Monday, December 13, 2004

Cheap Imitations

It's strange how often we romanticize aspects of America that we blithely destroyed because there was money to be made. And it's even more strange that having destroyed such things, we replicate them shoddily, and market them as antidotes to the very psychic emptiness that made the real things seem worthless.

For instance, Bush and his creatures trumpet precisely those ideals of small-town life that his actual policies are destroying. The idea that we are a nation of caring families, or cooperative communities, doesn't withstand the slightest critical examination. But the concept of family and community - of belonging - remains eminently marketable. It's as though we've been locked in a bare cell, and are comforting ourselves by imagining the ineffable perfection of Platonic beds and chairs.

In America's smaller towns, neighborhoods have been destroyed and businesses torn down, only to be replaced by chain businesses that offer a cheap imitation of the community values they ruined. "Old-fashioned" qualities - such as conscientious workmanship - are promoted in cavernous, dismal buildings that were made cheaply, out of shoddy materials, by people whose emotional investment in their work was at a bare minimum. Lovely Victorian buildings are torn down, to make way for some gigantic drab enclosure where faux-Victorian gaslights are sold. Our neighbors are driven from their houses and scattered to the four winds, so that chain stores can arrive and proclaim themselves our "good neighbors."

Whatever you consider the human spirit to be, our official culture has stopped making an effort to appeal to its kinder or saner aspirations, or to please it with anything more profound than the numb familiarity one feels when entering a Starbucks or a Wal-Mart...which is really just an adjustment to diminished expectations.

Perhaps our diminished expectations explain some of our strange bitterness towards the rest of the world. We work harder and harder, and pay more and more, and get less and less, but it's almost as though we defend our lifestyle all the more fiercely because of its very shabbiness. For if this is success, who could survive failure? If this is profit, who could bear loss? The closer we come to outright failure, the less we want to admit it.

Whatever the cause, this life - for which our children must now kill and die - is so meager and occluded that it's no wonder our homegrown religion has emphasized the tantalizing nearness of the Big Payoff, in language more suited to a casino than a church. Indeed, as escaping poverty and debt becomes more and more difficult, gambling itself takes on an almost holy allure. It's not just the money, either. It's also the idea of recognition; winning a fortune would provide proof that one is special, and really was meant for better things. Ultimately, though, there's very little to say about a society that sees a place like Las Vegas as an "escape" from its burdens, rather than as an intensification of them, or at least as an insultingly explicit metaphor for them.

Surely, there's more than a little of Las Vegas in America's religious notions, which increasingly boil down to the worker's daydream of getting the last laugh. But here, the fantasy turns a bit darker. It's not enough to thrive, not enough to be singled out for reward while the scoffers turn green with envy; everyone who's "bad" must suffer. If the American God - the God, that is, of Scofield and Darby - is made in our own image, he's based partially on the office drone's vision of winning the lottery, and partially on the coward's admiration for brute force, but mainly on the overworked postal worker's dream of double-barreled justice. This God shares in our petty prejudices, damns whatever frightens us or angers us, and pointlessly punishes people whose personal knowledge of suffering is already more than deep enough.

Meanwhile, patriotism, like materialism, has defined itself through opposition until it's little more than a litany of denials. It's a denial of shared destiny, of community and responsibility, of guilt and shame and consideration and obligation. It's neither cosmopolitan, nor secular, nor intellectual, nor "green," nor tolerant. Nor is it welcoming or compassionate; the inscription on the Statue of Liberty was probably, after all, just a dirty trick of the perfidious French.

What we're pledging allegiance to at this point is unclear. In theory, it's probably some ideal of freedom that we're too scared, busy, ignorant, or debt-ridden to achieve. In practice, it may be the freedom to buy pills that will ease the infirmities our labors cause, or the freedom to forget our worries by watching complete strangers get punished for real or imaginary crimes. Americans are so relentlessly kicked around, so consistently made to feel helpless and's no surprise that "kicking ass and taking names" sometimes seems like the closest thing we have to a shared national dream.

We were made for better things, but seem to have no sense of what those things might be. The idea that success and money will make us happy - a proposition which virtually everything we see and hear in our daily lives proves false - is weirdly persistent. The lives of the most wealthy, glamorous, famous people are daily revealed as grotesque and awful farces; we dwell lovingly on every detail of their humiliation, while imagining that "success" will solve our problems (after all, with enough wealth, we can buy replicas of all the things we lost or threw away).

The fact that Bush's tawdry, heartless counterfeits of family and community and spirituality appeal to so many Americans isn't necessarily proof that they're stupid. More likely, it's proof that they're so starved for these things - and for the sense of belonging they engender - that they'll swallow anything. Because just as starving explorers used to eat strips of leather and splinters of wood while straggling through some wasteland, starving hearts will swallow lies.


Thers said...

You know, you really are a pain in the ass. You let slip that you're busy... and yet you produce intelligent and well constructed essays which make me think. Phooey.

Aggravating... Thinking bad. Thinking hurt head.

Your writing has gotten very very good in the last two months. Harder, less beflowered. Impressive.

Anonymous said...

Well, was going to say something from the perspective of a former small-town citizen, but, after getting attacked for being too long-winded earlier, I'll just say that this was wonderful, Phila.


P.S. Unlike Theri, though, my "editor's eyes" caught a few oopsies, but no biggie.

Slinking off to corner now to meditate upon brevity.

Phila said...

Thanks, Thersites! As I think I've mentioned elsewhere, my prose tends to be very purple and flabby if I write quickly, or am not paying attention. I usually have to be fairly focused to write at all succinctly, and even then I'll usually do 20 goddamn edits to tighten it up. That "default setting" is fine for humorous writing, but it's a real drag to fight against when I want to be clear. I was hoping the whole blog thing would make it easier for me to a) leave mistakes in; and b) edit on the fly and let the goddamn thing lay, instead of being an anal-retentive maniac. If you're noticing improvement, that's'd hard for me to tell, 'cause I sure as hell have no plans to go back and re-read everything! Anyway, thanks again.

And LJ, you must be mistaken. Everything I do is perfect.

Thers said...

Hee hee... James Joyce: "The man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional, and are for him the portals of discovery."

The greatest quote ever. I like to trot it out whenever I do something like sit on my glasses.

I mentioned the style thing because I remember you discussing it back a ways. But I do think your blog posts are damn good, & getting better. Of course I only have comments posts to measure by, which is not really fair.

But from one egomaniac to another: this particular post made me jealous.

I also suspect that if you are bad in this life you will spend eternity in Celebration, Florida.

Anonymous said...



You're almost perfect. You're darn close to it. But you're not there yet.

For instance, "More strange..." rather than "stranger." But, like I said, no biggie.


Phila said...

Baby, if "more strange" is good enough for Shakespeare, Montaigne, and Thomas Hardy, it's good enough for a schmuck like me!

Sorry if it grates on your shell-like ears, instead of nibbling sweetly at 'em. But hey, nobody's perfect!

Anonymous said...

Heh--shell-like ears. You perv. But that's what I like about you.

Now I must spank you, though. Arguing from an appeal to authority? Really, Phila. You KNOW better than to commit that logical fallacy.

Phila said...

Hey, if argumentum ad verecudiam is good enough for Cotton Mather, it's good enough for me!

Seriously, I don't have a problem with "more strange." It works well enough as a colloquialism. It's my shoddy reasoning that really bothers me.

Anonymous said...

I don't mind it much either, given the quality of the rest of your writing. After all, Orwell had a valid point when he said it was better to break a rule than to say anything really abominable. Sometimes, breaking a rule makes a point better than using "proper" English. The language is fluid and forgiving enough to allow for deviations. That's the beauty of it.

It's just one of those pet peeves that I personally try not to commit.

Phila said...

The Orwell argument is pretty much where I'm coming from. I have all kinds of flaws in my writing, but they tend to be structural and diffuse and they usually don't boil down to breaking simple rules. And most of the "rules" are nonsensical anyhow (split infinitives and so on). The only rules that actually matter to me are rules of clarity or meaning, which I unwittingly break all the time, and only notice later. But issues like "stranger" vs. "more strange" are of no consequence to me. I respect your dislike for 'em, though, 'cause God knows I have my own pet peeves. What I can't stand is mistakes that ignore meaning..."comprised of" for "composed of," for instance, or "decimated" as a synoym for "destroyed."

Anyway, it's the "beflowered" speech Thersites mentioned that I worry about. I had an antiquarian style anyhow, but at some point I turned it into kind of an ironic stance instead of controlling it, and now I have a really hard time weeding it makes me sound pedantic and academic when I don't mean to. (It's also, possibly, a distancing tactic, because I tend to do it more when I'm feeling a certain way about the state of the world.)

Anonymous said...

I know what you mean about the antiquarian style of writing. Mine suffers from it at times. It's probably from reading too much pre-Hemingway literature, and we tend to imitate what we read/know/admire.

Brevity is my other problem. Most writers complain about not being able to write enough words...I can't seem to write too few. Of course, this proved (don't get me started on proved/proven!) a benefit in all those academic classes calling for a 1200 word essay on, say, the use of symbolism in James Joyce's "Araby." I could knock out something like that in my sleep.

Glad you picked up on my split infinitive earlier. I love dropping in little blunders like that, to see if anyone is paying attention.

Phila said...

Brevity? Oy, don't get me started! See, that's why I used to do 20 edits or more on pare away all the glib bullshit. At first, I liked blogging/commenting because it was nice to throw stuff down and leave it; I was sick of being so critical of myself, and worried that it was getting unhealthy. But the fact remains that the best writing is a simple and brief style that makes complex thoughts lucid, and for me, that's always taken huge amounts of editing. So I'm starting to realize - partially from this conversation - that I'm not exactly putting my best foot forward here (in terms of communicating, that is...I don't much care about impressing anyone stylistically). But I just can't put the effort into a blog that I put into printed stuff, or I may as well not post at all! Fortunately, exceedingly sharp people like Thersites and yr sweet self give me a lot of ideas, so I'm hoping I'll eventually be able to be quick AND to the point.

What you say about imitation...I do a LOT of ghostwriting and rewrite jobs, which I'm good at because I can mimic just about anyone's syntax after reading a page or so. And I think when you're writing different kinds of stuff, you slip into a certain voice based on your emotions. I "hear" myself doing it often, and I usually just let it go. But definitely, some of 'em are more 17th - 19th century than others! I probably need to read more John McNulty and less Sir Thomas Browne....see if it helps my signal-to-noise ratio at all.

As an editor/teacher, the first thing I always try to do is get every last trace of "literary" language out of people's work. Kind of funny that I can't quite swallow my own medicine, huh?

Phila said...

Oh, and re split infinitives...I actually didn't pick up on that! I don't have a problem with split infinitives...hell, I don't even really think there's such a thing as an "infinitive"...or not in English, anyway.

Anonymous said...

Just came here from your Non-ownership post at Echidne.
I was going to wax lyrical on your analytical and writing skills when I read that :
"I just can't put the effort into a blog that I put into printed stuff"

You *have* printed stuff? Where can I buy it ?
A book full of bouphonia-grade writing is probably worth ten pretty-good ones, and you seem to imply that you printed stuff is even better...