Tag Archive: America


capitalism
I was a first-time author waiting to give my first live online interview, and I was nervous. With only a few minutes to make my case for global transformation, I expected the host Gary Null to cut to the chase, but instead he opened with a curve ball. The Occupy movement was afoot, and Gary recounted seeing the police ransack a makeshift kitchen set up to feed the homeless. He was fishing for an explanation, but I could offer nothing beyond my shared vexation. Although this gave us more time to discuss my book (the title of which I nevertheless failed to mention), I soon came to regret this missed opportunity to air a topic that had been all but forbidden just a few months before: class warfare.

If I’d had more time and lucidity, I would have mentioned other gift-based movements like Food Not Bombs and The San Francisco Diggers that have faced routine harassment. I would have lamented the absurd illegality of dumpster diving. I would have talked about the War on Drugs and how America imprisons more of its citizens—mostly poor people of color—than any other country in history, mainly for petty drug offenses, while those with white skin and white collars (who use illegal drugs themselves) enjoy almost total impunity for fraud, embezzlement, insider trading, war profiteering, and other high crimes that adversely affect millions of lives. I would have described the aggressive, well-organized, and ongoing campaign led by corporate-backed politicians to kill unions, outsource and automate jobs, keep the minimum wage unlivable, defund Social Security, cut Medicaid and food stamps, and generally shred the social safety net.

I would have concluded, like my allies in Occupy and millions of other reasonable people, that an all-out war against the poor and working class has been raging for decades.

As Marx pointed out, class conflict is as old as civilization itself. But in the US, the war in question was, by most accounts, unofficially declared by Ronald Reagan, who espoused the theory that wealth would somehow “trickle down” from the upper class to the lower. Needless to say, no such trickle has occurred, and the wealth gap has since become a seemingly unbridgeable chasm. One of Reagan’s closest comrades was Margaret Thatcher, an equally ardent devotee of Ayn Rand (“altruism is evil”) who infamously asserted that “there is no such thing as society.” Thatcher also earned the nickname “TINA” for declaring “There Is No Alternative” to the pro-corporate laissez-faire economic policies, structural adjustment programs, and austerity measures that have since been imposed throughout the world, under the authority of every US President since Reagan.

Of course, most elites would deny that a class war is being waged. Among those who dare entertain the notion, the tendency is to insist that it is the rich, not the poor, who are put upon and persecuted. Such was the recent claim of Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tom Perkins, who went so far as to compare the 1% to the Jews during the Holocaust. Though his hyperbole was widely criticized, Perkins was defended by the Wall Street Journal in a follow-up article that concluded: “The liberals aren’t encouraging violence, but they are promoting personal vilification and the abuse of government power to punish political opponents.”

Apparently for the rich right, it’s all about politics. Fairness is not the issue, nor even poverty. Never mind the billions of people worldwide who are scraping by on $1.25/day or less. Pay no attention to starving children in Zambia, sweatshop workers in Bangladesh, rice farmers in China, and struggling single mothers in the US. Forget the populist rhetoric of Obama, the admonitions of the Pope, the ideals of the Founding Fathers, and the core teachings of every major religion. Disregard the recent Oxfam report revealing that the richest 85 people in the world own as much wealth as the poorest half of humanity. And if you can’t ignore such news, why not openly celebrate it like Kevin O’Leary, a reality show host and investor who called the Oxfam findings “fantastic” and asked, “What can be wrong with this?” Not to be outdone, a staff writer for Forbes described income inequality as “unrelentingly beautiful,” insisting (again in his italics) that “inequality hasn’t increased enough.”

One could dismiss these guys as renegade extremists if their ideas weren’t so apparently widespread amongst the top percentile. But normally such “greed is good” rhetoric is kept confined to smoke-filled back rooms, secret society functions, and $1000-a-plate dinners, which begs the question: why the recent public displays of psychopathy and megalomania? Perhaps the rich believe that the war on the poor has already been won, as maintained by journalist and producer of The Wire, David Simon. If indeed the common folk have been successfully subjugated, then there is little to lose by offending them, since any insurrection can and will be quickly and violently suppressed, as happened with Occupy.

On the other hand there exists a more hopeful possibility, one suggested by the persecution complex of the 1 percent: they’re worried that their halcyon days are numbered, genuinely afraid of a sudden outbreak of equality. Only time will tell if we the people will, like citizens in so many countries throughout the world, rise again in defense of our most cherished ideals.

billet 100 dollars #1

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek has famously remarked that for most people it’s easier to imagine the end of life on earth than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. This might be especially true in America, where despite ample evidence of the antagonism between free markets and freedom, the two have become virtually synonymous in the popular psyche, and where both are frequently defended with a passion that Patrick Henry would admire.

Yet a growing number of people are realizing that economic liberty and death are indeed linked, but not in the way neoliberals imagine. To return to Zizek’s idea, capitalism and apocalypse go together in that the former could well cause the latter. Certainly much has already been said about the basic incompatibility between a system predicated on infinite growth and the finite resources of Earth, but capitalism has other, related design flaws that are already proving fatal, not only to various life forms but to the vitality of human communities as well. What follows is a list of capitalism’s seven deadliest sins (or capital vices), presented in reverse order.

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#7: AMORALITY
Although some economic actors do indeed behave immorally (while many strive to do good), the system as a whole frankly doesn’t give a damn. Its only “concern” is its own survival and growth, which always trumps the welfare of those living within its constraints. As a refutation of the claim that capitalism is the most efficient distributor of resources, consider that almost 50% of food is wasted in America, much of it by producers and vendors. Such waste is all the more egregious when witnessed by actual hungry people. As the linked article explains:

In a capitalist society, the motive behind the production of food is not to feed people, housing is not made to give them shelter, clothing is not made to keep them warm, and health care is not offered primarily to keep people healthy. All of these things, which are and should be viewed as basic rights, are nothing other than commodities—to be bought and sold—from which to make a profit. If a profit cannot be made, usually due to overproduction in relation to the market, the commodity is considered useless by the capitalist and destroyed.

By a similar logic, money better spent on the curing of serious diseases like malaria and HIV is often funneled into relatively trivial conditions like male baldness and erectile dysfunction that affect fewer people but generate greater revenue.

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#6: INTRINSIC INEQUALITY
Due largely to deadly defects in the monetary system (see #1 below), capitalism divides the world into haves and have-nots, inevitably concentrating wealth in the hands of the former—as we have seen in recent years and in the period preceding the Great Depression—until redistribution or revolution. Despite the rhetoric, a rising economic tide does not raise all boats; it only raises the yachts while the dinghies, deprived of bailouts, inevitably go under.

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#5: POVERTY
One of the most common arguments for global capitalism is that it helps alleviate poverty. Problem is, global poverty statistics are generated by the World Bank, an institution explicitly designed to promote globalization. Critics argue that (1) the numbers are usually skewed by one or two rapidly developing countries, (2) the definition of deep poverty as a wage of $1.25/day is set arbitrarily low in order to yield the desired stats, and (3) daily wages say nothing about access to potable water, adequate nutrition, healthcare, education, community, and other things that determine quality of life. Moreover, poverty rates mean little when economic disparity has increased so dramatically in recent decades.

Actually, a compelling argument can be made that global capitalism doesn’t alleviate poverty but causes poverty. After all, the aim of globalization is to expand markets by infiltrating “undeveloped” (read: self-sufficient) communities and dragging them into the money economy, thus creating new laborers and consumers. Could members of a gift-based, indigenous tribe really be called “poor”? Only by the logic of capitalism, which defines poverty as the inability to purchase one’s basic necessities (which might include designer clothing) from an outside party using fiat currency.

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# 4: EXTERNALIZATION
To externalize a cost is to pass it along to someone else, typically the general public and the environment. The most obvious example is pollution: when Company X dumps its toxic waste into a river, downstream communities pay with health problems and ecological degradation. Another example is given in the now-classic Story of Stuff when Annie Leonard talks about buying a $4.99 radio and realizing that the low price is only possible because of the many externalized costs and the people around the world who paid them.

The main purveyors of this capital vice are corporations, which function mainly by privatizing profits and publicizing costs. Indeed a corporation has been described as an “externalizing machine, in the same way that a shark is a killing machine (1),” each doing what they are designed to do. Externalization is legally enshrined in the limited liability corporation (LLC), which cleverly enables risk-taking and pathologically encourages irresponsibility.

A 2013 UN-sponsored study showed that if the world’s top industries were forced to absorb their own costs, none of them would make a profit.

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# 3: GROSS DOMESTIC PRODUCT
GDP is supposed to monitor economic wellbeing by tallying up all the goods and services exchanged within a given area and time frame. But GDP sinfully ignores what is being exchanged, such that war, natural disasters, accidents, disease, depression, and other negatives are counted as positives for GDP because they generate revenue, while life-affirming activities like volunteering and gifting are not counted at all. Furthermore, GDP ignores the distribution of wealth.

The bottom line is that a simple number says nothing about human happiness or ecological integrity. In fact, a rise in artificial wealth generally corresponds with a decline in natural wealth. As author Paul Hawken has said, “We are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it GDP.”

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# 2: PRIVATE PROPERTY
The Romans were the first to advance the legal concept of dominium, which was considered “the ultimate right, the right which had no right behind it, the right which legitimated all others, while itself having no need of legitimation… the right ‘of using, enjoying, and abusing’”(2) This dominator mindset prevailed throughout Europe and eventually infiltrated what is now America, where the ownership of land is still considered an unalienable and unquestioned right.

But to the native peoples of this continent who were so brutalized, land ownership was an absurd concept, for it suggested that a greater power (nature) could be owned by a lesser power (humans). In all parts of the world, indigenous groups have upheld reverence for nature and a respect for “the commons”—the air, water, and land that supports life and thus rightly belong to all living creatures.

By contrast, capitalism strives to privatize and profit from everything; not only land but water, slices of the electromagnetic spectrum, species, seeds, genes, songs, images, ideas, etc. This vice was summed up by the anarchist Proudhon, who said, “Property is theft.”

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# 1: USURY
If anything can be considered the root of all evil, it would have to be usury. The practice of lending money at interest is condemned by most religions, including the Abrahamic faiths, although the Bible allows Jews to profit from foreigners as a way of “fighting without a sword.” The implication of violence is inherent in usury, which is basically the opposite of a gift.

In our modern economic system, institutional theft is the business of commercial banks and the (private) Fed, which have been empowered to conjure money into existence as interest-bearing debt. Since the money to repay all these loans (with interest) doesn’t exist, society is driven by a sense of competition and a mentality of scarcity. Worse yet, usury creates a demand for continuous economic growth (measured in GDP), without which the economy is subject to collapse.

As noted, such growth is obviously unsustainable and ultimately suicidal. Although we may be on the road to ruin, it’s never too late to change our wicked ways.

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(1) Robert Monk (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_A._G._Monks)
(2) Avila (2004) Ownership: Early Christian Teaching, p. 20 (via Charles Eisenstein, Sacred Economics)

The Misguided Pursuit of Happiness

pursuit
It’s hard to imagine a single phrase that has had a more profound impact on human civilization than the one enshrined in the United States Declaration of Independence: “the pursuit of happiness.” The exercise of this unalienable right has served as a primary driving force of the entire American enterprise, which in turn has dramatically reshaped the rest of the world, both physically and psychologically. Through globalization, an ever-growing percentage of humanity is joining the chase, which might be a good thing if not for a few deep and related flaws in the Founding Fathers’ famous phrase.

The most obvious and dire problem is the widespread conflation of happiness with material gain, which can be traced back to the Founding Fathers themselves. However noble their intentions, they were constrained by Enlightenment values and blinded by their own privilege as wealthy landowners, and in some cases slaveholders. To be fair, they borrowed the phrase in question from the English philosopher John Locke, whose shortlist of unalienable rights included “Life liberty, and estate,” meaning property.

Another portion of the blame can be assigned to Calvinism, a Protestant denomination that has had—and continues to have—an enormous influence on American culture. In a near total inversion of traditional Christian morality, Calvinists regard wealth as a sign of piety and a mark of God’s grace, whereas poverty and rebelliousness indicate an individual who is hopelessly hell-bound.

Apart form these historical influences on the USA’s MO, there’s an important psychological reason why the pursuit of happiness remains married to material gain: we’re all constantly besieged by ads telling us that fulfillment lies in the acquisition of a certain product and the achievement of a certain lifestyle, and we have been since childhood. In fact, in recent years the advertising industry has been targeting ever-younger children, including toddlers, in a ruthless and highly effective campaign to instill consumerism in kids.

Of course, we’re also taught that money can’t buy happiness, but we refuse to believe it despite personal experience. Additionally, the old adage has received new support from scientific studies, such as one by economist Richard Layard showing that once people’s basic needs are met, greater income provides them no additional happiness, and in fact makes them more prone to depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. The magic number, the salary at which happiness peaks, is about $20,000 per year.

(If your inner voice screams, “I can’t live on that!” then consider that half of humanity lives on $900/year, while one quarter squeaks by on $450/year. According to a recent Daily Mail article, the global average salary is $1225/year, and a salary of $32,000 puts you in the global 1 percent. And yes, these numbers are adjusted for purchasing power, so there’s no arguing about how much 32K would buy in Bangladesh.)

So if 20K is the optimum annual salary (actually, it’s far less, all things considered), then why do we continuously clamor for more? The simple truth is that once someone achieves a certain standard of living, she becomes attached to it and can’t imagine living with less. Former extravagances become necessities, and the pursuit becomes a vicious, unending cycle. In general, we underestimate the addictive nature of money and possessions, forever imagining that we’d be happy with just a little more.

Finally we come to the biggest bug in the operating system, a flaw so glaring that we generally fail to see it: happiness cannot be pursued. Clearly it cannot be found in some external object or future situation, in some other place and time. It can only arise here and now, and only when allowed to do so. This is because happiness is actually our default setting, our natural state, which gets obscured by the desire for more. In other words, happiness is prevented by pursuit, in the same way that a forgotten name or number won’t usually come to mind until you stop thinking about it.

The poet Guillaume Appollinaire put it succinctly: “Sometimes it’s good to pause in our pursuit of happiness and just be happy.”

As it turns out, happiness is not a product but a practice. It abides in the heart, a muscle that can be exercised through the cultivation of everyday contentment, gratitude, and generosity, which arise whenever the craving for more is relinquished. Indeed happiness comes not from having but from giving, and is borne from a deep understanding of human interconnection. Had the Founding Fathers understood this more deeply, they could have issued a Declaration of Interdependence based on life, liberty, and love, thereby saving everyone a lot of trouble.

The following article was originally published on elephant journal on March 29, 2013.
overconsumption

Surely you’ve heard about the “law of attraction.” It has appeared in many guises since at least the middle of the 19th century, when the movement known as New Thought first swept America. Another big wave hit in the early 20th century, when books like The Science of Getting Rich made explicit the connection between positive thinking and material wealth. If you buy into the 2006 movie The Secret that most recently popularized positivity, the law of attraction has been known and safeguarded throughout history by towering figures like Plato, Shakespeare, Newton, and Lincoln.

Frankly, I hope you don’t buy into The Secret and its dubious claims. Both the film and the book have been widely criticized for promoting materialism, victim blaming, and a political passivity that ignores or dismisses the deep flaws in the system. The suggestion is that if you’re poor or otherwise beset with misfortune, it’s basically your fault. If this loopy logic sounds familiar, that’s because it’s frequently espoused by Christian conservatives.

Which raises the question of why the law of attraction has been embraced by so many New Age liberals. Granted, the prescription has shifted from thinking positive to cultivating a “mentality of abundance,” and the focus is often extended beyond money to include meaningful work and loving relationships. Still, judging from the number of books and expensive seminars on the subject, the “think and grow rich” notion remains alive and well, especially among those who are already quite wealthy by global standards.

According to the Census Bureau, median income in the US is about $30,000 per person. This might sound fairly modest until we consider that half the world lives on less than $2.50/day (about $900/year), while a quarter live in “deep poverty” on less than half of that. The usual response to this disparity is to advocate raising the standard of living for people in poorer countries, and rightly so. But few folks in the so-called developed world would be willing to consider lowering their own standard of living. In fact, the resounding chorus of capital sings incessantly of economic growth, while most us either absentmindedly hum along or single-mindedly chant the mantra of “more money.”

The question rarely asked by moguls and manifestors alike is how much is enough? Well, thanks to author and activist David Ulansey, we can calculate an actual dollar amount by dividing the Gross World Product (about $80 trillion in 2011) by the number of people on Earth (~7 billion) to arrive at a figure of roughly $12,000 per year per capita. Since this GWP figure is already adjusted for purchasing power, 12K marks a particular standard of living in the US and its equivalent in other countries, NOT what that amount would buy elsewhere. Based on an equal distribution of wealth, then, 12K/yr is the amount to which each human being is entitled, meaning that a higher income involves taking more than one’s fair share. Ulansey is more blunt, stating that “any more than that represents institutionalized and socially sanctioned armed robbery.”

The kicker is that this amount is already unsustainably high for planet Earth, which has been in resource overshoot since 1986. Since then, humanity has been living off of its ecological credit card, taking about 130% more than can be replaced, essentially borrowing if not stealing from future generations. Accounting for this overshoot as well as the increasing global population, the figure in question should be more like $6000/yr. This is the acceptable level both ethically and ecologically, given that the more money you make, the more resources you consume. Collectively, we Americans use about 1/3 of the world’s resources, yet comprise only about 6% of the global population.

Thus most Americans, rather than increasing their means, need to decrease them, in many cases dramatically so. This is the secret law of attrition. It’s a secret not only because most folks don’t know about it, but also because they don’t want to know about it. By and large, we have become so attached to our material comforts that we can scarcely imagine living without them. Little do we realize that our possessions have come to possess us, that our houses are like so many prisons built upon foundations of scarcity and fear.

Although based on compassion, the law of attrition is not about making some difficult and noble sacrifice but about extending the concept of wealth beyond the material realm into the natural, social, artistic, and spiritual realms. It’s about shifting from quantity to quality, and from making a living to making a life, along with the time to enjoy it. It’s about actually embodying the maxim that less is more, and about finally learning the lesson of the world’s wisdom traditions that the key to happiness—the true secret, if you will—lies not in getting but in giving, not in having but in sharing, not in holding on but in letting go.

America the Addicted

The following article was originally published on The Mindful Word on November 12, 2012.

Uncle Sam Addicted to Oil
Soon after his awakening, the Buddha gave what would prove to be his most popular and enduring teaching, known as The Four Noble Truths. After first establishing suffering or stress as intrinsic to life, the Buddha then posited the root cause of this dis-ease as tanha, meaning “thirst.” More common translations of this ancient Pali word are attachment, craving, clinging, and grasping.

Although each of these interpretations comes close, none of them quite hits the mark. First of all, thirst is generally a healthy desire, especially in our chronically dehydrated culture. (Have you had your eight glasses of water today?) “Attachment” works better, except that there are healthy forms of attachment, such as love between mother and child. Cravings are usually unhealthy, though they may also indicate a nutrient deficiency. And while grasping and clinging definitely cause distress, these tendencies are so common and subtle as to be mostly undetectable.

As I see it, the best diagnosis is “addiction.” If not the most accurate translation, it’s certainly the most applicable to our modern industrial culture in general, and to America in particular, where highly addictive drugs like nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine are perfectly legal and widely available. (Meanwhile, many non-addictive substances, some known to actually cure addictions, carry long prison sentences.) Topping the list of socially sanctioned, addictive drugs are prescription painkillers, which have surpassed car crashes as the leading cause of accidental death in the US. Our country’s obesity epidemic bespeaks an addiction to unhealthy convenience foods, many of which are engineered to keep us hooked. Our collective addiction to shopping is evident in the fact that the US comprises only 5% of the planet’s population yet consumes about 1/3 of its resources. Our addiction to TV keeps us glued to the set for almost 6 hours a day on average, and the time spent staring dumbly at our smartphones and computers is steadily increasing.

Yet these are just our most obvious addictions, merely symptoms of a problem that goes much deeper. Instead of blaming the victim, we must realize that addiction lies at the very core of American culture. We are, after all, a country predicated on “the pursuit of happiness,” which too often means grasping after fleeting pleasures. This is certainly the message of advertisers, who endeavor to sell us the next trendy gadget designed to fall immediately into obsolescence. Indeed, if consumer culture were to provide us with lasting happiness, it would render itself obsolete.

Is the media to blame? Only partly, for they exist mainly to serve corporations, which in turn exist only to make money, a fact well understood by the CEO who must either remain in the black or be given a pink slip. But the buck doesn’t stop there, because the necessity of profits is dictated by a monetary system based on usury. Due to banks’ ability to charge interest on money created from thin air, there is never enough money in existence to repay debts. This generates the need for GDP to rise exponentially.

Thus at the heart of the system lies a constant demand for more, at any cost. This is the impulse of the addict, who will lie, steal, and even kill in order to obtain the next fix. On the collective scale, the politicians and pundits do the lying, the corporations and banks do the stealing, and the government does the killing—all in the name of maintaining business-as-usual, even in the face of global warming, mass extinction, ocean collapse, continents of plastic, rising cancer rates, decaying social structures, and other crises we are encouraged to ignore.

Addiction is, by definition, unhealthy and destructive. Taken to its extreme, it is suicidal, aligned with what Freud called the death instinct. Apparently, this is part of human nature, but it is not the better part. As members of the Earth community, we are also driven by a strong instinct for life, which includes a desire for growth, healing, and spiritual realization. This is the essence of the Buddha’s third Noble Truth: recovery is possible.

In the realm of addiction, the desire for life often manifests only at death’s door, or at the point of utter despair known as “hitting bottom.” This is where humanity seems to be headed. In some cases, however, the addict is prevented from hitting bottom by an intervention, which on the cultural scale might look like revolution. Unfortunately, interventions and revolutions often meet with limited or temporary success, mainly because the impetus for change originates from an external source and leaves the underlying motivations intact.

In the best instance, the bottom can be raised, as it were, by the addict’s own realization of where his behavior will lead. Not only will it destroy him physically, it will not and cannot bring the emotional security he so desperately seeks. As our spiritual traditions tell us, true and lasting happiness must come from within. Wealth, power, fame, status, good looks, and other externalities that our culture peddles are nothing but fool’s gold—artificial substitutes for the real thing.

Despite what the old ads say, Coke is not the real thing. The real thing, that which we want most and fear most, is intimacy—with others, with our selves, and with our own emotional states, however difficult they can be. Essentially, addiction is a way of avoiding intimacy in all its forms, a turning away from reality. But we have turned away long enough. It’s high time for us to look squarely at our predicament, to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of our culture and our selves, and to take steps toward true freedom.

“My name is Uncle Sam, and I am powerless over my addictions. My life has become unmanageable…”

9-11 and America’s Three Poisons

I remember that Tuesday quite well, not only because it changed the course of history, but because it altered my own trajectory in a very literal way. En route from Chicago to Hartford to visit a recently-relocated, soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend, I landed in Detroit for my connecting flight, only to be notified that the second leg of my journey had been violently amputated by terrorists. The word fell repeatedly from the lips of the news anchors on the TV monitors around which many a confused traveler had gathered, staring in dumb disbelief as the planes slammed into the towers, again and again. Everyone else was talking nervously on their cell phones, trying to arrange a way to get back home, or else forge ahead, overland, to their original destination.

In any case, there would be no returning to business as usual. As the twin towers and Pentagon walls crumbled, so too did America’s illusions of safety, security, and separateness. These were the first major attacks on US continental soil, and they introduced an unfamiliar sense of vulnerability and uncertainty to the relatively insulated American psyche. Suddenly the world seemed larger and more mysterious, populated perhaps by shadowy and sinister enemies but also filled with the prayers, support, and shared anguish of millions of allies across the globe. Beneath the grief, or perhaps because of its uniting influence, there arose a brief, hopeful sense of national and international kinship in the days after the tragedy.

Due in part to the overbearing response of the Bush administration, who immediately began speaking in stark absolutes of good vs. evil, the national mood quickly changed into one of fear and indignation. America’s pride had been damaged, and the country needed to reassert its global superiority in a dramatic display of aggression. It would not rely on international courts of law, nor would it politely petition the world community for assistance. Instead its president would demand allegiance to the “war on terror” by threatening, “You’re either with us or against us.” Least of all would America seek to understand the root causes of terrorism or address the complaints of the perpetrators, which were clearly outlined in a number of videotapes that surfaced after 9-11. All of these responses would have required a kind of humility and introspection with which America, the world’s strongest ego structure, is largely unfamiliar.

Colors and Shadows

Indeed the earth-shaking events of nine years ago can best be understood by thinking of the US in terms of its unique psychological makeup, and by distilling the tri-colored essence of the American mindset. Some might point to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as the three beacons that have guided our nation from its inception, and these unalienable rights would hardly be a bad place to start (or end, for that matter). But one the big lessons of 9-11 is that bright lights cast dark shadows – shadows that need be confronted if true healing is to take place.

If we muster the courage to peer behind the veil of Life, we see its grim counterpart in the deadliest arsenal of all time, fed by a national military budget nearly as large as that of all other countries combined. Of course, US weaponry is used less for “defense” than for offensively procuring the so-called resources needed to support the American way of life, which is centered largely around consumption. This conspicuous activity has become virtually synonymous with the Pursuit of Happiness, however noble the intention of Thomas Jefferson in using this enigmatic phrase. Its object remains elusive, as indicated by America’s record rates of violent crime and incarceration, rampant use and abuse of prescription drugs and painkillers, widespread heart disease and other stress-related illnesses, epidemic obesity… As for Liberty, there is a sad irony in the fact that, partly because of their material pursuits, millions of Americans are so figuratively burdened with debt that literal imprisonment looms as a possibility.

This is to say nothing so far of the rest of the Earth community, both human and non-human, that is aversely affected by America’s complexes. With this double entendre I refer not only to the military and industry, but to the media, which empower the other two through advertising and various forms of propaganda. Considering, as an example, defense contractor GE’s ownership of NBC, CNBC, msnbc.com, Telemundo, and Bravo, we can safely speak of the military-industrial-media complex. While each of these on its own is unrivaled in terms of power and influence, together they have enabled the US to become the most dominant, defining force in human, if not geologic, history. One would be hard pressed to find a place on Earth not affected by at least one branch of this mighty American triumvirate.

The Three Poisons

Such sociopolitical analysis, heavy-handed if accurate, can only take us so far. To discern the deeper dimensions of the American psyche and its wounds, we must look through a more powerful, psychospiritual lens at the three main driving forces of the American enterprise. By doing so, we discover what the Buddha called the “three poisons” of greed, hatred, and delusion. Alternatively translated as desire, aversion, and ignorance, these poisons are said to be the root causes of suffering. Although interrelated, primary emphasis is placed on delusion, which gives rise to selfish desire and aversion. In the American model, desire manifests as consumerism and unbridled capitalism, hatred finds expression in militarism and violence, and delusion is represented by the omnipresent media.

In light of all this, it seems hardly coincidental that the attacks of September 2001 were directed at the World Trade Center (symbol of greed) and the Pentagon (symbol of hatred), and that shortly thereafter, deadly anthrax spores were sent to various East Coast media outlets (symbols of delusion). This is certainly not to suggest that such horrific violence could ever be justified, but to bring to conscious awareness what many of us knew intuitively from that first gut-wrenching moment: that the attacks were far less random than would ever be admitted by our leaders, whose primary job, it seems, is to keep the poisons pumping.

Cynical? Perhaps, but surely one of the main lessons driven home by 9-11 is that our government cannot be trusted to keep us informed and protected. The benevolent father figure is dead, a fact that even the most jingoistic American has grasped. Mistakenly, however, forlorn conservatives look backward and cling ever more tightly to our forefathers as paragons of Christian virtue (slave-owning aside) while retreating further into patriotism (“the last refuge of the scoundrel,” as Samuel Johnson called it), instead of finally accepting and fully embracing global citizenship. This is our current calling, and if 9-11 sparked even the briefest and dimmest recognition of humanity’s interdependence, then the escalating ecological crisis may well bring to light an awareness of the shared fate of all forms of life. As we have seen, unspeakable tragedy has an undeniable power to unite.

In this variation on a traditional Tibetan Bhavachakra (Wheel of Life), representations of the three poisons appear in the innermost circle. The entire wheel of cyclic existence is being held by Uncle Samsara. Image by author.