Yes, it may be true
that we’re going down.
But if that is true,
let it be with
the Truth echoing in our hearts.
There are certain beliefs common to virtually all human beings, and if those beliefs persist, they will doom the inhabitants of the Global Village to never-ending abject suffering. One such belief is created by a reaction to what we call the “Einstein question.” This is when Albert Einstein, the physicist, turned out to be an even better “metaphysicist.” When asked what he thought was the most important question humanity should know the answer to, he replied: Is the Universe friendly? Most of our ancestors would have given a “universal” response to that universal question—NO! Unless we can find a way to change that answer, life on planet earth will remain a cruel and unrelenting competition, a “survival of the fittest” struggle. This essay will focus on the consequences of that struggle and some of the details of that suffering in America today.
Who are the “fittest” in these our United States? We in America might like to think that the fittest or most deserving among us constitute a meritocracy, a system in which advancement is based on ability or achievement. Or to put it another way, to qualify for membership in America’s “elite,” our most privileged and successful citizens, those so privileged must earn those positions themselves. Truth or myth?
Upward mobility into the ranks of the privileged is certainly aided by a good education or is that even really true? Are all degrees from top U.S. universities equally empowering? Good questions! Another good question: “Why in a country of 300 million people and countless universities, we can’t seem to elect a president or nominate a Supreme Court justice who doesn’t have a Harvard or Yale degree.” Sounds like the game might be rigged but we shouldn’t jump to conclusions too hastily since we are just getting started. Let’s push on further into the jungle of American exceptionalism.
How is America exceptional vis-à-vis our meritocracy? Or to ask the question in another way: Is there actually merit in the American meritocracy? “Every elite seeks its own perpetuation, of course, but that project is uniquely difficult in a society that’s formally democratic and egalitarian and colorblind. And it’s even more difficult for an elite that prides itself on its progressive politics, its social conscience, its enlightened distance from hierarchies of blood and birth and breeding.” Ross Douthat is a conservative columnist for The New York Times and can be forgiven his narrow sightedness, but we can permit ourselves a little chuckle, perhaps accompanied with a little nasal snort and this retort: You gotta be kidding! Where does this guy live? Well we have so far established the fact that the elite are delusional, but we should continue to search and see if we can find any merit among them.
Douthat does admit, however, that the game is rigged, he calls it the “inside game.” Susan Patton, a Princeton alumna wrote a controversial letter urging Ivy League women to use their college years to find a mate. “Of course, those women already knew that and the attacks by feminists directed at Patton would not change that reality (women, of course, also are involved in the survival of the fittest strategy). “Of course Ivy League schools double as dating services. Of course members of elites—yes, gender egalitarians, the males as well as the females—have strong incentives to marry one another, or at the very least find a spouse from within the wider meritocratic circle.” Remember back in 1776 when we left behind those members of the European meritocracy, those “royal families” that intermarried to form alliances and preserve power. We thought we could create equal opportunity, but we didn’t count on one thing. We didn’t leave the false self behind.
It may seem ironic that marriage among equals in a democracy promoting equality actually equals inequality. How can that be? Sociologists call this behavior of marriage among equals “assortative mating.” “Making a good match” today has changed from what it meant in the past. “These days, an investment banker may marry another investment banker rather than a high school sweetheart, or a lawyer will marry another lawyer, or a prestigious client rather than a secretary.”
Building prosperous family alliances and preserving the status and power of the elite community is weakening the American community. “For instance, the achievement gap between children from rich and poor families is higher today than it was 25 years ago, according to a recent study from the Pew Research Center. Furthermore, higher income and educational inequality increase the incentive to seek out a good marriage match, so the process may become self-reinforcing.” Sadly, the end of the American “story” was written into our behavior from the beginning, it was in a very real sense “preordained.”
The competition for status is firmly rooted in the sensation energy center of the false self and could also be described as seeking status or “keeping up with the Joneses.” What we are talking about is envy. Essayist Joseph Epstein hints at why this jealousy directed at our neighbors is a cause of suffering. “Of the seven deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all.”
Not only is envy no fun, it actually may be making us ill. “Envy is positively correlated with depression and neuroticism, and the hostility it breeds may actually make us sick.” Are we losing the vision that our Founding Fathers had for America?
“As recently as 2007, Gallup found that 70 percent [of Americans] were satisfied with their opportunities to get ahead by working hard; only 29 percent were dissatisfied. Today , that gap has shrunk to 54 percent satisfied and 45 percent dissatisfied.” Envy leads to jealousy which can lead to our loss of belief in the existence of the equal opportunity, fairness and justice that we once thought characterized American society.
Today, Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” theory when applied to the American community would be called “social Darwinism.” Another result of the elite’s unfair advantage, in addition to education is physical segregation or what could be called the advantage of “place.” “The sociologist John Logan described this ‘stratifying’ feature long ago, noting that localities held on to social advantages and disadvantages over time.” There are in other words “places” that give the people who live there advantages relating to wealth and power even as the people who live there come and go.
For example, in southern California: “Money flows into suburbs like San Marino and Palos Verdes, where Asian immigrants buy up expensive properties and generously donate their time and money to the local schools. Money flows out of poorer suburbs like South Gate, Bell and Huntington Park, all heavily Latino, where disposable income is tight and many families export remittances to a home country … [and] the toxic footprint of departed industries is left behind for new residents to contend with.”
The word “hoax” means deception, a fraud, a trick meant to cheat someone. We can begin to see (and we are not yet finished) that the promise of America is a hoax—but not really—since a hoax is intentional. Unequal educational opportunity and housing segregation happened not by design but as a consequence of our unconsciousness. It is important to remember as we continue our indictment of “the city on a hill,” that Americans are not culpable—only lacking in awareness—we are not sinners.
We are not sinners but a good case can be made that we are slaves. We may not be “choppin’ cotton” but as long as we are chained to the value system that has us laboring in the fields growing plenty, pleasure and power, our servitude is not truly “voluntary,” we are not free in any sense of the word. Freedom is often mentioned in connection with the United States, well, my friends, guess again.
Our next piece of “social Darwinism” has to do with our vocations, our working lives and yes, it is related to the pursuit of plenty, pleasure and power. Many Americans are working longer hours than employees from other countries but the dedication to work over the rest of one’s life can happen gradually. It often starts with working a half hour on Sunday to get ready for Monday morning. The half-hour gradually grows to all day.
Erin Callan, former C.F.O. of Lehman Brothers, describes how it can feel when our job becomes our identity. “Inevitably, when I left my job, it devastated me. I couldn’t just rally and move on. I did not know how to value who I was versus what I did. What I did was who I was.”
Human behavior, as we have learned is dictated by the narrative that contains us and the identity determined by that context. The underlying emotion for all self-destructive behavior is fear. Fear of losing our job results in some disturbing behaviors. The U.S. has been called the “no-vacation nation.” First, a quarter of American workers get no paid vacation leave at all. “Then to add insult to injury, surveys find that 40 percent of us leave vacation days unused—three to seven days on average.”
Obviously, U.S. workers are stressed and insecure in a highly competitive society. Why take a vacation when you can’t relax and enjoy it? “Sure vacations are fun, but so much work piles up at the office while they are gone, they are already stressing about the coming load before their vacations have ended.” They also don’t want to be seen as not being among the most diligent workers. Working long hours and foregoing vacations can be a way to add to their job security.
If fear motivates many American workers to work like slaves, so does greed. In Simple Reality we have chosen Wall Street to symbolize the security energy center of the false-self survival strategy (Las Vegas symbolized the pleasure center and Washington D.C. the power center). Just as U.S. workers can become identified with and addicted to their work, Wall Street traders can identify with and become addicted to their bonuses which are often of a magnitude to qualify them for elite status.
When listening to these traders we can hear them express anger at the government for limiting their bonuses following the 2008 meltdown and fume at the mention of higher taxes. “These traders despised everything or anyone that threatened their bonuses. Ever see what a drug addict is like when he’s used up his junk? He’ll do anything—walk 20 miles in the snow, rob a grandma—to get a fix. Wall Street was like that. In the months before bonuses were handed out, the trading floor started to feel like a neighborhood in ‘The Wire’ when the heroine runs out.”
Philip Slater introduced the concept of wealth addiction in a book he wrote in 1980. “Like alcoholics driving drunk, wealth addiction imperils everyone. Wealth addicts are, more than anybody, specifically responsible for the ever-widening rift that is tearing apart our once great country. Wealth addicts are responsible for the vast and toxic disparity between rich and the poor and the annihilation of the middle class.” These are the words of Sam Polk a former hedge-fund trader. Has he overstated the culpability of Wall Street traders? We let him continue his indictment.
“Only a wealth addict would feel justified in receiving $14 million in compensation—including an $8.5 million bonus—as the McDonald’s C.E.O., Don Thompson did in 2012, while his company then published a brochure for its work force on how to survive on their low wages. Only a wealth addict would earn hundreds of millions as a hedge-fund manager, and then lobby to maintain a tax loophole that gave him a lower tax rate than his secretary.”
Our super rich are the gods of our culture which supports and praises them. An outrageous statement? “Dozens of different types of 12-step support groups—including Clutterers Anonymous and On-Line Gamers Anonymous—exist to help addicts of various types, yet there is no Wealth Addicts Anonymous.” Is this because greed is not unhealthy? Or could it be that most of us under the influence of our security energy center can never get enough ourselves and aspire to be among the 10% or even better, the 1% so we can escape our ever-present anxiety?
Have the super rich escaped anxiety? Sam Polk has the personal experience to give a definitive answer to that question. “I recently got an email from a hedge-fund trader who said that though he was making millions every year, he felt trapped [enslaved?] and empty, but couldn’t summon the courage to leave.”
Greed is not limited to the elite as we can see from Myles Coker’s description of what happened to him as he was released from parole after serving 22 years in prison. “Greed just took me … His operation [earning him $25,000 per month] was an offshoot of a spectacular heroin enterprise that went by the brand name Blue Thunder, which sold more than nine million glassine bags in about three years, worth about $100 million. At one spot on Brooks Avenue in the Bronx, $250,000 in heroine was sold between 4 and 10 p.m. every day.” Why do people use heroine? Because they are trying to escape the anxiety caused by the struggles involved in the “survival of the fittest” belief system.
Our addictions are symptoms of a deeper malady, not the causes of our suffering. We may even think (similar to Marx and Engels) that our self-destructive behavior related to our social, political and economic institutions is market-driven behavior, but we cannot blame any of our problems on capitalism, it too is a symptom of our beliefs, attitudes and values. However, it behooves us to understand the effects of our false-self behavior more profoundly because we cannot come up with remedies for diseases we haven’t analyzed.
For example, one behavioral aspect of the syndrome of the security energy center of the false self is instant gratification. Paul Roberts examines this symptom manifesting in society in his book The Impulse Society: America in the Age of Instant Gratification. One warning he has which is not as shocking to students of Simple Reality as it probably is to his other readers is that he sees “the merger of self and market.” Many of us know that this happened long ago with our pursuit of plenty, pleasure and power and deriving our sense of self from P-B.
How is this “merger of self” happening? Remember, one characteristic of our addictions is that they began as behaviors chosen to distract ourselves from our anxiety. “The first threat comes from the power of distraction—deployed by the market for its own purposes—which disables us from attending to obligations and even from practicing ordinary prudence.” This is one of thousands of possible descriptions of the behavior of the sleepwalking false self.
“A second threat to personal autonomy and social responsibility comes, Roberts says, from our desire for immediate gratification in everything we do, from validating our political opinions to finding the nearest coffee shop.” Roberts uses the example of the threat of our growing dependence and perhaps addiction to, the latest developments in technology like Siri, the iPhone digital assistant depicted in the movie “Her.” Is he saying that we are losing the ability to distinguish illusion from reality? Alas, we have been trying to develop that ability for thousands of years ever since we became aware that we even had a “self.”
Robert’s book follows in the tradition of other would-be reformers who find human behavior lamentable. Christopher Lasch’s book The Culture of Narcissism (1979) uses the approach of identifying personal and cultural pathology which Simple Reality identifies as simply reactive behavior by an unconscious and mesmerized false self.
The even older critique of the ethics of capitalism was R. H. Tawney’s The Acquisitive Society (1920). “Corporate and dynastic property rights, Tawney believed, were deleterious unless attached to a social function, a kind of productive work that carried a visible benefit for the whole society. The defense of rights without some such function was a defense of privilege, and the ‘definition of a privilege is a right to which no corresponding function is attached.’” What Tawney might have been advocating, although the “stiff upper-lipped” Brit would probably not have used the word, is compassion.
David Bromwich ends his review of Robert’s book with a helpless plea. “The Impulse Society sounds a memorable alarm with its record of disturbing facts and trends, but leaves us uncertain what path we should follow to escape our predicament, and what end we should have in view.” The Simple Reality Project sounds a much more shrill alarm with many more disturbing facts and trends and does have a comprehensive, pragmatic and time-tested path by which humanity can escape its predicament.
There are others who are sounding the alarm concerning America’s disintegrating society. An Op-Ed columnist for 20 years at The New York Times, Bob Herbert has had decades to assess the direction American society is taking. His book’s title, Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America, promises valuable insights. His theme is definitely a version of a “survival of the fittest” society, an “unabashedly selfish, terminally competitive, winner-take-all philosophy that has steered U.S. policy for most of the past 40 years.”
The many critics we have cited in our indictment of P-B in America do not have a profound understanding of the origins of our dysfunctional behavior, but they do identify many of the same disturbing symptoms. Speaking of Herbert’s book in her review in The New York Times Book Review, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc notes: “He’s interviewed the academics who are studying the links between inequality and social isolation; he’s researched the trauma of modern warfare, the underfunded veteran’s programs and rising rates of suicide.”
Returning to the connection between greed and addiction we find a sad story involving a member of the meritocracy, the former mayor of San Diego, Maureen O’Connor. Before she became a gambling addict she was not only mayor of San Diego from 1986-1992 but an heiress to a $50 million fortune. Today she is almost destitute and living with her sister. She formerly lived with her husband, the founder of the Jack-in-the-Box fast-food chain at a beachfront estate in La Jolla.
Her nemesis was the casino “slot-machine” which she thought she could outfox. Vegas casinos would send a private jet to pick her up in San Diego—which should have been a clue that maybe they thought the machines would win. “‘I could lose more than a hundred thousand in a day,’ she told an interviewer last February .” She ended up taking $2,088,000 from a charitable foundation set up by her husband in 1966 leaving it insolvent. All three of the energy centers of the false-self survival strategy can operate simultaneously but one is sufficient to destroy the life of an individual and the future of a nation.
We might not, at first, think that survival of the fittest behaviors would rear their ugly heads in the context of religion but sadly that is not true. It turns out that the institution where compassion should be most prominent and greed unthinkable has not escaped the predation of the false self. Because all American, and global institutions for that matter, were born in the context of P-B they all have the same behavioral traits as individual people, that is, the pursuit of plenty, pleasure and power; fear and greed are not hard to find throughout the religions of the world.
Columnist Frank Bruni supports our contention. “I mean the way that a religious organization can behave almost precisely as a corporation does, with fudged words, twisted logic and a transcendent instinct for self-protection that frequently trump the principled handling of a specific grievance or a particular victim.”
Bruni is referring in part to the sex abuse scandals threatening the considerable assets of the Roman Catholic Church. “Over the last few decades we’ve watched an organization that claims a special moral authority in the world pursue many of the same legal and public-relations strategies—shuttling around money, looking for loopholes, tarring accusers, massaging the truth—that are employed by organizations devoted to nothing more than the bottom line.”
Cardinal Timothy Dolan was the archbishop of Milwaukee from 2002 to 2009 but employed tactics that would not surprise us if he were a corporate C.E.O. “The documents show that in 2007, as the Milwaukee archdiocese grappled with sex-abuse lawsuits and seemingly pondered bankruptcy, Dolan sought and got permission from the Vatican to transfer $57 million into a trust for Catholic cemetery maintenance, where it might be better protected, as he wrote, ‘from any legal claim and liability.’”
The behaviors common to institutions having their roots in P-B always include denial, lying and the keeping of secrets so as to preserve the illusion that the institution in question makes sense, that it functions in a way that justifies its existence.
Survival of the fittest is one of the beliefs along with our attitudes and values that make up the current reality of American culture. We have seen the effects on our behavior of this belief. It has contributed to our enslavement, our impoverishment, our suffering. Do we really want to continue believing that which is not true even though all the while it is contributing to our misery? The leaders of these institutions are more interested in how things “look” than in how they “are.” The documents causing the scandal in the Milwaukee archdiocese were released in 2005. Notice that Dolan is less concerned about the victims of sexual abuse than the cover-up to preserve the image of the Church. “The liability for the archdiocese is great as is the potential for scandal if it appears [emphasis added] that no definitive action has been taken.”
Moving on to the institution of the American family and how the false-self behaviors show up there. First the security energy center (materialism). Scientists in two books, Fast-Forward Family and Life at Home in the 21st Century, found it no exaggeration to say that American families were clinically compulsive hoarders. In the words of Jeanne E. Arnold, a professor of anthropology, American families own “more material goods per household than any society in history.”
The sensation energy center (success) in the American family has children behaving very differently compared to children in Italy, Sweden, and Samoa. Survival of the fittest competition has had a profound impact on American school children. “‘In other societies, school-aged children are expected to be vigilant and see what needs to be done around the house, and they routinely do chores without being asked,’ said Elinor Ochs, a director of the study. ‘But here, in middle-class mainstream households, you can’t ask kids to do anything. It’s incredible.’” Children in America are kept too busy by their parents trying to keep up with the Joneses.
Annette Lareau of the University of Pennsylvania and her colleagues found that virtually all the middle-class children in a study of their after-school life were as busy outside the classroom as they had been during the school day. “‘At one suburban school,’ she said, ‘I went through the schedule of 100 fourth graders and couldn’t find a single child who did not have any organized activities.’ The researchers also determined that the time children spent in such activities rose in tandem with the mother’s education: 4 hours 54 minutes per week for the children of mothers with some college, 5 hours 37 minutes for the offspring of college graduates, and 6 hours 33 minutes for the children of mothers with graduate degrees.” It used to be that dad was the breadwinner, but now in America, the whole family sweats in the bakery full time trying to allay the anxiety of the shrinking number of opportunities to succeed.
In a narrative where survival of the fittest is a dominant belief it is inevitable that we would also come to believe in the existence of both prey (victims) and predators (the elite). Sociologists are now increasingly speaking of a culture of victimhood when referring to American culture. Robert Hughes published a book in 1993 entitled Culture of Complaint anticipating this phenomenon.
Felicia Joy Wong runs the small think tank that the Roosevelt Institute created to promote the legacies of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. She is worried about the growing economic inequality between the “have’s” and the “have-nots.” She described America in 2016 as “a fear-catalyzed gated community for a privileged few, and a violent, racially hostile, ‘Lord of the Flies’ race to the bottom for the rest of us.” She is clearly not one to mince words but who’s to argue?
Whatever group we see are selves belonging to, belief in the other enters into the story in a way that weakens the fabric of our community. “Today, millions of Americans believe that their side is basically benevolent while the other side is evil and out to get them.” We really are victims but not in the way most of us would think. It can’t be that we are victims of our highly competitive neighbors or terrorists thousands of miles away because they possess the exact same human traits that we have. Our fear originates in our minds and in the story we tell ourselves. Then we choose to deny the truth of reality and choose unconsciousness so we don’t have to “feel” the truth of our true identity. Then the false identity reacts to the illusion of the fear-driven narrative in our minds and we are thereby enslaved. There is a way out of this madness and that choice is always available for those who have grown tired of their “survival of the fittest” behavior.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.