Posts Tagged ‘Western Civilization’

The Sun Sets in the West #1

December 3, 2018

Alexander wasn’t great;
Augustine was not a saint;
Freud was nuts, and that’s not all,
Supply and Demand is not a law.

I wrote that bit of doggerel around 15 or 20 years ago. I called it “The Sun Sets in the West.” Now I want to start a series on my blog with that title. For more than 50 years, I’ve been watching and thinking about our civilization. I came to the conclusion almost immediately that we are heading for collapse. I know this raises the image of a long-bearded nut carrying a sandwich board sign announcing that “The End is Near!” But I am not a nut and I have thought long and hard about the collapse that we really are seeing all around us now. It’s not just America, but Europe too. None of it surprises me. And none of my ideas are unique to me. I learned a lot of them from others. But most of those others are dead now. And since Reagan the voice of warning has been shut up. We’re still living under the fantasies he put in place.

I’d been thinking about writing an essay regarding all this. But it kept getting longer and started turning into a book, and I don’t have the patience for another book right now. I feel the need to get what I’m seeing out there now. Whenever I have time and inclination, I’ll post here about it. (I’ll continue to write about other things as well.) My posts have tended to be relatively short, but I intend to write longer pieces now. It’s a difficult subject. People tend to attack anyone who brings up the things I want to bring up. We’ll see how long I last.

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The Madness of Consumerism

September 9, 2014

For the last couple of months, I’ve been reading Civilization: A New History of the Western World by Roger Osborne. I can’t really recommend it. The author sees Western Civilization as flawed, but still capable of being repaired, albeit with some difficulty, whereas I see its flaws as being so fundamental that to fix them, which we must, is to create an entirely different animal. In any case, every now and then I find an interesting nugget. To wit:

Strange as it may seem to us, the underlying concern of American capitalism in the late nineteenth century was the possibility of sufficiency. Just as Marx had envisaged a world where everyone would have enough for a decent life, American capitalists were worried that people would stop buying their goods once they had enough things to live comfortably. There seemed no obvious reason why someone would replace a piece of furniture or a coat or a set of crockery simply because it was old. This problem was solved in large part through the influence of Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, and principal promoter of his ideas in America. Bernays was intrigued by Freud’s view that people are bundles of emotion, passion and desire, and that the real motive for human action is the satisfaction of deep-seated desires rather than rational calculation. Bernays saw that American companies needed to transform the way that people thought about their purchases, so that they would forget about trying to fill their rational needs and instead aim to fulfill their desires. In the 1920s, consumerism, or consumptionism as it was then called, was born. Calvin Coolidge declared that an “American’s importance to his country is not as a citizen but as a consumer.” Rather than selling goods to its customers, the advertising industry began to sell happiness.

… Bernays, and his clients in American corporations found themselves in agreement with Freud’s view that democracy carried serious risks and should be discouraged. Other commentators such as Walter Lippman, the most influential columnist in America in the 1930s and 1940s, came to agree that democracy was an inappropriate way of governing such a complex country, and that the masses needed an elite to guide them…

… In 1928 President Hoover reinforced Coolidge’s sentiment and said that people were “constantly moving happiness machines.” Just as Freud had suggested that if our selfish desires are satisfied we feel docile and happy, and if they are thwarted we feel aggrieved, Hoover understood that when people are fulfilling their desires they are not inclined to be politically active.

Americans showed that if products were sold to them in the right way, they would buy and buy and that consumerism would make them politically conservative.

That’s about as bald as it gets, isn’t it? And it is what has come to pass. There was a brief effort in the 1960s to stop it. But since then people have enthusiastically taken up the role of “consumer” again. The philosophies I study and believe in say that pursuing the satisfaction of one’s superficial desires can never truly satisfy. It merely leads to more desire and, ultimately, madness. I think that’s obvious. You don’t need to read any philosophy to understand that. A little real-life experience will do. Yet here are all these captains of industry pursuing this mad course and accusing those who don’t agree of being evil fools. We’re over a hundred years into it now and it has grown to massive levels. You never see any other point of view represented. No one advocates at the national level for living a simpler, less materialistic life. I’ve been reading about the feverish expectations for the new iPhone that’s supposed to be announced today, and it’s crazy. I still don’t have a cell phone, and I do just fine. I’ve never wanted one. But I’ve been reading commentators who fear what might happen if the new gadget doesn’t meet expectations. They warn that there could be real trouble. Every year at Christmas you see articles about how Christmas sales are doing and what it means for our well-being. Are we spending enough? We have to get out of this mindset. It has to be exposed for what it is. I think that if we don’t, reality will force a change on us. Wouldn’t it be better to do it gracefully?

God and Mammon

November 12, 2010

I read in different places that the United States is a Christian nation, that Americans are a deeply religious people, and that as a religious people, we are naturally conservative, since religion is conservative. But not one of these statements is true. We are not a Christian nation, neither legally nor spiritually; we are not religious; and religious people are not conservative—at least not in the conventional, thoughtless sense of the word.

When writers and commentators say that we are a religious nation they’re simply taking at face value the assertions of the self-described “religious.” In this country, we have an easy definition of religious. Essentially, it means anybody who says they believe in God. Atheists are content with the definition since they prefer that religion appear shallow. And the “religious” are content with it because it lets them off the hook. They don’t have to take on some extraordinarily difficult teachings. One notable example:

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

This is not a conservative idea; it’s a radical idea. It’s universal, unequivocal, and has many implications, few of which are ever addressed here in Western Civilization. One of its simpler meanings is that we shouldn’t desire “things.” And yet creating the desire for things is one of the basic tenets of our economics. Economists, businessmen, and politicians are deeply concerned with how we’re going to get people borrowing and spending again. We have to “grow the economy,” they say. And, as much as ever, the great majority of Americans believe that they should be enjoying an ever higher standard of living. When that doesn’t happen, somebody has to take the blame in the next election.

One of the problems with defining God as a being—the anthropomorphic idea of God—is that people can soften an idea like “you cannot love God and mammon,” by insisting that they do indeed love “the big guy” more than they love things. They can talk to Him and assure Him that they love Him more than money and then feel as though they’ve met the requirement. But if you consider God to be truth, the picture changes. Loving truth more than money means taking everything apart, examining it in detail, and living solely by principle. The deeper meaning of “You cannot serve God and mammon” actually means abandoning one’s materialist existence and following truth—never doing anything simply to make money. To those who would question this, I will point out that the lines immediately following “You cannot serve God and mammon” are, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, not about your body, what you shall put on.” (Jesus encouraged his disciples to leave their jobs and to become beggars.) Historically speaking, this idea is not at all strange. There are many people in many different cultures who have pursued it. It’s strange only to us here in the modern-day Western world, where power, comfort, and entertainment have become paramount. It’s not my point exactly to suggest that anybody renounce their livelihood and pursue this other way of life. But it might be helpful if people were to recognize that, as it currently stands, we are not really a religious people, that we are not really a Christian nation (we would have to follow the teachings of Christ to be that), and that religious ideas are not “conservative.” If we understood that much, it might be helpful in getting us to speak frankly with one another again.

Affliction #1

March 28, 2009

A few days ago, I was bicycling along the waterfront—Marina Green, for those who know San Francisco—when I suddenly remembered something that happened to me the day after the 1989 earthquake—the “Kind of Big One,” as some people here call it. I was riding my bike through the hardest hit section of the city, the Marina, checking out the damage, when I saw ahead of me a stooped, white-haired man. He was around 100 yards away, and from that distance I couldn’t make out his face, but somehow I knew instantly that it was Joe Dimaggio. When I got close, I saw that it was indeed him. I’m not even a sports fan. That reminded me of a day ten years earlier when shortly after entering the Stockton tunnel I saw, from the same distance or greater, a large group of walkers coming toward me. The tunnel was loud with passing cars, so I couldn’t hear them talking, but the moment I saw them I had the instantaneous thought, “Germans.”  And it turned out that it was, indeed, a group of Germans.

We live in a time where many people insist that the only mind that’s real and trustworthy is the rational intellect. But that’s wrong. I find the intuitive mind more fundamental and of greater value than the dry, crusty intellect. More entertaining, too. We need the rational mind to make sure that we don’t go overboard, but our denial and suppression of intuition is killing the spirit. It’s one of the three great afflictions of Western Civilization.