We’ll begin with Snopes, and talk about a sign that my teacher used to have up on the wall. It said, “Without understanding, your leap of consciousness will be lost.“
Because this is about context. Today in Wisconsin, a battle is being waged, by the self-appointed Galtians, who want government drowned in that proverbial bathtub, and anybody not either rich, or gulled into voting AS IF they were rich. We’ve seen a wave of Kochian/Randian “Libertarian” callousness and outright cruelty unleashed in the name of the ideology of greed, and we’ve become so inured to it that we can’t put the pieces together. Which is the point I’ll be making right after this short word from Snopes:
YOU SCARE ME
• Correctly attributed.
Origins: Lou Pritchett is a former vice president of Procter & Gamble whose career at that company spanned 36 years before his retirement in 1989, and he is the author of the 1995 business book, Stop Paddling & Start Rocking the Boat.
Mr. Pritchett confirmed to us that he was indeed the author of the much-circulated “open letter” quoted above:
I did write the ‘you scare me’ letter. I sent it to the NY Times but they never acknowledged or published it. However, it hit the internet and according to the ‘experts’ has had over 500,000 hits.
And that of course, has been pumped up into a masterwork of hate and wrong-thinking, but in many ways it is the codex, the Rosetta Stone in understanding the forces that imperil the vast majority of our citizens, usurpations and blatant looting in as reactionary a manner as Robin Hood’s teenage son could ever dream of.
If you watch enough TeeVee, occasionally it makes the wait worthwhile. I don’t know if the idea is original to him — and it may well be — but late night funnyman (which is generally how the toffs describe such artisans) Craig Ferguson was waxing eloquent one night, and pointed out that capitalism and democracy are, in many ways antithetical to one another: democracy is about equality, and capitalism is about INequality, period.
And that’s a good jumping off point.
Capitalism doesn’t need democracry. Capitalism functions fine under all forms of government, it turns out. Fascists and capitalists get along fine together. And, China and Vietnam prove that Communism and capitalism get along fine together. Totalitarian states and capitalism get along fine together, and even in socialist Europe socialism and capitalism get along fine together.
The only ideology that capitalism DOESN’T get along with is the concept of “sharing.”
As cancer is to the body, so, if not regulated, capitalism becomes naked greed, which is to the society EXACTLY what cancer is to the body:
Having forgotten the necessarily interdependent nature of the body, the cancer cells merely eat and grow and replicate as fast as they can, grabbing all the “wealth” — which is to say oxygenated red blood cells and sugar in the bloodstream — as the other organs weaken and die, and, finally, the organism itself dies.
Which is where America is today: infrastructure crumbling on a massive scale, deeply in debt and teetering on the edge of insolvency after eight years of misrule by a man who campaigned on the cancerous slogan: “It’s YOUR money!”
How could anything be so stupid? we ask. Well, look at our society today: every bit as interdependent as any body ever was, and note how those who have the money are those who bet the money (e.g. hedge fund managers) and now own the collective output of two-thirds of society.
And, astonishingly, governor after governor has launched attacks on the middle class — the workers, the pensioners, the small business owners — to pay in taxes or in services cuts for the tax breaks to the cancer …. er, wealthiest claiming that since they’re rich, they create jobs, and the more money that they have, the more jobs they will create, and all the NEW workers’ taxes will raise revenues so that the wealthiest can endure even more tax cuts, which will lead to more prosperity, etcetera.
You think I’m making this up?
You scare me because you prefer ‘wind mills’ to responsibly
Capitalizing on our own vast oil, coal and shale reserves.
You scare me because you want to kill the American capitalist goose
That lays the golden egg which provides the highest standard of
Living in the world.
You scare me because you have begun to use ‘extortion’ tactics
Against certain banks and corporations. [Punctuation and line breaks sic]
This is the viral “You Scare Me” letter that’s been making the rounds over the past several years.
But let’s take that “American capitalist goose” that is so lauded (and basted) with loving care by this ex-soap salesman, octagenarian crackpot, whose book is tellingly entitled: Stop Paddling & Start Rocking the Boat. And let’s see what’s in its guts, shall we?
As currently practiced, I’ll just save us all some time by referring to our present system of Generalized Rational Acquisition and Barter as GRAB.
And nowhere that I have heard of has ever practiced the discipline of GRAB more stupendously and successfully than the United States of America. The GRABs of American history are rife and ubiquitous. One that all school children are taught is that the Dutch ‘bought’ the island of Manhattan for $24 worth of beads. The less-known underlying information that the Indians passing through were nomadic and were happy to accept $24 in beads for something that they didn’t consider to be theirs correctly casts most of the tenor of American GRABs: both sides were sure that they were screwing the other. It is fitting and proper that our Temple of GRAB is located therein, on Wall Street, which takes its name from a wall that was built to protect settlers from feral pigs.
Clearly, that didn’t work.
Let me tell you a story about a modern GRAB, and perhaps you’ll appreciate how and why we’ve come to our current pretty economic pass, in which unemployment is high, jobs are more menial than meretritious, and yet the “bailed out” GRABbers are earning record profits, paying record multi-million dollar annual bonuses and the stock market is smokin’.
There is real money.
And there is “magic” money.
Real money doesn’t have to be tangible to be real — witness your ATM card, which perpetually allows you access to your bank-stored money via a plastic card and a secret password: Open Sesame! Or, perhaps Open Cashforme!
And there is “magic” money.
Now, the trick was to sell everybody on mutual funds, 401(k) plans, portfolios, investments that were safe and secure, and so they paid REAL money for MAGIC money, which rose and rose above the initial value of their money. The magic money was fertile and blooming everywhere through the go-go Nineties.
And when the bubble burst, all that magic money disappeared.
A classmate of mine told me that they’d had enough in their portfolio (saved by purchasing magic money with real money) to put all three of their children through college. After the bubble burst, they had just enough to put one son through one more semester in college.
The magic money had vanished. Poof!
And then all wept, then blew their collective nose, dried their eyes and went back to work. But what happened to the “REAL” money? It didn’t just vanish in a puff of smoke, after all.
Pehaps it’s telling that a plurality if not a majority of the top ten billionaires in the world are “hedge fund managers” or “investors.” They have the real money. Oddly enough.
And that’s how you GRAB.
The Rugged Individual
We Americans all imagine ourselves to be rugged individualists, children of the soil, hunters and beer drinkers, bonfirers and weenie-roasters.
And every year, millions of us set forth in our modern Conestoga Wagons, as self contained with our satellite dishes, our microwave ovens and our in-transit toilet as our forebears were when they walked from Independence, Missouri to Oregon City, Oregon, or Sacramento, California, or Santa Fe, New Mexico, or Salt Lake City, Utah.
But we aren’t and they weren’t.
You see, it is the collective wealth, intelligence and technology of any society that determines the quality of life of its citizens.
The greatest Roman Emperor never had the air-conditioning that any down-on-his-luck hustler has in a forlorn mobile home in a mobile home park on the outskirts of Las Vegas, Nevada.
The most powerful Emperor of Persia or China never had anything as magical as the standard wall-mounted television set in any motel anywhere in America.
The greatest King in Europe never had fresh lilies, roses, bananas, citrus and strawberries, from Africa and South America, from Indonesia and Central America. No generation has experienced less disease, virtually no epidemics, has had the pain relief and broken bone treatment that we have had.
But those did not come from individuals. That wealth is like the wave.
If you’ve ever witnessed a “wave” at a sports stadium, you’ll remember that there is a peculiarity of reality involved: each of us jumps, or merely stands up and sits back down and yet a physical wave of water sloshes around the stadium. We are 86% water, after all, so it’s mostly a wave of water with some teeth and clothes floating on top of it.
We dismiss the wave as something vaguely amusing. But there is a whole paradox to our conception of individuality involved with the wave.
Each of us, as an individual has stood up and sat down. And yet SOMETHING composed infinitesimally of our actions has moved around the stadium, as tens of thousands (often) have created … what?
A phenomenon of the crowd. You see the same thing in any audience. Hitchcock famously developed the technique of lulling the audience into a collective heartbeat (which audiences tend to naturally fall into, as women sequestered together will tend to synchronize their periods) and then SHOCKING on the half-beat, causing the collective audience hearts to stop for a split second. This succeeded in scaring the beejezis out of the audience, and was most gratifying from Mr. Hitchcock’s point of view.
There is some transcendent identity to the collective identity of a crowd, or a mob, or in hundreds of thousands of protesters in the streets of Cairo or Madison, Wisconsin. And you might call that our “anthill.” Collectively, we form a cohesive unit, like a flock of birds or a school of fish turning on a dime, as if it were one great entity and not some mere collection of birds or fish.
We do it, and we do it so well and successfully as a species that we have created a virtual paradise in which the individual may dream of what a self-sufficient individual he or she is, because the collective power of that society in which he is as embedded as a raisin in a raisin muffin creates the circumstances where a thousand or ten thousand or a hundred thousand complete strangers can mine the metals, forge them, form them, wire and house them, program them, manufacture and distribute and market them to bring you that iPod in your hand, or that smartPhone or that Kindle or touchpad or computer.
Or even that pencil and that piece of paper.
Somehow, each minor individual effort created that “wave” that brought your necessities and your toys to you. Virtually nothing is created by a single person, even if we discount the billions of lives it took to create the operating system and language in which you conduct your individual life.
Now, consider that the same kind of “wave” delivered that computer or digital reader to your presence. And that delivers these black spots that communicate meaning to you. Spots that make “words” that you “read” and learn, agree, disagree and process inside what we normally consider our “life.”
That same kind of wave continually produces the electricity that powers your computer. (Most of your life, in fact.)
The notion of going off into the ‘woods’ to live alone and self-sufficient is no longer the paradigm of our existence. It is the paradigm from which the Western concept of individuality arose — which we accept unquestioningly, without ever questioning it. How many High School yearbooks contain a photo of one or two students who were voted “Most Individualistic” [sic]?
We perceive ourselves as individuals of nearly infinite autonomy, but, really, if you look at it we are much more like ants with extremely rich inner lives.
Take the “noble savage,” from which Rousseau derived the concept of a “social contract” and which Locke elaborated on so well that Thomas Jefferson could fairly be accused of plagiarism of some of the most stirring parts of the opening of the Declaration of Independence.
There has never BEEN a noble savage.
We have, from birth, been in the hands of some authority or another, with increasing autonomy as long as we don’t break the rules or make a nuisance.
We are social animals, through and through, and if we do not learn language by a certain age, it becomes impossible for us to do so.
Our lives are lived in language, as we speak to others and to ourselves, and in extreme cases our language becomes our world, and we write a narrative of great suffering and trouble for others. But in all cases — unless there is some secret lama in a hidden cave in the Himalayas — we live a good deal of our time with language, communicating even if there is no common language.
But we all are born alone, live alone and die alone.
And therein lies the conundrum, how can this most social animal, this creature of incessant chattering — if not to others of its kind, then to itself — feel so alone and unconnected to the world? Well, I leave that one to religions and nontheistic ethicists.
Above my pay grade.
But we have always known the tension between our “private” self and our public self — the one who is ordered by parents to do chores or homework, or the family member attending some ritual. Or the delegate to the widget convention, or the owner of that house, attender of that church, member of this board, a coach of that team.
In some societies, the private self is all but stomped out of existence and all activity is to serve the greater good. (Generally, in most of recorded history, that “good” had a name and wore something fancy on his or her head, and sometimes had the people worship him or her as a living god. Well and good: if the society was successful, they went along with it. If not, the head itself was often worn by a long, pointed pike.)
In Western thought, it was recognized that unleashing the private self would lead to growth, innovation, commerce, and all the rest of our current wonders. But it also led to our current woes, as well, so let’s hold what a “great” thing this was in abeyance for the moment.
The American Revolution touched off a wave of revolutions around the globe that continue to this day. Many countries around the world adopted our “liberty cap” which you can see on the flag of the Army and the seal of the Senate, and it is found on flags throughout the world. The French adopted it so successfully that they and many of us believe that it was THEIR symbol.
Nope. Sam Adams and the Sons of Liberty wore them and many soldiers in the Revolutionary Army wore them, with “Liberty” or (hard to believe, given what it is right now) “Congress” embroidered at the forehead.
But their conception of liberty and our conception of liberty are two entirely different things.
The world has changed, and some want to hold to the old myth of the Independent Pioneer, the self-made man, the Ruggeed Individualist.
That world is not only gone, but it never, in fact, existed.
The technology of Europe made all that “rugged individualism” possible — of sails, of ships, of gunpowder and steel. THOSE were the “extra” that let the mountain man roam freely through the Rockies. The Buffalo Hunter was subsumed by the railroad — an astonishing feat of engineering, logistics and manufacturing — and the telegraph collapsed space.
But it is the anthill and not the ants. Again, an irony: the peculiar nature of our existence requires that one do it, and then all can do it. For long periods, nobody in the world can pole vault above a certain height. Then someone breaks the record, and in weeks, all the top vaulters have cleared the impossible height. Within a few years, high school students are clearing the height.
And in that transmission of the entire civilization and its history lies our world. Without all the geeks working in their garages on cold Palo Alto nights, Twitter and Facebook could never have been the means by which two bloodless revolutions were organized … in the last four months. (Been a heckuva year, ain’t it?)
Without tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands cooperating, Neil and Buzz could never have walked on the face of the Moon. Without Gutenberg’s press, they could have never made it.
Dan’l Boone can only blaze the trail with the trusty flintlock that’s revolutionized the rifle after centuries of carrying long, burning punks, which was what the Spanish Conquistadores carried. There’s several hundred years of metallurgy and one trip by a guy named a form of horse croquet behind Dan’l Boone’s rifle. The same with his hunting knife. With his flint and steel for starting fires, and the collective knowledge that’s been passed to him.
And, for a long time, we could all relish the myth of the self-reliant man — meaning the man who’d had the foresight to buy a good rifle, a good axe, a good hunting knife, and most importantly, good boots. But it took thousands living and millions dead to produce even those humble accoutrements, which allowed the European conquest of what we call the “New World,” and its inhabitants.
We are so immersed in the myth of our separateness, our individuality, that we never see the vast machineries of a global civilization that allows us our dream of sovereign glory. I am a rock! I am an island! (see Paul Simon for the rest of it).
Don’t get me wrong, without individuality, society dies; without society, individuality dies.
And, since the Christmas Eve reading from the crew of Apollo 8, we have begun to understand that we live on small island, and that what affects one part of that blue marble spinning in the silent, angry void affects us all. Which brings us back to GRAB.
Most Island cultures …
(Part 2 will follow shortly. Or at length.)
And there is a superb post today by Doug G at Balloon Juice, which I commend to your attention. It’s a lot shorter than this, but approaches this from a different direction.