show continually emphasizes what a vibrant culture the city has retained, despite the Walmarting of the rest of the country. And just like in Carlin's vision, New Orleanians don't just plan what they're going to wear to next year's party for six months, they make their own outfits, hand-sewing them, arduously stitching in beads by the hundreds and thousands. And always making new costumes the next year. Men do this as well as women. Everyone participates.
New Orleans' official acceptance of group celebration is unusual. But the impulse can't be fully extinguished. Constrain it with laws and social customs, and it'll bubble up in unexpected places. In her book No Logo, Naomi Klein describes the activist group Reclaim the Streets and how they spontaneously take over public spaces, like intersections, and turn them into dance parties. A deliberate car accident and staged fight between the drivers will bring traffic to a halt, a surreptitiously parked van equipped with concert caliber sound equipment starts blasting, and then:
"…seemingly out of nowhere comes the traveling carnival of RTSers: bikers, stilt walkers, ravers, drummers. At previous parties, jungle gyms have been set up in the middle of intersections, as well as giant sandboxes, swing sets, wading pools, couches, throw rugs and volleyball nets. Hundreds of Frisbees sailed through the air, free food is circulated and the dancing begins - on cars, at bus stops, on roofs and near signposts. Organizers describe their road-napping as anything from the realization of 'a collective daydream' to 'a large-scale coincidence.'"
If these events are a collective daydream, they're rooted in our deep shared memory of what brought us out of the mud in the first place. That memory continues to echo. Carnivale in Brazil. The Massai jumping dances. Oktoberfest. Rave culture thrives in the shadows, resilient as a cockroach. And when young Westerners backpack overseas, you'll see them dancing under the full moon in Thailand, Bali and Goa. There's Burning Man. Touring music festivals like Lollapalooza and Lilith Fair have given way to destination music festivals: Bonnaroo, Coachella, the Pitchfork Festival, where attendees might road trip for days to get there, and then bask in a three or four day haven of music, dancing, booze and still officially illegal but completely tolerated drug use. And how about all of those flash mobs - in public squares, train stations, stores and the dance floors of weddings.
As I said before, I'm a strong believer in individualism. I like my privacy. I do a great deal of work on my own. The bulk of my career is in writing and performing solo shows. And I'm not up on stage yearning for company. But the great American fairy tale of the transcendent individual, as Treme and The Wire co-creator David Simon recently put it, is not to be trusted. No one stands alone, no matter how much it might look like it, or how heroic it might seem to do so. We're social creatures. We all stand on the shoulders of everyone who came before us, and we rely on many other people do what we do. As Kurt Vonnegut said, "We are here to help each other through this thing, whatever it is."
It greatly benefits those who sell us things to keep us docile, ignorant, greedy and antagonistic to each other, scrambling for our piece of the pie and to hell with everybody else. It also benefits them to channel our natural impulses for community and collective celebration into socially and economically acceptable channels. Large and even medium scale concerts are damned expensive these days. So are sporting events. And we're expected to leave the real participating to the experts, as we remain seated and praise them.
To hell with that. Run and kick a ball in the park. Go see indie artists at smaller venues. Create your own dance party. Tell your local government reps you'd like to have some of your city's major streets blocked off for a few days a year so you and your friends can walk, eat, talk, wander and dance in the middle of them.
It's empowering to participate. It plugs us into what we have in common with each other. It can bring about world peace. It can even put us in touch with God. Ehrenreich includes a quote from probably the most cerebral writer I can think of, the one I have the most trouble picturing cutting a rug with a few thousand or million of his fellows - Aldous Huxley: "Ritual dances provide a religious experience that seems more satisfying and convincing than any other… It is with their muscles that humans most easily obtain knowledge of the divine."