JACQUELINE MARCUS FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
In our wildest madness we dream of an equilibrium we have lost.-Albert Camus
The other day at the doctor's office, I picked up a typical fashion magazine left opened on the coffee table for something to do. The cover highlighted a young actress half-naked and doing her best to look sexy, which is not unusual in a commercial society that promotes women as sex objects. It is also considered normal by today's standards for an eleven-year-old girl to believe that the sexier she is-the more valued and appreciated she will be in our society.
As for the boys, they're occupied for hours playing violent video games that give them the thrill of exploding humans with powerful weapons in the pursuit of joyful killing.
I glanced at the glossy ads of perfumes, purses, clothes and more accessories, sunglasses, loads of cosmetics: lipstick, mascara, creams, and shoes that look impossible to stand in much less walk in-all of which you'd expect from a fashion magazine, and wondered what became of my generation. Speaking as a woman who will take a comfortable pair of jeans, sneakers and a cotton sweater any day over the gloss and glitter, it all looks rather ridiculous to me.
Maybe that's because I don't subscribe to the belief that hedonistic gluttony is the grand lifestyle of choice. I taught philosophy for twenty years and I was particularly taken by the ancient Greek theme of moderation, which has become something of a foreign concept in our society. I'm old enough to remember when young Americans questioned established norms, when they wanted to practice a sort of hip stoicism by realizing that less is more. We never if rarely hear about the virtue of moderation in our political discussions or from the entertainment media world of film and sensational news.
But it wasn't always this way. I grew up watching Kung Fu, the most popular series on television in the 1970s. Sure, we were fascinated by the ancient martial arts, but the Eastern teachings of the Tao-wisdom based on the virtue of moderation and compassion rang true to us and it served to guide an entire generation of soul-searchers that had had enough of the Vietnam War and the politics of deception. There was a strong interest to explore a quiet state of mind through meditation in order to discover a deeper meaning to peace and happiness which was reflected in the music and literature of our times.
We also had a President who was philosophical and practical about coming to terms with limitations of energy sources. President Carter brought solar power to our attention and spoke about the virtue of self-discipline and the dangers of wasteful consumerism. Americans were buying smaller, more efficient cars-we were on the way to becoming a rather enlightened society. Our parents also taught us to know when enough is enough: Don't buy it if you can't pay for it. Don't borrow, it will lead to debt. Our parents were role models in this respect, they practiced what they preached, and it was the true meaning of living a conservative lifestyle.
Then it all came crashing down to an abrupt end, taking the foundation of our middle-class economy with it. The oil executives were raging mad about Carter's energy conservative speeches, and they especially didn't appreciate the "love one another" generation-or the idea that Americans should care about protecting nature and wildlife or buying smaller cars and more efficient energy homes. No, the oil, coal and utility corporatists made sure to end this way of thinking once and for all.
So the oil industrialists made a deal with OPEC and advised them to put the squeeze on oil. Americans were forced to wait in long lines for a limited amount of gas. It was a deliberate plan to crush Carter and the entire energy conservative trend. And it worked. Inflation skyrocketed from the oil industry's scheme to 21%. Soon after, Carter was toast.
Enter Ronald Reagan, the President who said, "When you've seen one Redwood tree, you've seen them all." Under Reagan, our national forests, including ancient two to five thousand year old Redwoods were clear-cut and given to the lumber industries for pennies. Oil drilling and coal mining escalated, corporations were allowed to merge into monopolies, and critically important business, banking and environmental regulations that protected the public's working and environmental conditions were shredded. The push to buy more and buy big, screw the next guy, take as much as you can-became the mantra of the day.
Thirty years later, we're reaping the consequences of what the corporatists have sown: America is a morally bankrupted, illiterate, violent, war-monger, polluted third world nation with depleted resources and no professions or jobs for our youth. The "grab everything at any cost attitude" has created a cold wasteland where Americans of all ages feel forlorn and alienated.
I've been told that the Iraqis were a very warm-hearted and generously giving people before the Bush administration annihilated their country with weapons of mass destruction for oil.
Jhumpa Lahiri wrote about this subject of alienation in the United States. It's especially difficult for foreigners. In The Namesake, Ashima, after giving birth to her first child sadly expressed her feelings about raising her son in "this lonely country." Her husband encouraged her to think about all the opportunities Gogol will have in America that would not be possible in India. The two viewpoints are interesting. America offered advantages for material success, but as Ashima sensed, no one seems to care about anyone else.
Now the average American high school student can't even afford to attend college. The virtue of moderation expressed the moral obligation that we must give back what we take, an idea that was ridiculed by corporate media.
The "Me Generation" of the 80s has dominated the business world, resulting in the practice of gluttony and selfishness. Today, greed and excessiveness have transformed young Americans and our politicians into something other than humans, something unrecognizable. I'm reminded of the "Portrait of Dorian Gray" in the halls of Congress all the way up to the Supreme Court and to the highest office of the land. They've sold their souls to the highest corporate bidder, but no matter how expensive their tailored suits are-beneath appearances their deformed souls grow uglier by the moment from living selfish and dishonest lives.
I taught Plato's Republic and ended the course on Camus' warning of exiling Helen, the Greek Goddess of Beauty. The Greeks expressed the wise understanding in their philosophy and literature that excessiveness is ugly and demoralizing. To indulge perpetually in the senses reduced humans, as in the classic story of the Odyssey, to pigs. Beauty, on the other hand, symbolized for the Greeks, the virtue of modesty, decorum, reason, justice and above all else, a deep reverence for the laws of nature. To go beyond the limits of nature was a blasphemous act condemned by the gods. The Greeks would be appalled to say the least at how industrialists ravaged, raped and polluted our earth, our only home of existence.
The Greeks believed that excessiveness was equal to ugliness. That is why Plato gave strict warnings to never allow businessmen to usurp the leadership roles in the Republic. He knew that they were only interested in enriching themselves at the expense of others. Leadership was reserved for the enlightened philosophers who were not concerned about wealth and materialism. The philosopher-ruler had the good wisdom and education to do what is best for the community. The wise ruler is ego-less, and is morally obligated to serve the people. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King represent what Plato had in mind for the philosopher-rulers.
Today, the rulers are the polluting industrialists and our politicians are nothing more than sleazy salesmen for oil and war investors.
As for popular shows, we've gone from my generation's favorite series Kung Fu to American Idol and cage-fighting.
I'm not suggesting that one generation is better than the current generations. What I am saying is that our kids are rarely given the opportunity to learn about the virtue of modesty, that they are more than physical bodies: they have minds and souls that need to be nourished on the ideas of empathy, and that it's ruthless and unconscionable for a few greedy families such as the Koch Brothers to horde 90% of the world's wealth that resulted in the corporate purchasing (privatization) of our government and media at every level.
I'm saying that we need to replant the seeds of humility, and that our kids are the victims of ugly corporatism, that they've been deprived of the sacred right that every being has intrinsic worth and that they can choose to reject an empty life of consumerism in exchange for a life of reflection, meditation, and higher ideas that will create an inner spiritual vitality. That spiritual path has been deliberately crushed beneath the wheel of excessive corporatism for the few at the expense of the many.
J.S. Mill wrote in his classic essay On Liberty that "everyone lives as under the eye of a hostile and dreaded censorship." In a commercial society, there is no room for spiritual growth, for rational criticism, for the cultivation of well-developed human beings. You know something's gone terribly wrong when a young child is told through media reinforcement that he will be valued on the lack or gain of wealth and materialism, and she on sex appeal, not by the content of his/her character.
But, you might ask, isn't a modest life a rather boring life? True, Beethoven's passion for creating symphonies was anything but modest, but that is a beautiful passion uniquely inspired by a sublime intelligence. That's quite different from the excessiveness of clear-cutting a sacred rainforest, or turning the Gulf of Mexico into a permanent dead zone from excessive oil drilling, or the horrific injustice of oil wars and Wall Street scams that led to millions of foreclosures. No self-discipline. No humility. No sense of control or modesty. It's ugly.
Mill went on to say that if we don't provide the cultivated soil for our children to learn the wisdom of humility and modesty, to give back what you've taken, meaningful ideas that nourish the soul, human life will become a stagnant pool.
The philosopher-journalist Albert Camus wrote in his lyrical essay Helen's Exile: "We, who have thrown both universe and mind out of orbit, find such threats amusing. In a drunken sky we ignite the suns that suit us. But limits nonetheless exist and we know it. In our wildest madness we dream of an equilibrium we have lost."
I read this passage the other day and thought about Japan's Fukushima's three catastrophic nuclear meltdowns while our President orders a bombing campaign for oil in Libya that is costing taxpayers $11 million dollars a day.
In a drunken sky they ignite the suns that suit them...