Thursday, December 11, 2008

Have a subversive Christmas

In David Loy's collection of essays entitled The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory, there is an essay called “Pave the Planet or Wear Shoes?” Toward the end of that essay, Loy observes that if a religion is a set of views and values and their corresponding practices that plays the greatest role in giving shape to one's daily life, then the principal religion in America is consumerism. When one considers the huge amount of time and money devoted to making Americans crave some product they don't really need, and the amount of time and money Americans spend working for the money to buy those products, shopping for them, protecting them once purchased, storing them and eventually disposing of them, Loy may well be onto something.

I recently assigned Loy's essay to a class in Buddhist philosophy. After saying a little about Loy's work and this particular essay, I broke the class up into small discussion groups and asked them to discuss several questions I had provided for them. One of them was a question about Loy's claim that consumerism is the prevailing religion in today's America. It was interesting to hear students talking about various products they had no idea how they could possibly live without. The products at the top of their list were all things that did not exist ten years ago—products that I have lived without for my entire life and probably will never have a hankering to own. If consumerism is the religion of our day, my students would appear to have taken the catechism classes and had their Confirmation. With only one or two obvious exceptions, most of them are not exactly true believers—most of them seem to reject the ideology of consumerism when it is stated in plain language, and they know it is in some way not cool to be materialistic. But if not believers, they appear to be at least observant practitioners.

The Christmas season is upon us, and it has been evident to many observers ever since I can remember that Christmas in America is much more about the practice of materialism than about anything that opposes, or even questions, it. A few American Christians manage to get worked up over what some of them call a “war on Christmas,&rdquo but their main target is not rampant consumerism, but rather merchants and advertisers who prefer to call this time of year “the holiday season” instead of The Christmas Season.

For most of my adult life I have been striving, with only limited success, to ignore the impulse to exchange material gifts and commercial Christmas cards with people I love. I have also struggled with the question of whether it makes sense for someone who does not consider himself a Christian to celebrate Christmas at all, and, if so, to be so resistant to celebrating it as the most holy day in the religion of American Consumerism and so insistent on celebrating as a an important Christian holy day. It is unlikely that I shall resolve any of these issues before my consciousness fizzles out. They are too complex to resolve easily, and frankly not important enough to me to spend much time worrying about.

In the spirit of giving that does not further spread the disease of commercialism and consumerism, my gift of choice this year is an Ubuntu Linux operating system for all my friends who have computers. Everything about Linux in general sits well with me. For one thing, Linux operating systems, and the software that runs on them, are completely open source. That is, they are distributed for free along with the computer code used to build them. There is in principle nothing commercial about a Linux operating system. The only aspect of Linux that can be commercialized is putting together a distribution, which includes the operating system and software packages and a smooth-running installation protocol. Strictly speaking, it is only the installation protocol, and protocols for updating software, that can be sold for profit. There are several commercial distributions.

My reason for specifying Ubuntu Linux is that even the installation protocols are distributed for no cost whatsoever to anyone who requests them. All one has to do is to go to the Ubuntu Linux web page and click on the link entitled Get Ubuntu to begin a download or order a DVD to be sent anywhere in the world free of charge. If one prefers to buy a CD or DVD, that option is available, too. If one wishes to support the Ubuntu movement by making a financial contribution, or by helping to develop or test new products, there are links for all those opportunities as well. Ubuntu is all about community and sharing.

My mother used to intone the mantra “You get what you pay for,” which usually meant that anything that is available at no cost is probably worthless, or close to it. In the case of Ubuntu Linux, nothing could be farther from the truth than that mantra. Ubuntu Linux is very hard to beat as a computer operating system and collection of software programs that will do anything that can be done by commercial programs. Linux rarely crashes; I have experienced two crashes in ten years of using it daily. For a variety of reasons, it is rarely disturbed by viruses; it is, in the first place, constructed so as to be inherently secure, but it is also, unlike Microsoft, a system with few enemies who feel motivated to write destructive viruses to disturb it. Despite viruses for Linux being very rare, there are strong virus protection programs, just in case. In ten years of using Linux, I have never had a virus or Trojan horse or worm. I have lost almost no time to breakdowns or to problems requiring extensive troubleshooting. As the Ubuntu people like to say, Ubuntu Linux “just works.” In contrast to the early days of Linux, using Ubuntu Linux requires very little computer expertise of the user. If one chooses to become expert, there is ample documentation and help available. Almost everything about Ubuntu Linux can be tweaked until one's computer fits one work habits and aesthetic tastes and quirky personality traits like a glove.

Like most (if not all) Linux distributions, Ubuntu Linux can be loaded on a computer that runs some other operating system. If one chooses to install Linux on a computer that uses some version of Windows, for example, then every time one boots up the computer, one will be presented with a choice to start up either Windows or Linux. When I first installed Linux ten years ago, I installed it alongside Windows. After a couple of years I noticed that I never chose to boot Windows, since everything I could do there I could do better on Linux. Eventually I took Windows off my computer. Since then when I have purchased computers, I have bought them with Ubuntu Linux installed as the sole operating system. My story is a common one.

The bodhisattva who put up the initial funding and organizational genius that makes Ubuntu Linux possible is a man named Mark Shuttleworth. Even if one is not at all interested in trying Ubuntu Linux out, it is interesting and inspiring to read The Ubuntu Story. It is a tale of how life could be if it weren't for individual and collective manifestations of greed, hatred and delusion.

There are alternatives to the religion of consumerism. It is worth considering taking a subversive step or two to undermine consumerism and replace it with humanity and sanity.


Blair Weaver said...

Richard Mubul,

Very appropriate and subtly encouraging post.

Do wish you the blessings to see what you can see and to celebrate the goodness that pervades. The breakdown is a great transition -- it no longer works.