Monday, December 24, 2007

So much packed into so few pages

I've been trying to catch up on some reading - a nasty sinus infection has kept me awake to a much greater degree than usual - and just finished up Michael Parenti's The Culture Struggle. Next time I find myself discussing cross-cultural psychological issues with anyone, I'll definitely be drawing from this text. At only 130-something pages, it shouldn't be that much of a burden to read in one sitting.

The book itself covers a wide array of topics from defining culture to dealing with racism, cultural relativism, and individualism. The two chapters that deal with what Parenti calls hyper-individualism were what I was reading last night. What's funny is that Parenti's narrative reminds me of a number of conversations that I and some friends would have during the mid to late 1980s when the whole New Age vibe was arguably at its peak.

For those needing a quick refresher, the New Age movement was a sort of grab bag of diverse and divergent religions and philosophies filtered through the sensibilities of some New Left activists and hippies - think largely of upper middle class and affluent young adults who seemed to view themselves as the center of the universe. The New Agers, in large part, are indigenous to a particular set of socio-economic strata in American culture and particularly those cultural experiences unique to the Baby Boom generation.

The central theme that I noticed in any New Age literature that I would have read at the time as well as anyone who happened to be heavily influenced by this particular perspective was the extremity to which the individual and especially his/her subjective experience were held to be the primary reality. In fact this subjectivity was so all-encompassing, that nothing else need exist (as Parenti notes, est founder Werner Erhard once stated that "reality is make-believe."). At bare minimum, one's subjective experience was divorced from any sort of social, economic, or political context and is given equal weight to any others' personal experiences. One danger I came to recognize rather quickly from such an approach was that one could be led down a path of non-activism, as social problems were viewed as ephemeral next to achieving anything from higher self-esteem to some form of personal "awareness." One could also easily be led down the path of victim blame to the extent that numerous New Agers seemed to believe that individuals "chose" such circumstances as their parents, disabilities, economic hardships, rapes & molestations, ad nauseum. A friend of mine at the time who was really into all this actually said something almost exactly to that effect once during a conversation. I was quite taken aback. From such a vantage point one can imagine a political ideology that excuses or minimizes gross human rights violations as merely the result of bad karma. Those babies who have been starved or bombed into oblivion in Iraq since the early 1980s are at fault for their circumstances - they should have chosen different parents. Screw the world, just change yourself - feel better about yourself.

Concurrent with that particular vibe was the whole "greed is good" mentality that began to take hold during the go-go 1980s and then metastasized during the Clinton and Bush II eras. Books, tapes and seminars during that period in bookstores' New Age and Self-Help sections often concentrated on getting rich - all you needed was the right aura or something like that. Those of us who don't have lots of "stuff" are simply lacking enlightenment and self awareness. Buy more crystals, meditate, think about all that "stuff" you want to buy and it can be yours too. Horatio Alger didn't die - he just became reincarnated. If you believe in that, I happen to have a lovely bridge in Brooklyn that I'll gladly auction off on Ebay, I'll even throw in a second Brooklyn Bridge free of charge - just in time for Christmas.

Anyhoo, as I was reading Parenti's book, these shards of memory pierced my consciousness. I begin to wonder just how much has really changed in the intervening two decades. Hyper-individualism is still quite characteristic of the US - each of us is viewed as our own little island, our experiences decontextualized from our surroundings. Similarly, we are still largely trained to decontextualize others' actions from their surrounding circumstances. Greed is still good - especially when couched in spiritual terms. So it goes. And yet those surrounding circumstances and the consequences of unabashed greed do periodically impinge upon the most solipsistic among us. No matter how hard one may wish it, for example, the price of your house will not rise if the subprime lending fiasco has caused the housing bubble to burst in your particular region. Those crystals will not absolve you of supporting politicians who have pursued policies that are starving people in Mexico, Guatamala, and elsewhere so that you can fill your Hummer with biofuel nor can you simply write off the compañeros as unenlightened souls who are "choosing" to be forced off their land by free trade agreements that allow large corporate enterprises to flood their markets with imported produce. Having high self-esteem will not stop one from eventually dealing with the consequences of living in a post-peak oil era.

So it goes. What starts as a bit of a review turns into a rant, albeit a rant that manages to stay pretty well-connected to Parenti's book.

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