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Copyright © 2003 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of November 12 - 18, 2003

Opinion Column

Some thoughts on the culture of control

Commentary by Dick Dorworth

"One of the favorite words of the industrial economy is ‘control.’ … But, because we are always setting out to control something that we refuse to limit, we have made control a permanent and helpless enterprise. If we will not limit causes, there can be no controlling of effects. What is to be the fate of self-control in an economy that encourages and rewards unlimited selfishness?"

— Wendell Berry

"If we will not limit causes, there can be no controlling of effects." This sentence is an articulate and concise description of the parameters of control in our culture. Without limits on causes, control is an illusion, a delusion, a hype, a spin, an extremely limited control or, according to Berry, "a permanent and helpless enterprise."

Still, our culture thrives on the enterprise of "control," permanent and helpless as it may be. Our terminology is full of phrases like "controlled growth," "under control," "control inflation," "control erosion," "traffic control," "crowd control," "weight control," "predator control," "wildlife control," "fire control," "damage control," "arms control," and, the most important one of all, "self-control." But if we lack self-control in an industrial economy that doesn’t permit us to control ourselves by limiting the causes of, say, industrial pollution, environmental degradation, poverty, corruption in places both high and low (increasing economic disparity between the haves and the have nots), the largest deficit in the history of the United States, a military budget larger than that of the combined military budgets of the next 20 nations, and preemptive warfare as an economic strategy, how can we reasonably expect, much less have the effrontery to demand or, even, ask, the rest of the world to take control of, say, anything?

"What is to be the fate of self-control in an economy that encourages and rewards unlimited selfishness?" It is not too much to postulate that the answer to Berry’s question is that self-control in our culture is largely out of control. Selfishness is one thing, a part of the human condition, that each person knows and deals with as he or she chooses. Unlimited selfishness is something else, a concept that should make even the least thoughtful pause for a moment to take inventory. A culture and economy that encourages and rewards unlimited selfishness is, by definition, lacking in control. It is not too much to suggest that such culture and economy is, as well, a self-mockery of the very concept of control. For just one example of many that could be made about our culture, one that brings it back home, to the dining room table, in fact: a few statistics from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases are relevant and informative. There are 58 million Americans who are overweight. There are 40 million Americans who are obese. There are 3 million Americans who are morbidly obese. Twenty-five percent of white American children are overweight. Thirty-three percent of African American children are overweight. Eight of 10 Americans over 25 years of age are overweight. One in four overweight children show early signs of Type II diabetes, and 60 percent already have one risk factor for heart disease. There has been a 76 percent increase in Type II diabetes in 30- to 40-year-old Americans since 1990. Eighty percent of Type II diabetes is attributable to obesity, as is 70 percent of cardiovascular disease. There are many other equally uncomfortable statistics showing that American dining habits, which are not the same thing as eating practices, are causing wide spread (sic) unhealthiness in the populace.

There are some people who are overweight because of genetics and health conditions beyond their control, but there are nowhere near 100 million of them in this country. Nearly 50 years ago the sagacious John Kenneth Galbraith wrote, "More die in the United States of too much food than of too little." Things have not improved in this regard in the past 50 years. In the world today more than 800 million people (three times the population of the U.S.) suffer from chronic, persistent hunger. Each day nearly 25,000 people on earth die of starvation. That’s 8 million people a year. Three out of four of those who starve to death are children. Something is obviously out of control in the world, and something different is out of control in America.

The personal, social, economic, medical (and health; which is not the same thing), spiritual and environmental costs of the out of control dining habits of America are beyond calculation. Those habits are both encouraged and rewarded in our industrial economy of unlimited selfishness. While the U.S has long prided itself on having the highest standard of living in human history, this amorphous claim can easily be challenged and, in any case, is a different matter from quality of life. If the U.S. truly had the highest standard of living in history, more than a third of its population would not feel compelled to eat themselves into a state of unhealthiness. Such compulsion is a sure sign of a lack of control.

This leads back to Berry’s question: "What is to be the fate of self-control?"



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