Reducing Joy to Self-Indulgence – Using Our Freedom Destructively

In many respects, Americans are freer today than ever before, with more Americans than ever before enjoying unencumbered access to the promise of American life.

I’m quoting Andrew J. Bacevich, retired US Army colonel, professor of history and international relations at Boston University, writing about American freedom, and values in American life today.*

He’s arguing that we’ve used our freedoms to become self-indulgent and arrogant, and to try to force the rest of the world to support that self-indulgence and arrogance.

Whether the issue at hand is oil, credit, or the availability of cheap consumer goods, we expect the world to accommodate the American way of life.

The resulting sense of entitlement has great implications for foreign policy.

He says it got us into Iraq, and into the Middle East in general, to protect “our pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness at home” – especially the self-indulgence that we see as “happiness”. So innocent Iraqis die, and our economy and military are stretched to or beyond their breaking points, to feed our self-indulgence.

But maybe we are getting some sense knocked into us.

Ironically Iraq may yet prove to be the source of our salvation… the ongoing war … has revealed the futility of counting on military power to sustain our habits of profligacy.

It’s no fun getting sense knocked into you!

Part of our problem is that in order to protect “freedom” we’re going to have to figure out what freedom is, and what it is for. He likes to quote the influential mid-20th-century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr is the one who wrote Moral Man and Immoral Society about how humans tend to be much more likely to commit evil as groups than as individuals.

Niebuhr once wrote disapprovingly of Americans, their “culture soft and vulgar, equating joy with happiness and happiness with comfort.”

Wow. That’s a serious degredation of values. Joy become mere happiness, which comes to be defined only as comfort. If you are living with comfort but without joy, I pity you.

Bacevich takes it one step further.

Were he alive to day Niebuhr might amend that judgment, with Americans increasingly equating comfort with self-indulgence.

Humans are made for “joy.” We need joy to be healthy. When we slide joy into happiness, then happiness into comfort, then comfort into the lowest of moral values, self-indulgence, we lose humanness itself. Sad to say I suspect there are lots of Americans who would argue that there’s really no scale there – there’s no functional or provable difference between joy, happiness, and comfort. I think that just proves Niebuhr’s point.

Do you ever experience “joy”?

*[The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, Andrew J. Bacevich, Metropolitan Books Henry Holt, 2008, p.9ff, and 12-13.]

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