Seeing Our Culture with Fresh Eyes

The other day, I read a novel called Prester John, by John Buchan, published in 1910. This story about a Zulu uprising in South Africa as experienced by a young Scottish immigrant is an entertaining read in the spirit of Rudyard Kipling or H. Rider Haggard: adventure in the furthest outposts of the British Empire.

But what makes this book most worth reading today is how many things the author takes for granted that we now know aren’t so, and even find distasteful. The racism of the book is shocking precisely because it is so casual and thoughtless, the innate assumption of white superiority.

Edward R Murrow smokingIt makes me wonder what people a hundred years from now will think of our popular fiction, our popular movies. What do we take for granted that they will find odd, and perhaps even distasteful? You can already see some obvious candidates in things that are still accepted, but barely, like smoking. How curious it is to see a movie in which everyone is puffing on a cigarette – for example, in Good Night and Good Luck, where Edward R. Murrow is shown delivering prime time television news with a cigarette between his fingers.

What will people think of our enormous steak dinners and obese portions of food? That’s on the cusp of changing. What will they think of our profligate use of fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources? Our assumption that the American way of life will go on forever, just as it is, much as the British thought their empire would go on forever? What about our assumptions about unlimited technological progress? Will science fiction visions of star flight or “the Singularity” seem as quaint as “the White Man’s Burden“?

Above all, what will they think of the appalling amount of waste in our culture? Have you ever walked through a tourist area – say Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco – and seen entire stores devoted to schlock, made in developing countries by people who must scratch their heads in wonder at a people so wealthy that they can afford to spend money on things that are so utterly and obviously useless?

But even the stuff that is useful is the product of a world that is as outdated and unnatural as the colonialism of the British Empire. We live in a throwaway culture sustained by sweatshop labor, which has replaced a culture of heirloom products that last generations. And that’s progress? (See Saul Griffith’s thoughts on why owning products that last a lifetime is an important part of going green.)

In this regard, I urge everyone to read Fake Steve Jobs‘ amazing column about the Foxconn employee who committed suicide after losing an iPhone prototype, I’m really thinking maybe I shouldn’t have yelled at that Chinese guy so much. Nat Torkington just quoted this piece in his Four Short Links for today, but the quote he chose is so appropriate to the post I have been writing that I just have to include it:

We all know that there’s no fucking way in the world we should have microwave ovens and refrigerators and TV sets and everything else at the prices we’re paying for them. There’s no way we get all this stuff and everything is done fair and square and everyone gets treated right. No way. And don’t be confused — what we’re talking about here is our way of life. Our standard of living. You want to “fix things in China,” well, it’s gonna cost you. Because everything you own, it’s all done on the backs of millions of poor people whose lives are so awful you can’t even begin to imagine them, people who will do anything to get a life that is a tiny bit better than the shitty one they were born into, people who get exploited and treated like shit and, in the worst of all cases, pay with their lives.

Not a pretty picture. But sometimes a look in the mirror is a good way to wake up and change your life.

We’re in the middle of a global economic downturn. Many of us imagine that our goal is to get things back to the way they were. I believe it’s an opportunity to imagine a better future, to build an economy that is more robust and more fair than the Ponzi economy of the last fifty years.

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