[I realized, as I struggled to come to grips with a post on North American Liberation Theology that I started working on in January, that I was trying to say too much at one time. Some bloggers write really long posts. One fellow I read sometimes calls them “uber-posts.” I don’t think lengthy posts fit the blogging format; at least, for me they don’t. And so I’m breaking the long post down into several pieces.
By the way, I was just looking over the list of old posts, and noticed that this blog saw first light on Sept. 3, 2011. I didn’t realize it had been three years. Thanks to the many who have read these essays over that time.]
There is something odd about the notion of North American Liberation Theology.
Let’s start with the obvious. Mexico is part of North America. Am I trying to say anything about Mexico? No; for this purpose, I’m considering Mexico as part of Latin America, along with Central and South America. I don’t know exactly where the lines are drawn, but I think of Mexico as Third World.
I want to address the First World, particularly the USA and Canada, which are marked by advanced industrialism, an extreme concentration of wealth, an imperialistic outlook, and an amazing standard of living.
In short, we seem to have it all. Why would we need a liberation theology? From what do we need to be liberated?
Please consider the fact that our standard of living is such that all but the most desperately poor live as well as, or better than, the middle class of Asia, Africa, and South America. (Yes, really. We live in a society in which 95% of the people have a roof over their heads, sanitary drinking water at the turn of a tap, electricity, air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter that you don’t have to walk miles to gather firewood to enjoy, a steady supply of food at affordable prices, ready access to medical care even if it’s only the nearest ER, a car or reliable public transportation, good clothing at cheap prices and the ability to buy $100 tennis shoes, and one or more color TVs in each home. That’s doing pretty darn well.)
All true. All important. All things that most people everywhere want. What’s the problem?
This pretty picture takes no notice of the deep divisions of class, race and gender that engulf us, all of us, all the time, no matter how well off we are materially, and on no matter which side of any of those divisions you personally may fall.
And then there’s consumerism. Let’s talk about that first.
Consumerism, as Wikipedia defines it so well, is a social and economic order and ideology that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-greater amounts. Of itself, this need not be so bad. We all need some things, and we all want some things. This is universal, excepting monks and other ascetics. However, consumerism has been driven to a feverish state by the knowing application of methods which amount to mass hypnosis. The use of music, color, motion, and sex in advertising, for instance, is consciously designed to get people to lust after things they don’t need, and don’t really want all that much. I’m neither kidding nor exaggerating when I refer to hypnosis. As a master hypnotist, I assure you that the techniques are identical and I wish, as a therapist, that I was that good.
Consumerism, to put it in another way, is the ideology that takes materialism to its logical extent. It assures us that if we just have the right things then we will be happy, loved, powerful, laid. Most of us know, at some level, that this is a lie. There are all those sayings that float around that indicate that consumerism has not totally won our hearts and minds. “You have nothing if you don’t have your health.” “The best things in life are free.” “Nothing is more important than family.” “What a terrible accident. At least no one was hurt. Things can be replaced.”
Yes, we all know those things. Until the doors open on Black Friday and people are crushed by the throng trying to get to the goods. To give only one example. In many small ways, I find myself loving things more than they should be, and having to actively work against this tendency. If you are honest, the same is probably true of you, too.
Consumerism is alienating, and yes, I know Marx introduced us to this concept. (As I’ve said for years, his descriptions are pretty accurate; it’s his prescriptions that go so dreadfully awry.) Our ability as human beings to be, to feel, and to do need not be mediated by the presence of things. Beyond the bare necessities, it’s all gravy. Nothing wrong with a little gravy, of course. But just as the drug addict’s body reacts to the absence of dope as though it’s survival is threatened, in the consumerist society our emotions are re-calibrated to the same distortion: “I’ll simply die if I can’t have ….” Take a cell phone away from a teenager and watch the fireworks. Or an adult for that matter. A few weeks ago I left the house without my cellphone and actually felt uneasy, until I processed the feeling and came to grips with the fact that, for most of my life, I did just fine without a cell phone in my pocket.
This alienation runs so deep and has become so commonplace that it almost seems petty to point it out. What’s all this nonsense about cell phones? Sure, they’re convenient and we are used to having them, but what does that have to do with alienation? Just one symptom of the disease, that’s what. Here’s another, to my mind much more profoundly disturbing: In the not-so-distant past, enjoying music meant being in the presence of the musicians. For most people, this meant that people they actually knew who had learned an instrument would play for the enjoyment of family and friends. For some, in cities, it also meant orchestras and the like, but still in their presence. Since Edison made recording practical, that has changed. In many ways, this is a good thing. We can all enjoy the music of the finest musicians of the age, at any time, in any place. Tragically, for many of us this has replaced sitting on the front porch with Uncle Jed on the fiddle and mama on the guitar. Real human beings, interacting in a real human way, as humans have done since time out of mind. The same thing can be said of art, and architecture, and many other things.
Ivan Illich goes into great detail about this process of alienation in his books, such as “Deschooling Society” and “Medical Nemesis.” In these books, he points out that activities like learning and healing, formerly engaged in by people in general, had been professionalized in a process he calls radical monopoly. When only people with an education license can teach, and only people with a medical license can heal, you have a radical monopoly. Functions which were the province of everyone, and which deepened human interrelatedness, were put off-limits to most of us. Jessica Mitford pointed out how the same thing happened to the unfathomably human process of death and dying, in “The American Way of Death.”
Illich presents, as a counterpoint, the idea of conviviality. He defines tools as something you use to get things done, whether it is an implement you hold in your hand or an institution you attend. A convivial tool brings people together rather than separating them, and it allows them to express their own creativity instead of making them the slave of the machine or the institution.
As you can see, this runs counter to the trend in modern society, in which even someone who paints your nails has to have a license.
Call it a First World problem and I won’t disagree. But we need to be liberated from consumerism and the alienation it fosters. Even though it’s a problem of Plenty rather than Scarcity, which seems like a good problem to have, understanding how consumerism operates indicates that it is a mind-numbing, soul-sucking problem. And we are in its clutches.
The system of production on which the world currently depends, demands that we be consumers. This is why so much effort goes into creating these artificial “needs.” If we don’t spend money on all the seductive glitter, profits are lost, jobs are lost, the stock market plummets, and all that follows. To avoid this, the economic system gives us choices between commodities while doing everything in its power to eliminate the choice of whether to be a consumer or not. Bird in a gilded cage? Yes. It’s still a cage.
There are other ways in which we are also alienated and I’ll address those in future posts. As mentioned above: race, gender, class.
And imperialism. Don’t forget imperialism.
This is going to be a long series. No wonder I couldn’t get started, thinking it all had to go in one post.