15 April 2011

Speaking Redemption to Power (assuming any of us will listen)

Very few of us like to be told we’re power-hungry.

And yet I think most of us would agree that the application of something we call Power – whether in restraint of human beings, or in control of the non-human world – is “necessary.” In other words, the exercise of material power, in this material world of ours, is vital to the constitution of the visible human order as we know it. We simply couldn’t exist without it. And recent horrific events in Japan, and elsewhere, may have convinced some of us of a yet more radical imperative: namely, that we humans won’t continue to exist with dignity – to grow and prosper in this anything-but-human-friendly universe – without one unholy hell of a lot more material power. The implication of which seems to be that, if our long-term aim is to survive and prosper as a species, then the more power-hungry we get the better.

Even those of us, too, who believe that God created man, and that He created us for a purpose to which He holds us accountable, would most emphatically agree that God has allotted – or at least allowed – the human species a most impressive range and depth of material power. At least compared with the rest of the visible creation. Indeed, I think not a few of us modern Westerners, both theists and non-theists, might go even further. A few of us might argue that much or most of this power came to us humans by way of diligent self-application, with little or no interference, or perhaps even input, from God. And that therefore it might also be safe to assume that the great bulk of this material power, which we’ve acquired more or less through our own efforts, has also been left to our own discretion, to use or not use how and as we see fit.

I’m not saying our Age is utterly unique in this confidence. In every human era there have been people like the wilder optimists above-mentioned. People who believed that the power we’d acquired on our own was our own business, and that we should do as we liked with what was ours. And who were convinced that, so long as we were smart and decisive and “kickass” enough in our use of it, there was nothing to fear. Nothing major could conceivably go wrong.
It may be, too, that our age is no bolder than previous ones. We might even be less power-hungry, and less power-presumptuous. As proof one could cite, first of all, evidence throughout the globe of our ever more highly-strung ecological conscience. If that doesn’t make for scrupulosity in the use of power, what does? Secondly, there is the abundant hand-wringing and eye-gushing going on, in many parts of the US, over the abuses and excesses of human government. And of course we all know, from both hard experience and harsh propaganda, how human governments can be very unscrupulous, cruel and overbearing things.

And yet – to be quite honest – I don’t know. Surely governments aren’t the only human agencies known to manifest this particular degree of urgency in getting what they want? And do we really loathe them as much as we say we do, or wish we did? Observe how government continues to grow from one US administration to the next, for all our ridicule and contempt of politicians, and political process (or lack thereof), and government programs. So why do we nurture the very thing we despise? And then go on despising it? Is it only the arrogance and unresponsiveness of State power that offends us? Or could it be simply that governments, for all their usefulness to us, have never succeeded in properly earning our American respect? That they’ve never been entities productive enough to have earned the right to be cruel and overbearing? If, on the other hand, they learned to turn a profit, and compete for market share . . .

Meanwhile, awaiting that Blessed Day, we very carefully strain the “camel” of governmental abuses of power, even as we swallow gnats – of ever-increasing size – of power-abuse by other, non-governmental social agents. And we marvel at how, as private property becomes ever more complicated and politically-connected – and ever more invasive of, and inquisitive into, the private lives of those who do not own it – we need governments of ever-increasing size and complexity to protect that same property against counter-surveillance, and even sabotage. And thus the dog continues to chase, and occasionally even bites, its tail.
So I wonder if – for all our official distrust of government and/or solicitude for the environment – we aren’t in fact living in one of the Great Ages of power worship. And most particularly power in the form of control that can often seem – at least to those on its receiving end – to be cruel, overbearing, and even bullying. In this instance I mean chiefly the kind of control we exercise over creatures, both human and non-human, for the purpose of making them conform to certain pending developments, to which adaptation is deemed by their betters to be urgently necessary. Like for instance the exploding, “unstoppable” pace of automation of work and labor. Or the reversal of environmental ill effects that are often accelerated, or aggravated, by those same processes of automation (among many other factors). Talk about furnishing both problem and solution.
Right now, however, my concern is not with the effect of this control upon us lesser creatures, both human and non-human. It is with its effects upon the controllers. After all, they’re creatures with souls too, for all their superiority: and so presumably must also one day render account. My main question is whether the exercise of this sort of control is making its exercisers genuinely better than their human and subhuman inferiors, as opposed to merely making them appear to be better, or feel they are better. Contrary to the wisdom of the Marquis de Sade, you really don’t confirm your spiritual elevation over some more limited creature by bullying or torturing it. Or even, necessarily, by beating it thoughtlessly into submission. When, for example, when Man beats and slabs down, when he concretes and asphalts over, certain things belonging to what he conventionally terms nature, he doesn’t redeem “nature” from its Tennysonian bloodshed, waste and wickedness. Rather, he participates in it, however indirectly or unintentionally; he descends to its level. This participation, and this descent, are sometimes necessary, but there's no need to romanticize them; they are not what makes us human, or even what makes us better than the non-human. What makes Man human is not his ability to control or intimidate or terrorize what is beneath him. There are plenty of creatures “in nature” doing that sort of thing already – though maybe not quite so productively (or eco-disruptively) as dear old Adam. Man transcends nature – or more precisely, he becomes that in himself which was created to be more than nature – not by devouring the physical world, but by using it as God uses us: by loving its creatures, not as we’d all like to be loved (or rather worshiped), but as those creatures both need and ought to be loved. We humans are nursed and carried into the fullness of our human nature, not by “lording it over” the lesser beings of the animal and vegetable worlds, but by seeing them – or such of them as cross our paths – in something of the way our Maker sees both them and us. For our God sees every thing He makes not merely in relation to Himself, but also – mystery of mysteries! – in relation to itself. And that can sometimes mean seeing it not just when it is bustling and brazen and confident, but when it is alone and afraid. Not just when it’s busy gathering nuts, but also when it’s – what shall we say? – ruminative, or seemingly doing nothing? Above all, not only when that creature is rushing headlong down some path of calculated and “certain” future gain, but even when it is pausing to remember other things seemingly lost forever – as if from out of some unknown and irrecollectible Past – things the Loss of which no amount of the most calculated creaturely effort can ever make good.

To be sure, everything, and everyone, is meant to be useful; there is nothing that has been made that is not meant to be taken up into some purpose higher than itself. But the precondition of any creature’s Divine usefulness is that the exquisite things most natural to its joy – indeed most peculiar to its nature – should be nurtured and ennobled and made to grow straight, rather than twisted and stunted and suppressed. You’ll never appreciate, for example, somebody’s prospective gifts as a pianist, if your sole determination is that she should become an engineer. Neither will you make it easier to discern the peculiar strengths of a golden retriever when, on a property with large outdoor spaces, you insist on confining him to the house, and training him up to be a lapdog.
Nor am I saying that these considerations don’t need to be balanced by others. Above all, I’m not suggesting that our most innocent human-population needs may not sometimes require more asphalt and concrete – and not infrequently a good deal more of it. What I'm saying is that there are times when habits like these – or perhaps more accurately, the momentum following right behind them – can become not only necessary, but evilly so. Times when certain things happen, not because they really needed to happen in the way they did, or to the degree that they did, but mostly because of some big player’s needlessly bad attitudes or bad practices. “Hey, he’s on a POWER TRIP,” as some might excuse, or even exonerate, him. In essence the big player is behaving like a jerk, not because the market demands his jerkiness, but because the market is letting him get away with it. Of course it will eventually make him pay, but that could take decades – decades in which the rest of us must live and plan our lives. And yet unfortunately any attempt to correct the process "too soon" - and especially by government action - would be all but sure to make bad matters worse. And so we acquiesce in it for the time being, and if we are wise, pray and hope to do better next time. Fine. But must we applaud the jerk? or reprieve his debt sentence? or yet further subsidize him?

Finally, and I think worst of all (on account of our modern celebrations of what would otherwise be known as greed and power-lust), sometimes things happen in ways that are more evil than is, well, truly necessary. And so if, and when, certain habits of ours become more-than-necessary evils – as when we buy up good croplands only to build unpurchasable homes on them – we do well to recognize these habits for what they are, and not rhapsodize over them. (“Oh, but how could ANYONE have known? All the indicators pointed . . .”)

Indeed, I’m doubtful we can even afford our present levels of callousness, whether in our mismanagement of land, in our misdirection of customers’ assets and financial reserves, or in our misallocation of workers’ labor and skill and enthusiasm. And again, I’m talking here not just about those who got strung along in the subprime market, but about those who, without any clear plan or even shred of malice aforethought, found themselves doing the stringing. Were all those bright energetic young folks really fit for nothing better than to become bankers, loan officers, realtors? “It was their SOVEREIGN CHOICE!” you thunder. Yes, but surely this Best of All Previous Economies could have offered them better guidance? Or if nothing else, more varied and interesting incentives, and opportunities for self-realization? Who knows how many genuine talents were wasted – what a wealth of gifts and aspirations were stunted and crushed – by all those droves of people rushing headlong into the financial and real-estate sides of the boat? Until at length the entire ship of the economy capsized?
What I am suggesting is that there are some things we may need to do necessarily, and yet provisionally and regretfully, until such a time as better, more above-board, more borrower-educating (rather than borrower-weakening and -confusing) ways of turning a profit can be found. And here, sadly enough, is where I fear you may have lost all patience with me. “Look, for the last time: Growth is founded on confidence, NOT PESSIMISM!” Yes, but if we repose our hopes on hollow and deceptive things our growth will be no less hollow and deceptive. And in any case, surely such “pessimism” is a good sight better than pretending Heaven’s just around the corner, and that we’re bringing it nearer with each skyrocketing price of shoddily-built homes on land where once we grew corn and beets?

We all know what it is to be foolishly – and yet arrogantly and dismissively – overconfident. And it may be that some of our most foolish habits, attitudes, expectations are inevitable. But once again, we don’t make them less foolish, or less destructive, by reveling in them – or worse, by celebrating the drive, the bold, ruthless “vision” that made them possible. They belong to that growing list of unfortunate things made necessary – or inevitable – by certain exigencies of our fallen nature (of which greed and its accompanying lust for power are but two). Unfortunate things, I say again. You know, like human government. And human competition.

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