Archive for July, 2009

Consumerism Power and Meaning

My summer honors course “Consumerism, Politics and Values” is turning into one of the most interesting courses I’ve taught, as the students are active, come prepared, and we engage in good discussions.   Yesterday was a wide ranging class, moving from Freud and Erikson in the world of human development, to Rousseau, Plato, Machiavelli, utiilitarianism, and Vico, etc.   Yet we came up with some ideas that are intriguing to build upon.   All of this was built around reading Benjamin Barber’s eclectic and brilliant Consumed:  How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults and Swallow Citizens Whole.

It’s long been conventionalism wisdom that the Augustinian “other-worldliness” of the so-called dark ages were a period of stability and order, based on tradition.  That’s partially true, though early on the barbarism of the post-Roman era gave way to localism and a general loss of knowledge and lack of progress.   Power, such as it was, was officially in the hands of the church, but unofficially with local feudal elites — the aristocracy.  To use Vico’s term, this new “age of the Gods” saw a European public convinced that this life was unimportant, existing only to prepare one for the afterlife.  The neo-Platonism of the Plotinus-inspired Augustine gave us the Christian trinity, a distrust of the world of appearances, and a belief that the reality that matters can be fathomed through prayer and contemplation, something the monastaries coulld offer.

Over time this gave way to what Vico would call the “age of heroes,” in which an aristocratic elite would command a stable world order, based on virtue and vision.  This era coincided with the rise of rational thought after Aquinas who, borrowing from Muslim scholars, brought Aritotilean realism into European intellectual life.  Slowly we moved to the “age of man,” as early capitalism emerged.   Early capitalism, Barber notes (citing Weber) functioned in line with the so-called protestant work ethic.   People would work hard to produce, fulfill the needs of the public, and make a profit to boot.   This era saw power start to shift dramatically from the church to the state, and from tradition to region.

Barber (and Weber), while noting the scars of early capitalism — raw exploitation, a drive to imperialism, and alienation (noted by both Rousseau and Marx) — still saw it as having a kind of virtue.   It created individual wealth, but at the same time served the public good.   Society rationalized, and great progress was made.

Next Barber traces the development of capitalism to “puerile libertarianism,” where the private is considered virtuous while the public sector contempted.   To Barber, this comes from a very negative aspect of capitalist development.   Once most needs were met, corporations still needed to expand and grow.  Thus they moved from fulfilling needs to creating artificial needs.   All  this despite the fact the vast majority of the world has real, unfulfilled needs.   Rather than find a way to align the productive power of capitalism and the human mind with solving those problems, advertisers and corporations seek instead to gain quick profit by making people believe their wants are needs — wants they wouldn’t have  if not for a very active advertising industry.

Rousseau noted such a trend back in 1750, and a century earlier Pascal decried the way humans sought distractions rather than spending time thinking about who they are and what they value.   While Barber sees capitalist development as something internal to its systemic operation, building on Weber, I think there is a more profound problem, one related to the enlightenment – hence my reference of  Vico.

Vico was concerned about class — long before Marx this devout Christian Professor of Rhetoric in Naples noted that class conflict was a driving force of social development.   For Vico’s notion of cyclic historical development, corso e ricorso, the “age of man” corresponds with the growth of rational thought — the Greek enlightenment, Roman thought in the early empire, and enlightenment Europe.  This age has promise, and for awhile a sense of optimism reigns that rational thought can give us a way to understand the world.   But ironically, this faith in reason ultimately and perhaps inevitably gives way to skepticism.  Reason is a tool, not an end, and unlike religion, provides no real sense of meaning for life.

Soon people realize that reason can be used to rationalize anything, and the intellectual elite moves from trying to improve society to looking for personal development or skeptical criticism.   This leads to decadence and consumption, something we now see in our society.   For us, this means that power no longer lies in the church, but is split by the state and big business.  The two have a common cause — to continue the growth of wealth through capitalism.   Instead of building a religion and cathedrals, the state builds nationalism as a secular religion, and big businesses create consumerism as the new social religion.   Instead of holy books proclaiming the truth, they have advertisers manipulating emotions to get people to seek truth in consumption.

Reason does not give us meaning.  Humans yearn meaning.   Once needs have been met, the next step in Maslow’s hierarch of needs is self-actualization.   Self-actualization theoretically could involve a strong sense of community and reflective ethics.    Ronald Inglehart’s theory of “post-materialist politics” seems to assume as much, believing that in an era of fulfillled material needs humans would seek to improve the quality of life and move towards issues like environmentalism and human rights over economic growth.   However, with the power of advertising and big money able to control media  and shape the culture, hyper-materialism seems to have trumped post-materialism, with people desparetely seeking meaning through consumption.   People shop when they feel down, define themselves through products and brand names, and in a manner Pascal would understand, use distraction to prevent themselves from thinking about who they are.    Barber argues that infantilization comes as advertisers recognize that the impulsive wants and desires of youth are more likely to yield uncritical consumption than the traditional virtues of maturity.

So, at base, humans seek meaning, and with religion and ideologies now discredited for much of the population, it is up to individuals to construct their own meaning.   This kind of relativism, noted Nietzsche, opens the door to nihilism and what is now called post-modernism.   More ominiously, powerful actors can use their wealth and power to make us think that meaning comes from consumption (and  a dose of nationalism).  In so doing, we privilege personal wants over collective needs, even to the extent that libertarian thought tries to do away with the notion of the public or “society,” and privilege individual wants.    The result is a spiral of unsustainable consumption that ultimately will destroy our society and the environment.

Is there a way out?   Of course.  Individuals resist this pressure all the time.  But most do not, and even those of us who see these processes give in ourselves to the desire to consume, so over-arching are the messages.   The strength to resist the cultural ethos of infantilized consumption (“I want my hummer, damn the environment, who cares about global warming”) is hard to summon, especially when advertisers, politicians and entertainment all push one towards thoughtless consumption.

Ironically, the libertarian desire to privatize everything and attack government and the public sector while ignoring the awesome power of big money and the so-called private sector works against the kind of true liberty they claim to want.   In this, traditional conservatives and people on the left can find common cause.   While the left may not embrace religion, both conservatives and left-liberals can agree that the ethos of selfish greed and rejection of the public good for private gain is bad for society.  Both can agree that hyper consumption degrades culture and, to use Barber’s words, corrupts children.   Both can seek out more traditional virtues of honesty, hard work, living within our means, and recognizing that individual wants do not always correspond to what’s best for society.   And, of course, both can condemn the puerile libertarian effort to deny the very existence of society.

Whether or not Vico’s theory of history in cycles makes sense in describing western civilization, we do seem to be on the verge of either starting a period of intense decline, with hyperconsumption causing problems in the environment, resource and energy supplies, and our ability to sustain a world class economy.   We may be at yet another peak, ready to start a new cycle.

Or, perhaps, the economic crisis will bring out the best in us, cause us to start saving, rediscovering lost virtues, embracing community, and rejecting the effort to gain meaning through consumption.   The key will be whether or not we can forge a sense of meaning that isn’t tied to consumption or mere adherence to tradition and faith.  The former is destructive, the latter cannot co-exist with modern reason, at least not in its current, exclusivist form.

And that will be a subject on going in the class — what does life mean, how do we find meaning, and how can one resist the manipulations by those with power who use emotion to try to convince us that they can provide meaning, either by voting for them or buying their product.   This class will, I believe, continue to be very interesting!


Palin a Shooting Star

Sarah Palin’s surreal resignation has sparked considerable debate and speculation.    Is she preparing for another scandal, perhaps one involving her house in Wasilla?   Rumors have been flying around the internet about a possible state or federal investigation.    Palin only made it worse by threatening to sue major media outlets and bloggers who mention that speculation.    I don’t think she realizes that the media relishes the chance to stand up to such a threat, especially when it is as impotent as that one, and serves only to make her look silly.

Perhaps a scandal is afoot, perhaps she was too thin skinned to simply accept that she’d get some negative media and couldn’t take the heat, perhaps she had some wild fantasy that this could launch a national campaign, but the fact of the matter is Sarah Palin’s chance for the political limelight is over.   She’s committed the crime of hypocrisy (quitting after earlier condemning quitters), poor planning (an impulsive resignation combined with a rambly, even pathetic speech), no follow through (she disappeared on July 4th — though at least she made no claim to be hiking the Appalachian trail), and pouting.   She whined about negative media, played the victim, and seemed to think that the only legitimate coverage of her was that from the fawning activist right wing (by that I do not mean Republicans and average conservatives, most of whom were not wowed by her at all — instead I mean the Limbaugh ‘all Liberals are evil’ minority who have tried to hijack the GOP) who ignored her short comings.  Some say that the neo-cons were trying to groom her to be a pro-Israel  hawk that they could control, others think she was simply in over her head.  I believe she is just a shooting star who is starting to fade.

Most will read the 300 words of this post until this point to be very negative, and even mean.   Yet look at what was written about Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and other big name politicians by those who opposed them.  Clinton was a draft dodging traitor who sold out to Red China, Obama a radical socialist Muslim who wasn’t really born in Hawaii, W. Bush a boozing frat boy who can’t think straight and is driven by some kind of belief in his holy mission, Hillary a lesbian power hungry unethical she-wolf who devours opponents whole and had a close associate killed in 1993…well, you get the picture.   Anyone who is anything in politics gets a huge dose of unfair criticism, often over the top.

The criticism of Palin is minor compared to the examples listed above, yet it stung more, in part because it seemed  to fit.    Palin did not seem ready for the big leagues, and the fact that John McCain chose her in his first “Presidential” decision is a big reason why he had no real shot at winning the election.  It’s not that Palin is uniquely bad or inept as a person;  rather, she is bad and inept at being a national politician ready to take control of the country.

So am I.   If I were suddenly in the limelight, scrutinized by the media and having everything I do and have done under investigation, I’d be a failure.  I’d commit gaffes, have to defend outlandish things I’ve said from time to time, and would not be careful about what I said or when I said it.   It takes a special kind of person who can handle the pressure of being on the national stage and being effective.  Obama has what it takes.   Even Bush the Younger, despite failings as a President, could handle that national stage.   Sarah Palin, like me and probably 98% of the rest of the country, just doesn’t have what it takes.

It’s as if a football fan were suddenly to don a jersey and be given the handoff in a pro game, with the defense thinking they’re going after a top notch running back.  Without the proper training and preparation not only would the fan be tackled instantly, but probably would be injured badly.   Going from small town mayor to Alaskan governor simply was not enough to prepare Palin.   She was hit by a media and opposition used to going after the pros.    She couldn’t take it and with the help of a few enablers flailed back with self-pitying attacks on those who dared criticize her or her family.  It’s sexism!  East coast liberal elitism!  Media bias!   No.  It’s just the political game she happened to find herself a part of; after all, within the GOP and even the McCain campaign similar things were being said.  It wasn’t all from the Left.

Still, one can see why she caught McCain’s imagination.  At first even I thought that it was a smart pick, contradicting myself a couple days later to re-label it a dumb pick. She looked good on paper — mother raising a family, conservative yet young — a woman in the year Hillary lost to the surprising Barack Obama.  If she had the acumen to play effectively on the national stage, and the understanding of national politics to jump into a campaign, she’d have been a super star.  As it was, she was like most of us — probably smart and reasonably knowledgable, but not ready to be put in the political limelight.   She did capture the imagination of some on the right, and for awhile seemed to have the potential to make a dash at the 2012 Republican nomination, especially if other top Republicans feared going against an incumbent Obama.

Now, that lays in shambles.  It’s not just what she did, it’s how she did it, and the fact it opens questions about a possible scandal.  Even if she just wanted  to set herself up for 2012, it did the opposite.   It means she ends up with about 17 months of being a Governor atop being mayor of a small town, and leaving that town in debt with a white elephant sports complex as her major “accomplishment.”  She looks like an under-accomplished quitter, rather than an up and coming star.

Yet perhaps it’s for the best.   She may have realized she was in over her head.  Or worse, she may have believed some of the hype and still  thinks she can make a splash.  If so, she’s setting herself up for disappointment.  Assuming I’m right and she ends up fading away, a shooting start that just couldn’t handle the pressure, she’ll end up as one of the strangest side stories of what was an historical and exciting 2008 election.


American Values (reprise)

(Note: this was originally posted on July 4, 2008.   I may repost it every year, I think it sums up my feelings on Independence day).

I live now in Maine, but I grew up on the prairie, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. North of Sioux Falls about sixty or so miles is the small town of De Smet. When I was in third grade I started saving my allowance (50 cents and later on a buck a week) to buy books by Laura Ingalls Wilder (they were less than $5 a book, hardback). I was just eight when I bought my first one (On the Banks of Plum Creek) and the people at Courtney’s Books and Things would expect me every four weeks as I had saved up enough for the next book. I completed the collection in less than two years (my favorite: The Long Winter). The wonderful true stories of the Ingalls family moving from Wisconsin to Kansas, Minnesota, and finally being part of the group that founded De Smet stimulated my imagination. Laura wrote the books as children’s books to tell her story of growing up in the 1870s and 1880s as part of one of those families who were moving west, on the frontier and ultimately homesteading. I was as a kid a true Laura Ingalls Wilder fan, those books (which still sit on my shelf, I’m glancing at them now) were perhaps one of the greatest outside influences on my thinking as I grew up. Besides coloring how I look at life, they even affected music I liked at the time (Sweet Caroline by Neil Diamond, Laura by the Newbeats), and to this day my answer to the question “what historical figure would you most like to have dinner with” is Laura Ingalls Wilder. (Oh, I hated the TV show, they veered far too far from the real story).

I still re-read those books every few years. One thing I notice now, which I didn’t at the time, is how utterly dirt poor they were, especially in the early books. They were living on less than the basics. Christmas was a few bits of candy sometimes, and even as she got older and the family was more settled, they still lived what we would consider on the edge of poverty. Mary caught scarlet fever and went blind. They barely survived the brutal winter of 1880-81. Yet in the stories her life seems magical and wonderful. Clearly they had something — a close and loving family — which added a richness that goes far beyond what material possessions can offer.

Pa, her dad, who loved to play the fiddle and one summer had to walk hundreds of miles away to work and earn enough money for the family to survive, hated to be closed in, and constantly was on the move to strike out somewhere new. First it was to leave stuffy comfortable Wisconsin for the wild plains of Kansas. When the government pushed them off their land, they came up to Minnesota, then west to Dakota. He wanted to live free of constraints, in a place where he could make his own way. He thought South Dakota was getting too crowded and wanted to move on to Montana. But ma (Caroline) said no more moving, and Charles Ingalls and family remained in De Smet.

Two of the values which stand out in these books are family and a desire for freedom. While these values are universal, they get expressed with an American flair. Family as a source of strength is something most Americans hold on to, but with divorce rates at 50%, and modern demands and materialism as it is, it becomes hard to do that. Still, one sees in the books that a caring, loving environment, where parents give support, encouragement, and time to their children, means more than all the toys, gameboy and DVDs in the world. That is a value we’re losing; the material prosperity of the last century has yielded a kind of spiritual poverty. It’s hard to describe what that means exactly, but it’s something one can’t help but be struck by in reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books.

I suspect that in our modern, wealthy, materialist world, a lot of children (and adults) get so caught up in the possessions game that they don’t recognize that true happiness comes not from what we have, but from within, helped by friends and family around us. Possessions can give a mild rush, but like a drug it wears off. Unfortunately, this American value is perhaps the most endangered. People are living from rush to rush buying new possessions, and that addiction is choking off the true path to happiness. Are most of today’s plugged in possession laden children happier than Laura was? I doubt it. Those who are happy are likely happy due to their family and friends, not their stuff.

Prototypically American is Charles Ingalls’ desire to live completely free, and through hard work build a life for himself and his family. The idea of a whole continent laying ahead, with dangers and challenges, spurred generations of early Americans to leave everything behind (no remaining in contact by e-mail or phone), risk it all, to try to make something new. The desire to be free. (The cynical side of me has to add that, like today, Americans saw their conquest as being good — it’s good when American power expands and it’s good for others to be forced to adopt the way of life. But in reality this lead to the destruction of numerous cultures, a low tech holocaust that most Americans still don’t recognize).

Still, inherent in this American view of freedom was: a) a willingness to risk; b) a willingness to work hard and take responsibility for your life; and c) a willingness to work with others. Towns worked together, neighbors helped each other, there was perhaps by necessity a link between the raw individualism of Pa Ingalls and the communal spirit of much of what he and others of the time were engaged in. There isn’t a contradiction here — he was freely choosing to help and allow himself to be helped, such was the culture of that time and place. America at its best represents freedom, individual responsibility, and a sense of cooperation and community. A communal form of freedom is uniquely American, and it to is under assault from the growing sense that freedom simply means being able to amass all the wealth one can and do whatever one wants without a sense of responsibility for the community at large. On the right this gets exhibited as an embracing of the free market and capitalism, on the left this gets exhibited as simply handing the problem to government. Both sides are missing something important; the issue isn’t how to deal with common problems, the issue is fostering a sense of community, a sense that people want to work together to solve problems.

I’ll wrap up by saying that I urge everyone out there to buy the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. If you have kids, it’s a necessity. But even if you don’t, you’ll learn something about our country, our values, and also what we’ve lost by reading the wonderful tales of a young girl growing up poor, but in a close knit family on the northern plains. The times have changed. Urbanization, complexity, and prosperity make the kind of wide open life style Pa Ingalls so coveted impossible. Mobility separates families; my mother and one sister is in Sioux Falls still, the other sister in Las Vegas. On my wife’s side we’d have to travel to Syktyvkar, Russia, Moscow, or Neuwied, Germany. But as my sons grow with all their days free, with both parents working, and a comfortable lifestyle, I know that my goal is to instill the values incorporated in the Little House books.

And when I think about America and what I value in this country, I think about how a desire for freedom, a willingness to work with community, and an emphasis on love and family define the essence of this country’s core values. I think we’ve drifted, and the modern complex superpower reality makes it hard for us to truly hold on to those values. But more than any flag, song, war or monument, they define what is great about America, and we need to find a way to express those values in a 21st century reality.


Learning to love the Weather

The last three mornings I’ve played being a lumberjack.   Well, sort of.   I’m not even the one running the Chain saw, my brother in law is handling that.  But we’ve been working on a project to clear out an area of our back woods for a play house for the kids, and to expand our usable backyard.   It’s turning out to be a really great experience.

First, the weather.   I’m actually starting to appreciate this rainy weather, especially since I’m getting hot and sweaty in 65 degree drizzle already — what if it were sunny and 90?   Wearing mud boots I don’t mind sloshing through really muddy water or the wet backyard, and the smell of wood and the vegitation is intoxicating.   Beyond that, it’s beautiful out there.  The clearing still has stumps and branches that need to be cleaned away, but it’ll be a gorgeous little open area.   I find myself even enjoying the little path I take carrying logs to the woodpile, and the noise as my brother in law finishes a tree and his son and I push on it with a long thin log to direct it’s fall.  Simply, I love the Maine woods.

Tonight we burned loads of brush — parts of the trees that had leaves or were too small to save as firewood.   We got a huge blaze going, despite drizzle and very wet wood (with a little help from gasoline), and it was comforting to know that the lawn is so wet and full of puddles that there was no chance the fire could spread.   Then briefly some blue sky appeared, we tried to roast marshmallows; the blaze was too hot to get the marshmallows close t0 the flames, but we got some smores nonetheless.   It was wondrous — a fire going, walking through the new clearing in the woods on a nice cool evening…a memorable day.

After class today the students in my summer course complained about the weather — week after week of cool rain, no sun…and no sun in the forecast at this point.   I decided it really doesn’t bother me.   Perhaps what people miss is not good weather, but enjoying nature.   When it’s rainy people tend to stay inside, think about all the things they aren’t doing, and choose not to walk in mud and wet grounds, or feel rain or drizzle on their cheeks.   Thus people are inside more, and probably get more easily bored.   Also, we have a schema in our heads of what summer should be — sun, beach, and tans.   This doesn’t fit our schema, we learn to be disappointed.

A friend of mine has her four year old doing outdoor swim lessons, and notes that his lips turn blue and he often swims in the cold drizzle with the other kids.   Yet, he enjoys it.   He hasn’t learned that this isn’t what swimming should be, it’s simply fun.  Perhaps the key is to find ways to enjoy this weather anyway, even if it’s not the usual summer fare — it’s not as good perhaps as laying in the sun or looking at the starry sky while camping, but there will be days for that too.   The key is not to let oneself get bored in the present.

I’m not bored these days.   AMs working outside, afternoon class, evenings preparing the next day’s class, and sometimes finding time to write a quick blog entry, e-mail or facebook (nice to take a quick look at people’s updates), and work on a review due by July 15 — my days are if anything a bit too busy.   Yet the time in nature removes all stress, and given the subject of my course — “Consumerism, Politics and Values” — gives me a sense of virtue.   There is more satisfaction in carrying logs and helping clear trees than playing a new video game or going shopping.  I also get exercise, have time with my brother in law and his son (though the language barrier is quite large) and yeah — it’s good.

Still, a day on the beach would be nice too!


Too Wet!

This part of Maine has had the fifth wettest June in history.   I’m shocked.  The fifth?!  It’s rained virtually every day, I think we should be at number one!

I never complain about the weather.   When it’s rainy on a weekend, I secretly am glad to be rid of the pressure “it’s a nice day we have to go out and enjoy it.”   I can lay around, read some, and use the poor weather as an excuse for feeling lazy and lethargic.  Also, rain is good for the well (we’re not on town water) and garden.

If it’s hot, it’s an excuse to go someplace cool, like the movies.  Or I can go do outdoor work and really feel the summer heat — I don’t mind that.  It’s an excuse to plan a day at the coast, head to Popham Beach or Reid State Park, and get a DQ on the way.   In winter the snow piling up adds to the beauty if the season, I love seeing our house buried in snow.  If it’s cold, well, I’ve even blogged about how I love cold.

I am, by nature, an adaptable person.  On those personality tests I’m always far on the side of “perceiving” and non-judgmental.  That goes for the weather too, I’ll adapt to whatever the day is like, and find a way to enjoy it.

At least, until now.   We have had continual rain and cool temperatures for nearly a month, and the next ten days have rain predicted each day.  This is getting ridiculous.     We were clearing trees on our property today, and I was amazed by how totally staturated the ground is.  Puddles spouting up everywhere, standing water over large parts of the lawn.  Luckily the basement remains dry and things seem to be draining around the house, but sheesh.   The grass and weeds are growing out of control.   I haven’t mowed the lawn for over three weeks because it’s been that long since it’s been dry enough to mow.

Going out into the woods green underbrush has taken over everything.  With so much water a jungle seems to be spouting up, frogs are roaming the region, and the river — Wilson Stream — looks more like it did at the height of snow melt than it should in late June.    And to get there — usually a short walk from our back yard on beautiful paths in the Maine woods — is all mud.   By now the Wilson stream should be a trickle — it’s not!

At a birthday party we went to this weekend we had some sun.  Amazing!   The kids were less impressed.  “It’s too bright, it’s too hot…”   Ryan even insisted he liked cold rainy weather better because it was cooler.   They’ve become acclimated to this dreary gray, they think nothing of playing in a drizzle, or having to wear a jacket in late June.   But sun bothers them.  Yikes.

This morning I had a false glimmer of hope.   July 7th and 8th were sunny in the long range forecast.  Alas, but this evening that has changed.  It could of course change again, but so far this year it’s been rain, rain, rain.   They say global warming is likely to leave the Northeast colder and wetter.  It seems already to be happening.

As I walked through the mud, with the frogs scattering in front of me, our front and back yards both a disaster with growing weeds and grass, unmowable, I yearned for a nice dry yard, and a normal sunny summer day.  It’s been so long!  But then again…this is something interesting.   We’re experiencing saturation — perhaps I should try to enjoy this atypical bit of weather.

After all, the well is unlikely to run dry any time soon.   The fire danger level is extremely low.   The sun isn’t getting in my eyes, I’m saving money by not going golfing, and we’re not tempted to give in and buy an air conditioner (in Maine we still can go without A/C, though every summer there is a week or two of temptation…).   And this summer I do have a lot of work to do.  Still, I want an excuse to get out George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” and play it loud!