Thursday, May 25, 2023

Down the Rabbit Hole


Down the Rabbit Hole

I wrote in my last column about the power of advertising to seduce folks into buying things they don't need. I foggily remembered reading a great description of why that happens. To refresh my memory, I dug out what had once been my bible, "Your Money or your Life" by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin, written in the 1990s.⁠1 Regrettably, over the years, I've let slide much of their advice about the advantages of practicing voluntary simplicity and living below your means.

The beginning of the book gives a brief history of how we sell things in America. During most of our country's history, we primarily bought only items we needed, but that changed when advertising came into its own in the 1920s. At that point, modern manufacturing advances became providing the products Americans needed at lower and lower costs. Having their needs more easily satisfied, workers instinctively began asking for a shorter work week and more time for leisure. It didn't occur to them to work longer to get things they didn't need.

As a result, economic growth started going down.

The tycoons of big business were apoplectic because their profit margins were suffering. Into the breach to save the day came modern advertising, based on a brand-new premise: while real needs are limited, the sky is the limit for our wants. This notion was incorporated as a mantra in Herbert Hoover's 1929 economic report, celebrating the discovery that when we satisfy one want, it makes way for another. "The conclusion is that economically, we have a boundless field before us; that there are new wants which will make way endlessly for newer wants, as fast as they are satisfied."⁠2

And so it came to be. We became a nation of consumers chasing each new want concocted on Madison Avenue. They have shown no mercy, pushing ever more absurd products to shrill. A perfect example is the campaign to sell us new beverages.

For tens of thousands of years, people had no qualms about drinking water for free from lakes and rivers and, more recently, right out of the tap. Unfortunately, by the time I was growing up in the 1950s, modern advertising had already made water obsolete. Coke and Pepsi were kings by the time I came around. But as we all know, that didn't last forever: The health craze came along and poisoned the soft drink well. 

Drinking water once again came back in vogue to appease the new god of hydration – but only expensive bottled water was deemed appropriate, not free water out of the tap. And so it stood, or so I naively believed, until I recently read about advertising's latest triumph in the NYT. Over the past decade or so, water-flavoring offerings have exploded across our country and the world.

I missed the trend because I was drinking beer.

This part of the ready-to-drink (RTD) beverage market has been skyrocketing, with sales increasing by 42 percent in the last three years. Globally, the RTD market is expected to approach $100 billion by the start of this year⁠3

These water additive companies pitch their drinks —  often made with artificial sweeteners and flavorings — as a means to help people hit their hydration goals. “It’s Mary Poppins logic: A spoonful of (sugar-free coconut syrup) makes the (tap water) go down.”⁠4 Yet it’s strikingly

 effective as one true believer, a history teacher from South Texas, confessed: she said going back to drinking tap water would feel like “drinking my own saliva.”⁠5

In the opinion of this old Yankee curmudgeon, this advertising blitz is not a Mary Poppins' story: It is a bad trip from Alice in Wonderland, where corporate capitalism in cahoots with modern advertising is cajoling us to dive down the rabbit hole of insanity.



1 “Your Money or Your Life” by Joe Dominguez & Vicki Robin. Viking Penguin: 1992.

2 Ibid. P. 16



5 Ibid

Thursday, May 18, 2023

We all like "time-saving" devices, but what are we saving time to do?

Fishing on Jenness Pond
CC Jean Stimmell

L. M. Sacasas is the author of an illuminating newsletter, The Convivial Society, tracing the intersection of technology, society, and morality. He states a well-known truth that the best way to sell new products in America is to advertise them as "time-saving." He follows that up with an unanticipated question: "What precisely are we saving time to do?" 

Most people have no ready answer.

Thinking about it, I believe the answer has changed over time. In the olden days, folks might say they would take their "spare time" as a chance to relax and enjoy leisure time. That might mean things like sitting on the porch in your rocking chairs watching the sunset with your spouse – and perhaps reflecting on the bigger questions in life, values you didn't get a chance to think about in the bustle of daily living.  

Nowadays, It's no longer enough for us to use our spare time to relax: now we must recreate (do recreation). We are told at every turn that we owe it to ourselves to make our leisure time more exciting and enjoyable – which, in America, requires spending money.

Casting my eye around any neighborhood confirms this observation: most yards are packed to overflowing with boats of all sizes, travel trailers, RVs, and commercial-sized lawn tractors, complete with all the accessories – with snowmobiles sitting forlornly off to the side from lack of snow.

All these toys cost big money to buy and maintain, requiring the owner to work more hours, not less, just to make the payments. Where's the time-saving in that? And what happened about finding the time to ponder the big questions?

People weren't as hooked on buying things to save time when I was growing up. I remember seeing my cousin fishing with his grandfather George every year during summer vacation. They were a fixture on Jenness Pond, bait-fishing for bass in their ancient wooden boat with a three-horse Johnson outboard motor. No movement, just sitting there hour after hour, one with the lake like Zen Masters.

George was intimate with the lake's topography, knowing the location of every submerged ledge, every underwater spring. He knew every inhabitant of the lake, their desires and proclivities, and how they interacted with each other in any possible weather condition. Locally, he was known as the bass guru.

Now fast forward to the frenzy on Jenness Pond today: 100 horse-power, streamlined bass boats flitting around the lake like predatory wasps guarding their nest. Catching bass was the natural result of George's profound knowledge of the lake and the foibles of the fish. To use the current lingo, George and my cousin were successful because of their deep "sense of place." They were wedded to Jenness Pond, while the modern intruders are married to their 30-thousand-dollar bass boats.

Sacasas is rightfully concerned that this quest for efficiency can rob us of our soul, reducing our lives  to “quantifiable outcomes and measurable outputs.” What we lose in this Faustian bargain is the essence of who we are: the particular ways we pursue our goals – “in the ways we are involved, invested, and engaged in the tasks that make up our days.”

As an alternative, Sacasas asks, what if we could view our tasks not through the lens of  cold-eyed efficiency but “as a means of keeping faith—with our neighbors, with our friends, with our family, perhaps even with ourselves?” And I would add, keeping faith with our little blue planet, the only home we have.”⁠1

To my way of thinking, he has hit upon a root cause of the psychological and moral malaise our country suffers from today.





Thursday, May 11, 2023

Why We Need Hands: A Rant

CC Jean Stimmell

Making things with your hands gets a bad rap today. It's so blue-collar. You're a failure if you don't go to college to get a white-collar job so you can lounge behind a desk. That's so wrong, I could scream!

To me, working with your hands is not only an essential aspect of being human but also one of the most joyous and uplifting. While I admit that a part of me has always been drawn to the philosophical and the abstract, that's always been balanced by a passionate need to work with my hands. The best example from my life is, perhaps, when I dropped out of sociology graduate school to establish a career building stonewalls for twenty years.

In a similar tale, Matthew Crawford writes about changing careers from a philosopher to motorcycle mechanic in his book, "Shop Class to Soul Class." Like me, he needed a physical practice "to serve as an anchor to the world beyond one's own head”⁠1

Now, more than ever, we will all need a secure anchor to the physical to prevent being blown away by Artificial Intelligence (AI), a massive storm on our horizon. We will need our bodies if we expect to survive: They are the essence of what makes us human and our conduit to what's really real.

Biologically, we are living, breathing animals tethered to Mother Earth by sensitive, flesh-and-blood bodies. We also have exquisitely dextrous hands with opposable thumbs. But they can get us in trouble. Because of their tinkering, software engineers and their masters are concocting a brave, new world where we no longer need a physical form or worry about feeling pain – in other words, a world where we are like gods. 

However, if technicians successfully build this virtual world, we will find ourselves not free but captive, reduced to living in whatever world AI projects on our screen. We will forfeit all input, and AI will rule the day. Sadly, our new rulers can probably get away with enslaving us, as long as they continue to sedate us by streaming us irresistible series to watch.

There’s an existential danger here.

By falling victim to AI, we will be stripped of what makes us uniquely human. That's according to Carrie Barron, M.D. in Psychology today.⁠2 She has found that creating or tending things by hand enhances mental health and makes us happy. She calls it a primal human need. Spending too much time on technological devices "deprives us of processes that provide pleasure, meaning, and pride."

She adds,“Making things promotes psychological well-being. Process is important for happiness because when we make, repair or create things we feel vital and effective. It isn’t as much about reaching one’s potential as doing something interesting–less about ambition and more about living.”⁠3

Mathew Crawford also sees the eroding of manual skills as part of a much bigger problem: "a fundamental change in how we relate to our physical stuff. As consumers, most of us no longer make things, but buy them instead; we no longer fix things, but replace them." 

As a result, we become passive, dependent, and more easily manipulated. Our physical surroundings no longer hold our attention, and we succumb to what Crawford calls "virtualism" – "a vision of the future in which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy."⁠4 

I admit it: We humans are real pieces of work: quarrelsome yet endearing social animals, seemingly just bumbling along. Still we must not allow AI to harness our ineptness for high tech aspirations that will undoubtedly be highjacked by nefarious actors.

While we may appear incurable, perhaps we are part of an unfolding masterplan bigger than we can imagine. That’s according to the French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Cardin⁠5. He says that while we may act like children now, we are not just any children:  he envisions us maturing over time to fulfill a great role: to be the ones who reflect the consciousness of the universe.


Let’s not let AI sell us short.



1 Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work. Matthew B. Crawford. Penguin ~ 2010






Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Trauma and Trump


At the Vietnam Memorial during the Woman's March on Washington DC: 3/9/86
CC Jean Stimmell

I was taken aback when I heard she had written a new book. She had disappeared from sight over 30 years ago after a devastating injury. No, she wasn’t an old flame: I never met her, yet she has been a guiding light in my life. Her name is Judith Herman, M.D.

When I was on the rivers of Vietnam, she was launching a career that revolutionized how we understand psychological trauma, whether sexual or combat-related. As a  result, a woman is no longer automatically judged to be a slut or a liar if she reports being raped; and a soldier is no longer considered a coward if traumatized by war. 

After returning from Vietnam, I, too, disappeared for close to 30 years, finishing college and becoming a stone mason. Yet trauma was never far from my mind after what I had seen in Vietnam and, to a greater extent, what my high school veteran friends told me about their tours of duty, much more extreme than mine. It’s not surprising I have so many old friends who are veterans.  

Pittsfield is a rural, patriotic place that has always sent its young off the war. Out of my circle of acquaintances who served in Vietnam, two were killed, three seriously wounded, and two committed suicide, including a recon marine who had received a silver star for valor in combat. 

In my forties, my body rebelled against the stress, strain, and sun damage from lifting rocks shirtless under the hot sun. I went back to graduate school to become a psychotherapist. But no small part of my effort was to help my friends and myself figure out what had happened to us. That's when I ran across Judy Herman's groundbreaking book "Trauma and Recovery."

Herman's book was an indispensable resource, guiding me toward a career specializing in trauma. The first step in treatment, according to her, begins with a safe place and a trusted therapist to start piecing together a truthful story from shattered shards of traumatic memory; then, over the rest of treatment, assist survivors to "re-create the flow" of memory, transform the recollection, and mourn that traumatic loss."⁠1

Herman’s new book, Truth and Repair, picks up where she left off thirty years ago,  arguing that trauma is better understood as a social problem, not an individual one. As trauma pioneer Bessel van der Kolk has written, “Herman brilliantly confronts us with another vital, but much ignored, aspect of recovery: social justice. Justice is an essential component for healing the godforsaken sense of humiliation and abandonment so central in traumatizing experiences.”

Herman's research has produced some surprises: when survivors of sexual trauma were asked what true justice would mean to them, they overwhelmingly looked for acknowledgment and amends from bystanders – rather than from offenders alone.

Herman explains that "these survivors "knew that many people in their communities enabled the offender's behavior, either by complicity or by inaction, or worst of all, by blaming the victim. This betrayal often hurts even more than the offender's crimes. To make things right, survivors needed the larger community to acknowledge their suffering and to take responsibility for making amends.⁠2

I have to say, Herman's new book, appearing at this exact moment, seems like divine justice. That's because, right now, Donald Trump is defending himself against E. Jean Carroll's civil suit declaring he raped her. Meanwhile, seventeen other women await their day in court to tell a remarkably similar story of how they were assaulted by Trump.

Will Donald Trump finally be exposed as the serial sexual perpetrator he is? And, in a related matter, will he be held to account for disparaging combat veterans, many with PTSD? As just one example:

In a previously unreported 1998 interview with Howard Stern, Trump compared sex to going to battle in Vietnam: He claimed that because he slept with so many women during the Vietnam era, he faced a higher risk of dying from an STD infection than a soldier did from combat. For that sacrifice, he joked, he should be the one getting a Congressional Medal of  Honor.”⁠3

In her first book, Herman wondered if anything would change. "The study of psychological trauma has repeatedly lead into realms of the unthinkable and foundered on fundamental questions of  belief.”⁠4 However, a new day is now dawning because of her seminal work.

I predict E. Jean Carroll’s suit against Trump will be a memorable turning point in history:  the beginning of a true restorative justice  movement where society validates and supports those who have been abused, slandered and discounted.






4 Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman. Basic Books: 1992. Page 7.