Monday, November 23, 2009

The New Religion

The next time you mute the television during a commercial, examine the silent language of an advertisement. It’s more obvious with the sound off. The human drama is centered on a non-human object, an object of attraction, even of obsession or worship. The satiated stare of the actors, whether speaking directly to you or in some concocted interaction, rests on the commodity. Whatever social milieu may be depicted, whatever situation presents itself as self-consciously typical of “us,” the viewer, is completed and fulfilled only by the commodity. Although life is portrayed as if it were something else, something existing outside of the commercial, the product being sold is manifestly the meaning of life.

Here is the real American religion, indeed the religion of “Western civilization.” The religion of prayer and sermons and churches is only a sideshow, a feature in the cultural landscape. There is no adoration in mass culture, the culture of day-to-day life in the “developed” countries, that can compare to the adoration of the car, the appliance, the light beer, the prescription drug. In fact it is not the specific commodity in itself that is significant, but our relationship with any product, the relationship of the consumer with any desired object, that constitutes our way of life.

To understand this fully it is necessary to clear away all illusions about the “means of existence.” Some commodities are necessary to us in terms of food, shelter, health, or future security. Many of them are unnecessary. But the cult of the commodity creates the same mental outlook in either case. You can be poor as dirt and still be hypnotized by a sense of dependency on products as such, a mental and emotional dependency that molds one’s entire attitude towards life.

When people talk disparagingly about “material things” as if an attachment to the physical world was a problem, it only obscures the issue. The object of worship in this religion is not really material at all. It represents a way of living that is purposely alienated from interpersonal relations. Our attention in the deepest sense, the locus of our daily awareness, is trained to turn away from ourselves as a human community and towards the product, which becomes a replacement for meaning. When the shiny car drives up in the commercial, the people turn towards it as if it were a god or a holy grail. It has been invested with a kind of magic, a meaning that has no meaning other than the turning of attention itself. The market, through the sheer mechanical logic of its operation, has colonized the human mind, turning society into a group of atomized individuals bonding with their commodities.

The effect on the world is disastrous, but it is difficult to realize what the problem is as long as one is under the spell of this new religion. If one has no experience with culture based on relationships between people, if all one knows is consumer culture, there is only a nagging sense of unease, a premonition of emptiness. It has become difficult to experience the natural world without the intrusion of commodities, but glimpses can be had if you are lucky. In the midst of the nonjudgmental and non-manipulative environment of the wilderness, gratitude can suddenly arise. There are people who can look at a forest or a canyon and only see the potential for some kind of use, something to grasp, something to consume. Humanity pays a steep price for ignoring its dependence on nature.

In architecture, too, we can tell when something has been built with an attention based on a relationship with nature, and on the sense of human community. Such places inspire an inner sense of freedom and contentment, and a connection with other people. The architecture of the consumer religion is only designed to showcase the commodity. People are always visitors in these environments. There is nowhere to rest, nowhere to interact meaningfully with anybody. We are impelled, rather, to interact with products. Such places foster a sense of inner constraint and dissatisfaction. Nothing can satisfy the restless seeking. No object is ever enough.

The U.S. is covered with strip malls now, from coast to coast. The strip mall is the perfect church for the new religion. They are alike in their ugliness. We park our cars in the parking lots and enter the strip malls looking for a promised fulfillment. Whatever conversations we may have with each other are only incidental to the drama of the capitalist economy. It is the epic drama of perfect boredom.

To break away from the new religion is to experience a wrenching of the psyche. There is no easy way for a free spirit to make his escape. An attitude of sheer negation is in itself a mere reaction, a symptom of malaise. Those of us who see a different reality are called also to make it visible. We find ourselves blending the unrelenting vigor of a satirist with the tenderness of a grieving lover. Shaking free of the common stupor is not something achieved once and for all, but must be practiced every day, with varying success, while at the same time we strive to meet the eyes of others without dishonesty or shame. At this time we are still spraying graffiti on the walls. By the time we tear down the walls, will we have learned how to grow gardens instead?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Special Victim Status

I know people who are unwilling to express an opinion on Arab-Israeli issues because the political atmosphere is so charged with animosity. The decades-long conflict has the nature of ancient tribal hatred and vendetta. And it seems that nothing will ever solve the problem except a willingness by all parties to let go of this tribal hatred for a greater good.

But there’s also the peculiar nature of the debate as it manifests in the United States. One might more accurately say “lack of debate,” because in mainstream American politics there is a general taboo against criticizing the government of Israel.

It’s not my intention to analyze the immensely complex and entangled history around this issue. I only want to make one important point about nations and their governments. To consider any country as simply a nation among nations, with the same powers, rights and responsibilities as any other nation, is a sign of respect. When Israel was founded, as much as that event was marked by conflict and injustice, the true intent was to create a new nation that would be equal to other nations in the sense that I have just stated, a country that a long-suffering and persecuted people could call their own.

It seems more than evident to me that there is always a difference between the people of a given country—the country per se—and whatever government that country may have at a given time. I am opposed, for instance, to the repressive and inhumane policies of the current Iranian government, but I do not hate Iranians as people. Even more to the point, I have strongly opposed the policies of my own government, yet I myself am an American and do not hate Americans.

Equating opposition to a government’s policies with hating the country itself, is a common rhetorical trick. It is nothing more than a way of silencing dissent without having to argue effectively with it. In fact, it exemplifies what I would call totalitarian thinking, since it identifies the people of a country with the state.

In the case of Israel, this rhetorical trick has the added potency of race and religion. If you publicly criticize the government of Israel in the U.S., I can guarantee that you will be accused of anti-Semitism. Keeping in mind the long and shameful history of Jewish persecution, culminating in the horrific genocide in Europe, this is a very serious accusation indeed. Although “anti-Semitism” is the common term, I will use the more explicit phrase “Jew hatred” here to avoid confusion, since the Arabs are a Semitic people as well.

Jew hatred has not gone away. It exists on the extreme right and extreme left. Because it has finally become generally unacceptable in society, it is usually disguised. We find it frequently on the “conspiratorial” fringes, by which I mean those groups that interpret world power relations in terms of certain groups of people that secretly control institutions. Recently someone told me that the Jews controlled most of the American media, and he named the heads of some of the networks and movie studios, as if this Jewish element somehow explained everything. Countering this argument with the names of numerous Gentiles wielding enormous power is only partially effective as an answer. The point is that ethnicity and religion are nothing more than lightning rods for scapegoating behavior. To believe in their significance is to claim an essentialist meaning for these categories, the same way a white supremacist believes that Africans are “inferior.”

Of course there is Jew hatred among Arabs and Muslims as well. And there is hatred of Arabs and Muslims among Jews, Christians, Europeans and Americans. The latter has been greatly encouraged recently within mainstream discourse in America, without the contradiction being widely noted.

Relying then on the power of all this history, and of the persistence of Jew-hatred in the world, the defenders of Israeli government policy routinely accuse those of us who criticize said policy of being Jew haters. If the dissenters are themselves Jewish, we hear the label “self-hating Jews.”

Returning to my original point, then, concerning the correct and respectful attitude towards nations, I contend that this defensive stance, taken by a large portion of the dogmatic pro-Israel forces and lobbyists in the U.S., is an infantile and disrespectful stance to take regarding the nation of Israel. They are claiming a special victim status for this particular country—rather than a nation among nations, they see Israel as an exception to the rules, a privileged nation whose government is exempt from criticism. For if you cannot criticize the policies and actions of Israel without therefore being a Jew-hater, any such criticism must be automatically invalid. This is totalitarian thinking.

I have had enough of this. What I see is a long-standing militaristic, anti-democratic faction within Israel dominating its political life and implementing policies that are profoundly inhumane and destructive. And if I oppose the aggressive expansion of settlements, the constriction of Palestinians within a system of virtual serfdom, and the killing of innocent people, including many children, in Gaza and the West Bank, I know there are those who will say I am unfair, pro-terrorist, anti-Israel, anti-Semitic. It’s a lie. And it is a transparent technique for avoiding responsibility. Using Jew hatred and the Holocaust as an excuse to justify whatever the Israeli government does is a strategy of cowardice. If Israel is the free and proud democracy that it claims to be, then it doesn’t need to hide behind a special victim status in order to function as a nation on the world stage. The United States continues to enable this blind dogmatism by writing the Israeli government a blank check for whatever it does, and then vetoing whatever actions the UN tries to take. I don’t hold a brief for Arab governments, which are by and large corrupt autocracies that do not serve their own people. But it does not aid the security of America, or indeed the world, for Israel to avoid making peace with the Palestinians, using the fear of terrorism to put off taking any action that would aid the progress of peace in the region. If Israel wants to claim moral superiority over their opponents, then it’s high time for them to show leadership in the cause of peace. The world sees the emptiness of official Israeli rhetoric. Fewer people in the United States are being fooled. And those who accuse critics and dissenters of Jew-hatred are actually hurting Israel more than any critic ever could. Blurring the distinction between actual anti-Semitism and honest criticism is bad for everyone.