Dropping the Crowbar of Righteousness

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Like
other representatives of the alternative press, Bob Banner of HopeDance
magazine
responded to the events of September 11 by publishing
a special supplement that urged America to respond to terrorism
with restraint and compassion. The centerpiece of that supplement
was an editorial headlined "Piercing
the Bubble of Delusion
," which questioned the causes and
consequences of American life.

If
the editorial had examined a delusion of safety, I would have cheered.
But Banner went beyond lost innocence to poke at delusions of grandeur,
wrapping his frustration with America in the holier-than-thou mantle
so dear to progressives everywhere. His argument deserves attention
because it exemplifies the pitfalls of listening to people whose
best advice is always and only to "follow your heart."

The
HopeDance thesis is that America is clueless and cruel. Libertarians
have said this about government for years, shrewdly balancing the
rhetorical appeal of government "of the people, by the people,
and for the people" against the fact that most of us have little
actual influence on public policy. Unwilling to cut his fellow citizens
any such slack, Banner makes no distinctions between America and
Americans. In his words:

"Our
obsession with affluence, unchecked growth, technology and the speediness
of modernity has produced a major disconnect in the American psyche – we
don't see the relationship between our way of life and how it impacts
indigenous cultures, the environment, the climate and the planet."

Apart
from the dubious idea that there is a national psyche monolithic
enough to reveal itself to amateur psychoanalysis, Banner seems
not to realize that what he calls an obsession with affluence might
also be described positively as the desire to improve circumstances
for oneself and one's family. Although the man has a web site and
technology enough to distribute his periodical along a 300-mile
swath of California coast, he scorns modern conveniences:

"We
eat food that we don't see grown, often times shipped thousands
of miles before it reaches our tables. We wear clothes produced
with slave labor in developing countries. We drink coffee from Third-World
plantations where workers receive an unlivable wage. We build houses
with trees cut down from forests hundreds, if not thousands, of
miles away. The benefits we enjoy from our quality of life blind
us to its consequences."

Yow!
That we can eat food we have not grown ourselves is one of the glories
of western civilization. Moreover, as Banner has yet to fathom but
many homeschooled children can explain, economic activity is not
a zero-sum game. What a window washer in Central California derides
as an unlivable wage might represent the first step out of poverty
for a peasant in Guatemala. That Carlos Sanchez made more money
as Columbian coffee pitchman Juan Valdez than he did in his previous
career as a coffee farmer is not a tragedy. Neither are roads and
power tools. Should we reject the marvels of transportation, refrigeration,
and pasteurization because they insulate us too much from the natural
world? Humans have been trying to insulate themselves from organic
perils ever since the first caveman took refuge from inclement weather.

My
own list of social pathologies puts abortion, fatherlessness, and
the continuing popularity of moral relativism far above the American
talent for cocooning, but Banner thinks differently. "Our affluent
lifestyle has allowed us to create a fragile bubble of denial, in
which we've insulated ourselves from the devastating impacts of
our way of life on the rest of the planet and its people,"
he says.

Hmmm…if
electricity insulates me from cold and employment insulates me from
poverty, how does it follow that I harm the rest of the planet?
Bubble of Denial, meet the Crowbar of Righteous Indignation.

Banner
prides himself on holistic reporting that "questions basic
assumptions of consensus reality," but anyone looking to HopeDance
for a bracing dose of omni-directional skepticism will be disappointed,
because Banner jousts only with delusions that he has not already
tamed. Is there a self-described progressive anywhere in America
who does not heap scorn on multinational corporations, or draw a
cause-and-effect link from sport utility vehicles to American conduct
in the Middle East?

For
Banner and those like him, the sun is just a desk lamp shining dimly
through the thick cotton scrim of a perpetually overcast sky. America
is the land of the fat and the home of the guilty:

"To
put it bluntly, we have blood on our hands from this quality of
life that we enjoy so much at the expense of others. The U.S. makes
up only 5 percent of the world's population, yet we consume more
than one-third of its natural resources. An elite group of less
than one billion people now take more than 80 percent of the world's
wealth. It's been said that u2018six Africans go to bed hungry so one
American can have a weight problem.'"

The
idea that American quality of life comes at the expense of others
is at best an unproven assertion and at worst a lie. "Live
simply so that others may simply live," the bumper sticker
says, warping impressionable minds because it sounds so much better
than, "live complicatedly so that others can find jobs catering
to your needs."

Perhaps
Banner is unfamiliar with free market economics, or far enough removed
from his teenage years to have forgotten the aphorism that money
does not grow on trees. We who consume much also contribute much,
not "taking" wealth but making it. Banner sees the pie-eating
contest but misses the bakeoff. American farmers feed millions of
non-Americans, and American business employs people from other countries.
That smoldering ruin in lower Manhattan was not called the World
Trade Center for nothing.

Famine
is an indictment of powerful people rather than fat people. When
intermittently perceptive columnist John Derbyshire called famine
in Africa the tragic legacy of "Big Man Kleptocracy,"
for example, he did not mean to suggest that thugs like Idi Amin
and Robert Mugabe could not see their own toes. Still, anyone hoping
to argue with Banner had better come loaded for grand themes:

"[Technology]
is the bubble in which we hold our precious way of life. It's as
if there has been this major conspiracy designed specifically to
transform naturally wild earth-based human beings into deluded,
addicted, entertainment-obsessed, pleasure-seeking comfort bunnies,"
he writes.

Forget
for a moment the Christian contention that we are heaven-based.
That argument can wait for another column. Consider the fact that
We the Delusional People of these United States live longer than
our ancestors did. We have better dental care and lower infant mortality
rates. These are good things.

While
it is correct to say that modern conveniences seduce many people
into becoming what Banner calls comfort bunnies, any morphing into
bunnyhood is a symptom of spiritual sickness rather than conspiracy-driven
technology. This point is lost on Banner. "However, slowly,
this bubble, this illusory reality, is being shattered," he
writes, drooling over the prospect of havoc in the bunny hutches.

Bubbles
do not shatter; they burst. But the fumbled metaphor is just prelude
to an anxiety-ridden appraisal of American distaste for foreign
policy. I see the same distaste as cause for celebration.

George
Washington's celebrated warning against entangling alliances has
become a tchotchke for the national cupboard because the Atlantic
and Pacific oceans are not the buffers they once were. Fortunately,
although state department apparatchiks disdain people who do not
know the difference between an embassy and a consulate, many of
us ignore foreign policy for all the right reasons. You do not have
to be a policy wonk to recognize u2018damned if you do' and u2018damned
if you don't' scenarios. As Australian expatriate Meera Atkinson
wrote recently in Salon.com, "[America] is cast as an abusive
cop when it steps into conflicts such as Kosovo, or accused of criminal
negligence when it fails to act, as it did with the genocide in
Rwanda." Who needs the aggravation?

Banner
also complains that Americans are not skeptical enough about pundits
and politicians. In that I agree with him, but hasten to add that
we perhaps lack skepticism because government schools have derided
critical thinking as a tool of the big bad patriarchy for three
generations.

Knowing
that thousands of people immigrate to America each year and suspecting
that the direction of this human tide might be interpreted as a
reproof to his own gloomy view, Banner strikes a rhetorical pose:
"If our way of life is so fantastic, why are we wildly racing
about just to meet our basic needs?" he wants to know. Worse,
"When we finally do rest, there seems to be no time for service,
volunteering, social activism or artistic pursuits?"

We
do not race about to meet basic needs: nobody needs a dishwasher
and a TV. Banner overlooks this because he wants a "major shift
in consciousness." He quotes Einstein to the effect that we
cannot solve problems with the same mindset that created them.

That
Einstein was right does not help, because the socialist pabulum
that HopeDance prescribes is of a piece with long-discredited notions
that have exacerbated all of the problems they were supposed to
solve. Permaculture and "intentional" (as opposed to planned?)
communities may be good things, but we who cannot solve problems
with the mindset that created them must for that reason avoid consulting
HopeDance on questions of public policy.

No
editorial provoked by the events of September 11 could fail to address
our national response to terror, but as he did when dodging the
implications of immigration, Banner reverts to sarcasm: "if
terror ever destroyed terror, we'd have been living in paradise
eons ago," he sniffs.

Stop
right there. Even those who prefer that we respond to terrorism
by issuing letters of marque and reprisal rather than orders to
carrier battle groups would admit that we do not propose to fight
terror with terror, we propose to fight terror with force. There
is a difference. The calm of the Pax Romana was a gift to the world
from the Roman Legions.

Pondering
the heroism and compassion of rescue workers in the aftermath of
Sept 11, Banner allows us to glimpse more of the depression that
sits like a storm cloud behind the vivid rainbow of the HopeDance
name. "Why can we not see and respond to the other horrors
in the world, which are as insidious and much larger in scale?"
he wonders.

Reality
check: this country funds more disaster relief worldwide than any
other. By implying that Americans have a Grinch-like defect in heart
size, Banner forgets that it is only human to react more strongly
to attacks on your own family or tribe than to attacks on other
families or tribes. One consequence of this aspect of human nature
is that appeals to the professional hand-wringers in the United
Nations for help in responding to terrorism are laughable.

Ethnic
and national loyalties cannot be trivialized as the backward thinking
of unenlightened people. That many on the political left cannot
see that explains the enthusiasm with which they spike their egg
nog when they cannot rename Christmas pageants in honor of the winter
solstice or convince their neighbors to celebrate a pay raise by
planting a vegetable garden rather than a new hot tub. The crowbar
of righteousness is heavier than it looks, and the bubbles of delusion
are well-versed in evasive maneuvers.

December
6, 2001

Patrick
O'Hannigan [send him mail]
is a technical writer in California.

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