Washington, D.C “our flesh
Surrounds us with its own decisions”
— Philip Larkin
Wonder why you have already broken all your New Year’s resolutions? Do not blame yourself — heaven forbid. Enlist modern sophistication and blame your brain’s frontal cortex, affluence, the Internet (the “collapse of delay between impulse and action”) and “the democratization of temptation.”
Those phrases are from Daniel Akst, a novelist and essayist whose book “We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess” notes that the problems of freedom and affluence — of “managing desire in a landscape rich with temptation” — are desirable problems. But they are problems and have fascinating philosophic entanglements.
American life resembles “a giant all-you-can-eat buffet” offering “calories, credit, sex, intoxicants” and other invitations to excess. Americans accept these invitations so promiscuously that bad decisions about smoking, eating, drinking and other behaviors account for almost half of U.S. deaths in “our losing war with ourselves.”
Life in general has become what alcohol is — disinhibiting. First, America was transformed from a nation of want into one of wants. Then the 1960s repudiated restraint, equating it with repression. Next, inflation in the 1970s discouraged delay of gratification.
Today, capitalism has a bipolar disorder, demanding self-controlled workers yet uninhibited shoppers. “Want to buy something?” Akst asks. “Chances are that nearby stores are open (many Wal-Marts virtually never close), and with plastic in your pocket you’ve got the wherewithal.” The Internet further reduces life’s “frictional costs.” But it increases distractions. Increasingly, Americans work at devices that can be stereos, game players, telephones, movie screens and TVs.
The inhibiting intimacy of the village has been supplanted by the city’s “disinhibiting anonymity.” Even families have dispersed within the home: Time was, they listened to one radio together; then came the transistor. As traditional social structures have withered under disapproval, and personal choice and self-invention have been celebrated, “second careers, second homes, second spouses, and even second childhoods are commonplace.”
What the cartoon character Pogo said many decades ago (“We have met the enemy and he is us”) is especially true of us wielding knives and forks: One-third of Americans are merely overweight, another third are obese. Since 1980, obesity has doubled. Akst says 1980 was about the time when the microwave oven became ubiquitous: The oven is emblematic of the plummeting effort required per calorie ingested. One estimate is that Americans’ per capita caloric intake has increased 22 percent since 1980, and the number of diabetics has more than quadrupled.
Pondering America’s “aristocracy of self-control,” Akst notes that affluent people, for whom food is a relatively minor expense, are less likely than poor people to be obese. Surely this has something to do with habits of self-control that are conducive to social success generally.
Environmental stimuli and our genetic inheritances circumscribe self-control, but Akst insists that we are not merely fleshy robots responding to them. Skepticism about free will has, however, become convenient and soothing, because exculpatory behaviors once considered signs of bad character have been drained of moral taint by being medicalized as “addictions.” When a political operative went five years without filing income tax returns, his lawyer explained this as “non-filer syndrome.” Akst wonders: “Isn’t it possible we are confusing human diversity with disease?”
If someone holds a gun to your head and demands, “Don’t blink or I’ll shoot,” you are doomed. But not if the demand is “Don’t drink or I’ll shoot.” Unlike Isaac Bashevis Singer, who said, “Of course I believe in free will — I have no choice,” Akst sides with William James: “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.” Akst says “we create the patterns that we are victims of,” and he considers the idea of self-control “perhaps tautological” because “who else besides me could possibly be in charge of myself, after all?”
As Akst recognizes, arguments about the reality of personal autonomy have political resonances: “If you believe your life is largely the result of your own discipline and decisions, you’re going to feel very differently about taxes, regulations and redistribution than if you believe your life is largely the sum of your genes and your environment — factors irretrievably beyond your control.”
Willpower, Akst says, is like a muscle that can be strengthened but is susceptible to exhaustion. Did you tell lots of people — did you blog about — your New Year’s resolutions? Akst knows why you didn’t: “self-control fatigue,” which is as American as microwaved apple pie.