The Culture of the Imperial Self – Egypt

Human behavior often fails to affirm human dignity – we debase ourselves, giving ourselves away to realities that don’t deserve us.

Individual behavior weaves together to form a culture in which the same, ongoing debasement continues – playing itself out in emerging structures of politics, economics, family life, and so on. Culture reinforces behavior which in turn reinforces culture. 

The Jewish metaphor for such a culture is Egypt – Mitzrayim – the place of narrowness, restriction, and bondage – a primary symbol of the culture of the imperial self.

In the culture of the imperial self, ego driven behavior is rewarded, honored, and glorified. In a world lacking attunement to spiritual value, the individual ego (defined as the selfish will to power) is free to run amok without much restraint.

Indeed, in a world denied its spiritual depths, it appears that the very purpose of life is self-satisfaction, self-pleasure, and the inflation of ego and it’s needs.

Political, economic, and social structures emerge based on the five primary traits of the imperial egoist culture as portrayed in Torah (hat tip, John Dominic Crossan):

Materialism/Consumerism is dysfunctional thinking that equates a good life with having more things. This mindset leads to constant accumulation of material goods as a means to happiness. Within a consumerist culture, all other human goods eventually become subjugated to the pursuit of material gain. As the dysfunction spreads, even the mechanisms of consumerism itself begin to fray – work loses its dignity, wages grow stagnant as the owner-elite skim ever deeper from the gains of productivity. Plutocracy, wealth inequality, cultural bifurcation, and the loss of meaningful creative opportunity tear the social fabric.

Slavery in its actual form is rare in developed nations. Yet its actual practice continues in many parts of the world and more subtle forms of slavery exist even in the developed countries. A fundamental precept of justice is that a worker is due their wage and the benefit of their labor. Obviously, others may also benefit from such labor, but only in a system of free and fair cooperative agreements. Many of the industrialized economies are now witnessing deteriorating terms and conditions for workers, exploitation, and ownership and upper management unfairly benefiting from the work of those deemed below them.

Patriarchy is the result of complex attitudes, practices, and biases that allow men to exercise undue control over women, preventing their full participation across society, as well as the oppression of many sexual minorities who serve no interest to the male sexual power elites. The dignity of the individual person is lost as they are treated as an object of sexual gratification, a means to an end of ego sexual fulfillment. The Ego Imperial culture promotes hyper-sexualization. Often, exploitive sexual practices are favored and furthered – including promiscuity, pornography, abusive fetishes, prostitution (the commodification of sex) and subtle (and not so subtle) forms of sexual abuse and control. Marriage, committed relationships, and family life suffer as a result.

Elitism is a fundamental preference for the powerful, the wealthy, and those who sit atop the hierarchies of social and cultural control. Driven by the dictates of rampant, uncontrolled egoism, the elite use those below them to further their own ends. In this sense, the elite become social parasites and create abusive structures that denigrate the poor, the marginalized, the misfits, the elderly, the young, the ill, the undereducated, and those who do not demonstrate social “utility.” Elitist culture treats those below it as disposable means to the ends of self-aggrandizement.

Violence is the natural result of the glorification of the imperial ego. Tensions, divisions, and hostilities are fostered and even manufactured on all societal levels as a way of furthering the control of the political and economic elite. Violence is seen as an acceptable means to social control and permeates all aspects of the culture. On the level of geopolitics, war is used a tool of empire building and for exploiting weaker and poorer nations.

The Culture of Life and Love

Judaism is rooted in an alternative cultural and social vision – one based on the channeling of ego’s drives toward cooperation, the promotion of justice, compassion, equality, and service.

The fundamental “program” of Torah is the mastery of self so one may find fulfillment and a sense of proper place in the cosmos through kenotic love.

The Jewish vision of dignity and good news has been called a culture of life, a program that has animated the better aspects of Western culture for thousands of years.

The social vision of the Hebrew scriptures is fundamentally subversive to that of the vision of the culture of the imperial self.

Simplicity is not the denial of the goodness of the material world, rather it is the refusal to  equate the quantity and quality of material good with a life of value and purpose.

Freedom is the primary experience of the Exodus and therefore a core Jewish value. Many things compete for our attention and devotion, and therefore our freedom. We are only free to the degree that we choose to give ourselves to things that deserve our dignity.

Gender Equality is the opposite of patriarchy and the result of a deep appreciation for diversity. It is also a fundamental stance against all forms of sexual abuse and degradation. Sexuality is intended for intimacy, love, and pleasure – not manipulation, debasement, or an expression of violence.

Egalitarianism is the antidote to elitism and the skewing of power to the few.

Peace is the radical opposite vision to violence.

The basic thrust of Torah properly understood is toward a culture that embodies simplicity, freedom, gender equality, egalitarianism, and peace. May this vision be realized soon and in our time.