Archive for category Consumerism
The war was just two weeks old. The Germans were convinced their Blitzkrieg tactic would work – they’d dispatch the French within six weeks, then turn to the Eastern Front and defeat Russia. They would acquire Lebensraum, literally “room to live.” It was General Erich Ludendorff’s belief that without colonial possessions, Germany could only acquire it’s “place in the sun” by conquering and settling the vast plains of Eastern Europe and Ukraine.
The French were enthusiastic about the war when it started, but by mid-August they realized that the German machine was organized and efficient. Their plan relied on the ‘French spirit’ overcoming the cold mechanistic Teutonic mentality. That didn’t work. French Commander Joseph Joffre had to re-organize the French plan – which was essentially to go on offense – to organize a defense. It would be nearly mid-September when it became clear the Germans had failed, and the Blitzkrieg turned to trench warfare, with the lines hardly moving in nearly four years.
In the US the European war was not seen as our problem. The largest ethnic group in America was (and still is – though by a much smaller margin) German. The idea that the US should take sides wasn’t popular. American President Woodrow Wilson, in fact, viewed it as a sign of American superiority that our Democratic system would remain at peace while power politics led the autocratic powers to a pointless war in Europe.
On this day, Americans were more pre-occupied with their own hemisphere – namely the opening of the Panama Canal, which would allow ship travel between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans without having to make the daunting journey around the tip of South America. The expanse of trade and ease of shipping promised a new economic era – not to mention that naval ships could now be moved far more quickly between the two oceans. But the US was content to let the Europeans fight their war.
World War I would shatter the Europe of old, harken the collapse of the British and French colonial Empires, replace the Russian Czar with Communism, redraw the maps and bring in a world to be built with the use of reason rather than custom. Royalty and nobility were replaced with ideology and raw power. Connection to the land, one’s role in the community, and church was replaced by consumerism, industrial assembly line work and materialism as a way of life.
This was true in the US as well as Europe. In the US in 1900 over 40% of the population was in farming, by 1990 that level dropped to 1.9%. The US census stopped counting farmers after that, the number ceased to be relevant.
But while it may be true that rational thought finally eclipsed irrational and often tyrannical tradition, the 20th Century did not usher in an era of liberation and prosperity. In the first half, humans using reason created ideologies – secular religions based on core assumptions and beliefs – and found it possible to rationalize all sorts of heinous acts, including war, often with the good intent of creating a truly democratic and just society. Mass consumption and economic change led to the Great Depression, environmental crises, and humans to be used as tools, whether in sweat shops, sex trade or as consumers to be used for their disposable income.
100 years ago the modern world finally pushed aside tradition and custom, and an era of radical change, new technology, and more deadly wars began. World War I would be the last war in which military deaths out numbered civilian ones.
A century ago today, people viewed the future with hope. Yet for over thirty years it would be defined by war and depression, and the US would not be immune. Now as we look forward to the next 100 years, a few lessons seem clear.
1) Ideological thinking is dangerous and obsolete. It led to the Second World War, defined the wasted resources and existential danger of the Cold War, and divides people along unnatural and often absurd lines. People who might otherwise be able to practically deal with problems see the world abstractly – including other people, nature, and community.
2) War, environmental degradation, a soulless consumerism and massive global corruption the planet at this point in time. Materially the West is very well off, but we’re a society riddled with alienation, depression, anxiety, obesity, lack of connection to nature (especially children) and a loss of meaning and community. In the third world corruption, abuse, war, sex trade, and poverty dominate, with communities/tradition ripped apart by global capitalism.
While the “West” has been in constant transition ever since knowledge trickled into Europe from the Islamic world and in the 13th Century the Church shifted from Augustinian other-worldliness to Thomist logic, one can see World War I as the destruction of the old order, and the creation of a new, modern, rational, ideological and very materialist era. It’s clear at this point that our way of conceptualizing and ordering reality isn’t working. This new era is under threat from economic collapse, environmental degradation and climate change, terrorism, energy shortages, and a host of problems. Humans are caught struggling to find meaning, and often doing so by following an ideology or doing anything to, as Erich Fromm put it, escape from freedom.
That has to change if we are to successfully navigate a future in a world that is changing at an even faster pace than it was a century ago. There are signs of hope – the EU has started a transition to a post-sovereign interdependent political structure. Social media is opening up new avenues of change, though that can be used for good, evil, or trivial. But we can’t go on like we did in the past.
100 years ago the European leaders were caught up in the “cult of the offensive,” believing the next war would be quick, decisive, and won by the country bold enough to start the conflict. They thought they could harness 20th Century technology to expand 19th Century political structures. Instead, the war destroyed the world they knew, and things would never be the same. Unless we expand our thinking, we could be headed for a similar fate.
Although Wall Street got away with creating the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, there were some who saw it coming, sniffed out the true nature of the mortgage backed bonds and the craziness of an out of control under-regulated housing market. Those people are the subject of the Michael Lewis book The Big Short mentioned in the previous post.
They cover a range of character traits. There is the self-promoting Greg Lippmann whose desire to spread the news in bombastic fashion helped convince a number of people that the housing market was a bubble and the securities backed by those mortgages were toxic. Then there is Steve Eisman, a blunt, honest hard nosed investor who would offend just about everyone he met. He started as a conservative Republican but realized as he learned about the game on Wall Street that the real mantra was “fuck the poor.”
The first one who really sniffed out what was happening was a one eyed doctor turned stock blogger turned investor, Michael Burry. He read through the material with an almost superhuman patience and attention to detail. He realized that the investments were crap, especially the bonds backed by subprime mortgages. When his son was diagnosed with Aspergers syndrome he realized he had it too. That had given him the focus to figure out what everyone else was missing as early as 2003 – and also explained the lack of social skills that alienated his investors who were planning to sue him before suddenly his bets paid off. They never thanked him.
Ultimately they figured out that not only were the big banks creating mortgage backed bonds that seemed to pass off risk, but when they didn’t have enough of those they packaged the bonds into CDOs that, thanks to rating agency incompetence, would magically turn BBB mortage backed bonds into AAA investments. Then they took it a step further with synthetic CDOs. To Burry, Eisman, Lippmann and a few other characters Lewis describes, this was blatant fraud. For Eisman it was a moral cause – the big banks were pulling in billions, earning their traders bonuses in the tens of millions – because they were able to create bonds so complex that the rating agencies didn’t realize they were crap. Investors thinking they were getting very low risk bonds were being fleeced.
The thing that shocked them, however, is that when the inevitable collapse hit, the big banks themselves were exposed. They had rigged the game, but played the sucker anyway. Corporate leadership didn’t understand the way this new derivative bond market operated, and individuals looking only to maximize their bonuses didn’t care about the long term. At some point they had to keep playing because that was the only way to keep the game alive. But it was unsustainable.
What I find intriguing is the personality characteristics of those who figured it out. They share a few traits. First, they were honest and not afraid of what others thought of them. In a world where most people seek approval from others and want to be liked/appreciated, these guys didn’t care. Eisman would blurt out comments offending powerful CEOs giving a talk, not care what he wore to the golf course, and genuinely didn’t seem to mind what others thought of him.
Second, they were remarkably self-confident. If it were me figuring out the insanity of the derivative market and how the big banks were setting the entire world economy up for disaster, I’d say “wait, these are the most intelligent big institutional investors on Wall Street – they must know something I don’t.” And while the thought crossed their minds now and then, they had confidence in their analysis and conclusions. They were willing to place multi-million dollar bets on an outcome the media, Wall Street and government dismissed as impossible.
Finally, they were oddly moral. For Eisman it was righteous indignation at how big money was not only screwing the small investor but also putting democratic capitalism at risk. For Burry it was a strong sense that the truth mattered, and he needed to follow it. Lippmann was grandiose and self-promoting, but was up front trying to help others see what was happening. In fact, they all tried to shout out warnings only to find that the rich and powerful either responded like deer in a headlight or laughed them off.
Jamie Mai, Charlie Ledley and Ben Hockett, who created Cornwall Capital and discovered first that even the AAA rated CDOs were certain to fail, were pre-occupied by what this meant for society as a whole. The system was sick, could it potentially fall apart?
Those traits: honesty, lack of concern for what others think (as long as you’re being honest), self-confidence and a strong moral streak gave them the capacity to truly comprehend what was happening. They were not intimidated by the big names in media and on Wall Street who dismissed such concerns, did not feel like “I must be wrong because the big guys all say differently,” and stoked a sense of moral outrage and purpose.
There is something to learn from this example. These traits gave them the capacity to avoid the hypnotic effect that culture, media and “conventional wisdom” can have on people. All around experts repeated the mantra that “the bonds are safe, housing prices won’t fall, this is real, the money will keep growing…” They did not fall victim to the power of those suggestions; instead, they saw through the facade and ended up turning a huge profit.
They not only saw through it, but it was obvious to them. Now whether one reads the book by Micheal Lewis or one of the others out there dissecting the crisis (The End of Wall Street by Roger Lowenstein, All the Devils are Here by McLean and Nocera, House of Cards by Cohan about the end of Bear Stearns, etc.), it is so obvious in hindsight that one has to ask “how could they have been so stupid? How did more people not see it coming?”
The answer: groupthink and a kind of cultural hypnosis due to the power of pervasive suggestion. The only way to keep one immune from falling into such a trap is to foster true honesty, not worry what others think if acting honestly, be self-confident, and have a moral core. Not only might one see through scams and thus make money (or avoid losing it), but one will also live a life less controlled by the hypnotic suggestions permeating our culture and media, and instead develop the capacity to be true to oneself.
While some on the right claim that President Obama’s health care law amounts to war on Roman Catholicism due to its birth control provisions, others on the right are attacking the head of the Catholic church, Pope Francis I, for being “Marxist.”
The charge is absurd.
Marxism is a particular theory about how history unfolds, an enlightenment style reason-based theory which seeks to objectively show that there is a correct interpretation of history based on the nature of the mode of production – or how value is produced. Any economic system (slavery, feudalism, capitalism) that generates value through exploitation (a small group benefiting from the work of others) inherently contains contradictions. Those contradictions inevitably cause the system to collapse, until finally a system with no exploitation (communism – the anti-statist utopian Marxian version) comes without internal contradictions. History is a human construct, Marxism has no place for a deity. I very much doubt that the Pontiff believes any of that to be true.
Pope Francis I instead provides a conservative critique of capitalism, one that echoes some of the anti-Communist John Paul II’s ideas. The Pontiff released a 50,000 treatise, Evangelii Gaudium” (The Joy of the Gospel), which calls for a series of reforms and admonishes “unfettered” capitalism. He criticizes trickle down economics, and decries “the idolatry of money” which will lead to a “new tyranny.” He bemoans the “culture of prosperity” where materialism defines human value, but leaves the majority on the outside, often suffering. Even those well off feel like their life is lacking because the culture defines so much by material success. People turn artificial wants into perceived needs.
The Pope was not attacking market economics but naive capitalism – those who believe that markets always turn self-interest into the best result possible. Naive capitalists believe that the “winners” deserve to take as much as they can get away with because they are smarter or work harder. Moreover, they believe that the game is always open for others to win – that the playing field is level and the market will somehow prevent winners from building structural advantage and using their position in society to benefit themselves and guarantee that they and their children will have a much better shot at continuing to “win.” Naive capitalists believe the “losers” are inferior – they deserve to be poor.
The conservative critique of capitalism is not that somehow everyone should be equal. Traditional conservatism accepts the idea that inequality is inevitable in society, but that it cannot be so pervasive as to be culturally destabilizing. They distrust capitalism because it debases the culture. It appeals to the masses, and replaces community with consumption. It rationalizes wealth inequality without creating a sense of social responsibility. Conservatives also distrust human nature; they believe that utopian visions of capitalism underestimate human greed, ruthlessness and willingness to cheat/abuse others out of self interest.
Traditional conservatism has an organic view of society – that the culture is an entity that is greater than the sum of the individuals. It distrusts the radical individualism of naive capitalism, noting that the individual is embedded in a culture and society from which identity, interests, morals and desires all spring. The culture maintains social stability and order. Reason alone cannot replace it, since reason is a tool that can rationalize just about anything. Reason can justify a whole host of contradictory principles and ideals — whatever the individual wants to believe. That was Edmund Burke’s critique of the French revolution; you take away the cultural glue that holds society together and everything falls apart.
For conservative critics of capitalism, the market doesn’t magically follow the values society holds, nor do peoples’ decisions on what to buy and sell necessarily support their core values. That’s why people have constructed governments to, among other things, tame the excesses of capitalism.
Even the capitalist hero, Adam Smith, knew markets were not magic. While naive capitalists use his metaphor of the “hidden hand,” it’s a metaphor he only used once, and in a limited context. If you actually read Smith’s Wealth of Nations it’s clear that he is critical of the capitalists of his era. Karl Marx even considered Smith his favorite economist, saying that only in communism would Smith’s ideas work properly. Those nuances don’t fit into the good vs. evil simplistic dichotomy of the Limbaughesque world.
To be sure, the conservative critique of capitalism is distrustful of big government and efforts to promote equal outcomes. Conservatives embrace tradition, family, community and custom. Capitalism does damage to all of those – thanks to capitalism Christmas now is more about shopping than worship. Thanks to capitalism extended families in close contact have become rare. A sense of community has been replaced by people who hardly know their neighbors, especially in urban areas. Custom has been replaced by fad. Perhaps that is why Limbaugh and others want to try to hide all this using a claim that any critique of capitalism is “Marxist.”
Agree or disagree, the Pope is decrying the materialism, self-centered individualism, and lack of concern for the community that raw capitalism often fosters. That is a value-based critique, not at all Marxist. The Limbaughs of the world want to put their hands over their ears and mutter “Marxist, Marxist, Marxist…” because they don’t want to delve into the details of how the world really works — So much easier to have a “left vs. right” caricature than to actually consider the gritty complexity of reality.
I’ve posted a lot about consumerism and the corrosive aspects it has on our culture and our ability to be happy. Two articles I’ve read in the last couple days convince me that the problems underlying materialist consumerism are also influencing love and sex, and not in a positive way.
One story involves the growth of completely impersonal “hook ups” solely for sex, especially among young people. It was a Wall Street Journal review of the book The End of Sex by Donna Freitas. It isn’t that I morally condemn such promiscuity — it’s not for me but hey, everyone has to make their own choices. It’s more that as Freitas notes, the “hookup culture” (which apparently 70% of college students admit to participating in) increases the risk of assault and abuse. That comes from the impersonal nature of the encounters.
In the ‘hook up’ culture two people are supposed engage in sex totally devoid of emotional connection. The other is just a body to be used for sexual gratification. Freitas notes that this is using humans as a means to an end, rather than treating them as an end themselves. Much of the time, especially with emotionally vulnerable young women, this puts them at real risk of abuse.
Perhaps more disturbing is that this emphasizes the mechanistic side of sex over the emotional or even spiritual. If young people learn to see sex as nothing more than a pleasurable physical act, it may be hard to be open to intimacy — indeed, the “hook up culture” seems predicated on a dismissal of romantic and intimate love as naive.
This mirrors the way our materialist consumer culture focuses on “stuff” over values. The spiritual and sublime aspects of human existence give way to a cold mechanistic view. Approaches like Carl Jung’s intuitive and spiritual psychology are replaced by evolutionary biology, where humans are just mechanisms used by genes to try to keep the genome alive. If there is only body and no soul, then love is just an illusion.
Look at our culture now – how easy it is for people to use others as means to their ends. People cheat others, treat them unfairly, rationalize the obscene behavior of banks and mortgage companies during the real estate bubble, and look the other way when someone is suffering. If we’re just stuff on a spiraling rock in space, then nothing matters. Collect sexual encounters and material objects. What else is there to life?
Consumerism and the hook up culture breed cynicism and a kind of despair – if there is no meaning, then there is only sensation. But sensations get boring and thus more excitement is needed. Without meaning the material can never truly satisfy. Sexual encounters need to have more drama, consumers need to always buy more, and people live trying to fulfill needs that cannot be met. Not by the new Porsche, nor by the wild (and usually drunken) hook up.
The review said that the writer, a Religious Studies Professor, doesn’t condemn casual sex (though she spends two hundred pages detailing its corrosive effects) but argues instead for a more open, healthy view of sexuality. And that leads me to the other article.
Allegheny College hosted in its chapel a talk “I heart the Female Orgasm” which included (from the previous link):
• An emphasis on individuals making sexual decisions that are right for them, including whether to use the information now or when married or in a serious relationship
• Analysis of the messages women receive about their bodies and sexuality from media, religion, families, and elsewhere.
• Body image, and the links between “befriending your body” and experiencing physical pleasure
• The value of learning how to say “no” to sex—and the problems college-age and adult women sometimes encounter when they realize that’s all they ever learned
• An opportunity to talk openly in same-gender groups during part of the program
• Female anatomy
• Tips for partners about being patient and respectful
• The problems with pressure to have an orgasm, to orgasm faster, to have multiple orgasms, to orgasm with a partner, to fake or not fake orgasms
• Answers to the most common questions about orgasm
This created a visceral reaction from some conservative commentators who accused Allegheny College of hosting a session on “how to masturbate.” They said the talk was smut disguised as education, put on by the radical left to denigrate religious values. The fact it was in the chapel got others riled up.
I could go on and on about what that says about the politics in play (is the next chapter of the ‘war on woman’ the ‘war against the female orgasm’), but I won’t. I find the increasing openness to talk about sexuality refreshing – sex is universal, almost everyone wants it, and most people know very little about it. The idea it is never to be talked about is irrational – something so important should be understood and discussed. Now more than at any time in the past that is happening.
To me the best defense against the corrosive effects of the “hook up culture” is for people to learn about, understand and talk about their sexuality. Sex is pervasive in the media, often in very unhealthy ways. The messages given culturally tend to increase ignorance and misunderstanding, creating numerous problems such as low self-esteem, intolerance and fear. Knowledge about ones’ sexuality – and an openness to talk – is power: Power to reject abuse by those who will manipulate the situation to treat people as objects.
Call me naive, but ultimately I believe the capacity not to see others as only a means to a sexual end makes true love possible. Just as materialism devoid of spirit becomes a cold playground of things that cannot satisfy the hunger one has for more, sex devoid of love becomes a playground of momentary thrills without meaning. And everything is better with meaning.
I’ve always had a very logical argument as to why I am not a vegetarian. Vegetables are living entities just like animals. They feel in different ways, experience the world in manners we cannot comprehend, but they are life forms just as we are. Since in the animal kingdom it is natural for creatures to eat both plants and animals, there can’t be anything inherently wrong with eating meat. A cat could never become a vegetarian and survive, for example. As long as we do not over-indulge, eating other living entities, plant or animal, is natural.
Lately, though, I am rethinking my argument. Not that I’m doubting the logic, but there is another factor to take into account: corporate farming. Consider: In the Laura Ingalls Wilder book Little House in the Big Woods, Pa butchers a pig that they have been raising for some time. Every part of the pig is used, Laura and Mary even use the pig bladder as a balloon. Plants are sown and reaped, tended to by the family. In one book a locust attack ruins the harvest, such were the risks of life on the frontier.
That seems a healthy relationship between humans and nature. You may eat the plants and animals you raise, but you raise them with care. Certainly you should not be cruel to them. The food tasted better too – most of us will never know just how good natural food tastes.
This year many things are changing in my life, I feel like I’m entering a year of personal transformation. One change is to stop closing my eyes to ramifications of how I eat. I plan to think about where the food comes from, buy local, and move away from fast foods and the chemical laden processed foods that are so easy and convenient.
I was thinking about this as I walked through my local grocery store, seeing the packages of meat and vegetables, processed and ready for sale. Everything designed to entice you to buy; packages with idyllic farm scenes or products labeled “organic.” The bananas had a sticker that said “no cholesterol.” I’m glad they told me! It’s all marketing.
Then I look at the shoppers, behaving much like I have always behaved. Looking at different foods, picking them up, dropping in them in the cart. The intercom switched to the song “King of Pain” by the Police. I forced an ironic smile.
When I teach about the rise of fascism in Germany I try to explain it in a way that most people in the class end up admitting that if they lived in Germany in 1936 they’d probably have supported the Nazi government. The reason you can get something like fascism is that the culture accepts as natural and mundane that which should be condemned. It’s normal to eat genetically modified food. It’s normal to eat animals who have lived in ghastly conditions, genetically manipulated to increase profits. Assembly line cars, assembly line chickens. The fact they are alive is irrelevant, profit comes first.
How cruel are we to the plant kingdom when we manipulate every crop, altering the very nature of the environment. Farming itself is a violent act, taking the free form of nature and forcing an order to it in order to feed ourselves. But that’s the same kind of violence that a lion undertakes when he cuts down and devours a zebra. It’s part of who we are, it’s what we need to survive. We have brains that make it natural for us to move beyond hunting and gathering.
I can’t help but think that in a generation or two people will look back and see us as barbaric and ignorant. They’ll look at how factory farms treat animals, the way big corporations play with plant genetics and our penchant to not give a damn about nature if we can make money by manipulating it. They’ll wonder how we could have been so brutal.
But to us it’s normal. We don’t think about it. We’re good consumers, programmed to spend and to believe that Monsanto’s main goal is to end world hunger and that the chickens who will make up our McNuggets are happily scampering around the coop as a loving farm girl throws them seeds.
So I’m going to shift towards farmers markets, local food, and try to stop my long running contribution to the cruelty being undertaken against plant and animal. There are many family farms struggling to get by, working hard and treating their animals right. I want to give them my business, as much as possible.
Ultimately, that cruelty is really directed at ourselves because everything is connected.
Such is our culture – close our eyes, mock those who think differently and see the world as full of objects to use for our own self-interest, no matter how much damage it does to the planet – to the humans, the animals, the plants, the atmosphere, the land and sea. But I believe we are connected. Every bit of cold cruelty that we engage in or enable comes back to bite. And every bit of love we share or show returns in time to empower.
UPDATE: The comment from La Kaiser below suggests that my post may read as too broad. There are a lot of family farms here — the Daku dairy farm just up the road, Sandy River Farms that have their own store, and Marble Family farm, to name a few. These are the good guys! People struggling to produce quality food. I’m concerned about the mega-corporations that look only at the bottom line and are removed from the process. I hope that the practices shown in those images are more rare than common, but I fear that as the mega-corporations grow, it’ll be all about money.
Today Americans travel to be with family and/or friends to celebrate the most traditional of American holidays. Most people will roast a turkey, enjoy potatoes, veggies, dinner rolls, pies, and various family delights. Even the most secular of families will talk about giving thanks for what they have. Many families will take out the Christmas decorations, ready to celebrate “the holiday season,” where the Christmas values of peace, love, and goodwill overcome greed and selfishness.
One need not be Christian to appreciate the Christmas spirit, expressed in everything from Ebeneezer Scrooge’s visit from the spirits of past, present and future to George Bailey’s journey in It’s a Wonderful Life. Kids get it when they watch the Grinch’s heart expanding as he hears the Whos celebrate joyfully even after he stole their Christmas loot. The Christmas spirit reflects a belief there is something more important than material possessions and the daily grind. Love, connection to others, and a sense of the spiritual combine to point to a more joyful and meaningful mode of living. The eternal trumps the temporal, values trump self-interest.
Yet today, even on Thanksgiving many “big box” stores are opening, usually at around 8:00 or 9:00 PM. Those not opening today will do so early tomorrow, sometimes at midnight or 2:00 AM, so that shoppers can get the best bargains of the year, so called Black Friday. Stories of violence often accompany Black Friday — shoppers being trampled as they rush to get bargains, people fighting over the last of a specially priced item.
Then for the next month malls will be full, kids will be adding to Christmas wish lists and then feel deprived if they don’t get most of what they wanted. Stress will grow as people churn out Christmas cards as an obligation, juggle party schedules, deal with shows and activities planned for the kids, and try to get that shopping done. The music, lights and smells of the season will offer momentary distractions, but far too often the Christmas spirit gets defined by materialism and stress.
Peace on earth, good will to men. “Yeah, yeah, but I have to shop, get this package to the post office, and damn, we got a Christmas card from them? Sigh. I think I have one more I can send out.” “Dad, why does he have five more presents than me, it’s not fair!” It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Yeah, for the retailers! For the small shops in the mall!
A savior is born in Bethlehem. Jews, Muslims, agnostics, atheists, Wiccans and others might smile and nod, but don’t get meaning from that. Christians will, but many will quickly pivot “hey, that’s the true meaning of Christmas, but I have to go get supplies for our party…why’d we invite so many people…”
What irony! The Holiday most focused on our better selves has become the most stressful and materialistic time of the year. Instead of learning the value of sacrifice and sharing, children shout “me, me, me” and fantasize about the stuff they’ll get. Starting Thanksgiving evening we embrace raw consumerism in the extreme — “you are what you own, and today you can get great deals!”
What if people decided to reject that and grab the true Christmas spirit instead? For Christians the answer is right there — the teachings and traditions provide a guide of how to steer clear of crass consumerism and materialism.
One does not have to be Christian to celebrate and appreciate the joy inherent in the Christmas spirit: Love for others, good deeds, giving without needing to receive, forgiveness, family, friends, and connections. The Christmas spirit appeals to the part of ourselves that rises above self-interest and sees meaning in core human values rather than the daily routine or material possessions. After all, early Christians choose late December in order to mesh the holiday with already existing pagan traditions. The holiday spirit belongs to all of us, not just Christians.
The holiday spirit is a sense that life has a meaning beyond our mundane material existence. If one cannot bring oneself to believe in something specific, then imagine — imagine the best each of us can be and the best for humanity. The boundary between faith and imagination is blurry and perhaps non-existent.
The Christmas spirit is truth, even if one rejects the story behind the holiday. That spirit can be tapped to defy the stress, material excess and greed that too often subverts this time of the year. That spirit is here, inside each of us, and in the songs, movies, and ideals expressed this time of year. Grab the Christmas spirit! Share it. Make this a season of joy rather than greed. Let love and human connections trump selfishness and consumerism. A family snowball fight always beats a day roaming the malls. And maybe, just maybe, we can enter 2013 renewed rather than spent, focused on values rather than stuff, and thankful for our family, friends, and the lives we’ve chosen to lead.
Disenchantment was the term Max Weber used to describe the impact of enlightenment thought on humanity. Humans moved from a world of deep spiritual significance to one that can be measured, analyzed and reduced to it constituent parts. Rather than experiencing reality as a deeply meaningful and even magical whole, it has become complex mechanistic set of causal mechanisms outside the self known as nature. Any meaning it has comes from the human mind.
Such a view of reality is both implausible and untenable. It is untenable because recent discoveries in modern physics, especially in the realm of quantum mechanics, defy a mechanized view of reality. We don’t know exactly what the nature of reality is, but it’s definitely not some kind of mechanistic set of material chain reactions! It’s implausible for the same reason we now see old geo-centric cosmological theory as misguided – it views human experience as the center of all reality.
Think of it – a whole cosmos and the vast multiverse, all a lifeless, soulless set of material interactions with no meaning or core value. All meaning, value and understanding in the universe takes place within the brains of carbon based life forms on one nondescript planet. Even if we allow that there may be life forms similar to us on other planets, the result is the same: a meaningless universe of causal mechanisms, forces and particles. Meaning only comes as minds behold, label, and try to understand it.
Oh what vain creatures we mortals are! We no longer believe our planet an unmoving center of the universe, but we think our minds are the essence of what gives reality meaning. Without our minds to behold the world there would be no meaning, no value, just inanimate forces and particles buzzing about. Looked at that way, the rationalist world view of enlightenment thought looks pretty absurd.
Still, the enlightenment was about liberation. The individual now came first. Rather than being products of a community, individuals were now seen as the creators of community. As such they had to use reason to determine how to structure it, became responsible for their own happiness and success, and learned to question or distrust the religions and traditions which had provided meaning and social cohesion.
The biggest drawback, noted by first real critic of the enlightenment, Jean Jacques Rousseau, is alienation. The individual used to be part of something greater than himself. An individual in so-called primitive times was one with nature, a part of an enchanted world where every event, action and experience had meaning connected to that person’s life. The boundary between the self and the wider world was imprecise. Even after Christian thought came to dominate the individual was part of a community, had value due to his or her role, and had a network of support in the clan, village or extended family. Religion provided certainty in life – as bad as things may be here, a paradise awaits!
Now we’re not so sure. Most religion myths are seen as implausible, and ever since Montesquieu it’s been clear that the idea that salvation could be an accident of birth – a baby lucky to born in Iowa is likely to be taught the “right” religion while one born in Cairo may be doomed to hell – doesn’t seem likely from a loving God. In fact the ability of one culture to think its religion the one true one is far fetched. When you look at the claims of individual religions, their stories break down.
Moreover, individual responsibility for happiness, value and meaning in life — what the enlightenment liberates us to pursue — is a daunting task. With advertisers insisting that you can’t have a happy life without the newest product, magazine covers defining beauty, and material wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, it’s easy to feel like one is failing. Even Mitt Romney, the GOP Presidential candidate, stated that prosperous countries have “better cultures” than those with less wealth (he used GDP per capita as the defining principle). Get that – a culture is judged to be superior ont the basis of its economic output!
Disenchanted humans, burdened with these tasks handle the challenge in various ways. Most will turn to existing religions, friends and family, their communities, and their own life experiences to find meaning. Often this yields an outcome good enough to make life bearable, and sometimes even pleasurable. Others lose themselves in a host of distractions – sports, gossip, politics, activism, life-dramas, entertainment, books, etc – and train themselves not to think about any deep meaning to life. That may be hectic, but it makes life like sleep walking.
Yet this disconnection with the world has yet another sinister side, the violence and destruction which has accompanied western thought. We have high GDPs, but we’ve had the most destructive wars and pioneered true weapons of mass destruction. We continue to devastate the environment and treat plants and animals as mere products. After all if only the human mind provides meaning, everything else is to be used. Their value is measured by the utility they provide for humans. Colonialism, war, and the destruction of cultures (which, of course, are inferior if they are economically lower — hence exploiting them is doing them a favor by extending western ideas to them) are all actions inherent in this disconnect between individuals and the rest of existence.
It’s time to recognize that enlightenment thought without a spiritual component is untenable. It’s time to assert that meaning cannot just exist in individual disconnected minds. It’s time to recognize that we are part of a larger reality where meaning permeates all of existence. We may not buy the symbols primitive peoples held – indeed, we need to build on rather than reject western thought. Religious fundamentalists fear modernism because of its disenchanting quality, we need to rediscover enchantment!
As a new information revolution expands our power to connect and communicate, as modern physics breaks down boundaries and shows how little we understand the true nature of reality, we humans have to discover the natural empathy within us. Enlightenment thought turns off the deep connections we have with the rest of reality, forcing us to experience life through a stark dichotomy of internal and external. Somehow we have to find a way to reach and feel beyond that. If we can we’ll have a revolution in thinking that can open doors, expand understanding, and overcome the dark side of enlightenment rationalism.
I don’t mean some kind of new age mysticism or magic crystals. I also don’t mean a complete rejection of western rationalism. We simply need a re-enchantment of human existence. I’m not sure how this will look, but the first step must be to think about the world differently. See it as magical, see ourselves as connected, to try to feel those connections and the lack of a true boundary between object and subject. Experience coincidence as synchronicity, see the internal reflected in the external and vice-versa. The world isn’t as meaningless, cold and separate as we’ve been taught to believe.