Thursday, July 9, 2009

How I Spent My 4th of July (SUVs and Hubris- the American Dream)

A hundred flyers papered the town, advertising the fireworks. Hung in grocery stores and plastered to wooden poles in the midst of summer festivals. Useful things, like the library and mail service were closed, but the ice cream parlor was open. All around me, in every direction I looked, I found myself engulfed in an ocean of humanity. Currents of chattering, laughing people brushed past me, and I took comfort in feeling completely anonymous. I enjoy being, however briefly, part of a crowd. I think everyone does- there is something primal about losing one’s sense of individuality and becoming an extension of the whole. Carnival rides spun playing music that often times opposed the screams of delight coming from their passengers. More eerie still were the moments when the shouts of the passengers, the mechanical grind of the machines, and the music seemed to become a single sound. Then the sun went down. The rides ceased, and the sky exploded with fireworks. The crowd ooed and ahhed at all the appropriate moments, and when the show was over the spectators applauded. I clapped too. Then I gathered my blanket, brushed off my jeans, and stood to leave.
A familiar face was in the darkness. His name was Danny, and he was someone I had known a long, long time ago. He shook my hand and said it was good to see me (I doubt it), and that it had been ages since he’d seen me (it had been a year since I moved). I said nothing. I simply stood there, my hand being shaken vigorously like a dog throttling his favorite chew toy. He asked me questions about our move, and about our new place. He carefully measured my responses, diligently transcribing them in the rear of his mind so he could return to our old neighborhood and recount them to the folks we left behind. I told him that our new place was so much better than the one we left. He stood there staring at me, a deep smile carved across his face like some hideously grinning sculpture in a funhouse. In the dim light, the grit-tooth smile was more repulsive than it eve had been in the day time. I was eager to change the subject.
I talked about the fireworks and the carnival and the tiny flags that blossomed like prairie flowers in a field. He said America was the still the greatest country in the world. “If you’re a real American you gotta love Independence Day,” he said. I told him that I thought the point of being a ‘real American’ was that you didn’t ‘gotta’ do anything. Wasn’t the ideal that defined America’s existence- freedom?
He stared at me, without hearing me, and went on. We talked for a few more minutes and then I walked away. The crowd had thinned in a matter of minutes, leaving me and my daughter standing in the middle of a lonely grass field. I felt a moment of panic and disorientation. I had never been to the park in complete darkness, and I hadn’t been paying attention to the way we’d come. The walk home was an uneasy one. The streets were desolate, the houses were darkened, and all the businesses were closed. My daughter and I wove our way through a ghost town, and finally arrived on our doorstep.
Morgan was half asleep by the time we crossed the threshold and moments later she was sleeping peacefully in he day clothes. I considered waking her, but I am thoroughly convinced that no self-respecting parent would wake up their seven year old after a day of carnival rides, and games, overpriced sodas, and the 90 million obligatory trips to the bathroom that inevitably follow- so I covered her with her comforter and let her sleep.
Some time between that moment and midnight I laid down on our sofa and fell into a dreamless, restless sleep. The things that Danny had said had bothered me, as did the glibness with which he said them. I was awoken by Chaz, who came in tired and carrying a bundle of junk he’d brought home from work. I asked him how his day had been. “Slow” he answered as he sunk into the sofa. I told him about my encounter in the park.
What bothered me in the end is nothing so prosaic as nationalism or some other much-maligned woe. I just didn’t like the bad science of the statement. The foundations of our national consciousness make no sense, and have no real basis in any objective fact. Still the greatest country? How so? Most Americans I know would agree that America is the ‘best’ country, but few have been out of the country, and fewer still have lived abroad- so the statement cannot be true. This isn’t merely my opinion versus their opinion- it is a matter of what ‘best’ means. ‘Best’ implies a direct comparison, and in order to compare something in any meaningful way, one needs to have a basis for the comparison.
For example, I can’t truthfully say that you make the best fried octopus, since I have never had that dish, and your fried octopus is quite likely to be my only experience of the culinary curiosity. Even if I were inclined to humor you with hyperbole you would probably disregard it, and you certainly wouldn’t put it on a bumper sticker and expect it to be taken seriously. It could very well be true, but I would have no way of knowing.
There is an obvious and dangerous undercurrent of hubris in absolute statements. Countless fables and tragedies have instructed humanity in the dangers of believing that ones’ own beliefs are infallible. Faith is a serious liability- after all if America is the best, and it fails, how can we explain that? How can the ‘best’ country be the fattest? How can test scores in science and math be plummeting to embarrassing lows in the ‘best’ country? Shouldn’t we have the ’best’ scores? If the economy of the ‘best’ country in the world is in a breathtaking tailspin from which it seems unable to recover what does that mean? When the ‘best’ people in the world sprout monstrous, hate-filled rhetoric how does one explain that?
Well, you can’t. In order to explain the realities of life in the ‘best’ country (in any country populated by humans for that matter) requires concocting an explanation outside the obvious frailties of the human condition. We’re not fat because we eat too much; we’re fat because we have gland disease… which was given to us by the terrorists. We’re not in a hopeless academic decline because the country lacks any meaningful sense of personal accountability but because (insert administration) messed up our educational system, and if we can only unlock the magic combination of tests and teacher ratios then the sheer superiority of our nation will shine through. That’s the real danger of nationalism- it divorces us from a real and necessary sense of humility… a crucial understanding of our shortcomings.
The manifesto of our country declares that “all men are created equal”. If all men are created equal, then none can be better than the other. Wouldn’t it be un-American to say that America is the best country? Or that Americans are the ‘best’ people?
I have never believed that America is the best country- in fact, I don’t believe there is such a thing as a best country. Yet, America is nothing if not in love with the idea of some utopia that lingers ever out of reach. Those that become disillusioned with an American Utopia tend to look elsewhere, passionately declaring allegiances to France, or Britain, or Canada… Sadly, the word utopia literally means “noplace”. The word originates from the Greek “ou” or “not” and “topos” meaning place.
The crux of America’s identity was formed around rebellion- a tragedy because all rebels are ultimately destined for extinction. Those who are successful at rebelling overthrow the system, and hence are left with nothing to rebel against. Those that fail can rebel indefinitely, but often times their rebellion outlives the thing which inspired it in the first place. In either case, succeed or fail, rebels either have to resign the thing that gave them their identity or constantly invent things to rebel against.
I woke up far too early the next morning. Dogs were barking. Days that begin with early mornings are rarely good. My grim prediction was self-fulfilling. The sun rose steadily, and along with it the temperature. By mid-morning the air was hot and thick, making it hard to breathe. I went for a walk, stepping over a heap of desiccated fishfly corpses that lay moldering in the sun. The stench from the hundreds of little bodies was sickening and salty, and lingered in the humid atmosphere. Morgan slept late, and Chaz made lunch. Slowly the midday unfurled, like a coiled serpent unfolding itself in the sun, and the heat gave way to a purple, crushed-grape sunset. The 4th of July came and went. Eventually the rides and the people emptied out, leaving behind sparkler sticks and paper cups, and flyers as a reminder that it had been here. I saw an enormous SUV nearly run over several kids playing in the parking lot. There was a clear sticker on the back window that said “my kid is on the honor roll at…” It’s big, speeding backend disappeared before I could read the sticker which had been deliberately placed there to brag to unconcerned passersby about the achievements of the driver’s child.
God Bless America. Yeah right.


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