BOOK REVIEW: 'We Have Met the Enemy': Self-control's failures and discontents revealed

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'We Have Met the Enemy': Self-control's failures and discontents revealed
Along with borrowing the title of his book from Pogo's immortal exclamation in Walt Kelly's cartoon strip, Daniel Akst reveals the truth about self-control as interpreted by Donald Duck and SpongeBob SquarePants in "We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess" (Penguin Press, 320 pages, $26.95).

Of course, Akst also cites more traditional sources to give the reader a natural history of self-control, going all the way back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Bible, Jewish philosophers, Dr. Sigmund Freud (he had so much self-control he smoked 20 cigars a day and ended up with terminal cancer of the jaw) and economists as varied as Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929)  the Wisconsin farm boy who coined the phrase "conspicuous consumption") and one I never heard of named George Gunton.
On Pages 62-63,  Akst cites Gunton as a man who praised consumption, who wanted an eight-hour work day because it would give workers more time to get the heck out there and spend money. Unlike the dour Norwegian-American Veblen, whose best-known work is "The Theory of the Leisure Class," Gunton went so far as to praise the 1895 opening of the monumental Biltmore estate of George Washington Vanderbilt II outside Asheville, NC, the largest privately-owned house in the country at 175,000 square feet and 250 rooms. This Gilded Age tourist attraction remains a suitable monument to conspicuous consumption in this current age of excess.  (Mark Twain: "History doesn't repeat itself,  but it does rhyme.")  Gunton's tombstone should bear the inscription "Shop 'Til You Drop."
Akst -- whose writing has been published in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Slate and other publications -- tells us, as if we need reminding,  that freedom is hazardous to your health. (Full disclosure, my tenure as a reporter at the L.A. Times coincided with much of Akst's and I admired his writing and reporting. He's the author of two very readable novels and "Wonder Boy," a  non-fiction account of L.A. Ponzi schemer and fraudster Barry Minkow,  based on his reporting at the L.A. Times and then at the Wall Street Journal. He now has a gig at Long Island's Newsday).  Half of all deaths in America come from overeating, smoking, drinking too much, failing to exercise and other deadly behaviors that we indulge against our own better judgment.
He asks (and answers, of course) "Why are we on a campaign of slow-motion suicide?"  The simple answer is that self-control is tough -- especially now, when more calories, sex and intoxicants are more readily and privately available than at any time in memory. Gambling, once against the law almost everywhere, is now legal and ubiquitous.  Pornography? It's free and online, no more slouch hats and trenchcoats in really crappy parts of town. Trying to work? If so, chances are you're also struggling to resist the siren call of the Internet-to say nothing of the snack machine.
Speaking of procrastination, Akst, on Page 223, discusses the peculiar form of procrastination we writers indulge in.  Explaining that most writers are volunteers (it would be cruel and unusual punishment to draft us!), he wonders why writers are so notorious for procrastination: "One reason," he writes, "is that writing involves abstract thinking rather than visible, concrete tasks -- abstract thinking ...that will be rewarded only far into the future or perhaps never at all. Abstract thinking that nowadays is done in front of an Internet-connected computer. Can you imagine any scenario more likely to inspire procrastination?"
No, Dan, I can't, as I write this on my iMac, with our 42-inch flat-screen TV conveniently in eye view and tuned to Fox, CNN or the History Channel.And as I think of millionairess Arianna Huffington getting megamillions ($315 million, to be exact) more for HuffPost as it goes into the AOL maw.
As I write this, the J.G. Wentworth TV commercial is earwigging its way through my head: "I want my my money and I want it now!" scream the actors portraying recipients of structured settlements. Wentworth buys these settlements from insurance companies and other sources and renders unto the recipients a lump sum of money that they can go out and squander. Wentworth, of course, keeps a hefty percentage of the lump sum for its trouble. 
Akst asks us how can we moderate our appetites in such a climate, where winners of mega-buck lotteries -- to a man or woman -- want their money in a lump sum. Self-control becomes the ultimate oxymoron in a world where overeating, spending to excess, procrastination,  anger, addiction (think Mel Gibson and Charlie Sheen among many others for these two peccadilloes); wayward sexual attraction (Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright anyone?) and all the Seven Deadly Sins and Ten Commandments rolled into one. If you're a nut for trivia and factoids, Akst is the neighborhood info-dope pusher (with apologies to Tom Lehrer) who has searched history, literature, psychology, economics and philosophy to educate and entertain us.
Abandon your self-control when you're reading "We Have Met the Enemy" and you'll be entertained and enlightened.
Daniel Akst's web site: http://www.akst.com/Dan_Akst/Home.html
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