“Each time we bathe our reactions in artificial light
Each time we alter the focus to make the wrong move seem right”
– from “Stick it Out” by RUSH (lyrics Neil Peart), Counterparts LP, 1992
For all my posts on the economy, I’ve not spent a lot of time on the underlying cause of this crisis. The true nature of the current crisis is far deeper in our culture than most people realize, and although it sounds alarmist, the US and perhaps western civilization in general may be on the verge of something akin to civilizational failure.
This is not due to outsiders. Many point to China, Arab Muslims, India, or even Russia as doing things globally to undercut the US. No, we can’t blame others. This also is not due to nefarious insiders. When Hitler rose to power he blamed socialists, internationalists and liberals, saying that these folk were betraying German values, internal traitors against a “real” Germany. Jews were also a convenient scapegoat. Some extremists on the far right use similar rhetoric against the left, with Hispanics replacing Jews as the “parasite” destroying the country from within. No group inside the country is bringing us down. This is also not due to Republicans or greedy corporations either. Many on the left want to dismantle corporate America, and blame banks and business for greed and taking a far greater portion of the pie. Yet blaming big money is wrong too.
The reality is that this crisis comes from how we think. It is a cultural crisis, with its roots in the enlightenment. It is also not a new flaw. We can look back and see colonialism, bureaucratic socialism, fascism, world wars, and a Cold War where in which the world hung under threat of nuclear annihilation.
The enlightenment gave us a world view that allows us to interpret reality in whatever way suits our interest. By positing reason and rational thought as the ideal, it gives us a tool to twist reality and construct meanings that justify what we do. Colonialism is spreading civilization to the benefit of the “primitives.” Bringing war and chaos to Iraq is ‘removing Saddam’ and “spreading democracy.” Destroying indigenous cultures is “bringing them Christianity,” and living off cheap resources and labor from the third world is “using free trade to help them develop.”
We are very good at rationalizing things; we do it in politics and in every day life. Should we cut taxes to the wealthiest when the gap between the rich and poor is at its greatest in 100 years? Sure, some will say, it will help the economy and the poor will benefit. And if there is a real danger, such as global warming — well, we’ll find a couple naysaying scientists and then use media and propaganda to make it seem like the deniers are brave critics against “big science.” We are to believe that the vast majority of climate scientists are simply lying to ‘try to get grants.’ And on the left people rationalize increasing the scope and size of government programs, even though the economy is in recession and we have an unsustainable level of debt.
Yes, we are always able to rationalize what we want to believe. There are enablers built into our society — bankers who sold and often pressured people to take subprime loans they really couldn’t afford, advertisers telling people “you deserve” this — go a little more in debt, this product is worth it. Credit card companies pushed cheap easy credit on us, and the cultural insanity was defended by simply blaming those who lost out. When the subprime mortgage goes bad or credit card debt buries someone, “well, they should have known better.” Shifting blame allows us to keep alive arguments, beliefs and ideas that justify convenient cultural delusions.
We do this to ourselves all the time. That is why we gain weight, rationalize mistreating or cheating on friends and family, purchase goods we don’t need, and produce massive amounts of trash even as we say something has to be done about pollution. We also create cultural narratives to rationalize and make seem “normal” something which is anything but. The narratives hypnotize, they are with us from birth, they speak to our basic desire to pursue our interests while avoiding cognitive dissonance in justifying the cost. They are narcissistic and myopic, and our culture reflects that.
The enlightenment gave us the ability to create rational arguments by use of reason. In science this, of course, allowed the development of new technologies and knowledge about the world. But in culture and politics it is a dangerous capacity. The problem is that reason needs to be grounded — there need to be core values and principles underlying the use of reason, otherwise it is literally sophistry — building arguments to justify whatever we want to justify. And our sophists are more sophisticated than was the case in Socrate’s time!
Although colonialism was rationalized through a variety of discursive strategies (persuasively argued by David Spurr in Rhetoric of Empire), tradition, religion and custom were strong enough to keep the most negative forces in check. Starting in the 20th century and aided by the rise of propaganda and mass media, our ability to create narratives to rationalize anything became unhinged. Be it Communism, Nazism, Consumerism, Libertarianism, class warfare, interventionist foreign policies, or the recent rise in debt due to easy credit, we’ve learned to use reason like a drug — it can cause us to see as good and rational anything we feel like we want to believe or do. Moreover, we don’t even know we’re doing it, we really think our arguments are correct! It’s emotion that gives us that certainty, but we believe it is our rational thought.
That’s why we’re in such deep trouble. It’s not primarily the economy, or militarism, culture wars, or anything else. Unless we can find a way to ground reason and use it wisely, we’ll rationalize and see as good and necessary the very things which will bring down our civilization. The key for individuals is to recognize and understand the danger, and try to resist the tempting self-serving justifications. We can do that, though it takes practice. For our culture, though, there needs to be a shift in values. We won’t bring back traditional society, nor will religion play the same role it did in the past. But somehow we have to find a way to humble the use of pure reason and rediscover values, principles, and ethics outside of using reason as a tool. Reason can be used to rationalize any ethical belief, after all.