Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Habits of the Heart/ Part 8

By Brian George

Nostalgic Industries Reconstitute the Ideal

Right and left change places; unconscious myths create unnatural alliances. Perception lags behind the fact of interdependence in this technologically most complex of societies. The Human Genome Project has stamped its seal of approval on the engine of our descent. Reverse engineering will remaximize the conditions for our growth.

Why should it be so difficult for each good individual to explain the meaning of his actions, or to put her purposes—already clear—into the context of the macrocosmos, or to talk to a tree? It should not be difficult to create a circle out of stories, as other cultures have, or to celebrate the mute expressiveness of objects, or to touch the Earth, or to recognize the full existence of the other. It should not be difficult, but it is. The hand of a demiurge has intervened. We do not inhabit space. We are new—although ancient evils corrupt us. Reality is virtual. Homeland security depends upon the reproduction of the logo.

"Character is fate," said Heraclitus. The external world provides each subject with the nurture he deserves. Accidents enforce the law. The subjective world turns inside out. Values diverge. Paths intersect. Is there anything human for which the self is not responsible? Does good character compel us to speak truth to power, to correct injustice, to defend the orphan and the widow? There would be a price to pay; our arrogance would upset the predetermined order.

Though wealth is no proof of providence—as nothing could be—perhaps poverty is a more certain sign that one is not of the elect. Luck is a tribute to the true values of the self. Injustice is the price of a civilized society. Hard labor teaches the unenlightened to obey. Exploitation by the Carlyle Group improves the net value of the wilderness. Exxon will transform the demonic wastelands of the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge. Grace cannot be earned. Wealth cannot be redistributed. The transcendent watcher legislates from above. Emerson wrote, "Then again, do not tell me, as a good man did today, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor?" 150 years later we are waiting for an answer.

Luckily, the past does not exist. The future has not yet been created. A golden egg floats on the ocean. Archetypes are unmanifest. Symbols cannot act. There was no race before us. America is itself a dream. Do we have some obligation to those not present, to the dead or the unborn, to those who cannot speak for themselves? In his draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote that our settlement here was "effected at the expense of our own blood and treasure, unassisted by the wealth or strength of Great Britain"—forgetting how recently the British had defended the young colonies from French and Indian attacks. Fathers exist to be killed. Mothers more quietly disappear.

So too we are convinced that we have given birth to ourselves—"ex nihilo." There is no one like us! There never was, never will be, and therefore we owe nothing except what we choose to give to anyone. The self is good. The other is—at least potentially—bad. The best government governs least, and all schemes to relate the self to the macrocosmos are suspect.

This approach provides us with a maximum of latitude to act. We "do what we will," but it is only chance that interprets what will come from the subconscious. We are free to create a place for ourselves, a hermetically sealed space to which no gods have been invited, and, if we are not happy, then we are free to walk away. The approach makes it difficult, however, to determine the true meaning of an action. If a part exists—however perfect its autonomy—the fact that it exists implies also the existence of a whole, as well as some just proportion between the two. If the whole does not exist then the part means almost nothing. Moods arise. Phenomena come and go.

Let us now return to “Habits of the Heart.” Again, let us ask what freedom is for; we should ask also if we serve some end beyond the self, and, if so, whose. Are we parts of one living whole? If we are, does this interconnectedness limit or expand the true potential of our freedom? Can the one be many? It is not that the four contemporaries from chapter 1 do not share in a common moral language. This language does exist—the authors refer to it as the "first language of individualism”— but it is not adequate, in and of itself, to allow them or us to address the nature of success, the meaning of freedom, and the requirements of justice upon which the creation of a good society would depend. As the power of the multinational conglomerate grows, it is paradoxical that our response is to define ourselves more narrowly. To each his own.

There is an almost tragic contradiction at the heart of the American Dream. If each of us is endowed with ultimate freedom—not only to pursue our own happiness but also, if we choose, to ignore any demands that might be placed on us by others—then it becomes difficult if not impossible for us to collaborate on any common project. Society becomes a blind accretion of competing interest groups. Reconciliation is projected backwards as the dream of a simpler time --that never was, in which the corrupt industrialist lay down with the wholesome worker to be exploited.

As the perfect is the enemy of the good, so too freedom—as abstract ideal—subverts the potential for true liberation. No conceptual framework exists that would now allow us to translate the American Dream into reality. At the moment, it is best experienced through the golden haze of nostalgia.

(Illustration: Hans Glaser, Strange objects over Basel, 1561)

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