Monday, October 02, 2006

Creating an American Communal Culture

It seems pretty clear that we have no choice but to change not onlyour economic and political systems in the US, but the very ways in which we think about ourselves and others. We are, in the name ofAmerican-ness discouraged from deferring our own desire for more wealth, more stuff, more comforts, even if such a desire is destructive to someone else. We won't do it for the poor of foreign nations, who are harmed by our excesses. We won't do it for our neighbors, but will proudly go about flaunting what we have that they don't. And we won't do it for our children and grandchildren,who will have less because we had more. But that isn't an inevitable result of our humanness - there are cultures all over theworld which prioritize the general good, rather than the individual good, where making sure everyone's basic needs are met is moreimportant than selling the fantasy that you can be one of thefortunate wealthy.

And no, this isn't exactly about capitalism and communism - oh, it could be if you wanted it to be. But there is nothing in either economic system that prevents us from prioritizing the general good before the individual good, much as economic theorists would like us to believe so. You can have a form of capitalism that begins from the premise of mutual responsibility - that ownership creates a requirement to serve those not priveleged with access to the same resources. Feudalism began with precisely that assumption, but it could easily apply to capitalism. Or you could create a socialist economy that applied state ownership only on one particular level -as the Chinese one does. We tend to assume that economics and politics are bound up in one another, and they are to some degree, but only to the point that we lack enough imagination to make our tools meet our needs.

Our local newspaper had an interview with half a dozen gas consumers, asking how they felt about rising gas prices. And every single person they interviewed answered questions about drivingless, reducing pollution, etc... with "I'm American/this isAmerica." Not one person seemed to believe that "American-ness required them (or even made it desirable) to defer their own immediate desires in order to improve the future and present for others. And I don't think this is unusual - Americans routinely believe that America stands for freedom (even when it doesn't) - but we never think of America standing for responsibility. We've bought a bill of goods that tells us that freedom is about buying things, about freedom to purchase, rather than freedom from hunger, for example. But this system clearly cannot continue to work without bringing about profound harm - and its moral bankruptcy will mirror our own collective economic status.

In a world of dwindling resources, the "get what you can for you and yours and don't plan for the future" theory is bound to end in fire. So here's the question. How do we change ourselves from a people who believe that our freedom is bound up in consumption, and in the right to become rich, regardless of the consequences, to a people who think it is more important to ensure that their neighbors also have food and shelter? How do we make ourselves into a people who willingly endure some hardship for the greater good? How do we make self-deferral a virtue?

Ideally it would to start in the cradle and the home, of course, as everything does. What do we teach our kids? What do we tell them is valuable? What do they see us doing every day? What do we buy, grow, show them? What do we send them off to learn and do with others? Are we teaching the right things, giving them an ethical worldview that prepares them to live and thrive in a hard future?

And how do we convince adults to look critically at the consequences of their own actions? To defer the wants they've been taught to have by Madison Avenue, and replace them with a vision of success that is cooperative, less materialistic, and ultimately, less about what you have than the responsibilities you fulfill and therelationships you've created?

I'm an eternal optimist. I believe we *can* do just about anything we want to, including transforming our culture. We simply have to want to, and then one person has to start living that life and telling others about the beauty and joy and virtue of living well and rightly. That's all there is to it. So why does it seem so very hard?

Sharon, who is trying


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