August 31, 2001
There used to be a phrase, an ethical construct really. It
was called enlightened self-interest. Basically, it means
knowing which side your bread's really buttered on. I'm a
little out of the loop these days and don't know if it's still
in play. It would be good to think so.
When it comes to the art of being human, there aren't a lot
of sound working principles around anymore and it would be
a shame, not to mention a foolish whistling for general pain
and sadness, if enlightened self interest was relegated to
copy for a personal hygiene commercial.
We live in interesting days. Much of our energy, and more
of our time, is devoted to getting ahead. If a divided America
has a common goal and mantra, that seems as close as we get.
What unites us in our great melting pot of lifestyles is greed,
disguised as personal and national fulfillment. The government
and its citizens are Siamese twins joined at the wallet in
a relationship that's more lust than love.
It was not always thus. An old friend down the coast, who
got his sailing dinghy floating again last week, wrote this
to me: "'Foreigners' who come here now come for the cash and
the lack of rules. They don't come here to become Americans.
I fear there's nothing left to become."
Beat the drum slowly. People come to the new world for the
same reason most of us get up in the morning: not to celebrate
the rising of the sun or to wonder at the mystery of being
alive or continue our research into what it means to be human,
but to beat the brush and tear up the floorboards looking
for something that will make us feel better. Or, in current
terms, to actualize ourselves and better our condition.
From a nation based upon personal freedom, we've become a
country without personal options. We must, without fail and
in ways that increase our purchasing power, become all that
we can be. To behave otherwise is morally suspect, socially
unacceptable and a bad example for the children who now head
most families. We must get ahead. We must get ahead because,
by standing still, we fall behind; not just in the long run
(another sadly neglected idea) but every minute of every dissatisfied
and unfulfilled day.
Simple minds inquire, getting ahead exactly of what? I don't
mean to alarm anyone but, in case you've been too busy to
notice, the streets and malls of America are packed to the
elbows with human beings behaving as if they were being run
down by something too hideous to be defined. And they are.
The mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead,
who lived in a time when it was still fashionable to think
about things, called it the "error of misplaced concreteness".
It means assigning reality to something that doesn't have
any. We are, as a soon to be global culture, being run down
and eaten by our collective operational delusions. We're assigning
reality to an 'it' we can get ahead of if we give it "a hundred
and ten percent." (Somewhere, Alfred is hooting with laughter.)
It's an interesting fact, not appreciated nearly enough,
that the notion of "progress" first arose in Western Europe
in the 14th century. There was no progress before that; if,
for no other reason, because there wasn't a word for it. People
just did what they did, hoped for the best and, until organized
religion made them stop, worshipped the ground they walked
on. Sometimes things were good, sometimes they weren't. Life
was just life. Silly and medieval but there it was, and so
it remained until the machines of the Industrial Revolution
broke the chains of ignorance that bound us to meaningful
labor and replaced it with wages to spend in the company store.
Two hundred and fifty years after the machines set us free,
we have company malls, company amusement parks and company
vacation destinations. (Pre-modern humans had no vacations
and generally wintered where they summered.)
Progress this significant comes with a price. Free to be
all we can be, when we fail to meet the personal goals set
by a media whose personal goal is to make us dissatisfied
and frightened enough to buy something or go somewhere dirt
cheap and sunny to forget, we suffer the sort of shame and
ostracism once reserved for lepers and thieves. This is the
taboo called "the error of not measuring up." It is, when
you think about it, a pretty funny world; one that hasn't
been funny for some time.
Long before Deep Throat suggested it, we were all following
the money. The sociopathic soul of capitalism lies in the
shotgun marriage of money to progress. Money, lest we forget,
began as a medium of exchange: a reflection of the value of
goods and the human labor that produced them. It was a way
of keeping count. Coupled to progress, it became a way to
Being modern, we now understand that money is only partly
about trading for what we need; the real purpose of money
is to make more money. In terms of progress, this was a real
breakthrough. The way to "make" money is to charge more for
what make or do than it costs you to make or do it. Interestingly
enough, there was once a sin called "usury". One committed
it by charging interest on a loan. In terms of progress, simple
minds must ask: from what to what?
Corporate capitalism believes devoutly that progress is best
served when a few villagers own everything in the village.
If possible, a village you've never seen, let alone visited.
When life is a business, progress is indistinguishable from
profit. The more profit one can wring from a transaction (in
economic terms, maximizing the swindle), the more capital
there is: not to buy the kids shoes or put a new roof on the
hut or help a neighbor whose barn burned down, but to invest
in something, anything, that will turn more profit.
This is called making your money work for you and is the
demented engine that drives the global marketplace and the
hapless "human and natural resources" it feeds into the machinery.
The engine is fueled, not by progress, but by naked greed.
Theirs and ours. The most dangerous force in the universe
is a bad idea that makes you feel good.
The Dali Lama, who's driven by the notion of ending human
suffering, believes the purpose of life is to find happiness.
Interesting word, happiness. We're trained as children and
brainwashed as adults to be happy only when we have what we
want; which is, in nearly every case, obscenely more than
we need. We're encouraged to live for today without being
here now and progress as if there were no tomorrow. At a recent
gathering of the pustulous greedheads busily nailing down
the details of EarthCorp, while mobs of furious technopeasants
clawed at the gates to get at them, a third world minister
asked his first world peer a simple question: "Are you rich
because we are poor?" The answer can be figured with a dull
Wealthy nations, and wealthy people, aren't wealthy because
they're smarter, or work harder, or are more virtuous. They're
wealthy because they take more than they give, a trait they
equate with having God on their side. Like most things, it
boils down to priorities. Years ago, someone asked J. Paul
Getty (who, for years, managed nearly a hundred businesses
out of a cardboard box his servants hauled between hotel suites)
why he thought it was, that out of all the humans on the planet,
he was the richest. Without blinking, he answered: "Because
what I care about most is money." When kidnappers sent Mr.
Getty a ransom note along with his grandson's left ear, the
richest man in the world stonewalled them.
There's a secret here, hiding in plain sight. Much of what
our country does these days is explained, but in no way excused,
in terms of pursuing our "national interests": a geopolitical
version of personal bliss. Aside from amassing as much as
we can at the expense of anyone stupid enough to get in our
way, the meaning of the term is no longer clear. Or perhaps
it's too clear.
The unenlightened masses in the cheap seats raise their hands.
In what way is allowing Africa to be depopulated by AIDS in
our, or any nation's, national interest? How do the real costs
of cheap gasoline pencil out? Where have the farmers and the
butterflies gone? Why is mother's milk toxic? Why do seven
year olds in Calcutta polish emerald chips until they go blind?
Why do seven year olds in Chicago eat Twinkies for breakfast
and carry handguns? At what price does the stock market survive?
How much is too much and how much isn't enough? In any world
order worthy of the name, wouldn't grinding up the planet
and feeding it to hogs constitute serious bad form? It certainly
sneers in the face of enlightened self-interest.
We know better; and, knowing better, such behavior should
be beneath our contempt. There is a web of life and, corny
as it might sound to those with too much money to think they
need to care, we're all part of it. All things are, at bottom,
one thing. There is no us and them, no thee and me. The teacher
from Galilee was right: as we do to the least of life, we
do to ourselves. There is no real self-interest involved by
imagining our interests are holy or that any true profit can
result from getting over on someone.
Regardless what the efficiency experts tell us, life's not
a treadmill and we're not chosen rodents whose manifest destiny
is to run in circles until we collapse under the weight of
our appetites. There's only one game in town and its rules
disallow the notion of getting ahead; or, for that matter,
of falling behind. Being human isn't a business; it's an art
whose profit and loss statement is written on our soul. We
are no more, and no less, than what we do.
There used to be a gesture, a moral gestalt really. It was
popular in the early days of the Cultural Revolution, the
one that's filling the streets again. The raised fist was
a pure and simple gesture that forged several fronts of righteous
fury into a two-word position statement: No More. I'm a little
out of the loop these days and don't know if it's back in
play. It would be good to think so. When it comes to world
order, there are so few sound working principles anymore.
Burgess is the author of three books; "Uncle Mike's Guide
to the Real Oregon Coast, with disturbing illustrations by
Steve McLeod," "Letters to Uncle Mike," and the cleverly titled
"More Letters to Uncle Mike." He also writes several newpaper
columns. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.