We Have Met the Enemy
Self-Control in an Age of Excess
By Daniel Akst
(Penguin Press HC, The, Hardcover, 9781594202810, 320pp.)
Publication Date: January 6, 2011
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An intelligent and irreverent investigation into the age-old problem of self-control finds that, in the modern world, solving it is the most important thing we can do.
More calories, sex, and intoxicants are more readily and privately available than at any time in memory. Pornography and gambling are now instantly and anonymously accessible to anyone with an Internet- connected computer. 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. As America's bulging waistlines can attest, mealtime is no longer a discrete part of the day, and our struggles with weight have never been more desperate. We Have Met the Enemy examines overeating, overspending, procrastination, wayward sexual attraction, and other everyday transgressions that bedevil modern society.
While temptations have multiplied, many of the longstanding social constraints on behavior have eroded. Tradition, ideology, and religion have lost their grip on many of us, while commonly accepted standards of attire, speech, and comportment in the public sphere have largely dissolved. Financial constraints, once a ready substitute for willpower, were swept away by surging affluence and the remarkable openhandedness of lenders. (And we all know what happened then.) A remarkable confluence of freedom, affluence, and technology are sorely testing the limits of human willpower.
This conundrum of self-control has occupied thinkers since the time of Socrates. Philosophers, theologians, psychologists, and lately economists have wrestled with the question of how it is possible for us to act against our own best interest, but the issue has never been more urgent than it is today. For affluent societies, the struggle for self- mastery is the preeminent challenge of our times. In essence, willpower is the ballgame.
If our humanity hinges on anything, it's our ability as individuals to guide our behavior according to our own judgment of what is best. Self- control is what makes you a mensch. Using self-control as a lens rather than a cudgel, Daniel Akst combines social insight with history, literature, psychology, and economics to alarm, teach, and empower us. We Have Met the Enemy is a call to arms for each of us to exercise more control over our own destiny-and thereby to be happier, healthier, and ultimately more fully human.
A native New Yorker, Daniel Akst is a well-known journalist who has worked at the LA Times and Wall Street Journal and now writes a monthly column in the Sunday New York Times. He also writes regularly for the Wall Street Journal culture pages, and has appeared in many other publications, including American Heritage, the Boston Globe, the Christian Science Monitor, Civilization, Technology Review, the Washington Monthly, and on both public radio and television. His first book, Wonder Boy (Scribners), chronicled the eye-popping ZZZZ Best fraud perpetrated by teenage entrepreneur Barry Minkow, and was named one of the 10 best of 1990 by Business Week. He is also the author of The Webster Chronicle published by BlueHen in October 2001.
Akst is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania who spent 13 years in Los Angeles before moving to the Hudson Valley, where he lives with his wife and two sons.
"You wouldn't be able to stop yourself from reading this book! Daniel Akst is among the sharpest, most perceptive writers of his generation, and he is in fine form in We Have Met the Enemy."
-Gregg Easterbrook, author of Sonic Boom
"This book entertains even as it pokes at our most sensitive spots. Daniel Akst handles the touchiest heretical ideas with charm, humor and painless scholarship. With no ax to grind, no cause to serve but reason he opens up the foregone conclusions by which we live and leaves a reader with new and alternate views of ourselves and others. Like the finest essayists Akst makes the deepest ideas fascinating and fun to read."
-Nicholas von Hoffman
"The more a society progresses, the bigger a problem self-control turns out to be. If you wish to be ahead of the curve for understanding America's problems, Dan Akst's excellent and informative book is the place to start."
-Tyler Cowen, Professor of Economics, George Mason University, and co-creator of the blog The Marginal Revolution