Looking for a way towards civilization – II
by G.S. <george.salzman@umb.edu> 5 August 2008
this page is at http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/s/2008-08-05.htm

Although begun 5 Aug 2008, this was not posted until 11 January 2009
(for almost 4 months, from 13 September 2008, my FTP access to
my website was blocked by Univ of Massachusetts-Boston)

Drowning in the blood of Armageddon, II

An affirmation, and a suggested credo for civilization [1]

WE Americans know that we are not born to kill — that our newborns are as beautiful and rich in potentialities for having lives of love and mutual respect as any other peoples in the world. We know they don’t have to be turned into torturers, murderers, pillagers, psychologically deformed souls. It is up to us, we mature folks, to stop the carnage of a suicidal national government bent on global dominance — a crazed government driving them to slaughter their victims and to face their own maiming and death, and killing the spirits of billions of humans. It is up to us to make of America a land of life and love and not of death and destruction.


Natalia and her father, Juan José García Ortíz, in their home in Guelatao de Juárez, a small indigenous mountain town high in the Northern Sierras of Oaxaca, Mexico. Juan, a Zapotec Indian, is a video film maker. Natalia's occupation is "being a child", as it should be. Photo taken 23 November 2003 by G.S.

      We must cherish the children, all the earth’s children. They are the true treasures of all our lives. They bear the life of humanity. They are the link to the future, the only true, organic link. We must have a world full of laughing, playing children, and parents free of tortures, economic or otherwise, parents free to enjoy their children and to be enjoyed by their children. Those should be human rights.

      This simple statement — We must cherish the children, all the earth’s children — is the basic credo I suggest we need to adopt and live by – it or one equivalent to it – if we are to achieve a humane global social order. To say it is easy. To actually live by it is the difficult part, because, in fact,

Fascism can be comfortable – for us, we privileged people

      In the academic year 1958-59 my wife and I lived with our two young daughters (the older, 4 years; the infant, less than 1 year) in Geneva where we rented an apartment. The landlady and her family lived in the other apartment, on the second floor. They had a business - commerce in potatoes. The house, at Rue de L'Orangeie 8 (if I remember the number correctly), was a few blocks from the public elementary school where we enrolled Amy, who quickly became fluent in her young schoolmates’ French. Freda and I, both theoretical physicists, worked at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN in its French acronym). As young American academics, each then five years postdoctoral, we were relatively privileged in that social setting. We bought a small car, a Renault Dauphine, engaged a young German woman as an au pair to assist in caring for the children and with housework, and drove daily a few miles north-west in the direction of the French town of St. Genis, just one or two kilometers south-east of which, on the Swiss side of the frontier, lay the CERN laboratory. In Geneva, and in CERN the caste system was well established, and Freda and I were quite comfortable to be part of it. We lived in a state of political unawareness in which we took everything for granted. Aside from Franco’s fascist dictatorship in Spain, and to a negligible extent Salazar’s Portugal – mere blemishes – the world, and our lives, seemed to us hopeful with promise for the future. Notions of the nature of hierarchy, capitalism, the nation-state, the anarchist involvement in the Spanish civil war, were either non-existant or minimal in our consciousness.We lived in a state of shallow optimism.[2]

      During the year Freda and I went with Amy for a week vacation in Italy. We came back enthralled. A friend said to us that if we were so captivated by Italy we would love Spain. But Spain, or rather the Spanish government, was fascist and we weren’t willing to even consider vacationing there. Now, fifty years later, from my experience in Oaxaca since the imposition of overt fascism here two years ago, I know that as a privileged person I’ve not been significantly inconvenienced. It would surely have been the same in Spain had we visited – comfort for the privileged, and at the same time repression, even terrorism – as brutal or even lethal as deemed ‘necessary ’ for the rebellious population, to ‘keep them in their place’.

How ought privileged people respond to our circumstances?

      In the last essay ( linked to in Note [1] ) I mentioned that while the number of starving people and of deaths caused by severe malnutrition is increasing, crops for producing biofuels are displacing the cultivation of foodstuffs. This takes us to a core consideration. No function of any living organism is possible without its metabolic energy – energy from the organism’s biochemical processes. It is possible to live without non-metabolic forms of energy, which include electrical, chemical, wind, tidal, nuclear, thermal, and so on. However, people who are privileged are able to, and usually do use a great deal of non-metabolic energy, for example by driving their automobiles and using other high-speed transportation.

      For intuitive help it’s useful to give a simple suggestive name to all the forms of energy in the non-metabolic category. I will call them ‘mechanical’ forms of energy, even though technically this is not strictly correct.[3] But it has the advantage of suggesting technology and enables us to counterpose metabolic energy versus mechnical energy. This is useful for our thinking about how it is desirable to live and to ask ourselves whether we are better off relying more on metabolic rather than mechanical energies. In more everyday language, it poses ‘pure’technology against hand and animal labor.[4] I want to emphasize that I am not at all anti-technology, nor do I think hard physical labor ought to be glorified, especially by someone of my age who spends most of his working hours behind a computer screen.

      In the dominant ideology today, the idea of using technology to do as much work as possible and doing as little physical labor as we can manage is widely seen as ideal. However, in order to enjoy physical health our bodies need fairly regular exercise. So the ideal of a trim, muscular, at least moderately athletic body is also prevalent. We see the resulting phenomenon, namely many people who are privileged and use a great deal of mechanical energy also buy memberships in so-called health centers where they go on a regular basis to ‘work out’ on various exercise machines to ‘condition’ parts of their bodies. This is commercialization of machinery for promoting a technical solution to a health problem caused in the first place by the use of too much technology. Isn’t it absurb to buy endess gadgets like electric pencil sharpeners and trash compacters to get rid of one-time-use plastic juice or milk containers and then drive a big car to an exercise center or to buy a few groceries?

      Even in a society that we might call primitive inevitably there exists some modest technology in the form of simple tools. Stone axes, implements for making fires, bone needles for sewing, knives shaped from hard stone such as the mineral obsidian. Other primates, with hands also adapted to manipulate objects, utilize small sticks to drive insects from a protective nest in order to eat them. But in the entire spectrum of technological sophistication, our species is spectacularly unique in our ability to conceptualize the possibilities for extending, with machines, our abilities to do things which are impossible to achieve with our bodies and minds alone. Nevertheless, in every society, from the most humble ‘primitive’ group of people living together to the most ‘advanced’ modern society, there remains a good deal of manual work to be done. Artisans who construct musical instruments are usully well regarded, as are also those who work in decorative arts and crafts. But there is always a need for work that is more routine, repetitive, not particulatly imaginative or exciting but nevertheless essential to the community. In a rural setting it may be necessary to gather firewood, to carry clean water for drinking and cooking from a spring or stream, and to wash clothing items. In an urban center, rubbish collection and disposal come to mind. Cooking and eating utensils need to be cleaned. In every society there’s no end of humdrum tasks to be performed.

      Inevitably the essential manual work makes up the bulk of tasks that are repititious, such as food preparation, cleaning of living space, recycling the implements of everyday living (e.g. washing dishes instead of throwing them away, as is sometimes done with plastic plates and 'glasses'), and so on. Of course it’s not exciting to sort through a pile of beans prior to cooking them to remove small pebbles which, if not noticed may then be chewed on, possibly breaking a tooth, or to cull from a pile those fruits that have become too rotten to salvage. In the privileged sectors of modern societies, these and similar tasks are seen as chores, boring and undesirable but necessary, and the labor they require is often referred to as ‘shit work’, the vulgar term signifying that no one wants to do such labor. The key question is not so much to whose lot such work falls, though that too is important, but how are they regarded by other people in their society? Is the work people do used as the basis for a class society?

Essential labor, the privileged, and long-term sustainability

      What does it mean to be a privileged person? You are privileged if you can make choices in your life that are not available to a great many of the world’s people, choices that depend in significant part on your social status. Thus I am a privileged person, as are also many of my friends and aquaintances. Within this group the average amount of daily ‘bread labor’ – that is, labor essential to meet the basic needs for maintaining life – is negligible. Certainly it is negligible in comparison to the daily bread labor that those who constitute the great majority of the world’s population are regularly obliged to perform. The division between the privileged and the rest of humanity is, putting it crudely, the division between the rich and powerful and their allies on the one hand – all the privileged classes – and the poor and oppressed classes on the other. Under the rule of global capitalism this divide is becoming ever greater, and in my view is not only inhumane and therefore unacceptable, but a direct threat to the biosphere and to many species of life, including our own.

      Among the privileged classes there is generally speaking great resistance to accepting the fact that our relative wealth and luxurious living comes at the expense of the possibility of decent lives for other human beings. Most well-to-do Americans probably think of ourselves as middle class, not wealthy but comfortable, and take it for granted that we are entitled to the benefits we and our children can enjoy. In fact most of us are reluctant even to acknowledge that we are privileged. After all, we worked hard for ‘our’ money, or our parents did for the wealth that is now our inheritance. Belief in the sanctity of private property is deeply rooted in the ideology inculcated into us, as in all Americans, since birth. Our indoctrination with individualism – what’s mine is mine – is beyond question. The notion that we ought to ‘give up’ even some of our pleasures in order to use the wealth they normally consume for a social effort to make other people’s lives less inhumane hardly crosses our minds, and if it should happen to stray across our consciousness, we quickly rationalize it away.

      For most of us the idea that our way of living is contributing to other people’s destruction is uncomfortable in the extreme, and we’d rather not think about it. As long as we are not seriously inconvenienced in our immediate personal lives we tend to simply accept things the way they are, each of us telling ourselves that there’s really nothing I can do about it, so there’s no point burdening myself unnecessarily and futilely with troubling thoughts. Better to have some fun and relax. Go watch a ball game or soccer match, a play or movie. Visit a museum and then go to a good restaurant. Or a more exotic escape? – take a vacation – Europe? India? Antarctica? A cruiser tour of the fabled Greek islands? A wildlife safari adventure in Tanzania’s Seregenti National Park?

      Almost all of my friends are in what I'm calling the privileged classes. I believe that almost without exception each of them chooses to enjoy pleasurable diversions that are not options available to most of the world’s peoples. I am not arguing, nor do I believe that we ought not pursue any such activities. Rather I maintain that we would do well to try to be conscious of how our own individual behavior impacts on the world. To what extent do we accept our privileges unthinkingly, as my wife Freda and I did during our years in Geneva and Rome, as though we were entitled to them? I believe the sense of entitlement, pervasive in the middle and upper privileged classes, is insidious. If we are entitled to our privileges, then of course enjoying them is no reason to feel any sense of guilt. The notion of entitlement tends to deprive us of an active sense of compassion, that is, real compassion, and thus to some extent dehumanizes us. As Dr. Paul Farmer, a principal founder of the organization Partners in Health said in one of his books in defense of feeling pity and compassion, after all, we're not cockroaches. Paul, I like to say, is my kind of Catholic. He believes in ‘the option for the poor’, now disdained by the ruling Roman hierarchy in the Vatican, in accord with its traditional cozy arrangement with the ruling rich and powerful social sectors whose motto, unspoken or not, is manifestly ‘screw the poor’.[5]

      In addition to what I see as the moral imperative to curb our individual consumption in order to share the world’s bounty with others who are now in desperate need, our actions – the ‘normal’ unthinking behavior of the middle and upper privileged classes – directly supports the destruction of the global ecosystem by modern capitalist infrastructure. Through our unfettered consumption we are integral to the ongoing ecological catastrophe. Phil Dahl-Bredine, with whom I agree, argues against “a .lifestyle and a worldview that recent U.S. political leaders have identified as the American Way of Life” He continues, “This worldview and lifestyle exalts unrestrained accumulation and resource use, both individual and corporate. It justifies the privatization of the world’s resources in the hands of those who already control the lion’s share of those resources and is willing to defend the right to that lion’s share, our share, with the force of regressive laws, concentration of poitical and economic power in the hands of individual and corporate elites, and, ultimately, through war against the world’s poorer majorities.”[6]

To how much of the world’s wealth am I ‘entitled’?

      As one of the world’s privileged people, I ought to ask myself the same question I wish all privileged folks would confront themselves with. The relevant facts I face are: 1) My anticipated gross income this year is $80,068.96 [7]; 2) Phil Dahl-Bredine writes, “Nearly one-half of the world’s 6 billion people live on less than two dollars a day while the average yearly income of U.S. households is $60,528.” [8]; 3) Thus the income of my ‘one-person household’ is almost one-third more than the 2004 U.S. average household. With an average daily income of $219, which is more than 109 times what “[n]early one-half of the world’s 6 billion people live on” the key question I pose to myself is, what am I going to do with all the resources that income represents, over which I am given ‘legal’ control by a global social order that I see as heartlessly unjust and oppressive? And of course I pose the same question to other privileged people, What are you going to do with the disproportionate wealth over which the social order gives you ‘legal’ contol? For me, an effort to answer that question has been going on at least since the Viet Nam War when my wife and I sold all our stocks and bonds. Part of my current effort is reflected by a comparison of my Itemized Deductions (tax-deductable contributions to groups doing socially constructive work) for 2008, $39,603.76, to my Income Tax paid the IRS for 2008, $4,373.00. The ratio of wealth diverted away from government coffers to the amount of U.S. tax is 9.06:1, i.e. slightly more than $9 dollars diverted for each dollar of tax.

      The dominant ideology scoffs at me, in accord with the value system propagated by capitalism, holding that even if some of us are materially relatively well-off, something many of us prefer not to think about, and some are ready to deny, we are ‘entitled’ to what we have and are therefore not obliged to share it. The established legal systems are based on, and enforce the notion of the ‘sanctity’ of private property. The notion of ‘entitlement’ provides a psychogical rationalization for our cultivation of acquisitivness, or more crudely – greed. It’s not only legal but moral as well. Greed is supposedly everywhere. Naturally, it’s argued, because it is inherent in ‘human nature’. It’s in our genes.

      The concept of entitlement plays a large part not just in rationalizing individual behavior, but in supposedly justifying large-scale social atrocities. For example, the most dogmatic proponents for the state of Israel, who defend its calculated, unremitting aggression against the Palestinians, claim with religious absolutism that the Holy Land was given to the Jewish people by God. And they are ready to enforce their claimed entitlement by driving the Palestinians out by whatever means they are not afraid to use. So we see Jewish nazis claiming to act in God’s name as they torture and kill another group of human beings. What we, all peoples, ought to be entitled to are lives of dignity and social tranquility with respect for our so-called human rights, rights supposedly inherent in the fact that each of us is a human being.

      However, no living organism has any rights conferred by the laws of nature, not even a right to life itself. The concept of rights is always, and must be, a social construct that depends upon other living beings.

Incomplete ‘early draft’, but to be ‘completed’ in
Looking for a way towards civilization – III


NOTES
[1] The affirmation is a slightly modified statement from an earlier essay, Raw Hate, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year — a Christmas rant, which is at http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/S2/2007-12-25.htm . It is also in my last essay at http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/S2/2008-07-27.htm , where I followed it with ‘a suggested basic credo very close to’, We must cherish the children, all the earth’s children. The idea for the credo comes from George Wald, who gave a guest lecture in my Science for Humane Survival course at the University of Massachusetts on 18 Feb 1993. He titled his talk, ‘A Better World for Children’, explaining that he wanted something brief enough to fit on a button. More about this inspirational scientist is at http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/S
fHS/2005-05-23.htm

[2] Freda Friedman Salzman was a National Science Foundation Research Associate at that stage in her difficult career. Much information about her struggle to be a professional physicist in the male-dominated climate of those years is available at http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/Freda/index.htm. It ought not be necessry to say, though unjustly it perhaps still is, that Freda was an accomplished physicist in her own right. She was in fact by far more skilled than I, though that of course is not evident in the papers we published reporting on our joint research. Archives of her papers and of materials bearing on her struggle are in the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, Cambridge MA 02138 USA and in the Labadie Collection of the Hatcher Graduate Library at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109 USA. See http://oasis.lib.harvard.edu/oasis/deliver/~sch00889 for the Radcliffe archive.
    I am much indebted to Eva S. Moseley, the then curator of the Radcliffe Library, for her initiative in obtaining Freda's archival materials and having them catalogued and available for researchers. I am also much indebted to Julie Herrada, then associate curator, now curator of the Labadie Special Collection of the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library, for her work in preserving material on Freda's life. The Labadie is one of the preeminent U.S. collections of American labor and anarchist historical materials. For a bit on Julie and the Labadie, see the unsigned article at http://www.libraryjournal.com/article/CA200618.html, but ignore the opening, apparently obligatory mainstream nonsense that equates anarchy to chaos. It’s simply a required apology prefacing a favorable article about a scholarly, committed radical thinker who quite naturally holds anarchist views.

[3] The energies associated with machinery – in moving pistons, flywheels, etc. – are mechanical energies. They are capable of performing work. Electrical energy can, by means of an electric motor, be transformed into mechanical energy, but it can also be transformed into thermal energy and radiant energy by an electric lamp or heater. These latter are not, strictly speaking, mechanical forms of energy. Thermal energy can, however, be transformed into mechanical energy by a heat engine, as for example by a steam engine. What these forms of energy all have in common is that they are non-metabolic. In truth, as physicists understand it, energy is not used (i.e. not consumed – used up) in any process but transformed from one form into another, accompanied by the production of entropy. The first and second laws of thermodynamics formally encapsulate these ideas.

[4] Technology versus hand labor. For an extended, on-the-ground discussion of the considerations that ought to go into weighing how much technology is both ethical and preferable, one of the most inspirational books I know is The Other Game: Lessons from how life is played in Mexican villages, by Phil Dahl-Bredine and Stephen Hicken, published by Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY 10545-0308 (2008).

[5] Paul Farmer received both his medical degree and his degree in anthropology at Harvard University. A Wikipedia entry at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Farmer says, “Paul Farmer (born October 26, 1959) is an American anthropologist and physician, the Presley Professor of Medical Anthropology in the Department of Social Medicine at Harvard University and an attending physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. He currently resides in Cambridge, MA. His medical specialty is infectious diseases. Farmer is one of the founders of Partners In Health (PIH), an international health and social justice organization. His work is the subject of Tracy Kidder's 2003 book Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World.”

[6] The quote is from the Preface of Phil Dahl-Bredine’s book The Other Game: Lessons from how life is played in Mexican villages, pp.xi-xii. Phil Dahl-Bredine and his wife Kathy are lay missioners of the Maryknoll order who have lived and worked in the mountaneous Mixteca region northwest of Oaxaca City since 2000.

[7] Gross annual income. Projection based on the current monthly payments, it will consist of: Retirement pension from teaching almost 30 years at the University of Massachusetts, $52,874.40; Survivor’s pension from Freda Salzman’s years teaching at the University of Massachusetts, $5,033.76; the annuity from the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association and its associated College Retirement Equities Fund (TIAA-CREF), $12,378.40; Social Security, $8,378.40; Veteran’s Administration World War II compensation, $1,404.00. Total gross income, $80,068.96.

[8] The quote is from The Other Game: Lessons from how life is played in Mexican villages, p.xii. Phil’s endnote gives as his reference, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2007, Table #671, Figure from 2004, http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/.


All comments and criticisms are welcome.    <george.salzman@umb.edu>

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