Tuesday, October 14, 2008
The American Nightmare?
America's got problems.
The problems seem to be economic, but they aren't. Not really. Instead, I think they're systemic and endemic to the American culture. This culture of accumulation.
I personally think our yardstick is seriously fubared. Our measure of success has everything to do with competition - with outdoing one another, constantly advancing our standards of living, extending ourselves beyond reason, pushing past our limits and striving for more more more.
In some ways, this is really a very good thing. When applied to things like science and art, they advance our culture and our health. But altruism in America is mostly dead - it's cutthroat, me-before-you, gimme-gimme-gimme. It's 10,000 square foot houses and $250,000 cars. It's $50,000 watches and pants that cost a cool 3 grand. Shoes that top some folks monthly pay. We're striving to set ourselves apart from one another, to define ourselves by our access to the exclusive.
And we're doing a pretty good job, really. But that's really the very basis of the problem - our yardstick.
I'm pretty anti-advertising, in many ways. This has to be tongue-in-cheek because it's what puts food in my belly - just in the interests of full disclosure. Advertising has really served to deteriorate our culture in fundamental ways. I don't think anyone could really fathom how much money is used to convince us of various viewpoints, of the quality of various goods and services, of the indispensibility of things like coffee makers, bagless vacuum cleaners, dandruff shampoos, tiny bottles of exorbitently priced odors. . .
If you were to really buy into these ads, then every day you would wake up completely refreshed in a perfectly tidy home on gazillion threadcount perfectly pressed sheets with the whitest teeth ever seen, then slide your sculpted body into clothes that fit perfectly, eat a balanced breakfast of some ceral, a few eggs,a piece of organic, perfectly ripe fruit, and hand picked cruelty-free coffee, then get in your freshly washed and waxed performance sports car, where you would drive through a perfect day with your freshly-cut hair wafting artfully in the perfect spring/fall day down mountain roads that are deserted except for you. You'd arrive at your space-age office where everything would be working perfectly all the time, and your incredibly attractive personal assistant would hand you the paper, and you'd have time to read it. Etc. Etc. Etc.
Now, I can't speak for you good people, but I do things like poop, leave stubble in the sink, neglect to load the dishwasher, leave unfolded laundry lying around for a few hours . . . My sofa is faded and my rug has some kind of something embedded semi-permanently in it. Most of my jeans are a least a little frayed and don't fit exactly right. My hair rarely receives more attention than shampoo and a towel. My glasses are smudged almost constantly. I iron when required, and not my sheets.
So the dream is just that - a dream. But they make it all look SO good, don't they? That's the idea - your life could be like this if you just buy this car or hire these lawyers or chew this particular brand of gum. The very powerful underlying assumption is that your life isn't good enough as it is. It's more than an assumption - it's nearly an imperative - they really WANT you to indulge in envy, in greed. The whole premise of advertising is to create a wanting of sorts.
And that's becoem the core of America - wanting. We all want a big ass flatscreen, a shiny exotic car, bigger boobs, flatter stomachs, clothes that make us look like movie stars. I confess - I want this stuff too - it's worked on me to an extent. But I'm sometimes consumed with an anti-competitiveness. What about cooperation?
I concede that the world's effort at communism have failed, because there's no motivation to really perform when everyone gets the same rewards. So the capitalism system has an upside. But it really bugs me sometimes. Is altruism dead? I mean, Bill Gates gives away tons and tons of money, but would he is he only made $50K a year?
It just seems to me that we're more intent on stepping on each other lately than helping each other out. There are recent examples in my personal life that prove this isn't true universally - Whaupwit treated me to dinner, and also a tank of gas this past week when the prospect of buying it myself was alarmingly prohibitive. So I know the world isn't all dour and bullshit. But it does feel like something is almost fundamentally wrong.