Ominous clouds move swiftly upon an otherwise placid summer sky, blanketing it in darkness. A brief flash of light gives way to slow thunder that groans achingly in the distance. Our hero looks up past the brim of his dusty, worn hat—knowing and weary. An epic battle is afoot… and this is how the movies begin.
The notion of a meritocracy
I was raised a capitalist. The child of immigrant parents, I came to believe that capitalism was fundamentally just and egalitarian, with the vast bulk of wealth largely shared amongst those who worked hardest for it. For my mom and dad, and many of their era, this steadfast belief turned out to be both necessary and at times quite accurate. They started with little, toiled deliberately to build a life for themselves, and saved (when I’m sure they would have preferred to do otherwise), all so their kids could have access to opportunities that weren’t available to them.
I have to admit that when I too held to this construct, most things seemed to make sense, and the world appeared infinity simpler: The people who “picked themselves up by the bootstraps” could prevail over anything; Those with the best ideas profited from them; I would have even reasoned that those less fortunate were likely so as a result of their own volition.
I oversimplify how I once pictured things, in part for the sake of this story (any more detail, and I fear you’d nod off). Nevertheless, I must admit that I looked at things in polarizing terms, seeing few other possibilities. Perhaps I was also a bit naïve, believing that most things must “balance out” in favor of the honest and decent.
The world we’ve created
To think in those same terms today, I would either be a fool, or one of those great many, steadfastly determined to maintain a comfortable illusion (but an illusion nevertheless). This fantasy I speak of is one that persists regardless of its cost to our neighbors or future generations. It’s one that requires us to not ask questions.
In subscribing to it, we can’t allow ourselves to wonder how corporations afford us such (suspiciously) under-priced goods. We can never ask how all our trash magically disappears each day, and why we rarely find it in our own backyards. We must in no way challenge notions that masquerade as plain fact: perhaps best illustrated by the deluge of products brought to market using the words “eco” or “green” as prefixes, with little real consideration as to what such words should actually represent.
Regardless of your stance on climate change, I’d defy you to argue that we’re (collectively) living within our means. I’m sure you’ll agree that those of us in the developed world were simply born at the right time, and in the right place. We’re one of a very few lucky generations that has existed at a time in which the means to tap the earth’s resources (and profit from them) and the abundance of these spoils has seemed limitless.
One might hope that we would treasure such gifts, acting as guardians for our children, and theirs as well. Sadly, we’re squandering these riches, like gluttonous spoiled brats, with little consideration of anything (or anyone) else. We’ve subordinated a balanced order in favor of comical “advances” and “conveniences” like lathed carrots, which maintain uniform shape. Or, the novel practice of suctioning the fat from our asses and jamming it into our lips to meet artificial notions of beauty. And, don’t forget how we’ve created a concentrated version of “new car smell,” intended to simulate that wonderful fragrance of plastics and adhesives offgassing around us.
You can make any person do something seemingly mad, so long as you lead them down the path slowly and carefully enough. As one becomes more heavily invested in any situation, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to extricate themselves from it, as doing so would force them to face all the other flawed choices they had made. In such settings, it can seem easier to simply embrace the madness than challenge it and bring to question all that brought us to the current state.
I’d argue that we’re in just this sort of a “pickle”: as individuals, as nations, and as a society. We treat profit as our sole measure of economic health. We’ve bought into the myth that our excessive wealth doesn’t come at any cost to others. We have also held fast to the notion that the next thing (be it: car, house, suit, promotion, or raise) will somehow be the one that finally makes us happy. This last example seems to be the most odd of the lot: underscoring our inability to actually learn very much from our actions. We repeat this behavior ad infinitum, even in spite of the constant reminder that few material or monetary gains ever fill the voids we sometimes feel.
Even in light of such denial of the societal illness we’re caught in the grips of, it seems this illusion is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. Like those last moments of a dream, in which the images projected in our mind start to flicker and fail, the evidence of the error in our ways is becoming too overwhelming. Many of us are starting to wonder if we have been sold a false bill of goods.
What happened to “fair”?
In the midst of our single serving world, the discordance between our ideals and our actions becomes hard to reconcile. The American government bails out giants of industry, while a substantial part of the populace still protests universal health care. Isn’t that a sort of strange thing? In my old notions of a “capitalist meritocracy,” it seemed that corporations could take care of themselves, and governments were there to help ensure people didn’t fall between the cracks.
The notion of a sick child being turned away from a hospital, while a high paid CEO could ask for a “gimme” just doesn’t seem to compute. (Admittedly, health care seems to be undergoing reform in the United States, but not without a litany of outrage. The President is painted by many as some kind of lunatic “socialist”—as though democracy and capitalism were inextricably tied, and any other ideology or thinking is most decidedly un-American.)
I see that I’m probably falling into an old trap, of allowing my concern to become a little “ranty,” and perhaps hyperbolic. So, let me pull this back a little.
We all like to think that we’re fair and decent people; yes? Then tell me why we so often hold business up as a representation of our greatest collective accomplishment, yet, we fail to measure those corporations with the same scrutiny and expectations we’d expect of ourselves. Corporations can seemingly do as they please, recognized as “entities,” yet, often able to bypass taking full responsibility for their actions.
Indulge me here as I fall into my comfortable armchair: the analogy. Imagine that while you are at work tomorrow, I break into your house, strip the copper pipes from the walls (in order to sell them later), and leave the broken water lines gushing, ruining your most prized possessions: the family photos, the heirloom grandfather clock, even (gasp!) the beautiful new flat screen television.
My guess is that this would anger you—particularly if I later bragged about my “profits.” You’d call the authorities, feel (rightly) violated, have a difficult time falling asleep, and possibly even contemplate methods of retribution. You would most certainly demand some kind of justice, and if you weren’t able to achieve it, you might even take matters into your own hands.
Yet, a number of large corporations commit much graver acts daily. They sell us products engineered to fail, while making promises they could never realistically honor. They trick us into packages that cost more than is outwardly stated, or have dubious “fine print.” Worse than all of this, is that they so often make their wares by stripping materials from our most precious places, displacing communities and ecosystems, with little regard for anything other than shareholder value.
We should be very, very angry. We should be rising up, grabbing our chairs, and lobbing them at these groups in heated protest. We should be demanding our governments take action. We should be telling the guilty corporations to clean up the messes they’ve made, while putting them on trial for theft, misrepresentation, environmental atrocities, and a variety of human rights violations.
But instead we do nothing.
I’ll admit it: topics like this are a complete and utter fucking drag. In fact, I likely sound like some kind of a crazy person, as I carry on. (If it makes you feel any better, I’d much rather be making design stuff, or, better yet, eating pizza, drinking beer, and watching porn.) The reason that I don’t, though, is that I can’t quite get past the notion that we’re most likely in very serious trouble.
We’re running out of clean water, experiencing mass extinctions, have massive islands of plastic floating in our oceans, and (when I last checked), BP had barfed something like 4.1 million barrels of oil into our oceans. This is really just the tip of the iceberg—but all relatively good indications that we must take some kind of drastic action. Still, we sit, silently, tossing about phrases like “sustainability,” “social responsibility,” and “doing good,” as though uttering these words might somehow affect sufficient change.
Meanwhile, we seem incapable of even momentarily keeping ourselves from consuming. We’re like junkies with so many collapsed veins in our arms that we start looking for workable veins in between our toes. To an outsider it’s disgusting; to us, it has simply become a plain reality. It doesn’t matter where our stuff comes from, where it will go, or what someone else had to go through in order for us to have it. We’re addicts, and nothing’s coming between us and another “hit.”
We have “retail therapy,” an increasing list of things we “deserve,” and maybe even a little extra “me time” at the mall. And of course we do… because it’s easier to talk about the iPhone 4 and its lovely new display, than it is to ask whether our lust for new gadgets needs to be rethought in light of the conflict minerals they are most likely reliant upon. Similarly, it’s easier to point the finger at BP for their blunders, than it is for us to actually park our cars and instead sit on the bus next to “Mr. Stinky,” who perhaps treats baths as a “quarterly affair.” Fairness is inconvenient, so, we cast it aside and order another Big Mac (pity they don’t come in those neat styrofoam containers any longer).
Laziness, greed, and stupidity
When we watch trailers for new films, we’re presented with exciting (albeit silly) phrases like, “dark forces are gathering.” I’m of the mind that we find comfort in such sentiments. First of all, if there are “dark forces,” there are ostensibly “forces of good,” waiting to step in. More than that, the existence of a villain gives us someone to pin the blame on, absolving us of any responsibility.
My question is what happens if it turns out that movies are just movies, and epic struggles of “good and evil” are similarly rooted in fantasy? Could it be that there’s just us, clumsily trying to do our best, silently hoping for some kind of a superman to save our bacon?
My deep worry is that forces have in fact aligned, but instead of being comprised of “Disney-esque” villains, these forces are ones of laziness, greed, and stupidity. When we occasionally look past this thin illusion of “everything being OK,” that we’ve grown so accustomed to, we’re left facing a situation that is difficult to pawn off on anyone else. We’ve sown seeds with perilous consequences. Sadly, we’re too busy tweeting, obsessing over the amount of froth in our lattes, and asking whether we’ve “found ourselves,” to stop for a moment and ask, “is this all really worth the cost?”