Empire of Illusion by Chris Hedges

Yesterday, my son and husband were extremely excited to be able to get Netflix on their iPhones. Meanwhile, I was on the last chapter of Chris Hedges latest book, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle which makes me a bit hesitant to add Netflix to my iPhone.  (Not to mention David Lynch’s admonition against watching a film on a telephone.)

I appreciate Hedges arguments.  I’m just not quite sure what to make of his conclusion that we are on the fast track to totalitarian rule.

Hedges claims that a growing majority of us are living in a fantasy world thanks to the increasing oligarchical rule of corporate America. For instance, we are obsessed with a celebrity culture. The fame of celebrities disguises those who posses true power: corporations and the oligarchic elite.  Hedges says it is as though we are controlled, manipulated and distracted by the celluloid figures on Plato’s cave, and it is a fantasy that is specifically designed to keep us from fighting back.  Hedges calls reality shows like Big Brother “a celebration of a surveillance state”.  People are increasingly willing to be placed on round-the-clock video monitoring and this is problematic.  The use of hidden cameras in these shows reinforces the notion that not only is it normal, it is enviable, to be constantly watched.  You, too, can have celebrity fame simply by being willing to have cameras on you 24/7.  Constant surveillance used to be something we feared.  By manipulating our fascination with celebrity, the elite have made it seem like something we want.

Meanwhile, we are experiencing an epidemic of illiteracy in North America.  Nearly 1/3 of us are illiterate or barely literate and this number grows by 2 million people a year.  42% of college graduates don’t read another book for the rest of their lives!  (Statistics are similar in both Canada and the United States.) Instead, we are bombarded with spectacle.  Hedges finds this extremely disturbing because he says it hasn’t been since the fascist dictatorships or maybe the authoritarian control of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages that content has been so ruthlessly and skillfully controlled. We are allowing propaganda to be a substitute for ideas and ideology.

Hedges says that our faith in illusions has become a secular version of being born again…

These illusions assure us that happiness and success is our birthright. They tell us that our catastrophic collapse is not permanent. They promise that pain and suffering can always be overcome by tapping into our hidden, inner strengths.  They encourage us to bow down before the cult of self. To confront these illusions, to puncture their mendacity by exposing the callousness and cruelty of the corporate state, signals a loss of faith.  It is to become an apostate.  The culture of illusion, one of happy thoughts, manipulated emotions, and trust in the beneficence of power, means we sing along with the chorus or are instantly disappeared from view like the losers on a reality show.

As an example of the cruelty of the corporate state, Hedges turns to the pornography industry.  There are 13,000 porn films made every year in the United States, most of these in the San Fernando Valley.  In 2006, porn revenues exceeded $97 billion which is more than the revenues of Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo!, Apple, Netflix and EarthLink combined.  Porn is very lucrative to large corporations like General Motors and AT&T that receive 80% of all porn dollars spent by consumers (through DIRECTV, Adult Pay Per View, etc.)

Porn is becoming increasingly mainstream, and it is also becoming far more cruel than it has ever been.  Women endure horrible acts of degradation and extreme violence.  Porn has always been about male power, but today it is about the expression of male power through the physical abuse and torture of women. Hedges quotes Robert Jensen who wrote, Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity.

What does it say about our culture that cruelty is so easy to market?  What is the difference between glorifying violence in war and glorifying the violence of sexual domination?  I think that the reason porn is so difficult for many people to discuss is not that it is about sex – our culture is saturated in sex.  The reason it is difficult is that porn exposes something very uncomfortable about us.  We accept a culture flooded with images of women who are sexual commodities.  Increasingly, women in pornography are not people having sex but bodies upon which sexual activities of increasing cruelty are played out.  And many men – maybe a majority of men – like it.

Hedges says that porn reflects the endemic cruelty of our culture.  Porn is now fused with the mainstream commercial industry and has evolved to its logical conclusion.  “It first turned women into sexual commodities and then killed women as human beings.”  It’s no wonder we don’t blink when hundreds of thousands of innocents in Iraq and Afghanistan are killed.  It’s no wonder we can throw our mentally ill out onto the street, imprison millions of our youth for non-violent drug crimes, and deny health care to the poor.  According to Hedges, “The violence, cruelty, and degradation of porn are expressions of a society that has lost the capacity for empathy.”

Hedges turns from the mainstream cruelty inherent in the porn industry to America’s elite universities which have become overly specialized and reliant upon the corporate hierarchy.  Hedges says that the development of specialized vocabularies amongst so-called experts in these specialized fields are meant to thwart universal understanding.  “It keeps the uninitiated from asking unpleasant questions.  It destroys the search for the common good.  It dices disciplines, faculty, students, and finally experts into tiny specialized fragments.  This allows students and faculty to retreat into these self-imposed fiefdoms and neglect the most pressing moral, political, and cultural questions.”

Hedges claims that the bankruptcy of our economic and political senses can be traced directly to an assault against the humanities.  By neglecting the humanities, the elite have been allowed to organize education and society around predetermined answers to predetermined questions.  “Students are taught structures designed to produce these answers even as these structures have collapsed.”  Those in charge “have been trained only to find solutions that will maintain the system…They have forgotten, because they have not been taught, that human nature is a mixture of good and evil.  They do not have the capacity for critical reflection.”

Universities are becoming nothing more than glorified vocational schools for the corporations, and must adopt the values and operating techniques of the corporations they serve.  “The flight from the humanities has become a flight from conscience.  It has created an elite class of experts who seldom look beyond their tasks and disciplines to put what they do in a wider, social context.  And by absenting themselves from the moral and social questions raised by the humanities, they have opted to serve a corporate structure that has destroyed the culture around them.”  Ironically, the universities are training students for vocations that will soon no longer exist because “they have trained people to maintain a structure that cannot be maintained.”

Hedges views the Positive Psychology as a further method of corporate control.  He says, “Positive psychology is to the corporate state what eugenics was to the Nazis… It throws a smokescreen over corporate domination, abuse, and greed.  Those who preach it serve the corporate leviathan.”  This is an interesting argument and one I hadn’t fully considered previously.  I’ve liked what I’ve read of Positive Psychology, but I haven’t paid attention to how it is being used within corporations.

Hedges says that it’s use within corporations, makes it possible to claim that those who fail to exhibit positive attitudes are somehow ill when they may have a legitimate claim to their negative attitudes (lack of appropriate pay, insufficient health care, over worked, etc.) Positive psychologists often make arrogant, vague claims using a religious tone. They have learned to manipulate social behavior and by promoting social harmony under the guise of achieving happiness, they have designed a mechanism for conformity.

According to anthropologist Laura Nader, most oppressive systems of power, including classical Western colonialism and proponents of globalization, make use of the idea of social harmony as a control mechanism.  Nader claims that the drive for harmony always lends itself to covert censorship and self-censorship.  The tyranny of harmony, when pushed to an extreme, leads to a life of fantasy that shuts out reality.  It slowly dominates and corrupts the wider culture.  (Again – think Brave New World!)

Hedges says, “The corporate teaching that we can find happiness through conformity to corporate culture is a cruel trick, for it is corporate culture that stokes and feeds the great malaise and disconnect of the culture of illusion…Here in the land of happy thoughts, there are no gross injustices, no abuses of authority, no economic and political systems to challenge, and no reason to complain.  Here, we are all happy.”

So what is to become of us? Hedges thinks our future is bleak. “Never before has our democracy been in such peril or the possibility of totalitarianism as real. Our way of life is over.” And there is little President Obama can do to stop it. It’s been in the making for decades and cannot be undone with a few trillion dollars in bailout money. Hedges points to those who saw it coming… Sheldon S. Wolin, John Ralston Saul, Andrew Bacevich, Noam Chomsky, Chalmers Johnson, David Korten, Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, Wendell Berry, and Ralph Nader.  Also, social critics who wrote books immediately following WWII – David Riesman (The Lonely Crowd), C. Wright Mills, (The Power Elite), William H. White (The Organization of Man), Seymour Mellman (The Permanent War Economy: American Capitalism in Decline), Daniel Boorstin (The Image: A guide to Pseudo-Events in America), and Reinhold Niebuhr (The Irony of American History) – have proven to be prophetic.

Hedges says that fear and instability has plunged the working class into profound and personal economic despair which, unsurprisingly, drives them into “the arms of the demagogues and charlatans of the radical Christian Right who offer belief in magic, miracles, and the fiction of a utopian Christian nation.  And unless we rapidly re-enfranchise our dispossessed workers into the economy, unless we give them hope, our democracy is doomed.”

Hedges says that the moment China, the oil-rich states, and other international investors stop buying U.S. Treasury Bonds, the dollar will become junk and we will become Weimar Germany, unprepared to deal with the backlash of a betrayed and angry populace.  Christian demagogues and simpletons like Sarah Palin and loudmouth talk-show hosts will make promises of revenge and moral renewal, while the elites retreat into the shelter of privilege and comfort.  The rest of us will be left to the mercy of a security state.  He quotes George Orwell, “A society becomes totalitarian when its ruling class has lost its function but succeeds in clinging to power by force or fraud.”

Hedges says there are powerful corporate entities that do not want to lose their influence or wealth and that are waiting for a national crisis that will allow them, in the name of national security and moral renewal, to take complete control.  Hedges says the tools for doing this are already in place.  “These antidemocratic forces, which will seek to make an alliance with the radical Christian Right and other extremists, will use fear, chaos, the hatred for the ruling elites, and the specter of left-wing descent and terrorism to impose draconian controls to extinguish our democracy.  And while they do it, they will be waving the American flag, chanting patriotic slogans, promising law and order, and clutching the Christian cross.  By then, exhausted and broken, we may have lost the power to resist.” The worse reality becomes, the less we want to hear about it and the more we are willing to distract ourselves with manufactured illusions.  This is what eventually happens to a dying civilization.

But Hedges says this will not be the end of hope, because the power of love has always been greater than the power of death.  Love cannot be controlled.  It constantly rises up to remind a society of what is real and what is illusion.

Capitalism: A Love Story

Capitalism: A Love Story is typical Michael Moore – extremely one sided.  But as always, there are some pretty upsetting truths in it!

For instance, did you know that companies like Walmart, Hershey’s, AT&T, SBC, Winn-Dixie, Nestle… (the list goes on and on) may have reason to want you dead? They actually take out life insurance policies on their employees.  And no!  Not just on the executives where it might make some sense, but on the “peasant class” workers. They call it the “Dead Peasant Policy” or the “Dead Janitor Policy”.  These insurance policies account for 20% of all life insurance policies sold!!!

So say your wife, who works in the bakery at Walmart, suddenly dies.  How would you feel if you got no money after her death, but Walmart (who basically worked her to death) gets $80,000?  That was one story Michael Moore presented.  Another was a woman in Houston whose husband brought in over $6 million all told. Of course, the companies don’t want you to know they are taking these insurance policies out on you and it’s been a matter of contention.

If companies insure an executive, then it could be argued that they are protecting their investment.  But the insuring of “rank and file” employees is merely for profit. The insurance proceeds are tax free and they have an investment component which allows companies to earn tax-deferred returns while the employees are still alive and tax free loans can be taken out on the policies.

Does this make any sense? Why not work your employees to death if you have insurance policies on them and their families have no idea such policies exist!  This is super scary shit to me!!  How do I know that my husband and son don’t have insurance policies taken out on them? I don’t!!  Even companies my husband used to work for might still have insurance policies on him.  What right does a company have to do this??  It gives them more reason to want them dead, doesn’t it? Overwork your employees or stress them out by laying them off and the employees you’ve hired stand to be far more profitable dead than alive.  I am seriously bothered by this!

OK – so other stuff I took away from the film?  I don’t know.  Like all Michael Moore films, I have to weigh it out for a while.  There are plenty of people in the U.S. that live like those in third world nations.  We were made aware of one of those areas after Hurricane Katrina and take a trip to the Appalachian Mountains or some Native American reservations and you’ll hardly believe you are in the U.S.!!  I saw Moore’s Roger & Me about his hometown, Flint, Michigan, which seemed very much like a third world country – people killing and selling rabbits to survive! Moore claims that what was done to Flint is being done all across America, now.

So does that mean Capitalism is the great evil Moore makes it out to be? I don’t know.  Personally, I don’t have a lot of faith in it.  But that’s merely based on personal experience and not educated understanding.   I agree with all of the Catholic priests that were interviewed, however.  Capitalism, as we have it now, is based on greed.  Not compassion.

I loved the “WWJD” stint.  We’re supposed to be a Christian nation, but would Jesus tell someone who is dying that he can’t heal him because he has a pre-existing condition and that he’ll have to pay “out of pocket” for his medical expenses (which probably won’t heal him either, if Jesus can’t heal him!!)   Would Jesus belong to a hedge fund?  Would he sell short?  Would he agree that the richest 1% should have more money than the 95% of us who are under them combined? Wait!!  Did we miss something??  Did Jesus change his mind and decide that it was easier to get into heaven with money (blessed are the wealthy)?  Can you love both your money and your neighbor if you deny your neighbor the right to see a doctor or have a home to live in in order to better your bottom line?

OK – I know.  All of this is more tricky than Moore presents it.  I’m on the 17th lecture (out of 36) of America and the New Global Economy by Professor Timothy Tayor of Macalester College from The Great Courses Collection from The Teaching Company which offers a recent history of economies around the world in relation to America’s economy.  But I keep wondering why it is we assume that as long as all governments are on the path of economic growth, they are assured to offer the best possible benefit to the people of those nations.  It’s completely assumed.  But is it true?   We almost look at it as a religious, moral imperative. If we look to America as an example, and we can combine the income of 95% of us and that is less than the income of the top 1% of earners in the U.S., can we say with absolute faith that economic growth is THE “Way”?

Gandhi (1982)

Gandhi is a fantastic epic film about the life of Gandhi! It had a huge affect on me at the end of my teens. I watched it at time in my life when I was still struggling with the validity of religions other than Christianity and this film fully convinced me that Christianity did not hold a monopoly on the truth. It was a life changing film for me. I felt that Gandhi, as represented in the film, portrayed the embodiment of Christ. I still think that holds but it is certain that Ben Kingsley embodied Gandhi! He is a marvelous actor!

Non-violent resistance has always fascinated me – especially having grown up hearing stories about the civil rights movement and MLK Jrs. use of Gandhi’s strategies. It resonates with my deeper sense of Christianity and my understanding of Christ.

Richard Attenborough directed and produced the film and it supposedly took him more than 20 years to make. All of the actors he had chosen for the film when he first started making it had to be replaced by the time it was actually filmed.

In the funeral scene, there are something like 480,00 people. It was a somewhat dangerous film to make, but Attenborough and Kingsley were protected by Gandhi’s family and supporters who were in favor of making the film. It’s supposed to be an accurate portrayal, but there is debate over what got left out and what got put in. For instance, the beating Gandhi receives in the film for burning identity passes in South Africa did not happen.

Gandhi won Best Picture at the Academy Awards along with seven other Oscars, including an award for Kingsley as Best Actor.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

I saw The Passion of Joan of Arc several years ago and stumbled upon it again at my library. It’s based on the trial records of Joan of Arc and is absolutely fascinating. It’s presented as a Passion Play.  But instead of Christ being taunted by Roman soldiers, Joan of Arc is taunted by British soldiers. Not surpiringly, the film was banned in Britain.

I’ve only seen a small handful of silent films and this one totally blew me away! What is most shocking is the uncomfortable intimate relationship between Joan of Arc and the soldiers.  Also, I’ve had enough Catholic brainwashing to believe that Joan of Arc was a martyr for the church. But this film presented it otherwise. She stood up for beliefs that Church denounced.

This is an intense movie!   And to think – it had been completely lost to us until a copy was discovered in a janitorial closet of a mental institution in Oslo in 1981!!  (I’d love to know the story behind that!)

Heroism and Lincoln

I’ve touched on the topic of heroism before, way back when. It’s something I started thinking about again while watching Akira Kurosawa films. One of Kurosawa’s main themes is dispelling traditional views of heroism. His heroes aren’t “better” than other men. They are human like everyone else.  They don’t even look heroic. At least, not when we first meet them.

America is celebrating the bicentennial of one of it’s great mythic heroes, Abraham Lincoln, today. We almost all say he saved the union and freed the slaves. For black Americans, Lincoln has been an especially grand mythic figure.

However, start digging into Lincoln’s life and it doesn’t look quite so heroic. I recently watched an excellent documentary called Looking for Lincoln.  It’s hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. who goes on a quest to discover the real Lincoln.  What he discovers is a bit troubling, especially for those of us who have grown up with the myth of Lincoln.

One of Lincoln’s closet friends and co-workers, William Herndon was worried that Lincoln would become mythologized and he didn’t think Lincoln would like this.  So he set out to contact everyone who had personally known Lincoln to provide an accurate portrayal of the man, rather than the myth.

A few of the things we learn from Herdon is that Lincoln:

  • visited prostitutes
  • was a free-thinker
  • mocked organized religion
  • was a white supremist in his early years
  • was never an abolitionist
  • supported deportation of African Americans once freed
  • suffered from depression all of his life and was often suicidal

One of Lincoln’s deep suicidal bouts was brought on when Ann Rutledge, a woman he was deeply in love with, died of Typhoid Fever.  His friends had to put him on a suicide watch. Turns out the reason we don’t hear much about Herndon’s version of Lincoln’s life is because Mary Todd, Lincoln’s wife, became very angry to learn about Rutledge and demanded that everything Herndon had written were lies and that it be destroyed. It wasn’t difficult to do because people always prefer their self-created myths to the truth.

Lincoln’s opposition to slavery did not mean he believed in full equality.  He had grown up with the standard American prejudices and was unapologetically a White Supremist.   Between 1830 and 1850, there had been a lot of men and women who did everything they could to help the slaves while Lincoln did absolutely nothing.  In fact, he once ruled in favor of returning a slave to his owner.  (In 1847, Lincoln represented a Kentucky farmer who was sewing for the return of his slave who had escaped to Illinois.  Lincoln held that Illnois had no right to protect another man’s property and that the slave should be returned to his owner.)    He also supported the deportation of slaves to Liberia, Haiti, etc. because he didn’t think equality between blacks and whites was possible.

What the myth of Lincoln does is allow Americans to feel like they have wiped the sin of slavery away.  But the sin of slavery was not wiped away with Lincoln. In some ways, conditions became far worse for freed slaves. Think Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow Laws which allowed for segregation from 1876 all the way to 1965! (I was born in 1963 when these laws were still in effect.)

Doris Kearns Goodwin tells us we cannot respect the man if we hold on to the myth. She says we need to strip away the myth and get to know the man.  According to the historians in "Looking for Lincoln", the man is far more interesting and deserving of our respect than the myth.

Start with his depression. It is very likely that Lincoln’s struggles with depression are what provided his strength during the Civil War. He had learned to successfully navigate the dark through his bouts with depression. Some people cease to function when they become depressed. Others keep pushing because it’s their only means of dealing with the depression.

James Horton asks, who could have possibly been better than Lincoln as President in 1860? An abolitionist would not have been elected to the Presidency. Plus, Lincoln was a political genius. He knew he didn’t have the constitutional right to take the property of Law Abiding citizens which is basically what the abolitionists were calling for at the time.  And while it’s true that his Emancipation Proclamation did not free all the slaves, James Horton points out that the African American community was aware that he did what he could to gain their freedom and that was all they needed then. That’s hard for us to understand in the 21st century, but we need to try and place ourselves in the 19th century to understand Lincoln’s power.

We have the tendency to judge Lincoln outside of his times because of the myths that have been created around him.  So when we find out the truth, it’s easy to dismiss him altogether – which is what a lot of African Americans have done, recently.  But we need to view him in the circumstances of his time.  When we do that, he remains an extraordinary human being because he managed to rise to the occasion of those circumstances.  He was not the same person by the end of his Presidency that he was at the beginning of it.   Frederick Douglas, who had been an adversary at the beginning of Lincoln’s Presidency became his true friend by the end of it. Despite great odds, Lincoln did great things.

Eric Foner was recently on The Bill Moyers Journal talking about Lincoln.  He says Lincoln is the mirror for ourselves and that the questions we ask about him change depending upon the times in which we live. We are living in times that demand truth. This is a man who was President during the most pivotal time in United States history and he agrees that we have to put Lincoln in the context of his times because his thinking does change and grow so much throughout his Presidency.  Lincoln’s greatness comes in his response to perilous times. Andrew Johnson, who became President after Lincoln’s assassination was also presented with perilous times, but he failed miserably.

What made Lincoln great was his ability to think for himself but also his willingness to listen to criticism.  He doesn’t just go with the crowds, he sets his own moral standards and he is open to rethinking those standards if need be. He’s self aware, which may also have been a gift of his depression.

Foner says one of the important things to realize about Lincoln not being a part of the abolitionist movement is that this was the first interracial movement in U.S. history and it put white people in contact with very intelligent and articulate blacks. Lincoln never had this contact until his Presidency.  Also, when Lincoln realized that 200,000 black men were fighting for the Union, he realized the nation would have to become biracial. Had he lived, conditions may have been better for the blacks. But under Johnson, conditions were horrible and in some ways worse than slave conditions.

Foner tells a cool story: William Johnson, an African American, was Lincoln’s valet. During their travels, they both contracted small pox. Johnson’s case was far worse than Lincoln’s so Lincoln took care of him until he died. Lincoln had Johnson buried in Arlington Cemetery and wrote on the headstone, “William Johnson, Citizen”.  This was huge because just a very few years prior, the Dred Scott court decision had held that no person of African American descent was a United States citizen.

One more side-note from Adam Gopnik who was recently on the Charlie Rose show. Gopnik wrote a book called Angels and Ages about Lincoln and Darwin who were both born on Feb. 12 in the same century. The two men are very different, but what they had in common was a genius for arguing from observation and specifics rather than principle and inspiration which had been the norm before both of them.  Darwin wrote his book for everybody, not just for experts and had to be able to write it in a way that could be easily understandable. Lincoln had a great legal mind and could likewise make very complicated ideas simple. Just as Darwin argued from empirical experience, Lincoln argued from legal particulars. Both were acutely aware of the tragic nature of humanity but both believed that if we sought improvement, there would be a definite gradual improvement of humanity.

The thing is, we all have it in us to rise to the occasion. It’s not greatness that makes us rise to the occasion, it’s difficult circumstances which provide the opportunity for normal human beings, with all of their flaws and faults, to rise to the occasion. One of the biggest reliefs I ever felt was the realization that most of the characters in the Bible that have been revered as mythically heroic for thousands of years were deeply flawed and deeply troubled people. Noah, who seems less flawed than all the prophets, comes out looking like the most wimpy prophet of all when you read the wonderful stories in the OT.  All of the prophets but Noah argued with God to save their fellow man. Noah’s primary concern was doing what God said so he could save himself. He didn’t argue. So he saved himself, his family and all the animals and then got sodomized by his son!

I think there is a lot of value in getting to know the real people that exist under the myths we have layered on top of them for our own purposes of denial. The real people are far more interesting even though what we remember about figures from the past will always contain our own narrative with only bits and pieces of theirs.

American Plenty (The American Future by Simon Schama)

I watched the first episode in a four part series, American Future – A History by Simon Schama.  I thought it was excellent!

The first episode is about how American optimism about the infinite possibilities of its land and resources is in danger of coming to a grinding halt, especially in the American West where there has been a 9 year drought.  Schama claims much of the American optimism can be traced back to Andrew Jackson, the  guy who is on our $20 bill even though he was guilty of some pretty ugly ethnic cleansing!  The idea was that if the U.S. wants it, we can get it. If we want to tame the Colorado River, by God we’ll tame it. We’ll bring the water to us rather than having to go to the water.

What good man would prefer a country covered with forest, and ranged by a few thousand savages to our Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms, embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute.   –  President Andrew Jackson, 1830.

There were dissenting voices, but who wants to listen to the dissenters? We want to hear what it is we want to hear and positivism is so much better than negativism (although that’s not what they called it back then). We Americans have always said, “Yes We Can”, but our ability to achieve hasn’t always been so good for us.

For instance, Americans wanted to turn Oklahoma into the bread bowl and so they engaged in some pretty fancy technology to grow wheat aplenty.  Of course, there were the dissenters who believed American soil wasn’t just about creating economic gains, but was America itself and that by managing the topsoil in the way Oklahoma farmers were managing it, they were tearing away America, bit by bit.  Sure enough, the bread bowl became the dust bowl.  My family is from the very tippy northern part of Texas which borders Oklahoma. I grew up hearing stories from family members about how you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face and had to constantly sweep the dust out of the corners and away from the outside of the door to be able to exit the house. The stories from Oklahoma were much worse.

We can’t exactly deny it, American optimism has a history of creating man-made disasters.

There have always been the optimistic voices. But there have also been the voices of realistic caution. Jimmy Carter warned us about the limits of our optimism. But did we listen?  No. We booted him out after one term in favor of an optimistic President who basically told us the sky was the limit and made it OK to spend beyond our means.

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.  President Jimmy Carter, 1979.

Reagan put an end to the silly notion of self-control, telling us we American’s deserve the fruit of our labor and that Carter was wrong to tell us we should share in scarcity.  We deserve plenty!  And boy did we go after it, whether we could afford it or not!

But we have sense paid dearly for that unbridled optimism.  Who can deny that now?  It’s really hard to wean Americans off our entitlement to plenty.

But what about now?  Looks like we may finally have to face up to our limits.

Of course Schama ends the episode with the thought that historically, when resources are in short supply, American resourcefulness is not.

The American Journey of Barack Obama

I picked up The American Journey of Borack Obama, a pictorial essay from the Editors of Life Magazine, at the library the other day. I haven’t read Obama’s memoirs so have only caught glimpses of his past from news clips here and there. This books reveals a lot about his life, beginning with his childhood. And the pictures are fantastic, of course (It is a Life Magazine publication, after all!)

Henry Louis Gates offered this review:

The phenomenon that is Barack Obama has intrigued us all. Who is Barack Obama? The editors of LIFE have gone a very long way toward helping us all answer this question. Senator Obama’s singularly American life has been characterized by tragedy and triumph, drama and despair, anxiety and anticipation, and, ultimately, enormous excitement and the deepest historical significance. In this book, Obama’s tale is told in all of its dimensions, from the mistakes he has made and the obstacles he has confronted and overcome, to his moments of almost sublime and glorious transcendence. With spectacular photographs–funny, surprising,exceptional in detail–combined with a highly readable narrative, Obama’s biography comes to life, from his youth in Hawaii to his roots in Africa, from Harvard to Chicago and, eventually, to his life as a public servant in Washington. Who is Barack Obama? Read these compelling words and study these exceptionally candid and beautiful photographs and discover the answer for yourself.

It’s definitely a fascinating American journey!