Tuesday, March 08, 2005


The Horror of improvements II

The following essay was origionally posted at William Grim's Z.C. Portal site.

It was the best of times (most of human history?): Back-breaking work in the field from sunrise to sunset. Misery and death from debilitating disease. Untended injuries and crippling deformities. One's life devoted to the mere acquisition of food. The risk of violent torture or death at the hands of all powerful rulers, roving brigands, or ruthless thugs.

It was the worst of times (our own time?): Air-conditioned comfort, an eight-hour work day with breaks, and unlimited supplies of food from around the world (all affordable with a mere fraction of a day's pay). Leisure weekends and yearly holiday travels. Reading, watching movies, going to restaurants. The world's art, music, literature, science and technology all at our fingertips. Communication, transportation, and cures to thousands of ailments ... etc.

To some in the developed world, our own time is the worst of times. We hear and read it often, in Op-Eds, pop film, and from people old and young, thoroughly convinced that the contemporary world is a terrible place. Ask them to explain or prove their contentions and you'll hear a litany of the latest crises heard on the television news or read in the newspaper.

Are these really the “worst of times,” where life expectancy, health, access to information, and varieties of leisure seem to go virtually unnoticed before a pronounced romantic nostalgia for better times that never were?

This paradox emerges in the popular reality that many of us are completely unaware of our own good fortune. In this world where continual progress is taken for granted, many of us are, for lack of a better word, spoiled.

Even if the perpetually pessimistic can sometimes be convinced by the facts that we may live in reasonably good times materially, they will decry this very “materialism” for failing to meet their “spiritual needs.” It appears that – surprise – Starbucks and Microsoft have failed to give us a valid instruction in religion and transcendence. Shame on them and shame on Capitalism!

Some seeking to rise from their personal misery, not only require the state to “provide” them with material securities like food, health care, and employment, many also require regulations and laws (over others) that will provide a sense of philosophical well being also (or so they hope). Just what is it in our open and diverse society that prevents them from pursuing a path that meets their existential cravings? Are they forced to eat at McDonalds? Must they buy that new cd or take those yoga lessons in their leisure? Would they really prefer the neon-free natural comfort of a cave, or a night's sleep with malaria carrying mosquitoes?

If someone’s “spiritual” needs are not being met, should it not ultimately be an issue between them and whatever god or goddess they imagine mediates with their world. To blame “society” for not bestowing spiritual security or happiness is akin to complaining that the local office supply shop fails to spark one’s sexual cravings.

In the school that I teach in, there are a few students – middle-aged women – who tell me how terrible our times are. One of them tells me that her teenage daughter feels the same way. I’m thinking, “Here are people who are relatively well-off, have considerable time for leisure to spend in any way they choose, and who have lives that exceed that of royalty in eras past.” (Royalty of prior eras couldn't jet to exotic far away places as commoners regularly do today, let alone recover from a thousand illnesses). Yet, they are troubled and disheartened by the “terrible” world they live in – and, of course, they want someone to fix it. Like many, they want a “leader,” or a bureaucratic apparatus to act as leader. When I hear such nonsense – and I hear it often – I'm compelled to ponder the perennially recurring political problem of why one person’s existential satisfaction should be the reason for another to live in bondage? I can't say why these people feel that the world they live is so terrible. Of course they can watch the skewed and sensationalistic news and think this to be genuinely the case, but how many of us really have terrible lives in our own daily existence? More so, how are our personal lives worse than prior eras? Would it really be a good idea to trash the remarkable democratization and progress of the last few centuries to return to the living standards of the Middle Ages or Stone Age? Do they really think if we just put our cell phones down and return to an agrarian mode of existence (of the kind Pol Pot tried to create) the perceived horrors of contemporary alienation will dissipate?

The imagined past and imaginary future are in pervasive tension with a willingness to accept the real present. It's no coincidence that this same conflict parallels that of “materialism” vs. the opposing escapist yearnings regularly palmed off as valid political options. Those who despise our modern world and the vastly improved circumstances it affords us are ultimately not concerned with their own lifestyle choices. What motivates their angst and anger is that many of us are willing participants in a world contrary to their own dream images. They’re unhappy so you should have the options available in a free society removed from your life.

One of the greatest contradictions one may encounter in political psychology is the paradox of why people who are independent and “non-conformists” want a society of imposed conformity (the extremist / collectivist stance). Some will merely make reference to their belief that we have “too much” freedom. Of course, “We” always means the rest of us who lack the critic's assumed moral nobility. It's not clear why their definition of “too much” should be a standard by which our own lives are circumscribed.

Of course all this whining and self-indulgent depression comes down to a more basic perpetual gripe. If some are not disgusted with the comfort of their pampered lives, they at least feel the need to feign an obligatory guilt. All too often the contemporary existential dilemma ultimately becomes a mere point of departure for the worn out Marxist critiques of free economy. 'Case in point:

This year, the same Cannes film Festival that inflated Michael Moore's ego to the proportion of his physical stature, also showered accolades upon a German film that “targets privilege.”though I haven't yet seen the film, Reuter's Joelle Diderich's review (5/12) effectively conveyed its main ideas. “The Edukators” heroes are three youths who break into wealthy people's villas leaving messages that will, “make their targets question their privilege.” (Pity the pampered Marxist whiners of Cannes, who are apparently unaware of their own privilege). The movie's director, Hans Weingartner, expressed his happiness in presenting the film “in the country where the word revolution was invented.” Apparently he failed to note the invention of the concept, “Reign of terror” that accompanied the first, essentially Socialist, “revolution” (the French Revolution) and most others thereafter. It might also be noted that his movie and his philosophy arose from the country where the phrase, “Mein Fueher” was invented. As one could expect from someone disenchanted with their contemporary personal life, Weingartner derides the “suffocating impact of advertising media images.” His angst appears to stem from the fact that he lives in a world where people try to sell things -- poor guy. One of the film's actors “critically” points out that “Che Guevara now appears on T-shirts.” (Indeed, It's a pity that Che's big brother mug can't just be confined to billboards in the public squares of police states). The self-absorbed Weingartner feels he's been “critical,” questioning “the status quo,” as if the Robin Hood ideal hasn't already been shoved into our heads for the past few centuries.

It’s important to recognize that there are some who stand to benefit from pervasive existential disenchantment. If people really believe they live in the worst of all possible worlds – or at least one requiring considerable repair – than there will always be a statist model of politics all too willing to jump in and “help.” Of course this has been done before, in every style of radical “revolution” (coup d`e`-tat) from the Nazi’s to the Khmer Rouge.

It is clear that a fervent schism has emerged in contemporary American political thought. Just what is it in our current circumstance that gives the disenchanted class cause for increased fervor? The Baby Boomer Jacobins from the '60s whine-fest have achieved virtually every demand they've made on the rest of us over the past several decades. The state has increased in size, authority, and power, and micro-manages and regulates all aspects of existence. We've spent over five trillion dollars on an ineffective “war on poverty” yet are continually told that we lack an adequate “safety net.” Colleges and even public schools have become bastions of politically correct proselytizing. The mainstream media and entertainment have become mouthpieces for every trendy radical cause and now, for all their successes in remolding our lives to fit their dreams, they're even more demanding that we submit to multicultural post-structuralist socialist “people's” obedience. Indeed, “the worst are full of passionate intensity” (to use Yeats' famous phrase).

To those who insist that these are the worst of times: By all means wallow in self pity, cringe at your leisure, and despise your latest play toys -- if it so satisfies you -- but leave me out of your plans for a “better” world. I'm as happy here in the 21st century Renaissance as you are in your imaginary utopian cave.

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