On The Alienated Right To Do Good

I just read a really wonderful essay in the January issue of Harper's, called "Army of Altruists," by David Graeber. It deftly links a tapestry of related topics: why Republicans won in '04, why they represent the working class, why working class people join the Army and why they hate intellectuals and even why some people have children. His thesis is basically that "Americans" (estadounidenses) are really all about wanting to be altruists, rather than all about ego and self-interest like the common wisdom and most economists say.

I was particularly struck, in a personal way, by this passage:

How many youthful idealists throughout history have managed to finally come to terms with a world based on selfishness and greed the moment they start a family? If one were to assume altruism were the primary human motivation, this would make perfect sense: The only way they can convince themselves to abandon their desire to do right by the world as a whole is to substitute an even more powerful desire to do right by their children.

This is an extremely important and resonant idea to me, especially since I have never wanted and have resolved to never have children.

Graeber goes on to explain in detail how ego and self-interest come out of markets, which historically have always spawned organized religions that extol the opposite: selflessness, charity, and a belief that material things aren't important. This explains, he says, how the U.S. can be the most materialistic and market-driven country in the world but also one of the most religious. But in our society, the poor are now precluded from the sort of priveleged life that enables people to have altruistic careers like human rights lawyers or professional activists. And so they join the Army, which takes care of them and gives them something noble to believe in that they're doing, and makes their life an adventure (which is what i always say i'm after, too).

This is important stuff. I wish it were online. Find this issue and read this.

re: On The Alienated Right To Do Good

i wonder if this means i will finally "come to terms" with the world based on selfishness and greed? no luck on that yet. mostly i have found that having a child makes me even more aware of the imbalances around me. maybe this would make a better email thread? but i guess i should read the magazine. or find religion! on a completely unrelated note (!?) we all got our passports renewed yesterday. heh

re: On The Alienated Right To Do Good

How did I know Jon would be the first to reply to this?

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