The question is often asked: “Why do people so often act against their better interest?” Cynics are quick to give a simple answer: “Because people are stupid.”
Americans are not stupid, however. In a country founded by intellectuals committed to literacy and education, citizens have been schooled in math, language, geography, science and literature. Our younger generation interacts with advanced technology as easily as the older cracks open a book, and the internet has become a virtual “library of Alexandria” encompassing the facts and figures of all history.
Americans may be accused of many things, but stupidity is not one of them.
No, something else is at play, and it has more to do with the nature of the “game” we all must join rather than the nature of the players. And make no mistake about it, people either become “players” or end up in the “penalty box”; in our game there are no time-outs nor spectators. Thus the decisions we make are not primarily reflections of judgment or morality nor are they products of faulty logic or misunderstanding of cause and effect. Our poor decisions are predictable outcomes of the game that must be played.
The name of the game is “Be Happy” and “Be Happy” is its only rule. Life, of course, contains many challenges — sickness, aging, injury and death, and also many joys — birth, laughter, beauty and art; the game of Be Happy concerns none of these. Be Happy is a directive, an imperative injunction; in our game happiness is not a pursuit, it is an order. By necessity, deeper contemplations born of complexity and nuance are discouraged.
Life is not always happy but the game accepts no excuses or exceptions. In mass-culture we each together make the mass, and mass-media transmits the rules. A new car, a bigger burger, a better smart phone, low-calorie beer, discount pricing, no interest loans, sugarless gum, bottled water; everything and everyone is in the Be Happy game. Seduction, distraction, intoxication and repetition form the core game techniques; speediness, vulgarity and ubiquity are its methods; fear, vanity, desire, aggression and sentimentality its tools. Sloganeering and cliché are the game’s stock and trade.
To opt out of the game is to be cast out – imprisoned, on welfare, addicted, homeless or in isolated madness. So marginalized, outcasts are made invisible so those playing the game ideally don’t see them. And the critics, artists or writers who pull aside the curtain to reveal the malicious nature of the game are attacked as subversive or ignored, unless they too can be bought-off, commodified and made a profitable part of the game’s mass-culture industry. Above all else, the truth of the game must be hidden.
The Be Happy game is an old one. In Homer’s “Illiad”, the warrior Thersites, portrayed as deformed and ugly, unleashes a critique of the Trojan war as senseless and wasteful and for it receives a beating at the hands of Odysseus who uses General Agamemnon’s scepter, symbol of the game, to deliver it. Thus the messenger of the game’s folly is punished.
The game once was a Western Hemisphere pursuit but has gone global, which of course will hasten its end; objectively, there will never be enough “stuff” to make everyone happy. But it must be asked: is it possible to stop the game before everyone loses?