My last blog entry, Violence & Addiction, described the tragic massacre/suicide of 28 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I observed that our society promotes addictive tendencies that isolate us from one another and erode compassion. These dynamics create fertile soil for violence like that of Newtown, Connecticut.
Since then the violence has continued: Two young men exploded bombs at the Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring hundreds. These men later shot and killed a policeman and wounded another before they were both hit by gun fire, one killed and the other apprehended.
A fire and explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas killed 15 and wounded 200, many of them first responders coming to put out the fire. Records indicate that the owners of the plant had violated safety regulations for years.
A building housing a clothing factory, collapsed in a Bangladesh. Reuters reported1:
The factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed over 300 people this week is a stark reminder of the risks in the global retail industry's search for cheap production. . . About 18 months before the previous big tragedy in Bangladesh - a fire in November in a textile factory that killed 112 people - shareholders at Wal-Mart Stores Inc had the opportunity to weigh in on the safety question. By a nearly 50-to-1 margin, they rejected a proposal to require suppliers to report annually on safety issues at their factories. In arguing against the proposal, Wal-Mart's management made its reasoning clear: Having suppliers compile such reports "could ultimately lead to higher costs for Walmart and higher prices for our customers. This would not be in the best interests of Walmart's shareholders and customers and would place Walmart at a competitive disadvantage," the company said in proxy materials.
Disasters such as the April 24 collapse of an eight-story factory building in Bangladesh have not changed the calculation for apparel makers and retailers. Cheaper products appeal to shoppers. And the taint, if any, appears to be manageable.
Recently two articles appeared in the national press marking the tenth anniversary of the second Iraq war. The articles, written by US Servicemen who served in Iraq, describe this war as a foreign policy blunder and a human tragedy of monumental proportions.
One, officer John A. Nagl states:2
The costs of the second war, which began 10 years ago this week, are staggering: nearly 4,500 Americans killed and more than 30,000 wounded, many grievously; tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis wounded or killed; more than $2 trillion in direct government expenditures; and the significant weakening of the major regional counterweight to Iran and consequent strengthening of that country’s position and ambitions. Great powers rarely make national decisions that explode so quickly and completely in their face.
The other, Thomas Young speaks more personally:3
The Last Letter
To: George W. Bush and Dick Cheney
From: Tomas Young
I write this letter on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War on behalf of the 4,488 soldiers and Marines who died in Iraq. I write this letter on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of veterans who have been wounded and on behalf of those whose wounds, physical and psychological, have destroyed their lives. . . I write this letter on behalf of those veterans whose trauma and self-revulsion for what they have witnessed, endured and done in Iraq have led to suicide and on behalf of the active-duty soldiers and Marines who commit, on average, a suicide a day.
. . . I want to make it clear that I, and hundreds of thousands of my fellow veterans, along with millions of my fellow citizens, along with hundreds of millions more in Iraq and the Middle East, know fully who you are and what you have done. . . I would not have to lie in my bed, my body filled with painkillers, my life ebbing away, and deal with the fact that hundreds of thousands of human beings, including children, including myself, were sacrificed by you for little more than the greed of oil companies, for your alliance with the oil sheiks in Saudi Arabia, and your insane visions of empire. . .
Last month, the United States Senate defeated two legislative proposals: 1) that would require universal background checks of all people purchasing fire arms and 2) that would limit the size of ammo clips that could be attached to guns. This was done, knowing these measures were supported by the majority of voters, and after hearing the tearful pleas for passage by the parents of the children killed in Newtown. They apparently acted in this way fearful that the NRA would mobilize against their re-elections.
What is it in our national spirit that allows us to sanction the injury and deaths of hundreds of thousands of people to provide us with gas for our cars, cheaper clothes & food, and the right to carry military weapons on our streets?
These sacrifices of human life are horrendous. We barely take notice; feeling little connection with those who suffer for our life style and political decisions. In most cases we aren't even aware of these people. They are killed and maimed by institutional structures (governmental policies and corporate actions) that isolate us from the carnage. The people killed and maimed are no more than statistics reported on the daily news along with sports scores and weather predictions.
In ancient times, such national behaviors were challenged as idolatrous. The people of Israel were condemned by the prophets for worshipping the false gods of money and domination rather than Yahweh, the God of mercy, justice and love. The people were instructed to repent in sack cloth and ashes to avoid judgement. In our post-Christian and post-religious society, such images carry little weight. The idea of fearing the wrath and judgement of God seems almost laughable in our present culture.
Because of this reality, I am choosing to discuss these issues using the language of addiction rather than religion. We live in an addictive and addicted culture. These addictive qualities affect and infect the very structures of our society.
Let me remind you of the dynamics of addiction. Addiction is the compulsive acting out of behaviors in the irrational belief that these behaviors will allow us to feel worthy and whole. These behaviors, whether they involve alcohol and other drugs, over-consumption, sex, food or domination, are incapable of providing a sense of wholeness and self worth. The opposite is often the case. After acting out, the addict feels shame, remorse & guilt that increase a sense of self loathing and that further erode a healthy self image. Even so, the addict continues to repeat the behaviors in the insane belief that the next compulsive round will make things better.
The deeper a person descends into the addictive cycle, the more s/he denies and rationalizes what is happening. “My behavior is not out of control.” “I can stop if I want to.” As the denial and rationalization increase, the addict withdraws from reality into his/her own little world. S/he begins to lead a double life – a normal life with family, work and friends and a secret life driven by the compulsion to act out. Unless the addict faces the fact that his/her life is out of control and that s/he needs help, the result will be personal catastrophe and even death. The greatest tragedy in all of this is that the addictive compulsion separates the addict from the very life force that s/he so desperately wants to experience.
The addictive dimensions of a culture are even more difficult to define than personal addictions, because everything is once removed. Denial and rationalization are almost a given. We say, “It is not my actions that are problematic. It's the actions of big corporation or big government.” “I want to get a bargain on my clothes, but I'm not personally responsible for how clothes are manufactured.” “I don't want gasoline rationed. But I'm not wasting gas.” “I want reasonably priced fruit, vegetables and meat, which take fertilizer; but I don't waste food.” “I want the right to carry a weapon if that make me feel safe.” We say these things, and we mean them.
Because most of us are not personally addicted, it's difficult to identify our cultural patterns as addictive. We have grown accustomed to our life style, and we are unwilling to change it. It is tough to face the fact that our life style is precipitating cycles of violence and suffering in the world.
We participate in a national belief system, or faith if you wish, which professes that personal and societal wholeness and happiness are dependent on material possessions and personal autonomy. We honestly believe that personal wealth and independence lead to happiness. Our corporations participate in the same belief. Their managers assume that the more wealth they can acquire through technology, production and unrestrained growth, the healthier and more beneficial the corporation will be.
It's not that material possessions and autonomy are bad in themselves, anymore than food, drink, sex, or personal independence are bad. It's only when these things are pursued as a substitute for that which gives life its fulness and meaning that they are destructive. Just like the alcoholic whose drinking leads to family problems and loss of a job, our cultural addiction is leading to unhealthy consequences and national decline.
Some signs of this decline include the increase in violence at home and abroad resulting from our political and economic policies; the dysfunction in our political system that is driven by party loyalty and the desire to be re-elected rather than to serve the citizens; economic deterioration; environmental degradation - particularly global warming, and excessive consumption of global resources that leaves the majority of people in the world living in illness and poverty.4
As with the individual, our addictive cultural patterns creep up on us, denied and ignored, until we face a crisis. In fact, our cultural compulsion to accumulate and control resembles the patterns of drug addicts who steal even from family members to get another hit.
We are still the most powerful nation in the world. And we are in jeopardy. We lack a national vision and sense of purpose. We throw our weight around to prove our superiority. We dominate and control so that we can consume and live as we choose, in the insane belief that this will make us happy.
How can we, as a nation, come to our senses and realize that things are beyond our control? We can't fix ourselves, even through legislation. We need to tap into that spirit and vision that made our nation great. This vision is stated eloquently in the words of Emma Lazarus, inscribed on the Statue of Liberty:
There is something of great power deep in the American spirit that must be re-engaged in these times. The faith as stated by our fore-mothers and fore-fathers has little meaning for many of us today. It is our task to restate this faith for our times, to engage something deep within ourselves that enables us to work together for a global society where there is “liberty and justice for all.”
In our increasingly interdependent world, it is essential that we look to our better angels5 and rely on a power that transcends that which is consuming us. We need to discover again what it means to Live With Soul.*
* I will write more about this in my next reflection.
- Reuters - Analysis: Bangladesh still works for retailers, despite disasters - Nivedita Bhattacharjee and Jessica Wohl - Sat Apr 27, 2013 9:05am EDT
- The poorest 40 percent of the world’s population accounts for 5 percent of global income. The richest 20 percent accounts for three-quarters of world income. http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats
- "better angels" used in Abraham Lincoln's first innagral address