This morning I’m thinking, Well! That’s quite a line you’re following, there, Dusty! First you rail against science, and then you complain about the foundation of American exceptionalism, capitalism and the profit motive? Why don’t you go for the trifecta?
This morning, I say to my sardonic self (Who uses sarcasm to conceal the quiver in his lip): all righty then.
Capitalism and the profit motive have helped make this country the absolute powerhouse that it is militarily, culturally, and especially economically. The drive to succeed, to win, to gain the maximum benefit for one’s self from one’s labor, have been a powerful motivator for as long as this country has told us we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps; though profit and competition haven’t made that particular impossible feat possible, they have allowed us to turn a thousand other impossible things into realities: they helped us get to the moon (because we had to beat the Commies there) and they helped us invent the first atomic bomb (because we had to beat the Nazis) and they helped us lead the way in the information revolution of the 1980’s (because Apple had to beat Microsoft, and Microsoft had to beat Apple). Our continuous growth, our continuous progress, have been driven largely by exactly this: by money, by profit, by competition for limited resources, whether those resources are time or money or fame or love or just food.
I can’t argue with that. I hate competition, hate the very idea of fighting other people in order to gain greater profit; but I can’t deny the results. America is an exceptional place, and our incredible speed forward has been increased again, and again, and again, by this essential underlying system: the one in front, the one on top, gets what he wants, and other people have to make do with what’s left over, with what’s left behind. Our system of government, our great and wonderful freedoms — and they are great, and they are wonderful — are predicated on that idea, with this addition: anyone, in theory, can be the one on top, the one who gets all the stuff first. In practice it can’t be anyone, and it’s almost always been the same type of people — mostly white Christian men — but in theory, it could be anyone, and our ability to pretend that that is true, and our desire to push for greater rights for other people mainly because we think those opportunities will reflect some benefit back on us, are what has allowed us as a society to spread those freedoms to more people, in more situations.
Just as long as we can pretend the people gaining the freedoms are like us. When they’re not like us, when they live on the other side of the world and speak a different language and live a different way, well. Then it’s probably all right if they have less freedom. Particularly if we profit thereby, with, say, cheap consumer goods.
Am I being too cynical? Look: the slaves were freed because it served the purpose of the white men who freed them. Woodrow Wilson changed his stance on women’s suffrage from opposition to support because he needed women to continue supporting the American effort in World War I. At least part of Lyndon Johnson’s intention in signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was to ensure the Democratic party would not fracture along racial lines — and that all of them would support his bid for election in November. And so on, so on. I do agree with Dr. Martin Luther King that those in power do not give up their power voluntarily, only when there is sufficient pressure on them to do so; I know that some of the progress we have made towards greater freedom has been because of grass roots movements and political and social pressure. The will of the people does sometimes prevail. Maybe even often.
But far more often, money talks, and people bend and crawl. And that’s capitalism.
Technology, meanwhile, has often been touted as a means of making life easier for the common man; but all too often, it has in fact made life harder. We have more technology, and we work longer hours and suffer more stress. We have longer life spans, now, that much is certainly true; but more of our lives is spent in misery, and often in ill health. We’ve gotten more quantity of life, but not more quality. And even more true is this: when progress has been made, it pushes us forward — off of another cliff. The Green Revolution of the mid-20th century, led by Norman Borlaug, saved at least a billion people from starving to death in Asia. A magnificent success, and a great leap forward.
How many billions are going to die now because of climate change? How much of that climate change was driven by the increase in human population made possible by the Green Revolution?
I don’t mean to say it was a bad thing. Lives were saved, and I am in favor of humans, and of living humans over dead humans. The same thing is true of our longer life spans: what I said about quantity but not quality is true, but also, the rise of lingering and terrible diseases that afflict us as we age has come at least partly because we are now still alive to age. We die of cancer now because we don’t die of sepsis like we used to. We have Alzheimer’s now because we’re not all dead at 65-70 from heart disease. Do you realize how many of the world’s greatest authors, along with millions of others, literally drank themselves to death before they were 50? Do you realize how much of that is attributable to a lack of understanding of and treatment for alcoholism? How much was, quite simply, due to the inability of medical science to perform a liver transplant? Medical advancements just mean we die in different ways, and after longer lives — and as a person who would like to live a good, long time before he dies, I see that as entirely positive.
But the problem is, the problem with all of this is, that we think of our temporary fixes, our incremental advances — our progress– as a solution to the problem. But it never is. All we’ve been doing since the Industrial Revolution if not before, is treating the symptoms and not the real underlying problem. We are better at waging war: but we haven’t figured out how to stop fighting. We live longer lives: but not better ones. We make more profits: but we don’t get greater rewards. We live in a magnificent country: but it survives by exploiting and destroying other countries, other people, and it always has.
Progress is not our salvation. Progress is our drug. We’re not making real progress in our real problems — not much, and not quickly, and too often the real progress is swallowed up by backsliding; we have actually gotten more empathetic and more aware, and the backlash from that is the alt-right and Donald Trump. Which is making us less empathetic and less aware, as we draw deeper into our shells to avoid looking at the shit that is piling up outside. And I am entirely guilty of this, don’t think I’m not: I have stopped listening to or reading the news because I feel powerless to do anything about it. I’m not: I have as much power as any person, and more than most because I am a white Christian man, to help make the world a better place, and instead, I’ve done — well, nothing useful. I’ve probably made some progress. But I haven’t solved anything.
I don’t think I’ve been clear enough in this blog. I’ve been having trouble lately making my point clear; and this one is a tough one to get across. Let me boil it down and then I will see if I can explain it at greater length in future posts.
What we call progress, in technology, in the growth of our economy, in the expansion of this nation’s military and political power, are rarely if ever actual progress towards a useful goal, a valuable purpose. Almost always the goal is — motion. Like football: you try to get the first down, you try to move the chains. You hunker down and focus on the immediate task, convincing yourself that that one task, that one all-consuming goal, is a good thing. And in the immediate sense, in a single, narrow context, it is good: football players are successful when they get first downs. Soldiers are successful when they carry out assigned missions. Workers are successful when they bring home a paycheck. Scientists are successful when they complete an experiment as it was intended — say, by injecting human brain DNA into macaques. We see immediate success as progress, especially when it is followed by another success. We’ve taken another step along the path.
But we rarely, if ever, think about where the path is leading. And too often, the successes right now cause even greater problems down the line.
That doesn’t mean we should ignore the problems, nor that we should try not to solve them; winning World War II was the right thing to do, even if it did start the Cold War and the nuclear arms race and so on. Norman Borlaug absolutely should have saved billions from starving, and Alexander Fleming absolutely should have deciphered penicillin, and Dr. King absolutely should have fought for civil rights.
But we need to stop thinking that progress, movement forward, is the answer, is the solution, is the goal. Movement for the sake of movement will not ever get you to where you need to go, to where you should be. Only purposeful, intentional movement can do that. A plan. Understanding.
So maybe, instead of bulling ahead ever farther, ever faster, ever harder, we should– slow down. And think. Even if it means we don’t solve the problems we’re dealing with right now. Maybe it will help us find a real solution, instead of a solution right now that leads to another problem tomorrow.