Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Monday, December 18, 2006

This way of life

Last week I heard no less than three news stories that cited people mourning the loss of "their way of life":
  • Aging residents of Shanghai lamented the tearing down of their old neighborhoods, with houses designed with communal kitchens and tight-knit communities
  • Farm-Aid organizers, including Willie Nelson, bemoaned that the independent American farmer was becoming a thing of the past
  • Bushmen who had been expelled from their native lands in the Kalahari Desert were allowed to return to continue their hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

(And let's not pile on every administration press release and stump speech that reminds us that we have to defeat radical fundamentalist terrorism because "they hate our way of life and want to destroy it.")

I have always been a little perplexed by the glorification of "the way of life." Obviously it means a lot of different things to different people, and its broad sweep tends to allow for all kinds of equivocation. It conflates sacred ideals and beliefs with the accidental characteristics of daily life.

When I hear stories about an economic displacement -- family farmers or Maine lobstermen no longer able to make a living -- I feel bad for the people who are displaced, but it doesn't really inspire an genuine mourning in me. What, exactly, was lost? People used to have a certain job, and do it a certain way, and it was fun. Now that way is gone, and everyone who used to do it will do something else. Did you think that "way of life" would last forever? Do you think the Neanderthals grieved for the passing of their "way of life" as youngsters started getting into agriculture instead of hunting all the time, and building huts instead of living in caves? Such attachments to livelihood, while undeniably real, are purely personal and sentimental. It feels like the world is ending . . . but it's not.

Cultural displacements -- the loss of a native language, the dying of old traditions -- fare a little better in my mind . . . but only a little. People who love the stories and songs in an old language will mourn their passing. But just like the passing of an individual person, it is a death that is inevitable, a loss that is strictly personal. No language, story, or song will live forever, any more than a human being. And while it may be a tragedy for the native Urkuskian, that his traditional stories will no more be told, I don't feel all that deprived. It is someone else's loss, not mine.

So what, if anything, does matter in the "way of life" that everyone is so eager to preserve? The only thing that really matters to me is philosophic principles, ethical ideals and cultivated character traits. If, when you say that "the terrorists want to end our way of life," you mean, "they want to destroy personal freedom, democratic government, capitalist free markets, and respect for the individual," well, then I guess I'm on board to fight them. But if you mean, "they want to take away our shopping malls and 200 channels of television and internet porn and cubicle jobs" . . . um, well, if they wipe that out I won't mourn too much. Some "ways of life" deserve to die.

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