Archive for August, 2012

The Land of Unlimited Opportunity

August 29, 2012

I’m currently reading a book called Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power by Seth RosenfeldIt’s a very good book, an interesting book; but the subject of this post is not the book itself. The subject is an elaboration on something that I read within it, something that deals with a subject I’ve been meaning for some time now to dwell on: money.

The author of Subversives quotes Reagan’s autobiography, Where’s the Rest of Me?, as saying that growing up in Dixon, Illinois had taught Reagan that “America was a place that offered unlimited opportunity to those who did hard work.” This is, of course, a  commonly held sentiment in the United States. For most people, not to believe in this idea makes you some kind of a Socialist or a bum. Probably both. What’s to argue with? Hard work is a good thing. Unlimited opportunity is a good thing. Well, I have plenty of arguments, and on several levels. But here, I’m going to tackle it from just one level because it’s an idea that is seldom raised.

What did Reagan mean by “unlimited opportunity?” I think he meant to make as much money as you can. The sky’s the limit! Opportunity can mean other things—the opportunity to be in a position of power, the opportunity to be famous—but I think most people understand it to mean getting rich. (Let it be said: all three qualities—power, fame, and wealth—are negatives.) Working hard to obtain unlimited opportunity is really just putting a nice shine on greed. People say, “It’s not greed if you earned it.” But making an effort to obtain more stuff than you need is the definition of greed.

My fundamental opposition is the assumption that we should spend all our lives working hard to obtain “stuff.” That’s not what life is about. A certain amount of labor is necessary, of course. The Buddhists have a term I like: Right Livelihood. It means that the work you do for your survival should be seamless with your inner life and contribute to the healthy maintenance of the world around you. But it is, of course, very difficult to find that kind of work nowadays. Society is structured to keep us working at essentially meaningless jobs that benefit only the powerful. A lot of these jobs, if not most, are destructive to the general well-being.

So, if life is not about making money, what’s it about? I believe it’s about the development of the inner self, the solving of the riddles of Life. Most Americans are uncomfortable with this idea. They consider it foreign or New Agey. But, it’s not. It’s in our bones—which is to say, it’s universal and it’s ancient. It’s what Buddha and Lao Tzu and Jesus and all the other true sages taught. (What distinguishes New Age “philosophies” from what’s true is the level of work. Most New Age stuff is about getting relaxed, taking it easy, whereas the real stuff is hard work.) A lot of people believe we can never really understand life—except through science maybe. But the older I get, the more I believe that this kind of understanding—a spiritual understanding, I mean—is possible. To attain it has to be the most rewarding and fulfilling thing one can do. It offers so much relief—relief from the nagging, painful puzzles that constantly wear us down. But the only way we can achieve this kind of understanding is by getting rid of the idea that having lots of money is a good thing. That’s going to be hard to do; but at some point, this way of life will go. It’s become so debilitating that it will collapse of its own accord. It’s harmful even to the rich. (No one really gains anything from being rich. And the rich man is never prepared to die. He finds the moment of death utterly terrifying.)

I know this will sound extreme to some people. But I also know that a lot of people who read me have similar views. The questions are always the same, though: What do we do about it? How do we change this system? And if we can change it, what do we replace it with? I hope to write about my own take on some of these questions in the not-too-distant future.

Today’s Quotes

August 26, 2012

I found these two quotes on the Internet today. (I guess it’s good for something.):

“There is no better place to find the moral case for capitalism and individualism than through Ayn Rand’s writings and works.” Paul Ryan, Republican Nominee for Vice President

“My religion is just Ayn Rand’s philosophy with ceremony and ritual added.” Anton LaVey, Founder, Church of Satan

(Someone will probably point out that Paul Ryan recently renounced Ayn Rand. I don’t believe him. He’s just another politician doing whatever it takes to get elected.)

Money: An Introduction

August 22, 2012

I’ve been having some difficulty deciding what to write about. With the election approaching, there seems to be an awful lot to discuss. I’ve finally settled on the one topic that’s central to everything else in this country: money.

When I was seventeen years old, I took a train trip from Germany to Greece, and along the way I had to pass through what was then called Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia was a Marxist country, and as an American I was of some interest to the other passengers in my car. At one point a man approached me rubbing his forefinger and thumb together and smiling devilishly. “Capitalist. Eh?” he said. At that point in my life, I’d not given the question much serious thought. I wanted to be some kind of a poet, not an intellectual. It took me a while to come up with a response. Finally, I shook my head “no.” The man was visibly shocked. He stared at me, and in a voice filled with bewilderment and disbelief asked, “Communist?” I didn’t have to think about that one, and, again, I shook my head “no.” He still wanted an answer, and I looked to the floor of the train for one. After a bit, I raised my head and told him, “Social Democrat.” His face broke out into a huge smile and he gave me a hug, saying happily, “Me, too!”

While I’d heard of Social Democrats, I wasn’t  sure what they were exactly. In that moment it was a shorthand way of saying that I thought we should all take care of one another, but that we shouldn’t have to live under oppressive systems of government. In the past 43 years, my thinking hasn’t changed much—except that I now have much stronger reasons for believing what I do. Lately, I’ve been reading some books about what’s happening with money and the economy, and I have things I want to say. But I’m going to say them in a series of short posts. As always with this blog, I’m not prepared to sit down and write long ones. I have to reserve that kind of effort for Street Song.

Speaking of which, I’m still on my break. I’ve mostly been taking care of the small tasks of daily life and trying to get some rest. I’d been wondering if anxiety might begin to press in on me as I got closer to the starting point for the third draft (two weeks from now), but so far it hasn’t happened. My inner self seems comfortable with the fact and confident. A good sign.

Life With Alex

August 16, 2012

DVD Cover

A few years ago Arlene Levin-Rowe, the lab manager for Dr. Irene Pepperberg, the scientist who is studying the language and cognitive abilities of the African grey parrot, contacted Judy to see if she could recommend someone to make a film about the lab’s primary subject, Alex. Judy did have a recommendation for Arlene, a local fledgling filmmaker named Emily Wick. Judy ended up mentoring Emily on the film, and last night, I got to see the final hour-long version. I was impressed. It’s quite well done. The film is going to be available on DVD in early September, and if you want to see the trailer, you can find it here.

Another Take on Freedom (Life’s Little Ironies)

August 9, 2012

One day back in the mid-to-late 1980s, I met an emigre couple from the Soviet Union. Having studied the Russian language in high school, I took a special interest in them. I don’t remember the details of their situation, other than that they’d become deeply dissatisfied with life in Russia and had gone to great lengths to come to the United States. When I asked them how they liked their new lives  in America, they looked at each other nervously, their eyes clearly saying, “Dare we answer him honestly?” I assured them they couldn’t possibly tell me anything that would upset me. This was the Reagan era, and I was profoundly disgusted with my country. After much reluctance on their part and much encouragement on my part, they finally managed to stammer out, “It’s so unfree here.” Not what I expected to hear! I laughed out of surprise and some confusion. I asked them to explain. They said that in the Soviet Union they could go wherever they wanted, that they could just start walking across the earth in any direction without restriction, save for, I assume, military bases and the like. But here, they were constantly encountering “no trespassing” signs and other private property issues. They said they felt like cattle being herded through a set of narrow chutes. I have never forgotten their perspective.

Watching the River Flow

August 8, 2012
Watching the River Flow

Watching the River Flow

I recently returned from two weeks away from home—one week on the road and another in the woods. I spent a good deal of my time in the woods just sitting on the bank of a river staring at the water. I got a lot out of it. It never bored me. It sounds strange to hear people talk about the delights and miracles of technology, when they do not even begin to compare with what you can find in a river bed. I’m going to take another month off before starting the last draft of Street Song. In the meantime, I intend to post here a little more often than I usually do.