Reflections on American Idiocy
By Paul Street at Jan 09, 2007
We're mostly good people in the United States but we've got to be a bit less idiotic, both morally and intellectually. Before I give some examples of what I mean, let me note that an original Greek meaning of the word “idiot” referred to the opposite of an engaged and concerned citizen. It referred to a person who was thoroughly self-interested and self-involved, unable or unwilling to care about the experience of others and the broader society and polity.
My least favorite quote of the weekend comes from Brandon Rasmussen. Mr. Rasmussen is described in last Sunday's New York Times' Sunday magazine as “an easygoing student who seemed to me like a surfer dude who washed up on some New Age shore." According to Times writer D.T. Max, in an article titled “Happiness 101,” Rasmussen recently finished a class on “positive psychology” at George Mason University. The point of the class was to learn and apply a scientific approach to being meaningfully and durably happy.
The article ends with Rasmussen telling Max what he got out of the class. “My personal satisfaction is the measure for me,” Rasmussen announces, “and my personal satisfaction is great. I hate to say this, but really in the scheme of things we're not going to change the war in Iraq. We can only fix the world one person at a time.” The fixing of the world seems to start with one Brandon learning how to have fun and really be with his friends.
If you read Max's whole article, you see that positive psychology classes are flourishing across the country and that they tend to instruct students in doing good for others, not seeking momentary and hedonistic pleasures. There's a lot talk about gratitude and foregiveness, close relationships and love, loving kindness, meditation, visualization, savoring, non-denominational spirituality, and meaning and all the rest of that very New Age sounding sort of stuff. Max found the classroom discussion in the course Rasmussen took to be “Oprah-ish” (D.T. Max, “Happiness 101,” New York Times Magazine, January 7, 2007).
I'm not going to go off on one of my patented leftist rants about what a steamy load of bourgeois manure New Age self-help and pseudo-spirituality is.
But I will say this to Brandon Rusmussen and anyone else thinking like him: you, young sir, need to expand your sphere of concern and mindfulness beyond a small circle of friends. You pursuing your own personal and small-group satisfaction is ultimately a very limited and at least semi-idiotic (in the original Greek sense referred to above) exercise in what you call “the broad scheme of things.” A livable ecology is fading from the scene quite quickly before our very eyes. Democracy may be on its last legs in the most powerful nation on earth. We are increasingly living in what the prolific left author Mike Davis calls A Planet of Slums - a living world-capitalist dystopia where hundreds of millions of desperately impoverished squatters “must wager their lives against inevitable disaster on precarious hillsides, in floodplains, or next to toxic dumps” and where millions more are “expelled to the despair of periurban shadowlands.”
The war you have written off as beyond your sphere of influence is a product of concentrated human agency which you and your fellow citizens (myself included) have deeply enabled at least partly through self-absorption and an over-focus on purely private concerns.
Your friends and others could absolutely help change – indeed end – the illegal U.S. war on Iraq. We could do this through collective, direct action: a shared decision to make our society ungovernable unless and until your government ceases and desists from carrying out monumentally criminal and mass-murderous assaults on others.
Things like U.S. foreign policy, militarism, global warming, social inequality (all richly interconnected) are not actually beyond our collective spheres of influence. Socially produced ruling elites (including nice and sensitive university professors like some of the ones who teach positive psychology classes) might seek to coordinate your thoughts into narrow and limited channels of private and small-group liberation but they're wrong. We could and must do a lot more on a much large scale.
There is no good reason to set up false dichotomies between individual change and collective change. The world is in far too much trouble for us to operate only on a one-person-at-a time scale right now. We don't have time for “one person at a time.”
The resources exist to improve the lives of millions at a time and we could in fact easily develop and brandish the power to stop permitting massive harm from being collectively imposed on collective others.
But it's going to take struggle and enormous costs. In steeling ourselves for the struggle, we should be very careful about how far we want to go in elevating personal satisfaction as a life goal. Some of us have dropped the pursuit of happiness altogether; it's a source of recurrent contentment. We don't worry about happiness. We worry about making an overdue and (never more) urgently required revolution. The world is dying and the existing dominant sociopolitical order is entirely incapable of halting the species' ever more imminent demise. At the same time, I think it is impossible to be meaningfully satisfied in life while you are tolerating mass murder and the destruction of the livable earth.
These are thoughts for getting outside of American idiocy and taking the purported other-friendly concerns of Oprah et al. and "positive psychology" to a more decent, democratic and public level.
Speaking of Oprah, my second least favorite quote of the weekend comes from her. In the opinion section of Sunday's Chicago Tribune, the obscenely wealthy New Age talk show host is approvingly quoted by conservative black columnist Clarence Page. She explains why her “lavish $40 million Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy" for poor girls is being constructed in South Africa instead of in an American ghetto. Oprah said she just got “so frustrated” with the selfish materialism of students in “inner-city schools,” who tell her they want “money, iPods, toys, and sneakers,” not books and school uniforms. So she took some of her famous, hyper-materialist fortune – accumulated in no small part through her wrapping of white capitalism materialism in New Age spiritual cover – and exported it abroad to help the oppressed children of South Africa (Clarence Page, “Oprah's Truth Shouldn't Hurt,” Chicago Tribune, 7 January 2007, sec. 2, p. 7).
My God, but what an idiot. Billionaire Oprah should be ashamed for setting the needs of the children of the United States' living apartheid schools and neighborhoods against those of classic South African apartheid's children. She should be disgraced without mercy for slamming U.S. ghetto kids for purportedly embracing corporate-branded consumerism and capitalist materialism when she has built a massive Winner Took All fortune precisely by trumpeting and embodying precisely those core perversions! Have you seen the annual show where she showers her predominantly white and middle-class audience with millions of dollars of consumer goodies, including sneakers and iPods, special perfumes and the like? Have you seen the ones where she leads you through her West Coast mansion, a super-opulent monument to decadent and conspicuous consumption that would be fit a subject matter for a revolutionary tribunal's scrutiny in a world where two billion people live on less than a dollar per day? Would Oprah like to comment upon the source of so many “inner-city students” fascination with material goodies? That source is the very same corporate-media-advertising-industrial-entertainment complex that has turned Oprah into a filthy rich icon of falsely spiritual material excess. Another source, of course, is the savage disconnect between (a) the thoroughly “mainstream” (corporate-crafted) consumerism-materialism (widely shared by rich white kids and their parents in affluent metropolitan suburbs) that is held up as the American Dream on U.S. television and (b) the tragic reality of savagely concentrated poverty in the persistently hyper-segregated black ghettoes of America.
I think Oprah owes “inner city” neighborhoods and students of America a major public apology. She's acting like a big bad bourgeois bitch right now and it's not going to help her legacy one bit. Oprah needs to call Dr. Phil and get to work on some damage control pronto.
As for Clarence Page, he's been Uncle-Tomming it up for some time now and his column on Oprah is true to form. You can get a sense of its idiotic moral and intellectual caliber when he says that he disagrees with “some critics” who “accused [Bill] Cosby of blaming the victims.” Saying that Cosby doesn't blame the victims is like saying that George W. Bush isn't a liar. It's a moronic statement that discredits its maker.
My third least favorite comment last weekend comes from Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass. To fashion his column in last Sunday's Trib, Kass sat down at Chicago's legendary Billy Goat restaurant with Iraq War veteran John LeStarge. Kass says he really likes something about this returned solider: “LeStarge doesn't spin.” It's nice to see LeStarge quoted in some very direct ways on why Bush's war strategy is a failure. About two-thirds of the way into the column, however, you hear the following from LeStarge: “we should downgrade the American force [in Iraq] to about half. Instead of 140,000, cut to 70,000. Keep the bases we have. We won't desert the bases. But stay and just have several quick reaction forces all across the country in case the Iraqi army gets in trouble and needs back up. More air support for the Iraqi army, so that they can call in airstrikes if they find a terrorist safe haven.”
Sorry, John Kass, but that would be….uh.., well,”spin.” And its pretty damn imperialist spin to boot. LeStarge is talking about doing something the Iraqi people massively reject: maintaining permanent bases "We won't desert the bases"?! He's speaking the the oil companies' language by talking about maintaining a still-significant imperial presence in the nation and region. He goes so far as identify to what will be a continuing legitimate occupation resistance (70,000 troops and persistent “rapid reaction” and “airstrike” capabilities are a continuing occupation/invasion) with “terrorist safe havens.” He is permitted by Kass to talk about “airtsrikes” as if they won't involve numerous outrages against Iraqi civilians (John Kass, “Young Vet Once Gung Ho, but No More,” Chicago Tribune, 7 January 2007, sec. 1, p. 2).
So Kass ends up writing an idiotic column. He often does this when he lets his attention stray from Mayor Daley (the squirming target of many excellent Kass pieces) to national events.
My fourth least favorite comment this weekend came at a wonderful, bustling café on the far North Side of Chicago – a longstanding progressive hangout that sells Z Magazine and other left publications. There were two seventy-something guys sitting to my right. It was another nice, ridiculously warm and sunny day in January in Chicago.
The first guy said the following to the second one: “well, we might as well enjoy the benefits of global warming if we're going to have to suffer the downside of global warming.” I knew what he meant, of course - I had a lovely run along the Chicago River the night before and the temperature had been very comfortable (maybe mid-40s) in freaking January, in Chicago – but I thought it was an at least slightly idiotic thing to say. The truth of the matter is that it is future generations, not theirs, who will get the real brunt of the ecological catastrophe created by the U.S.-led petro-capitalist planet bake.
But the comment was also not really my business; it was a private utterance between two old friends who probably knew they won't live to see the full horror of climate change but saw no point in saying so.
It wasn't made for the explicit purpose of public consumption like the noxious utterances of Oprah and Kass.
On Brandon, I don't know if he knew that his idiotic comment was going to make it into the national press. He's still got a few decades ahead of him and I wish to remind him again: he and his friends and the rest of us can – and indeed must – act to end the vicious U.S. assault on Iraq.
There is a large demonstration designed to tell the new Congress to Act Now to End the War in Washington, D.C. on January 27, 2007. Mr. Rasmussen and his friends can get some information on this important mobilization at www.unitedforpeace.org.