Monday, January 19, 2015

Losing the Imperial Inheritance

For those of you who’ve been following this blog the last couple of weeks (or the last 9 years), you may have noticed that I’ve thoroughly vilified the system that furnishes us with a comfy, middle-class lifestyle. But why would I want to disassemble the Empire now? We’ve got a good thing going here! Surely it can still be counted on to deliver a comfortable life for myself and my progeny?

Therein lies the rub. Our lifestyle isn’t as comfy as it used to be, and it seems to be getting less comfy each year. In fact, I don’t think the Empire will be capable much longer of keeping us in the manner to which we’re accustomed. And that may be the most decisive factor in my political radicalization: the failure of the American Empire to give me the share of the American Dream that I believed was my birthright. 

I would like to believe that I would’ve been aware of and fought the evils of the American Empire even if I'd lived through its Golden Age, as my parents did. But my track record implies otherwise. Despite being aware of my imperial complicity for a decade, I’ve repeatedly returned to the corporate world, trying to preserve and then, after quitting my cushy job, recover that cozy corner of the American Dream I’d been looking forward to since childhood. If I’d managed to stay on Easy Street, I’m not sure I would’ve been willing to abandon my creature comforts in an effort to undermine the imperial system. 

I’m forced to admit that this historical period has catalyzed my awareness of the crimes on which the Empire, and my comfortable existence, is based. When you’re sitting pretty, you’re less likely to question the socioeconomic structure of your society, and you’re far less likely to indict that structure. After all, you deserve to be successful, right? You’re a good person, and you’ve earned everything you've got. That seems to be the default self-image of the middle class.

It’s much easier to condemn these luxuries as they slip away. When your bed isn’t as comfortable as it used to be, you’re more likely to lie awake and question the assumptions by which you’ve lived. You’re more likely to think that things are headed in the wrong direction and may never have been just and fair in the first place. When the luxuries your class once enjoyed are now enjoyed by others, it’s much easier to question those people’s worthiness and the justice of the system that is creating this new disposition of wealth. Of course, not everyone reacts to insecurity this way. 

Many people employ xenophobia to scapegoat marginal groups, e.g. immigrants and ethnic, racial and religious minorities. One or more of the “alien” groups is blamed for the “Real Americans’” loss of status. This often leads to the demonization and further oppression of these already-oppressed groups. It’s an approach that exploits the ugliest side of human nature and unleashes destructive forces that are not easily controlled. (For a prime example, see “Third Reich, The.”)

Unfortunately, the U.S.A. has a long, not-so-proud tradition of this brand of politics. We have a disturbing habit of fearing and then persecuting the most-subjugated groups in our society: slaves, immigrants, the poor, etc. Our history and the state of the economy have established the conditions in which this kind of movement could be reborn with a vengeance.

I’m pretty sure the path I’ve taken is the one less traveled, and with good reason. It’s the path that leads through the looking glass, and what’s on the other side is horrifying. You see the victims of the American Way of Life: the human beings killed in our “humanitarian interventions;” the children worked to death in the sweatshops that keep us looking hip; and the unborn poisoned by the toxins released in the manufacture of our gizmos. Worst of all, you see that their suffering is caused only by our greed, fear and ignorance.

The urge to blame outsiders for one’s own misfortune is strong and will likely get stronger as the Empire unravels. But the consequences of that choice are too terrible to imagine, much less to take the chance of resurrecting them from the darkest periods in history. We must face the demons that haunt the American conscience, or they will complete their conquest of our souls and turn our inheritance into a graveyard.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Hypocrisy of an American Leftist

When I became a Leftist in 2004, it was by way of a rude awakening. Noam Chomsky’s lectures and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States pulled me through the looking glass. I realized our way of life is not primarily the fruit of our own labor, but rather is built on the backs of the poor, in the U.S. and across the globe, especially in the Third World.

I felt as though my parents, teachers and all adults had sold me a bill of goods about Truth, Justice and the American Way. My world changed overnight from one ruled by fair laws to one in which might makes right. Capitalism was transformed from an essentially peaceful outgrowth of human nature to a tyrannical system imposed and enforced through state-sponsored violence.

All my material comforts were now tainted by sin. In a desperate bid for moral purity, I purged myself of “unclean” possessions, those that had been manufactured through the virtual enslavement of the workers and/or degradation of the environment. I put all my sports apparel, much of which was Nike-branded, in a garbage bag and donated it for my roommate’s fundraiser. Thereafter, I sought out clothes, food and other products that claimed to have been grown organically or manufactured under humane conditions or made in an environment-friendly manner. 

For those of you who have embarked on this kind of quixotic quest, I probably don’t need to tell you what happened. Trying to change the world is exhausting when every effort that falls short of perfection feels like a failure. I was also lonely in my pit of guilt. I was surrounded by people going along with the status quo. Why did they seem OK with it? I felt like everyone around me was fallen and I alone had been saved from the ignorance that blinded them.

Eventually, I gave up my crusade. It seemed hopeless and had no appreciable effect on the global (or national or local) economy. The Machinery of Death kept chugging along the same as before, as if nothing had changed. To my extreme chagrin, the world was not transfigured to match my new perception. Despite my pleading, America did not change its imperial ways.  Unconsciously, I was probably hoping that the Empire would reform itself so I wouldn’t have to abandon my lifestyle and my faith in the Good Ol’ U.S. of A. 

When the shock of my revelation finally wore off, it was easy to understand why so many of us go along with a system we find increasingly inhuman, onerous and even evil. All I had to do was ask myself, “Why do I go along with it?” The answer was obvious and awful, always lying just below the surface of my thoughts: Because it’s easy and comfortable, and the alternatives seem lonely, hard and pointless. 

So I’ve soldiered on as a member of the mainstream, unwilling to foresake my comforts and mostly resigned to my complicity in the Great American Crime of Empire. I still try to buy organic food and second-hand clothes so my money doesn’t abet sweatshops. But I’ve indulged in conventionally-grown food, sweatshop-made clothes and many other imperial luxuries in the intervening years. That’s not to say that striving for ethical perfection is pointless, only that stumbling along that path is inevitable, and I’ve found it counterproductive to beat myself up over my failings.

Much as we Leftists like to condemn the evils of the American Empire, we’re often loath to renounce the luxuries that it bestows on us. We’ve been enjoying those luxuries for decades, if not centuries. We no longer even think of them as luxuries, but essentials. However, if we want to repay our debt to Nature and the rest of the human race, we need to ask ourselves what is truly essential to life and what can be done without. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Live simply so that others may simply live.”

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

The Psychology of American Exceptionalism

I don’t usually like to think about how my status as a white male citizen of the First World entitles me to privileges enjoyed by a relatively small portion of the human race. At other times, though, I seem to revel in torturing myself with that knowledge. Consciously, that’s my way of punishing myself for my failure to do enough to help those who live on the other/wrong side of the tracks. Unconsciously, I think I’m punishing myself for more personal sins. What those might be, I’m not sure. As I continue to make peace with my parents, though, my penchant for masochism seems to be receding, which leads me to believe that was the source of my unconscious guilt.

But the truth is that nothing about us or what we’ve done has earned us a spot at the top of the human food chain. We just happened to be born in the right place in the world, at the right time in history, to the right parents (in the right socioeconomic class). Geographically, historically and sociologically speaking, we won the lottery. We could just as easily have been born in a remote village of the Congo in the midst of a civil war to HIV-infected parents, condemned to a life that is nasty, brutish and short. Luck alone saved us from that fate.

From this knowledge springs the guilt of the privileged. If our station was bestowed on us by happenstance, then the poor must also be blameless for their lot. No one (with a shred of empathy) would blame a poor child for being poor, but many would blame a poor adult. The Horatio Alger myth of the self-made man (or woman) pulling themselves up by their bootstraps still has a powerful hold on the American imagination. But recent history casts doubt on its contemporary relevance. The social mobility of our society now lags behind most other post-industrial countries. 

It’s bad enough that, for the most part, our system keeps the rich rich and the poor poor, but what’s even worse is the extent to which their poverty subsidizes our affluence. While fossil fuels and technological innovation helped create the massive middle class of the 20th century, the U.S. economy is still heavily dependent on cheap human labor at home and abroad. Millions toil in sweatshops and fields across the globe for slave wages to provide us cheap food, clothes and other consumer goods. 

On some level all we bourgeoisie seem to be aware that behind our good fortune there lies a monstrous crime. Confronting this psychologically, however, is a tall order, and one that most people avoid as much as possible. The mainstream media and culture work hard to keep us from thinking about such unpleasant realities. The Powers That Be don’t want us to think about it, because then we might be inclined to change the system that put them in charge.

Most Americans obey this tacit command. On those occasions when our minds do wander into that minefield, our deliberations tend to be brief and lazy, accepting any path that will get us back to safe ground with our peace of mind intact. As a result, our theories on the subject are nebulous and poorly reasoned. We may pick up strands of mainstream beliefs, but we’re unlikely to act on them. Action would require faith, and we aren’t willing to subject our beliefs to the scrutiny that would justify that level of commitment. The default position seems to be: Somebody has to be on top; it might as well be us. The point of this limited contemplation is not to understand the phenomenon; it’s to absolve ourselves of any responsibility for the misfortune of others.

Some Americans on the Right side of the political spectrum give the matter serious thought, but most of their conclusions are just more concerted efforts at evading guilt. The more overtly Christian regions of the Right wing are pervaded by the belief that we’ve been chosen by God to receive these gifts of wealth, freedom and power. By His economic and geopolitical Grace, God wishes us to police the world in the name of Truth, Justice and the American Way. 

Other explanations of American exceptionalism are subtler and not explicitly dependent on a self-serving interpretation of the Bible. They say our primacy has been secured by our industriousness, virtue and/or democracy, and we must maintain these values to preserve the heritage handed down to us by previous generations of Americans. The fact that these arguments carry significant political weight is a sobering comment on our educational system.

Of course, American exceptionalism is the ideological backbone of the mainstream media, so it’s no surprise that so many Americans have adopted this world-view. It also tends to be employed by people who are worried about dropping in socioeconomic status. Nowadays, that describes most of us. This status anxiety is projected as concern for the stability of America’s position in the world. We identify with the slumping superpower and believe that, if our homeland can be restored to its former glory, then so can we.

Others are looking for an institution to fill in for authority figures from our childhood who were either absent or inadequate, e.g. parents, teachers or clergy. As our families and other social support networks fray, more people become candidates for this coping device. Rather than face the world alone, we pledge uncritical allegiance to someone or something else in a desperate bid to keep from ever feeling insecure again. 

Many of us choose to trade our reliance on ineffectual or unavailable elders for strident nationalism, a.k.a. patriotism. Thus the fatherland becomes a surrogate parent whose actions and motives can never be questioned. Our sense of security has already been seriously damaged, and exposing the motherland’s flaws would shred our last safety net. Therefore, the homeland must be defended from all attacks, martial or rhetorical, no matter how minor or valid.

But the fact remains that America did not become a superpower through the goodness of its works or because we’re God’s favorite country. Our dominance was achieved through a combination of slaughtering Native Americans, enslaving Blacks and using our generous fossil fuel deposits to build a military capable of extorting wealth from most of the world. As members of the American middle class, we’ve benefited greatly from this arrangement. Only by acknowledging our complicity in this system can we begin to reclaim our humanity.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The End of a Dark Age

The Peak Oil blogosphere is rife with fear (or hope, depending on your reading) that industrial civilization is headed into a Dark Age, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the fall of Rome. Many of us believe that knowledge accumulated by our society could be lost as the technologies used to preserve it no longer have enough energy to sustain them. While I agree with this assessment, I can’t help but think that we may be coming to the end of a different kind of Dark Age.

According to the civil religion of Progress, as defined by John Michael Greer, every previous historical period was a Dark Age compared to the present day. We often look back on our forebears and scoff at their beliefs. To cite an oft-used example, in the Middle Ages Europeans believed the Sun, Moon and Stars revolved around the Earth. (In this case, one out of three was pretty bad.) But, nowadays, people believe economic growth is always both possible and desirable. Considering our vast store of scientific data, which belief is more embarrassing? More to the point, which belief is more destructive and, potentially, ecocidal?

People who lived over 500 years ago can be forgiven their ignorance of the orbits traveled by celestial bodies. They didn’t enjoy the luxury of radio telescopes or mass spectrometers. Our ecological oversight is less pardonable by several orders of magnitude. All that is required to disprove the economic thesis is, one, the knowledge that the earth is finite and, two, the knowledge that economic growth requires increasing the rate of natural resource consumption. The first fact is well within the grasp of any sane member of our civilization. The second is obscured by propaganda and the manipulation of statistics, but should be nearly as obvious as the first.

At the risk of insulting your intelligence, I’ll try to explain this principle. Economic activity is generated by the provision of goods and/or services. In order to grow the economy, more goods and services must be provided. Whether these goods and services are physical or digital, they require energy and other resources to be produced and delivered to the consumer. All energy and resources are supplied by Nature. Therefore, the consumption of natural resources must be increased to grow the economy, and, since the earth is finite, economic growth is ultimately limited.

A few mainstream pundits have conceded that economic growth is limited, but assure us that we are nowhere near that limit. However, the behavior of the global economy since the turn of the millennium would suggest otherwise. Record prices for fundamental commodities, especially oil, have done little to expand supplies of those resources or substitutes. We’ve been in a state of stagflation since the financial meltdown of 2008. Now that commodity prices have dropped through the floor, we’ll see if there’s a glut in the market or if the high prices of the past decade have forced a significant part of the world to tighten their belts.

And even if we’re capable of significantly growing the economy by expanding our exploitation of the environment, why would we? The economy is destroying our habitat and condemning future generations to lives of desperate struggle in a poisoned world drained of resources with an increasingly inhospitable atmosphere.  Green economic growth is a red herring. Converting to renewable energy sources would still require a substantial downscaling of our economy and the First World lifestyle. There’s no silver bullet that will both save the planet and keep the economy growing. Denial of this reality is a case of willful blindness. We don’t lack the means to understand this truth, only the will to change our economic model.

The belief in infinite economic growth has achieved the status of dogma due to its usefulness to the elite and the ability of Capitalism to provide a comfortable life to most members of society. If the economy can grow forever, there’s no need for the rich to share their wealth with the rest of us. With this ideological cover, they needn’t answer for their greed. And if that doesn’t work, they can justify their avarice with the Capitalist maxim that self-interest drives economic development. We’ve all gone along with this arrangement because most of us enjoy the fruits of Capitalism. But now that the fruit is getting smaller, we’re forced to question the assumptions on which this system is built.

Just as our wealth grew astronomically in the 20th Century, so did our power over Nature. Unfortunately, at the same time our respect for Nature has virtually disappeared. We exploit and abuse Nature in service of the economy, thinking the economy is what sustains us. We forget our essential dependence on and vulnerability to the environment. The power of the natural world to enable or destroy all human projects, as well as humanity itself, has been denied in the process of deifying Science and Technology. We’ve come to think of ourselves as Masters of Nature rather than what we really are, which is Children of Nature.

We’ve launched ourselves into Outer Space, trying to escape our home and prove our independence from Mother Nature. We’ve made scientific discoveries that earlier civilizations couldn’t even have imagined. But, in striving for greater freedom from natural limits, we’ve lost touch with the understanding of Nature that has sustained our species since time immemorial. We’re ignorant of basic laws of ecology that formed the foundation of even the most primitive societies. That’s why our technologies have become increasingly dehumanizing and destructive of our own habitat. They’re no longer grounded in the ground, i.e. ecology. Thus has our moral compass lost its bearings.

This disconnect from Nature also has more practical consequences. We’re far more ignorant of basic survival skills than any previous civilization. How many among us could survive a week alone in the woods without the trappings of modern life? Our comforts and conveniences have robbed us of self-reliance. Not only have we lost touch with the natural world; we’ve also lost touch with each other. Our social skills leave much to be desired, and our reluctance to build community has left us isolated and vulnerable to the influence of authoritarian institutions. Rather than organize networks of mutual support with our neighbors, we’ve relied on Big Brother and Big Business to provide for our every desire with fossil-fueled technologies. Even agriculture has become the province of a tiny minority. There’s no previous civilization that could boast that level of potential helplessness in the face of collapse.

Perhaps our forebears would’ve wrought just as much environmental and social destruction as we have given our technological capabilities, but we’re the only civilization in the historical record that has brought the planet to the brink of catastrophe. By that shameful measure, we stand alone. While we needn’t accept the title of Most Evil Civilization Ever (yet), we certainly can’t claim to be the Most Benevolent Civilization Ever, as we often do.

We’ll almost certainly lose much of our knowledge in the descent from this industrial peak, but what we can regain is far more valuable. This is our chance to replace the capitalist values of greed and competition with the human values of generosity and cooperation. This is our chance to become reacquainted with each other, with our needs and wants and how to tell them apart. This is our chance to reconnect with the natural cycles that guide all life. Instead of fighting Mother Nature, we should follow the example of our wiser ancestors and accept her gifts and lessons with gratitude.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Peak Me

Decline is all well and good for an empire or a civilization, but on a personal level it sucks. If you have the good fortune to live in an ivory tower that protects you from the consequences of social collapse, it can be fascinating to contemplate in the abstract as an academic pursuit. But for those of us who breathe less rarefied air, it's a bitch to live through.

Since learning about Peak Oil (specifically, the apocalyptic version that was presented to me by a friend), I’ve been waiting eagerly for the System to fall apart. Partly, this was detached intellectual curiosity. But a bigger part of my motivation was the desire to be rid of all the injustices, indignities and nuisances I associate with the Status Quo: environmental degradation, mindless jobs at evil companies, the Full House reboot.

Clearly, though, there was also a selfish motive for believing in Peak Oil. I was stuck in a corporate rut of mindless data entry jobs. I was a 27-year-old virgin whose lovelife barely had a pulse. My relationship with my parents was still mired in adolescent sulking. The idea that all of this would be swept away in a few years was very appealing.

But instead of the System collapsing, I collapsed: emotionally, socially and economically. Ironically, the revelation of Peak Oil is what triggered my breakdown. The stress that it added to my already-staggering emotional baggage made the load too much to bear. I could no longer maintain the facade of mental health.

It's hard to say how much of my collapse can be attributed to my pre-existing psychology and how much can be attributed to the economic turmoil of our times, i.e. The Great Recession. Of course, it would be a mistake to isolate these factors from each other and ignore their interrelation. I think my psychology had much to do with my failure to find a good job. Conversely, my job prospects led me to believe that I was a failure.

In 2004 I experienced a political awakening that led me to adopt radical Leftist views. The world became a much crueler place in my eyes. Everything around me seemed to be built on a foundation of oppression and injustice. I believed my parents, schoolteachers, professors and pretty much all my elders had sold me a bill of goods. The Glory of America turned out to be a fairy tale masking a rapacious empire that had sunk its vampiric fangs into most of the world.

I’d never been enamored of my data entry job at a transnational financial company, but now it felt like a betrayal of my humanity. After recovering from my initial nervous breakdown in ‘05, the job slowly became more demanding. This strained my relationship with my boss, whom I considered a surrogate mother, leading me to quit in ’08. It would be my last cushy job. The comfortable vocational niche I had occupied was replaced by temp jobs with absurdly demanding production quotas and micro-managing supervisors.

The loss of that cozy corner of the American Dream was depressing and angering. Each new temp job knocked me further down the socioeconomic ladder. As Corporate America cranked up the pressure, my friends became harder to reach. To stave off loneliness, I moved in with my parents, which kept me from getting too forlorn but also turned our house into an emotional minefield. My attitude toward them was still that of a spoiled teenager.

Over time, the stereotype of the middle-aged loser who lives with his parents began to haunt me. I repressed the thought that I now embodied that cliché, but it was always in the back of my mind, feeding my depression and anxiety. This emotional endurance test forced me to come up with my own definition of “success” that didn’t rely on mainstream validation. I focused on my personal development and gave up the corporate ladder, which I’d only been clinging to in a misguided attempt to maintain my parents’ approval. With a lot of help from them, I was able to burst through my shell of misery and fully appreciate their love and support.

Although our mainstream society has not yet shown the courtesy to mimic my personal collapse, that doesn’t mean my journey has been in vain. This has been a voyage of self-discovery, and self-knowledge is the most important kind of knowledge. When we understand ourselves, we understand the prism through which we see the world, and only then can we see things as they are.

As the American Dream becomes more elusive, we would be wise to abandon that hollow ambition and aspire to a higher calling. The two cars and a house in the suburbs may be out of reach, but the things that make life worth living, love, friendship and community, are still well within our grasp. These have always been humanity’s noblest pursuits, and these are the only things that will weather the storm.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Teenage Trap

A teenage boy of the 1950's is cruelly forced to dance with a broom as punishment for his communist beliefs.

In the 17 years since I technically ceased to be a teenager, I’ve been stuck in a teenage trap of blaming my parents for my problems. I dwelt on the scars of my formative years, holding my mom and dad ultimately responsible for all of them. I thought those experiences were the reason I've failed as an adult. Though they've had a profound effect on my personality, there are plenty of other factors that explain my lack of professional and social success.

The problem was I couldn’t move on from adolescence. There was no fulfilling adult life to drape over the pain of coming of age. The existence I’d scrabbled together after college melted away over time, exposing the unresolved emotional detritus of my childhood and teen years. I couldn’t take comfort in a rewarding, well-paying job that gave me a sense of contributing to the Welfare of Humanity. I couldn’t bask in the love of a significant other to get me through the rough patches. And, perhaps most important, I could no longer rely on a collection of supportive friends to ease my fears. I was thrown back on my seminal resources, i.e. my parents.

Luckily for me, they had the patience and generosity to put up with my adolescent sulking for the last 24 years. But I worry about the many members of my generation who appear to be going through the same hardships as I whose family or friends aren’t as supportive as mine. Like most Americans, they may blame themselves for their failures. Even though I railed against Capitalism and the pathetic state of American education, I considered myself too smart to fall victim to the same obstacles that were holding my peers back. After all, I was great at school, and isn’t that the best preparation for the adult world?

If anything, my success in school condemned me to corporate serfdom. I learned the lessons of public education too well. I internalized obedience to authority and ignored many creative impulses that would’ve cost me academically. School drummed a lot of common sense out of me, especially the instinct to question authority when its decisions don’t make sense. I let any initiative I might have had wither on the vine, because, in school, it did me more harm than good. Consciously or not, Academia wanted a drone to plug into the Corporate Matrix, and that’s what I gave it.

A strong, well-informed support network might’ve saved me from this fate, but I grew up in the suburbs in a pseudo-community. When I moved to Chicago after college, I lacked the social skills to make friends of urban dwellers or form relationships with neighbors (not that they seemed interested in getting to know me). Once the friends I made in college and of post-college roommates drifted away, I had only my family to depend on. If I had bad parents, I would’ve been screwed, and I think that’s the situation a lot of people my age find themselves in: estranged from family and friends, left to fight the predations of Neo-Liberal Capitalism alone.

Nowadays, young adults are presented with a depressing choice. We can either work for the Man or try to make ends meet some other way. Both choices have insidious emotional consequences. Buying into the System can leave us feeling like a hypocrite and a traitor to our own principles. In my experience, a spiritual rot sets in that robs us of the comfort we seek. If we try to chart a morally upright course, the stigma of poverty may sap our confidence and self-respect. Economic dependence on our family, friends and/or the government undermines our sense of agency, maturity and vitality. We may resent our parents even when they're supportive, because we feel infantilized by their assistance.

But I would say that, even if we “sell out,” any success we enjoy comes largely through our own ingenuity, resilience and other skills they don’t teach in school. The economy has been working against most Americans since the late 1970’s when Jimmy Carter (followed by every succeeding president) introduced Neo-Liberal reforms that continue to put greater power in the hands of Big Business. This has led to the weakening of the social safety net and the triumph of the philosophy that self-gratification is the only worthwhile, attainable goal of Modern Life.

Following this blueprint due to economic necessity or social conditioning, our parents raise us with the “help” of television and the internet. We’re exposed to commercial messages that instill the belief that happiness can be gained through the acquisition of material goods and creature comforts. We’re measured by our performance in schools that suppress creativity and encourage submission to authority. We’re told to go to college and grad school, further delaying adulthood. Then we’re thrown out on our own in an increasingly cruel, lonely world that has little use for our credentials, but will gladly exploit our desperation to pay off the debt we’ve been saddled with. Stripped of resourcefulness and vocational alternatives, we line up for the corporate meat grinder.

To fend off despair, we angrily search for scapegoats. We blame ourselves, our parents, God, the Universe, everything but what I consider the real culprit: The Powers That Be, the nexus of corporate and government authority that runs things in the USA and most of the world. Sure, we often blame them for all the world’s ills, but how often do we believe that we have been personally thwarted by the Establishment? How often do we think we didn’t get that job or that apartment because of the System? This is a tough pill to swallow for a member of the middle class, for we have been raised to believe that the System may not work for everyone, but it works for us. If this is no longer true, then we must face the grim reality that we now have the same status as the working class and the poor and are vulnerable to the same machinations of the System that demean, dispossess and, sometimes, kill them. This may be why the protests over police killings of blue-collar African-Americans have found such broad support; many of us white-collar Euro-Americans feel like we could be next.

Our society’s individualism discourages us from blaming the Power Elite. The American cultural narrative of self-determination tells us that we are the captains of our fate. Supposedly, our socioeconomic structure is designed to free us, not imprison us. Ergo, our failures are a result of our own inadequacy. Despite the mounting evidence to the contrary presented by the collusion of Big Business and Big Brother (the government), we still cling to this belief. It’s difficult for us to accept that we may be at the mercy of forces beyond our control. It offends our distinctly American sense of autonomy. It can also be extremely depressing, for what is the use of keeping up the good fight when your fate has already been sealed?

The most viable paths out of this nightmare seem to be the individual ones, the ones we take alone. The option many people in this situation think of is to drop out of the mainstream society, which seems extremely risky and lonely. But I suppose it's no more isolating than being surrounded by people who either believe in an inhuman system or are resigned to its dominion. Social atomization has discouraged us from joining or starting a grassroots movement to change things. We’ve been taught to believe that such efforts are more trouble than they’re worth and ultimately futile. (I realize these claims aren’t consistent, but anyone expecting consistency in propaganda is sure to be disappointed.) Thus the System keeps us detached and (mostly) obedient.

Growing up middle-class in the suburbs may seem like a charmed life, but it has left me high and dry as an adult. As Late Capitalism feasts on what’s left of the New Deal and the Great Society, the skills and habits cultivated by our upbringing and schooling actually make it harder for us to stake a claim in the New Normal. The country we’ve inherited falls far short of the one we were promised. It’s a land where all but the very wealthy are subjected to an experiment in Social Darwinism.

The good news is we can fight back, but we have to overcome our socially-conditioned tendencies toward radical individualism and materialism. Corporate America would like us to remain forlorn teenagers for the rest of our lives. It prefers us as slaves to our “throbbing biological urges” and passions, looking for a quick fix of consumption to soothe our anxieties when the System denies our efforts toward liberation. But we can reject this programming and become real adults, that is, people who recognize their responsibilities to themselves and each other. Through such a revelation, we can rebuild community and collaborate on projects that develop the human spirit and overcome the mechanization and commodification of human life.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Confessions of a Nice Guy

Early-80's Tears for Fears would like to wish you and yours a Happy Holidays!

After all my self-righteous indignation about Assholes and the supposed failures of Feminism, I have to come clean: I ain't no Nice Guy. On multiple occasions, I've treated women with something less than chivalry, and all because I was desperate to get laid. This is the tragedy of the Nice Guy. I got nowhere with women, and I blamed my Niceness for holding me back. I should've blamed my shyness. ("Confessions of a Shy Guy" might be a more apt title for this.) But, temporarily, the Niceness got the old heave-ho, and I became what I claim to despise: an Asshole.

The Nice Guy Theory of Virginity was an easy answer, which is why I embraced it. It was self-aggrandizing to think that I was too nice instead of too shy. I could cast myself as the victim of Woman's Inhumanity To Man, instead of the victim of my own personality, cowardice and grim visage. I didn’t have to look in the mirror or do any of the hard work it takes to improve oneself.

I didn't lose my virginity until I was 31. Even 6 years later, I'm still hesitant to share that. The shame I felt about it was staggering. But I certainly wasn't a late bloomer in terms of my interest in girls. I had some smooching sessions with a girl (Ah, Naomi.) in first grade and enjoyed them very much. Then middle school came along and destroyed my self-confidence and my relationship with my parents.

The Nice Girls who had been so nice before puberty didn't seem interested in dating me. (There's a good chance they were, but my low self-esteem blinded me to those possibilities.) The only girl I asked out in high school (over the phone, of course) said she'd "have to think about it." (Yes, even 18 1/2 years later, I still remember her exact words.) Even though we had a class together every day, she never gave me an answer, and I never mentioned it again. This was a painful betrayal and resulted in a long-standing grudge against Nice Girls. That's another problem with being a Nice Guy. If the few times you ask a girl out don't go well, you become even more reluctant to stick yer neck out.

Predictably, college kicked off with a couple (tacit) rejections to wipe out the uncharacteristic confidence with which I'd arrived on campus. There were probably many opportunities to sow my wild oats, as is the custom, but my self-esteem had been knocked down to its previous, miserable condition. As I progressed through my 20's, the shame and anxiety about being a virgin kept growing, which obviously didn't help my nerves around the ladies. I carried my virginity around like a cross, hoping no one noticed the gaping hole in my adulthood. It contributed to my nervous breakdown at 27. To recover, I cemented a few strong friendships and repaired some of my relationship with my parents. After that, I wasn't as anxious about it, but I was still extremely eager to throw off the psychological burden.

Ironically, I think the gentlemanly way to do it would've been a casual hookup, as long as I was upfront about my intentions. But that would've required a boldness and straightforwardness that I lack in spades, so I took the "easy" way out. I found a girl on an online dating site, tricked her into developing feelings for me and then dumped her after we'd had sex a few times and the guilt became unbearable. It's a story as told as Time. This happened in November 2008. The joke I came up with later was that, after a black man was elected President of the United States of America, the Universe figured anything was possible and finally let me have sex.

Granted, I'm being very reductionist and kinda hard on myself, but that's it in a nutshell. She was very nice (in the real sense), but I didn't feel a strong emotional connection with her. I expressed affection for her, most of which was feigned. It wasn't totally fake, but a lot of it was just the warmth I would feel for any decent, pleasant human being. I also let myself get swept away in many "tender" moments. I take some solace in the fact that, after a month, my conscience was killing me, and I broke it off as honorably as I could (over the phone, of course).

A year later, I went through a similar, month-long routine with another woman. I could've ended it better, but it wasn't a total mess. It didn't really matter, because I wasn't interested in being friends with either of them afterward. I didn't think we had enough in common even for that. I just wanted the sex. In the parlance of the streets, I "hit it and quit it."

As disingenuous as it sounds, the truth is I'm a hopeless romantic. In elementary school I could cry at the drop of a hat. But middle school taught me (and many other boys) that crying is for girls. My heart was filed away and only brought out on rare, safe occasions. Anger took the place of sadness, and my sensitivity was replaced with a hard shell of apparent indifference. I really haven't had a good cry since I was 12.

Failing to get a girlfriend or get laid eventually turned me into an (internally) angry, bitter, resentful Asshole. I gave up on romance and took the easy (or sleazy) way out to rid myself of the stigma of virginity. Of course, having sex didn't fix my emotional problems. I was still desperate to have a girlfriend, to be in a romantic relationship and feel that love, warmth and intimacy (both physical and emotional) with a woman.

This was largely a result of my broken relationship with my parents, especially my mom. I think the yearning for sex was really a need for unconditional, unguarded love and emotional intimacy. I don't know why it was redirected as sexual desire. Perhaps to distract me from its essentially emotional nature, so I wouldn't have to think about the real problem. It's also much safer emotionally; sex without love exposes far less of the heart than love alone.

I think I’ve taken care of my issues with my parents, but I still have a ways to go in fixing my abandonment issues in the wake of losing touch with many close friends. This essay is a good step in that process, I think. It feels like a moral and emotional "cleanse,” like something someone in Los Angeles would have done periodically at a clinic for a ridiculously inflated price. But I don’t have that kinda money, so instead I blog about embarrassingly personal things. You could call it the Confessional Cure.