August 31, 2009
The American Character (We Voted For Bush, We Voted For Obama, So Who The Heck Are We?)
By Evert Cilliers
Who is the quintessential American character? Honest Abe Lincoln, whose war killed more Americans than Hitler? Founding father Jefferson, who bonked his favorite slave in secret? Jaunty FDR, who betrayed his own class? Preacher MLK, that oddest of American leaders: a fellow driven by morality? Genial Ronald Reagan, a stalwart stooge for the rich? Muhammad Ali, once the most famous American on earth? Or face-shifting Michael Jackson, now the most famous American on earth? Maybe 30 years ago, one or two of them might have qualified. Now it's not so easy to define the American character anymore, what with white people set to become a minority by 2042 and WASP domination shrinking fast as all the Micks and Guineas and Hymies and Wops and Wogs take over from Buzz and Skip and Topsy. Then there's our new melting-pot-in-one-person President Obama, so frightfully un-American that 50 million Americans believe he was born elsewhere. It might just be that all we have left of the American character is a simulacrum from our dream factory. To wit, the Hollywood action hero: the go-it-alone, action-at-all-costs, win-against-all-odds, kill-all-the-bad-guys splat!-bang!-kaboom! individual.
Who is the quintessential American character?
Honest Abe Lincoln, whose war killed more Americans than Hitler? Founding father Jefferson, who bonked his favorite slave in secret? Jaunty FDR, who betrayed his own class? Preacher MLK, that oddest of American leaders: a fellow driven by morality? Genial Ronald Reagan, a stalwart stooge for the rich? Muhammad Ali, once the most famous American on earth? Or face-shifting Michael Jackson, now the most famous American on earth?
Maybe 30 years ago, one or two of them might have qualified. Now it's not so easy to define the American character anymore, what with white people set to become a minority by 2042 and WASP domination shrinking fast as all the Micks and Guineas and Hymies and Wops and Wogs take over from Buzz and Skip and Topsy. Then there's our new melting-pot-in-one-person President Obama, so frightfully un-American that 50 million Americans believe he was born elsewhere.
It might just be that all we have left of the American character is a simulacrum from our dream factory. To wit, the Hollywood action hero: the go-it-alone, action-at-all-costs, win-against-all-odds, kill-all-the-bad-guys splat!-bang!-kaboom! individual.
In the old days, this hero used to be John Wayne: a rock you could trust with every snippet of your viscera. Now it's someone like Bruce Willis -- way more desperate than the unflappable Wayne, without his flinty integrity or mountainous stature, and somewhat less of a man's man.
Does this mean our examples of the essential American character have now sunk celebrity-low? Do we look at cartoon heroes like Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Vin Diesel or The Rock (their pecs pumped to gazoomba-heft, their vocabulary clipped to snarls and grunts) with nothing more than post-modern irony?
Does an American character exist at all? Are we still different from the rest of the world? Maybe it's time to take stock. Character, after all, is destiny. Or put differently: who have we become?
1. PHILOSOPHICAL BACKBONE
Perhaps there's an answer in the philosophical backbone of the American character. Most everyone agrees that the butt-nekkid pith -- the purest expression of what America is all about -- is this:
THE FREEDOM OF THE INDIVIDUAL.
This is to America what alcohol is to Ireland, or celibacy to a Catholic priest, or legs to a centipede.
Both red-state conservatives and blue-state liberals agree: the American character is someone who is free to do whatever effing freaking fickle fudgesickle thing she or he feels like.
Run for President. Vote against gay marriage. Inflict a Ponzi scheme on charities. Earn gazillions as a ballplayer. Bomb a country to bacon bits and then help it out with a Marshall Plan. Bring down the world's financial system by speculating with credit default swaps. Land a plane safely in the Hudson River.
You name it, we Americans are free to damn well do it, from nation-building to fist-fucking.
Very explicitly defined, our core value still leaves scope for an interpretation that's wider than the grin on a hippopotamus. Because at its core, there is something unexpectedly strange about this concept we have of the freedom of the individual:
IT'S DEVOID OF MORALITY.
In fact, when you go through ANY list by ANYONE about the American character, you NEVER find a moral dimension. Apparently the American character has nothing to do with being good or bad.
2. THIRTEEN ATTRIBUTES OF THE AMERICAN CHARACTER
In the next paragraph is the longest list of American characteristics I found on the internet -- all the thingummies that set us apart from other nations. Notice how not a single one of these thirteen true-bluest American “values” implies any actual morality. Given our penchant for dividing the world into good guys vs bad guys, it's weirder than three udders on a Hereford that we don't stick being-the-good-guys in any description of ourselves. Here's the 13-point list so you can see what you are really like:
1. We Americans control nature, not the other way around. If the air is not to our liking, we condition it. We're not subservient to fate.
2. We believe change is good, otherwise how will we develop, improve, and grow?
3. Time is controllable. In America, we're all on a schedule. We don't like wasting time.
4. We believe we're all equal, with an equal opportunity to succeed. (You could say there's something moral about this belief in equality, but I find it morally neutral -- it merely indicates we shouldn't moralize about ending up unequal, because we're supposed to start equal.)
5. We prize our individualism and privacy. Every American is precious and wonderful, and everybody needs some time to themselves. (Again, one could say this is something moral, but again, I think it's morally neutral. If we were to say we're self-effacingly community-minded, like the Chinese and Japanese are -- now that might be moral.)
6. We Americans create and invent and help ourselves. The self-made individual is a big role model for us.
7. Competition brings out the best in us. Our free enterprise system is based on it.
8. We're future-oriented. We don't live in the past.
9. “Don't just stand there, do something!” We're all about action, not contemplation. We're workaholics.
10. We Americans are casual, informal folk.
11. We prize directness and openness. We're blunt.
12. We like to be practical and efficient. “Will it work?” That's our big pragmatic question.
13. We're materialistic and acquisitive. We like to own a lot of stuff.
This list is almost too complete. Personally I'd condense it into these five points:
1. We believe in the freedom of the individual to do whatever she or he wants.
2. We can do anything. Everything is possible. We are eternally optimistic. Fuck yes, we can.
4. We believe in success, and money, and stuff, and living large -- the reward for working hard.
5. We love all things new.
That's more like it. But again, nothing in it about morality.
3. EIGHT BAD TRAITS IN THE AMERICAN CHARACTER
There's one big problem with this 13-point list, and my own 5-point list, and a list you might want to make yourself.
Namely: these lists are a bit of an idealization, like garnishing a Big Mac with caviar (as one might expect any nation to do: the French, for example, would definitely list their high regard for culture, food and fashion, but would leave out their horrible xenophobia and money-grabbing miserliness).
However, there are some significant real things about the American character that are kinda dark. Here's my own 8-point list of our more wicked ways, which definitely brings up morality rather rudely, like John Hurt birthing an alien from his chest. If you're pretty proud of being an American, you might want to stop reading now.
1. We Americans are violent, with a profound indifference to the death we cause others. Other people's lives just don't mean that much to us. We're kind of backward and primitive in that respect. For example, we have a wonderful Vietnam Monument inscribed with the names of the 55,000 Americans who died over there, but most Americans wouldn't be able to tell you that we snuffed around a million and a half Vietnamese. In Iraq we've been responsible for the deaths of over a million Iraqis, while we've lost a little over 4,000 of our own, whose weekly toll is retailed on George Stephanopoulos's “This Week” every Sunday morning, underscored with solemn music. No such solemnity for the whacked Iraqis. Let's face it, we are a nation of killers -- more to the point, THE nation of killers. Since WW2, we've started over 30 wars. We spend more money on weapons than the rest of the world combined. We have over 700 military bases overseas. Our domestic murder rate is five times the murder rate of the UK. Is it because we have lax gun laws? No. We kill three times more people per capita than the Canadians, who have more guns per capita than we do. So what is it with us? Are we just totally paranoid, or extremely touchy and quick to take offense, or trigger-happy? In love with Thanatos -- the death instinct? Are we the heirs of Keats, as he sang in his Ode to a Nightingale:
“Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy! ”
We've been holding off on executing people, thank heavens, though unlike other Western nations, we're still into it -- heck, our leading death penalty state, Texas, may be hooking up some dude's temples to a Con-Ed outlet even as I write. But with 4% of the world's population, we have 25% of the world's prisoners. We lock up more people than Russia did under communism, or South Africa under apartheid, which means one of two things: we either imprison people for much longer than other nations, or we're just a far more criminal, felonious, violent and wilder bunch than any other nation. Violence is as American as apple-pie, they say. Still, it is as peculiar as nostrils on an octopus that we're the world's leading exporter of violence. Not only in arms, but in games. Our videogames are mostly shoot-'em-ups -- a very sensible, humane occupation for the world's youth to while away their summer hours, don't you think? Our movies afford us a rich fantasy life of killings in many ingenious ways, with bodies leaking blood all over the screen from various punctured moorings. What is it about us Americans and killing? Is it the result of a 'frontier' mentality? Did it start with our cowboys offing the Indians, and we just haven't been able to stop ourselves ever since?
2. We're the filthiest and most wasteful nation on earth. We produce 36% of the world's greenhouse emissions (Britain emits 3%). We throw out 43,000 tons of food a day. The richest self-made woman in the world, Zhang Yin, makes her fortune out of recycling the packaging we throw away into containers for Chinese exports. We use 25% of the planet's energy, even though we're only 4% of the world's population. We consume eight times more energy per person than the average for the rest of the world.
3. We have the greediest elite on the planet, with the most glaring indifference to their fellow Americans. They're probably worse than the elite of Africa and Russia put together. A CEO in America makes 344 to 500 times what the average worker in his company makes (in Europe, it's 22 times, in Japan 17). The implosion of the world's financial system by Wall Street did not affect the millions our financial elite make; in fact, even with bailout money from the American taxpayer, these cheats are still paying themselves millions in bonuses. They could give two shits in a diamond-encrusted bucket for the rest of us.
4. We're incredibly superstitious and irrational. Sometimes I think I must be living in some deep Amazon enclave, amongst a strange tribe of primordial monkey-eating Neanderthals with bizarre creation myths who use their own crap for face cream. Only 42% of us believe in evolution, but 68% believe Satan exists. I don't know how many are certain that the Lord of Hades has a forked tail, or a snake's tongue, or cat's eyes, or scales for skin, or dinosaur ridges down his back, or a dick as big as a French loaf, but there must be millions of them out there. Millions believe in The Rapture, when the world's Christians will float naked up to heaven, and everyone else will be burnt to a flaming turd muffin. 31% of Americans believe in astrology. Millions believe in UFOs; some even think they've stepped inside them where they've been anally probed by long green alien fingers. Just about the entire California believes in the healing power of crystals and god knows what other new-age idiocies. Every now and then America is swept by totally irrational witches-of-Salem-like hysterias. The last one was about child molestation, when many innocent childcare professionals and teachers were accused of abusing children by outraged prosecutors who based their evidence on tall stories elicited from children by crazy child abuse “experts.” Bizarre pieces of evidence -- about satanic rituals in which various kitchen implements were inserted into underage orifices on lonely hilltops at the hour of midnight under the full moon -- were seriously entertained by actual courts. For all I know, there may be a million Americans out there who believe they've cured their cancer by sticking their pinkies in a rose for twenty-four hours.
5. We eat crap. If you live on Big Macs, you will shit your good health out your earholes into the barren dust. In Morgan Spurlock's 2004 documentary, “Super Size Me,” he eats McDonald's food for 30 days with dangerous consequences to his sex drive. Our teenagers are turning into obese plumpsters whose thighs are thicker than Yosemite sequoia tree trunks and whose periods arrive at age nine because of all the meat they ingest from cattle injected with hormones to make them grow faster and fatter. And 8% of Americans have diabetes, which is increasing at an epidemic rate.
6. There is no accountability for top people who screw up in America. Paul Bremer sodomizes Iraq into a bloody mess and gets a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Geithner helps Paulson waste $350 billion of our tax money last year and next thing pops up as Obama's Treasury Secretary. Countless CEOs preside over companies that lose money and walk away with golden parachutes. A Miami court gives Liberia's Chuckie Taylor a 97-year sentence for torture, but the many Bush administration officials who sanctioned torture aren't arrested.
7. We've got the biggest “let's-get-scared-shitless” industry in the world. It's the sissy side of being the world's biggest bully. After 9/11, our government got so scared it started torturing people. Any kind of new flu gets us all scared. Illegal immigrants scare us. Gays scare us. Child molesters scare us. Serial killers scare us. Commies used to scare us, but now Muslims scare us. Dick Cheney's rule applies: if there's a one percent chance something bad will happen, act as if it's a hundred percent certainty. Black men scare even Jesse Jackson. Teenage mothers scare us. Women and especially young girls who like sex scare us. We buy guns all the time like it's no tomorrow: big, scary guns. We're scared that Iran will get nuclear bombs and that Pakistan has them. European socialism scares us, whatever the fuck it is. We're scared of rogue states and an axis of evil, whatever the fuck they are. What we tend to forget is that the rest of the world is more scared of America than anything else, because we've got the biggest military in the world, and spend more than the rest of the world combined on the military, nine times more than #2 China, and that we have the largest economy in the world, which creates such weapons of mass destruction as derivatives with which we bomb the rest of the world to financial destruction, and that we have more nuclear-tipped rockets aimed at everybody else than they have bugs in their lawns. Here we sit safely behind two ocean moats on both sides, and we've got this huge nuclear arsenal, scaring the whole world shitless, but we're the ones who scare like total sissies. I don't get it.
8. We talk a great game, but we do not always do what we say. It is an historical irony that “the freedom of the individual” only started becoming true for all Americans in our time, when three movements -- Civil Rights, 2nd Wave Feminism and Gay Rights -- started gaining “the freedom of the individual” for African Americans, women and gay people. So our core value is a bit of a lie. Gay folks won't feel free until they can marry, and African-Americans won't feel free until they stop being so poor and locked up, and women won't feel free until they get paid as much as men, and have as many of the top jobs as men do.
4. THE FOUR STORIES THAT AMERICANS TELL THEMSELVES ABOUT THEMSELVES
It's funny how our core value of “the freedom of the individual” sums up both Bush and Obama, even though they come at it in such different raiments. Bush is the cowboy all-action individual, free to ride roughshod over others in his self-belief and faith in God. Obama is the inclusive contemplative individual, free to con a nation with soothing turns of phrase (why else did you vote for this super-slick smooth-talking glib-as-molasses black guy over the quintessentially American stalwart white war hero John McCain?).
After Obama's election, I got an email from my sister in Canada: “Congratulations on your new Prez. North America managed to come up with their own Mandela. After coming up with Bush, who would have thunk?”
It is rather bizarre that we went from an administration so sissy-scared by 9/11 they started secretly torturing people -- to an administration that looks like it might actually be upfront about what it does.
So when we voted for Bush, and when we voted for Obama, which side of our American character voted in each case?
Here it is instructive to look at four key vote-getting narratives suggested by Robert Reich. These stories flesh out the lineaments of American character we've been weaving. Reich's point, made in 2005, was that the Republicans had co-opted these narratives to win elections, and that the Democrats would be well-advised to co-opt them back if they wanted to win the next election. Here they are, in Reich's words:
“1. The Triumphant Individual. This is the familiar tale of the little guy who works hard, takes risks, believes in himself, and eventually gains wealth, fame, and honor. It's the story of the self-made man (or, more recently, woman) who bucks the odds, spurns the naysayers, and shows what can be done with enough gumption and guts. He's instantly recognizable: plainspoken, self-reliant, and uncompromising in his ideals -- the underdog who makes it through hard work and faith in himself. Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography is the first in a long line of U.S. self-help manuals about how to make it through self-sacrifice and diligence. The story is epitomized in the life of Abe Lincoln, born in a log cabin, who believed that "the value of life is to improve one's condition." The theme was captured in Horatio Alger's hundred or so novellas, whose heroes all rise promptly and predictably from rags to riches. It's celebrated in the tales of immigrant peddlers who become millionaire tycoons. And it's found in the manifold stories of downtrodden fighters who undertake dangerous quests and find money and glory. Think Rocky Balboa, Norma Rae, and Erin Brockovich. The moral: With enough effort and courage, anyone can make it in the United States.
“2. The Benevolent Community. This is the story of neighbors and friends who roll up their sleeves and pitch in for the common good. Its earliest formulation was John Winthrop's "A Model of Christian Charity," delivered on board a ship in Salem Harbor just before the Puritans landed in 1630 -- a version of Matthew's Sermon on the Mount, in which the new settlers would be "as a City upon a Hill," "delight in each other," and be "of the same body." Similar communitarian and religious images were found among the abolitionists, suffragettes, and civil rights activists of the 1950s and 1960s. The story is captured in the iconic New England town meeting, in frontier settlers erecting one another's barns, in neighbors volunteering as firefighters and librarians, and in small towns sending their high school achievers to college and their boys off to fight foreign wars. It suffuses Norman Rockwell's paintings and Frank Capra's movies. Consider the last scene in It's a Wonderful Life, when George learns he can count on his neighbors' generosity and goodness, just as they had always counted on him.
“3. The Mob at the Gates. In this story, the United States is a beacon light of virtue in a world of darkness, uniquely blessed but continuously endangered by foreign menaces. Hence our endless efforts to contain the barbarism and tyranny beyond our borders. Daniel Boone fought Indians -- white America's first evil empire. Davy Crockett battled Mexicans. The story is found in the Whig's anti-English and pro-tariff histories of the United States, in the anti-immigration harangues of the late nineteenth century, and in World War II accounts of Nazi and Japanese barbarism. It animates modern epics about space explorers (often sporting the stars and stripes) battling alien creatures bent on destroying the world. The narrative gave special force to cold war tales during the '50s of an international communist plot to undermine U.S. democracy and subsequently of "evil" empires and axes. The underlying lesson: We must maintain vigilance, lest diabolical forces overwhelm us.
“4. The Rot at the Top. The last story concerns the malevolence of powerful elites. It's a tale of corruption, decadence, and irresponsibility in high places -- of conspiracy against the common citizen. It started with King George III, and, to this day, it shapes the way we view government -- mostly with distrust. The great bullies of American fiction have often symbolized Rot at the Top: William Faulkner's Flem Snopes, Willie Stark as the Huey Long-like character in All the King's Men, Lionel Barrymore's demonic Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life, and the antagonists that hound the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath. Suspicions about Rot at the Top have inspired what historian Richard Hofstadter called the paranoid style in U.S. politics -- from the pre-Civil War Know-Nothings and Anti-Masonic movements through the Ku Klux Klan and Senator Joseph McCarthy's witch hunts. The myth has also given force to the great populist movements of U.S. history, from Andrew Jackson's attack on the Bank of the United States in the 1830s through William Jennings Bryan's prairie populism of the 1890s.
“Speak to these four stories and you resonate with the tales Americans have been telling each other since our founding -- the two hopeful stories rendered more vivid by contrast to the two fearful ones.”
5. WHICH SIDES OF OUR CHARACTER VOTED FOR BUSH AND OBAMA?
Let's see how Bush and Obama used these narratives to get votes, and how this shows how schizoid the American character is.
Bush and Obama both got the votes of those influenced by the “Triumphant Individual” story. Obama told us that his own story was only possible in America, and Bush pushed his idea of an “ownership society” where every individual would be the owner of her own destiny. It's pretty much a given that the “Triumphant Individual” -- which is about “the freedom of the individual” -- is something no politician would ignore. It's the conceptual sea in which we all swim willy-nilly.
Bush got the votes of those who think “The Rot at the Top” starts with liberal elites in Hollywood and on the East Coast. This is a narrative that the Republicans have often used to appeal to blue-collar workers. Obama got the votes of those who think “The Rot at the Top” starts with corrupt and sex-scandal-ridden Republican officials. But Obama made no particular effort to incorporate this narrative into his campaign. (What's weird is that there is no anti-rich ethos in America, as it exists in most other countries, where the rich at the top are invariably resented. New York Times columnist David Brooks once explained this by saying that Americans who aren't rich all think of themselves as pre-rich -- they will be rich one day, so they have no reason to resent the rich. In other countries, people resign themselves to their non-richness, and then find it easy to demonize the rich.)
Bush got the votes of those who talk about “The Mob at the Gates” -- in his case, the Mob were the terrorists. This narrative was not central to Obama's campaign at all. He studiously avoided demonizing anyone in his campaign.
Obama got the votes of those who believe in the “Benevolent Community.” In his stump speech he always said “we are our brother's keeper, and our sister's keeper.” In a speech about Lincoln, he really hit these notes of community. He said “only a union” could do many things that the private sector or individuals couldn't, ending with this inspiring oration:
“Only a union could serve the hopes of every citizen to knock down the barriers to opportunity and give each and every person the chance to pursue the American Dream. Lincoln understood what Washington understood when he led farmers and craftsmen and shopkeepers to rise up against an empire; what Roosevelt understood when he lifted us from Depression, built an arsenal of democracy, created the largest middle class in history with the GI bill. It's what Kennedy understood when he sent us to the moon ... There is no dream beyond our reach, any obstacle that can stand in our way when we recognize that our individual liberty is served, not negated, by a recognition of the common good.”
So it comes down to this: the difference between Bush and Obama is that Bush went for the “Mob at the Gates” narrative big time, and Obama went for the “Benevolent Community.” In this analysis, it's no mystery why the same nation could vote for Bush and Obama: we were persuaded by two very different men with two very different narratives that spoke to Americans equally deeply.
6. REPUBLICAN AND DEMOCRATIC CHARACTER DIFFERENCES
These narratives, it would appear, explain one of the big differences between Republicans and Democrats.
It's fear vs love. The “Mob at the Gates” is fear-driven, and the “Benevolent Community” is very love-sodden.
You might also say the one is tough-minded, and the other kinda sappy. The tough and the tender-minded. (This was a famous distinction drawn by the American philosopher William James between “Boston softies” and “Rocky Mountain toughs” when it came to philosophers. He said the tender-minded philosophers thought the universe was one big rational system we could comprehend, while the tough-minded philosophers emphasized the limitations of human understanding before the world's swarming complexity.)
In this distinction, the Republicans are the tough-minded, and the Democrats are the tender-minded. We might say a bunch of naive idealists voted for Barack: the American character he appeals to is the simple soul who is so starry-eyed she believes we can all work together for the common weal. Tough-minded Hillary Clinton pooh-poohed this appeal in her campaign against Obama:
“Now, I could stand up here and say: Let's just get everybody together. Let's get unified. The skies will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing and everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect. Maybe I've just lived a little long, but I have no illusions about how hard this is going to be. You are not going to wave a magic wand to make special interests disappear.”
Obama appeals to Americans who believe we can all love each other to greatness in mushy togetherness.
7. THE BUSH-VOTING AMERICAN CHARACTER
What can we say about the Bush-voting American character?
His fear-driven “Mob at the Gates” narrative led me to look at some of the darker sides of the American character I listed, and by gum, some of them line up perfectly with Bush's pitch.
For one, Bush appealed to the violence in the American character -- our war-loving selves. He also appealed to our greedy elite -- he started his first term by giving them tax cuts. And he definitely appealed to the superstitious Americans: his base of irrational evangelicals who believe hell is home sweet home to all abortionists and gays.
Bush appeals to ignorant macho shit-kickers, and Obama appeals to lovey-dovey hippy-dippies. We got 'em both in abundant supply: that's how schizoid the American character is. It's almost a gender difference -- male vs female (as in George Lakoff's classification of Republicans as coming from The Strict Father paradigm and Democrats coming from The Nurturing Mother construct).
8. THE FUTURE OF THE AMERICAN CHARACTER
Will the American character change?
In two respects it won't. We will always value the freedom of the individual. And we will always think it's good to be rich.
But in one big respect it might change, and this could be really sad. Our natural optimism, our trust that we can do anything, now huddles broken under the thick lawa of capsized hubris. The gods are buttfucking us pretty mercilessly: we are as flies to their sport. The recklessness of the last administration (a symptom of our boundless faith in our military supremacy) and the recklessness of Wall Street (a symptom of our boundless faith in our financial ingenuity) have landed two massive Kung Fu roundhouse fandangos to our frayed innards of American exceptionalism. (And also exposed what immoral bastards we can be: heck, Dick Cheney is not our only Darth Vader: a majority of our elite -- all the smuggest of the shits in the Washington-Pentagon-Wall Street axis of evil destruction -- is arguably a gaggle of Darth Vaders.)
How are young Americans doing? To the extent that they're interested in the fate of the nation at all (beyond whatever indie rock band is in town, or which end of their vaginas Britney or Lindsay or Paris are now showing on YouTube), they're watching Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. So everything becomes fodder for a chuckle. As for the culture wars, this means as little to our youth as a penis to a male-to-female sex change. Being gay is less of a deal than chewing gum. Even porn is no big deal to them. They use it like you'd drink a beer or rub on sunscreen. As for any coherent worldview, they keep themselves a shrug and a wink and an elevated eyebrow away from anything they're supposed to care for. They can make fun of whatever, like Jon Stewart does. They're born snickerers. Everything contains its own negation; irony is their default setting.
Is there anything our youth is for -- with any passion at all? Saving the environment is one thing, actually, because they learn about it in Social Studies at school. And though they mistrust authority like never before (a big part of being a free individual), they dig Obama, because unlike other politicians, he's cool and cute.
Are they still the boundless, no-frontier optimists we post-WW2 Americans and boomers have been? I fear not. They don't expect to be doing any better than their parents. Neither do their parents expect to leave them better off in a better world, or expect them to do better. It's belt-tightening time: we all think we're going to do worse in the future; we all know we have to deal with a worsening environment and a reduced American Dream.
I fear none of us are optimistic anymore. That feeling used to be a permanent cast of the American character, like the color green percolates nature. Now our glee in our own gumption looks as gone as a cowboy heading out of Dodge City into the sunset after the final showdown. It's a real pity, this shrinking of a nation's will to power. A country that used to overflow with naive self-belief, may now be ready to acquire a tragic dimension. (We've stopped spending and started saving, for chrissake: how much more un-American can we get?)
Ouch. And tsk. And sniff. The American character is being stripped from its meaty abundance down to a skeletal X-ray scantiness. Not that the American Dream has ended in a nightmare. It's just that we've stopped dreaming.
So here's one last thought. The final irony of all. The cutest little nail in the coffin of the American character:
Perhaps the only American still out there with any real hope is Barack Obama.
Posted by Evert Cilliers at 12:06 AM | Permalink