Friday, September 3, 2010

Victimhood or Responsibility?

I have been thinking about the economic crisis in the United States* and wondering about responsibility. Perhaps I am projecting or reading more into the situation than there really is, but it seems to me that America is about to punish Barack Obama and the Democrats for their failure to alleviate the economic woes of the country. How severe that punishment will be, no one knows, until the smoke has cleared from the November mid-term elections. Nor can one really predict the longer-term effects of the down-on-Obama-and-the-Democrats mood, but I shudder to think that the likes of Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck might take over the White House in 2013.

I am convinced that the anger and the pain of millions as a result of the economic crisis are being intensified by hysterical pundits in the media and office-seekers on both sides of the political divide.

Does the voting public of America truly believe that by kicking out Democratic congressmen and replacing them with Republicans, the job is going to get done and America will get right back to work? Is it really that simple? Should the government step up and throw billions of dollars more at the problem, using money that it actually does not have? Why do we consider it the responsibility of government to get us out of economic trouble?

We are a society that is encouraged - perhaps I should say "tempted" - to live beyond its means. The credit card companies want us to use their cards so they can collect their 18 percent interest per year; the department stores are even more avariciously delighted when we use their cards and pay them back at a rate of 29% per year. The banks and finance companies would like us to take out loans and mortgages that we can't really afford so their shareholders can get 15-20% annual returns on their investment; of course, when we cannot pay back the loan, we lose the house or the car and all the money we put into it.

There is no such thing as job security; there has not been for many years. And no country is recession-proof, so we know that every few years, we are going to have some kind of economic downturn and there is going to be job loss; the lost job just might be ours. Moreover, none of us knows when personal disaster may strike, leaving us with huge bills to pay. Yet we continue to live on credit, spending well beyond our means and saving nothing. And then when the shit does hit the fan, we blame the government or the big corporations, and we expect government to come and rescue us. Because we are victims.

Of course there are those - and they are not few - who are genuinely disadvantaged and who need our help, in good economic times and in bad. These are the people that our tax dollars and our charitable donations should be used to help.

The rest of us, I think, need to learn a little responsibility. We are responsible for taking a serious look at our lives and deciding if we truly need all the junk that we buy. We might also think about why we buy all that stuff and ask ourselves if this ridiculous consumerism is not a substitute for happiness. Perhaps there are other ways to make ourselves happy.

It seems to me that the old saw that consumerism fuels the economy is a bit misleading. Exactly whose economy is benefiting? If several million people did not buy an iPhone4, Steve Jobs and the Apple Corporation and however many shareholders would not be applying for welfare anytime soon. And if I get fewer hours, say as an Apple Store employee, I am okay because I have decided I don't really need to check my e-mail while standing in line to wait for my $4.00 Starbucks coffee. And if I recognize that I can make a great coffee at home, I'll have more time to use my creativity or be with my kids or whip up a gorgeous (and inexpensive) meal for my friends. And if I don't have an iPhone4, I can actually have a conversation with my friends because I won't be checking my e-mails while I am sitting at the dinner table. Oh, and if I don't have to work every day, maybe I don't need my car everyday; I could share it.

I strongly believe that each of us is responsible for his or her own happiness, whether we have taken our own happiness away through choices we have made or it has been taken away from us by circumstance. The vast majority of us are not victims, even though our society - and our own laziness - encourages us to believe that we are. Very few of us do not have the energy, the creativity, and the heart to make a beautiful life for ourselves. Unfortunately, we allow ourselves to be drawn in  - sucked in - to the negativity that dominates our social and political existence.

JFK said (something to the effect of) "Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country." Maybe we first need to ask what we can do for ourselves, for our loved ones, and for our friends. Congress and the White House, Obama and the Tea Party, Democrats on the left and on the right, Republicans and Democrats may all be locked in perpetual conflict and have therefore placed the nation in a state of gridlock, but Americans do not need to wring their hands in despair and hurl epithets at this group or that. Surely we have come to realize that no matter who is in the Oval Office and which party has a majority, there is always some kind of crisis, and life always goes on. The bottom line is that the government, like any other organization, group, or individual, cannot make us happy, cannot solve our problems.

Joseph Campbell says:

You might ask yourself this question: if I were confronted with a situation of total disaster, if everything I loved and thought I lived for were devastated, what would I live for? If I were to come home, find my family murdered, my house burnt up, or all my career wiped out by some disaster or another, what would sustain me? We read about these things every day and we think, Well, that only happens to other people. But what if it happened to me? What would lead me to know that I could go on living and not just crack up and quit?

I've known religious people who have had such experiences. They would say, "It is God's will." For them, faith would work.

Now what do you have in your life that would play this role for you? What is the great thing for which you would sacrifice your life? What makes you do what you do; what is the call of your life to you - do you know it? The old traditions provided this mythic support for people; it held whole culture worlds together. Every great civilization has grown out of a mythic base.

In our day, however, there is great confusion. We're thrown back on ourselves, and we have to find that thing which, in truth, works for us as individuals. Now how does one do this?

I suggest that we do not do it by living on credit in order to keep consuming. I suggest we cannot do it by waiting for the government to act on our behalf. Rather we have to stop, be quiet, and look deep within ourselves to find our "mythic support." It might be God, it might be art, it might be nature.

I'm pretty sure it won't be the Tea Party.

*I am a Canadian and do not presume to speak for Americans or to possess either broad or deep knowledge of American social and political issues. Canadians are exposed to a great deal of "Americana," however, and as our politics is really quite boring, many of us take an interest in what is going on south of the border. In 2008, a very large majority of Canadians indicated that they would like Barack Obama to be their Prime Minister.

Photo Credit

Creative Commons: some rights reserved


  1. This is a very interesting commentary. Your comments about living on credit hit home with me. I sure wish I didn't have so much credit card debt. CEO's are getting nice bonuses off my interest and late fees.

  2. Thank you. When I read over the post last night, I thought it was a bit over the top and perhaps too smugly Canadian (the recession did not hit us quite as hard). But my comments about responsibility were directed universally (including, as always, to myself), not just at Americans.

  3. Well, at least I don't live high on the hog. I don't smoke or drink or really go out much. And I haven't been out of the town that I live in since 1969 when I spent a couple of weeks at my grandmother's. How sad is that? However, I hope that I can travel a little after I retire.

  4. It is not sad at all. While travel can be a wonderful experience, we do not have to travel in order find peace of mind, to be who we really are. I have traveled a great deal, but I am happiest when I am sitting in my office reading, studying, thinking, and writing.

  5. Thanks, for the reply, Ross. I need to clarify. I should have said that I haven't been out of town for more than a couple of weeks since 1969. I have had some short trips but it would be nice to have an extended vacation. But since I live paycheck to paycheck that isn't likely to happen any time soon. Mark