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The Ghosts of Misplaced Conscience

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Everything about America is done to the max—super sized—including ourselves. Americans are fond of excess, fond of glitz and glitter, the bright beads and trinkets of capitalism; the symbols of conspicuous consumption. Millions of us live in McMansions, drive fast cars and hulking tanks and work at high stress glamorous jobs that provide enormous financial reward but leave us spiritually empty. 

We tell ourselves that these events signal that we have arrived and achieved greatness worthy of respect and envy. They are a declaration that we have played the game and won; that we have acquired economic power that results in elevated socio-economic status and disproportional influence over the lives of the less successful; and those who have utterly failed or refused to participate. 

We love to consume and waste with an appalling sense of entitlement. Our lives are enacted amid heaping mounds of swelling garbage and filth, while some of our fellow human beings pass lives of quiet desperation in cardboard boxes beneath our nation’s highway bridges, like beetles that move beneath the bark of  trees: out of sight, out of mind, inconsequential—or so we think. 

It’s a jungle out there where only the fittest survive. Those who cannot compete must not survive to reproduce; they must be expelled from the gene pool. Modern capitalism is economic Darwinism carried to the extreme.

America is a land of extraordinary contradictions. She has produced not only George Bush and Dick Cheney but also George Carlin, Upton Sinclair, Eugene Debs and Howard Zinn. This is a land of extremes; enigmatic even to itself. It is a place of posh surroundings with all of the amenities money can buy; but it is also a land of unknowable hardship and destitution that often exists in close proximity to stupendous wealth. 

Just as the continent holds lush temperate rain forests, so it also harbors deserts where only the strong and well adapted survive the harsh conditions of heat and drought and oscillating cold. 

Surely the national pastime must be shopping, which has acquired the stature of a genuine addiction; a disease on a par with alcoholism and played with the passion of a competitive sport. Witness the insanity of black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year where people are annually trampled at the doors of Wal-Mart in the quest for the latest incarnation of the X-Box. He with the most toys wins and the losers are trampled underfoot, ground into dust. Possessions matter more than people. 

And we are a restless, fiercely competitive people—constantly on the move; a people that cannot countenance open spaces or unmanaged nature. 

Hundreds of thousands of shopping centers and strip malls bear ample testimony to our excess, as do the mountains of debt that rise out of our spending habits like a newly spawned volcano swelling above a rising column of molten magma. Eventually they will become our gravestones—monuments to our lack of empathy and testaments to our unbridled greed and contempt for the earth. 

The developers cannot relax until every inch of the earth is urbanized and paved and there is a McDonald’s and Wal-Mart on every street corner; a development in place of every orchard and farm. We cannot relax until everything wild and natural has been eradicated or imprisoned in zoos and admission is charged. Imagine a continent sized gated community for the well-heeled and the wealthy. The poor and destitute need not apply. 

More than democracy, more than liberty, more than life—give us our shopping malls so that we can purchase happiness and fill our empty lives with possessions. Our senses are incessantly assaulted by merciless commercialism—we are programmed to consume and to be consumed by our programmers in the advertising industry whose job it is to plant the seeds of want in our all too receptive minds. Conspicuous consumption is the cornerstone of mature capitalism and no people in history have been more prominent consumers than we Americans—as measured by the girth of our waistlines and the girth of our mounting debt. 

But as much as we are the products of Madison Avenue advertisers, we are also products of arrested psychological and spiritual development. We exhibit extreme pathologies because our lives are not rooted in nature and community; nor are they rooted in reality. Like spoiled adolescents, we have locked ourselves away with our box of toys and we call the world our own. We are a danger not only to ourselves but to the entire world. Quarantine should be drawn around us lest we infect the rest of the world with our madness. 

Oblivious to the consequences of our own excess, our sphere of caring rarely extends beyond the self and our immediate families to the communities in which we are embedded that in turn spill into the great world beyond. We have erected psychological and physical barriers that isolate us from the rest of the world which have given rise to pathological visions of grandeur and exceptionalism. And, like a run-away virus, we are replicating our madness to the rest of the world which is, thanks to the disciples of Milton Friedman, seeking to emulate our example. 

Better the world turn away and run for their lives as if we were infected with a new strain of pox or rabies. Better they should save themselves and let us perish, as will surely occur when we are consumed by the festering sewers of our swelling vanity. 

We call ourselves a free people but we are prisoners of our own petty desires; prisoners of greed and excess and manufactured want; the products of capitalism taken to the extreme—replicating with the ease of cancer cells unrestrained by reason or empathy for others and for the earth.  The world cannot tolerate another America. She cannot much longer sustain the one she already has. We have a carbon footprint vastly disproportional to our numbers and we are not only blotting out the sun; we are stamping out countless species of plants and animals and casting them into the abyss of eternal extinction. The ecological cost of our excess is incalculable. 

We go on as if there are no consequences to what we do, ignoring the wolves baying at our door and the grim reaper peering at us through the curtain. We tell ourselves they are only apparitions of conspiracy theorists and alarmists, the ghosts of misplaced conscience. 

Millions of Americans are experts at self-denial and delusional to the extreme, while others are realists and components of active resistance. But, cause and effect rarely enters our vocabulary. History, science and ethics are not our strengths—we prefer to go shopping or watching television, giving no thought to the kind of world we are leaving our children and their off spring, much less the offspring of other species. We hold that the universe turns on its axis and we are its center; but it is not so. 

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Charles Sullivan is a photographer, social activist and free lance writer residing in the hinterland of West Virgina.

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Is that the right spelling?  I am all for it,... by Mark Sashine on Tuesday, Nov 27, 2007 at 2:19:50 PM
Mr. Sullivan's eloquence is reminicent of warn... by Dadeoh on Sunday, Dec 2, 2007 at 2:13:36 PM