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Mel Graykin: This is the society we built



For the Monitor
Thursday, June 29, 2017

We see a dark circus playing out in our nation. I keep hearing the question asked: How did we get here? How could we have come to this?

Honestly, did you not see this coming?

The current travesty shouldn’t surprise anyone. It is the logical consequence of the forces that have shaped our culture.

Like the forces in any chaotic system, they are many and complex. Not all of them are negative. Groups of individuals have banded together to try to push us in different directions. Peace movements, environmental movements, social justice movements, marches and demonstrations, books written, conferences held, rebellions, resistance and calls for revolution. Scientists, artists, writers, philosophers and other assorted sages have warned society about the dangers of unrestrained capitalism, of environmental degradation, of our misguided ideas of success, our spiritual impoverishment, our futile pursuit of materialistic happiness. They have warned us about the trends that threatened to derail us. George Orwell. Margaret Atwood. Ralph Nader to Neil Postman to Carl Sagan to Eisenhower to Martin Luther King Jr., the voices of reason and compassion have appealed to society, and with considerable success.

But we are human beings, flaws and faults, and filled with drives we find difficult to control. In spite of being repeatedly told – and even believing – that living simply and taking care of others brings far greater happiness than material acquisition and personal adornment, we act against our own best interests.

Huge amounts of money are made preying on people’s fears and insecurity. Advertisers study ways of manipulating buying habits. The drive for profit and wealth has created powerful corporate entities devoted solely to getting people to spend money on goods and services far beyond what they actually need. The vast entertainment industry, bloated to obscenity, has preyed on our desire to be amused. Sports, gaming, music, movies, books, television, podcasts, everything that beguiles and excites us, that gets our attention, are all opportunities to make money.

We are urged to indulge ourselves. We are urged to give in to our desires. We are told we deserve it. We are offered whatever we want. Our basest instincts are appealed to because those are the hardest to resist. Our sex drives, our fears and fascinations, our deepest emotional needs, our inability to look away from train wrecks, the ugly satisfaction we get from malicious gossip, from seeing those we dislike suffer, from having our prejudices confirmed and our hatred justified. It cultivates the worst in us.

Sex sells. If it bleeds, it leads.

Those basic media truisms have given us a warped, sociopathic reflection of the greater world around us. It affects the decisions we make, how we vote, how we spend, how we treat others.

So even though there are many good influences around us, and we ourselves are basically good people, our goodness is undermined. Happy, contented, well-adjusted people are not profitable. Unhappy people spend money trying to make themselves happy. Dissatisfied people, angry people, frightened people – these are the ones who are most easily manipulated by the promise of a solution to their misery.

It is in the best interest of politicians and corporations to keep people unhappy and upset (as long as they can direct the blame elsewhere – and they are brilliant at this). Thus we have built up an economic and political system that makes us miserable and encourages us to place the blame everywhere but where it actually should lie, and offers us solutions that only make the problem worse.

We have evolved into a break-neck competitive, multi-tasking, increasingly fast-paced society drenched in sensory overload. Depression is epidemic. We are sold the lifestyle that makes us sick, then are sold cures that don’t really work because we haven’t tackled the real problem.

And we won’t tackle the real problem because there is so much money to be made, so much short-term gratification, so much urgent attachment to the very thing that poisons us.

This phenomenon is not confined to the United States, or to this period in history. It’s just that we have the wealth and technology to carry it to ridiculous extremes. We lack the homogeneity of other nations and our diversity, which in an ideal world could be a great asset, makes us far more vulnerable to conflict and cacophony.

It takes effort to overcome our instinctive distrust of “the other”; it’s far easier to scapegoat them, especially when we are encouraged to do so by those in power.

Anyone seeking office, or seeking to sell you something to make you feel more secure (often they are one in the same), can easily stir up racial, religious, ethnic or class differences to suit their purposes.

As much as people say they dislike negative campaigning, as much as the politics of hate is decried, the fact is that it works. Most of us complain about money in politics. But funding, or the lack thereof, is critical to the success of a candidate. Those determined to win do whatever it takes, ethics be damned, and the voters reward them for it at the ballot box. We can’t expect this to change; we can only expect it to get worse as the two parties compete in an arms race of money, fear-mongering and negativity.

And so, here we are, tossed by a tempest of our own collective making. Now, can we, collectively, recognize the reasons for it and attempt some sort of a solution? Can we somehow change the course of this high-momentum juggernaut that we’ve built?

That, dear readers, is the real question.

(Justine “Mel” Graykin lives and writes in Deerfield, and practices freelance philosophy on her website at justinegraykin.com.)