Sunday, April 12, 2009

How to Change the World

First -- To see how not to change the world, I recommend this speech by Joe Bageant. Mr. Bageant says that "We've Let Corporations and Media Rob Our Souls -- It's Time to Do Something Meaningful" and proceeds to belittle American society.

Here are some of the remarks that may turn off readers:

  • "This financialization of our consciousness under American-style capitalism has become all we know."
  • "Corporations are, of course, deathless and faceless machines and have no soul or human emotions. That we look to them for so much makes us a corporate cult and makes corporations a fetish of our culture."
  • "Yet you and I are not unique in the least. Despite the American yada-yada about individualism, you are not special. Nor am I."
  • "The fact is, you will seldom, if ever, make any significant material or lifestyle choices of your own in your entire life."
  • "We are all replaceable parts in the machinery of a capitalist economy."
  • "Citizenship has been reduced to simple consumer-group consciousness. Consequently, even though Americans are only 6 percent of the planet's population, we use 36 percent of the planet's resources. And we interpret that experience as normal and desirable and as evidence of being the most-advanced nation in the world. Despite that our lives have been reduced to a mere marketing demographic."

Certainly, there is a germ of truth in all these points. But constructive criticism requires some connection with the listener beyond utter debasement of his or her culture.

The last point, about American's consuming more than our share of the planet's resources, is one serious point I want to address. I dare say that this statistic is losing its luster as far as I'm concerned. News flash:
SHANGHAI (AP) — Preliminary figures show auto sales in China reached about 1.03 million in March, exceeding U.S. sales for the third month in a row, state media reports said Wednesday. Associated Press

Are we getting better because our share of world consumption is going down?

Bageant's point is that the whole world is going to capitalist hell, but he offers not even a glimmer of an alternative. The best he can do is suggest that we might be better off moving to Belize and living as simple peasants. This happens to be what he has done, and his smug superiority really turns me off. He doesn't provide a solution; rather he congratulates himself on having moved outside of American society, and suggests that we will all be happier, and the world will be a better place, if we do the same. That may be true, but I doubt it, and it's not going to happen.

Rather than attacking all of society, I suggest that the battle be more focused. Perhaps we could start by dealing with environmental issues, including threats posed by modern weaponry such as nuclear bombs. One doesn't have to buy all the generalizations about how we're all pawns in the capitalist game to believe that it makes sense to protect the environment. Even our corporate masters do not want to destroy the environment. After all, a healthy environment is necessary to sustain a healthy corporation.

I'm intrigued by the idea of treating environmental debates as a kind of warfare. What if we applied the principles of warfare, as outlined by Sun Tzu in The Art of War to fighting political battles over how to preserve the environment? A winning strategy will require sound planning and coordinated effort.

Look at the recent Iraq War. Bush failed because he didn't unite the country (USA) behind him in this war. His team belittled moderates and didn't listen to opponents. The worst mistake we can make in fighting our environmental foes is to rant and rave and say that you are either with us or against us.

At least, that how I see it right now...


legacyguy said...

Dan, thanks for posting on the blog. I've been too busy to write anything this month and it was getting pretty boring around here.

I thought Bageant's rant was one of the truest things I've read in a month or so; that's why I sent it to MASSAGE. So, as you might expect, I have some strong differences of opinion on the piece.

I'm not sure where you get the impression that Bageant is so horribly arrogant. In the third paragraph of the article, he writes, "Anyway, here I am with you good people asking myself the first logical question: What the hell is a redneck writer supposed to say to a prestigious school of psychology? Why of all places am I here? It is intimidating as hell."

Bageant's basic premise can be summarized thus: "As psych students, most of you understand that there is no way you can escape being conditioned by your society, one way or another. You are as conditioned as any trained chicken in a carnival. So am I. When we go to the ATM and punch the buttons to make cash fall out, we are doing the same thing as the chickens that peck the colored buttons to make corn drop from the feeder.

"You will not do a single thing today, tomorrow or the next day that you have not been generally indoctrinated and deeply conditioned to do -- mostly along class lines."

I can't argue with that.

"The corporation now animates us from within our very selves through management of the need hierarchy in goods and information."

I can't argue with that, either. If you've ever rushed off to buy something after seeing it advertised on TV, I think your denial will ring rather hollow.

If you've ever asked your doctor if a drug you've seen advertised on the evening news would help your latest physical complaint, you haven't a leg to stand on.

If you've ever bought ANYTHING for the status it would bring, you're hooked by the corporate state.

To me, Dan, you are quoting the wrong passages. Here are some that mean the most to me--

"Yet I venture to say that none of us will ever feel an emotion that someone long dead had not felt, or some as-yet-unborn person will not feel. We are swimmers in an ancient rushing river of humanity. You, me, the people in my Central American village, the child in Bangladesh, and the millionaire frat boys who run our financial and governmental institutions with such adolescent carelessness. All of our lives will eventually be absorbed without leaving a trace."

Also, "If we exercise enough personal courage, we can possess the freedom to discover real meaning and value in our all-too-brief lives. We either wake up to life, or we do not. We are either in charge of our own awareness, or we let someone else manage it by default. That we have a choice is damned good news.

"The bad news is that we nevertheless remain one of the most controlled peoples on the planet, especially regarding control of our consciousness, public and private. And the control is tightening.

"I know it doesn't feel like that to most Americans. But therein rests the proof. Everything feels normal; everybody else around us is doing the same things, so it must be OK.

"This is a sort of Stockholm Syndrome of the soul, in which the prisoner identifies with the values of his or her captors, which in our case is of course, the American corporate state and its manufactured popular culture.

"When we feel that such a life is normal, even desirable, and we act accordingly, we become helpless. Learned helplessness."

Then, there's this: "Central America sure as hell ain't heaven. But lives there are not what we Americans are told about the Third World either. It's not a flyblown, dangerous place run by murdering drug lords and full of miserable people. It's just a whole lot of very poor people trying to get by and make a decent society.

"I mention these things because it's a good example of how North Americans live in a parallel universe in which they are conditioned to see everything in terms of consumer goods and "safety," as defined by police control, conditioned to believe they have the best lives on the planet by every measure.

"So when they see our village and its veneer of "tropical grunge," they experience fear. Anything outside of the parameters of the cultural hallucination they call "the First World" represents fear and psychological free fall.

"Yet, even if we think in that sort of outdated terminology, First, Second and Third World, and most Americans do, then America is a Second World nation. We have no universal free health care (don't kid yourself about the plan under way), no guarantee of anything really, except competitive struggle with one another for work and money and career status -- if you are one of those conditioned to think of your job and feudal debt enslavement as a "career" -- high infant-mortality rates, abysmal educational scores, poor diet, no national public transportation system, crumbling infrastructure, a collapsed economy. Even by our own definition we are a Second World nation."

Bingo! Bageant isn't saying, as Dan maintains, that all Americans should move to Belize, where he lives. That wouldn't make sense at all, even knowing how much Bageant likes living there. He understands that, for many Americans, such places scare the hell out of them.

And, for me, here's the closer: "Why prefer these expensive, earth-destroying things over love and laughter with real people and making real human music together with other human beings -- lifting our voices together, dancing and enjoying the world that was given to us? Absolutely for free.

"And the answer is this: We suffer under a mass national hallucination."

It seems to me that the lesson Bageant's trying to impart is simply this: We need to understand that living well means making more and more real, honest-to-god human connections, face-to-face, manno a manno. We need to ditch the chic duds, pull our pants up over our butts, turn off the reality TV, jerk the earplugs out of our heads, say "to hell" with text-messaging and twittering away our lives and get back to that pioneer spirit of looking after our neighbors and finding salvation in this life in a much simpler style.

Detroit Dan said...

Whew! I don't have much time to post now, but appreciate the response. There's certainly some food for thought there.

A quick reaction is that Bageant is an Amish Luddite who exaggerates to no end. I agree in general with the point he's trying to make, but spare me the moralistic blather. Let's agree that American society needs more genuine human contact and less material stuff, more creative time and less time on the ceaseless treadmill of capitalism.

But this I cannot accept:

"You will not do a single thing today, tomorrow or the next day that you have not been generally indoctrinated and deeply conditioned to do -- mostly along class lines."

Who is he talking to? Can the same be said about him? How about the citizens of Belize? How about you and me? Are we totally programmed? Is our exchange here some sort of hallucination? Yikes...