Monday, August 2, 2010

Sharon Astyk has a nice post up on her blog about the way in which government and business after World War ll strove together to obscure for people how our "private" actions (like what we eat, what we buy, how we live and work) were artificially severed from the "public" sphere (obscuring how our collective resources are consumed, shaped, distributed; how power and opportunity come to be distributed so unevenly among different groups).  She implies that people were relieved of their responsibility for their actions even as they were gradually transformed into lucrative consumers and better subjects (as opposed to citizens) for government.

She makes a pretty persuasive case, but the comments show the difficulty that people have with this kind of argument.  Americans, like every other set of humans, are thoroughly enmeshed in all kinds of constraining relationships (with powerful institutions, with other people, with the narrow boundaries of normal discourse and politics, with material limitations -- the list goes on).  Unlike many other peoples, however, Americans prefer a self-image that denigrates and denies most of these limitations (and connections) in favor of an ideology of Individualism and Self-Invention.  In this ideology, to the extent that you are "bound" by limitations and connections, this is a concession or even failure on your part.  The ideal is to maximize your independence, your liberty, as much as you have the strength to manage and master it.

The problem, at least when you are making an argument like Astyk's, is that such people have a strong motivation not only to resent limits, but to deny those limitations, even to themselves.  That is, they blind themselves to the way in which they are enmeshed with other people and institutions (in relations of power, submission, reciprocity, mutual assured destruction, etc.) and constrained by some very real limits in terms the material and cultural options they're given.  So, when Astyk points out that we can't just go on acting as though the "public" has no stake in something like our "private" consumption, they interpret that to mean someone is coming to take their freedom away.  They may believe in the "freedom" they've built and they react negatively to being pushed toward a vision of something that seems to be (and even claims to be) as much about limits as freedoms.

In this particular case, it's not about less or more freedom, but about not being hoodwinked.  Astyk points out that we have been living in a society where the true extents of our freedoms, our responsibilities and our limits have been systematically misrepresented to us, and we ought to negotiate a better arrangement - a new position on that spectrum of freedoms and limitations that serves our interests and more honestly reflects our values.  It's about inhabiting one's responsibilities with intention and clarity and satisfaction and knowledge, and carving one's own place within that.  

But that's not an argument that a lot of people like to hear.  Hell, often enough it's not even an argument that I like to hear!