Tuesday
Jul042006

« In(ter)dependence Day »

In an urban society everything connects, each person's needs are fed by the skills of many others. Our lives are woven together in a fabric, but the connections that make society strong also make it vulnerable. —Threads, 1984

Last month I read Rabbi Michael Lerner's book, The Left Hand of God. His vision for America is that we should do better than we have been doing in the current milieu of greed, fear, and inequality. He has been adamant that the bottom line thinking we now share in is morally bankrupt and needs redress. Near the end of the book, he encourages us to examine our national mythology, and the holidays we celebrate. He offers that maybe Independence Day needs to be recast as Interdependence Day so that we begin to gather around the profound understanding that we are not islands, either apart from one another nor from other events in the world or in history itself.

Long before I started taking this stuff seriously, I posited that America's love affair with independence and individualism was going to get the better of us. About six years ago, when I wrote my song Suburban Silhouette, I noticed that our housing and land development "plan" was a manifestation of our love affair with independence and solitary living, but was also a major player in our social decay. Living outside of community is not a human way of life. We will realize this soon enough, as one of those painful lessons that history periodically teaches. Community living is not a hallmark of our current mode of living. Our lives today more resemble industrial artifacts, or maybe a live-by-numbers sort of existence. It's a lie that industry and advertising would like us to swallow that we are individuals if we buy this good or that, or patronize this service or that. We fabricate our "individuality" from an established and mostly widely available collection of pre-made artifacts that are for sale to those who can afford them. The self-made citizen is no more. However, that does not lead us to community, only undue dependence on a fuel-fed industrial process for delivering goods and services. Just because we are in a web of interdependence does not mean we live in community. Sorry, but a web of franchise fast food outlets and big box retailers and mortgage lenders and Amazon.com does not constitute an organic community of people who work to share in the profits of their own work and those of the people around them.

Living face-to-face communities are not founded by land speculators and developers. They are not founded by Wal Mart in Bentonville. They are not founded by Ray Kroc. They are not founded by Ford and GM. They are not created by transportation authorities. They are not the creation of oil companies. They are not created by abstract expressionist or postmodern artists. They are not founded by investors from overseas. They are not created by defense contractors or government agencies. They are not created by eBay. They are not created by philanthropic institutions. All these institutions may be able to create infrastructure and establish some sort of networking across hitherto unbreachable boundaries, but communities do not exist solely because of these institutions and their technologies or design cleverness.

I don't know what the prospects are for real human community in America. It has been killed in large part by greed. Greed has been a wolf in sheep's clothing. It has been smuggled into our land like a Trojan horse that was presented to us as a gift from industry and capitalist corporations. The old rhetoric of "what's good for corporations is good for America" is bankrupt. What is good for a corporation is good only for a corporation—to a point. It's bad for the nation, it's bad for the world, and ultimately, it's bad for the corporation in the long run. What will these hallowed corporations and industries have to provide us when the resource base is depleted? Or when we are all put out of work that would allow us to even buy things? Or when the population crashes due to overshoot/famine/disease/war?

A century of indulgence is a hard addiction to break. Addiction to leisure, individualism, and selfishness is not particularly a natural thing. Advertising-propaganda was designed to help deconstruct conventions of human life that leaned toward community welfare (not an entitlement program, you know). After all, a company with a good to sell can only sell so many of those widgets to a family if four or six people are using one widget. The way to sell a few more widgets is to condition people to own their own. What was once the "family TV" is now "one TV in each room and a DVD player in the Suburban." Same with cars themselves. By intentionally cultivating a culture that does not need to share, we not only lose the virtue of sharing, but we lose the benefits too. Sharing something like a TV, or a car, or other things that many people can use at once also kept people in proximity to each other which is conducive to talking and maintaining a life together. A TV show or movie, no matter how bad, is at least a shared experience to enter dialog that one hopes could lead to some understanding among the parties involved, and some exposures to other world views. With a shared car, people who need to cooperate to get places also need to cooperate more to be home together. More shared home time is the wellspring from which community comes in other areas of life. Relating to one's own kin is the cornerstone of society, and unfortunately, a lot of what passes for life now is geared toward diminishing or demolishing that web of relationships. We are at the third generation or so that is being raised in a world like this; those born today, the sons and daughters of people who themselves were born to the Baby Boomers who were the first generation born into a world of consumerism, are going to be that much more removed from the central familial relations that foster community. My dad's generation was the first to really grow up in a world of great material excess and unbridled consumptive habits and the distancing from community richness that seems to go hand in hand with that access to goods. I was born just as that way of life was coming of age, and it's all I have lived. People around my age who have children are giving another generation to this way of life. Who or what will keep a community ethic alive in their lives?

Nature just might be able to help, but it's the sort of help we wouldn't ask for. Eventually our energy-lavish consumption-based lifestyle will crumble a little at a time, and it will be helped along by irresponsible, self-interested politicians who believe that war and greater consumption (by those who still can do so) is the answer to our fading empire of consumption. Eventually, work and play will have to happen nearer to home. We might be confronted with the unthinkable of today: actually cooperating with people we've been told are our enemies—family, neighbors, people of color, poor people, and others. There will be holdouts of course. Some people in America just can't get out of their Antebellum mindset. But, I think for the majority of people, the trend will be clear. Either we inter-depend, or we die.

People aren't as scary up close as when they are wrapped in a ton-and-a-half of steel that goes 80 miles per hour. They're not as scary when they stand before you and aren't just objectified in the news or by other media. I keep saying it, but I don't have enemies in Iraq. Or in Afghanistan. The people I fear are not the poor people of the world outside of America who are lashing out against the injustice we bring. If anything, I am more scared of a nation of addicts in America who forgot how to share, who forgot how to be civil, who forgot how to be humble and generous, who forgot to appreciate beauty and natural complexity, who forgot how to live outside of technology. Maybe Roosevelt's statement about only having to fear is fear itself rings true. I fear Americans who fear loss. I'm more worried about people who will do anything to retain the last shards of entitlements long after they are clearly unsustainable. I fear Americans with what I call "cranial-rectal displacement disorder" (head-up-the-ass complex) in the face of global climate change, shifting alliances, fascism, and a host of other nightmares of our time. Instead of being on the same page with regards to key issues, the off-kilterness of society now will make it hard to get people to put down the pursuit of more material wealth and land and get on board with some real progress toward rebuilding shattered community life that has been replaced by computers and mass media which is essentially not able to connect with real people at the local level. There is no substitute for people in real contact.

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