by Michael DeLang
"Don't forget, the real business of the War is buying and selling. The murdering and the violence are self-policing, and can be entrusted to non-professionals. The mass nature of wartime death is useful in many ways. It serves as spectacle, as diversion from the real movements of the War. It provides raw material to be recorded into History, so that children can be taught History as sequences of violence, battle after battle, and be more prepared for the adult world. The War is a celebration of markets."
—Thomas Pynchon, from Gravity's Rainbow
(Swans - May 21, 2007) There has been quite a lot in the news lately about the funding battles being fought between Congress and the administration over the continuing occupation of Iraq.
But while it has offered great theater, when the speeches have faded, the dancing, the sparring, the feinting ended, the cameras turned off or away, the necessary funding will be in place for a perpetuation of the current American foreign policy. This is because the one truth that we have been told from the beginning about this illegal war of aggression is that our military has been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq with the goal of preserving our "way of life." This current deployment falls right in line with a long-standing doctrine, which demands that we take whatever diplomatic or military action that is needed, at any cost, in order to maintain ready access to the world's oil reserves that are so vital to preserving the American way of life. Laying aside the awful stench this worldview bears in common with the doctrine of Manifest Destiny (which assumes that the strong are granted a natural right to exploit the weak) the doctrine still is founded on two very shaky premises. First, that the American way of life is worth preserving, and second, that this is possible. We should examine these premises.
The "way of life" referred to has little to do with abstract fantasies like liberty or democracy and everything to do with an economic culture characterized by unchecked and wasteful consumption. It's a widely accepted fact, though domestically ignored, that Americans consume an obscenely disproportionate share of the world's energy resources in order to maintain and run our SUVs, electric dishwashers, 56-inch plasma television screens, and vibrating dildos, to name just of few of the daily necessities of our "way of life." We can no longer even claim that we need the energy to help produce goods for the world. Our share of the world's production of goods has steadily dropped, even as our consumption of energy has dramatically increased. It would be difficult, indeed, to describe the American way of life accurately without relying heavily on words like sloth and waste. The more important question, however, is how long can this "way of life" continue to be preserved even if the world offered up all its oil reserves for our exclusive use? With the oil under the sands of the Middle East we can last another generation or two. A couple of more bloody military adventures in South America and Africa will really only allow us to extend our current rate of consumption another couple of decades beyond that. Or maybe not. Has anyone bothered to calculate how many barrels of crude are consumed daily by our mighty military machine in the course of a permanent occupation in a hostile region? And when it's all gone, what then? Which of the couple of dozen or so of declared presidential candidates has had the courage to stand at his podium, point at me, and tell me that the wars are being fought in order to provide secure access to the energy resources needed to meet my continuing demand for things that I do not need? Which anti-funding dove in Congress has taken the political risk to declare that the bloody struggles being waged for control of the world's resources will end only when I am willing to give up doing many of the things I like to do and most of the unnecessary things I want to have? These people have achieved a high level of success in their political careers because they have come to understand, early on, that they will be better rewarded for telling us the lies that we are comfortable with than for rubbing our noses in the hard truths that we don't want to hear. It is our American "way of life" that must be brought under control and we can't look to our elected government to make this happen. We're going to have to shoulder this responsibility ourselves. I'm not saying that we all have to start living just like the Amish or the Hutterites, only that it might not be a bad idea if we were to try to develop a greater understanding and appreciation for the simple values by which they govern their lives.
In his novel Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry includes a story about a family farm and the friction between a patriarch and his son-in-law over the best way to manage the farm. The young man is enthralled by the modern methods and technology. When illness forces the father to turn the farm over, the old conservative ethos that sustained the land through half a dozen prior generations is abandoned for bigger and better ideas.
At first, his point of reference was himself, his own wants and his ambition... He enlarged his pride by investing it (as well as a lot of money, usually borrowed money,) in equipment. And so then the equipment, the power to do things mechanically, became his point of reference. His question was what his equipment could do, not what the farm could stand... The farm never at any time was his reference point, and this was his bewilderment and his (and its) ruin. This was why he was reduced by everything he did to enlarge himself, it was why his life was all spending and no gain. Finally, of course, his debt became his point of reference. What he did, finally, he had to do to get the money to pay his creditors. He, his equipment, the farm, and all were just dragged along by debt... He had worked like a slave and he was one...
As Berry continues, it becomes clear that his intent is to present the story of the Keith family farm as an allegorical reference issuing judgment on deeper questions encompassing the greater scope of our society as a whole,
I think of the old slavery, and of the way the Economy has now improved upon it. The new slavery has improved upon the old by giving the new slaves the illusion that they are free. The Economy does not take people's freedom by force, which would be against its principles, for it is very humane. It buys their freedom, pays for it, and then persuades its money back again with shoddy goods and the promise of freedom. "Buy a car," it says, "and be free. Buy a boat and be free. Buy a beer and be free." Is this not the raw material of bad dreams? Or is it the very nightmare itself?
Berry is describing the essential structure of capitalism, a structure that requires a steady, wasteful consumption of resources to prevent it from collapsing beneath its own weight of debt. It is an economic structure that forces on us a philosophy of competition when a sustainable management of existing resources requires the opposite, a spirit of cooperation. I have become an enemy of capitalism not because I advocate a redistribution of wealth, but because I plead for a redefinition of wealth; a redefinition which recognizes wealth not as something we must compete for and strive to achieve, but something we already possess and must learn how to preserve through an abiding respect for the past and a more cogent understanding of the future.
Our perpetual state of war is not the only plague visited upon us by our American "way of life." As the fields of petroleum shrink and the cost of obtaining it grows, it has become profitable now for our agricultural sector to convert more and more of their fields from the production of food to the production of fuel. The resulting reduction in the world supply of dietary grains will only add to the numbers of children, born into families lacking the means to "compete" for survival, who will find that a slow death by starvation must become their "way of life." Several years ago, my mother was diagnosed with acute adult leukemia. In the years since, my father has battled two cancers. My wife has lost a breast to cancer and remains under treatment. Her mother recently had half of her lung removed and her father suffers from chronic skin cancers. In the last year, three of our closest friends have been diagnosed and treated for cancer. One of them is terminal and is not expected to survive this year. A week does not pass that we don't hear that another friend, acquaintance, or co-worker has been diagnosed. And yet we still pretend that we are dealing with a disease. Cancer is not a disease. It's the result of mass poisoning. Cancer is the body's response to a high level of toxicity in a surrounding environment that it is no longer able to withstand. The clothes we wear, the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the water we use all carry industrially produced poisons. These poisons are the by-products of a technology racing blindly to keep up with and meet a seemingly insatiable demand for the goods that comprise our "way of life."
Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau once advised us to simplify in order that life remain meaningful. Having ignored this sage advice for the last century and a half, we have brought ourselves to a point where we now must simplify in order that life remain possible. Our children will continue to be sent off to spill their blood fighting for control of a vanishing resource, the poorest of our brothers and sisters will continue to suffer the daily agony of starvation, and the cancers will continue to grow within us, as long as our addiction to luxury and our swollen appetite for the unnecessary accessories to our chosen "way of life" continues to feed the markets that underwrite these human tragedies.
A final observation from Wendell Berry,
And the War was just as busily studying the purpose of the Economy, which is to cause people to purchase what they do not need or do not want, and to receive patiently what they do not expect. Having paid for life, we receive death... We have all purchased how many shares in death? How many bombs, shells, mines, guns, grenades, poisons, anonymous murders, nameless sufferings, official secrets? But not the controlling share. Death cannot be marketed in controlling shares.
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