New opium II: giving up on reality
Mr. Bryjak documents the loss of church affiliation (one-fifth of the U.S. public, according to a Pew study) and the weakening of its social control function. To me, a four-fifths rate of affiliation would seem pretty high compared, for example, with that of some European countries. This in spite of many competing distractions from capitalist exploitation and the dark certainty of death.
My feeling about church attendance in the U.S. is that it is a largely secularized pastime – a province of consumption, the ever-growing bubble we live in and by which we may collectively perish when raw materials run out.
Churchgoers collect their “absolution” much the same way they collect their trinkets and donuts at the retail checkout. Instead of fire and brimstone, today’s preachers serve cookies and sympathy to a frivolous flock. A good number of churchgoing Americans don’t believe in a damned thing and are there to parade their clothes, polish their image, see friends, indulge in gluttony, hone their social skills, firm up business relations, look for girls … Their submission to ritual and theological exposure is not unlike that of kissing old aunts at Christmas. Thus, church still contributes substantially to the great moral and political inertia Mr. Bryjak correctly perceives.
Which in no way contradicts his thesis concerning our collective Internet addiction. Adapting Malcolm Hamilton’s dictum on the comforts and distractions of religion, he states, “The Internet offers comfort for (our) hardships via an endless array of distractions that result in acquiescence to the injustices of this life.”
Bryjak’s article convincingly shows the rise and some alarming aspects of Internet usage, such as the “immersive” massively multi-player online role-playing games (MMPORPGs), where players assume a make-believe identity and control character and action to a degree no real-life situation would allow.
But then, citing a marketing survey in which 8 percent of respondents declared they would rather give up eating than give up their electronic gadgetry, he speaks of a “passion demonstrated by only the most extreme religious adherents.” I don’t see passion here, but rather something resembling the first phase of Timothy Leary’s famous “Turn on, tune in and drop out” of the 1960s – namely, a passive, starry-eyed addiction that can indeed lead to a dropping out from everyday reality. Today’s electronics craze is the 1960s counterculture on steroids: people in an artificially induced happyland where they manifest themselves as play characters unfettered by mundane limitations and – God forbid – responsibilities.
The 1960s counterculture played itself out, as does today’s age of social media, against a backdrop of costly and unpopular war. In the earlier period, young Americans – and some older ones as well – eventually used their newly discovered freedom from convention, their relaxed interaction supported by weed, to rally behind a successful peace movement. An important element in their successful nonviolent protests was direct, democratic, in-person communication in coffee houses, in communes, on campuses, in city parks, at many marches and rallies. In contrast to today’s strutting headsets and public cellphone isolation, people celebrated personal communication by abandoning chairs and “rapping” on the floor, in the manner of Indian elders. The social media-generated Occupy Wall Street movement, an otherwise legitimate protest against capitalist exploitation by the powerful few, has so far not led to meaningful financial reforms; nor has it resulted in a clean break from our disastrous military involvement in Afghanistan and business profiteering in the Mideast and North Africa.
Clearly, electronic communication of the social media, although credited with some electoral results and interference in the affairs of foreign countries, has not proven to be socially, politically or culturally superior. Rather, it seems to result in a culture of relentless, competitive self-promotion and self-manifestation in the make-believe world of Facebook and an endless exchange of cute but trite and fast-forgotten electronic photographs and bad jokes. An iconic example of this was the president of the United States shooting a “selfie” while openly flirting with the attractive prime minister of Denmark during the memorial for Nelson Mandela.
There is a growing group of Americans, primarily singles, whose personal lives have become almost entirely vicarious, isolated, Internet-based, filled with byte-sized inanities, solitary games and narcissistic photo ops. No passion here – rather a cop-out, replacing real interaction and community with electronically generated fantasy. But rather than seeing this as an aberration, I think we need to regard it as an integral part of a broader addiction, a larger bubble – that of chronic, unrestrained consumption, fueled by capitalist greed and relentless advertising.
An economy where endless and often frivolous retail purchases, and the piling up of household debt, are perceived to “contribute” more than 70 percent of the nation’s worth is a make-believe economy. The entire free-market, consumption-celebrating system is founded on the dangerous notion that the earth’s natural bounty is endlessly renewable.
Some rare metals and minerals necessary to keep producing your television set, tablet or cell phone are already in very short supply and controlled by very few, not necessarily friendly countries, such as China. The promise of new energy independence, to be fueled by forced chemical extraction of oil and gas, may well have been a mirage: Wells dry up to a trickle in two to three years while cyanide and other chemicals forced into the earth pollute groundwater and cause dangerous shifts for a long time.
The recent Great Recession was caused by economic dreaming spiked by deliberate fraud and greed sanctioned by unethical corporations. It is not hard to understand that you cannot expect successful home ownership based on don’t-ask-don’t-tell paperwork and the pipe dreams of an impoverished middle class. Of course you cannot believably sell “collateralized” financial instruments based on home sales to the insolvent (or their recently invented incarnation as RENT obligations, which have started to push up rents and people out of unaffordable apartments). Of course you cannot consistently outperform traditional investments by 100 percentage points. Yet the rich and privileged flocked to Bernie Madoff for years. Of course you cannot base a stable economy on the speculative value of mergers and acquisitions. Yet many baby boomers lost their savings in the 2000 tech A&M and IPO bubble. If recent – and contemporary – history is any indication, the consumption bubble will continue to grow, inflated by short-term, predatory capitalist thinking. Expect more to come, because caution and long-term planning as practiced by a few more guided economies seem here to be considered, well, un-American.
Willem M. Tissot lives in Saranac Lake.