Dropping the Crowbar of Righteousness

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.

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