The Destruction of the Self

Of all the events in our destructive time this is the most serious – and also the easiest and the most invisible. No one notices it is happening, because they are obsessed by events outside themselves, not events inside themselves. Gradually, they come to feel that they, as persons, are inferior to the much larger events outside them.

This is the exact opposite of the sequence at the beginning of the modern world: where the individual became important for the first time in history, and where everything depended on him, his awareness of what was going on, and his actions – especially politically. People in the post-modern world, by contrast, are apolitical – it not apathetic.

What are these outside spectacular events? Boorstin, in his book The Image puts it well:
In this book I describe the world of our making; how we have used our wealth, our literacy, and our progress, to create a thicket of unreality which stands before us and the facts of life. I recount historical forces which have given us the unprecedented opportunity do deceive ourselves and befog our experience.

Of course, American has provided the landscape and has given us the opportunity for this feat of national self-hypnosis. But each of us individually provides the market and the demand for the illusions which flood our experience.

We want and believe these illusions because we suffer from extravagant expectations. We expect too much of the world. Our expectations are extravagant in the precise dictionary sense of the word – “going beyond the limits of reason or moderation”. They are excessive.

The making of the illusions which flood our experience has become the business of America, some of its most honest and most necessary and most respectable business. I am thinking not only of advertising and public relations and political rhetoric, but of all the activities which purport to inform and comfort and improve and educate and elevate us: the work of our best journalists, our most enterprising book publishers, our most energetic manufacturers and merchandisers, our most successful entertainers, our best guides for foreign travel, and our most influential leaders in foreign relations. Our every effort to satisfy our extravagant expectations simply makes them more extravagant and makes our more attractive. The story of the making of our illusions – “the news behind the news” – has become the most appealing news of the world.

We tyrannize and frustrate ourselves by expecting more than the world can give us or than what we can make of the world. We demand that everyone that talks to us, or writes for us, or takes pictures for us, or makes merchandise for us, should live in our world of extravagant expectations. We expect this even of the people of foreign countries. We have become so used to our illusions we mistake them for reality. And we demand that there be always more of them, bigger and better and more vivid. They are the world of our making: the world of the image.
What happened to the self in all this? It disappeared. We were looking out there so hard, we lost our ability to look in here – and became a stranger to ourselves and the ordinary world.

Frances Perkins

From Wikipedia:

Frances Perkins (born Fannie Coralie Davies, (April 10, 1880[1] – May 14, 1965) was the U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945, and thefirst woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet. As a loyal supporter of her friend, Franklin D. Roosevelt, she helped pull the labor movement into the New Deal coalition.

I heard about her from listening to Nothing to Fear, about the first 100 days of FDR’s administration – which has been an educational experience. Perkins was a social reformer, in a country that badly needed reforming. She was associated with a number of settlement houses in Chicago and New York City – such as Hull House.

In those days, being a social worker was a noble calling, requiring considerable personal sacrifice. Now that America has swung to the right, they are looked on with disfavor, and barely tolerated.

America is collapsing from the inside out

Any society is constructed on an internal framework of beliefs, skills, and ideas. These shape and support the external structure. If this internal infrastructure is damaged, the building has nothing left to support it, and will not last long.

But this is not immediately obvious from the outside, and those living in it may feel it is stronger than ever, and will last forever. This attitude is a sure sign that the end is approaching. I remember visiting Great Britain, when the people were still in shock, because the British Empire was no more. They went from being the most powerful and richest country in the world to practically nothing.

For those in touch with what was really going on, this was no surprise. But they were a small minority. Most did not have a clue, and only believed what everyone else believed.

This did not happen overnight, it started with WWI, but WWII finished it off – and installed a new empire, the American one. In much the same way, the Cold War and the whole series of wars that followed it, such as Iraq, are finishing off America. Of course this not the only thing wrong: the economy, which has its own infrastructure, is inadequate also.

But that is not all, the American economy is completely integrated with the global economy. And American values have become global values. As a result, the whole world is in big trouble. In little Costa Rica people feel like the ground has been pulled out from underneath them, like they are in an earthquake that will not go away.

Sonic Pollution in Costa Rica

Yes, there is such thing, believe it or not. My landlord (though his lawyer) sued the neighborhood bar about this in the municipal court in Cartago, the county seat. The bar has immediately quieted down, much to my relief.

Nothing happens during the last two weeks of any year – everyone takes a vacation – except for the bars and the whores in the coffee-picking areas, of course, who do a brisk business. Overloaded trucks are everywhere, taking the coffee cherries to be processed.  Many of the pickers are illegal Nicas, not the highest-class kind of people. But nobody complains because they need pickers desperately. Instead of shade-grown coffee, which produces a better product, the newer varieties are sun-tolerant and produce more cherries – but also need more chemicals and fertilizer – in other words, have higher costs. The higher supply, as always, means lower prices – so the typical coffee farmer is on a treadmill, going nowhere.

Specialty farms, such as Cafe Christina, which is owned by an American family only a short distance away, who take frequent tours through their farm, explaining their philosophy, and selling directly on the Internet, by contrast, are doing well.

Quality coffee is a gringo concept, not easily understood by Latinos. The worst coffee I have ever had was in Orosi, in the heart of the coffee belt. They judge it by how heavily it is advertised, or how cheap it is, not by how it tastes.

The New Deal was a Big Deal

I am now listening to Nothing to Fear, an account of FDR’s first 100 days in office, and I am gaining a new respect for the man. My father never had a good word for him and favoredWendell Willkie in 1940. My schoolmates in Ft. Madison, Iowa, where I was attending grade school, where mostly blue-collar kids, and jeered me loudly about this. Like most, they believed he had saved America. Which he had.

We have forgotten how bad the Depression was, and how desperate people all over the world were. In Germany, it made the rise of Hitler possible. FDR had a simple idea: that the government should help the people. Hoover had just the opposite idea: that the government should not help the people, because this would morally degrade them and make them unable to help themselves. Helping the rich, of course, was a different matter.

In our time, we have forgotten all about this, and the New Deal has been dismantled almost entirely – with the exception of Social Security, thank heavens, which has kept me alive. We also hear a lot of talk about pragmatism, which usually means letting the rich and powerful have their way. FDR was the ultimate pragmatist, he made his peace with Tammany Hall early on, and he certainly knew the comforts of a patrician upbringing. But like Teddy Roosevelt he had a mind of his own – even thought he wasn’t always sure what it was – and relied on a gifted team to figure it out. He was in favor of whatever worked, and he wasn’t afraid to try almost anything that seemed like it might have a chance – and to try it immediately.

His first 100 days set a standard that would never be equaled.

The book may tell you more than you really wanted to know about this far-away time – which was far more open than anything we have today – where the government can spy on the people, but the people cannot spy on the government.

No place for Non-Conformists

Nonconformism has a respectable history. According to Wikipedia:

Nonconformist was a term used in England after the Act of Uniformity 1662 to refer to an English subject belonging to a non-Christian religion or any non-Anglican church. It may also refer more narrowly to such a person who also advocated religious liberty. The term is also applied retrospectively to English Dissenters (such as Puritans and Presbyterians) who violated theAct of Uniformity 1559, typically by practising or advocating radical, sometimes separatist, dissent with respect to the Established Church.

PresbyteriansCongregationalistsBaptistsQuakers (founded in 1648), and those less organized were considered Nonconformists at the time of the 1662 Act of Uniformity. Later, as other groups formed, they were also considered Nonconformists. These included MethodistsUnitarians, and members of the Salvation Army.

The Salvation Army! It’s hard to believe they were once considered a radical group. But it’s hard to argue with history – although some will try.

In this posting I will try to show that a new conformity has gripped America – all the more insidious because few are aware of it. It might be called the conformity of corporatism: our latest religion. One of the dogmas of this new religion is uncritical acceptance. Of what? Of itself, of course.

One of the hallmarks of modern society was critical thinking. And one of the hallmarks of a non-modern society has always been uncritical acceptance of the way things are. This is the kind of society America became in the Fifties. I can remember it well – and I certainly did not like it. And it has taken me this long to understand what was going on. It was simply a return to normalcy: to a non-modern world – the world mankind has lived in most of its existence.

This new world, the post-modern world, is different, however: it has the latest technologies, but the oldest social structures: repressive and hierarchical. In other words: like China, which has concentrated on increasing wealth, but neglected human values entirely. This is the wave of the future: 1984 with a twist Orwell could not not possibly have anticipated – since it depended on technologies that had not yet been invented.

Allow me to illustrate how this change worked with an example from my own history: its effect on the church I was born in, and which all my family, expect myself, still believes in – even though it now longer exists in its previous form. Back in the Forties, it still believed it was the one true church, that all the others were wrong, and it was going to save the world! Modest pretensions, but not uncommon for the time Mormonism appeared: the early 19th Century. At the time, all kinds a strange religions flourished: the Shakers, for example. These were not tolerant times: the founder of the Mormon Church, Joseph Smith, was killed by an angry mob. But nevertheless all kinds of deviant behavior existed – including prominent free-thinkers, such as Emerson and Thoreau.

America was becoming more democratic all the time. The slaves were freed and women got the right to vote. This progress stopped late in that same century with growing power of industrialization and capitalism. Populism and the union movement tried to stop it, but were unsuccessful. In the next century, the New Deal tried to stop it, but was also unsuccessful.

After WWII, everything changed. Financial independence, via the small business, especially the family farm, was no longer possible, and Americans were forced to work for large organizations, where they became organization people: something new for Americans – but something most embraced eagerly. One side-effect of this change was complete conformity – which they accepted uncritically.

This sea-change made our little church (the Missouri Mormons) unacceptable, and it had to stop being non-conformist – which it is not done very well.

“But what about the Mormons,” you may ask, “How come they are so successful? They are certainly different.” Yes, they are, but they are different with a difference, one that allowed them to survive, and even thrive. After they went to Utah they were a different as they could be – but they gradually woke up and decided to join America after all: they accepted the inevitable, and became as conservative as they could be: the ideal employees for the new economy. Companies, and especially all our security agencies, love to hire them: they are hard-working and honest. Even Howard Hughes spend his last days with them. A Mormon will never be president, they are still considered too strange for that. But they are the fastest-growing church in America – and you can’t argue with success in America.

America has no enemies

This may strike you as insane, but it is true. We have no external enemies to amount to anything. Why should anyone be our enemy? Who wants to end up looking ridiculous like Osama bin Laden?  9/11 was such a success, publicity-wise, how can it be improved on? And if American wants to bring its own troops to Iraq or Afghanistan, they make fine targets. Why go all the way to America? Everyone knows America is a declining power, so why worry about it?

But this last point is exactly what bothers Americans. If we have no enemies to speak of – like when had the USSR – and this implies that we are not important anymore ourselves – an idea we cannot stand.

So we create enemies, and pretend they are going to rape us in our beds – men and women both.