I’m often accused — or credited, depending on one’s perspective — of leading an authentic life. As nearly as I can tell, the accusation or accolade refers to the following definition from Merriam and Webster: true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character.
Fundamentally, aren’t we all true to our personality, spirit, and character? How could we act otherwise, in the absence of multiple personalities? I have concluded that we’ve been captured by the culture in which we’re immersed. We are unable to escape without killing ourselves, yet the culture is killing us.
We’re six millennia into the culture of Abrahamic religions. We’re more than two millennia into western civilization and the six questions of Socrates: (1) What is good? (2) What is piety? (3) What is virtue? (4) What is courage? (5) What is moderation? (6) What is justice? Furthermore, every person reading these words is a product of an industrial civilization that depends upon expansive use of fossil fuels.
Is this the only way to live? Is this the best way to live? Do our hyper-connected, high-tech lives lead us along paths of excellence, in the spirit of Socrates?
This culture is steeped in patriarchy and depends upon violence for its continuation. Is it safe to assume this culture is the ultimate expression of our humanity? Is it safe to assume that this culture is the best we can do simply because this culture is the only one we have known? Is it safe to assume there is no other way beyond the hierarchical omnicide we’ve come to depend upon for money, water, food, and personal identity?
Questioning this culture and its underlying assumptions follows the model promoted and popularized by Socrates. Answering these questions requires one to step outside the normalcy bias and profound enculturation of the way we live. Asking challenging questions, much less answering them, requires enormous courage when the questions themselves refuse to validate, much less approve, this irredeemably corrupt system.
I do not claim to know the answers to these questions. I’m not certain they have answers independent of the person pondering them and his or her personal experiences. I nonetheless believe it is important to ask the questions and develop personal responses to them. As a result, I will tackle these and related questions in this chapter. For the most part, culture discourages us from asking, much less answering, most of these questions.
Questions, questions, and more questions
Throughout our lives, we spend considerable time seeking feedback from people and institutions, but the feedback we seek generally falls within a small subset of important issues. Furthermore, I question the wisdom of seeking validation, much less approval, within the realm of an irredeemably corrupt system.
Some of us seek to conduct meaningful lives. However, the universe imposes upon us a meaningless existence. There is no meaning beyond the meaning(s) we create. In attempting to create meaning, which often involves attempts to outrun our mortality, we generate distractions. We occasionally call them objectives, goals, or acts of service to others. And the result is our legacy.
Yet it’s too late to leave a better world for future generations of humans. The concept of leaving a legacy becomes moot when staring into the abyss of near-term human extinction. What, then, is the point? Are we, in the words of English poet Frances Cornford, “magnificently unprepared for the long littleness of life”?
As we seek feedback about the conduct of our lives, we simultaneously seek distractions. The distractions include the movies we watch, the books we read, the trips we take, the discussions in which we engage. The line blurs between distractions and authentic work until we are defined by the combination. The totality becomes who we are. The nature of our distractions is what makes us human, in the sense of differentiating us from other primates. Non-human primates don’t read books, much less discuss them. Such distractions do not enable our survival and in that sense are not “necessities” (cf. food, water, shelter). However, they are not necessarily “luxuries,” either. Apparently there are shades of existential gray.
Shades of gray
Shades of existential gray are evident in our pursuit of meaningful lives. How do we differentiate between necessity and luxury? How do we distinguish what we want from what we need? And are these distinctions important?
When I began the ongoing process of walking away from the omnicide of industrial civilization, I felt I had no choice. My inner voice overrode outer culture. I have subsequently come to realize that most people born into this set of living arrangements are literally and figuratively incapable of making a similar choice. Distinguishing between needs and wants, between necessity and luxury, is hardly clear.
Occasionally we turn to wise elders in our attempts infuse our lives with meaning. Kurt Vonnegut often wrote, in response to the question about meaning, that we’re here to fart around. His son Mark, between the loony bin and Harvard Medical School, responded to the question, “Why are we here?” with the following comment: “We are here to help each other through this, whatever this is.”
I love Mark Vonnegut’s response, but it fails to acknowledge that service to others is important and it’s a trap. Service to others is no longer virtuous when the entrapment includes self-inflicted harm (including emotional or psychological suffering).
As the Buddha pointed out more than two millennia ago, life is suffering. Do we have an obligation to minimize suffering? Does that obligation extend to our individual selves, as well as to other humans? Does it extend to non-human species?
German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer famously defined happiness as the alleviation of suffering, implying a temporary condition. The pursuit of happiness — from Schopenhauer’s perspective, the alleviation of suffering — is a right guaranteed by the founding document of the United States, but I’ve no idea why it’s guaranteed or if it stops at the alleviation of suffering. If the alleviation of suffering qualifies as happiness, then it seems wearing shoes that are two sizes too small is a great strategy for producing happiness, if only at the end of the day when the shoes are removed from one’s feet.
If happiness goes beyond the alleviation of suffering, perhaps it includes joy. But the notion of such an idea drags into the discussion the notion of documentation, hence measurement. How do we measure joy? Is it the same as the bliss produced by ignorance? How do we know when we’ve stumbled upon it? And if joy is meritorious, even at the expense of suffering by another, how to we balance the existential books?
Consider, for example, a single example for the Abrahamic religions (aka patriarchy): marriage. Do we have an obligation to minimize the pain when a monogamous relationship become personally painful, or even a matter of indifference (i.e., lacking daily joy)? Contemporary culture suggests we muddle through, in sickness and health, until death. And then, the ultimate personal endpoint solves the problem of suffering.
The cost of happiness
If happiness is a goal, and if that happiness extends beyond the mere alleviation of suffering, how to we evaluate happiness? If our own happiness comes at the expense of another, how do we justify our gain? Equally importantly, but rarely considered, is the converse question: If our suffering brings happiness to another, how do we justify the personal pain? Is our own suffering less important than that of another?
How do we minimize suffering? Is such a quest restricted to humans, or are other organisms included? What is the temporal frame of the quest? Does it extend beyond the moment, perhaps to months or years? Does it extend beyond the personal to include other individuals?
We could minimize suffering to humans and other animals by playing solitaire in the woods. But even that seemingly humble act takes life. Tacking on the seemingly simple acquisition of water, food, clothing, and shelter for a single human being in the industrialized world brings horrific suffering to humans and other animals. Attending to the needs of the 7.1 billion humans currently inhabiting Earth comes at tremendous cost to the water, soils, and non-human species on the planet. Contemplating the desires of an increasing number of people on an overpopulated globe is enough to drive a thinking person to despair.
There is nothing inherently wrong with pleasure, yet the Greek word for “pleasure” forms the root of the English word “hedonism.” According to my pals Merriam and Webster, hedonism propounds that pleasure or happiness is the sole or chief good in life. When stated in this manner, pleasure seems to have taken a step too far. But drawing the line between personal pleasure and hedonism is no mean feat. Less often considered is the line we draw between personal suffering and the attendant happiness of others.
But, lest we take that step too far, we should remember that the idea of hedonism some 2,500 years ago when Socrates was haunting the Mediterranean region was a bit different than the idea today. Back then, humans comprised a tiny drop in the large bucket known as Earth. The quest for personal pleasure and happiness at that time would have essentially zero impact on the natural world relative to the impact of today’s quest for gratification by 7.1 billion people on an this ever-shrinking and -depleted orb.
When my happiness requires the suffering of another, is my happiness warranted? When the pleasure of another requires my suffering, is the suffering warranted? Does failing to contemplate questions about our needs and desires commit us to nihilism? Does living within the Age of Industry, hence participating in untold horrors to humans and other organisms, violate the Socratic notion of good?
What about empire?
American Empire is merely the most lethal manifestation of industrial civilization, hence any civilization. Because this culture is inextricably interconnected with this civilization, I have concluded that contemporary culture is worthy of our individual and collective condemnation. Walking away from empire is necessary but insufficient to terminate this horrific culture.
As nearly as I can determine, maintaining American Empire — or any empire, for that matter — requires three fundamental elements: obedience at home, oppression abroad, and destruction of the living planet. Unpacking these three attributes seems a worthy exercise, even acknowledging Voltaire’s observation: “It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong.”
Obedience at home means capitulating to culture and the government. It means abandoning a culture of resistance in favor of the nanny state. It means allowing the government to control the people instead of the other way around. It means giving up responsibility for oneself and one’s neighbors and expecting the government to deal with all issues. Considering the excellent record of the government in transferring wealth from the poor to the rich while promoting an economy rooted in war, I’ve no idea why the people with whom I interact are fans of this government.
Oppression abroad is obvious to anybody paying attention to American foreign policy during the last hundred years. The government of the United States of Absurdity extracts taxes from the citizenry to build the most lethal killing force in the history of the world. This military, supported by cultural messages and therefore most of the consumer-oriented citizenry, is then used to extract materials such as fossil fuels from other countries. The resulting “riches” enjoyed by Americans serve to pacify the masses, embolden the government, and enrich the corporations that exert strong influence over both the media and the government.
Destruction of the living planet is imperative if we are to support seven billion people on the planet, many of whom want “their” baubles. Are we not entitled to transport ourselves around the world, dine at fancy restaurants for a few hours’ work at minimum wage, entertain ourselves with music and movies, and all the rest on an essentially limitless list? Where do the materials originate for each of these endeavors? Are we so filled with hubris that we believe driving dozens of species to extinction every day is our right? Do we lack the humility — and even the conscience — to treat non-human species with respect?
Each of these three broad elements serves a subset of humans at the expense of others. Although obedience to culture prevents us from being viewed as “odd” to our straitjacketed acquaintances, it also serves the oppressors. Giving up on radicalism — i.e., getting to the root — fails to serve our needs while lessening our humanity. But it nicely serves those who pull the levers of industry.
Perhaps it is time we heed the words of deceased American social critic Christopher Hitchens: “To be in opposition is not to be a nihilist. And there is no decent or charted way of making a living at it. It is something you are, and not something you do.”
Imperialism has consequences
The U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights are bobbing along the same waves as social justice and environmental protection, sold down the river by a nation addicted to growth for the sake of growth (the ideology of a cancer cell). Indeed, it seems very little matters to the typical American beyond economic growth. And for that, most importantly, we need an uninterrupted supply of crude oil. We need the Carter Doctrine — the world’s oil belongs to us — and an unhealthy dose of faux patriotism.
Our lives are imbued with faux patriotism. We are manipulated by the war-loving corporate media and the war-loving politicians that, unsurprisingly, are enriched by war. We support the troops that bring us the baubles we’re convinced we deserve, and we rarely question the real, underlying costs of the baubles.
Support the troops. It’s the rallying cry of an entire nation. It’s the slogan pasted on many of the bumpers in the United States.
Supporting the troops is pledging your support for the empire. Supporting the troops supports the occupation of sovereign nations because might makes right. Supporting the troops supports wanton murder of women and children throughout the world. And men, too. Supporting the troops supports obedience at home and oppression abroad. Supporting the troops throws away every ideal on which this country allegedly is founded. Supporting the troops supports the ongoing destruction of the living planet in the name of economic growth. Supporting the troops therefore hastens our extinction in exchange for a few dollars. Supporting the troops means caving in to Woodrow Wilson’s neo-liberal agenda, albeit cloaked as contemporary neo-conservatism (cf. hope and change). Supporting the troops trumpets power as freedom and fascism as democracy.
I’m not suggesting the young people recruited into the military are at fault. Victims of civilization and a lifetime of cultural programming — like me, and perhaps you – they’re looking for job security during a period of economic contraction. The entire process is working great for the oppressors pulling the levers of industry.
Perhaps most importantly, supporting the troops means giving up on resistance. Resistance is all we have, and all we’ve ever had. We say we’re mad as hell and we claim we’re not going to take it anymore. But, sadly, we gave up on resistance of any kind years ago.
We act as if America’s cultural revolution never happened. We act as if we never questioned the dominant paradigm in an empire run amok, as if we never experienced Woodstock and the Summer of Love, bra-burning hippies and war-torn teenagers, Rosa Parks and the Cuyahoga River. We’re right back in the 1950s, swimming in culture’s main stream instead of questioning, resisting, and protesting.
We’ve moved from the unquestioning automatons of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell to the firebrands of a radical counter-cultural worldview and back again. A generational sea change swept us from post-war “liberators” drunk on early 1950s propaganda to revolutionaries willing to take risks in defense of late 1960s ideals. The revolution gained steam through the 1970s, but lost its way when the U.S. industrial economy hit the speed bump of domestic peak oil. The Carter Doctrine coupled with Ronald Reagan’s soothing pack of lies was the perfect match to our middle-aged comfort, so we abandoned the noble ideals of earlier days for another dose of palliative propaganda. Three decades later, we’ve swallowed so much Soma we couldn’t find a hint of revolution in Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto.
In short, the pillars of social justice and environmental protection rose from the cesspool of ignorance to become shining lights for an entire generation. And then we let them fall back into the swamp. The very notion that others matter — much less that those others are worth fighting for — has been relegated to the dustbin of history.
A line from Eugene Debs, five-time candidate of the Socialist party for U.S. president, comes to mind: “While there is a lower class I am in it, while there is a criminal element I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
I don’t harbor any illusions about my freedom. I live in Police State America.
Ultimately, I wonder why any of us bothers trying to be a good person As Ernest Hemingway indicated: “The best people possess a feeling for beauty, the courage to take risks, the discipline to tell the truth, the capacity for sacrifice. Ironically, their virtues make them vulnerable; they are often wounded, sometimes destroyed.”
Vulnerability isn’t so bad. But few knowingly bring on their own destruction. Instead, I suspect most humans — even those who consider themselves good — actually benefit from and even promote contemporary culture, the problems with which are legion.
Do good people promote patriarchy? Do they pursue and promote the notions of marriage and monogamy even when knowing these ideas are steeped in the patriarchy of a culture gone seriously awry? Marriage and monogamy are obligations of empire rather than outcomes of natural law. Instead of abiding and supporting imperialism, shall good people attempt to reduce or eliminate patriarchy, hence civilization, one act at a time?
When we recognize patriarchy and its impacts, where does that leave those of us pursuing authenticity? Indeed, attempting to conduct an authentic life in a culture dominated by patriarchy and engendering destruction is analogous to pursuing meaning in an uncaring universe. Does authenticity have meaning in such a universe? Is authenticity a desirable goal, if goals are merely cogs in the machine of a culture run amok? Is authenticity another stumbling block on the road to happiness? Is authenticity yet another piece of propaganda promoted by the thieves and liars pulling the levers of civilization to trap decent people into lives of service? Do we ultimately and perhaps unwittingly serve civilization, hence omnicide, when attempting to serve humanity?
If a life of service is a trap, why step into the trap? In avoiding the trap are we embracing nihilism, “a viewpoint that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded and that existence is senseless and useless”? And, if so, does the embrace constitute a pact with the proverbial devil?
As individuals and a society, have we become so broken we cannot pursue the truth about ourselves and our culture? Have we become so marginalized, demoralized, and humiliated by this insane culture that we are no longer able to rise up against cultural insanity?
This essay is (barely) modified from a series of essays for the Good Men Project. The original essays are listed and hyperlinked below.