Archive for July, 2009
Last month I wrote about Sophie Scholl’s moral courage, as portrayed in the film “The Final Days of Sophie Scholl.” She was part of the White Rose movement of students who tried to oppose Hitler and the Nazis in Germany during the war. She and her brother were executed.
Another film I recently watched is Downfall, the story of Traudl Junge, Hitler’s secretary, as she experiences the final days of the Third Reich. The film is superb, and worth watching for anyone who wants to understand how easy it was for a country to fall for the lies the Nazis spread. At the end of the film Junge is quoted as always having felt she had done no evil — she didn’t know of the holocaust, and truly thought she was working for her country, which was in crisis and at war. Then one day she saw a monument to Sophie Scholl, and realized they had been the same age. Sophie, a student far from the inner circle saw clearly what Traudl did not let herself see. See said she realized then that she could have learned more; she simply took the path of least resistance.
The film itself is powerful. You see people who know its over, but can’t let go of their belief in their cause and its rightousness. Some, like Goebbels and his wife, simply can’t imagine a world without National Socialism. They commit suicide, and kill their eight children with poison. Others try to help people and think about what will come after the war, while many soldiers simply face the inevitable with a grim determination. They must do their duty, even if it seems meaningless.
The film does not portray Hitler or those around him as evil. Flawed, but relatively normal. This has caused some to criticize the film for ‘humanizing’ Hitler. One can be rather sympathetic to him and many of the Nazis, seeing the final days from their perspective. Their country is being defeated and occupied, and by now most Germans simply equate support for Hitler as protecting their country from its enemies.
Seeing these films together (I’m not sure which is best to watch first) gives a powerful message. It is not only not wrong to “humanize” Hitler, but necessary. He was human. He had his good traits and bad traits, but was not some kind of personification of pure evil or a demonic presence. He also had been relatively effective until the war. His policies were not that different than those of Roosevelt, though he pursued them with more vigor (in part because the Supreme Court stymied Roosevelt). To Germans, he got them out of the depression, put aside the hated Versailles Treaty and until 1939 did it all peacefully. The war, they often believed, was pushed upon them by the allies, jealous of German success.
Once the war started opposition to the leader became akin to attacks on the very soul of the country. Remember how Americans responded to the Dixie Chicks when they insulted President Bush, and how Attorney General Ashcroft warned that people should “watch what they say.” When the country is in danger, people often rally around the leader, even if they disagree with his or her policies. First and foremost is to protect the country from enemies and oppression. Propaganda was fierce and more effective than now — in part because Germany had a tradition of authoritarianism and public obedience.
Moreover, the “narrative” that defines the situation — the war, the leader, National Socialism, duty and morality — becomes learned as common sensical and normal. One doesn’t question it, it’s obviously true based on how people act and what the papers say. For instance, fifty years from now one might look at our system of democratic capitalism and say it was one of the greatest evils inflicted on human kind. If the worst of the global warming predictions come true, and given how one fifth the planet lived in the lap of luxury while the rest struggled with famine and poverty, people might ask “how could they honestly believe in non-stop growth and rationalize their wealth when others starved.” We might be seen by a future narrative as representing evil, a society which destroyed the planet out of greed — greed for meaningless drivel pumped out from third world sweat shops.
Of course, if global warming isn’t what people predict, and if global wealth spreads, a very different future perspective on our era could be written. The fact is that whatever the case, we are so caught up in the shared understandings and norms of our culture that we often lose sight of the need to be critical of it. Sophie and Hans Scholl had that capacity, Traudl Junge did not. Most did not. Most, in fact, learn to despise those who question the existing discourse, especially if the discourse is “hegemonic,” dominating at all levels of society.
And that is why de-humanizing Hitler is extremely dangerous. People like Hitler are threats because they appear normal, brilliant, moral and courageous at the time. People won’t recognize the capacity for evil in their state or from their leaders if they compare them to a mythologized monstrous de-humanized caricature of the most successful German politician in the first half of the 20th century. Bluntly, many Nazis were nice people who appeared to have strong moral character. Yet their beliefs and choices, seen by them as rational or necessary, led to some of the worst atrocities of history. Once they were writing the narrative, their actions seemed to make sense.
Another movie, Europa Europa tells the true story of a boy Solomon, a Jew, who in the chaos of war ends up adopted by a German family and becomes a member of the Hitler youth. He knows how the Jews are being treated, knows the propaganda against them, and knows he is one. Yet he identifies with the Nazis, cries when Stalingrad is lost, and admits that the impact of that experience remains with him today. He says sometimes when he hears of new US aid to Israel he’ll think to himself, “we Nazis were right, the Jews control the power.” This, decades after that experience.
So neither Hitler, nor the next of history’s villians, is an un-human monstrocity. He and they were and will be seen as normal, often admirable. They seduce populations into believing lies, and seeing the indefensible as natural. De-humanizing Hitler makes it easier for future Hitlers to succeed. Humanizing Hitler forces us to realize that we’re not in some kind of good vs. evil caricature where it’s clear who the good guys are. Especially as we deal with economic crisis and dangers such as terrorism or perhaps future oil shortages, we have to be very careful not to get sucked into something that seems good, but contains evil — assuming, of course, that we haven’t already been sucked in.
Note: I am a political scientist, not a psychologist. This delve into psychology is a bit dangerous, but my first two posts in this series has pushed me here, and I promised a third so I’ll give it a go. I may be way off base — I often write sounding more sure of myself than I am.
Up until now I’ve argued that: a) identity is not simply the individual Cartesian ego, but a complex mix of internal subconscious drives/instincts, rational thought, and external factors such as how society and culture create much of who each of us becomes. Moreover, by focusing on the “rational ego” as the center point of identity, people become blind to how much they (their desires, perspectives, beliefs, etc.) are either emotionally based from the subconscious, or are formed by the society around them. People get the illusion the who they are is summed up by the discrete individual “self” that they see in the mirror.
The hard part about answering “Who am I?” is to become conscious of as much of those subconscious drives as possible (especially as they show themselves in strong emotions, desires, fears, etc.), and recognize the social nature of ones’ essence. Margaret Thatcher infamously said there is no society, only individuals and families. I’d turn that on its head, there are no pure individuals, society permeates each of us.
I believe the “self” or “ego” often fights against efforts at true introspection — and the more insecure one is about oneself, the harder it fights! It is threatening. “I know who I am, damn it,” it says, “I know what I want and I figure out how to get it.” Sure, there may be a subconscious, they admit. When I see a beautiful woman at the beach there may be some part of me that feels like “I want to be with her,” but I, the self/ego, have the power to say “no, that would be wrong.”
But wait. Why would the self/ego exercise such power? Why would one not want to go make a pass at a beautiful stranger? Is it just the potential consequences — I’d love to sleep with her, but if my wife found out it would mess up my life? Probably not. Smart people, like, oh, Governors of states like New York and South Carolina, both of whom had Presidential aspirations, severely damaged their political careers because they didn’t think about the consequences of their choices. I suspect faithful spouses are also driven by something other than fear of retribution.
Who one is includes the power and will of the self/ego to resist temptation, or better, to decide which temptations to succumb to, and which to resist. This is closely tied to identity. Being Muslim or Jewish involves particular rules, observances, fasts, and the like. The more one resists the temptation to break these rules, likely the stronger one identifies with that religious community. A western Muslim who drinks, half heartedly celebrates Ramadan, and doesn’t pay the full Zakat probably feels less defined by being Muslim than a devout Muslim that abides by the rules.
Last time I said that reflection, imagination, and perhaps edification — the arts, philosophy, etc. — might help move beyond simply categorizing identity as a mix of internal and external factors. One can use the imagination first to probe the social construction of one’s own identity — religion, class, ethnicity. How much is one shaped by these (even if one doesn’t overtly identify with them)? Imagine yourself in a different socio-economic class, as having grown up as a member of a different faith or ethnic group. What would be constant, what would change?
Two examples: Upwardly mobile Americans usually identify with capitalism and markets. Before it fell, the upwardly mobile in the Soviet Union identified with communism — the party was the place for someone ambitious and career conscious. Dissidents were often from the arts. Business leaders in the US might have been Communist party leaders if they had been born there. Devout Christians might, if they had been born in Cairo, have instead become devout Muslims. Using the imagination like this can help one get beneath the labels and think about how the “self” would be identified in vastly different contexts.
Next, we should honestly think about our own desires and drives. Is one driven to try to succeed, better oneself, compare oneself to others, look for sexual gratification, eat, compete, help others, care for others, or lose oneself in nature? How many of these drives does one consciously work to overcome. Which ones do you think you should overcome but do not (and why do you think you should, and why don’t you)? In other words, to find an identity you have to probe those parts of the self outside the “Cartesian ego,” and explore ones own thoughts, feelings, drives and social programming as if one is exploring a different country.
If one is honest — self-critically honest, and resists the ego’s rationalizations about why something isn’t important, or why being in a different class or ethnic group wouldn’t make a difference (the ego-self would like to think that it would be the same anywhere, just navigating different circumstances — it doesn’t want to lose the central focus of identity), then I think a lot of self-growth is possible.
After honest, self-critical introspection, I suspect most people fall between two extremes. First, one might find that he or she truly loves and likes his or herself. Not a narcisstic love (I think that’s probably more the ego trying to love its rational Cartesian center while denying the true self), but true understanding of ones’ own strengths and weaknesses, and a sense of satisfaction about who one is, and how one is handling the stresses of living in the world. Others, however, might be troubled by what they have found, and want to resist thinking about this, believing that beneath the image given to the world is a bad person, shameful of the drives he or she harbors within, mired in guilt over when those drives got the better of the person, and feel remorse over how ones’ life in the world is going — with a pessimism about anything changing.
To the latter, the next step again involves the imagination. If there is guilt or remorse, then there must be a sense of something one could do better. What kind of life would make one happy — what desires and drives need fulfillment, what principles should guide ones’ life? Here the rational ego might say “it doesn’t matter, nothing matters, you just go for what you want.” That’s the rational side giving into skepticism — skepticism as a kind of defense against guilt. In Freudian terms it’s given up trying to balance the id and superego, and instead passively watches their battles with a sense of helplessness.
Here it is time for the ego-self to use its imagination and newfound knowledge of these forces he or she has felt helpless against, and construct an image of the person he or she would like to be. Focus not on external things (i.e., successful business woman), but qualities and traits. Honest, dependable, fun loving, etc. Imaginately figure out an identity matching these traits, and claim it as your own. Re-assert control at the most basic level — who am I?
For those happy with themselves, the same thing applies. Imaginatively think through why one feels good about their personal exploration, and then think up an identity to claim. To me, the identity can be less a label or set of words (e.g, spiritual teacher or crusader against injustice) then a feeling of what makes the self feel balanced. The imagination can delve into ideas that have no clear verbal equivalent. The answer to “Who am I” may be a smile and a sense of a balanced self. It should evoke the traits and ideals that had been explored.
For instance, my name could take on the meaning of my thoughts about myself in the areas discussed in this series of posts. I could also find a short hand label that would evoke those thoughts ands emotions. “Devoted mother” might mean a lot more than the words alone signify, it may entail personal senses of what devotion means, what motherhood means, and those connections with different parts of the self.
If you read this far, thanks! Again, my knowledge of psychology is meager, and I’m literally using this blog to speculate and think through things that are on my mind.
The work goes on as we build our clearing in the back woods (with play house for the kids, a fire pit, and some benches), and install our drainage system, which has expanded to reshaping our whole lawn with massive amounts of sand and soil. So my blogging has been more sparse, made worse by the fact I pushed my shovel against my hand all day doing something to my nerves. My hand has been numb and tingly the last couple days, with some bits of intense pain. It makes it difficult to type. Yet I’ve also been reading and thinking about my research project, particularly a book Adorno’s Positive Dialectic by Yvonne Sherratt.
Adorno’s critique of the enlightenment is one I find both convincing and similar to general tone to my thinking in recent years. I appreciate that Sherratt’s book is as easy to understand and follow as Adorno’s writing is difficult. Since my research will focus on political science (probably looking at the twin failings of the US in recent years – overuse of military power and decades of economically unsustainable policy), I have neither the time nor the desire to wade deep into Adorno’s whole philosophical system. Moreover, Adorno came from the generation where academia was a place for the elite, all of whom would share a vast knowledge of the classics and main themes of western history. My generation is fragmented into disciplines that are often so cut off from things outside their subject matter that the metaphor of not being able to see the forest for the trees is especially accurate.
I really think it’s time to take a step back, intellectually, and see our current condition in the context of a 2500 year history of western thought and culture. Adorno is known as one of those who throw cold water into the face of Enlightenment optimism, a Jewish-German philosopher who had flee Nazism. He and Max Horkheimer argued in Dialectic of Enlightenment that enlightenment thinking was in part the cause of the rise of Nazism. I believe it also can be seen as a cause of the growth of militarism in US foreign policy, and thirty years of utterly unsustainable economic and ecological practices.
Yet Adorno is not the first to grapple with this sort of problem. Plato and Socrates responded to the Sophists who had taken Greek Enlightenment thought to an extreme, where at least some Sophists argued that reason can used to support whatever subjective desires a person might have. Plato turned to idealism and the notion of the “Forms” to try to argue for a transcendent truth. The Fidiests such as Bayle and Pascal, at the dawn of the Age of Reason in the 17th Century, recognized that reason and rational thought could only be used as a means, but would not provide ends (e.g., you can’t use reason to figure out morality or true meaning in life). They thought the solution was faith in God, and rejection of reason for anything but daily problem solving.
It is a true dialectic, reason and rational thought distrusts sentiment and emotion. Thus it stands opposed to movements such as 19th century romanticism (which also responded to the ‘coldness’ of objective, rational thought), and rejects tradition and religion. It has been part of western thought since the Greeks. As I work through these books, think of my research project, and contemplate this ‘world in motion,’ the cultural, political and social turmoil of the early 21st century, I think the problem is clear: can we find away to balance the need for meaning that comes from the heart, and the need for understanding that comes from the head?
Can this be done without sacrificing the ideals of rational enlightenment thought, and avoiding simple appeals to tradition or organizezd religion? How does this connect with our current problems as a country and even a civilization? Those thoughts are on my mind as the summer moves on…
This will be a short entry as I’ve just finished my summer course on consumerism, and will continue to work on the drainage project at the house. This project was supposed to be a two day effort starting on Monday. We ordered 60 cubic yards of sand and 36 cubic yards of small stones. We got 500 feet of pipe (perforated) and fabric. It seemed like a straight forward project. Rent a digger for the day and dig the trench (as well as pull out some stumps from the land we cleared out back). Then on day two lay the pipe, cover it, and the job will be done (renting a different truck to haul and sand and rocks back and forth).
But as we got into it we found first of all that the job took more time than anticipated. Since I’m teaching I can only work in the morning, or after I bring the kids home at about 5:00. My wife works too, so her brother and his son do most of the work (and her brother designed the project). Then there were other things that needed to be done, the job expanded so that most of our yard is being covered with sand (meaning we’ll have to get soil to put on top and reseed). We missed a dinner with friends we’d planned for Tuesday, we had to pay a babysitter to watch the kids so we could all work without interruption.
I pick up the boys in about twenty minutes. Then they’ll play in their sandbox as we continue to work. There is a heavy drenching rain in the forecast, which means we need to get this done tonight.
So what does this have to do with health care? Though I believe we need major health care reform and hope Congress passes something soon, it’s a cautionary tale. A project appears tractible at first. For us, two days, and a certain amount of money (I’m not being secretive — I just haven’t calculated the amount). Everyone involved has done things relating to every aspect of this project before, but none of us have actually done the work of building a drainage system around a house.
We get into it, and problems arise, the job expands, some things are harder than expected, and the costs rise. Not only in time, but more on truck rental fees, more sand, more rocks, babysitter fees, etc. Health care reform will be very difficult, it won’t be a panacea where suddenly things will get better and costs will go down. The Republicans warning about hidden costs and unknown side effects should be taken seriously, those things are legitimate and real concerns.
Yet, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. Though our basement has stayed dry, our house in the woods not far from a little river has had water problems in the yard since we bought it. It’s been not only an inconvenience, but sometimes water from the leach field of the spectic system got pushed up to the surface with normal water drainage. When this is done, we should have a dry yard that will be safe and can be shaped to our design. This plus the clearing we made in the woods (whose cost and work also have been expanding — though put on hold for “drainage week”) will make our home a fundamentally better place to live.
And I’m convinced that getting the health care system in order will ultimately make our country a better place, especially as our population ages and retires. I don’t pretend to know how best to do it, or if the House bill is the best idea — though the AMA is supporting it as are many health care professionals, people who were against it before, so that’s a good sign.
But be expected to have things change along the way, with a need to improvise, spend more money and address unexpected complications. That’s a reality in almost every worthwhile task, from drainage systems to health care systems!
I’ve been busy — teaching a three hour a day class, and working on projects at home (yesterday it was the drainage system around the house and pulling stumps) is time consuming. Yet it isn’t stressful or exhausting. I think that’s because at a fundamental level, the work I’m doing is real.
This morning I reflected on the nature of work, particularly my experience of work, as I was carrying stumps pulled from the ground to a pile of stacked up branches, plants, and raked sticks we burnt. Between digging in a muddy trench (we have an excavator, but have to dig to assure the right incline, and where power lines are), I ended up covered in dirt head to toe, strained my left upper arm muscle (rejecting help carrying a stump that in reality was a tad too heavy for me alone), and had sweat out what must have been gallons of water.
Yet I did not feel like I had been doing anything unpleasant. I was physically tired, but not in a “thank god this horror is over” way, but “OK, we got a lot done, time to shower and get to class.”
Last night I was up until 1:00 preparing for the class. I re-read the assigned reading, thought about various topics and how to discuss them, then did some work to look up side theories and evidence that might be useful. When I went to bed I did not think “thank god that’s over.” I found the work to be interesting and enjoyable, especially reading the daily student papers. I was playing with ideas in my mind from the readings as I drifted off.
When I prepared dinner, put the kids to bed (an an hour and a half routine involving a bath, then laying with each one for awhile — not endorsed by Super Nanny, but it’s a chance to lay down and rest!), I realized that I don’t mind that work either. It’s part of being in a family, it has meaning to me.
One topic of the reading lately has been labor. Marx’s theory of alienation was a theme, and for yesterday we read about Fordism and post-Fordism (assembly line manufacturing, replaced by service sector employment). I can’t imagine what it would be like to spend all of life working on an assembly line. I did that for a summer at a kitchen cabinet factory, and it was the knowledge that “I’m getting my degree to get away from this” helped spur me to get through that summer!
I have come to appreciate that I am one of the lucky ones who have real work. By that, I mean work that I enjoy doing for its sake, and have as much control as possible on how I do it — I can be creative and innovative, and change my routine. This morning with the outdoor work I set my own pace, could leave for a few minutes if I wanted to, rest when I felt I needed it, and had no stress or pressure to do anything at a particular pace. It was great to be outdoors on a sunny day, and I really appreciated the beauty of our woods. I felt like I was part of a meaningful project — a marriage of materialism with a sense of spirit from nature and family.
At night I was reading for class, on consumerism and the economy — topics of interest to me, knowing my job would be to work with students to delve into these concepts. With a group like the ones I have this summer, that’s fun.
To be sure, my paying job isn’t completely free. There are specific time frames when class must be held, certain standards for grading and course content. There are academic policies, and sometimes meetings I’d rather not attend about minutiae like how the academic departments are organized (evoking a reaction where the level of emotion is inversely related to the importance of the issue). But I can choose my books, my methods of teaching, my way of grading students, my standards for class room conduct, and I can try new things. I can be creative and spontaneous, there is no stress.
Most people cannot do that. Demands from the boss, the competition with others, or just the stress of a work day where people have to multitask and deal with a variety of little stresses pile up. Real work is not a particular kind of work, but an orientation to work. As such, real work is not contained within the work alone; it includes both the nature of the work and the orientation of the worker to the task. A contractor who works on remodeling homes and can use his or her skill and creative juice is doing real work if it hasn’t become a boring routine or stressful because of so many clients or demands. A job like landscape architect certainly has a greater likelihood of offering a platform for real work than work on the assembly line, but it still requires the right orientation from the person doing the work.
I know of college professors who find their job too demanding and feel stresses and anxieties that I do not. And, of course, if I had been complaining about the work this morning, I might have experienced it differently. Misquitoes were biting, my body aching; if I felt I was there by compulsion to do a project I really didn’t want to help with, then it would have been less real.
It seems to me that a task for people to undertake is to think about how they can make their own work (at home or office) more “real.” Are there ways to take control, to change attitude, to find releases for creative and interesting activities? And if not — if things are so structured and constrained that the alienation is insurmountable — to look for an escape. At home it’s more likely that people hold themselves back by their attitude towards their work “I wish I didn’t have to do this for the kids, for my wife, or because guests are coming.” At times it could be an over demanding spouse or family. For the former, try to make it real with the right attitude. If it’s the latter, then it’s time for a family meeting.
Still, we’re in a culture where alienation in the work place is a mark of efficiency, and in many jobs finding meaning can be elusive. Modern practices of controlling employee behavior can be dehumanizing and cause intense stress and alienation. Personally, we need to claim our own sense of meaning in our work; politically, I think we spend too much time thinking about the material aspects of work (wages and benefits) and not enough on whether or not we’ve got a work culture that encourages authenticity — real work.
In general, the more hierarchical and exploiting the work place, the greater the chance of alienation, with work as unreal, disconnected from anything meaningful to the self. You might be bribed to accept it thanks to a high paycheck, but if work is meaningless, the risk of alienated boredom increases.
(Note: this is a continuation of the post “Who Am I” published on July 15)
If we can make the psychological break from the conventional wisdom of the modern mind to recognize that identity is not purely indiviual, or simply a product of social processes within which the self is completely constituted by cultural discourse, what is identity? Who am I?
The logical starting point to answer that would look back to the Greeks, particularly Aristotle’s support of the ‘golden mean,’ efforts to balance apparent dichotomies or dualism in thought. Dualisms are always represent only a glance or slice of a reality that is multi-dimensional anyway. So should we start with a balance — we are individuals within a social context? That context constitutes us in part (genetically, culturally, perhaps karmically) and within those circumstances we have the possibility to act, and to choose?
Yet that really doesn’t get us to identity. It maintains the separation of the social and the self; the social sets circumstances, the self navigates the realm of possibilities, constraints and opportunities the world presents. That maintains the Cartesian ego, mapping out the ‘rules of the road’ in how an individual constructs their life and life worlds. The self still is located in what begins as an alien land, a world that is strange and unknown, which one learns about as one experiences life.
It appears that the language of the enlightenment leaves us there. And, even that has no fundamental foundation. Post-modernists, the true masters of enlightenment thought and the use of reason, can use reason and logic to deconstruct any identity or any “road maps” we might create. We can debate and make strong arguments one way or the other, but ultimately it’s just perspective and persuasion. And while enlightenment thought sees persuasion as ideally based on logic and consideration of the evidence (e.g., you may not prove your position, but your argument and evidence is powerful so I’ll believe it), humans tend to go from emotion and use reason to rationalize what they want to believe.
So let’s approach this differently. What if we leave the limitations of enlightenment thought, and think about identity from a wholly different starting point. Identity is, fundamentally, about meaning. What does my life, my personality, my choices, my conditions, my very essence mean to me? “Who am I” can be restated as “What do I mean to myself?”
That’s a loaded question, and the way people answer it will say much about themselves. Are people hyper critical, do they feel unqualified to master life in the way they believe others around them do, do they feel love for the self, or do they deep down loathe the meaning their life holds for them? One answer that is unacceptable is to say there is no meaning. One might think life has no meaning, but there is always some kind of sense of what one’s own identity means to any person.
As one considers the answers — be they from confident optimists or repressed narcissists — I suspect one thing becomes clear: meaning is relational, involving either external world conditions, other people, or ones position within a culture. Even individual traits one ascribes to oneself are based on comparisons with others — I am lazy, happy, hard working, or depressed.
But here I’m only concerned with identity. Once one has a list or a set of ideas about what one’s very essence means to oneself, what next? Here the rationalist might look for a formula or set of rules to whittle this down into a clear identity — like a face book quiz, answer the questions and then somehow you’ll be given an answer: You are an adventurous free spirit!
No, the next step is imagination and self-reflection. This involves sentiment. How does the meaning you apply to your “self” — your essence, choices, and existence as a being in the world — make you feel? And then explore why you feel that way. If one’s identity is tied up in what one owns, does that bring feelings of satisfaction with what one’s life means? And further, is there a difference between those parts of your life you’ve actively sought to construct, and those parts where you passively followed desires that seemed to come from the outside? And if, as I suspect, nothing falls completely within each camp (there are no internal desires or identity construction without external connections), are there differences in the nature of the relationship between the internal and external variables of the self?
Imagination is the way to assess and give some kind of coherent narrative to what ones’ identity then is. For instance, ones’ introspection might yield a sense that who I am and what my life means as very much driven by trends and fads of the day, or manipulation from advertisers. One might find that identity connects to the use of a Mac over a PC, a type of jeans, perfume, beer, or car. Or it might be friends, religion, a sense of self-mastery, or joy at living each moment. What emotions does thinking about these connections arouse?
Then, with the imagination, one can explore the connections between the internal self and these external cultural aspects of the self. Feel the connection, don’t divide things into external and internal. In other words, wtih imagination we can let go of the enlightenment logic that inevitably brings us to a materialist ontology and a sense of meaning that becomes purely subjective and arbitrary. What do these connections mean? Are they spiritual? For religious folk, the spiritual might be very easy to connect with; for others it might seem like childish fantasy.
I’ve found that if I give up the fear that I may be engaged in childish fantasy, and instead have the confidence in myself to follow my imagination, meaning in life takes a new tone. Rather than it being attributal (I’m strong, weak, beautiful or handicapped), based on possession (poor, rich, a Mac user, a Nissan enthusiast, etc.), or even based on relationships/roles (mother, father, friend, environmentalist, crusader for human rights), something transcends all of that, and makes meaning and identity at least more clear to me. The connections themselves have a “feel” to them. If they are authentic, that feel is one of commonality, a kind of unity despite difference, a strong affinity. Other connections that may seem important end up evoking more indifference than expected, or perhaps even a kind of disgust or dismay.
With the imagination, perhaps augmented by literature, art, music and things which edify, we can get a clearer picture than pure rationalism will allow. Some call it spiritual, transcendent, sentimental, or religious. It is distrusted by our enlightenment modern minds because it seems frivolous fantasy. Yet the imagination is a powerful realm because it defies proof or disproof; we let it speak with the heart, hoping that the head will pay the heart respect. The strength, meaning and feel that those connections is what I would call love — love in a true, spiritual sense. It isn’t different from the love one senses in human relationships, but it is the source of our ability to love (both others and self). And if life lacks this sense of love, it will lack meaning. If our self-identity lacks meaningful connections (love) we will be more likely to flail around looking for some kind of sensation or cause to try to fill that gap.
Yet while process of identity construction may bring us closer, we still haven’t directly addressed the question of identity, and reconnected this whole issue to the topic of consumerism. I haven’t answered the question “Who am I?” Claiming identity will be part three of this series of posts.
“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.”
It has been called a speech that should have changed history. Thirty years ago President Jimmy Carter gave what at the time seemed a successful speech. He noted that the problems the country was facing — an energy crisis, an economic recession, and a question of confidence after a failed foreign policy venture in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal that brought down President Nixon — required a national renewal of purpose. The speech was inspirational, but later pilloried for as the “malaise” speech, contrasting Carter’s supposed pessimism with Ronald Reagan’s optimism.
Carter had the fate of any prophet of doom — he was quickly pushed aside by the optimists who said nothing is wrong, we can keep moving onward and upward! And within years, as oil prices dropped (ending the concern about dependence on foreign oil — at least for awhile) and the economy rebounded (albeit through increased debt and foreign goods from abroad), Carter’s warning was forgotten. President Reagan took the solar panels off the White House and dismissed Carter’s call for a national renewal, including Carter’s claim that we had become overly materialistic and risked severe consequences if we didn’t change our ways.
Carter was prophetic. Even though he wasn’t able to follow through and bring the change needed, in part due to actions of his administration, in part because of the nature of American capitalism, his speech rings true today.
In that speech, Carter offered a course of action the country should now reconsider:
First of all, we must face the truth, and then we can change our course. We simply must have faith in each other, faith in our ability to govern ourselves, and faith in the future of this Nation. Restoring that faith and that confidence to America is now the most important task we face. It is a true challenge of this generation of Americans.
We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.
All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our Nation and ourselves. We can take the first steps down that path as we begin to solve our energy problem.
(Read the whole speech)
Carter left office in 1981 with very low approval ratings. The country had fallen into recession after the oil spike in 1979, Americans had been held as hostages in Iran at the US embassy for over 400 days, as our former ally had become a foe with the overthrow of the Shah.
1979 stands as a pivotal year, with the Iranian revolution in January, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December. The decline in the ability of the US to use military power to shape events had been shown in Vietnam, and it appeared that the hegemony of the post-war era was over, America was in decline. Carter offered a way out. He called for a massive effort to develop alternative sources of energy and move towards energy independence. He called for a “rebirth” of the national spirit. Instead, the country embraced the superficial but seductive optimism of Ronald Reagan.
The journalist Walter Lippmann once talked about what came to be known as the “Lippmann gap,” the gap between national commitments and the ability to follow through on them. Carter was essentially saying that we were suffering from that kind of gap, and would have to pull together and work as a community to set things right. Ronald Reagan effectively dismissed the idea of there being a gap, and we embraced the “you can have it all” mentality.
In 1979 our total debt was 30% of GDP, about $640 billion. Our budget deficit that year was $28 billion. Now we have total debt of $12 trillion, and a deficit of over a trillion dollars. In 1979 we had the capacity to change course, we were in relatively good economic shape fundamentally, but needed to react to growing economic imbalances caused by a new trend of increased global interdependence — what would later be called globalization. Oil prices fell dramatically in the early eighties, and that gave us the chance to balance economic health with a concerted effort to keep our economy productive (e.g., save the steel industry, invest in infrastructure) and achieve energy independence. It would not have been easy, we’d have had to deal with some lean years in terms of economic growth and spending, but we’d arguably have been able to create a sustainable and environmentally friendly long term economic future.
Instead, we partied! Run up the debt! Consume, consume, consume! Bigger cars, more stuff, and stay close to the Saudi royal family so they supply the cheap oil. Yup, those were a fun thirty years. We enjoyed a bubble economy where it seemed easy to get rich, stock market increases promised everyone an early and wealthy retirement, and cheap credit with low (observable) inflation that made it seem like there were no dark clouds on the horizon. We therefore didn’t save for a rainy day (US saving rates reached zero in 2006), and entered a series of wars to boot (Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq again).
So here we stand, the problems of 1979 didn’t go away, we just hid them by consuming and borrowing, making wars and losing clout, responding to crisis much like the old Roman Empire did — refusing to confront the need for real change until too late. In 1979 the decline could have been turned around. President Obama claims we still can — but he has to claim that, doesn’t he? Perhaps we can, but the price will be higher, and the pain (real pain of people out of work, earning less, losing homes, not being able to pay for college, having stresses that tear apart families — not just metaphorical pain) more intense than if only we had listened 30 years ago.