Sunday, April 8, 2012

Reflections on indulgence

About six months ago, my wife, stepdaughter, son, and I went to Chicago to visit the rest of my family. I owe my readers a more in-depth blog on that in the near future, but for now I wanted to share some reflections on indulgence, the old liberty vs. license debate.

The framework for my thinking about these things was that on the flight to Chicago I finished a book called "Reporter in Red China", by Charles Taylor (no, not the Liberian dictator). Taylor was a Canadian reporter stationed in China, and as such one of the few Westerners to witness the aftermath of the Great Leap Forward and the stirrings of the Cultural Revolution up close. The book is a fascinating look at daily life during a distinct period in China's history: the mid-1960s.

Anyway, aside from his understandable and oft-since-repeated interest in the privations and difficulties of life in China (lack of liberty, lack of luxuries, etc.), I was stricken by the author's depiction of a nation of people relatively well-cared-for by the State and each other. Above all I got a sense of a nation moving forward in lockstep, progressing toward a better tomorrow. From traditional festivals to the adoption of new egalitarian values to the plans for economic growth and well-being, Taylor's book shows a society of people sharing a common purpose. Despite the occasional government excesses and oppression from which the people were suffering in that period, the salient feature of Taylor's book is a constant improvement in people's well-being thanks to a sense of the collective, of the common good.

If Taylor's portrayal of the national project (which comes out as positive despite his obvious misgivings about China and Western frame of reference) is accurate, then today's economic boom and steady rise in living standards in China is the fruit of this common effort, this subjugation of personal, short-term comfort to the greater good. In China it has taken the form of a monolithic dictatorship, but the phenomenon of a unified society rapidly improving its economic well-being also mirrors the US experience. In various moments of our history, we have seen our collective fortunes rise as the society banded together for a common project. The most-cited example is the post-World War II economic expansion in the 1950s and 1960s. In this era the people of the US harnessed a sense of our intertwined fates (likely inspired by the shared wartime experience) to create a prosperous society. Economic inequality was low, medicine and electricity arrived to almost everyone, educational attainment steadily increased, both unions and private companies were strong. Common depictions of this era highlight the rigid cultural and moral strictures that bound people, with the extreme manifestation being the McCarthy Communist witch hunt. I sometimes wonder if an inherent part of this type of rapid, shared economic development is a certain suppression of personal freedoms. If everyone can do whatever he pleases, then it's difficult to undertake large-scale pursuits requiring a shared set of values and a unified front of work.

There were other problems going on in the 1950s, too. Institutionalized racism was rampant, with a constant terror campaign leveled at Southern blacks in particular (though I wonder how 1950s black-white economic inequality compares to that of our day). That said, it seems that the prosperity and sense of shared purpose forged in the 40s and 50s laid the groundwork for people from all walks of life to challenge and eventually overcome this stifling institutional racism. Other problems have their roots in the 1950s, and their solutions have not yet arrived. In particular I'm thinking of the consumerist, petroleum-dependent lifestyle that expanded thanks to new electrodomestic machines, cheap cars and gas, and above all the suburban explosion. Perhaps this increase in apparent personal liberty at a consumer level was a compensatory response to the stifling of other freedoms of thought and conscience.

The 1950s began our departure from a life linked to the land and certain rational limits (living close to where you work and play, living in settings that can support human life, living in a balance with certain "pest" organisms instead of aiming for their total destruction). And we have only continued this trend, living with more sprawl, in ever-less-appropriate climates (Phoenix, Orlando, Los Angeles), and more dependent on artificial manipulation of the life forms around us.

At any rate, my take is that in the 1960s our monolithic morality started to crumble, and from then on our sense of shared values and purpose went downhill, as did our economy. Of course it has been positive that we as a nation have torn down the evil aspects of our shared morality, such as discrimination and hatred against certain people, or that we protested against an immoral war like Vietnam. But the collateral effect of the 60s counterculture was that it shattered the idea that we're all in this together. From the 60s onward we became more atomized, a nation of individual conscience and preferences. First it happened on the ethical and political level, then it spread into our wider consumerist cultural framework, such that by the time I was born, we were like a nation of solipsistic animals, each one seeking only its own pleasure through purchases and perhaps its particular, extreme political or social affinities.

I sum up all of this with the term indulgence. I feel that in the US we are now a bunch of self-indulgent children, so concerned with their own narrow caprices that they can't band together for a common purpose. We can't teach real science in our schools because it might offend a few religious fundamentalists. We can't teach black history because it offends whites, we can't inculcate patriotism because it offends left-wing free-thinkers, and we can't rally around the founding fathers because they were slaveholders, and it wouldn't be politically correct to recognize their foresight and bravery. Narrow-minded monolinguals who don't even speak their native English very poetically bristle at the idea of offering government services in other languages (as they were in fact offered for their grandparents). We can't address climate change because no one wants to turn down their AC or get off their fat asses and walk to work. Minorities are so centered on the laundry list of sufferings visited upon their particular group that they don't find common cause with other oppressed people. We can't pursue excellence in our educational system because it might offend the mediocre. In short, everyone is caught up in his or her own self-indulgence, and our most ardent political passions are stir not to secure a better life for us all, but rather to fuck over whatever group we don't happen to belong to.

Ironically, it seems that all of this narcissistic, counter-productive individualism is borne in large part of our relative prosperity, which in turn was the result of hard work in the name of collective greatness, a common cause. If this is so, a unified common effort to improve life for all sows the seeds for its own destruction, in the form of the prosperity and well-being it engenders. This seems to have happened in the Soviet-bloc countries, in Libya, and surely in other places I don't know about. The narrative of these revolutions that we've always received in the US has been one of people rising up to demand civil liberties from an oppressive regime, but I think my narrative also fits: people's living standards rise (in the aforementioned cases, thanks to an ugly dictatorship that has simultaneously imposed many measures to improve collective well-being), and once they get to a certain point, people are either too comfortable, or the steam has run out from the big push forward, and they stop feeling so unified. They start bickering and coveting junk (bluejeans in the Soviet Union, low-cost air-conditioning in the US Sun Belt, an extreme racist religious fanatic culture in Libya), and they no longer see their fellow citizens as partners in a shared project, but rather as competitors to get the scarce luxury goods. (Religious extremism is simply another luxury good, only conceivable to the pampered well-off, and founded like rampant consumerism on the same divorce from objective reality and natural limits).

If my reading is correct, then I would certainly apply it to the current economic crisis in the US. Everyone was so caught up in indulging their own absurd wishes that they didn't take the steps to avoid personal and collective catastrophe. Regular people decided they wanted to live beyond their means, with more TVs and cars and clothes and restaurant meals than their wages allowed for, so they made up the difference with ill-advised borrowing. Banks and their employees wanted to make ever-more money, so instead of sticking to managing loans and deposits they added all sorts of arcane scams to fabricate money out of thin air. And of course they were all too happy to make loans to people they shouldn't have. The big investment banks and traders were in the same game, lying and scamming to make more money and obtain more luxury shit, though any sensible person could have seen that they were merely concentrating wealth, not creating it. And now even Obama and the US government are in the game of coddling and indulgence. Instead of making borrowers and lenders and fraudsters and bankers pay for their sins, the government is taking measures to kick the ball of debt down the road. Politicians and those who vote for them are engaged in navel-gazing contests, making increasingly extreme and impracticable ideological statements, preferring grandiose moral theater to a shared commitment to our nation's well-being.

Some argue that a free market and/or a free democracy inevitably trends toward this state of affairs. If your economic or your political system insists on constant short-term expansion of consumption and indulgence, what do you do once you've satisfied most people's basic needs? You have to keep adding on layers of decadent pampering to keep the system going. Of course this pampering is only apparent, because in the end our living standards are going down, as are our political freedoms. But this is precisely because we and our systems are so focused on the ideal of short-term satisfaction that we can't organize ourselves to attain long-term improvement. A while ago Vanity Fair did a good profile of the tax crisis facing much of California, and I feel it captures well what I'm trying to say.

Another book that seemed to me a microcosm of this trend of atomization of our republic into little selfish individual spheres is called Power! How to get it, how to use it. It's by Michael Korda (incidentally the father of the leader of the Church of Euthanasia). It's a silly little corporate-inspiration book from the 1970s. I dug it up some years ago in my dad's basement, and took it back from Chicago this time to read here in Colombia. I'm surprised that my father would have touched such tripe, but I believe that it dates from a brief phase in which he tried to transform his affable, traditional morality of the common good into an attitude that would bring him success in 1980s corporate America.

Anyway, Korda's book is an amateurish study (no citations or anything, just pure anecdote) of the big-dick movers and shakers of late 1960s Manhattan. He talks about how to gain power in conversations, parties, office space arrangements, etc. I wonder if the people he profiles, or anyone who would follow his advice, actually do any work, or if they spend all their time jockeying for power. He never talks about excellence in your work, or team spirit, or anything like that. While I appreciate that power exists and it's good and interesting to know how to analyze it and use it, real life depends on real work. If you are planting or hunting your own food, there's no one to dick around with in power games. You either work or you perish. In higher social strata of society, or especially in more modernized, compartmentalized societies, it's possible to substitute social power intrigue for actual work, but ultimately what you're doing is sapping resources from the collective, and free-riding your way through life.

Korda's advice of constant power-plays and little work must have seemed to him like an unfulfillable fantasy in his day. He came from the hard-working 60s, in which our quaint common purpose made the nation great and strong, and diminished interpersonal differences in wealth and power. But little must he have known that by the 80s everyone would be following his advice, and with what results! People worked less and schemed more, companies offshored their operations or dedicated themselves to mergers instead of actual production, power-lusty talking heads like Pat Robertson or Rush Limbaugh took over a big part of our nation's political discourse, and our nation became a shambles, a land of sloth and immorality and inequality. Once again my reading is that the prosperity borne of collective effort and shared values allows some societal leeches to come to power, to desire more and trick others into believing that they too can have more by ransacking and derailing the collective train and pursuing their own self-indulgence.

At any rate, these are the comings-and-goings that have been happening in my head since that trip to Chicago in October. The reality of the trip was that I didn't see people acting particularly self-indulgent or self-destructively. Everyone seemed nice and hard-working, so I'm not sure how the collective can be so screwed up. Perhaps the ambiguity of my thinking on this matter can be summed up by an anecdote from the trip.

I found out about a guy who's a furry. This term describes people who feel like they should be an animal instead of a human, or at least a sort of anthropomorphic animal. This seems pretty silly to me, but on the other hand I don't want to be intolerant. Perhaps some people have either an all-encompassing personal need, or a tenacious neurotic compulsion, to dress up like animals, and if so, I wouldn't want them to suffer by stifling their true selves. But short of that, I feel that if you have an urge to dress up like an animal, or drink coffee compulsively, or shout like a maniac, or anything else that compromises your ability to function as a productive member of society, then you should err on the side of discretion, and keep it to yourself. I mean, where is the line between personal rights and self-indulgence? I don't do everything I feel like doing, because certain things seem inappropriate, counterproductive, or even harmful to myself or others. I don't see that dressing up like a fox would be particularly harmful, but if you were totally centered on it, and all you want to do is be a fox, what good are you for yourself or your society?

Again, I also see the flipside of this. I wouldn't agree if someone said that gays should just straighten up and stop being gay being it's a waste of time, or that meat-eaters should be forced not to eat meat because it's better for the planet. I do respect civil liberties. But is it a God-given right to dress like a poodle? Perhaps I'm a victim of my time, and in the future my questioning the validity of furry-hood might sound similar to a 1950s condemnation of the "sodomite lifestyle" or something. Then again, we could argue that our tolerance is also a mere caprice of the era we live in. If today's gay man lived in a time and a place in which being gay wasn't even a societal option, would he be that miserable? If success and happiness were collectively defined as having a productive farm, a loving wife, and lots of kids, how much would that societal standard be valid for that man, and how much would he still long to express his inner gay man? Likewise, if an ostensibly heterosexual man lived in ancient Sparta, or today's misogynistic, gay-cultured Pashtu regions, or a densely-populated Polynesian island where certain boys are assigned to an effeminate third sex, wouldn't he find satisfaction in the loving, sharing relationship with another man that his society proposed as the norm or the ideal?

I haven't totally defined my opinion on what I'll call the "furry issue", but in my mind I link it to the issue of short-sighted self-indulgence. Is a nation of furries going to pull together to address the challenge of improving life, healing the planet, fighting injustice? I don't think so, any more than will a nation of scheister investment bankers, or Big Mac-atarians, or complacent megachurch fundamentalists, or everything-rights activists. That said, my wife, who since meeting me has adopted a surprisingly sympathetic, sweet, tolerant, concerned attitude toward the culture and the trials of the US, has a different take on the furry guy. In this case, the guy makes a living designing and sewing elaborate outfits for other furries. These things can go for thousands of dollars. So he has found a way to parlay his lifestyle preference into a lucrative, productive career. My wife said that that is the beauty of the USA. You can get an idea and pursue your dreams, no matter how far-out your idea seems. Anything goes if you work hard and play fair. I'm still not entirely convinced that furry suits are a valid or desirable addition to our country's economic portfolio, but I appreciate my wife's insight, and indeed, if being a furry, or a fuzzy, or a tranny, or a Civil War reenacter, or whatever you are doesn't impair your contributing to society, why should I be against it?

1 comment:

  1. I question -- question your system of values, as to what counts as "contribution to society", because you seem to be biased towards that which provides objective, functional utility, and against that which may provide subjective value and meaning to some. Although in general I agree with your criticism of indulgence in US culture.