Bring It On!

National Self-Examination Day?

April 2nd, 2008 | by Liberal Jarhead |

The NY Times posted this intriguing story about why we human beings inflict pranks, humiliation, and degradation on each other, the varied motives we have ranging from malice to a fond spirit of fun, and the different ways we react to being on the receiving end running the gamut from rage to sincerely enjoying a laugh.  The story emphasizes that self-examination, one way or another, is a typical response.

It’s interesting to think about - self-examination does not seem to play a big part in mainstream American culture today, if it ever has. And yet the theme of practical jokes is, collectively, one of our favorites. We see it in TV shows from Candid Camera to Punk’d, in subcultural initiations from fraternities and sororities to military boot camp, in workplace rituals like those Monster posts as a side topic on its job-search board, in rites of passage from bachelor parties to those who-thought-of-this birthday songs that so many restaurants inflict on their staffs and customers. We see it not only in April Fool’s Day but in Halloween.

Sometimes the level of pain seems to match the level of learning and growth available from the experience, if we choose to use it as a spotlight to illuminate parts of ourselves and our lives we may not have been giving enough consideration. You could make a case for that being the case in the cliche of an alcoholic or addict needing to hit bottom to find the insight and motivation to get sober, in the day in an abusive relationship we finally mutter “Enough!” through gritted teeth and start packing, or whatever prompted Johnny Paycheck to write the song “Take This Job and Shove It.”

Just after I spotted this NY Times story, I read Jet’s post about growing hunger in America and the looming threat of another Great Depression, and seeing the two items so close together sparks the question: what will it take for us, the American people or the human race, to look at a whole range of things about the way we’re acting now and say, “Enough”? We’re living beyond our means.  We have the greatest imbalance in the distribution of wealth in terms of standards of living the world has ever seen - depending on which satellite TV channel I watch on our big-screen LCD hi-definition TV, I can see an ad in which some over-made-up woman is smirking about how she has a Cadillac SUV and I don’t, or I can see kids who remind me way too much of my own grandchildren who would just like to have enough to eat, clean drinking water, and a home better than a plastic tent in a refugee camp. We’re idly watching the icecaps melt and sea levels rise while we haggle about to what extent it’s our fault rather than what we might be able to do about it. There are ever-higher levels of poisonous plastic and heavy metal molecules getting into our tissues from our air, water, soil, and food, and the consensus of the most informed biologists is that 50% of the species now living will be extinct by the end of this century because of human activity.

Meanwhile, the tools that humanity has used to lift ourselves from hunting and gathering to exploring space, i.e. science, education, the study of history, and the scientific method (not to mention the needed accompaniments of ethics, psychology, and all it takes to live the examined life), are under siege and losing ground to the forces of religion, cultural chauvinism, and sheer mental laziness. There are tens of millions of people in America who simply refuse to believe facts, scientific and otherwise, that are uncomfortable, and too many politicians who are perfectly willing to prevent research and action needed to save lives because it serves their own short-term interests (if there is a God and God has a mean sense of humor, all the fundamentalist preachers and politicians will end up dying of diseases that could have been cured with stem cell research.) What resources we do have, we spend way too much of on weapons, stupid luxuries, and conspicuous consumption. For a fraction of what we spend on stealth fighters, nuclear submarines, and tanks - i.e. weapon systems that are marginally relevant in today’s world and will remain so for the foreseeable future (see The Utility of Force by retired British General Rupert Smith) - we could provide safe drinking water and immunizations against several common diseases for every human being on the planet.  But we do have our priorities.

After millennia of progress in human rights, huge parts of the human race are working tirelessly to dehumanize, discriminate against, and sometimes persecute and kill anyone different from them.  People are now campaigning for an anti-gay-marriage Constitutional amendment, which would be a bizarre reversal.  Except for Prohibition, which was repealed, every amendment to the Constitution has expanded people’s rights, never foreclosed them.  In future generations, I believe people will consider this movement as ignorant and barbaric as we now consider laws against interracial marriage, or marriage between people of different faiths.

It’s easy for people to say that it’s always looked as if the world was going to hell in a handbasket and it always will. But there have never been six billion mouths to feed before. There has never been a world civilization as tightly laced together as this one is by jet-age travel and satellite communications, wrapped around as much heavily armed malicious ignorance as exists today, in this toxic an environment. Never before has there been as much potential for massive death, suffering, and loss of civilization as there is now; it would be unlikely that we would actually render ourselves totally extinct, but we could easily return to a pretechnological level and see 95% of humanity starve or die in other unpleasant ways in the process. One thing that is certain is that we’re headed for some kind of wall.  When we extrapolate recent history into the future - in population growth, energy, epidemiology, climate change - they collide in ways that make it impossible for us to continue business as usual. The only answers that seem to occur to those rowing in the wrong directions are that it doesn’t matter because the Millennium is coming (a lot of other cultures have expected that kind of rescue, but it’s never happened yet, and there is precisely zero evidence for it other than people reassuring each other that it must be so because they want it to) or that they don’t have to think about it because they, themselves, will escape via the end of their own lifespans, so they won’t think about it, and anyone who wants them to must be doing something sneaky, dishonest, or un-American.

Problems we choose not to try to solve tend to solve themselves eventually, usually in ways we regret. Maybe a lot of our problems just don’t have solutions, or none within our power to enact; but if we don’t look for them, maybe we, collectively, don’t deserve anything better than whatever the blind workings of fate hand us. But I think my grandkids, and those kids in the refugee camps, do deserve better, and they aren’t getting a vote. They aren’t April Fools, they’re innocents, and they don’t deserve to bear the brunt of our behavior whether based on malice, stupidity, laziness, or whatever.

  1. 3 Responses to “National Self-Examination Day?”

  2. By Jet Netwal on Apr 2, 2008 | Reply

    Death by Apathy, eh?

  3. By Ken Grandlund on Apr 2, 2008 | Reply

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you mention that many don’t care to even try to solve our problems because (a) they aren’t affected now or will be gone by the time the shit hits the fan AND (b) they are too inured by our consumptive lifestyle and religious underpinnings to see that the problems are real.

    Sadly, Jet’s comment is all to apt.

  4. By Liberal Jarhead on Apr 3, 2008 | Reply

    Yes… makes me think of that Roger Waters line, “this species has amused itself to death.”

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