Human nature may be the same, but there are new rules of engagement.
With every major invention, every technical ratcheting forward, human history has been irrevocably altered. Some of the most pivotal alterations have been the result of the least dramatic and perhaps least glamorous discoveries, such as the toilet and interior plumbing.
Massive changes followed the introduction of those little white bowls in the average home, most notably the decrease of acute epidemic disease and the increase in the human lifespan, which in turn has had a ripple effect on everything we think and undertake.
If we have 80 years to live instead of 40, well, then we have more time to get educated, we can wait to be married, we can pursue more than one career. Perhaps the most notable effect of our recent longevity has been the illusion that somehow life can (even should) go on indefinitely if we can only get a hold of that slippery little gene or remember to take that new antioxidant.
This dynamic -- technology permuting culture -- is pervasive throughout our collective experience. As our technology has changed, our lifestyles have changed. And as our lifestyles have changed our expectations, our strategies for living and our psychologies have changed. War has been no exception to the rule. The way we wage it and the battles we choose to fight have been similarly transformed. However, this time not only has the nature of war changed, but our very battlefields have been moved and we barely noticed.
Media Wars and New Weapons
For thousands of years, when one group wanted to conquer another (for whatever reason -- land, power, revenge or pride) the protocol was for one group to ride, walk or run over to the desired territory and storm the castle or plunder a village. Whatever the strategies, whether the chieftains chose to fight with one standing army confronting another standing army or it was a surprise attack in the middle of the night, guerrilla-style, it always resulted in hand-to-hand combat of some kind.
Even the Roman armies with their chariots, horses and war dogs eventually met their enemies face to face. Killing was personal. Even if it didn't start out that way, a soldier sooner or later had to use a spear, a knife, a fist or a club. The implement of death had to be wielded by hand, and in almost all cases the person wielding it had to confront the grisly death of the other.
Then came gun powder, and the laws of physics changed the rules of war. Now balls of lead could be hurled over or even through walls, traversing long distances to explode and expose the viscera of once impenetrable fortresses. War was still a bloody mess and a last resort for any society that valued its own, but it was now feasible to conduct one with substantially less personal involvement.
Not too long after that came the bomb. Not just the bomb, but all bombs that could be dropped from airplanes, fired from rocket launchers or detonated on delays. This once again changed war. Populations that had once been protected by flanks of soldiers who were prepared to give their lives to defend their women and children were now as vulnerable as our most primitive ancestors. We could be reached by air. There was nothing that could stop the invasion any longer.
Which brings us to the state of war in which we currently find ourselves: the war of information in which the primary weapon used is fear. There are other weapons used in the information war that are no less serious, of course, such as identity theft, cyber-viruses, misinformation, EM pulses, etc., but the war the average civilian is engaged in is tragically one of which he is wholly unconscious.
The war is fought in our living rooms, our bedrooms, subliminally in our movie theaters, on our phones, in our cars, on highway billboards and in shopping malls. We are utterly surrounded.
New Wars, New Enemies
By what are we surrounded by? What's the enemy?
First and foremost the enemy is our own sedation. We are unconscious, made so and kept so by endless entertainment, comfort and complacency.
From its inception, televised entertainment, which is intricately enmeshed with corporate and product advertising, has taken many, if not most, families from having dinner together at the table to dinner in shifts on the couch.
We don't face one another for after-dinner conversation or sit down for a game of chess over which we can proclaim our own world-politic. Instead we go each of us to the privacy of our own rooms, to the cyber-reality of our own headsets, to the seclusion of our own iPods. We connect less to one another and more to electronics, conducting our lives in varying degrees of dissociative trance.
We see the world (to some degree), but we are not fully there. This is a wholly non-partisan issue. Whether one is radically right, lopsidedly left or somewhere in between, real national security is at risk, and our missions will never be realized if we do not become minimally aware. And where there are real threats, America has become a sitting duck.
Secondly we are surrounded by an innumerable quantity of messages, both subtle and gross, given to us by the media. "Media" as I am using it here includes everything that is transmitted via newsprint, air wave, film, radio wave and optic cable. All of it, without exception, is involved in promoting an agenda. Most often it is a corporate one, even if it is embedded or disguised. Whether it is corporate or not, whether it is intentional or not, it is almost invariably fear-based and promotes a pathology of inadequacy.
In this last season, how many advertisements did you see where happy families opened lavish and glamorous gifts, where meals were presented in soft candlelight as though Martha herself were in the kitchen? I couldn't even begin to count the ones I'd seen, not to mention the ones I didn't. If there were one single message coming through loud and clear, it was that happy families are made happy by constant and creative consumption.
The irony of the way these holidays are presented is that millions are left feeling lost and lonesome. And even those who have intact families and multitudes of friends with enough money to buy gifts the way they do on television, they never, ever reach the level of perfection they see in the media. Whether we have family or not, we can never measure up -- which is both the promised land for advertisers and the problem for us.
I would like to clarify something for those who think I have an issue with shopping besides personally not loving the process of walking from store to store, being assaulted by too much stuff and hauling bags for hours. Philosophically speaking, there is absolutely nothing wrong with shopping. So long as we exist in a complex society, we will have producers, traders and consumers. We will always have wants and needs.
However, what I do worry about is how we are unconsciously using it as a way to fill in the empty spaces in our soul or because we have nothing else to do. When we give up thinking for shopping, we are in very real trouble as a culture. And as a country at war, it is an act of suicide. It is insane.
A while back my publisher said, "When I was growing up, shopping used to have something to do with comparison, with finding the appropriate item at the right price. Now it's an automatically assumed consumption." What an extraordinary idea. Our shopping has gone from an activity that required some consideration and thought to an impulse run wild, a substitute for self-worth or a way to shut out the world and shut off our own thoughts.
If we have gone from a production economy to retail economy as many have claimed, then consumption is indeed a critical issue. How does the media perpetuate this purchasing frenzy? The media pushes fear and inculcates inadequacy in us because in order for the economy to grow, we must always need more. We must crave more, not just want it. We must not only pursue happiness; we must be willing to buy it. And, naturally, we can never really buy it either. We can only lease it. The happiness lasts only as long as the fad. And then we must have the next thing and then the thing after that and the thing after that ad infinitum.
And the fear is everywhere. This last week had an amazing roster of shows on the History Channel to celebrate the holiday season with "Armageddon Week." A sampling: "Mega Disasters," "Siberian Apocalypse," "Global Warming," "The Last Days on Earth," "Nostradamus," Meteors," "Asteroids," "Tsunami 2004," "Comets," "Antichrist," "Aftershock." And what followed this week of doom? "The History of Sex."
The media's approach to the news is not much different. It is sensational, scandal-driven, high-pitched and partisan. I grew up in a home where we watched the news every evening before dinner (at which point it was turned off) and I can't ever remember seeing people on television yelling at one another in an interview or round-table discussion. When Khrushchev slammed his shoe on the table and yelled at the U.N., it was shocking, as it well should have been. Now, to get our attention, everything has been kicked up a notch. And the danger is that while we're running around afraid of catching a cold or not making the perfect Christmas dinner, we're tuning out on the issues that will profoundly affect us all. Very little is presented in a rational way about what America is actually facing and what we might do about it, only what might one day happen.
What does a brain do with all that?
I would imagine that it starts to grow scales. Whatever it ultimately will do, we can't tell yet, but what we do know of this endless assault of disjointed, anxiety-inducing visual and auditory stimuli is that it is lighting up certain areas of the brain more than others. The parts of our brains that respond to aggression, fear and sexuality become ignited while the cortical areas, the frontal lobes and other more sophisticated, executive areas of the brain are dimmed. What the human being has struggled to become over the course of millions of years is being reversed.
Another way of understanding this is working one group of muscles more than another. Say I go to the gym four days a week and all I do is work my upper arm muscles. I don't bother with forearm, back, chest, abdominals or legs. What happens is fairly obvious -- one day I'm going to look in the mirror and see big arms on a small, limp frame.
What should we do? How can we reverse the current downward trend on the evolutionary scale?
Start with awareness. If we wake up and see the media's message for what it is, we can become less susceptible, less automatic in our responses and hopefully more thoughtful.
When an ad comes on or you see a product being promoted on a show or in a movie, remind yourself who and what put it there and why they're spending so much money to do that. Awareness limits the impact of the messages that bombard us. If a sentence in an advertisement starts with "could," "would" or "should," we can safely assume there's an incoming fear missile. "Could it happen here?" "Could there be a bomb on New Year's Eve?" "Should you get the vaccine now?" "Would you know what to do if..." Grammar is an extension of intent. Listen critically to what's being said.
We can then remind ourselves that the way products and services are presented (as image, as icon, as identity or extension of self) is illusory and speaks to our fears and inadequacies more than our good judgment. Know and remind yourself: they will never satisfy us in the way we are told they will. Stay conscious of the truth and you will recognize the lies.
Do the obvious. We can limit the amount of time we (and particularly our children) spend with television, iPods, Game Boys or cyber-tennis and make a conscious effort to spend more time with one another. I do not for a second imagine that Americans will all start taking up Buddhist meditation, but having a few minutes a day without having our senses assaulted might be a good idea.
The other day I met a friend at a place called the Hyatt Tamaya. It is a resort of sublime beauty, filled with roaring fires in handmade kivas, Native American artwork, sensual flute music and captivating views from every angle. I had to wait for her a while and sat near one of the fires when a man and his wife sat across from me. Presumably they'd come to the hotel together, but she sat in one corner of the couch reading a book and he sat in a chair with earphones blasting percussive music I could hear from more than 10 feet away. Why bother spending a night to tune out the place you're paying a fortune to be in doing what you do at home?
Ask yourself honestly: What drives you? And spend some time with that question before you answer it. Think about what motivates you to buy, what you buy and when you buy. Advertisers are counting on you to be reactive, not responsive.
Spend time doing things that are diametrically opposite to what is promoted in the media, such as being still, being with your family without electronic accessories, praying, walking, thinking, reading. Live slowly, breath deeply, linger.
Be present. Don't pursue anything. Especially happiness. It's a waste of time and will only serve to make you frustrated. The only place you can really have what you long for is where you are right now with exactly what you've got.
In a comment to my Dec. 14 HuffPost article "Stop Shopping and Start Thinking," one person wrote, "I don't believe there's anywhere left on the planet where you can find peace and connection to the natural world, without making a serious effort (maybe Bhutan?)."
And I thought about it. Has it really become that hard? Is there no place quiet in the world? Have the media and the golden arches made their presences felt everywhere? Then I wondered: What would an economy look like that wasn't based on growth, consumption and planned obsolescence? What would be different in a world that prized maintenance, stability and sustainability?