Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Death Of The American Dream, Part One: Hell Is A Decade, Not A State Of Mind

After four months away, I'm back in Indiana, and thank God for Shelley's laptop and wireless capabilities. It is hard to think that ten years ago the idea of people having laptops as their sole computer rather than a luxury, let alone a fairly widespread network wirelessly connecting us all to the Internet...which in 1999 was still the domain of the dot-com and all the frivolity those businesses seemed to symbolize. People weren't blogging. People still bought and read magazines and newspapers. Print media was still worth a damn. News networks could, at the right time of day, still throw proper factual news your way.

And yet, ever since my first Christmas break from college when I would stay up late nights and read Wikipedia on my own little laptop, I can't imagine life without wireless. At my apartment in Brooklyn, we use this computer for the wireless coming from downstairs. No dial-up, no cables. Though I don't own one, there are phones out there with full-on Internet capabilities. The fax machine has gone the way of the Oldsmobile (and, funny enough, most of the American auto industry) since emailing became a standard form of communication. Sure, I still get cards on my birthday through the mail, and I treasure them a lot more than emails, but still, emails have become the norm for me and millions of others. I don't own stamps. In fact, it's a hassle when I actually DO have to send something in through the mail. (I say this knowing full well that last year at this time I was nervously wringing my hands while listening to Neil Young and filling out my grad school applications.)

Digital video discs, which have a shelf-life of centuries, effectively made the VCR obsolete. The first commercial DVD's were out around 1997, but I was still seeing VHS tapes at Wal-Mart mid-decade. Not anymore, though. Television as a physical medium is now (mostly) widescreen, and if you have the right kind of TV and cables hooked up to it, shows will look (and sound) better now than they ever did. Hell, you can get by without a television in 2009 and yet still be caught up on all your favorite shows. YouTube, at least in theory, could have revolutionized entertainment. One could shoot, edit, and then post a full-length movie online. Sure, most kids today have the attention span of a dog in the back of a car, but the idea is still there.

Music is being remastered into crystal-clear quality; of course, had they not screwed it up in the 1980's by mastering CD's with LP settings (read: high treble and virtually no bass) or competed in the loudness wars, we might have had Neil, Bob, The Rolling Stones, and (after HOW many years?) The Beatles sounding perfect the first time.

Before this derails into a low-budget audiophile extolling the virtues of hearing music as the artists heard it, which would somehow include my rant against Frank Zappa remixing Cruising With Ruben & The Jets and dubbing some fairly crummy vocals on the magnificent Sleep Dirt, I will go ahead and get to my point: technologically, this was a pretty bad-ass time to be alive.

That said, TIME magazine has gone ahead and called the past ten years "A Decade From Hell." When I started brainstorming this article - my first since Halloween, I'm sad to say - I had originally intended to get cynical. It has been a decade of decadence, the fallout of the era of Reagan manifesting itself with frivolous CEO's, frivolous wars, and the corporatization of the media. But then I wrote what I did, about how this decade has brought us some fantastic technological advances. Believe it or not, your German dungeon porn, your "2 Chicks 1 Cup" aside, the Internet actually works for the greater good of man. I don't have to be friends with only the people in my pocket of the world. Staying in touch is a infinitely more doable, and without spending a cent on postage. Yes, friends, this was a decade of globalization.

Politically, this decade has been a nightmare. The fear of the build-up to Y2K, the over-cautious response to two misfit teens gone mad in Colorado, and the celebrity scandal treatment given to President Clinton's (dickish, overly macho, pig-like) behavior all seemed to be the opening act for the 00's. We have become a nation terrorized, not by Islamic extremists (although they tried) but by the media. This decade, the global population has been frightened by SARS, the bird flu, the swine flu, shark attacks, Islamofascists, Republican candidates, Democratic candidates, identity thieves, snipers, a black man running for President, propaganda-spouting dictators, a war on Christmas, the possibility that our neighbors might be terrorists, Mexicans, scary black men who carve letters onto the faces of Republican campaign workers but didn't really, and an Alaskan separatist who abandoned her post as governor for the all-important purposes of selling a book.

Oh, wait, we do need to worry about that last one.

Still, this has been a decade of fear, plain and simple. In spite of statistics showing that we're safer now than ever, they have been trying to convince us (with great success) that anything and everything out there can and will kill us.

The institutional response to Columbine meant schools had to have metal detectors and "resource officers" (read: "Cops with guns who would not be afraid to kill a child if he thought said child was a threat because these gorillas don't believe in shooting anyone - ANYONE - in the knee") to prevent a repeated incident. This was just the appetizer for the main course of airport security following 9/11. With that, racial profiling became a-okay once again. The scary brown man with the scary beard and the scary turban might be a TERRORIST!

Wait, what? He's not a terrorist? He's not even a Muslim, he's a Sikh? What's a Sikh? You mean there are other religions out there than my precious Abrahamic traditions and those Eastern philosophies I've never bothered to read about because I'm set in my own ways?

That's another problem that came in the last decade: the rise of the anti-intellectual. For some reason, the phrase "liberal elitist" seems to roll off the tongue much better than "conservative plutocrat." Because of this simple little semantic well-how's-about-that, people on the left were considered intellectual snobs. The country wanted a President who wasn't a Rhodes scholar, like Clinton was, they wanted a guy they could have a beer with.

They got more than they bargained for. They got a guy who, twenty years ago, wouldn't have just brought the beer, he would have probably brought some Bolivian marching powder, too.* Not only that, he was a complete and utter moron. He fucked up when he talked, inventing new words and butchering the grammar of our language. He lied during his campaign, he got his facts dead wrong, and he wasn't above playing the religion card as a way to really charm the plebs. Not only that, was re-elected four years later.

The American public was dense enough to believe that "one of us" had to be President, and that university-educated eggheads weren't welcome. In spite of the fact that it makes perfect sense to me that only the best of the best, the A+ overachievers of the world should be the ones seeking public office, most other folks seemed to want the exact opposite. See also: Palin, Sarah.

Just pause for a second. Realize that intellectuals have not been, aren't, and will never be the majority. They may have been part of a ruling class at some point in a now-lost society, but they never made up a majority of the global population.

Call me a liberal elitist. Go ahead. I'll thank you for it. The greatest folly one can commit is willful stupidity, and yet the willfully stupid are the ones breeding in record numbers. They can't afford it, the kids aren't being raised in a loving environment, and the public school systems just want them to pass so they can look good on paper when it comes time for the department of education to allocate funds.

Then there were the wars. Oh, the wars...

...wire-tapping (which Mr. Obama has not done anything to stop, by the by)...

...and the callous indifference to 230,000 non-white non-Christians dying in a natural disaster...

...and the equally callous indifference by local, state, and federal authorities while one of America's most culturally rich cities was underwater...

...and the whole torture thing. Even if McCain had gotten elected - which had he not picked Dumbass as his running mate this could very well have happened - we still would have had a President who would have put an end to these "enhanced interrogation techniques."

That's another thing that I think is going away: the Bushian double-speak. Lines like "the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence" or the whole "there are unknown unknowns, that is to say things we don't know that we do not know" thing. Instead, political opponents of our current President opted to question his citizenship, his religious affiliations (because God forbid someone other than a WASP was running this country), and the contents of the healthcare bill he was pushing.

Towards the end, the Bush II administration began to just get lazy. No more clever NuSpeak jargon, just flat-out lies. I can hope that carries on, because that's a level of bullshit much easier to cut through.

Now, TIME was making the comparison between this decade and the standards of the decades of the 20th Century. Cracked.com did a wonderful article showing how the 2000's ranked among those decades in question. It's a lofty claim, and with the things above that I mentioned, this decade does sound shitty.

But this decade was nothing more than a pizza-fueled orgy compared to some other periods in history. Thanks for the hyperbole, TIME, but the Aughts don't have shit on any of the Crusades, the Roman Empire's anti-Christian sentiment, Soviet pogroms, Pol Pot's reign of terror, the Holocaust, or any number of horrific leaders throughout history. One thing I've said about Bush is that as much as I despised him as a leader, the Hitler comparisons were exaggerated. A lot. But I guess we need to take this decade and compare it only to the standards of the modern world. Not only that, but we need to gauge it by bad things that (mainly) happened to white people in the United States, while name-checking the Boxing Day Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina to balance out the oversight of extraordinary rendition, the Saffron Revolution, the horrific actions on the part of Israel, violence in Georgia against South Ossetia, the harassment of Sikhs in the United States, or Darfur.

In reality, it's just business as usual, with the evils of greed and violence rearing its ugly head the world over. It's only that these horrors, which we blissfully ignored in the past, have made their way into the West that TIME is calling this a "Decade from Hell."

It's shitty by, say, the standards of someone like George Orwell or Aldous Huxley. The fact that there's happy pills of all shapes and sizes now, to the point that they've had to make up diseases to have pills prescribed to treat them, really makes the modern world seem like Huxley's Brave New World with Orwell's Big Brother in power.

Give me a break! J. Edgar Hoover spent half of the past century spying on the most dangerous subversives to set foot in this country from Charlie Chaplin to John Lennon. You think wiretapping is new? You really think our country has never tortured a prisoner before? Sure, we built up a lot of dictatorships after World War II (mainly to keep them from getting guns and bombs from the Soviets), but at least we've decided to topple them this decade. A hundred years ago, cocaine was thought of as an all-purpose wonder drug. Issues of class hierarchy and racism resulted in the illegality of marijuana. Then the government banned alcohol and failed...that was the drug of choice for the American public. Then came the hippies. Now that they're older and on the right side of the law, they still need some sort of chemical enhancement to cope with the fact that they blew their chance to save the world in the 1960's.

World, meet big Pharm. Big Pharm, meet an idle class of Americans who need your drugs to combat such first-world afflictions as anorexia, bulimia, restless legs syndrome, erectile dysfunction, and pet hair allergies. Meanwhile, in the 21 seconds it is taking you to read this paragraph, seven children all over the world have died from hunger, poverty, and illnesses that we have largely eradicated in the Western world. Still need that Claritin?

I'm being hard on pill-heads and ex-hippies. They're easy targets, and they deserve at least a little bit of scorn. Deserving of far more scorn are the American businessmen who were more interested in their own profits and clinging dearly to the old adage of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!" This pig-ignorance made for another massive failure on the part of American industry: not being prepared for what I consider one of the greatest challenges the world is going to face in the 21st Century.

In a word, DEINDUSTRIALIZATION. We need to start worrying about what we're pumping into the air. We need to find a more economical and environmentally friendly power source for our automobiles. We need to understand that mechanization is occurring at all levels in industry. Jobs will be displaced, but not lost. Schools need to stop exclusively preparing students for "careers" and university life. For one, they suck at it. Two, not everyone wants a career. There need to be more trade schools. I hate saying "the world needs garbage collectors," but...the world needs garbage collectors. Not everyone can go into the liberal arts, the sciences, law, education, or business.

We saw deindustrialization coming from miles away. President Carter warned of our effect on the environment, never mind that we've known fossil fuels were a limited resource since the 1970's. Instead of working towards a solution in the 1980's, big industry and the banks (who were, to quote Shady Tree in Diamonds Are Forever, were "out playing Monopoly with real buildings!") waited until the last possible minute, were told "they are too big to fail," and received bailout checks with about as much transparency for where the billions given to them has gone as swamp-water.

That's like some guy drinking himself to death, only to be rich enough to afford a liver transplant. Oh, wait...

We've seen some ugliness. That's for sure. But, maybe - MAYBE - we can hope that since the United States has finally seen, in glimpses, the sort of things that happen daily elsewhere, we can push for a brighter future. Believe it or not, I'm a terminal optimist. As technology flattens the world into a global community, perhaps differences can be shed. Education can become much more widespread. This year, I've read so much about world religions that I've realized there is something linking them throughout all mankind, and that's the promotion of peace, love, and charity. There are some very well-educated men out there who are making compelling arguments against religion, but the joke is on them. They're singling out the extremists. Specifically, the Abrahamic extremists. They're also ignore the core message, under all the misinterpreted bullshit, that encourages peaceful behavior.

The world is changing, and yes, we are at a crossroads. This is definitely going to be a period of growing pains for the modern world. With the right leadership - not regressive lunatics who can see Russia from their house or people who want to turn the Bible into the Constitution or build a border fence down South - we can all work towards overcoming this hump. It won't be utopia. That's an idyll we need to stop chasing. So long as man wants stuff, there will be greed. But there is a greater good that is worth working towards.

Let's stop embracing age-old hegemony like the Victorian notion of sex and the 1950's incarnation of the American Dream. The answer to true gratification is not found in picket fences or in killing the bad guys. Maybe it's in celebrating life itself. Whether or not you believe in God, that we as human beings even exist is a fantastic occurrence. Maybe it's in shaking hands with our enemies and finding out why we are supposed to hate each other.

Let's redefine the American Dream. Let's see if it should even be called the American Dream anymore. Let's look a little further than our neighborhoods or our side of the mountain.

Let's make the 10's a decade that only the crudest of cynics would shamelessly embellish as being comparable to time served in Hell.

*I know, I know, Obama has admitted to smoking pot and trying cocaine in his youth, but there's the key: he admitted to it. No "I didn't inhale," no magic black marker hiding documents suggesting his piss-poor attendance as a member of the Texas Air National Guard were linked to substance abuse, he was honest about it.

1 comment:

Shelley said...

I totally agree. I mean, I look back at this decade and yes I see some bad stuff, but I see a lot of amazing things.

The concept of The American Dream has always disturbed me. We do need to change it. And now is the time to do so.