Thursday, May 12, 2005

What's the matter with America?

I grew up in Britain during the fifties and sixties, and a big part of that growing up included hearing Elvis, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Del Shannon, Little Richard, Gary "US" Bonds, Roy Orbison on the radio. I think the first 45 I ever bought was either The Locomotion by Little Eva or Save the Last Dance for Me by The Drifters. America was West Side Story, Gary Cooper. It was also Martin Luther King and John Kennedy. Cassius Clay and Malcolm X. Mark Twain, Thoreau, Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner. Tamla Motown. And Bob Dylan. Leadbelly, too.
America was an idea.
The first time I visited was not too long after many of the Northern cities had rioted and burned. I hitch-hiked (!) and delivered cars. The size of the country was overwhelming. The radio was terrible. There seemed to be no escape from that awful Angie by the Rolling Stones. The TV was full of propaganda: buy! buy! Every 15 minutes. I vowed then I would never knowingly eat Oscar Meyer products. That's one vow I have managed to keep. The news was parochial. The outside world hardly, if ever, existed. The race tension and segregation was in your face, there was palpable fear of violent crime. But I was white and young and had a cute English accent, and most everybody I had any contact with was gracious and kind. The can-do spirit was infectious and uplifting. But I didn't stay. And this is not the time and place to talk why.
There was a long gap before I visited again. This time it was the West Coast. I know the US is so different from region to region, I saw the North and Deep South on my first visit. Maybe it was just the West Coast. Maybe it was just that I had changed. You ever seen the film La Grande Bouffe? About four rich French guys who decide to eat themselves to death? That's what I glimpsed.
Then 9/11. I know many Americans, others too, at first thought it was a movie. It's the sort of movie Americans make. (Hardly anyone else makes those kind of movies. Why?) But it wasn't a movie. It was something qualitatively different. We usually see the aftermath of murder and mayhem. The TV news is full of all that night after night. Has been ever since I was a kid. What sets 9/11 apart is this: everyone was able to watch it. In Real Time. As It Was Happening. And then Americans were stunned by 9/11. How, they said, could they hate us so much? Stop. I don't think I want to go any further down that particular road.
Nor about Iraq. And Bush and Blair. Not here, not now. Those two are for another time.
Anyway, I have just been reading this in the New York Press. Which is what set me off here.
The Republicans are selling a product that Middle America wants to buy, and it's a far better product than what the Democrats have to offer. That product is meanness. Americans are hooked on meanness, and that meanness is everywhere, particularly at the workplace, where American workers have been getting increasingly reamed for almost three decades. By this point, the brutal squeeze has been so deeply internalized that it is impossible to imagine -- —indeed, is offensive to consider -- —the possibility that someone might make life a little easier. The Republicans offer two things to their voters: to make life more miserable on people who seem to be happy (the coastal elite); and to increase the pain of the average Middle American, who, in the words of former GE chief Jack Welch, has "unlimited juice to squeeze."
I've got friends who work in the States. One, himself an American, was back here recently and briefly."You wouldn't believe it," he said. "Two weeks holiday per year, long hours, and everyone frightened up the kazoo they'll lose their job. It sucks, man. It sucks."
So what? you ask. What's it got to do with you? A Brit? Well, not much, I guess. I have had to let go of a number of precious people and things these past eight years or so. Just grieves me, that's all.

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