I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Being a Stupid American
Liberty had gone corporateand the symbolism of her sell-out
was a bit too much for me to bear. '
Picture the Statue
of Liberty, exhausted after a hard days shopping, lingering on
the sidewalk outside Bloomingdales. Her tablet has been replaced
by a gift box, and her lamp is held aloft as a beacon to passing taxis.
Or imagine her, if you prefer, collapsed in the back of a cab, where
she is sleeping serenely, surrounded by a sea of brimming shopping bags.
These were the scenes that met my incredulous eyes last month in New
York Citynot, of course, on the streets of Midtown, but on the
covers of the Christmas cards for sale at Century 21 in Lower Manhattan,
across from where the World Trade Center used to be. At the timeand
apparently alone in my alarmI panicked at the sight. "Can
it be," I mused, in my best imitation of Henry James, "that
the mighty ideals of 1776 have been supplanted by a gift-wrapped parcel,
and that Libertys once-eternal vigil slumbers now beneath the
spell of a department-store sale?" It appeared that, whether she
knew it or not, even Lady Liberty had gone corporateand the symbolism
of her sell-out was a bit too much for me to bear.
If this reaction seems like paranoia to you, then at least consider
my situation on the day in question. Just the night before, while preparing
to leave Great Britain (where Ive been living for the last three
years), Id been challenged by a friend whod chuckled at
my eagerness to travel home for the holidays. "Come
back to us in January," said she, "and explain to me how a
smart bloke like you can be so proud to be a dumb American."
Her comment may have been a lighthearted one, but there was no mistaking
its grounding in decades worth of bitter anti-Americanism. Indeed,
in a sense, my friend was confronting me with little less than a pan-European
idea of our country. To her, as to her cronies on the Continent, the
United States was an aggressive, imperialistic big-business bugbear,
an Evil Empire populated by fat, cretinous boors who were too busy slurping
up Big Macs and Burrito Supremes to recognize their complicity in the
dollar-driven rape of the world.
Im sure I dont have to tell you that, as far as I was concerned,
my little English rose wasnt exactly seeing the total picture.
After all, world-raping is only one aspect of American identity. Surely
there were others she should hear about, and surely it was up to me
to carry back the message! So I took up her challenge, and set myself
to spend my holiday season playing Paul Harvey to her Noël Mamèreto
seek out, that is, "the rest" of the American story.
It was in this spirit
of determination that I arrived in New York, and made my way down to
the Trade Center site. There, I feltthere at Ground Zero, where
it all went downId be able to locate the foundations of
a true American identity, and discover the proof that this great nation
stands for more than just warmongering, capital gains and the Colonels
secret blend of 11 herbs and spices.
At first glance, such proof seemed self-evident. Taking note of the
sites solemnitiesfrom its lists of fallen heroes
to its grim-faced souvenir vendors, its scrawled messages of sympathy
and patriotic fervor, and its congregation of transients playing God
Bless America on salvaged flutesI was nearly stirred into
a complacent faith in the Bush-proclaimed American values of "courage,
compassion and resolve."
But then, alas, I crossed Cortlandt Street, stepped into Century 21,
and stumbled across that godforsaken shopaholic Statue of Liberty. As
the weight of her store-bought parcels started to pull at my mind, I
found myself growing heavier and heavier with doubt. I came to wonder,
for instance, whether those same grim-faced vendors, as they tried to
sell their 9/11 postcards and programs, werent doing more for
American retail than American "resolve." I wondered too about
the constant choruses (both written and performed) of God Bless
America: were they really anything more than mindless regurgitations
of media-sanctioned clichés? And I even questioned those somber
lists of September victims: by indiscriminately labeling the dead as
heroes, didnt they somehow belittle the individual
scope of the tragedy, and practically prohibit us from interpreting
their deaths as anything other than valiant sacrifices to "freedom?"
In sum, I mused, werent all of these peopleand all of these
principlesmerely the unwitting pawns of a corporate culture which
packaged everything as a product to be sold to a pliable public?
I suddenly feared that my friends in Europe might be right. Perhaps
the business of America really is just business; perhaps (as FDR once
said) the epitome of our civilization really is the Sears Catalog. And
perhaps it really is our collective duty, as good Americans, to reduce
ourselves to mindless cogs in the spending machine.
If so, then I guess I should have whipped out my wallet and joined the
holiday ratrace. But instead, during the weeks that took me from New
York at Thanksgiving to L.A. by Christmas, I found myself sinking deeper
into disgust at the utter extravagance of American consumption. How,
I fretted, could so many otherwise reasonable people believe that they
needed holiday-printed Pampers or extra Lexuses to make their lives
complete? I was disgusted, alright: disgusted with the sheer excess
of it all, and disgusted with the vacuousness of the masses whod
been fooled into buying so much stuff they plainly didnt need.
Mostly, though, I was disgusted with myself. I was ashamed to feel so
alienated, so out of the holiday loop, so desperate, so depressed, so
European. I felt, in fact, like a Frenchman; like I was sitting at some
Parisian café, reading Foucault and spitting at the passing American
tourists for their ignorant enslavement to the power structures of the
corporate élite. With each passing day, I shuddered still more
at my ill favor, and I veritably prayed for deliverance. All I wanted
for Christmas was redemptiona restoration of faith in my country
and countrymen, as well as in my own place among them.
As things turned out, I got exactly what I asked for. My repatriation
kicked off on Christmas morning, when, while perusing the community
briefings in the LA Times, I discovered that firemen in Monrovia were
handing out Barbies and Harry Potter dolls to kids without families.
I saw too where a pair of young pianists, after playing holiday music
in a Lakewood nursing home, capped off their performance with a rousing
rendition of God Bless America. And I saw that the homeless
population of Manhattan had pooled its resources to present a book-loving
cop (who had been suspended without pay, for refusing to arrest them)
with $3000, and a gift certificate to Barnes & Noble. These people
were using the products of a standardized American society, all right,
but were their actions the actions of a people enslaved to the monarchs
of Wal-Mart and Wall Street?
No, I thought: better to say, along with Mary McCarthy, that Americans
"live among these objects, rather than by them." If we are
sometimes blind to the insidious influences of our industrial civilization,
its not because we want (or are compelled to want) its products
so badly that they themselves become the focus of our desires. Its
because, in the sort of society weve created, we tend to trade
those products as tokens of esteem for ourselves, and for those with
whom we trade them.
Nowhere, I found, was this more evident than within my own household,
on Christmas Day. Like the good folks in the newspaper, we too spent
our morning swapping corporate productsproducts from The Body
Shop, from Niketown and The Gap; products which, no doubt, had made
themselves known to us via specially-engineered sales floors and advertising
campaigns. And yet the atmosphere around our tree that afternoon was
never one of avarice, of alienation or, as Louis Althusser would have
it, of degraded "subjection to a ruling ideology." In our
family anyway, no one really cared where a present actually came from,
or how it was called to the givers attentionall anyone saw
was the happiness it brought to those involved. Indeed, as gifts were
exchanged and smiles spread about the room, I couldnt help but
notice how much better our so-called American imbecility looked from
up close. So what if our optimistic outlook was founded upon a fundamental
insensitivity to the Newspeak of the modern military-industrial complex?
So long as it keeps us from moping around like French intellectuals,
German politicians, or the entire population of Britain, then by God,
I say, vive le stupidité!
Dont get me wrong: I could never condone the material consequences
of our national lapses of vision: our carelessness with the environment,
for example, or our cynical exploitation of foreign labor, or the way
we bring Burger Kings to the darkest corners of the earth. These, of
course, are unacceptable injustices
but theyre not my current
concern. Right now, Im only worried about the European critics
who contend that American life, as a result of its inattention to the
social realities of a corporate culture, is singularly meaningless and
debased. To their insipid accusations, I replyin the grand tradition
of General McAuliffe"nuts."
Our particular brand of oblivion, if it even exists, likely enables
the better parts of our nature; and it stems, in any case, not from
evil or uncaring, but from a sort of blithe assumption that, when it
comes to people and products, the most flattering explanation is probably
the right one.
This Ockhams-Razor sense of optimism is rare in the rest of the
world, but here in these United States it is manifest in almost everything
we think and do, both good and bad. Its there in our determination
to see our fallen friends as heroes; its there in
our security failures, in our chirpy certainty that we live in "the
greatest country in the world," and, as I have lately learned,
in many a Christmas living room.
And its there, of course, in beginning of the year articles like
this onein articles which no sooner undercut our "American
way of life" thanlike Paul Harveys Algeresque radio
addresses or Garrison Keillors small-town homiliesthey turn
around and prop it right back up again. Yes, its a rhetorical
trap, the optimism that this column represents; its a quintessentially
American cast of thought. Inevitably, it sucks us in; it packages us
in its image and slings us into the back of that cab with a snoozing
Lady Liberty. But heyif nothing else, it preserves in us the expectation
that people are good, and getting better. And this, I think, is not
just something to hold on toits something to be proud of.
Thats what Im going to tell them in Europe, anyway.
© Brian Algra
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