Friday, April 22, 2005

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.

(Originally posted 12/13/04)


Eli said...

Depressing but spot-on. Despite many flaws, I believe that America once had a noble soul and spirit, and aspired to an admirable ideal. Now we have become an empty nation of petty meanness, loathed and feared throughout the world.

I wonder if it's reversible, or if the best we can hope for is to merely vary the rate of our decline.

Rmj said...

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.

Alright, coming from me this is just rude, crude, and socially unacceptable, but this metaphor describes perfectly why "mega-churches" and TV evangelists continue to thrive. They sell the same snake oil as the corporations, but they promise spirituality with every purchase. Destroy the local church, destroy the pastor you who can know you and your family, and replace them with....?

As a friend of mine says, a fellow pastor, when someone tells him a TV preacher does a better job and doesn't entail getting out of bed or putting on clothes: "Then call him when you need someone to do your funeral." Or visit you in the hospital.

Some things cannot be replaced. But we're determined to, anyway.

Excellent post. Wish I'd said it.

Anonymous said...

Still too busy for real posting...

Phila, this sounds like damn good real posting to me. Rmj stole my comment, but it's still true; I wish I had written this.

Do you want to hear my story about Walmart? Nah, I didn't think so.

@whut said...

Recent book "Democracy and Populism" by John Lukacs has an excellent description on the distinctions between patriotism and nationalism.

"Patriotism is defensive, nationalism is aggressive. Patriotism is the love of a particular land with its particular traditions; nationalism is the love of something less tangible, of the myth of the 'people', and is often a poltical and ideological substitute for religion."

Anonymous said...

Great post, Phila..

I'd like to add that, to me, it seems like the US has become soley about one thing: MONEY.

Businesses see the opportunities to make insane amounts of money these days, with globalization, and therefore we get the mega-conglomerate entities that have the power to buy out anything and then throw up a cookie cutter retail outlet to peddle their cheap, foreign products.

While some consumers enjoy this because they can buy a dvd player for 20 bucks, i don't think that many people understand the true consequences of what they are doing by supporting these megastores.

they don't realize they are just giving these companies more money to exploit a child laborer, to destroy a historic building, to destroy the character of a town, etc...

capitalism has just gone insane in our country. small community businesses have been replaced by dollar signs.

Wayne Hughes said...

On the day after earth day, whatever the hell that means anymore: as eli said, spot on.

The only positive rejoinder to what I must agree is a thoroughly reprehensible culture in the US is that people elsewhere in the world seem to take things seriously. What a shameful thing.

Palimpsester said...

Jeremy Rifkin makes a similar argument in The European Dream about the level of desperation here in the states that expresses itself in gambling.

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