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May 1997, Volume 4 Nr.9, Issue 45

Comfort

In the past decade or two we, who live and work in the United States, have begun to believe that our children will live a lifestyle less comfortable than that of their parents. An idea often declared and repeated by the mainstream media, is that our offspring will have an economically tougher time than previous generations. This idea is so ingrained that it is seldom questioned.

We all want to be comfortable. Each of us have different interpretations of what we consider comfort to be. Noam Chomsky writes of a fundamental commonality of comfort that we may all share:

The core part of anyone's point of view is some concept of human nature, however it may be remote from awareness or lack articulation. At least, that is true of people who consider themselves moral agents, not monsters. Monsters aside, whether a person who advocates reform or revolution, or stability or return to earlier stages, or simply cultivating one's own garden, takes stand on the grounds that it is "good for people."

Our emphasis on always wanting to be comfortable and subscribing to the sense of rugged individualism often blinds us in our pursuit of truth. When we say, "I am well fed" or "I have nothing to complain about" – content with the way things are, then we may lose sight of who the people are that Chomsky refers to in his statement. The people are the collective we – not the egoistic "I".

The more comfortable we are, the more apt we are to blame others for our fear of losing our comfort. This subtle, yet significant shift in thinking, leaves us open to manipulation. When our comfort is threatened, then we are more open to accepting disinformation and taking on a point of view that seemingly protects our perceived position of safety.

Psychologists, psychiatrists and sociologists are regularly consulted in an attempt at discovering ever more effective methods of making us somewhat uncomfortable. One way this is accomplished is through the production of advertisements. The message is, that by buying the product or service, we will find ourselves in a higher state of comfort or be less uncomfortable. The acid indigestion needs to go away. We can sleep more comfortably lying on a new and improved mattress. Taking a small pill will make our acid indigestion go away.

Fear is another method of manipulating our comfort level. What would happen if we were to die now? Do we have enough life insurance for our loved ones to live comfortably after our demise?.

Scare Tactics

A scare tactic is a deliberate attempt at using fear in adjusting our comfort level. For example, we hear politicians say that Social Security is in such poor condition that if something is not done soon, then there will be few funds available for anyone – especially after the baby boomers collect their benefits. The system is in need of a big overhaul, they say. Do we not want the next generation, whose lifestyles already appear diminished, to have any Social Security benefits?

Many baby boomers are comfortable and wish to remain so. The next generation, however, is being told that they will have the burden of coughing up the retiring generation's Social Security payments every month for all those extra years that boomers are expected to live. How uncomfortable.

The statistics seem to bear out our discomfort. The number of baby boomers about to retire is considered to be shockingly high. What's worse, the thinking goes, the number of people currently receiving social security benefits is huge. According to government statistics, as of March, 1997, 43,646,300 persons were receiving Social Security benefits, sixty-two percent of them being retired workers.

Comfort is the philosophy that causes our anxiety about Social Security. However, this is an example of discomfort created for the purpose of achieving a desired outcome. Corporate interests simply wish us to believe that the Social Security System needs to be changed because government ineptitude is making the system go broke. The hidden agenda is access to greater and greater corporate profit. In other words, corporations want us to believe that only they can save the system and run it better through privatization. In a note contrary to the doomsayers, Social Security commissioner Shirley S. Chater recently reported,

Many people don't believe in the future of Social Security because they think the program is going broke. That simply is not true. The Social Security program is not in financial danger and there is no immediate crisis...In fiscal year 1995 alone, the Old Age, Survivors and Disability Trust Fund took in $400 billion in income and paid out $340 billion -- adding over $60 billion to a trust fund balance that stood at nearly $500 billion at the end of the fiscal year...and that trust fund is going to keep growing, according to projections, for the next 17 years.

The national discomfort level is tweaked, being raised or lowered, according to whatever vote is upcoming in Congress, the upcoming election, trial, declaration of enemy or war, rise in interest rates or unemployment, downsizing, etc. Polls analyze the public's discomfort level – not in an attempt to determine the best course of action for the people, but rather to determine what will sell the best, whether it be a product or a policy.

Risk

Basking in comfort requires very little risk. When we are comfortable, we avoid taking risks. After all, what would be the benefit of jeopardizing the comfort that we have? Over a long period of time, while in the pursuit of comfort, we unwittingly reorganize our priorities and immobilize our ability to stand up for what we know deep down inside is right and just. We sell out. Why then would it matter that our comfort comes about at the expense of someone else?

I believe that the comfort we so cherish is a facade. It looks good, but underneath there festers a malaise. While we may revel in the things that we have, the gourmet food that we eat, the designer clothes that we wear, the good fortune of a job and the automobile(s) that we drive, there remains an underlying unhappiness that pervades our lives. It is not a painful unhappiness but, rather a dullness of the senses that in quiet moments whispers, "What is wrong here?" It is almost as if we go through the day-to-day motions of living and going to work without ever considering what we might be doing differently in order to make the world a slightly better place for all.

A Framework

Most people in the United States would say that they subscribe to some form of Judeo-Christian ethic. In the United States, many in the Christian faith are Roman Catholic. In November, 1996, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued A Catholic Framework for Economic Life. While not all people in the United States are Roman Catholic, acting on the issues presented by the Bishops would go a long way in raising the comfort level of those less fortunate than us. Doing so however, may have the consequence of taking some risks. We may alienate our neighbors, friends, family members, coworkers, boss, employees, etc. The Catholic Bishops declared:

As followers of Jesus Christ and participants in a powerful economy, Catholics in the United States are called to work for greater economic justice in the face of persistent poverty, growing income gaps, and increasing discussion of economic issues in the U.S. and around the world. We urge Catholics to use the following ethical framework for economic life as principles for reflection, criteria for judgment and directions for action. These principles are drawn directly from Catholic teaching on economic life:

  1. The economy exists for the person, not the person for the economy.
  2. All economic life should be shaped by moral principles, economic choices and institutions must be judged by how they protect or undermine the life and dignity of the human person support the family, and serve the common good.
  3. A fundamental moral measure of any economy is how the poor and vulnerable are faring.
  4. All people have a right to life and to secure the basic necessities of life (e.g., food, clothing, shelter, education, health care, safe environment, economic security).
  5. All people have the right to economic initiative, to productive work, to just wages and benefits, to decent working conditions as well as to organize and join unions or other associations.
  6. All people, to the extent they are able, have a corresponding duty to work, a responsibility to provide for the needs of their families, and an obligation to contribute to the broader society.
  7. In economic life, free markets have both clear advantages and limits; government has essential responsibilities and limitations; voluntary groups have irreplaceable roles, but cannot substitute for the proper working of the market and the just policies of the state.
  8. Society has a moral obligation, including governmental action where necessary, to assure opportunity, meet basic human needs, and pursue justice in economic life.
  9. Workers, owners, managers, stockholders and consumers are moral agents in economic life, by our choices, initiative, creativity and investment, we enhance or diminish economic opportunity, community life, and social justice.
  10. The global economy has moral dimensions and human consequences. Decisions on investment, trade, aid and development should protect human life and promote human rights, especially for those most in need wherever they might live on this globe."

Participatory democracy entails responsibility to political, social and economic justice. Sometimes, doing so involves taking risks and becoming uncomfortable. On May 17, 1997, Pastors for Peace, an interdenominational organization led by Rev. Lucius Walker, Jr., arrived in Havana, Cuba with 500 tons of humanitarian aid. The organization acted on their beliefs and took the risk of ignoring what they believed to be an immoral economic blockade of Cuba. We might say that they acted in accordance with the last principle (number 10) as stated by the Catholic Bishops' Framework for Economic Life, when they delivered,

a computer-equipped mobile library; an ambulance filled with specialized pediatric medicines; four school buses and several vans; six dialysis machines, an incubator, and hundreds of tons of medical and dental equipment; 50,000 pairs of eyeglasses, equipment for the blind, deaf and disabled children; and family needs such as soap, shoes, clothing, toothbrushes and powdered milk. The aid will be received by an ecumenical committee of Cuban clergy who will distribute it according to the most pressing needs."

Speaking of the blockade – as you read this issue of Metaphoria, can you think of the reasons why the blockade is in force? It has been for 34-years and is about to grow tighter with more enforcement of the Helms-Burton Bill. This law is "specifically designed to curb third-country investment and calls on Clinton to seek U.N. action to make the 34-year-old U.S. embargo on Cuba global."

For the fifth (editor's update) consecutive year, the General Assembly of the U.N. approved a Resolution condemning the economic blockade that the U.S. has applied to Cuba for more than 30 years. Votes in favor of the Resolution have grown from 59 in 1992 to 117 in 1995.

Year For Against Abstentions
1992 59 3 71
1993 88 4 57
1994 101 2 48
1995 117 3 38
1996 137 3 25

Finally, it should be pointed out that social injustice exists to some degree or another in all countries without exception and should be called wherever observed. Doing so, however, does not abrogate a responsibility to doing what is right and just within the context of one's life and where they live.

Masks

Human beings wear many hats. The educator, in addition to being a teacher, may become a facilitator, counselor, disciplinarian, writer, publisher, father or mother for their own children, role model, gardener, musician, cook etc. Just as we take on many roles within the context of who we are and what we do, we also cover up what we feel and don't like about ourselves. Masks are the facades that we present when we desire consciously or unconsciously to be or be seen as someone else. We may change masks when we change hats and vice versa.

When we recognize that we are being confronted with situations or ideas that challenge our notions of comfort, we might respond with putting on a mask which compliments the hat. To change hats and masks is to be human. However, when the masks that we wear come from a source other than our own making, then we allow the choice of facade options to be determined by factors who are manipulating by appealing to our sense of unease. I am not suggesting conspiracy. Rather, social systems have a tendency to settle into a mode of operation where there are controlling forces and people, and situations that are controllable and controlling.

In the past three weeks, Western Europe and Canada have seen a political shift of unparalleled proportions since the end of World War II. There have been unprecedented electoral victories for the left in both England and in France. In England, the Labor Party posted a stunning victory in Parliamentary elections. In France, the Democratic Socialists won with such overwhelming margins, that the election outcome has become a statement reaffirming that people are more important than profits. In Canada, the New Democratic Party has doubled its membership in Parliament.

The point that I am trying to make is that while Western Europe is undergoing these major changes and Canada, our neighbor, recommits to the idea that people come first, we, in the United States, are debating – the case of Paula Jones versus President Bill Clinton and countless examples of sexual adultery in the Armed Forces . Rather than discuss and debate the meaning of the fact that 11 out of 16 countries in the European Union are now run by Social Democrats, we are instead fed with the daily salacious news reports concerning the President – "Did he or didn't he?"

Are we that uncomfortable with facing up to the mirrors thrust in front of our masks, that we are compelled to put masks onto others – those who may be holding the mirror up to our face? It is much easier that way to label and categorize them according to the same parameters by which, we have ourselves, been manipulated into. The machinery has successfully appealed to our sense of discomfort. Is this not exactly what Senator Joseph McCarthy did in the late 1950's? Is this not what people do when they are confronted with the statistics that the United States has the greatest disparity between rich and poor in the industrialized world and they respond with, "Poor people are responsible for their own problems" or "The homeless choose to live that way." Senator Joseph McCarthy was a master at masking others (calling many good citizens communists) for standing up to his undemocratic tactics.

Sight Unseen

A few days ago, the Vermont State committee responsible for wisely and profitably investing Vermont Teachers' pension funds made a decision not to divest the Vermont Teachers Association's members $2,000,000 from stock holdings in the tobacco industry (the Vermont Education Association has in 1992, recommended full divestment). The committee, wearing the hat of financial advisor, placed the mask of caretaker (of the teacher collective's best financial interest) on its face. The committee needs to take a close look in the mirror. There are other choices.

Returning to Noam Chomsky's "core part of anyone's view" (page 1), just who are the people in the phrase "...takes a stand on the grounds that it is 'good for people.' " The committee lost sight of who the people are. The people are not the narrowly defined group of investors within the teachers' association who are entitled to the best return on their money from their pension funds (who themselves would rather divest). They are the people who are harmed by the tobacco investment – the masses who die by the thousands each year from smoking and smoking related illnesses.

The Shafer Library of Drug Policy publishes a book entitled, Basic Facts About the War on Drugs. Consider the statistics:

The number of drug deaths in the US in a typical year is as follows:

  • Tobacco kills about 390,000.
  • Alcohol kills about 80,000.
  • Sidestream smoke from tobacco kills about 50,000.
  • Cocaine kills about 2,200.
  • Heroin kills about 2,000.
  • Aspirin kills about 2,000.
  • Marijuana kills 0. There has never been a recorded death due to marijuana at any time in US history.

All illegal drugs combined kill about 4,500 people per year, or about one percent of the number killed by alcohol and tobacco. Tobacco kills more people each year than all of the people killed by all of the illegal drugs in the last century.

When we do not see who our investments directly affect, then it is that much easier for us to believe that they are harming no one. When the people are out of sight – they are out of mind. It takes some effort, some research and mostly a desire to find out where investment money is going. What we find out may cause concern and discomfort.

Perhaps, we can see discomfort as an emotion – an alarm bell sounding telling us that we need to pay attention and do something. Possibly, rather than using discomfort as an excuse at becoming defensive, we can, as Noam Chomsky suggests, take a stand on the grounds that it is good for people.

Quotes

From ignorance our comfort flows.

Matthew Prior

The lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house as a guest, and then becomes a host, and then a master.

Kahlil Gibran

But is there any comfort to be found?
Man is in love and loves what vanishes,
What more is there to say?

William Butler Yeats

Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts, of life are not only indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.

Henry David Thoreau

The scholar who cherishes the love of comfort is not fit to be deemed a scholar.

Confucius

1997 Jozef Hand-Boniakowski

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