Friday, May 25, 2007

summer reading

I’d like to share with you 3 short written works I’ve recently read. All seem to have ‘stuck’ in a manner that suggests they will simmer on my back burner and perhaps inform my perspective as it and I continue to evolve. Or maybe I just liked them a lot.

The first is The Semiwarriors, by Andrew J. Bacevich, published in The Nation.

Referencing Presidential Power, by Crenson and Ginsberg, Bacevich says,

As Americans increasingly embrace a minimalist definition of citizenship, their ability to influence government policy diminishes. With its "weak political parties, its partially demobilized electorate, and its citizens transformed into mere 'customers' of government," they write, contemporary America "is made to order for presidentialism."

He argues that the transgressions of the Bush administration are not only nothing new but also only a symptom of a sickness the U.S. contracted decades ago and one we are unwilling to treat.

In an age of the citizen as consumer-spectator, Americans care enough to complain, but not nearly enough to act. Long live the emperor.

I think he’s right. We are comfortable in our collective television comma. Need more evidence? Spend 10 minutes talking to someone unfamiliar with energy issues about the way we live our lives and in response to the suggestion that oil is running out they will inevitably say something like, “They’ll think of something,” or “Technology will save us.” We have handed over our autonomy and our children’s future to the very men who sold us our industrial way of life; our empire of mechanized, fossil fuel dependant, pollution laden way of living. Instead of a popular backlash against those who have dirty our air, our water our soil and our souls, and sold our future to the highest bidder, we are more than happy to cling to the idea that these same folks will save us from the mess they've made.

We are begging for a monarchy to save us from the foolish aristocracy. Why else would we allow the following from our leaders?

Justice Department memos justifying torture; the blizzard of "signing statements" in which President Bush claims the prerogative of selectively disregarding the law; domestic surveillance implemented on a scale without precedent; the open-ended imprisonment of "detainees"--including American citizens--without charge; and a program of "extraordinary rendition" that secretly delivers suspected terrorists into the hands of foreign intelligence services for interrogation.

Bacevich brilliantly points out that our most recent march on Baghdad proves that the American people are willing to accept a particularly dangerous lie.

The Big Lie propagated by the architects of the Iraq War is not that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction nor that he was in cahoots with Osama bin Laden; it is that they possessed a secret formula for keeping America safe, the essential ingredient in that formula being a mandate to engage in open-ended war.

And so the building of our empire continues at great cost to others everywhere and at great expense to our own souls.

Next up I recommend Change or Die, by Alan Deutschman. Now before you say, “Come of Aaron, that sounds incredibly depressing, especially on the heels of an article about our loss of citizen sovereignty.” But do not despair. This one has a bright side. Yes the article begins by pointing out our lack of willingness to change even when facing death.

We're talking actual life or death now. Your own life or death. What if a well-informed, trusted authority figure said you had to make difficult and enduring changes in the way you think and act? If you didn't, your time would end soon -- a lot sooner than it had to. Could you change when change really mattered? When it mattered most?

Yes, you say? Try again. Yes? You're probably deluding yourself. You wouldn't change.

Don't believe it? You want odds? Here are the odds, the scientifically studied odds: nine to one. That's nine to one against you. How do you like those odds?

Many people believe a change in the non-negotiable American way of life is impossible until times get tough. Plenty of people with a fairly good understanding of just how destructive we are as a nation to our environment and towards the people of other countries have given up on real change until the hardships of peak oil and climate change set in. But will that even work- leveraging crisis as an effective catalyst for a new way of living in America?

The conventional wisdom says that crisis is a powerful motivator for change. But severe heart disease is among the most serious of personal crises, and it doesn't motivate -- at least not nearly enough. Nor does giving people accurate analyses and factual information about their situations. What works?

Apparently making people happy works.

…a new vision of the "joy of living" -- convincing them they can feel better, not just live longer. That means enjoying the things that make daily life pleasurable, like making love or even taking long walks without the pain caused by their disease. "Joy is a more powerful motivator than fear,"

People, especially unhappy people, don’t just want to hang around on Earth a while longer. Sure you can scare them into short term change but it won’t last. In the article Dr. Edward Miller of Johns Hopkins says, “If you look at people after coronary-artery bypass grafting two years later, 90% of them have not changed their lifestyle.” Faced with something as terrifying as death many people will make short term changes, but impending death is too hard to cling to as a daily motivator. Eventually most of us bury such scary prospects and with that burial comes denial of the problem and a return to destructive behaviors. It seems that long term change is better accomplished by providing the positive feedback loops associated with real pleasure. Popping a pill to lower cholesterol doesn’t make a patient feel any better but exercising and eating better do. Because of this the patient is more likely to adopt positive behaviors as long term changes to life style.

I think as Americans we’re facing the equivalent of a heart attack. Popping pills (or driving hybrids) to ward off our impending demise isn’t going to improve the overall, long term health of our nation. We must replace the systems and behaviors that are making us sick with new (sankofa - sometimes old) systems and behaviors that will not only save us from an early death but make us feel better, make us a happier people.

Several months ago my friend Sharon made to me the argument that fast change is easier than slow change. Intuitively I disagreed with her. Or at best I thought fast change was only easy for some people like her. But I am rethinking my position on that idea. In “Change or Die’, Deutschman describes the radical health program of Dr. Dean Ornish, a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. In a 1993 study, Dr. Ornish made sweeping changes to the lives of more than 300 patients with clogged arteries. He introduced a very different diet along with aerobic exercise, mediation, yoga and other major life alterations. The results were improved health conditions but also a very high rate of the changed behavior continuation. After 3 years 77% were stilling living their new life. This compared to studies that show, “two-thirds of patients who are prescribed statin drugs (which are highly effective at cutting cholesterol) stop taking them within one year.” Maybe its not that we don’t have enough time to change. Perhaps its just that we can’t comprehend what fast, radical change could do for us as a nation.

…sweeping, comprehensive changes are often easier for people than small, incremental ones. For example, [Dr. Ornish] says that people who make moderate changes in their diets get the worst of both worlds: They feel deprived and hungry because they aren't eating everything they want, but they aren't making big enough changes to quickly see an improvement in how they feel, or in measurements such as weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol. But the heart patients who went on Ornish's tough, radical program saw quick, dramatic results, reporting a 91% decrease in frequency of chest pain in the first month. "These rapid improvements are a powerful motivator," he says. "When people who have had so much chest pain that they can't work, or make love, or even walk across the street without intense suffering find that they are able to do all of those things without pain in only a few weeks, then they often say, 'These are choices worth making.' "

Imagine if America could make the sort of change that made us all feel better fast because of a radical change in the way we live our lives.

My last recommended reading is an essay from Jason Godesky entitled, 'The Savages are Truly Noble'. Godesky says that printed out it would be 59 pages long, so you might want to set aside some time for this one but its worth the read. In it he says,

The "Noble Savage" has long been the straw man beaten by those who would hope to continue beating the drums of war and empire, just as Crawfurd and Hunt did, the white supremacists who revived the term as we have it today. In our Romantic fervor, we take it entirely too far.

He sets out to examine 5 aspects of the idea of the “Noble Savage”.

  1. The Ecological Saint. The Noble Savage lives in harmony with nature.
  2. The Gentle People. The Noble Savage lives without war or violence.
  3. The Honest Injun. The Noble Savage lacks guile or deceit.
  4. The Super Human. The Noble Savage possesses uncanny physical health and senses.
  5. The Wise Indian. The Noble Savage has an innate wisdom and spiritual connection.

And comes to the conclusion that,

Primitive peoples have an impact on their environment, it's just a positive one. They fight, they simply fight less. They deceive, they simply have communities and ways of relating where deception is impossible. They get sick, just less often. They're still human, they just know what that truly means. At times, the "Noble Savage" seems to make primitive people out to be perfect in every way. That's absurd. They are still people. What differs is that they still remember what being a person entails. It's not a perfect life—it's just a vast improvement.

I personally have felt out of touch with this culture of materialism and consumption for quite some time. Perhaps because of my modest measure of Cherokee heritage or an over-romanticized view of preindustrial societies, I have said before that I was born out of order; in the wrong century. I have falsely imagined myself out of place in our world when it is our world, this culture we have created, that is out of place with the needs and wants and offerings of the human existence. It’s not so much that I would feel better in another era but rather that our era has strayed so far from what we enjoy as this human life. Instantaneous gratification and temporary physical pleasures have replaced our connections with nature and each other and the satisfaction of both our interdependency as individuals and our autonomy as a nation of neighborhoods and towns and cities, a nation of community and solidarity and strength through hard work and care of others. I’m not the one out of place. It is this culture of fantasy that is so screwed up.

Godesky’s essay is a wonderful walk through the ideas of what it means to be human, to be savage, to be civilized, and how we compare to those that have come before us. I won’t say it contains great insight into how we might recapture our essence as a species, but I don’t think that was his intention. It is well referenced, enjoyable, eye-opening and I think that’s enough.

The preachers of progress today have become as shrill as the Inquisitors of old. The "disease of the mind" inevitably spreads, prompting us to finally question recieved truths, when such grand projects fail to fill the void we still feel gnawing at us, reminding us that we have lost something essential, something crucial to the human condition.

Happy Reading.

1 comment:

lis said...

Previously we could allow a generation for new information to filter through to the public but now we no longer have time. I do think it's an issue of fast change, but also constant, ongoing change ...relentlessly ... every day ... on our A Year In A Day site in Australia we're doing a new personal and a political action every day ... would love American and Australian bloggers to unite to say that we all want Australia and America to sign Kyoto - we want change and we want it fast and relentlessly so that we can stop being the highest carbon emitters per capita in the world. We need the action of A Year In A Day!