Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Clueless Conversations (A Look At The Country)

Once again, I am down in So. Cal. for Christmas. This time, I traveled by different means than I normally use. Heretofore, I had always driven straight from Portland to here and back, having developed something of an allergy to flying several years ago. (Who wouldn't be allergic, what with TSA checkpoints, pat-downs of grandmas and grandpas, full body scans, deferred maintenance on aircraft, and pilots who make less per hour than Pizza Hut drivers?) Unfortunately, driving from Portland to So. Cal. takes about seventeen hours, assuming that a driver knows when to judiciously drive faster than the speed limit, and that he doesn't spend more than the minimum time necessary at gas stations, coffee shops, and fast food joints. It takes a few hours longer if you decide to drive at or below the speed limit all the way, although you can shorten the time by driving a car with an extremely large fuel tank and doing without bathroom breaks. Good luck with that!

Last time, I was not judicious enough in knowing when to speed. I also made the mistake of believing that since I had never been stopped by the California Highway Patrol, they were therefore harmless. They got me about 25 miles south of Weed, California. My trip wound up costing an extra $200. At least the cop who wrote the ticket was a nice guy, or the trip would have been even more costly.

So this time I took the train, a choice which provided a good opportunity to study some of the features of mainstream American culture, as most of my fellow travelers were Anglo-Americans. I like to use traveling time to improve myself, so I brought my computer, my guitar, a copy of the Good Book, a graduate level text on HVAC system design, and a copy of the New Penguin Russian Course (Я ещё изучаю руский язык).

Most other people also brought computers and other hand-held data display devices, on which the majority were watching movies or playing video games. Occasionally I saw someone reading a book. In almost all cases, the books being read were popular novels. The man sitting next to me had his smartphone plugged into the AC power socket next to the window, and he was following a football game involving the Seattle Seahawks. A relative of his was sitting in the seat directly in front of him, and was doing the same thing on his own smartphone. Occasionally the two men exchanged comments on the progress of the game. About half an hour out of Eugene, an elderly man sitting in the aisle across from me looked over at my fellow passenger and said, “How 'bout them Seahawks! Too bad they don't have a TV on this train. Otherwise, we could watch 'em! I wonder if anybody has a TV or a laptop we could use to watch 'em!” Suddenly feeling uncomfortable in the presence of my company, I decided to move to the observation car, where I busted out one of my books and started to read.

I chose a seat across a table from a tall, thin, quiet blonde woman. She was also reading (her book was a novel), although from time to time she looked at her smartphone. She never spoke. However, most of the people in the observation car were quite talkative, and as I read, occasionally I focused my attention on the scraps of conversation reaching my ears. Two conversations stood out on account of their extreme banality. One conversation was between two men sitting at a table right behind me, and concerned brew pubs in Portland and the opening of a McMenamins pub out on the West Side (west of the Willamette River for those of you who are unfamiliar with Portland). This led one of the men to talk at great length (rather incoherently) about which brand of beer was his favorite.

The other conversation was between two young women at another nearby table, and concerned work and career. It seems that one of the women works at a Starbucks and the other works in a telemarketing call center, having worked in Starbucks for a while as well. Both women constantly used two particular four-letter words in describing the downsides and the high points of their jobs, which included getting lots of free coffee. One of them remarked to the other that she had wanted to work at a Starbucks ever since she was a little girl. Then they discussed their interest in creative writing and some of the writing classes they had taken, using one of their two favorite four-letter words as a noun to describe the things they wrote about.

The conductors announced that they were taking dinner reservations, so I signed up for a time slot. When my time came, I made my way to the dining car, where I was seated across from a quiet, middle-aged married couple. I also was quiet. For several minutes, I sat and continued listening to the conversations of others. A couple of tables down the aisle, there sat a big, burly young man wearing a baseball cap. Next to him was a cute young blond woman. They were obviously attached to each other. Across from them sat an elderly woman. The couple was in the midst of delivering a long lesson in things Americans like to the elderly woman, using lots of pronouns such as “I” and “we” as they went down the list of favorite foods, sports and other things. I wondered at them, because it had seemed to me that all three of them were Americans (whenever the elderly woman managed to get a word in edgewise, she did not speak with any obvious accent).

Directly across the aisle from our table was another table, at which two couples were seated. One couple consisted of an African-American man married to a Caucasian woman. Both were middle-aged. Across the table from them was a young Asian pair who were, I believe, at the boyfriend-girlfriend stage. The conversation shared between these four, and the conversation I had with my dinner companions, were the most thought-provoking ones I heard during the entire trip.

My conversation began slowly. The couple at my table started by sharing some ice-breaking information about themselves. I found out that they had recently sailed up the Amazon River in South America, and were now traveling from Portland to Klamath Falls. This piqued my curiosity and got me talking. “Klamath Falls? Isn't that where the Oregon Institute of Technology is? I know a bit about their renewable energy engineering program.” I informed them that I am an engineer. They then informed me that they had both worked in the engineering field, the husband as a civil engineer and the wife as a drafter. They asked me how I liked engineering, to which I replied that there were parts I hated – namely the attempt by employers to work us like dogs for 55 to over 70 hours per week, world without end. My comment led to a general discussion of present-day life in America.

The discussion covered some familiar ground, such as the fact that people in most other countries – including many Third World countries – seem to be much healthier mentally than Americans, the fact that most immigrants to this country come here in much better mental health than most native-born U.S. citizens, and the fact that immigrant mental health deteriorates with increasing length of time in America and increasing Americanization. The wife then asked rhetorically, “Why is it so that we are so selfish here, so isolated from each other?” “I think it's because of the myths on which this country was founded,” I opined. “Other nations have realized for a long time that their citizens lived in a land of limits, in which everyone had to sacrifice certain prerogatives so that all might benefit. The dominant culture in the United States has always believed that there are no limits to what we can do or have if we want something badly enough. Therefore we haven't learned effective strategies for sharing limited resources with each other.”

That led us to talk about where we believed this country is heading as undeniable limits are beginning to bite us. It was also at this point that I began to tune in to the conversation between the mixed-race couple and the Asian boyfriend-girlfriend pair sitting at the table across the aisle from my table. The African-American male half of the married couple was relating what sounded like a belief that Asian (specifically Chinese) culture, intellectual power and economic might would bring about the end of American hegemony. It was with some effort that I managed to remain focused on my own conversation. At my table, we reviewed the spectrum of the most widely-held opinions concerning the future of industrial society, and of the United States in particular. Then a moment came when our food was all eaten, our energy spent, our words all said. We all excused ourselves and said our goodbyes for the night.

As I returned to the observation car, I saw several new arrivals, including some college-age guys enjoying a night of underage drinking. It occurred to me that they, as well as most of the passengers, were so typical of Anglo-American culture at present: unreflecting, sensual, incapable of articulating anything other than the cravings induced in them by our commercialized culture, and totally clueless about the future. Later, as I tried to sleep, my thoughts expanded to consider how the wealthiest and most powerful members of our society had become utterly incapable of giving ground or sacrificing assumed “rights” in order to benefit the common good. I was particularly mindful of the statement of the president of the NRA to the effect that guns were not the reason for the recent shooting rampages in this country, and that instead of restricting gun access, we should install armed guards in every elementary school in the United States. I was thinking also of the most recent shooting rampage, in which an older white male with a criminal history set some houses on fire and then shot volunteer firefighters as they arrived to try to put the fires out, before shooting himself. I thought of the lack of adult, intelligent, realistic conversations on the part of media figures or politicians to address the violent reality of mainstream American culture, or the multifaceted predicament we now face. We are forced by events to acknowledge that our society is killing us, yet nothing is done to effectively remedy the causes of the killing, because to do so would cause certain wealthy people to lose a lot of money, and would force most of us to live far more simply. And that's something that most people don't want to talk about.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Liberty of Addicts

...Jesus therefore said to those Jews who had believed him, “If you remain in my word, then you are truly my disciples. You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are Abraham’s offspring, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How do you say, ‘You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Most certainly I tell you, everyone who commits sin is the bondservant of sin. A bondservant doesn’t live in the house forever. A son remains forever. If therefore the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.
There is a myth widely taught in public schools today. (At least it was widely taught when I was a kid.) That myth goes something like this: The United States was founded by people who were pursuing liberty – especially freedom from governmental restrictions which violated their conscience, in order that each man might have full liberty to act in accordance with the dictates of his conscience and reason. Therefore the chief priority of free citizens of our glorious democracy must be to guard this liberty at all costs, and to prevent the encroachment of any governmental restrictions on this “liberty,” defined as I have defined it here.

But let write an equivalent definition of “liberty,” using simpler language. The United States has defined liberty as the freedom to do whatever you want. Plain and simple, isn't it?

Let me ask a question. If you live in a country where you can do whatever you want, are you actually free? Suppose you live in such a country, yet you are addicted to alcohol or heroin. Let's also say that you have ready access to however much alcohol or heroin you may desire. Are you still free? Are you free when you are so enslaved to your addiction that you can't do what you are supposed to do, and you can no longer avoid suffering the consequences of not doing what you are supposed to do and doing what you are not supposed to do?

I propose therefore a radically different definition of liberty: the freedom to do what you are supposed to do. Liberty is the freedom to obey moral “ought's.”

By that definition, America is not free. America is a nation of addicts run by addicts. The addicts who run the show are addicted to the continued accumulation of ever more unholy concentrations of wealth. And they continue to enrich themselves by pushing an addictive lifestyle onto the rest of us. The means used by these pushers include advertising, media capture, the promotion of dysfunctional trashy popular culture, and the dishonest manipulation of political discourse in this country. One particularly egregious example of that manipulation is the attempt to demonize any governmental restriction on potentially hurtful behaviors and policies of private citizens – especially when they are wealthy.

Thus we have incidents like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, for which British Petroleum still has not been brought to book. We have blatant lying and misrepresentation of facts by Fox News. We have fraud and misinformation practiced by the Wall Street Journal. We have banking and investment fraud practiced by outfits like Goldman Sachs and MF Global. And no one goes to jail.

But in this country, it's not just the extremely wealthy who can cause unspeakable harm to their fellow citizens. Ordinary people can get in on the act. We have seen two shooting sprees in the last seven days. The most recent shooting spree claimed 27 lives (20 children and seven adults), and happened within the last 24 hours. A few days ago, there was a shooting spree at the Clackamas Town Center (less than 10 miles from where I live); three people are dead. According to some reports I have read, there have been at least five random shooting sprees in the United States this year.

Predictably, the latest shooting spree has revived discussions regarding gun control. Predictably, the Republican Party and the National Rifle Association are gearing up to oppose any new restrictions on gun ownership, and to further weaken those restrictions that already exist. But it's funny how the number of shooting rampages in the United States has been increasing every year since 2007, when the Federal Government under President Bush allowed a number of gun ownership restrictions to lapse, and several state houses controlled by Republicans began to to allow just about anyone in those states to own and carry a gun. According to Mother Jones, there have been at least 62 firearm-involved mass murders in the United States since 1982, and 43 of the 62 mass murderers were white males. In the vast majority of cases, the weapons used were obtained legally. According to other studies, the United States is the most violent nation in the OECD, and the American South is the most violent region in the U.S.

It seems obvious that mainstream America is increasingly a nation of disconnected, antisocial individuals who are a menace to themselves and to each other. It also seems obvious that rectifying this situation will involve placing restrictions on people's access to technologies and devices that can be used to hurt a lot of people. Guns are at the top of the list of things that should have very restrictive access. But cars can easily qualify as well. Many people who buy large SUV's do so not because they need these vehicles, but because such vehicles serve as instruments of intimidation.

Finally, it seems obvious that unless this nation becomes truly free – free to do what we ought – many of us are likely to destroy each other in the pursuit of doing whatever we want. Trying to do whatever you crave doesn't work well in an age of economic contraction and energy descent.