Friday, November 23, 2007

Ecstatic Misery

Suffering shared is not just bearable, but a joy. Events of tragic enormity are transformative and elevating. To suffer on a stationary bike with a room of people--"spinning"-- is to unite with them. Clubs, fraternities, cults, armies, and nations are formed from collective suffering. Suffering in unison transforms pain into group hugs and good feelings.

If suffering together is pleasure, then suffering alone is an even purer form of pain. Martyrdom is a solo act. Jesus went to the cross alone. Most suicide bombers die surrounded only by their enemies.

In some cultures, group activity is more respected than individual action. In the United States the lone rebel is a respected archetype. Hate Rambo's politics? Well, how about about High Noon? Whether you think it's about fighting Communism or fighting McCarthyism, it's the same idea: the lone hero sees what the mob does not, that the enemy has to be fought. Erin Brockovich is the loan crusader; corporate boardrooms are the heart of evil. The Soviet state was monolithic and evil; Rambo was his own army. Sauron' army was massive and faceless; the heroes were scarce and diverse: hobbit, elf, human.

The charge of the light brigade was a doomed mass action for the best of reasons. In the Iran / Iraq war, the waves of children soldiers used as cannon fodder are venerated as having turned the tide in an infinitely terrible conflict. During the inflated real estate and stock markets of 1980's Japan, their society found security in doing it together. I believe the phrase the Japanese justified their massively over-inflated markets with was "if everyone crosses the street at the same time, no one gets hit."

"If everyone jumped off of a bridge, would you?"
Your Mom

Does any American feel truly proud for driving the same SUV as their neighbor? Do most Americans actually feel proud to shop at big-box Walmart or Costco? They might feel safer, or smarter because they're saving money, or obligated (ie there is nothing else), or comforted to be "normal," but most, I suspect, feel a little chagrined. It's embarrassing to do what everyone else is doing. Where is the pioneer spirit? Where is the novelty? First generation Americans might feel differently, especially when they come from a country much less affluent. Those with an imported perspective might simply marvel at the magnificent bounty of food and comfort, but for those second plus generation of people who have only known clean water, safe food, and an ever expanding world of media choices in the high cable channels, we feel that there should be something more. Where is our specialness? Where is our special contribution?

"Listen up, maggots. You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You're the same decaying organic matter as everything else."
Fight Club(1999)

In the America, group sacrifice is seen as an an inferior form of sacrifice. We can sell the idea of Pat Tillman dying bravely in battle (even if it turns out to be fiction), but a Mennonite family of 5 following one another to death in their farm's manure pit, seems almost like, well, a horrible joke. To be a "lemming" is not an act of bravery. Only herd animals fail in groups. Bison run over cliffs, turkeys suffocate in panicked heaps, sports and rock fans pack into crowded stadiums and trample one another to death. Dying alone is cool, dying together is just sad and/or reprehensible.

When an economic bubble deflates and the Cassandras and the contrarians turn out to have been right all along, the optimists, be they technology buyers (of the last century) or real estate flippers and get-rich middle class of the last few years, realize that they were not special and that history does repeat itself. The moral of the story turns out to be the same each time: the crowd doesn't necessarily provide protection, but it can amplify failure.

True, but in the context of the current economic melt-down, unfair. The millions of poor suckers being or about to be swept aside by the tidal wash of our imploding credit system were not necessarily stupid. Naive, greedy, hopeful, scammed by financial industries, ignorant, perhaps. But basically, most were trying to do what they were told was smart, wise, and patriotic. Clearly, the financial engineers of the Citigroups, and Merrill Lynches, and every other varied bit of the debt securitization machine weren't stupid either, in believing (or hoping) that distributing risk through debt repackaging, reselling and certification was an iron clad protection. It worked really well until it didn't and now they, like us, have learned that we've built a generation of house of false prosperity on economic toxic fill.


Where is the pleasure in this mass suffering? Well, the past 16 years have been an orgy of divisive politics and culture and consumer consumption. Most of us seem to have felt at least a little guilty about it, even as we enjoyed participating, whether it was watching Paris Hilton smear herself with 900 calories of scortched animal flesh, or bitching about Bill Clinton Newt Gingrich Hillary Clinton George Bush Red/Blue States. Perhaps our new-found baptism of holy economic misery will create unity and common cause. The white knuckled grimace of the coming economic free-fall will cut a broad swath across our culture. Watching our collective livers eaten by the world's vultures may bond us together as a country, once more.

The grotesque, bubble-based expansions of the 90's and the last 5 years gave us one set of feelings: brave, wise, and patriotic. The myth of an ever-expanding economy cranked on, even as the smell of smoke rose up from decks below. Now that we (all, not just a few) are starting to recognize that our good times were once again built on borrowed time and variable interest rates, we can have different set of feelings. We rose together, and now we can fail together. Which brings us back to shared pain and the building of unity. By creating a financial epidemic of global proportions, we have created a generous gift of shared misery.

\t : iPhone->you

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