“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.” – Edward L- Bernays
Modern man is trained to think in certain ways and to turn away from anything that differs… to give authority the benefit of every doubt, instinctively and forever.
Nearly all of us have been pushed (nay, shoved) in that direction, and we’ve instinctively feared to break our inertia: “But I’ll be poor.” “Girls (or boys) will think I’m weird and won’t want me.” “Only crazy people step off the path.”
That path, however, has no end and kills us by inches. It was paved by our abusers and it is, in effect, a hamster wheel we never leave.
Back to 4000 BC
Between 5400 BC and 3800 BC, the model of rulership we know formed in Mesopotamia, beginning in a city called Eridu. With a few sags, breaks, and occasional exceptions, the basic pattern has held ever since.
The pattern, as we well know, features one group of men dominating all other people. This small group orders the others around, takes a large share of their earnings, punishes them if they fail to obey, sends their children to kill people they’ve never met (or to be killed by them), and is held to be righteous while doing so.
There are other parts of the model, and they’ve been consistent over the millennia as well: mandatory accounting, state-aligned intellectuals, surveillance, monuments, and the glorification of order. (Fear has always played a major role, but mainly because it’s the best way to make people stupid.)
None of those parts are our subject for today, however. As ridiculous as they are – and as horrifying as it is that they’ve continued since the Early Bronze Age – today I want to focus on the more intimate aspects of our abuse.
Like the Sumerians Before Us
I’ve written before on the obsession with status: It’s irrational and devolutionary, but it’s encoded in human cultures and was clearly involved in the model from 4000 BC. The great assyriologist, Samuel Noah Kramer, held it to be a fundamental part of the rulership model and described it as an “ambitious, competitive… drive for pre-eminence and prestige.”
And why was it made a fundamental part of the system? Because it distracted people from the fact that they were repeatedly being robbed.
The cultivation of status was used to drive men, even as the fruits of their labors were stripped away. It trained them to strive for a cheap imitation of actual rewards.
This scam began for the Sumerians in the same way it does for us: in school. “May you rank the highest among the school graduates,” is found among Sumerian inscriptions, just as it is among ours. Kramer describes the situation:
[T]he drive for superiority and prestige deeply colored the Sumerian outlook on life and played an important role in their education, politics, and economics.
The bosses from 4000 BC built hierarchical structures, each level of which gave its occupants a certain level of status – status they fought for all their lives. They could never be as high as the ruler, but they could at least be higher than their neighbor… and they learned to trade that for actual prosperity and self-determinacy.
What This Means
This means that all the times we ignored the small group of men stealing from us… and all the times we scrambled to be better than our neighbors… we were being suckers. (Sorry, but that’s the truth.)
Sure, we were born into it and were trained in it all our lives, but no matter how much we excuse ourselves (and we can, to a large extent), we were still playing the role of the sucker.
Which is more sensible, to work endlessly to convince people that you’re better than the guy across the street or across the hill, or to actually make yourself better?
Think about this: It’s more work to appear better than the other guy than it is to simply be better. So why do it the hard way? Why care about the other guy so much? Why not care about you – what’s in you, what you can develop, what makes you happy – rather than what impresses other people?
The Truth of It…
The truth of this is that all the status crap we’ve been immersed in – that we see 24/7 on Facebook and TV – is a huge, old scam. It tears us away from creating actual benefit for ourselves and our families and focuses us on the mere opinions of others… opinions that are subject to change at any time.
To work for real, concrete benefits is not only more rational than life on the hamster wheel, but it’s a far more efficient way to live.
Still, the ramp down from the hamster wheel is marked off with bright red tape, saying, “If You Cross, Everyone Will Hate You.” That can be scary.
Getting off the hamster wheel requires us to transcend our fears and even to suffer the slanders of those who remain on the wheel. In other words, it requires us to be heretics.
But if becoming a heretic sounds frightening, remember that the other choice is to yield your very life to your abusers.
Living as a heretic strikes me as far better than living as a hamster on a wheel.
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A book that generates comments like these, from actual readers, might be worth your time:
- I just finished reading The Breaking Dawn and found it to be one of the most thought-provoking, amazing books I have ever read… It will be hard to read another book now that I’ve read this book… I want everyone to read it.
- Such a tour de force, so many ideas. And I am amazed at the courage to write such a book, that challenges so many people’s conceptions.
- There were so many points where it was hard to read, I was so choked up.
- Holy moly! I was familiar with most of the themes presented in A Lodging of Wayfaring Men, but I am still trying to wrap my head around the concepts you presented at the end of this one.
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