Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Romanticizing suffering

This letter (from a teacher, no less) was published in yesterday's Ottawa Citizen.
Re: 'The age of scarcity,' April 25.

Thank you for making this story front-page news. I held it up for my high school students to see, and encouraged each student to keep a copy for their grandchildren, who will ask questions like: "What does a banana taste like?" and "What's a gas station?"

We are truly entering a new age. But I encouraged my students to see the bright side of this new age: our historically unprecedented comfort and consumerism have left us too independent, with equally unprecedented rates of depression, suicide and general societal malaise. Scarcity will force us to seek community, and that opens up the door to true happiness and fulfilment (and new challenges, too).

Dan Kaiser, Ottawa
This romanticizing the delights of mere subsistence is a common tone among enviromentalists. It comes exclusively from well-fed Westerners; you never hear immigrants (let alone refugees) from Third World countries speak nostalgically of the deprivation they left behind. And the virtues of living in scarcity never seem to translate into authority for those who are experiencing it right now: Westerners talk a good game about respecting Third World peoples, but that sympathy dries up pretty quickly when the conversation turns to sexual morals, about which the deprived have quite decided opinions.

This sort of flirting with disaster often comes couched in phony concern for human well-being, as we see here: "our historically unprecedented comfort and consumerism have left us too independent, with equally unprecedented rates of depression, suicide and general societal malaise." But dying of hunger or disease leaves one every bit as dead as dying by suicide, and the risk of THAT sort of mortality leaves these utopians unmoved. On the contrary, there's a definite anti-life impetus to their program, a "one is too many" approach to human existence.

I was reminded of something similar that I read about: Roland Huntford's two great books on Antarctic exploration, Scott and Amundsen and Shackleton wrote about not only the details of the polar expeditions, but about the social context in which they were placed. A similar sort of general mood seemed to be playing out in Britain in the last years of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th. Then, as now, a long era of peace and prosperity had left people feeling enervated and filled with self-doubt. The British seemed almost hysterically driven to prove their "manliness", and gnawed by fear that their pre-emininent position in the world was not only threatened, but perhaps not really merited. Part of the enthusiasm for WWI stemmed from this self-doubt; finally, people thought, a chance to prove to the world and to ourselves that we're NOT soft, effete and decadent!
In Britain, it was an age which saw struggle as an end in itself. In the background lurked a nagging sense of decline and a desire for national regeneration. Darwinism and the Imperialist sentiment each played its part. Darwin's theory of evolution was transferred from Nature to human institutions. The Survival of the Fittest was a suitable dogma for Empire. It justified war, for example, as a school for character. Lord General Wolseley, the commander in chief of the British Army, considered that
war with all its evils calls out...some of the highest and best qualities of man. [It] is an invigorating antidote against that luxury and effeminacy which destroys nations as well as individuals.
Self-sacrifice as such was praised as the highest human quality, especially by the Anglican Church. Thus Francis Paget, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford:
Surely war, like every other form of suffering and misery, has its redeeming element in the beauty and splendour of character men, by God's grace show i rise themselves and raise others by sacrifice of the self, and in war the greatness of self-sacrifice is set before us.
In Polar exploration, this had its exact parallel:
How nobly those gallant seamen toiled...sent to travel upon snow and ice, each with 200 pounds to drag...No man flinched from his work; some of the gallant fellows really died at the drag rope...but not a murmur the weak fell out...there were always more than enough of volunteers to take their places.
Of course, things never happen exactly the same way twice. The 20th century has cured the utopians of the idea that war is a suitable field for moral proving. Instead, it is proposed to simply return to an earlier age, when life was nasty, brutish and short, in order to improve our moral fibre. Perhaps it's no surprise that such people can find common cause with the very similar ambition of today's Muslim conquistadors. Of course, in neither case do the nostalgists foresee a lowly, debased role for themselves; somehow they will always manage to fall on their feet. Mr. Kaiser surely isn't foreseeing the deaths of 60% of his own children, when North America returns to a living standard of, say, the year 1640, sans ambulances, sans electrical plants, sans hospitals, sans the infrastructure that has raised his own lifespan from 40 years to about 78.

It's easy to laugh now at those naive souls in the early 1900s, who though war was the answer, but they at least thought of it as a voluntary action on the part of those who would demonstrate their strength and self-sacrifice. That idea has been quite abandoned, and now environmentalists think nothing of forcing those around them to participate in their schemes for an ugly, uncomfortable subsistence.


Blogger Matthew said...

Calls for sacrifice are always for other people, not for the speaker. Even if they use 'we'. they mean 'you'.

4:15 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's an interesting fact that most neo-pagans and other Earth-worshippers who talk dreamily of returning to the bosom of Mother Nature are young hip urbanites who are inseparable from their TVs and computers.

They have never "lived off the land" and wouldn't last a week if they tried.

Ellie M.

8:40 pm  

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