Friday, April 5, 2013

America's Biggest Problems

Not Thinking


Is America, as is always the case of empires, in decline? It certainty is not in ascension, if one looks at its intellectual climate. The few serious ideas from serious people are essentially ignored; consumerism runs rampant through America, as if the economic freedom to buy the latest gadget will make life better; and most problematic for a still-leading nation, there is a high degree of anti-intellectualism, met with approval from a ignorant mass raised on reality TV and religious dogma. Lorna Salzman writes: "Anti-intellectualism has led to a whole generation of conspiracy theorists, rabble rousers, social network idleness, anti-social behavior (discussing your sex life in public, free use of obscenities in public places, flaunting of scant bodily clothing, flagrant consumption of expensive exotic foods, malicious gossip and bullying, obsession with TV and video games, etc.), anti-science screeds, downgrading of educational standards to counteract "elitism", and an elevation of uncritical unsubstantiated private opinions into public consciousness where they have crowded out critical independent thinking."


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by Lorna Salzman

White supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism: these are what Robert Jensen says are this country's biggest problems, in his essay "Beyond Race, Gender and Class." Nonsense.

Capitalism is a global disease which the rest of the world has readily ingested. In some places it is called Socialism. Patriarchy is not the same as gender inequality; real patriarchy is what exists in the Muslim world and in Africa. White supremacy is a state of mind, not a legal state.

Here are my three candidates:
  1. Economic inequality.
  2. Anti-intellectualism.
  3. Consumerism.
Economic inequality is color blind and gender blind. To once more quote from "My Beautiful Laundrette": "race does not matter in the new enterprise society". Inequality has been generally low on the public radar because most Americans really believe that eventually the wheel of fortune will stop on their number and they will become as rich as the crooked Wall St. traders who get million dollar bonuses every year. It is a Las Vegas mentality that is willing to countenance corruption, greed and graft as the price an individual pays to get into the game himself.

Anti-intellectualism has led to a whole generation of conspiracy theorists, rabble rousers, social network idleness, anti-social behavior (discussing your sex life in public, free use of obscenities in public places, flaunting of scant bodily clothing, flagrant consumption of expensive exotic foods, malicious gossip and bullying, obsession with TV and video games, etc.), anti-science screeds, downgrading of educational standards to counteract "elitism", and an elevation of uncritical unsubstantiated private opinions into public consciousness where they have crowded out critical independent thinking. Intellectuals themselves contribute to these blinkered attitudes by recusing themselves from the urgent issues of the day such as climate change and the environment in general.

Consumerism was the pay-off to citizens in exchange for other freedoms which gave the green light to game the system in favor of elites, entrenched political parties, Wall St. and corporate globalization as well as cover up environmental exploitation and degradation.

Yes, capitalism and its main source of nourishment, economic growth, are to blame for most of the world's troubles because it has enabled these other anti-social, unethical and dangerous trends to flourish. As for white supremacy, what race, religion or ethnic group does not believe it is superior to all the others? It is a problem only when the system allows it to make the laws. I once heard native American radical Russell Means authoritatively declare that "we all know the native American race is the most beautiful" (I walked out of that meeting).

Patriarchy is all-powerful only in those systems where women are disenfranchised and submit to their fate, and have no alternative. This does not mean there is no such thing as preferential treatment of men over women. That is a systemic issue, not an article of faith.

And class? Half-jokingly I once said that the world had only two classes: Educated and Uneducated. This holds true across nations, but clearly class systems still exist in much of the world, often divided between the peasants and the urban population as in Latin America and even in the Arab world. The recent Egyptian riots were initiated mainly by urban secularists but the rural population, long the beneficiaries of the Muslim Brotherhood charitable work, was largely responsible for following the MB and voting for the demonstrably inadequate constitutional changes.

Tribal systems in the Arab and Muslim world as well as in most of Africa maintain their grip on their populations, splashing cold water on the faces of western meddlers with illusions about democracy. In the developed/industrial countries of western Europe, the USA, Canada, Australia and Japan, one could almost say these are one-class countries: the Consumer Class. When politicians and foreign policy pundits and NGOs dream about ending poverty, they dream in a vacuum, overlooking their country's favoritism towards technocracy and elites, with the hope of giving the poor more money so they too can become part of the Consumer Class. Democracy has nothing to do with it. Wealth is in theory achievable by the less affluent through inheritance, luck, political connections or outright Wall St. theft on a scale unimaginable by lottery winners.

Of these three things, two (anti-intellectualism and consumerism) have direct links to the rampant apathy of voters and to the societal obsessions with accumulation of material things and the economic growth that makes this possible. As long as these trends are ignored, it is unlikely that the other problem, inequality, will be of much concern to most people. It is one thing to ignore history but entirely another to ignore what is going on in the present and to have illusions that today's problem are passing blips on the radar. This broad ignorance makes the founding of any coherent reform movement impossible.

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The author, a graduate of Cornell University, has been an environmental writer, lecturer and activist since the 1970s. Her articles on environment, energy, biodiversity and natural history have appeared in leading journals here and abroad, including The Ecologist, Index on Censorship, Resurgence, New Politics, and Business & Society Review. Her professional career began when David Brower, the leading conservationist of the 20th century in the USA, hired her as mid-Atlantic representative for Friends of the Earth, where she worked on wetlands, coastal zone and nuclear power issues for over a decade. In this period she was instrumental in the preservation of two key wildlife habitats (Swan Pond and Maple Swamp) in Suffolk County, NY.

Later she became an editor at the National Audubon Society's journal, 
American Birds, followed by directorship of the anti-food irradiation group, Food and Water. In the mid 1980s she co-founded the New York Greens, later the New York Green Party, on whose state committee she served for several years, and became active in the national green movement.

She worked for three years as a natural resource specialist in the NYC Dept. of Environmental Protection, focusing on wetlands and coastal zone protection. In 2002 she was the Suffolk County Green Party candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1st CD on eastern Long Island, and in 2004 she was a candidate for the U.S. Green Party's presidential nomination. Her hobbies are mushroom hunting, classical music and birding around the world with her composer-husband Eric. They have twin daughters, one a pop composer and lyricist in NYC and the other a poet and writer based in England. They live in Brooklyn Heights, NY, and East Quogue, NY, and have lived for extended periods in Italy and France.


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Copyright ©2013. Lorna Salzman. All Rights Reserved. It is published here with the author's permission. More of her writing can be found at www.lornasalzman.com.

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