I don't believe in statistics. I just don't believe in them. I don't believe that the bad things people do to each other have to happen. I don't believe violence or dumping toxic waste in a river are probable based on sheer numbers. Pick any one of those numbers and you will see a whole chain of decisions that were made, perhaps even generations before the incident of child abuse or environmentally caused cancer occurred, you will see individuals making choices. Assuming these events are just the roll of the dice or somehow inevitable allows us to abandon our responsibility to each other and to our planet. There may be reasons why people do what they do, but they are not excuses. Excuses let us off the hook, but understanding the reasons allows us to effect positive change.
My rejection of our dependence on statistics is the result of 40 years of struggling to understand the nature of evil. I grew up in the very incubator of American bad behavior-the middle class suburb. I never felt comfortable here. I was very aware that I didn't "fit in": my weird last name, my hand me down clothes from a sister who was several years older, my autistic brother. More than that, though, was the awareness that others suffered and I did not. It was personal in the case of my brother: why was he autistic and apparently doomed to a terrible life, why not me? Couldn't it just as easily have been me? I felt guilty for getting off scot-free. As for the rest of the world, I had seen the plight of Cambodian refugees and terribly malnourished African children on the news, I had read enough books about children during war time. I somehow knew I was living in an illusory bubble in which people were focused on things like having designer labels on their clothes, and that somewhere else at that same moment other people were in grave danger. It was the unfairness of this arrangement that troubled me. I could not have expressed it in words, it was a feeling, a feeling that I was enjoying safety that I wasn't entitled to, that I didn't deserve, yet here I had it and other people didn't. Why? Why? It drove me nuts for years.
Fortunately, among the gifts afforded to me in adulthood is faith in a loving God, and the knowledge that I'm not any better or any worse than anyone else. What a relief. I know for a fact that every single person who shows up on this planet is loved by God, from the baby who barely gets to draw a breath because she was born in the midst of a famine in Ethiopia to the Emperor of Japan, we are all loved. We all deserve to live in safety- whether we get to or not is an accident of birth. And that still isn't fair: that Ethiopian baby didn't have to die, neither did the victims of Union Carbide in Bhopal India, or Karen Silkwood, or Reverend King, but it isn't God's doing, it's the direct result of humankind's shortcomings, the dire consequences of our hubris and our miserable failings. So the question for me next became: are we all so completely broken that this can't ever be fixed?
It occurred to me long ago--as I observed the "norms" of middle class America with bafflement--that just because something is "the norm" doesn't mean it's normal, or even a good idea to begin with. The very institutions we made that condition how we think and perceive ourselves in relation to the world, and that dictate our social and economic structure are directly causing much of the suffering in the world. But how to resist the seemingly inescapable pull of the social/political/economic moral black hole that is just "business as usual" in the United States: driving and polluting, working far too many hours so we can buy things that are produced at the cost of human life and health, eating food that is so far removed from nature it maybe shouldn't be called food, every dollar spent funneled into a large corporation that is murdering the poor and killing the environment? Why are we as a nation driven to be like gerbils on a wheel that never stops? Why are we so technologically advanced and yet so spiritually under developed?
Well, seek and ye shall find: last year I picked up a back issue of the excellent Orion Magazine and read an eye opening article titled "The Gospel of Consumption" by Jeffrey Kaplan. This illuminating history of the birth of American consumer culture answered some of the questions, born of helpless frustration, that have dogged me for years upon years. Kaplan writes:
In a 1927 interview with the magazine Nation’s Business, Secretary of Labor James J. Davis provided some numbers to illustrate a problem that the New York Times called “need saturation.” Davis noted that “the textile mills of this country can produce all the cloth needed in six months’ operation each year” and that 14 percent of the American shoe factories could produce a year’s supply of footwear. The magazine went on to suggest, “It may be that the world’s needs ultimately will be produced by three days’ work a week.”
Business leaders were less than enthusiastic about the prospect of a society no longer centered on the production of goods. For them, the new “labor-saving” machinery presented not a vision of liberation but a threat to their position at the center of power. John E. Edgerton, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, typified their response when he declared: “I am for everything that will make work happier but against everything that will further subordinate its importance. The emphasis should be put on work—more work and better work.” “Nothing,” he claimed, “breeds radicalism more than unhappiness unless it is leisure.”
By the late 1920s, America’s business and political elite had found a way to defuse the dual threat of stagnating economic growth and a radicalized working class in what one industrial consultant called “the gospel of consumption”—the notion that people could be convinced that however much they have, it isn’t enough. President Herbert Hoover’s 1929 Committee on Recent Economic Changes observed in glowing terms the results: “By advertising and other promotional devices . . . a measurable pull on production has been created which releases capital otherwise tied up.” They celebrated the conceptual breakthrough: “Economically we have a boundless field before us; that there are new wants which will make way endlessly for newer wants, as fast as they are satisfied.”
-Jeffrey Kaplan "The Gospel of Consumption"
Orion Magazine May/June 2008
Finding out that our soul-sucking, resource draining, money driven way of life is just a big trick perpetrated with malice of forethought by a bunch of rich industrialists was such a relief. It means that it doesn't have to be this way. Stop the gerbil wheel, I want to get off. And that equally culpable partner in crime, the United States government?
Well, this year I have been reading "A People's History of the United States" by Howard Zinn. I had long been aware that what I was taught in school about the founding of the United States was a load of happy horseshit, but this book really reveals the the dirt, and dirty it is. From the murder of the Arawak people by Columbus to the deliberately constructed architecture of racial discrimination that allowed the depraved, barbaric treatment of kidnapped African men, women and children caught in the American system of slavery, to the classist economic privilege that existed from the time the first European set foot on this continent, this book is answering all of my questions, born of years of disappointment, mistrust, and disgust, about why our government is so broken and corrupt. Why are lobbies allowed to exist? Why are our elections privately funded, effectively shutting out everyone but the rich from running for office? Why are the interests of corporations set above the good of the people and the environment time and time again? Why is there such a disconnect between our ideals and what actually happens? It turns out that our "founding fathers" were all a bunch of rich guys who wanted to protect their wealth from the king of England. Our purported ideals were what they waved around to get everyone who wasn't rich to help them out with the revolution. It worked, and they structured their new government to first and foremost benefit their business endeavors and real estate schemes, and to protect their wealth and privilege. Oh.
And yet, a relief still, because it doesn't mean that Americans are too inept to run a healthy, fair system of governance, just too greedy and self-interested to actually create one in the first place. Ineptness may not be curable, but I'm enough of an optimist to believe that greed and self-interest are choices. Knowledge is power, and finding concrete answers to the questions that have plagued me has allowed me to examine my own role in our current system, think about solutions, and try my best to change what I don't like about my own behavior.
And if we don't decide to change? I don't know about you, but I can feel the wobbly, reckless, blinding speed of our downward trajectory. I've been expecting a crash for a long, long time.
Which is why I've just re-read Margaret Atwood's two most recent novels, "Oryx and Crake" and "The Year of the Flood". Set in the not too distant future, science and technology are still in the hands of large corporations and profit, as an ends, still justifies any means. More species are rapidly dying out as all of the world's resources are used up and global warming gains momentum unchecked, and the only government that exists is the creepy Stasi like CorpSeCorps, paid for by the corporations to maintain law and order so that their profits can continue to grow unimpeded by citizen protests, conscientious objectors, or anti-establishment free thinkers. This world is inhabited by bio-engineered super viruses that can dissolve people into puddles, new species of bio-engineered, gene spliced animals-including the horrific chickie knobs, a chicken that is all meat and no brain that grows in a lab- and cyborg bees developed by the CorpSeCorps for spying and surveillance. Margaret Atwood's genius is not only that she presents her warning about our probable future as an involving and masterfully written story, but that you can see the future she writes as the logical, natural consequence of, say, our current decision to buy a pair of sneakers even though we know they were made in a sweatshop, or any other of the seemingly innocuous moral lapses we citizens of the first world make a hundred times a day-decisions based in the blissful ignorance of safety and plenty, or by throwing up our hands in frustration and saying: I'm one person, I can't change anything, or by simply deciding to not care. We have that luxury now, but our time is running out. We are caught in the gears we have made out of material gain and creature comforts. The global economy in it's present incarnation is running every aspect of our lives-we serve it, and it only really serves the very few. It has sneakily fostered a self-indulgent way of living among the better off that directly causes much suffering to the poor and is destroying our planet. But-it doesn't have to be this way. Margaret Atwood's warning doesn't have to be our future. About this, I'm not terribly optimistic, but I remain hopeful. So far.
The very heart of all of this mess is, of course, that our abilities far exceed our wisdom. Any parent of a toddler-or a teen for that matter-knows what I mean. Human beings invented the wheel and a ton of really good and helpful things since, but we've also made nuclear weapons, various other killing machines including SUV's, and a billion of those cheap little plastic McDonald's Happy Meal toys that are toxic as hell and wind up in landfills. We've done terrible things with even good inventions, tainting them with unfair and unsafe labor practices and pollution. Not to mention we're still bashing each other on the head with rocks.
The Dalai Lama said, "Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive." I pray and pray that each individual person on our planet will gain in spiritual wisdom so that the choices we all make will be more responsible towards our fellow beings, healthier for our children and our planet, and motivated by kindness and compassion. That world is possible. I don't care if it isn't probable, because I don't believe in statistics.