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Mares: Social Anesthesia

Perhaps the most famous quote of Karl Marx after “Workers of the world, unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains” is that religion, "is the opiate of the people."

Marx thought religion provided a kind of false happiness, a social stupor; that it dulled the spirit of rebellion and contributed to oppression. The sheer numbers of religious adherents worldwide today might seem to belie Marx’s observation – but in large swaths of the U.S. and Europe, religion has become passé.

I recently came across an article in which several writers were asked to describe what they think of as today’s opiate. I wondered if some might say money, the pursuit of which has led to an obscene disparity in wealth in many countries - even the U.S. Or would they say television? That’s what legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow called it more than 60 years ago, but now the idiot box, the boob tube or whatever it’s called, is apparently no longer a choice - attached as it seems to be - to our brain stems.
Maybe I thought, they’ll say it’s legal drugs, like booze, cigarettes, or prescription drugs like Prozac. Maybe it’s the very assumption that there’s a drug for every condition. Or maybe they’ll say hobbies carried to the point of obsession. The runner’s high comes to mind, or work itself.

To my surprise, one writer called our children the opiate. He wrote that we have a culture not of ancestor worship but of descendent worship, devoting ourselves to our young.
Another writer said we’re food–obsessed - the poor because they’d otherwise starve - and the rich because for them “food provides a core identity, a medium of social exchange.” They can obsess about allergies, iron chefs, far-out food experimentation, wine and new utensils. Instead of getting angry over inadequate food inspection or income inequality, the educated pass their time debating whether to add anchovies to a steak marinade.
Still another writer named the internet as the drug of choice. She wrote, “this is a medium which has shredded our ability to concentrate, discourages reflection, and panders to our base instincts for trivia.” She added that with the addition of social media, it’s a knock-out punch.
Other candidates for opiate were celebrity, or fashion, the civilian versions of the cult of personality. One writer observed that in Marx’s day, fame was earned by endeavor, brilliance, self-sacrifice, exceptional courage or skills but our version is synthetic and short-lived, reliant on personality and appearance with no moral dimension; celebrities can do pretty much whatever they please.
My wife and son argue that technology, gadgets and especially cell phones are the opiates.
My entry is… the SELF. Its opiate is that you are the center of the universe. And my evidence? The renowned Oxford English Dictionary has chosen SELFIE as the word of 2013. The taking of these self-portraits, typically shot with a smart phone, has risen 17,000 percent in the past 12 months.
Case closed, I’d say.

Writer Bill Mares of Burlington is also a former teacher and state legislator. His most recent book is a collection of his VPR commentaries, titled "3:14 And Out."
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