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.”