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Entitlement and the American way of life

October 2nd, 2010

I don’t post too much on other issues but sometimes the overlap between my usual topic and others is instructive.  My usual topic generates from a fundamental bewilderment at the extent to which our notions of what constitutes necessary consumption seem to have degraded our ability to exercise our very humanity in relation to non-human animals.  Learning about the ways in which our basic concrete need for food has been completely subsumed into a dispersion of other abstractions, the way in which food is more the thing signified (class, ethnic, and gender identifier, emotional pacifier, etc.) than the thing itself (mere nutrition), has opened my eyes to the other areas in which we seem to prefer to deal with the symbolic over the real.

We’re  dealing with war and oil in the same ways in which we deal with animals.  We don’t have a framework to deal with the new specifics, the new realities so we just don’t … as if what we don’t want to see won’t hurt us.  We don’t have a framework for parsing knowledge about the extent to which they (other animals, or other people if they stand between us and getting what we think we’re entitled to)  are sentient, self-aware, conscious beings into behavior change so we try mightily to deny that they are and clutch ever more tightly to the fiction of our own uniqueness in those respects.  Similarly, we deny that our lust for cheap meat is coming at a price we don’t want to pay ethically and environmentally.  We’re entitled to it after all.  It reminds me in a way of the story about Israelites longing for meat and being destroyed by their own desire.  Kibroth-hattaavah means “graves of longing.”

“If only we had meat to eat! Surely it was better for us in Egypt.’ Therefore the LORD will give you meat, and you shall eat. You shall eat not only one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, but for a whole month—until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you—” (Num 11:18–20 NRSV) … But while the meat was still between their teeth, before it was consumed, the anger of the LORD was kindled against the people, and the LORD struck the people with a very great plague. So that place was called Kibroth-hattaavah, because there they buried the people who had the craving.” (Num 11:32–34 NRSV)

We seem to be at a place where we prefer seeing through the glass dimly for fear clarity will come with a call.  It’s as if the positive aspiration of freedom to choose how we meet our needs has morphed into the negative notion of freedom from having to choose at all, and isn’t that the essence of entitlement?

In that light I share these words from an interview with Andrew Bacevich

Guernica: Throughout this interview you’ve suggested America scale back its global presence and its policy of interventionism. But that seems increasingly unlikely in light of our dependence on foreign oil. We’ve passed peak oil and it seems likely that many future wars will be fought over it.

Andrew Bacevich: This gets to the heart of the dilemma. What we call the American way of life is premised on expectations of a very high level of personal mobility, which presumes the availability of large amounts of very cheap energy. Given the way the economy has evolved over the last eighty or one hundred years, to cut to the chase, American freedom as we understand it requires lots of cheap oil. Therefore, in order for us to make a serious effort to wean ourselves from this ever-growing dependency would require us rethinking American freedom—revising the American way of life. Were we flexible in that regard, then options to significantly reorient our energy policy would become available. But there is very little evidence that we are willing to bend. The Jimmy Carter malaise speech of 1979 that I wrote about in my previous book continues to be a very telling episode. Carter was courageously and farsightedly trying to get Americans to recognize that there was something very insidious about this dependence on foreign oil. He connected it to our understanding of freedom and he challenged us to re-think freedom. We rejected that council and opted instead to listen to Ronald Reagan who said we could have everything we want forever. We are living with the consequences. And Carter’s abject failure to get Americans to acknowledge the negative consequences of the American way of life scared the bejesus out of the entire political class so nobody is willing to talk about sacrifice; nobody is willing to talk about American culture as part of the problem— but it is part of the problem. It is that fact which emphasizes the extent to which there really are no easy solutions. We are our own worst enemy.

Guernica: When you say ‘revising the American way of life,’ what do you mean—a simpler life?

Andrew Bacevich: To define freedom in a way that is not as intimately connected with conspicuous consumption and individual autonomy. And yes, that probably means in a material sense to be willing to live with less. Try to have that be your campaign slogan and run for the presidency: ‘Vote for me and I will help you live with less.’ [Laughter]

Moses had that problem too.

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