Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

consuming passions

I always liked that passage in John Mortimer's Paradise Postponed in which Leslie Titmouse, a stand-in for all Thatcherite grasping acquisitiveness, is brought low economically by his own father. His father, you see, is also a conservative--but a very different kind of conservative. He's no more noble, certainly, but he invests his trust in class, station, and thrift. When his son apparently has "married liberal money", he is the one who "proves" that the heiress' inheritance was in fact illusory.

In the past few weeks, the government has issued indictments in numerous cases of alleged corporate frauds. Two low level K Mart fellows are accused of telling company accountants to book 42 million dollars as income, when in fact it was subject to a refund potential that required a different treatment. The Enron and WorldCom bankruptcies involved rather ridiculous behavior. Investigations are taking place at dozens of companies for peccadilloes and high crimes. What troubles me about all these incidents is that the "stakes" for those players at the very top were not the difference between mediocrity and wealth. Instead, these were high-risk games played to try to make rich men and women far richer.

Corporate America is an easy target now, when lax SEC regulation coupled with unfettered amounts of greed have laid our financial markets low. But the problem of sheer consumption runs deep through our society. I spend my days talking to two different types of folks. One type are folks entirely dislocated by the massive corporate problems generated during the recent high-tech frenzy. I know geniuses who have not worked in months. But a second type is also instructive. I know people who have literally leveraged themselves to the point of no return through application of a simple fallacy--the notion that "if I want it, and the credit card company/auto finance company will finance me, then therefore I must be able to afford it". I meet people with entirely satisfactory incomes who spend themselves into the ground for reasons that are sometimes sad and often just frighteningly in error.

I know it is fashionable for liberals such as myself to portray this as a "Bush years" problem, but I find this phenomenon cuts across party lines and ideology. I detected some of the same excesses during the prior Democratic watch. Instead, I see our culture has moved into a culture of extremes, in which searching out the "right path" is not longer a priority.

I do not pretend to be a scholar of Stoic philosophy, but I must admit that I find myself deeply attracted to the notion of the "golden mean". This is the idea that life must be lived with a sense of moderation. I like the Marcus Aurelius quote that "the idea is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape being on the side of the insane".

Yet all around me I see so much immoderation. I see an economy upon which a combination of lax regulation and shameless greed have caused massive, needless dislocation. I see a governmental system that spent to the last dime during a boom time, and now makes massive cut-backs during the bust. I see a culture of dissent arising in this country (and, to a far lesser extent, in Europe) which prefers to demonize the establishment and marginalize itself rather than change things democratically. I see a world sit by while tens of millions die of AIDS in Africa.

It's not just a matter of money and high-flown corporate fraud. Its a societal issue that runs through every thread of society. Even as America returns en masse to a diverse array of religions, religious intolerance pervades the society. The welcome loss of needless puritanical Victorian values was not replaced by a truly egalitarian social ethic, but instead with an "anything goes" world in which the promise, the basis of almost everything good in human relationships, no longer has meaning. Folks are so busy defining their relationships rather than living them. I live in an odd America, in which one must "don't tell", with only the consolation that it's also "don't ask", in which preschools are competitive, and in which even being a Boy Scout requires an oath of theism and sexual orientation.

I suppose what troubles me is that everything is so much about consumption nowadays. Promises don't matter because they are promises; they are just inconvenient detours one uses to get something one immediately wants. The social fabric is frayed, and yet our Congress is hell-bent on reducing government's ability to pay for itself. Democratic dissent is branded "traitorous" by Mr Rumsfeld, and our loyal allies derided. On the left, the Supreme Court yesterday disapproves using a racketeeting statute in one narrow context of clinic protesters, and instead of pointing out that subsequent laws provide the same protections, spokespeople who know better say in public that the highly technical result is "catastrophic". The ABC network replaces "Politically Incorrect" with Jimmy Kimmel's sexist antics, which sums it all up.
We're weaned off expensive fiction programming into inexpensive reality TV, by networks who realize how emotions titillate.

I'm bored of the sense of entitlement rampant in today's culture.
I have known people, likable people, who live their lives angry because they were raised with money, but never earned any of their own. They had a "right" to luxurious comfort, without work. I've known folks who somehow believe that they have an entitlement to live with certain economic things guaranteed to them, even though they are unwilling to make the compromises necessary to acquire those things.

We have a problem with economic disparity in this country. We have world-class health care, and 42 million uninsured. The USA has national record prison populations, and CEOs who make 100s of times what line workers make. What happened to the sense of proportion?

I think American culture has become a culture of deep discontent. I think it's no accident that dislocation and depression are at high levels in this odd time of incongruous values. I suspect that depression has always existed and been a challenge. But I feel that now it's hard to find a meaningful place in this curious culture.

What happened to the time when one was happy just to own or rent a nice place, and not worry that it lacked 3500 square feet? When did it become necessary that an automobile cost a schoolteacher's salary for a year? What happened to respect, to hard work, to making sacrifices to achieve a goal?

I look at the things in my life that I have and do, and think how much more I could do if I just had the same communitarian approach my grandfather had. I see so much devaluation of the things I think matter--integrity, thrift, and compassion. Sanctity of sensation has replaced sanctity of agreement. Don't get me wrong--I love sensation. But what happened to each thing in its time, and place?

I talk to people who lost fortunes taking high risks in equities that they need not have taken at all. I talk to people who have predefined their life's situation as incapable of solution. I see a system that no longer wants remedies for society's ills, but only short-term solutions with dubious long-term prospects.

I feel as though it's as though people are all invited to an orgy, when what they really need is a heartfelt kiss. Folks are taking out massive loans for a mansion on a hill, who can afford only a bungalow with an eighth acre of shaded backyard. Where is that sense of proportion? A rather different philosopher, Epictetus, suggested that "the essence of philosophy is that a man should so live that his happiness shall depend as little as possible on external things". I feel that our national security, and our defense against insanity, is to find our contentment within. But how? I suspect the answer lies within, and that a sort of modesty is involved. Not the old-fashioned sexual modesty, which was of limited utility and mostly was a courtship pose. I mean a modesty of purpose, in which people want things not as things themselves, but only for their limited ability to help us focus on what really matters. I think that what's missing is the sense that one can neither run from nor consume modernity, but instead one must merely try to live the most compassionate life one can, in sustaining moderation.

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